In the Face of Death (Madelaine de Montalia #2)

Chapter 3

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Now Fanny let out a long sigh, one hand to her opulent bosom. "It is very sad that Mrs. Sherman has had to be away from him just now," she said. "The run on the bank left him exhausted, and his asthma, you know, has been particularly bad.

To care for those two children as well—" She put her hand to her cheek. "Not that you have any reason to be concerned. I'm sure the worst is behind him. He managed the crisis of the run quite successfully, and now Lucas and Turner is likely to stand as long as the city. It would be a terrible thing if scandal should fix to his name after he has won through so great a trial."

Madelaine blinked as she listened, and realized that Sherman had been right to warn her about gossip.

San Francisco, 29 May,

I must look for a house. I need someplace where I can lay down my native earth and restore myself through its strength, and I do not want to pay Mrs. Mullinton another $75 for my apartments, pleasant though they are. A few of the other women here are starting to question how I live, especially my refusal to dine with them, and I must make an effort to stop their speculations as soon as possible. If I had an establishment of my own, and my own staff, I could deal with these problems summarily. No doubt Lucas and Turner can assist in finding what I want…

"This is an unexpected surprise," said Sherman, coming out of his office to greet Madelaine shortly before noon two days later. He motioned Jenkins aside and indicated that he wanted her to follow him. "I have the papers ready for you to sign. They'll go off on the next ship, and the funds will arrive as quickly as possible after that. In these days we can handle these transactions in less than two months. But let us discuss your matters less publicly. If you will be kind enough—?"

"Of course. And I thank you for giving me a little time; I am sure you are very busy." As she made her way back to his office, Madelaine realized that many of the customers and about half the staff in the bank were staring at her, either directly or covertly. She knew it was not just because she had worn her newest walking dress—a fetching mode in grape-colored fine wool; she drew her short jacket more closely around her as she took the chair Sherman offered, aware that once again, he had left the door half open.

He settled himself behind his desk and held out a pen to her as he reached for the papers needing her signature. "Now then,

Madame, what more are we to have the pleasure of doing for you?"

Madelaine squared her shoulders. "I want to rent a house. At least through August, possibly for longer."

Sherman stared at her. "Rent a house?" he repeated as if she had spoken in a language he did not adequately understand.

She went on without remarking on his surprise. "Yes. Something not too lavish, but as comfortable and suitable as possible. And I will need to hire a staff for it." She swiftly reviewed the permission form and signed first one, then the second, the pen spattering as the ink dried on the nib. "Probably no more than three or four will serve me very well."

"You want to rent a house," Sherman said again, as if he had at last divined her meaning. "But why? Is there something not to your liking at Mrs. Mullinton's?"

"Only the price and the lack of privacy," said Madelaine as politely as she could. "That is not to say anything against Mrs. Mullinton. She has been all that is courteous and attentive, and Mrs. Mullinton's establishment is a fine one, but not for what I am engaged in doing."

"And what might that be?" asked Sherman, disapproval scoring his sharp features.

"I am writing a book," said Madelaine candidly.

Sherman's glower vanished only to be replaced by an indulgent smirk; Madelaine decided she liked the glower better, for it indicated genuine concern, and this showed nothing of the sort.

"A book?"

"On my studies here in America," she said with a coolness she did not feel.

"Have you any notion of what must go into writing a book? It is far different than making entries in a diary; it requires discipline and concerted effort." He continued to watch her with a trace of amusement.

Stung, Madelaine said. "Yes. I have already written three volumes on my travels in Egypt."

"When you were an infant," said Sherman. "You told me you have spent your time here at sphool, and before that—"

"Actually, I said I had been studying," Madelaine corrected him. "You were the one who said I had been at school."

Sherman straightened in his chair as he took the two papers back from her. "You were not in the convent!" he declared with conviction. "You have not the manner of it."

Madelaine had managed to regain control over her impulsive tongue; she said, "That is nothing to the point. All that matters is that I find an appropriate house to rent. If you are not willing to help me in this endeavor, you need only tell me and I will go elsewhere."

This indirect challenge put Sherman on his mettle. "Certainly I will do what I can. As your financial representative, I must question anything that does not appear to be in your best interests." He gave her a severe stare. "If you will let me know your requirements and the price you had in mind to pay, I will have Jenkins begin his inquiries."

"Thank you," said Madelaine, her temper beginning to cool. "I will need a small- or medium-sized house in a good location, one with room for a proper study. I will need a bedchamber and a dressing room, a withdrawing room and a parlor, a dining room, a pantry, and a reasonably modern kitchen, with quarters for a staff of three." She had established these requirements for herself over eighty years ago. She added the last in an off-handed way. "Also, I must be able to reach the foundation with ease."

"The foundation!" Sherman repeated in astonishment. "Why should the foundation concern you?"

Madelaine thought of the trunks of her native earth and felt the pull of it like exhausted muscles yearning for rest "I have learned that it is wise to know what the footing of a house may be," she answered.

"Most certainly," Sherman agreed, pleasantly surprised that Madelaine should have so practical a turn of mind. "Very well. I will stipulate that in my instructions to Jenkins: easy access to the foundations." He regarded her with the manner of one encountering a familiar object in an unfamiliar setting. "How soon would you like to occupy the house?"

"As soon as possible," said Madelaine. "I want to get my work under way quickly, and I cannot do that until I have a place where I may examine my notes and open all my records—I assure you, they are extensive—for review; at the moment most of them are still in trunks and are of little use to me there." She smiled at him, noticing for the first time that he had dark circles under his eyes. "If you will excuse me for mentioning it, you do not appear to have slept well, Mr. Sherman. Are you unwell?"

He shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. "My son was fussy last night; he is very young and misses his mother. I wanted to comfort him, and so I…" He made a brusque gesture of dismissal, then relented. "And for the last few days my asthma has been bothering me. It is a childish complaint, one that need not concern you, Madame."

Madelaine regarded him with sympathy. "I know what it is to suffer these conditions, for I, myself, cannot easily tolerate direct sunlight." She hesitated, thinking that she did not want to create gossip about the two of them. Then she offered, "I have some preparations against such continuing illnesses. If you would let me provide you with a vial of—"

"I have nitre paper," Sherman said, cutting her off abruptly. He stared at the blotter on the desk, and the papers she had signed. "But I thank you for your consideration."

"If you change your mind, you have only to let me know," said Madelaine, noticing that Sherman's face was slightly flushed. "Think of it as a gesture of gratitude for finding my house."

He nodded stiffly. "If you will call back on Monday, I will let you know what Jenkins has discovered. What was the price you had in mind again?"

"Anything reasonable. You know better than I what that would be, and you know what my circumstances are," Madelaine said as if she had lost interest in the matter. "And you know what is a reasonable amount for a landlord to ask, even with prices so very high."

Sherman nodded, his expression distant. "And the matter of staff? You said two or three?"

"If you will recommend someone to help me in hiring them, I would appreciate it." Why was she feeling so awkward? Madelaine wondered. What had happened in the last few minutes that left her with the sensation that she had done something unseemly? Was it something in her, or was it in Sherman?

"There are employment services in the city," said Sherman, looking directly at her. "I will find out which is most reputable."

Madelaine was startled at the intensity of his gaze. "I don't know what to say to you, Mr. Sherman, but thank you." He rose stiffly. "On Monday then, Madame de Montalia." She took his hand; it might as well have been made of wood. "On Monday, Mr. Sherman."

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