The numbers wouldn't add up. Nick ran his ink-smudged finger up the neat column of figures and back down again.
A smothered giggle disrupted his concentration. With a frown, he glanced up from his desk, irritated that he'd have to begin adding for a third time.
The most exquisite creature stood in the doorway to his small office, a finger to her lips. In her navy blue pleated skirt and sailor blouse, she appeared no more than sixteen.
Before he could do or say anything, she moved into his space, bringing with her a vitality the dusty nook had probably not seen in a decade.
Her eyes were wide, pleading, yet with a touch of mischief. "Shh!" she whispered. "Don't tell them I'm here."
He almost jumped out of his seat as she came around his desk and crouched behind it at his feet.
He drew his legs in, his eyes drawn to her slim, pale hands clasped over her knees. She lifted her head. "You won't give me away, will you?" Her sparkling deep blue eyes looked up at his in a conspiratorial smile. They must be what the poets called violet. Another part of his mind noticed the coppery shade of her hair. It was worn down, as befitted a schoolgirl, with a deep fringe across her wide forehead, and drawn away from her face with a wide blue bow in the back. Her hair was very straight but its toffee-colored tones glistened in the bit of light from his small lamp.
A noise at the door caused him to look up again. A youth and another young lady stood at the doorjamb, their faces peering doubtfully in.
The young gentleman ran a disdainful eye across the room. "You don't think she came in here, do you?"
The young lady, also pretty, but nothing compared to the one crouched at Nick's feet, put her hands on the hips of her similar schoolgirl outfit and took a slow turn about the cramped space, her slim nose wrinkled. "I daresay not. There's not space in here to hide a pin in!"
Nick couldn't help glancing down at the girl at his feet, and experienced once again a moment of shock at her loveliness as she glanced up at him, her finger to her lips.
"I say, you haven't seen a young lady run by here, have you, my good fellow?"
Nick immediately took umbrage to the young man's tone. Instead of replying, he picked up his pencil and pretended to go over his figures again.
The young man cleared his throat. "See here, I'm addressing you."
Without straightening from his work, Nick's gaze flickered up. "I beg your pardon?"
A look of annoyance crossed the young man's fine features. "Never mind. I shall look for myself. Come on, Lucy." He beckoned to the young lady standing at his side.
"Alice wouldn't hide in here," she said with a toss of her head. "Why are we wasting our time in this stuffy hole? There's nothing but dust and paper in here." As if to prove her point, she sneezed.
"You're right." With a sniff, the young gentleman backed out the door. The girl followed after him. Their voices faded down the corridor. "We shall find you, Alice. You can't hide from us!"
Silence descended once more in the office. Before Nick had a chance to move, the girl stood in one quick motion, smoothing down her skirt. "Thank you ever so much, Mr."
"Tennent," he said without thinking, pushing his chair back and standing.
She bobbed a quick curtsy then studied him a moment. He wondered what those stunning eyes saw. More than the other girl, no doubt, who had looked right past him as if he'd been no more than the blotter on his desk.
"You're Father's secretary?"
He nodded. So, this lovely creature was the offspring of Mr. Shepard.
She put a finger to her chin and tilted her head. "This is the first time he's brought his secretary out to Richmond, at least as far as I can recall." Her cheeks dimpled. "But then, I'm rarely home myself, so I wouldn't know."
He fingered the pencil he still held in his hand, trying to maintain a poise he was far from feeling. "I imagine your father wanted to have this project finished as quickly as possible. It demands much time and attention right now."
She cast a glance over the papers on his desk. "All Father's projects seem to require much time and attention." Was that irony in one so young? Her lashes, the same deep coppery tone as her hair, formed deep curves against the delicate, pale skin.
He frowned at her statement. "One doesn't rise to the importance of Mr. Shepard without a lot of time and effort."
Her eyes came up to study him. "You admire him."
"There is much to be admired." He lifted his chin a trifle defensively.
She ran a slim forefinger along the edge of the beat-up desk as she walked around it. He found he could breathe slightly easier when she'd moved a few feet away from him. "Most people do, don't they?" She glanced back at him, her finger still on the desk. "Admire him, I mean?"
"I imagine they do."
She nodded. "Is he a nice employer to you?"
He raised his eyebrows at her direct question, unaccustomed to someone asking him about his situation. "I have only been in his employ a fortnight, and it is not my place to comment on your father's treatment of his employees."
"Of course not. You were very cool to Victor."
Her statement threw him, until he realized she was referring to the young gentleman just in the room. "A playmate of yours?"
"I've known them both since childhood."
"Does that make them your friends?"
She tilted her head and a slow smile spread across her face. "I don't know. I'd never really thought about it."
As if the mention of them summoned them, he heard their voices once again from the end of the corridor.
"Now, I say, Alice, we've searched this place from top to bottom"
She sighed and took a step toward the door. "I'd better leave you to your work before they barge in on you again. I do apologize for interrupting your work, Mr. Tennent. I'm sure it's important."
He shook his head, trying to dispel the wave of disappointment he felt at her departure. "No need to apologize." He looked down at his column of figures, reassuming a business-like tone. "Good day to you, Miss Shepard."
"It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Tennent."
She sounded like a society lady, the kind of women he only saw from a distance in London. Hearing Victor's voice closer, she flashed him a smile then spun on her heel and left the room, once again the young schoolgirl.
Victor and Lucy pounced on her as soon as they saw her. "Where in the world were you?"
Alice laughed, the sound coming out breathless and excited. "You sillies, I was behind you all the time." She'd moved far enough from the office door that they wouldn't suspect where she'd come from.
Victor turned away from her and marched in the direction he'd come from. "I say, this game is silly. I, for one, am too old to be playing at hide-and-seek."
Alice stifled a laugh. He only thought it was silly because he hadn't found her. "All right, what do you suggest we do?"
At the moment all she wanted to do was be alone somewhere and ponder the encounter she'd had with Papa's new secretary. Miss Shepard. The way he'd said it sounded so grown-up and ladylike. Everyone else called her Miss Alice. She would not be Miss Shepard for another year-and-a-half at her coming out.
In those few moments of conversation, she'd felt taken seriously by an adult. A young gentleman, at that. Her heartbeat quickened at the intensity of his gaze.
She went over his features in her mind. Dark, short-cropped hair over a high forehead, a thin face, a high-bridged nose. But most arresting were his deep-set eyes, their irises almost black, the eyebrows straight and dark above them before arching outward.
"Let's go riding." Victor's voice, always peremptory when he wanted something, brought her thoughts to a halt.
"It's too hot to go riding." Lucy sounded peevish.
She took the girl by the arm. "Come along, we can take a walk in the grove. It'll be cool in the shade."
Two weeks of holidays stretched out before her. How she'd hoped that she'd be able to see Father. But he was always off to London and she was forced to entertain unwanted guests. There'd be no peace now until she returned to school.
Alice stood on the grassy tennis court, her attention fixed on Victor, her racket held firmly in her hand. "Come on, put some spirit into your serve."
Just as she knew they would, her words brought a frown to his face. The next second, he slammed the rubber ball across the net.
But she was ready. The ball sailed out of her reach. With a laugh, she sprang towards it and then hit it dead-on with her racket. It went flying back, forcing Victor to sprint to connect with it. "I say, you're not playing the game as it should be played."
She laughed again. "I'm playing it the way I saw it played at Wimbledon last spring!"
"This is not a competition!"
When she sent it back again, she aimed it at his partner, Lucy. The girl didn't move from her position, merely raised her arm halfway in a vain attempt to reach the ball.
Alice blew her bangs off her forehead in frustration. "Lucy, it went right to you!"
Lucy made a face at her and let Victor fetch the ball. "You're not playing fairly, Alice. You know you mustn't make me reach for it."
What a bore it was to play with these three. She glanced over at her own partner, a neighbor's son, also home for the holidays. He was looking away from the court, leaning on his racket. Oh, to be paired with someone who showed a little spirit!
She lunged to the right, almost missing the ball Victor served back to her. Despite his indolence in the drawing room, once she taunted him, he was roused to make some effort. Thunk! Her racket connected with the ball and it went whizzing back to him.
A tall figure coming around the corner of the high yew hedge caught her attention.
She recognized the new secretary immediately. She hadn't seen him at all again yesterday, and wondered if he was forced to take his meals with the servants or all by himself in his little office off Father's library.
In the time it took for the ball to return over the net, Alice made up her mind. She knocked the ball at the wrong angle, so that it missed the net altogether and bounced sidelong into the shorter trimmed hedge on her side of the court.
"Alice! What are you doing?" Victor's voice was filled with disgust. With a shrug and shamefaced smile his way, she skipped toward the hedge. She stooped to retrieve the ball where it had landed in the soil beneath the hedge and stood in time to meet the young secretary coming along the path.
"Hello, Mr. Tennent."
He looked different in the bright sun. Hatless, his short ebony curls gleamed. His face was slim, the cheekbones rather prominent, but his eyes were as dark and intense as the day before.
They widened slightly as if surprised that she'd remembered his name. "Hello, Miss Shepard."
She thought of him confined to that tiny office. "Would you like to join in the match?" With his tall, lean build, he would probably prove a swift player.
His gaze flickered over the court then returned to her. "No, thank you." His tone sounded more formal than yesterday.
"We're having ever so much fun."
He looked away from her. "I have no time for sports."
She fingered the edge of her racket, refusing to give up so easily. "I should think playing a hard game of tennis would help you in your work."
A slight crease formed between his dark brows. "I fail to see how swinging at a ball on a grassy lawn would aid me in figuring the financial assets of a company."
"Exercising your body will keep your mind sharp."
Amusement began to dislodge the severity of his expression. She leaned forward, pressing home her point. "It's been scientifically proven. You are breathing more deeply of oxygen, for one thing. More than in that airless cubbyhole my father has you closeted in."
Before he could say anything, Victor shouted from the court, "Are you going to join the game or remain talking to a clerk all day?" Laughter from the others drifted over to them.
She turned back to the court, ashamed of her friends in that moment. She remembered the secretary's question of the day before. These "friends" were mere acquaintances, offspring of her parents' friends, forced on her during the holidays to keep her company.
Mr. Tennent's face remained expressionless. "If you'll excuse me"
"Wait." She stopped, casting about for another way to lengthen their exchange, not quite sure why. "Why don't you join me for a game tomorrow" her mind ran on, thinking of possibilities "before breakfast, before you begin working."
He looked away from her. "I know nothing of the game." The words came out stiffly as if forced out of him.
She laughed, relieved. For a moment she'd thought perhaps it was her company he didn't want. "That's all right. I can teach you."
His eyes widened slightly before resuming their formality. "I have no time for games. Good morning." Before she could draw breath to argue, he hurried off.
She looked at his receding back, frowning at the rebuff.
"Come on, Alice, or you shall have to forfeit the game."
With a sigh of frustration, she hurried back to her place, prepared to meet Victor's serve.
Lucy gave a disbelieving laugh across the court. "Goodness, Alice, are you so bored you're forced to seek out your father's employees?"
"Why shouldn't I be nice to Father's employees? Maybe he'll prove a better tennis player than all of you!" More determined than ever to get the serious young man out on the tennis court, she whacked the ball that came flying toward her.
Nick shook his head over the report. The mining company had already had one shaft collapse in the last year. Another was hardly producing. If he were a partner, he'd recommend to Mr. Shepard that he sell his shares of the company.
He gathered up the papers and prepared to go to the larger office adjoining his "airless cubbyhole," as the young Miss Shepard had put it. He paused, considering once again the girl's invitation to a game of tennis. To lessons, no less! He told himself once again, as he had all the rest of the afternoon, that it was nonsense. No matter that no one of her class had ever bothered to notice someone as lowly as a clerk, let alone issue such a friendly invitation
Excerpted from A Man Most Worthy by Ruth Axtell Morren Copyright © 2008 by Ruth Axtell Morren. Excerpted by permission.
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