Today we’re pleased to share an excerpt of Juliana Ross’s Improper Proposals, an RT Top Pick!
For perhaps the thousandth time I resisted the urge to shift on my chair, to twitch at my veil, to dab at the drops of perspiration that were taking such an interminable amount of time to slide down my nape and dampen my collar. I had worn my best gown for the trip to London, the same one I’d had for John’s funeral last year, a black bombazine that looked almost new. It was very nearly stylish, with a modest bustle that was ever so much easier to manage than the wide crinolines of my youth. But the gown’s color—or rather stark absence of color—looked ill against my pale hair and even paler complexion. Not that it mattered, of course. All that was required of me, as a widow, was respectability.
When would the wretched man appear? Never in my life had I ever kept anyone waiting, certainly not for more than an hour without so much as a cup of tea or a newspaper to read. His lack of common courtesy really was insupportable.
It was the clerk again.
“He’s ready to see you. Please come with me.”
I gathered up my reticule and the leather folder that held my precious manuscript, shook out my skirts and followed him down a long corridor, past half a dozen offices filled with desks and overflowing bookshelves and serious men with furrowed brows. We came to a door at the end of the hall.
The clerk knocked twice, opened the door and indicated, with a jerk of his chin, that I should go in.
The room beyond was exactly as I had expected. As befitted the proprietor of a successful publishing house, it was bright and spacious, with one entire wall given over to bookcases that reached nearly to the ceiling. In the center of the chamber stood an enormous barrister’s desk so cluttered and piled with papers and boxes and leather-bound volumes that it was quite impossible to see if anyone sat on the other side.
Most surprising of all was the dog, asleep on the floor next to the desk. It was an enormous creature, shaggy and gray, its paws quite the size of dinner plates, and as I stared at it, not daring to move, it opened its eyes and lumbered to its feet. Although I liked dogs well enough, I was nervous around ones I didn’t know, and all the more when they were the size of a timber wolf. I took a step backward, then another. But the beast only huffed softly at my hand, then fell to the floor and presented his belly to me.
“Is that you, Mrs. Boothroyd?” came a voice from behind—or perhaps beneath—the desk.
“It is. To whom am I speaking? I had hoped to see Mr. Cathcart-Ross today, but—”
“And here I am,” he announced, standing up so suddenly that I took a step back. “I see you’ve already met Grendel.”
“He’s prettier than his namesake.”
“But not as ferocious. Unless you’re a rabbit, that is.”
Mr. Cathcart-Ross came around the desk and held out his hand for me to shake, and as his ink-stained fingers engulfed my own I was taken aback not only by the strength of his grasp, but also by the sheer size of his hand. A stevedore or lumberjack might aspire to such a hand.
There was nothing particularly memorable about his appearance. Nothing, really, to distinguish him from the rooms of clerks I had just passed. He was tall, but then most men seemed tall to me. He was dressed informally, his tie hanging loose, his waistcoat wrinkled. He wore no coat and his shirtsleeves were rolled to his elbows.
His hair was brown and curling, the color of his eyes difficult to discern at a distance. He was smiling broadly, his mouth wide and mobile, and he sported a close-trimmed mustache and Van Dyke beard that suited him very well.
“I do beg your pardon for making you wait. My fault entirely. I got caught up in making revisions to a manuscript and lost track of the time. Idiotic of me, really. May I offer you a cup of tea? A glass of sherry?”
“No, thank you. Is there anywhere we might sit?”
“Of course, of course. There’s a small sitting room just through that door.”
There was an upholstered settee in the room we now entered, Grendel ambling behind us, but I instead went to the table at its center and waited for Mr. Cathcart-Ross to draw out my chair. He did so, the very soul of courtesy, and as he seated himself opposite I set down my folder, drew off my gloves and pulled back my veil.
I didn’t need to look up to know he was staring at me. Examining my features, searching for clues, wondering what twist of fate had brought this small, plain woman to his door.
Juliana Ross has an abiding interest (one might even say obsession) in British history that first took root when she was at graduate school in England. She now lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, young children, a cat, a dog, and piles of laundry that refuse to fold themselves, no matter how much she glares at them. In her spare time she likes to cook for family and friends, make inroads into her weed patch of a garden, and read e-books (the steamier the better) on her tablet.