‘For the last time, Sir: when are we going?’
‘For the last time, Mr Linton - when the time is right.’
‘And when will that be, Sir?’
Across the miniscule carriage we were squashed into, I glared at my employer - to absolutely no effect. The perfect, chiselled face of Mr Rikkard Ambrose remained as stony and composed as ever, not a muscle moving. The only reaction I got was a look cold enough to freeze a volcano. Thank God I had developed immunity to frostbite after about a year in his employ.
‘If you intend to pay your family a visit,’ I explained for the umpteenth time, trying to keep my voice calm and patient and failing miserably, ‘I need a date. That’s what secretaries do. They ask their employers on which date they plan to do stuff, and then they write it down in things called “calendars” - look, like this little papery fellow I have here - so they can make all those pesky little arrangements their employers are far too important for.’ If you insert a ‘self’ before ‘important’, that is. ‘So, I ask again, Mr Ambrose, Sir: when are we going?’
His answer was the one he preferred to give in any and all circumstances: cold silence.
‘Just one date. Come on. Just one measly little number.’
‘Do I need to get on my knees and beg?’ Not that I would. I would sooner stab myself with my own pen. But I thought it might startle a response from him. Instead…
‘For goodness’ sake! Why is it so difficult? It’s just a date!’
He threw me another cold look. ‘I am a very important man, Mr Linton. I have many demands on my time, and a lot of business to take care of before I can even think of leaving town.’
His left little finger made a nervous twitch.
And finally, it hit me. Of course! Why hadn’t I seen it earlier? Slowly, a grin spread across my face. ‘You’re scared!’
‘What? That, Mr Linton, is utterly ridiculous.’
‘You’re scared of your mother!’
His left little finger twitched again. ‘I most certainly am not!’
‘Ha! Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
‘Not that it is any business of yours, Mr Linton, but my undergarments happen to be at quite a comfortable room temperature. I am no liar. I am, as I said, an important man. You cannot simply expect me to up and leave, merely because my bothersome relatives demand it. There is much important business-’
‘Oh really?’ I cut in, throwing him an innocent smile. ‘Let’s see what this “important business” is that you had to take care of during the last couple of days….’ Crossing my legs, I leant back and started flicking through his calendar. ‘Yesterday, a visit to the match factory to check the average sulphur content of medium-sized matches. The day before that, a visit to the East End warehouse to check the state of the building-’
‘That was perfectly legitimate. There were important repairs needing to be done on that building.’
‘There was one loose shingle on the roof.’
‘You can never be too thorough. In my experience-’
I didn’t let him finish. ‘The day before that, we took a trip to that farm out in the country to check whether the furrows were straight enough for your liking. The day before that, we spent breathing smoke to determine the best plant for a tobacco plantation you might be planning to open in two years, once the land it’s supposed to be on is cleared of forest, rocks, and the occasional mountain. The day before that-’
‘All right, all right!’
He sent me another one of those looks meant to deep-freeze his conversational partner. I sent back another smile.
‘You want a date? You can have a date. We’ll leave the day after tomorrow.’
Yay! Victory! With effort, I resisted the urge to punch the air. With even more effort, I resisted the urge to punch him, which would have been much more fun.
‘Our little excursion tonight will be the last piece of business I have to take care of before we leave. Tomorrow, we will pack, and you will make all the necessary arrangements. I expect you to be ready and waiting with an inexpensive coach in front of Empire House at six a.m. the day after tomorrow.’
‘Any delay in travel due to a lack of appropriate travel arrangement will be your responsibility, and I will deduct its cost from your wages.’
‘And no coachman will be necessary. Karim will be driving.’
‘Ah. I should get a sturdy coach, then.’
To that, Mr Ambrose did not deign to give a reply, instead sinking back into the arctic fortress of himself.
Outside, street lamps whizzed by at a prodigious pace. It was too dark to see exactly where we were going, but since I knew we were heading east, there was relatively little chance that we were going to a spectacular ball or a thrilling theatre performance. Nothing good was ever to be found in the East End, unless you were looking for a good stab in the back or a good punch in the face.
Well, at least that was my opinion. But to judge by the light and laughter drifting from the three-storey house we were heading towards, other people had different views. A high-pitched shriek, followed by a giggle, escaped through one of the upper windows. A moment later, a bed started squeaking.
Turning to Mr Ambrose, I lifted an eyebrow. ‘Just out of curiosity, Sir - what kind of “business” will you be conducting here tonight, exactly?’
When his dark eyes met mine, they were as unreadable as a coded dictionary at the bottom of the sea.
No, he wouldn’t, would he?
Not while I was there? He wouldn’t dare!
Of course he would. Mr Rikkard Ambrose would dare anything in the company of anyone.
But, on the other hand…
Again, a grin spread across my face. Mr Rikkard Ambrose might have no problems ignoring my presence and doing whatever the heck he wanted, but he would die before he would pay a woman for nothing but lying on her back all night. He found it galling enough to pay me, and I worked for him like a slave.
Secure in my knowledge, I leaned back in my seat. Nothing would happen. He would be perfectly safe.
And so, whispered a little voice inside me I did my best to ignore, will your heart.
With a squeal, the carriage came to a halt in front of the bawdy house. Immediately, Mr Ambrose jumped out and strode towards the open door, and I followed, hesitantly. I had no particular desire to see this den of iniquity. The mere idea of women having to sell their bodies to men to survive made me shudder. I got enough of that feeling every morning when my sisters devoured the Times page with the wedding announcements. I didn’t need any more of it.
But I was a world-class secretary, and so I stomped after my employer, although what I really wanted to do was set fire to the pants of every man within that building and paint ‘Feminism Forever’ in big, fat letters on the front door.
Inside, I was not greeted by the stench of chauvinism but by a mix of sweet-smelling perfumes. Flickering lamps on the wall illuminated a dingy salon, where hosts of unfortunate, fallen women sat on plush sofas, looking annoyingly content with their fate. As soon as they caught sight of Mr Ambrose, they looked even more content - like a cat who had just gotten a big, juicy mouse for Christmas. One of them actually licked her lips.
Hands off, ladies! He’s mine!
The thought shot through my brain before I could help it, and I tried to stomp on it. But it was stubborn, and kicked back like a mule.
He wasn’t mine. He wasn’t.
He had been. Oh yes, he had been, once. Or twice. Or maybe three times? All right, maybe we had gotten a little bit carried away down there in South America. It had been even worse than that little escapade in Egypt. We had said things and done things that were hard to forget. But here in London…
Here it was even harder to forget that he was Mr Rikkard Ambrose, the richest, most powerful and most miserably miserly man of the entire British Empire, and I…
Well, I was Lilly Linton, his humble secretary, pain in the butt and ifrit extraordinaire.
Not that I harboured any delusions that he was above me. I knew perfectly well that I was worth just as much as any man, thank you very much. But I had my doubts that Mr Rikkard Ambrose agreed with that estimation.
I should just forget about him. I should forget what happened in South America, and Egypt, and in his office, and in that crate on that ship. And I would - as soon as all those bloody women stopped staring at him!
‘Excuse me. Pardon me, Miss. Excuse me.’
Shouldering through the crowd - yes, a crowd had formed around him, and yes, it was exclusively composed of giggling females - I reached Mr Ambrose and latched onto his arm.
‘Let’s get this over with, shall we?’ I suggested.
‘By all means, Mr Linton.’
‘What is this “business” you’re here to conduct?’
‘It is sitting over there.’
I glanced over - and my eyebrows rose. Where Mr Ambrose pointed, in a dark corner of the room, a smarmy little fellow with a hooked nose and bald head was sitting, smoking an opium pipe.
‘Well, well, Sir. I never knew your tastes ran in that direction. Oh well, to each his own, I guess.’
Mr Ambrose threw me a chilling look.
‘That, Mr Linton, is Mr Cox - the man whose shop I wish to purchase. He insisted on meeting here.’
I watched as a chubby woman slid onto the cushion beside Mr Cox and draped her arm around him. ‘What a charmer.’
‘Charm is not the issue here, Mr Linton.’
No, it wasn’t. Money was. And I had been with Mr Ambrose long enough to instantly see why he had agreed to meet this little worm here. Mr Ambrose liked negotiating with people who were ravenously inhaling opium smoke. It made ripping them off so much easier.
‘So…you really do have business here tonight? It’s not just another ploy because you’re scared of your mother?’
‘Stop. Saying. That.’
‘What, Sir? That you have business here tonight?’
‘No! That I am scared of my-’
He cut off abruptly and sent me a bone-freezing glare.
‘Go on,’ I encouraged him with a pat on the back. ‘You can say it. It starts with “M”.’
‘Yes, Sir. Right away, Sir.’
Mr Ambrose stalked off towards the sacrificial lamb that was to be slaughtered on the altar of Mammon. I followed, whistling to myself and trying to conceal my grin.
Mr Cox looked up when, only a few feet from his face, two lean, hard, black-clad legs came to a halt. His gaze met that of Mr Ambrose.
‘Mr Cox.’ That, and a curt nod, was all the greeting Mr Ambrose was willing to give.
‘Ah! Mr Ambrose. Sit down, sit down.’ He smiled at the plump woman and another female who had settled down on his other side. ‘This, ladies, is the redoubtable Mr Rikkard Ambrose, who is going to make me a rich man tonight. Mr Ambrose, meet the Glamourous Gladys and… and Whatshername.’
Mr Ambrose gave the Glamorous Gladys a look. ‘Leave. Now.’
I had never in my life seen a prostitute running so fast. It really was amazing how she managed it in that long dress, and while dragging her companion after her.
‘Now what did you do that for?’ Mr Cox protested.
‘The business we have to discuss is confidential. This place is public enough without two eager ears listening in. People who sell other parts of their body will not hesitate to sell their ears and lips.’
Reaching into his tailcoat, Mr Ambrose half lifted something heavy out of a pocket and let it sink back again. I heard the tinkle of coins and rustle of banknotes. And so, to judge by the sudden light in his eyes, did Mr Cox.
‘Now - to business. The ground plan to your shop, Mr Cox? The plans for the prototypes? You said you would bring them with you.’
‘Oh yes.’ The little man grinned. ‘But be prepared. What I’ve got will change the world of mechanics as we know it. Are you sure you’re ready?’
‘I am afraid of nothing, Mr Cox.’
I cleared my throat. For some reason, my cough ended up sounding quite a bit like the word ‘Mother!’
Without looking, Mr Ambrose stomped down on my foot.
He wasn’t the only one who had noticed my little contribution to the conversation. Mr Cox looked up, eyeing me suspiciously.
‘Who’s that? I thought you said our dealings would be confidential.’
‘This is Mr Victor Linton, my private secretary.’
Mr Cox studied my youthful, rounded features. As a 19-year-old girl, you might be able to pull off disguising yourself as a man - but you could never pull off making yourself manly. Slowly, his mistrustful expression changed into a grin of derision.
‘A green lad, eh? You probably have trouble breaking him in.’
‘You,’ Mr Ambrose said in a very calm and neutral voice, ‘have no idea.’
My mouth fell open in outrage. Mr Cox chuckled.
‘Well, Mr Ambrose, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t particularly want our business discussed in front of a stripling like that, who’s only just let go of his mother’s apron strings.’
Mr Ambrose regarded me with a look that, if I hadn’t known he was devoid of all emotion, I might have called self-satisfied.
‘I don’t either, Mr Cox. He’s very new. Very unprofessional, at times, and takes too many liberties. But I can’t send him back. The coach has already left.’
‘Oh, that’s no problem.’ Mr Cox chuckled. ‘Why don’t we simply send him upstairs? I’m sure one of the girls would be all too happy to keep him entertained and make a real man of him in the process.’
My mouth was already open. But somehow I managed to unhinge my jaw and drop it another few inches.
Make a real man out of…
They couldn’t mean what I thought they meant, could they?
But then I looked into the face of Mr Rikkard Ambrose, where ‘revenge’ was written in bold capital letters, and I realised: yes, they could.
‘You know…’ Mr Ambrose tapped his chin, ‘I think that is an excellent idea.’ He waved at me. ‘Well, Mr Linton, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and amuse yourself.’
‘But no more than two or three girls at a time, no matter how much fun you might be having. We don’t want you to overexert yourself, do we? Besides, prices here are quite steep.’
Before I could even think of an appropriate response to that, he made an imperious gesture with one single crooked finger. A slender arm slid around my shoulder, drawing me against something warm and soft.
‘Hello there, big man,’ a soft voice purred in my ear. ‘My oh my…some lucky girl will have real fun with you tonight.’