“It ain’t my job,” cried a feminine voice out in the hall.
“’T’ain’t mine, neither,” a male voice replied. More voices joined in the squabble, and the volume rose.
Benjamin, Earl of Sinclair, leaned forward in his leather chair and wondered what else would go wrong today. He stared at the young applicant seated across the desk from him, who stared calmly back, unfazed by the shouting match. Just as Sinclair was about to rise to quiet down the servants, the group moved on. Silence reigned at last.
"Why should I hire you, Mr. Quincy?" Sinclair sank back into the chair cushion.
Blast. Now he couldn’t see over the ledgers and papers piled on his desk. He sat forward again, studying the young man seated opposite. "I’ve already interviewed five other secretaries this morning, each with more experience than you. I doubt you even shave yet."
Quincy adjusted one clean but frayed cuff, his gaze never leaving Sinclair’s. "Is shaving a requirement for the position?"
Sinclair blinked in surprise. He propped his boot heels on one corner of the desk, sending a pile of folios sliding to the floor. They disappeared amongst other piles already littering the carpet. He stared at Quincy from around a remaining, quivering stack. "I haven't decided yet."
Another commotion in the hall made them both glance at the door. Voices rose and fell, then faded away altogether, and Sinclair returned to the task at hand. He picked up a sheet of foolscap from a pile still balanced on his desk. "Since you've only had one previous employer, and you say Baron--" he glanced at the signature at the bottom of the sheet "--Bradwell recently died, I can't even verify this reference. How do I know it's not a fake?"
"You don’t." Quincy pushed his spectacles farther up on the bridge of his nose, concealing the expression in his gray eyes. Or were they green?
Sinclair studied the lad. Though wearing a threadbare coat, the set of his shoulders spoke of confidence, and the set of his chin suggested a stubborn streak. Quincy might desperately need this job, but he wasn't begging for it. Another, still louder commotion in the hall interrupted Sinclair’s perusal.
It was beyond Sinclair how being short by just one maid could cause such chaos. Why weren’t the upper servants handling this? Sinclair slid his heels off the desk, stalked to the door, and yanked it open. Half his household staff stood clustered in the hall, abruptly silent at his appearance. “Do you mind?”
The servants scattered amid a chorus of “Beg pardon, milord,” and “Won’t ‘appen again, milord.”
By Juno, he'd had more peace and quiet when they camped a mile from Boney's forces. Sinclair returned to his chair with a sigh and propped his feet once more on the desk. “Give me one good reason why I should hire you, Quincy. Just one."
Quincy gestured toward the door. “I could get your business affairs in order, so you would be free to get your household affairs in order.”
Sinclair shook his head. “Any of the men I interviewed this morning could do that. Why should I hire you?”
Quincy pushed his spectacles up again. "I can forge your signature."
Sinclair’s feet slammed to the floor, all annoyance gone. "The devil you say."
The young man continued as though discussing the weather. "As my employer, you could supervise my activities. Make certain they were in your best interest."
Sinclair raised one eyebrow. "I could have you thrown in Newgate."
"You could, but that would be a waste, wouldn't it, my lord?" Quincy pointed at the mountain of mail teetering between them on the desk. "If I were in prison, I wouldn't be able to save you from all that dull paperwork. You should be out tending your properties or attending balls and such, not here signing every little thing."
"Little things such as bank drafts?"
He watched as Quincy glanced around the room, at the thick Turkish carpet and two floor-to-ceiling bookcases overflowing with leather-bound books. Quincy stood, and stepped over the debris as he walked past the red-striped armchair that clashed wonderfully with the burgundy leather wing chair, to the mahogany side table supporting a silver tea service. "Judging by this room, I would wager bank drafts are never 'little' where you are concerned, my lord." He wiped one gloved finger through the dust on the table. "Though perhaps you should find a replacement for the downstairs maid before you go off to your properties."
Sinclair allowed one side of his mouth to curve up. Intrigued by the cheeky lad, he rummaged through one of the piles on his desk. "Here’s an invitation I don’t wish to accept. Let’s see how you handle it."
"Certainly, my lord." Quincy took the invitation, read it, then unearthed the inkwell and a pen while Sinclair searched the desk drawers for a clean sheet of paper. A few moments later, Quincy handed over a neatly penned missive. It bore Sinclair’s signature at the bottom.
Sinclair frowned as he studied the note. "Very diplomatic refusal. As it happens, I do have another engagement that evening. But the body of the note is written in a different hand than the signature."
"Of course. My writing, your signature. Your own mother could not tell it's not by your hand."
"Damned if you aren't right." Sinclair glanced from the mountain of newspapers and ledgers to the young man, then to the clock striking the hour, and grimaced. Late again. He shuffled a few folios together, casting another look at the lad. Quincy held Sinclair's gaze, unblinking.
Sinclair never had been able to resist a puzzle, and the impertinent pup intrigued him. Five years as a cavalry officer had trained him to make decisions quickly and follow his instincts, and those instincts shouted at him to keep the young man around. All was not as it seemed. "I think you bear watching, Mr. Quincy. Let’s see what you can do with this mess by the time I get back."
Moments later, Sinclair called for his hat, gloves and walking stick, and exited the house, leaving Quincy to tackle the mounds of correspondence and books that littered his office. He was already late for a meeting with his solicitor. Much as he wished to stay and supervise the lad, Sinclair settled for posting one of the downstairs footmen outside the library. Let the lad sink or swim. Even on such short acquaintance, Sinclair would wager a year’s income that Quincy was a strong swimmer.
Hoping he could still rely on his staff to keep things under control -- though this morning had been more chaotic than usual -- Sinclair pushed aside thoughts of his new secretary as he trudged down the street. Keeping his strides even and steady despite leaning on his walking stick required his full concentration. For him, the ebony cane was no fashionable affectation, and he had grown heartily sick of needing it.
After months of struggle, he had left his crutches behind and worked up to three long walks per week, and two short walks that ended with fencing lessons at Henry Angelo's. It galled him that he could not yet box, as he used to study with Gentleman Jackson. The last time Sinclair had stripped to fight, the blows he'd received from being slow on his feet had been inconsequential -- until his mother saw the bruises. For her sake, he would wait before trying again.
But he could wield a foil. Each session with Angelo, Sinclair forced himself to do one more lunge than the time before, no matter how much his leg muscles screamed in protest.
Today, however, he would play truant from his self-directed regimen, so he could get back to checking on Mr. Quincy’s progress. Sinclair walked straight home from the meeting with his solicitor, intent on going directly to the library. Plans changed, however, when he was waylaid by the butler with a request to meet his mother in her salon. At least Grimshaw, the footman, was at his post and assured him Quincy was still inside the library. By the time Sinclair calmed Mama and helped her deal with various household crises, four hours had passed since he’d left Quincy alone. Blast.
With some trepidation, Sinclair opened the door to his library, expecting to see his new secretary seated behind his desk, up to his elbows in paperwork. It had been three weeks since his last secretary had married the downstairs maid and sailed for America, and Sinclair had more important things to do than paperwork, such as relearning to walk.
But the secretary was not in sight.
The top of Sinclair’s massive desk was visible, however, for the first time in weeks. Papers were arranged in neat piles and ledgers put away. Even the dirty tea service was gone, replaced by, of all things, a vase filled with fresh daffodils. He finally spotted Quincy perched on the bookcase ladder, stacking books.
"Well done, lad!" Sinclair said.
Quincy jumped down to the floor. "My lord!" he said, reaching for his spectacles on a shelf. "I didn’t expect you yet." He put the spectacles on and began unrolling his shirt sleeves.
Sinclair sat down and looked at his polished desk, marred only by four neat stacks of papers. "What is the order to these?"
Quincy shrugged into his coat and hurried over, still buttoning it up. "These are invitations you should accept, these I’ve declined for you, these are correspondence from your stewards -- I believe they require your personal attention -- and these are bills that you--"
"Enough! By Juno, I can’t believe you did all this in the short time I was gone. Have you a genie in your pocket?"
"If I did, my lord, I would not be seeking this position.” He adjusted his spectacles. "Is everything satisfactory?"
"Fine, fine." Sinclair propped his boot heels on the desk corner. Nothing fell to the floor. That clinched it. He had to hire Quincy, despite the lad’s shortage of experience or references. Perhaps providence had sent Sinclair just the person he needed to put his chaotic life in order. Or at least his library -- the entire room had been set to rights. Even the slippers and balled-up stockings were gone from under his armchair by the fire.
He watched Quincy straighten his cuffs, and noted that his coat, though clean, had been mended at the elbow. Perhaps providence had also set Sinclair in Quincy’s path, as the lad was obviously in need of a well-paying position.
There was a brief knock, then Mrs. Hammond peeked into the room. "Will you be needing anything else, Mr. Qui-- Oh, my lord, I didn't know you had returned."
Sinclair glanced at his housekeeper. "No, Mrs. Hammond, Mr. Quincy won't be needing anything else. You might check with him tomorrow, though."
"Yes, my lord, thank you." Mrs. Hammond winked at Quincy before she bobbed a curtsy and closed the door again.
"I trust tomorrow morning at nine is agreeable?" Sinclair rose to shake his new secretary's hand once more.
"Yes. However, I shall need Sundays off, and every other Saturday. I also need an advance on my wages. Half the first quarter's salary should do."
Sinclair raised both eyebrows. "Whatever for?"
"To pay my landlady. She's quite adamant about receiving rent payments and I'm afraid I've fallen behind."
"You can have a room on the third floor. I'll send a footman to help collect your things."
"Thank you, but no." Quincy pushed up his spectacles.
"Why not? It would be convenient and save you money."
"Convenient for you, yes, but not for me. May I have the advance now? Ten shillings would suffice."
"Cheeky bugger," Sinclair muttered, opening the middle drawer of his desk to search for the cash box. He stopped. "Did you tidy all of the drawers this way?"
"Yes. 'Twas impossible to put things away otherwise."
Sinclair lifted the unlocked cashbox lid and stared at the money inside.
"Yes, I could have," Quincy said, as though reading Sinclair’s thoughts. Quincy let out a small sigh. "The list of applicants from the employment agency is in the top left drawer. I suggest you re-interview some of them. Good day, my lord." He jammed his hat on his head and reached for the door.
"Where are you going?"
Quincy slowly turned to face him. "Do you wish me to turn out my pockets?"
"No," Sinclair said, rubbing his chin. "I don't believe that will be necessary." Quincy's reaction had told Sinclair all he needed to know of the lad's character.
"Good. I wouldn't do it if you asked."
Sinclair bit back a smile. "I thought as much. But I still don’t know why you're leaving."
The secretary's chest rose and fell with a deep breath. "I realize it takes time to build respect and trust, but I will not work for someone who distrusts me from the beginning. Good day, my lord."
"Wait!" Sinclair limped across the room and blocked the door. Quincy trembled slightly when Sinclair clapped him on one slender shoulder. "I have decided I like your impertinence. I want you to stay."
"No." Quincy flashed a grin. "At least, not this afternoon. I will return in the morning, however."
"Good lad. Take the ten shillings and pay your landlady, then go see my tailor. These clothes are dreadful."
"Your tailor, my lord?" Quincy’s cheeks flushed to the roots of his pomaded brown hair. "If you don't mind, I already have a, um, tailor, though it's been a while since I visited him."
"Whatever pleases you. Just replace your coat and trousers. They're ready for the rag merchants." Sinclair stepped back and surveyed Quincy from his battered hat to the paper-thin soles of his shoes, until it appeared the rest of his blood had rushed to his face. "Good lord, man, your last employer must have been a first rate pinchpenny. When's the last time you had new shoes? Or a good meal? You're thinner than a half-pay corporal. Never mind." He continued before the embarrassed youth could speak. "Visit your tailor if you prefer, but see that you stop off at my cobbler on your way here tomorrow." He scribbled an address on the back of a calling card before handing it over.
"Th-thank you, my lord." Quincy bowed stiffly and hurried out of the room.
"Harper!" Sinclair shouted when he heard the front door close.
The butler entered the library. "Yes, my lord?"
"Congratulate me. I've filled half the vacancies in the staff."
"I believe that calls for a toast, my lord. Does this mean you'll soon be interviewing maids?"
"Yes, brandy should do nicely. And no, not just yet. I don't think interviewing maids would be half as entertaining as interviewing Mr. Quincy was."
The butler sighed. "As you wish, my lord."
Hurrying home in the gathering dusk, head bent low against the stiff March wind and rain, Quincy stopped to purchase lengths of fabric for a day coat, trousers, and two shirts. Quincy also selected a length of sprigged muslin, and stopped a few more times for potatoes, cheese, and a leg of mutton.
Quincy had barely stepped through the door of the third-floor flat when a brunette in braids grabbed one of the parcels.
"You got the job! You got the job!" she said, hooking her arm through Quincy's and spinning them until her skirts and hair fluttered out.
"Yes, Melinda, I got the job. Now stop dancing before you start coughing again. You're making me dizzy. And it means work for you, too. His lordship doesn't want to see me in rags again. Can you finish a coat by morning, if I help you?" Quincy set the bolt of dark blue wool on the table.
"If you help? Impossible. Without your help, however"
"Jo, is that you?" a voice called from the other room of the flat.
"Come here, child. I've been waiting all day."
Quincy and Melinda grinned at each other, then Melinda took the remainder of the parcels while Quincy went to the other room.
"Sit, sit, and tell me all about it," the old woman said, patting the bed beside her.
"I knew acting as Papa's secretary would help you get us out of the suds someday," Melinda said, following Quincy into the room, having dropped the parcels on the table.
"Is Lord Sinclair all we thought he would be?" Grandmère asked, pulling Quincy down beside her.
"Yes, and you were absolutely right. I think he enjoyed my impertinence more than I did."
Grandmère chuckled. "Knew that would get him. He hates toadeaters almost as much as his grandfather did. Now, that was a man who appreciated a pretty ankle!" She turned serious again. "I still wish there was another solution, but I am glad everything is working out just as you planned. Do you think he suspects anything?"
"No, I'm sure he doesn’t," Quincy said.
Grandmère pulled Quincy close for a hug. "Good girl."
"Excellent, Mr. Quincy, excellent." Sinclair slid his booted feet from his desk and rose to walk around Quincy when he entered the library the next morning.
"I'm sorry I'm late, my lord, but your cobbler--"
"Do be quiet, Mr. Quincy." Sinclair stepped back and rubbed his chin. "Your tailor does fine work, lad."
"Th-thank you, my lord. The cobbler insisted I put these shoes on your bill, but they were frightfully expensive. I don't--"
"I said be quiet, Quincy." Sinclair lifted the lad's trouser-leg with one thumb and forefinger to get a better look at the sturdy black shoes. Quincy flushed to his roots. "They're just what you should wear, working for me. If you feel guilty about the expense, you can tackle that stack of bills over there and make sure no one is cheating me."
He waited until Quincy seated himself at the drop-leaf desk by the window, then handed him the accounting ledgers. "Start with the household accounts, then we'll move on to my other properties."
"Yes, my lord."
The library door opened and the housekeeper bustled in with a tray of scones, jelly, and tea. "Good morning, my lord, Mr. Quincy."
Startled, Sinclair stared at Mrs. Hammond. He couldn't remember the last time she'd personally brought a tea tray to anyone but his mother. This one hadn't even been sent for. He turned his attention to Quincy, who smiled at Mrs. Hammond when she poured two cups for them before she left.
"Do you intend to wrap all of my staff around your finger, Mr. Quincy?"
Quincy walked over to the tray and took a sip before answering. "Housekeepers are valuable allies, whether you're the lord of the house, the scullery maid, or anyone in between."
Sinclair grunted. "Just don't run off and marry the downstairs maid."
"You haven't replaced her yet, my lord." His eyes twinkled. "Do you wish me to handle that, or will you leave the hiring up to Harper or Mrs. Hammond?"
"Leave you to hire a young, pretty maid? I think not. That would be as bad as letting Harper do it." Sinclair leaned close to Quincy, pleasantly surprised to note that he smelled only of lemon soap and rain-dampened wool. With Johnson, his previous secretary, he’d often needed to open the windows, especially in warmer weather. He couldn't help noticing Quincy's porcelain-smooth jaw. "You don't have even a hint of whiskers yet. How old are you, anyway?"
"Nineteen, my lord, but we already established that shaving was not a requirement for this position. How old are you?"
Sinclair blinked, then gave a faint smile. "Far too old for a man of my years. Carry on, Mr. Quincy." He drank the tea Mrs. Hammond had poured, then picked up his hat, gloves, and stick, and left for his walk.
Quincy sat down before her knees gave out. "Everything is fine," she whispered. "Everything is just fine. Lord Sinclair doesn’t suspect a thing." She had never counted on her employer getting so, well, so close. Whiskers? She could bind her bosom and insert a rolled-up stocking in her trousers, but she knew no way to fake having whiskers.
But Sinclair didn’t suspect a thing. She could do this. Everything was fine. After a few more deep breaths, she pocketed her spectacles and set to work.
Soon the figures in the account books began to swim before her eyes. Johnson's handwriting was even worse than her father's had been, and the Earl of Sinclair's holdings were far more extensive. No matter how many times she added the columns, she never came up with the same figures Johnson had. She threw her pencil down in disgust.
"I can hear the earl now," she muttered. "Terminated on the first day. What will Grandmère say?" She shoved her spectacles back on and stepped out into the hall.
"Mr. Harper, do you mind if I send one of the footmen on an errand? It may take him a while to find what I need."
"I have just the man in mind," the butler said. "Thompson's post is near the top of the stairs, but we usually find him near whichever room the maids are cleaning."
"Harper, I insist you do something about that buffoon upstairs!" A man no taller than Quincy appeared behind them, holding an armful of limp cravats. "His tongue fairly hangs to the floor whenever one of the female servants walk past. It is positively disgusting."
"I heard it's something else that fairly hangs to the floor, but I may be mistaken." Harper stepped aside. Quincy felt her ears burning but kept her expression bland. "Mr. Quincy, have you met Broderick, his lordship's valet?"
They had barely exchanged greetings when a giant in Sinclair's livery with shoulder-length blond curls crossed the hall, following a maid toward the back stairs. "Thompson, Mr. Quincy has an errand for you," Harper called.
Quincy got a crick in her neck looking up at Thompson while she described what she needed him to buy, and gratefully leaned against the wall when she returned to the library.
When she had devised her plan, she hadn’t considered how many other people she’d be dealing with in addition to her employer. But no one suspected a thing. She could do this. Everything was fine. "Keep saying that," she muttered, "and it’ll be true." She went back to work, and had just finished sorting the morning's mail when Mrs. Hammond knocked.
"Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Quincy, but her ladyship requests you join her in the drawing room."
Her ladyship? What could Sinclair's mother possibly want with her? Once again she pushed her spectacles on and left the library. She followed the housekeeper upstairs, down a hallway wider than her entire flat, and into a room decorated in yellow with green and orange accents, reminding Quincy of daffodils.
In the center of the daffodil sat Lady Sinclair, an older, more delicate version of her son, with silver streaks in her chestnut hair and the faint scent of jasmine floating around her. Knowing from her research that the former earl had passed away nearly six years ago, Quincy was surprised to see Lady Sinclair wearing a half-mourning gown of gray, trimmed with lavender.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Quincy," she said, raising one hand. Quincy remembered to bow over it, then stood stiffly with her arms at her sides.
"Please, sit down. Would you care for tea?"
"No, thank you." Quincy sat on the edge of the cushion.
"Well, let's get right to the point, then. How do you like your new position?"
Alarm skittered up her spine, and Quincy forced herself to breathe. Terminated already? Could Lady Sinclair do that? "Fine, my lady."
"Good." She tilted her head to one side, studying Quincy's face.
Quincy fought to keep her expression neutral, to hide her growing unease.
"Have we met somewhere? Perhaps I know your father or a brother."
"No, my lady, I don't believe so. My brother died at birth, and my father passed away a year ago."
"I am sorry to hear that." She studied Quincy for what felt like a century. Quincy pressed her palms flat to her knees to keep from fidgeting. The mantel clock chimed the hour. Lady Sinclair’s eyes widened, but her expression cleared again so quickly, Quincy thought she might have imagined it.
Lady Sinclair cleared her throat and leaned toward Quincy. "Now, about your job. You handle my son's correspondence, know which affairs he's invited to?"
"That is part of what I do, yes."
"Good." Lady Sinclair refilled her teacup and settled back on the cushions, again studying Quincy.
This was getting right to the point? "Is there something specific you wish to know, my lady?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes. Yes, I-- I would like you to keep me informed as to which affairs my son is invited to, and which invitations he accepts." She took another sip of her tea and set the cup and saucer on the table at her side. "Has anyone ever told you that you have honest eyes, Mr. Quincy?"
"No, my lady, I don't believe so." Quincy resisted the urge to squirm.
"Well, you do. I feel as though I can tell you anything and it will be kept in strictest confidence." She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "You seem like someone who is comfortable with secrets."
Quincy involuntarily leaned back. "Thank you -- I think -- but I should remind you that my first allegiance is to Lord Sinclair. I am sure he would not have hired me if he did not think my activities would be in his best interest."
Lady Sinclair straightened. "That's as it should be. I'm not asking for anything that would betray his trust in you. I'm simply concerned that, well" She rested her hand on Quincy's sleeve. "Benjamin has always been very private, keeping his own counsel. But he’s becoming downright reclusive, especially since Anthony returned to Oxford. Anthony is my younger son." Lady Sinclair beamed with motherly pride for a moment, then her expression turned grave again. "Benjamin insisted there was no further need to disrupt Tony's studies. But I know Benjamin is not nearly as recovered as he would like everyone to think. His wounds were too grievous."
Lady Sinclair quickly took another sip of tea. "And after that nasty bit of business last fall, I fear he’s quite turned off the idea of marrying."
"Last fall?" Quincy tried to project the right tone of polite boredom to mask her curiosity.
"During the Little Season. Benjamin was pleased with how quickly he mastered getting about on crutches, and started going out in Society a bit. Some of the ladies quite doted on him. Wounded hero, and all that. He was smitten with a raven-haired miss, and I think he may even have asked for her hand. But he came home one night and smashed all the crockery in his room. When I quizzed him about it, he would only say that her heart was as black as her hair."
Quincy tried to think of a suitable response, but none was forthcoming.
"Whatever she said or did, he still needs a wife, a helpmate. I know he spends a great deal of time at his club, but that's with other former soldiers, and I'm sure all they discuss is politics and games of chance. I ask you, how is he to find a suitable wife in St. James Street?"
"I'm sure I do not know."
"That's why I want you to let me know which balls and such he is invited to, where there will be young ladies of quality. I can apply a little motherly pressure on him to accept, and then who knows what might happen? And if he should mention any miss in particular, you will let me know, won’t you? Then I can make certain she’s invited to tea, and to the soiree I’m hosting in a few weeks."
Quincy furrowed her brow. Sinclair might consider this spying, but she had no wish to offend the lady of the house, either. "I think I can do that without breaching any confidence."
"Good lad! I knew I could count on you." Before Quincy could react, Lady Sinclair enveloped her in a brief hug, then moved to the pianoforte. Lady Sinclair seemed different than when their strange little interview began, but Quincy couldn’t quite put her finger on the change. Perhaps she just imagined it.
Quincy walked back to the library, listening to the strains of a Mozart sonata. What wounds had Lady Sinclair alluded to? A leg injury -- that would explain why Sinclair was forever propping his feet up, and often limped or walked with a stiff gait. She stifled her curiosity, however, instinctively knowing Sinclair would not welcome inquiries into the subject. And heaven forbid he ever discover his mother had just shared such private information with his secretary on such short acquaintance.
Her thoughts as to why Lady Sinclair had told her these things were interrupted by Thompson, who met her in the hall. She relieved him of his package and returned to work on the account books. She was making such great progress, she didn't hear Sinclair enter a few hours later.
"Good Lord, what is that monstrosity?"
She jumped, nearly bumping into his chest. He was leaning over her, his hand on the back of her chair. Her shoulder brushed his fingers as she moved.
He sniffed and looked around the room. "Has my mother been in here?"
"No, my lord. I joined her in the drawing room, at her request."
He stepped back to allow Quincy room to rise. "Wrapped her around your finger, too, I suppose?"
Quincy tilted her chin up to meet his gaze. "She said she was pleased to make my acquaintance and she... she--"
Sinclair's mouth opened, but no sound emerged. He raised both eyebrows. "You still haven't told me what that monstrosity is on your desk." He reached around her to flick one of the colored balls strung on rows of wires in a wooden frame.
"It's an abacus." She flicked back the ball he had moved. "My last employer had one, and I found it quite helpful. It might blend in better if you had a Chinese decorating scheme."
"Bah. This is my room, and its decorating scheme is that it has none." He sank into his leather chair and put his feet up on the desk. "So, report. What did you learn about the household accounts this morning?"
"I'd rather not say yet, my lord. I found some confusing entries, and I'd prefer to look into them more carefully before discussing the matter."
"Commendable. Get cracking, then." He opened the folio he’d carried under one arm and began reading.
Quincy nodded and went back to work, trying not to think about Lord Sinclair sitting just a few feet away. She risked a peek at him through her lashes. It took all her powers of concentration to turn her attention back to the account books instead of his profile, to gaze at the figures on the page and not the figure seated in the chair.
The deeper she delved into the entries, the easier it became to concentrate. When she finally caught on to the pattern taking shape in the books, she would have shouted in triumph if it didn't mean such bad news for Sinclair. The abacus proved her figures were correct, not Johnson’s. She gathered proof from paid bills, ledger books, and correspondence files, spreading them out across the desk and even onto the floor as she worked.
Sinclair peered at Quincy over the top of the document he was pretending to read, and considered their interview yesterday. Though he was still sure he'd made the right choice, all sorts of questions nagged at him. It was too soon to know for certain that Quincy was a man of his word, and would only use his forgery skill for his employer's benefit rather than detriment, but Sinclair felt confident things would turn out for the best. His instincts were always right.
Quincy had apparently gotten over his initial discomfort of this morning, and made himself at ease at Sinclair's desk, using every square inch of its surface. Sinclair hadn't noticed before how slight of stature the lad was, dwarfed by the leather chair and oak desk, his heels not even reaching the floor. Quincy squinted as he tried to make out Johnson’s indecipherable scrawl. His expression soon cleared, as he must have learned the secret cipher.
He even began humming under his breath and swinging his crossed ankles above the carpet, looking more like a child playing make-believe than a young man at work. But it was no child's intellect with whom Sinclair had crossed verbal swords earlier.
Time for a little reconnaissance. Sinclair rose from the sofa and settled in the chair across from Quincy. It took the lad several seconds to notice him, but he finally looked up with a start.
Sinclair leaned his elbows on the desk, chin resting on one palm. "Tell me how you learned to forge."
Quincy's jaw worked for a moment, then he crossed his arms. "Have you changed your mind about Newgate?"
Quincy just looked at him. Sinclair was beginning to think the lad would refuse to answer, but he stayed still, silently awaiting a reply.
"It was by accident," Quincy said at last. He picked up the pencil, toying with it. "My… last employer was ill for a long time. His hands would tremble, which made it hard to write. One day I copied his signature on a letter." He shrugged one shoulder. "After a little practice, he couldn't tell my version from his."
"You had his permission?"
Quincy looked insulted that Sinclair would even suggest otherwise. "Baron Bradwell didn't want others to know how far his illness had progressed."
Quincy looked up from the pencil. "Aren't we all?"
Sinclair examined his fingernails for a moment. "I don't recall giving you permission to learn my signature, or a letter from which to copy it."
Quincy lowered his gaze. "I needed this job. Notes to merchants or agencies are easy to intercept."
Sinclair straightened. "You stole a note from one of my footmen?"
"Borrowed. I did deliver it." He glanced at Sinclair over the top of his spectacles. "Eventually."
Pieces of the puzzle fell into place, giving him an entirely different picture. Sinclair wasn't certain whether he felt angry or impressed. And he'd thought Quincy audacious before. "The employment agency didn't send you, did they?"
Before Quincy could reply, Harper knocked on the door. "Beg pardon, my lord, but Lady Sinclair requests your presence," the butler intoned.
Sinclair stood. "We'll finish this later," he warned, and faced the butler. "Where is she? The drawing room?"
"Her bedchamber, actually."
Sinclair’s eyebrows raised. The butler gave a slight nod. Odd, indeed. Sinclair shot one last look at Quincy, who had gone back to organizing stacks of papers, and headed upstairs.
Hannah, his mother’s maid, opened the door before Sinclair could even knock. "It’s a miracle, my lord," she whispered, "a bleedin’ miracle!"
Sinclair stepped inside the door, and froze. His mother was in front of the mirror, performing a girlish pirouette, her skirts flaring out. Her yellow skirts. Not black, not gray, not even lavender. Soft, sunny yellow. A color she hadn't worn in over five years.
"Is something amiss with my appearance, Benjamin?" Lady Sinclair looked at him in the reflection. "Your father used to tell me this dress was flattering on my figure."
"It was. It is! It’s just that, ah..."
His mother smiled. "You have been after me for ages to put away my widow’s weeds. Now that I’ve decided to do so, you can’t string together a coherent sentence?" She clucked her tongue, then turned to her maid. "Hannah, I think I’ll wear the dark blue. It would only shock everyone senseless if I were to wear bright yellow to Lady Fitzwater’s card party tonight."
"Yes, m’lady." The maid sprang forward, gathering up the yards of dresses and fabric strewn across his mother’s bed, setting aside a dark blue mass.
Lady Sinclair nodded. "Now, Benjamin, which ball are you going to squire me to tomorrow night?"
"Ball?" He swallowed.
"You haven’t forgotten our agreement, have you? You promised to attend balls -- yes, yes, I know you still can’t dance yet -- and look about for a wife, and I promised to dance with at least one gentleman each time we go. Have you picked someone out for me yet? What’s his name?"
Sinclair sank into the delicate-looking chair at the dressing table, grateful it didn’t collapse the way his knees threatened to, and watched his mother walk toward him, hands on her hips. "You spend your days dreaming up ways to set me back on my heels, don’t you?"
His mother laughed.
After a stunned moment, Sinclair chuckled too, from the sheer delight of hearing her laughter. It had been absent so long.
In the dark months following his father’s suicide, Sinclair had often wondered if his mother would suffocate under the weight of her grief and humiliation. She had switched to half-mourning only last fall, at his request, when Sinclair had been brought home to recover from his injuries. He’d suffered nary a twinge of guilt when telling her that seeing her in black made him feel his own death was imminent.
He’d meant the comment as a jest, but quickly realized he’d found a way to bring her back to life, to make her give up her isolation and go about in society again. Hence their "gentleman’s agreement." He agreed to do things he’d planned to do anyway, but dragged his feet about them, until she agreed to do things she hadn’t done since becoming a widow.
This was the first time she’d followed through -- planning to attend her first ball. He’d have to sort through his invitations, and older gentleman acquaintances, and find someone suitable for the occasion.
"Well, Benjamin? Whose ball?"
He stood up and kissed her cheek. "It’s a surprise, Mama."
His mother gave an inelegant snort. "You haven’t the least idea whose yet. Why don’t you have your new secretary sort through the mail and pick one?"
"Have Mr. Quincy pick one?"
"Yes, Mr. Quincy. Had a nice chat with him this afternoon. Charming young fellow. I like him much better than Johnson."
"Well, he certainly smells better than Johnson."
Lady Sinclair smiled. "I think you chose well, Benjamin."
Quincy the forger had had a nice chat with Lady Sinclair and wrapped her around his little finger, too.
Before Sinclair could form a reply, his mother spun him by the shoulder toward the doorway. "Now, shoo! I have to get ready for Fitzy’s card party."
"Yes, Mama." He bussed her on the cheek again and set off back to the library. As he struggled to limp down the stairs, he thought back on their conversation, and the sudden changes in his mother. The spring in her step, the sparkle in her eye -- if he’d seen that in anyone else, he’d expect mischief.
Sinclair paused to rest on the landing. His mother had seemed her usual self -- usual since Papa’s death -- at breakfast this morning. She hadn’t gone out, and no callers had come in, either. The only thing that made today different from any other day had been... had been her chat with Quincy.
He remembered his mother’s words. "Charming young fellow."
Had Quincy managed to charm his mother out of the blue devils? In one afternoon? When Sinclair had been struggling to do just that for years? Years!
His own words came back to him. I think you bear watching, Mr. Quincy.
He entered the library, noting that Quincy barely looked up as Sinclair sat on the sofa. He grabbed the folio with the latest report from his solicitor and again pretended to read it as he studied his new secretary. He had every intention of continuing their earlier discussion, but first he wanted more time to think about his conversation with Mama.
The lad was so absorbed in his work that he moved from the desk and knelt on the floor, organizing papers and stacking ledgers. Still kneeling, his back to Sinclair, Quincy stretched to reach another pile, the tails of his coat falling to either side. Quincy was wearing new trousers in addition to a new coat, as Sinclair had requested. The tailor had done fine work, despite any misgivings Sinclair might have had.
But something was wrong.
Quincy sat back on his heels, studying a piece of paper. Then he leaned forward to drop it onto a pile of receipts, his trousers stretched taut across his backside. Normally Sinclair paid little attention to other men’s clothing, other than to confirm that his own attire was appropriate to the occasion. But he couldn’t take his eyes off Quincy.
And then Sinclair recognized what was wrong. Though very circumspect, Sinclair was no monk. His last dalliance had been long before Waterloo, but he hadn’t lost his appreciation for a fine female derriere ... and that’s exactly what he was staring at.
Mr. Quincy was actually a Miss.
Without thinking, Sinclair sprang forward, kneeling on the floor beside Quincy, and grabbed her wrist as she set down a receipt. The spasm of pain in his leg made his voice harsher than he’d intended. "What the hell do you think you’re doing, Miss Quincy?"