“I’m dying and I want to do the right thing.” Agatha, Lady Halstead, set her lips in a determined line.
Straightening from plumping Lady Halstead’s pillows, Violet Matcham laid a reassuring hand over her ladyship’s frail one where it lay atop the counterpane. “You’re in perfect health—you know you are. The doctor said so only last week.”
It was midmorning, and the curtains were tied back, allowing weak autumn sunshine to wash into the large bedroom. The soft light was kind to Lady Halstead’s papery, mottled skin, to the fine, silvery wisps of her thinning hair, to the milkiness that was dulling her once-bright blue eyes.
“And what would he know, heh?” Lady Halstead slanted a shrewd if peevish look at Violet. “Young men—they always think they know. But I’m very old, Violet dear, and I feel the chill of death in my bones.” Sinking back onto the pillows, Lady Halstead looked up at the ceiling. “People used to say that, and I always thought it was pure fancy, but now I know what they meant—I feel it, too.” Without moving her head, Lady Halstead looked at Violet; turning her hand, she briefly—weakly—squeezed Violet’s fingers. “Most of my friends are long gone, and it’s been nearly a decade since Sir Hugo, bless his soul, passed on. I’m very ready to join him, my dear, but first I must do as he asked.”
Accepting that no good would come of trying to jolly Lady Halstead out of her mood—indeed, she seemed sober and composed and as rational as ever—Violet inquired, “What did Sir Hugo ask of you?”
She’d been employed by her ladyship as her companion since shortly after Sir Hugo’s death; she’d therefore never met the gentleman—a paragon by all accounts—but she had heard so much of him from Lady Halstead that Violet almost felt that she knew him, certainly well enough to ask her question without fear the answer would be something nonsensical. And so it proved.
“The dear man made me promise that before my time came, I would ensure all my affairs—both my personal affairs and those of the estate—were in order. He set great store by such things.”
And, Violet thought, you treasure his memory, so it’s important to you that you do as he wished. Her previous employer, Lady Ogilvie, had been devoted to her late husband, too.
Lady Halstead raised her head, sitting straighter in the bed, her voice strengthening as she continued, “So despite my current health, as I know my time is approaching, I wish to ensure that all is as it should be regarding my will and the estate.”
Sir Hugo had made his fortune in India, and had been knighted for services rendered to the Crown on the subcontinent. Consequently, the Halsteads inhabited that nebulous social stratum of upper gentry-lower aristocracy, and were, in common parlance, comfortably well off. The Lowndes Street house reflected that; a highly respectable address in a well-to-do neighborhood. Even Lady Halstead’s bedroom, with its large modern bed, damask curtains, matching upholstery and counterpane, and the well-polished, good-quality furniture, attested to the family’s standing.
Although she didn’t know the finer details of the Halstead estate, Violet understood that on his death, Sir Hugo’s holdings had passed entirely to Lady Halstead for her use through her lifetime; on her death, the estate would be divided according to the provisions of Sir Hugo’s will, which gave equal portions to each of the four Halstead children. His request, therefore, and Lady Halstead’s desire made perfect sense.
Violet nodded. “Very well. What do you want me to do?”
Although her mind was still clear and surprisingly shrewd, Lady Halstead had grown increasingly frail and now remained abed for much of her days. Managing the stairs was an effort, one she undertook only when she deemed it necessary. Violet routinely managed the small household in Lowndes Street, just south of Lowndes Square. With only herself, Lady Halstead, Tilly, her ladyship’s maid, and Cook, it wasn’t an onerous duty, especially as all four women got along well. Violet’s years with Lady Halstead had been peaceful and untrammeled, a gentle, undemanding, if unexciting existence.
Sinking back once more, Lady Halstead sighed. “Sadly, old Runcorn, too, passed on last year, so I suppose we must summon that young son of his.” A frown passed over Lady Halstead’s face. “I really must decide if the boy is up to the task of managing my affairs.”
The late Arthur Runcorn had been the Halsteads’ man-of-business for many years. Violet had only met Mr. Andrew Runcorn—the boy—once, when he’d come seeking her ladyship’s signature on some form; although young to the extent of being several years shy of Violet’s own thirty-four years, she’d formed a favorable impression of the earnest Mr. Runcorn Junior. He’d seemed honest and sincere, and willing to please, but as to whether he was capable of managing finances, she had no way to judge. Moving to the tallboy in which Lady Halstead’s traveling writing desk was stored, Violet bent and drew out the deep bottom drawer. “When would you like to see him?”
“Tomorrow.” As Violet straightened, the portable writing desk in her hands, Lady Halstead nodded decisively. “Write a note and ask him to call tomorrow morning. And he should bring a listing of all the properties and investments that make up the estate. Tell him I wish to conduct a full review.”
Violet carried the writing desk to the small table before the armchair on the other side of the bed. After laying out paper, ink, and pen, she looked at her ladyship. “Would you like to dictate?”
Lady Halstead waved the suggestion away. “No.” Her lips lifted in a smile. “You know how to phrase things better than I.”
Violet smiled back, dipped the nib in the ink, and bent to her task.
Lady Halstead had been frowning for the last five minutes.
In the sitting room downstairs, seated in an armchair to her ladyship’s right, Violet wondered what in Andrew Runcorn’s summation of Lady Halstead’s estate was at fault.
The young man-of-business had responded immediately to the summons Violet had dispatched yesterday with a brief note, and, today, had duly presented himself at the house on the dot of eleven o’clock, as requested. Of medium build, with a boyishly round face, brown hair, and wide brown eyes, the younger Runcorn had lost none of the eager sincerity Violet recalled from earlier in the year, and to her ears, at least, his recitation of the details of Lady Halstead’s estate had sounded confident, and remarkably clear and concise.
He had, she’d thought, made a good fist of it, and, indeed, Lady Halstead had seemed to concur, nodding in gracious approval. But then her ladyship had asked to go over her current finances—the state of her various deposits in the Funds, and her account with Grimshaws Bank.
Seated bolt upright in the straight-backed carver she preferred, still frowning, Lady Halstead lifted one sheet from the five spread over her shawl-draped lap. “The balance of my bank account is not correct.”
Young Runcorn looked shocked. “It isn’t?” Lady Halstead held out the sheet and he took it, briefly perused it, then, slanting a glance at Violet, somewhat diffidently said, “This balance has been confirmed by the bank, my lady.”
Lady Halstead’s frown deepened. “I don’t care if some clerk said it’s right—it’s not.” She waved. “Go and get it checked properly.”
Detecting the querulous note in her ladyship’s voice that indicated true upset, Violet reached out and laid one hand over her ladyship’s fingers, now restlessly picking at the shawl. “Is everything else as you believe it should be?”
“Yes, yes.” Her fingers stilling under Violet’s, her frown lightening, Lady Halstead unbent enough to say to Runcorn, “You’ve been most precise. I have no fault to find with any other aspect, but that bank balance is not correct.”
“Perhaps,” Violet said, catching Runcorn’s eye, “you might recheck with the bank?”
Runcorn got the message; in the wider scheme of the Halstead estate, checking a bank balance was a minor thing. “Yes, of course. No difficulty at all.” He reached for his satchel and stowed the offending statement. “I’ll go around to the bank immediately.”
That was exactly the right thing to say. Lady Halstead calmed and graciously nodded. “Thank you, young man.”
With Violet’s help, Runcorn gathered the papers he’d brought, then very correctly took his leave of Lady Halstead.
Violet took pity on him and showed him out.
Somewhat to Violet’s surprise, by the time she returned from seeing Runcorn out, Lady Halstead appeared to have put the question of the bank account balance out of her mind; Violet got the impression that her ladyship was certain that, when Runcorn questioned the bank more thoroughly, he would receive a revised balance and all would be as her ladyship had expected.
Consequently, when Runcorn returned at three o’clock the next day with the news that the bank insisted the account balance as he’d originally reported it was correct, Violet was somewhat taken aback.
Having descended the stairs for luncheon, Lady Halstead was once again seated in her carver in the sitting room. On hearing Runcorn’s news, her expression grew oddly blank. “That’s … most unsettling.”
Runcorn hurried into speech. “My lady, I do assure you we—that is, my firm, Runcorn and Son—haven’t touched the account at all. The bank will confirm. Other than requesting statements from time to time, as per our duty as your agents, we have never drawn so much as a penny, I swear—”
“Young man!” Lady Halstead spoke with the authority of a woman who had sons; Runcorn’s panic had snapped her out of her abstraction. “Do compose yourself—and do sit down. I entertain no suspicion whatever of your honesty—I do not for a moment believe Runcorn and Son have stolen from me. That, sir, is not the problem.”
Subsiding onto the edge of a chair, Runcorn blinked. “It isn’t?”
“No, indeed. The problem with that account balance is that it is too much—significantly too much—not too little. Money is being paid into that account by someone, presumably for some reason, but who that someone is or what that reason might be, I have no notion.”
“Ah.” Rather than looking mystified, Runcorn’s expression lit with relief. “There must be some long-ago investment that has only recently started paying dividends—that happens quite frequently. Sir Hugo might have bought into some concern two decades ago and it’s only just started paying a return.” Reaching for his satchel, Runcorn rose and bowed, his youthful face radiating his signature eager earnestness. “Rest assured, my lady, that I will review the account, identify the unexpected payments, and trace them to their source.”
“Hmm.” Lady Halstead was frowning again. “I suppose it might be some mistake—that someone in the bank has mistaken the account.”
Runcorn dipped his head. “That, too, is possible, but considering the breadth of Sir Hugo’s investments, I suspect the former possibility will be found to be the case. Regardless, I shall analyze the account and make the appropriate inquiries, and will report to you once I have identified the source of the unexpected funds.”
Lady Halstead’s expression suggested she wasn’t quite as convinced as Runcorn of his prowess, but she graciously inclined her head and bade him a good day.
That evening, when Violet went to check on Lady Halstead before retiring to her own bed, she found her ladyship uncharacteristically fretful. Since Runcorn had left, she’d grown progressively more unsettled.
Straightening the coverlet over Lady Halstead’s gaunt form, Violet soothingly murmured, “Are you still worrying over that money in your bank account? I’m sure Mr. Runcorn will get to the bottom of it.”
Leaning forward to allow Violet to rearrange her pillows, Lady Halstead humphed. “Would that I had your confidence.” Then she sighed. “No, that’s not fair. The truth of it is that I do have confidence in Runcorn and Son, possibly more confidence than young Mr. Runcorn himself, and it’s precisely because of that that I cannot see how these payments could possibly be due to some overlooked investment.”
Sinking back onto her resettled pillows, Lady Halstead met Violet’s gaze. “I may not know everything about financial dealings, but I do know that investments have umpteen pieces of paper attached—certificates, notices, statements of their own. If some investment had started paying a return, Runcorn and his people would have known. They would have seen the notices or been advised in some way. Perhaps if we had changed our agent, something might have slipped past, but Runcorn and Son have been our agents since we returned to England, and that was nearly thirty years ago. I can’t imagine Hugo would have missed passing any advice of investment to Runcorn, so … well.” Lady Halstead spread her hands. “Where is this wretched money coming from?”
Soothingly, Violet murmured, “I daresay Mr. Runcorn will report in a few days, then we can see what he’s found. No need to borrow trouble, as my father always said.”
Lady Halstead grimaced. “The late reverend was no doubt wise, but that money isn’t the only odd thing.”
Detecting a certain grimness in Lady Halstead’s eyes, Violet realized that there was, indeed, something else contributing to her ladyship’s anxiety. “What else has happened?”
Lady Halstead regarded her as if debating whether or not to reveal what she so clearly wished to share. Then her lips firmed and she tipped her head toward the tallboy. “Bring me the writing desk.”
Violet obliged. When she set the cedar box with its sloping lid beside Lady Halstead and opened it, her ladyship reached in, rummaged for a second, then drew out a creased sheet covered in cramped writing. “This came a week ago. I still don’t know what to make of it.”
She paused, staring at the letter clasped in her gnarled fingers.
Half a minute ticked past, then Violet gently prompted, “Tell me. If it’s worrying you, perhaps we can work out what to do about it.”
Lady Halstead blinked, met Violet’s eyes, then smiled. “That’s why I mentioned it—you’re always one who will do what you can to make things better.” She glanced at the letter, then tucked it back in the box and closed the lid. “It’s from the vicar’s wife who lives near The Laurels, our country house. Even though I haven’t been back to the village since Sir Hugo passed, and the house has been closed up for all those years, she and I exchange letters every now and then. She wrote to tell me about the new occupants of the house, who are apparently reclusive, and to ask to whom we’d let the property, or whether we’d sold it.” Lady Halstead met Violet’s eyes. “I haven’t sold the property, and I haven’t leased it, either. As far as I was aware, the house was still closed up. So who is living there, and what are they using my house for?”
Violet held Lady Halstead’s anxious gaze. She had no reassuring answer to her ladyship’s question.
Worse, she had no idea how to easily get one.
In the end, she lifted the writing desk and returned it to the bottom drawer of the tallboy. Straightening, she went back to the bed, smoothed the covers, and reached for the lamp on the bedside table. Before dousing the light, she met Lady Halstead’s eyes. “Let me think about it overnight, and tomorrow morning we’ll discuss what to do.”
Lady Halstead’s lips twisted, but she nodded. As Violet turned the tiny wheel and the light faded, Lady Halstead closed her eyes.
Satisfied, Violet quietly left the room. With conjecture as to the deepening mystery of the Halstead estate circling in her mind, she walked slowly down the corridor to her own bed.
“I’ve come to a decision.”
Lady Halstead made the announcement the instant Violet, accompanied by Tilly, through her ladyship’s bedroom door the next morning.
Hurrying to open the curtains, then to help Lady Halstead into a sitting position and resettle the pillows at her back, Violet smiled. “You can tell me while you eat breakfast.”
As Tilly stepped forward and set the breakfast tray across Lady Halstead’s lap, her ladyship waved Violet away. “No. That will keep you from your own breakfast, and I will require your assistance in doing what I wish. And”—Lady Halstead pounced on the copy of The Times Tilly had ironed, rolled, and set to one side of the tray—“I have to do some research first.”
Reassured by the enthusiasm lighting Lady Halstead’s face, Violet acquiesced. “Very well—I’ll come back as soon as I’ve broken my fast.”
“Hmm.” Lady Halstead was already engaged in searching through the news sheet.
Violet retreated, closing the door and following Tilly downstairs.
Stepping off the stairs, Tilly glanced back at Violet. “She seems in fine fettle again—not like the last few days.”
Violet nodded. “It sounds as if she’s thought of a solution—of a way to learn the answers to the questions that have been plaguing her.”
“Good. Don’t like to see her bothered.”
“No, indeed.” Smiling, Violet followed Tilly into the kitchen. Tilly and Cook were as devoted to Lady Halstead as Violet was. The old lady was the lynchpin around whom the household revolved, and she’d always been a kind mistress, one who attracted affection, loyalty, and respect purely by being herself.
Half an hour later, their breakfasts consumed, Violet and Tilly returned to Lady Halstead’s room. Lady Halstead looked confident, even smug, but she had Violet and Tilly help her out of bed and assist her to wash and dress for the day, then instructed Tilly to make up her bed, all without a word regarding her new tack.
But when Tilly left, bearing away the breakfast tray, Lady Halstead lay atop her smoothed counterpane, a shawl over her legs, and smiled at Violet. “I really do feel so much better now I’ve decided what I should do.”
Sinking into the armchair beside the bed, Violet murmured supportively and prayed that whatever her ladyship had decided was a reasonable course of action; if it came to it, there was no one she could appeal to for help should her ladyship decide on some less-than-wise course. Although she had four children, Lady Halstead allowed none of the four to influence her in any way, despite this one or that attempting to do so every now and then. Having known the Halstead children for nearly as long as she had known Lady Halstead, Violet considered her ladyship’s stance fully justified. “So,” Violet prompted, “tell me what you want to do.”
“I have decided,” Lady Halstead said, “that while I do not expect any blame in this situation to attach to Mr. Runcorn or his associates, the bald truth is that he is as yet inexperienced, and clearly this matter of the monies being paid into my bank account, especially if in any way connected with the people at the country house, might have quite complex implications, ones young Runcorn might well fail to see, inexperienced as he is. I need to be sure about what is going on—I need to be certain we’ve got to the bottom of it—and I doubt I will ever feel that degree of certitude in young Runcorn’s conclusions.
“So!” Lady Halstead lifted her chin. “I propose to engage the most experienced man-of-business in London to consult on this matter.” Lady Halstead paused, then looked at Violet. “What do you think?”
Violet blinked, then refocused on Lady Halstead’s face. “I think … that that’s an excellent idea.” Now her ladyship had mentioned it, Violet, too, had harbored a niggling doubt, not of Runcorn’s expertise but of his ability to reassure Lady Halstead. Regardless of whatever Runcorn found, her ladyship wouldn’t be completely reassured. Violet nodded. “I can’t see any reason you shouldn’t ask some more-experienced person to consult in this matter. Defining their role as a consultant purely engaged to look into this strange business should smooth the way with Runcorn—he seems the sort who would welcome advice from a more senior practitioner.”
Lady Halstead was nodding. “Indeed—that was a point I considered. I quite like young Runcorn and don’t want to put his back up.” Her chin firmed. “But I must have certainty, or I won’t feel I’ve kept my promise to dear Hugo.”
And that, Violet fully understood. “Very well. So who is this more-experienced man-of-business you wish to engage?”
“That,” Lady Halstead confessed, “stumped me for a while, because, of course, I have no notion about other such agents. But then”—reaching out, she picked up the news sheet that she’d left on her bedside table—“I recalled that there is a column in the financial section of The Times where the correspondent urges readers to write to him with questions that are pertinent to managing finances.” Unfurling the paper, she pointed to a column. “See? There.”
Taking the paper, Violet scanned the column. It wasn’t long; the enterprising columnist had taken three questions and provided a paragraph-long answer to each. “So … you want to write to The Times for a recommendation?”
“Well, in a manner of speaking.” When Violet glanced up, Lady Halstead informed her, “I’d thought to write and ask who, in the columnist’s erudite opinion, is the most experienced and most trustworthy man-of-business in London.”
A week later
Heathcote Montague was sitting at his desk in the inner sanctum of his suite of offices a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the gloom of an October evening closing in beyond the window, when he heard an altercation in the outer office. Deep in the ledger of one of his noble clients’ enterprises, he blocked out the sounds of dispute and worked steadily on through the figures.
Numbers—especially numbers that represented sums of money—held a near-hypnotic appeal; quite aside from being his bread and butter, they were his passion.
And had been for years.
Possibly for too long.
Certainly too exclusively.
Ignoring the niggling inner voice that, over the last year, with each passing month, each successive week, had grown from a vague whisper to a persistent, nerve-jarring whine, he focused on the neat rows of figures marching down the page and forced himself to concentrate.
The hubbub by the main office door subsided; he heard the outer door open, then shut. Doubtless the caller had been another potential client attracted by that wretched article in The Times. A terse note to the editor had resulted in bemused bafflement; how could Montague not be pleased at being named the most experienced and most trustworthy man-of-business in London?
He had refrained from blasting back an excoriating reply to the effect that he and his firm did not require, much less appreciate, public referrals. Which was the plain truth; he and his small staff were stretched to their limit. Experienced agents as skilled with figures as he was were thin on the ground, yet the reason his practice was universally held in high esteem was precisely because he refused to hire those who were not as pedantic about business, and especially clients’ money, as he was; he had no intention of risking his firm’s standing by hiring less-able, less-devoted, or less-trustworthy men.
He’d inherited a sound client list from his father some twenty or so years ago; in his father’s day, the firm had operated principally as agents assisting clients in managing the income from their estates. He, however, had had wider interests and greater ambitions; under him, the firm had expanded to become a practice dedicated to managing their clients’ wealth. With protecting their money and using it to make more.
His direction had drawn the attention of several noblemen, especially those of a progressive stripe, those lords who were not content to simply sit back and watch their assets stagnate but who, instead, shared Montague’s personal conviction that money was best put to use.
Early successes had seen his firm prosper. Managing investments with consummate skill and knowing the ins and outs of money in all its varied forms were now synonymous with his name.
But even success could ultimately turn boring—or, at least, not be as exciting, as fulfilling, as it once had been.
Peace had returned to the outer office; he heard his senior clerk, Slocum, make some dry comment to Phillip Foster, Montague’s junior assistant. A quick laugh came from others—Thomas Slater, the junior clerk, and the office boy, Reginald Roberts—then the usual calm descended, a quiet broken by the shuffling of paper, the turning of pages, the soft clap as a file box was shut, the shushing slide as it was returned to its shelf.
Montague sank deeper into the figures before him, into the world of the Duke of Wolverstone’s sheep-breeding business, one Montague had overseen from inception to its present international success; the results, if no longer as exhilarating as they might once have been, were nevertheless gratifying. He compared and assessed, analyzed and evaluated, but found nothing over which he felt moved to take action.
As he neared the end of the ledger, the sounds from the large outer office where his staff performed their duties changed. The working day was drawing to a close.
Distantly, he registered the sounds of drawers being shut, of chairs being pushed back, heard the exchange of pleasantries as his men shared what waited for them at home—the small joys they were looking forward to. Frederick Gibbons, Montague’s senior assistant, and his wife had a new baby, adding to the two youngsters they already had. Slocum’s children were in their teens now, while Thomas Slater and his wife were expecting their first child any day. Even Phillip Foster would return to his sister’s house and her cheerful brood, while as for Reginald, he was one of a rambunctious family, the middle child of seven.
Everyone had someone waiting at home, someone who would smile and kiss their cheek when they walked through the door.
Everyone but Montague.
The thought, clear and hard as crystal, jerked him from his complacency. For one instant focused him on the utter loneliness of his existence, the sense of being singular, unconnected with anyone in the world, that had been steadily growing within him.
Good-byes were called in the outer office, although none were directed at him; his staff knew better than to interrupt him when he was working. The outer door opened and closed, most of the men departing. Slocum would be the last; any minute, he would appear in Montague’s doorway to confirm that the day’s work was done and all was in order—
The outer door opened.
“Your pardon, ma’am,” Slocum said, “but the office is closed.”
The door shut. “Indeed, I do realize it’s the end of the day, but I was hoping Mr. Montague would therefore be able to spare me a few minutes—”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but Mr. Montague isn’t taking on any new clients—The Times should have said as much and saved everyone a lot of bother.”
“I quite understand, but I’m not here to inquire about being taken on as a client.” The woman’s voice was clear, her diction precise, her tones well modulated, educated. “I have a proposition for Mr. Montague—an offer to consult on a puzzling financial matter.”
“Ah.” Slocum was unsure, uncertain what to do.
Curiosity aroused, Montague shut the Wolverstone ledger and rose. Although Slocum had apparently not yet registered the oddity, ladies were not customarily the ones who, at least initially, approached a man-of-business. Montague couldn’t recall ever being engaged by any female directly—at least, not about business.
Opening his office door, he walked out.
Slocum heard him and turned. “Sir, this lady—”
“Yes, I heard.” His gaze fixing on the lady who stood, spine straight, head high, before Slocum, Montague knew he said the words, but they seemed to come from far away.
Of average height, neither slender nor buxom but perfectly proportioned, the lady regarded him with a frank directness that instantly captivated, and effortlessly commanded, his attention. Beneath the soft wave of her dark brown hair, from beneath finely arched brown brows, eyes of a delicate light blue held his gaze.
As he neared, drawn across the room by some power far more potent than politeness, those eyes widened fractionally, but then her chin rose a notch, and lips of pale rose parted on the query, “Mr. Montague?”
Halting before her, he bowed. “Miss … ?”
She extended her hand. “My name is Miss Matcham, and I’m here to speak with you on behalf of my employer, Lady Halstead.”
He closed his hand around hers, engulfing long, slender fingers in a momentary—sadly brief, strictly businesslike—clasp. “I see.” Releasing her, he stepped back and waved toward the door to his office. “Perhaps you would take a seat and explain in what manner I can assist Lady Halstead.”
She inclined her head with subtle grace. “Thank you.”
She moved past him, and the scent of roses and violets speared through his senses. He glanced at Slocum. “It’s all right, Jonas. You can go home—I’ll lock up later.”
“Thank you, sir.” Slocum lowered his voice. “Not our usual sort of client—I wonder what she wants.”
Anticipation rising, Montague softly answered, “No doubt I’ll find out.”
With a salute, Slocum gathered his coat and left. As Montague followed Miss Matcham, who had paused in the doorway to his office, he heard the outer door close.
With a wave, he indicated Miss Matcham should enter, then he followed her in. The question of the propriety of meeting with a young lady alone rose in his mind, but after one searching glance at his visitor, he merely left his office door open. She wasn’t that young; although he was no expert on ladies, he would put Miss Matcham somewhere in her early thirties.
Her walking dress of fine wool in a pale violet hue and the matching felt bonnet neatly enclosing her head were stylish, yet not, he thought, in the current height of fashion. The reticule she carried was more practical than decorative.
Halting before his desk, she glanced at him. Rounding the desk, he gestured to one of the well-padded chairs set before it. “Please, be seated.”
Once she’d complied, her movements as she drew in her skirts again displaying the inherent grace he’d noted earlier, he sat, set the Wolverstone ledger aside, leaned his forearms on his blotter, clasped his hands, and fixed his gaze on her fascinating face. “Now—how do you believe I might help you, or, rather, Lady Halstead?”
Violet hesitated, yet she and Lady Halstead had plotted and planned to gain access to Mr. Heathcote Montague, and now here she was … so she heard herself say, “Please excuse my hesitation, sir, but you’re not what I had expected.”
His brows—neat, brown brows arched over unexpectedly round eyes that, in her opinion, would have made him appear trustworthy even were he not—rose in surprise.
The sight made her smile; she doubted he was often surprised. “The most experienced and most trustworthy man-of-business in London—I’d expected to have to deal with a cranky, crusty old gentleman with ink-stained fingers and bushy white brows, who would glower at me over the tops of his half spectacles.”
Montague blinked, slowly, lids rising to re-reveal his golden brown eyes. He was brown and brown—brown hair of a shade lighter than Violet’s own, and hazelish eyes that were more brown than green. But it was his face and his physical presence that had struck her most forcefully; as her gaze once more passed over the broad sweep of his forehead, the strong, clean planes of his cheeks, his squared jaw, he shifted. He caught her gaze, then held up his right hand, fingers spread.
There were ink stains, faint but discernible, on the calluses on his index and middle fingers.
As she registered that, he reached to one side and picked up a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
“I have these, too.” He waved them. “If it would help, I could put them on. Glowering, however, might be beyond me.”
She met his eyes, saw the lurking smile, and laughed, smiling, too.
He joined her in her laughter and his smile became manifest, his face creasing in a way that made him seem years younger than the midforties she guessed he must be.
Sound, solid, dependable; everything about him—his features, the shape of his head, his build, his attire—underscored that reality. The accolades of “most experienced” and “most trustworthy” bestowed by The Times weren’t at all hard to believe.
“I do apologize.” She let her laughter fade, but her lips remained stubbornly curved. She straightened on the chair, surprised to discover she’d relaxed against its back. “Despite my unbecoming levity, I am, indeed, here to speak with you on behalf of Lady Halstead.”
“And your relationship to her ladyship?”
“I’m her paid companion.”
“Have you been with her for long?”
“Over eight years.”
“And what can I do for her ladyship?”
Violet paused to reorder her thoughts. “Lady Halstead already has a man-of-business, a Mr. Runcorn. It was the current Mr. Runcorn’s father the Halsteads originally engaged, and the younger Mr. Runcorn has only recently taken his late father’s place. That said, Lady Halstead has no specific fault to find with young Mr. Runcorn’s abilities. However, a situation has arisen with Lady Halstead’s bank account that she believes Mr. Runcorn lacks the experience to adequately resolve. At least not to her ladyship’s satisfaction.” Violet met Montague’s golden-brown eyes. “I should mention that Lady Halstead is a widow, her husband, Sir Hugo, having died ten years ago, and her ladyship is now very old. Indeed, the problem with her bank account only came to light because, in keeping with a promise she made to Sir Hugo, she decided that it was time she ensured that her financial affairs, and those of the estate, were in order.”
Montague nodded. “I see. And what is it her ladyship believes I can do?”
“Lady Halstead would like you to look into the puzzling question of what is going on with her bank account. She requires an explanation, one she can be certain is correct. Essentially, she wishes to engage you to give a second opinion—a consultation on this matter, nothing more.” Violet held Montague’s gaze and calmly added, “I, on the other hand, am here to ask you to help give reassurance to a gentle old lady in her declining years.”
Montague returned her regard steadily, then the ends of his lips quirked. “You have a way with an argument, Miss Matcham.”
“I do what I can for my ladies, sir.”
Devotion, in Montague’s opinion, was a laudable trait. “What can you tell me about the … irregularities afflicting this bank account?”
“I will leave that to Lady Halstead to elucidate.” As if sensing the question rising in his mind, the intriguing Miss Matcham added, “However, I have seen enough to verify that there is, indeed, something odd going on, but I haven’t studied the statement Mr. Runcorn provided so cannot put forward any definite opinion.”
Would that all his clients were so circumspect. “Very well.” Looking away from Miss Matcham’s remarkably fine eyes, Montague drew his appointment book closer and consulted it. “As it happens, I can spare Lady Halstead half an hour tomorrow morning.” He glanced across the desk. “When would be the best time to call?”
Miss Matcham smiled—not a dazzling smile but a gentle, inclusive gesture that somehow struck through his usually impenetrable businessman’s shields and literally warmed his heart. He blinked, then quickly marshaled his wits as she replied, “Midmorning would be best—shall we say eleven o’clock? In Lowndes Street, number four, just south of Lowndes Square.”
Gripping his pen firmly, Montague focused on his appointment book and wrote in the details. “Excellent.”
He looked up, then rose as Miss Matcham came to her feet.
“Thank you, Mr. Montague.” Meeting his gaze, she extended her hand. “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
Montague gripped her fingers, then had to make himself let go. “Indeed, Miss Matcham.” He waved her to the door. “Until tomorrow.”
After seeing Miss Matcham out of the office and on her way down the stairs to the ground floor, Montague closed the door, then stood stock-still, his mind replaying the interview, dwelling on this aspect, then that …
Until he shook free of the lingering spell and, wondering at himself, strode back to his desk.