Courting Claudia Excerpt

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Chapter One

Claudia inhaled three deep breaths hoping to calm her addled insides, but her stomach still churned. If this was the right decision, why did she not feel relaxed and assured? Whether or not her body believed this to be the right decision was of no consequence. No lady of good breeding and any shred of propriety would continue to hold a paying position, especially with a marriage proposal on the horizon.

Which was why she currently sat in a carriage just outside the office of London’s Illustrated Times, resignation letter in hand. Of course learning that her father despised Derrick Middleton and all his paper stood for aided in her decision to resign. Her father would view her employment with the paper as a betrayal to him. She was nothing if not loyal. Emerson Prattley expected his daughter to be loyal at any cost. So with feigned confidence, she opened the carriage door.

# # #

 

Derrick Middleton stared at his office door, muttering to himself. One more interruption today and he might fire everyone. Of course, that would only serve in proving to the Conservatives that he was the bastard they thought him to be. None of which was true, at least concerning his employees. His workers regarded him highly – they enjoyed their positions here, they smiled, came to work every day.

But today had been a bloody mess. All day, one thing after another. One of his journalists broke his leg, and his assignments had to be handed off to another. His wood carvers sat idle, waiting for the delayed shipment of boxwood to arrive before they began next week’s woodcuts. They could substitute another wood, but boxwood worked the best for the illustrations.

And now last month’s books were not reconciling perfectly. The paper still had money – plenty of it, but Derrick wanted his books perfect, down to the last shilling.

He would have to rewrite all the entries and do the calculations himself. Pressure nagged at his temples. He pinched the bridge of his nose to relieve the strain – to no avail.

He poked the quill back into the well, then went to stand at the window. The street below him bustled with activity. People milled about and went in and out of the shops. A well-dressed lady with an enormous hat decorated with at least a dozen flowers exited a carriage, stopped to smooth her skirts, then looked up as if she knew he stood in the window above her. He took a step back.

The pain in his head drummed against his scalp. Perhaps he should tell Mason he was taking the rest of the afternoon off. He could go home and…and what? Worry about the goings on from home. No, he needed to get back to the books and figure out the problem. Perhaps his day would get better. No sooner had he taken a seat, than Mason opened the door.

“Mr. Middleton, there is a lady here to see you.”

The lady from the carriage. “Who is she, and what does she want?”

“She didn’t say. Although she did say it was most important she meet with you.”

“She didn’t say? I believe it is your job as my assistant to ask such questions.”

Mason just stood there.

He wasn’t a very good assistant, but he was literate and came to work every day. Most days he spoke politely to visitors. And Derrick trusted him – that was the main reason he hadn’t fired Mason. Trustworthy employees were hard to come by.

“Very well, send her in.” He continued to stand behind his desk until she breached the doorway in a flurry of pale blue ruffles and bows. It was the lady from the carriage, and her hat was even larger this close up. Perplexing how a woman of her stature could hold it up, as she couldn’t have been much over five feet tall.

“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Middleton. I apologize for not making an appointment ahead of time, but I didn’t think you would see me if you knew who I was.”

“I see. Why did you think I wouldn’t see you?”

“Because I am a woman.”

He let his eyes roam the short length of her. “Yes, I can see that.”

She stared at him as if that was the complete answer – she was a woman – like that explained everything.

He shook his head. “Exactly who are you?”

“I’m so daft sometimes.” She came forward, hand extended. “Claudia Prattley, a pleasure to finally meet you.”

He took her hand – a warm, plush hand – and squeezed it gently before he remembered his manners and brought it to his lips. “Prattley. That sounds familiar. Please sit.” He motioned to the leather chairs opposite his desk, then took a seat himself.

She gave him a tentative smile then busied herself retrieving something from her reticule. With her head slightly bent he got full view of her hat. Was that a dove? He suppressed a smile. The hat was ridiculously large, and so full of flowers, not to mention the artificial bird, that it distracted one from noticing much else about her. Finally, she pulled out an envelope, which she looked at for a moment, then leaned forward to hand to him.

“For me?”

“Yes.” She sat straighter in her chair and tilted her chin ever so slightly, giving him a better view of her eyes. The muted blue of her dress would have matched them perfectly had it been a few shades brighter.

He brought his attention back to the envelope. The wax seal cracked as he pried up the flap of the envelope.

“‘Dear Mr. Middleton.’” He looked up and she nodded, her eyes wide as if eager for news in the letter. “‘I am troubled that I must do this, but the time has come for me to resign.’ Who is this from?”

She said nothing, merely pointed at the letter.

He skimmed the languid writing until he reached the signature. ‘Miss Claudia J. Prattley, C.J. Prattley’. C.J. Prattley. Why did that sound so bloody familiar?

“I apologize for being so thick today, Madam, but I’ve had one problem after another and while this name sounds very familiar to me, I simply cannot place it.”

“I work for you, Mr. Middleton. I am one of your illustrators.”

She lifted her hand to her chest, and he couldn’t help but notice the ample bosom it rested upon. She was a plump woman with curves in all the right places and apple round cheeks with just the hint of an extra chin. A pleasant looking woman with bright eyes that held the wonder most people lost in childhood.

This creature worked for him? C.J. Prattley. He let the name rattle a bit in his head. And then it hit him – Society Fashion Report.

“Did I know you were a woman?” he said the words out loud although he truly asked himself.

Blush lit in her already rosy cheeks. “I don’t believe so.”

“And you led me to believe you were a man by using your initials?”

Her gloved hands worried the material of her skirt. “I’m afraid so.”

“Clever. You did not believe I would hire you if I knew you were a woman.”

“No, sir.” Her brow furrowed. “Yes, sir. Would you?”

“Probably not.” Leaning back in his chair, he thought on it a bit more. “Although that is a shame considering that you are one of my best illustrators. Your fashion pages alone increased my sales in Society by thirty percent.”

“My drawings? I had no idea.” Again, her hand to that bosom. Remnants of her blush lingered on the creamy flesh of her neck, making him wonder exactly how far down the pretty color traveled. No doubt Miss Prattley had no clue how that simple movement was so tantalizing. He made his glance return to her face.

“Indeed. There is much mystery around your illustrations. I do believe it is the latest buzz in Society – they are all aflutter trying to discover the identity of the anonymous artist. They simply cannot believe the precise detail of the depictions, so they are positive it must be someone in their midst.”

She released a low “ooh” noise that sounded far more primal and sexual than it should have, considering they merely discussed illustrations. “How very exciting. I’ve never been a part of a mystery before.” Her eyes were intoxicating, the blue depths tugging at him. Innocence. The kind of innocence that on other people looked more like ignorance and usually had him dismissing them without thought. But something about Miss Prattley refused to be dismissed.

He leaned forward. “I’ve even been accused myself of being the artist, since I have on occasion attended an assembly or ball this Season with my Aunt. I can scarcely remember an evening when someone hasn’t approached and probed me with questions of your identity. Since the mystery seemed to fuel their purchase of the paper, I played along.”

She tapped a finger on his desk. “Now that you mention it, I have heard some ladies discuss this at recent parties, but Poppy and I always leave their company as I’m so afraid I will give something away. I have a tendency to speak without thinking. It’s a bad habit.” She added softly as if revealing the darkest of sins.

“I suppose now that the truth is out, you don’t need to resign. Your secret is safe with me, Miss Prattley.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your identity. It’s why you wanted to resign, correct?”

“Not exactly. I mean, only my closest friend knows I illustrate for the paper. I hadn’t intended to take the position in the first place. I sent in those initial illustrations never imagining that it would lead to anything. It was wrong of me to take more assignments, I’m afraid my vanity got the better of me. It’s just that when I saw the advertisement for the fashion submissions, I could not help myself.”

“It is understandable. You are quite talented. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share that.”

“Oh, but if my father discovered the truth, why he would surely disown me. I’m fairly certain of it.”

“That seems severe.”

“He’s very old fashioned, Mr. Middleton. Traditionally speaking, because of my station I’m not supposed to have a paying position. Except if I were a governess or some such. That might be acceptable.”

“So you are resigning because you recently realized it is improper for you to have a paid position?”

She shook her head, the flowers on her hat bobbed. “No, I have to get married and that is why I must resign.”

“I don’t follow.”

“I cannot be a wife and have a…a job, Mr. Middleton. It would not be appropriate.”

“I see. It appears to me that no part of your position with this paper is appropriate. I find life is vastly more rewarding if you live your life as you like it rather than by what Society deems appropriate.”

Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a tiny “o”. “You must live a daring life, Mr. Middleton,” she said, her voice breathy. “A very exciting existence. If only I were so fortunate.”

He could certainly show her a more exciting life. And he’d start with peeling off that silly hat so he could see what her hair looked like. Then he’d probably want to kiss that silly little mouth of hers to see if she would make that ooh noise again. The muscles across his abdomen tightened.

This was ridiculous. “So when is it that you are getting married?” he asked to get the conversation back on track.

“I’m not sure.”

“You haven’t set a wedding date?”

“Oh, I’m not betrothed as of yet.”

As refreshing as he found her, she sent his mind spinning with her haphazard logic. “I think I’m confused again.”

“My father insists that I marry soon, and I thought now would be as good a time as any to resign, so that I could focus on securing a husband.”

“I see.” No, he really didn’t see at all. Perhaps Miss Prattley was mad – stark, raving mad. That seemed less likely considering she hadn’t screamed maniacally or set fire to anything. Perhaps this was just a ploy.

“Miss Prattley, I’m prepared to offer you more money. Your illustrations are important to my paper and I am used to getting what I want. Name your price.”

“Are you quite serious?” she asked.

“I don’t joke about money.”

She eyed him for a moment. “I’m flattered, sir, but honestly, it isn’t money I seek. I really must marry. I shall finish up my last assignment to give you enough time to find a replacement.” She stood to leave. “Thank you again for your time.”

He caught up with her and placed his hand on her arm. “I do wish you’d reconsider, Miss Prattley.”

Her eyes fell to where his hand lay, making him all too aware of the impropriety of such a gesture. He pulled back.

“As much as I wish I could reconsider, I simply cannot. Please know that it has been a pleasure working for you; an experience I won’t quickly forget.”

With that, she exited his office. His day had gotten worse. The Society Fashion Report had become a most desired portion of his newspaper. What awful luck: just when he’d discovered a way to get his paper into the homes of the aristocracy, his best illustrator resigns. Miss Prattley’s drawings far exceeded those of his other illustrators, even though the detail was of ribbons and pleats, her eye for the specific was incomparable.

Surely he could find a way to convince her to stay on. If not, he’d have to find a replacement, and getting one on the inside of Society would be difficult, if not impossible. And without that inside eye, that section would never be the same.

Damnation!

Copyright © 2007. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.


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