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"So you're the miracle worker."
Althea stared back at the man addressing her across the wide mahogany desk, his eyes deep and dark and mocking. They held mystery and an ancestry centuries old. The small, wire-rimmed oval spectacles did nothing to diminish the force of the hooded brown irises fringed by thick lashes and framed by heavy, black brows.
"Lady Althea Pembroke," he stated when she remained silent, the mockery edging his tone soft as the feathery quill he brushed against his fingertips.
"I am Althea Breton," she answered the dark-haired man. When he continued looking at her from behind his desk, the sound of the feather against his skin magnified in the still room, she added, "Lord Skylar requested me to come."
"Yes, he spoke to me of you." The tone revealed nothing beyond the words. "But I believe he spoke to me of Lady Althea Pembroke. You are his sister, are you not?"
She removed her gaze from his, realizing the answer was not a simple one. Why had Tertius compelled her into this interview, she asked herself for the hundredth time.
She took a deep breath, reining in her frustration like a woman gathering her skirts against the wind. "I am sorry for the confusion," she managed to say at last. "I am Lord Skylar's half sister. Perhaps my brother did not have a chance to explain to you."
He made a gesture of impatience with ink-stained fingers. They were long and pale, illuminated in the circle of light cast by the Argand lamp. "Well, Lady Althea -- Miss Breton -- whatever name you choose to go by, the important thing is, do you know anything of nursing? Your brother seems to think so."
Irritated by the insinuation she was operating under an alias, she compressed her lips to avoid any ill-advised reply. He didn't bother to await her answer, but looked back down at the papers he'd been studying when she'd been bidden to come in. So now she must speak to the crown of dark, disheveled curls, she thought, annoyed at his obvious inattention. It hadn't been her idea to come here, she wanted to tell him! She was here only as a favor to her brother, who'd practically begged her to hear his friend out. Now she was made to feel as if she were groveling for a position, when that was the last thing she was in need of. The last thing she desired. She was quite fine where she was, she wanted to clarify to those unruly locks.
As she looked at the bowed head and observed the rapid movements of the long, slim fingers, something inside her stirred, remembering her brother's stories. Had this man truly been unmercifully tormented at Eton by his fellow students, all because he was a Jew?
The word still gave her a shudder of revulsion as she pictured the greasy, black-garbed moneylenders in the East End. She tried to stifle it as she cleared her throat, deciding her best course was to get this uncomfortable interview over with. She spoke to the dark head. "If I can be of any help to your daughter, I would appreciate the opportunity to try." Her tone emerged sounding calm and collected.
When he did not answer immediately, she studied what she could see of his features. They certainly belied the image she had had. The Honorable Simon Aguilar looked younger than she'd pictured a man of thirty-two with four years in the House of Commons. He'd been the youngest member of Parliament elected since Pitt the Younger, which proved his brilliance and wit, according to Tertius, qualities which her brother had first witnessed in the schoolboy at Eton.
Her gaze traveled farther. He wasn't handsome, more like arresting, she judged. His cheeks were clean-shaven, with only a shadow of beard against the pale skin; the nose not the hooked beak she expected, but high-bridged and chiseled; the lips a cushion of crimson accentuating the pallor of his skin. His physiognomy denoted a man of study, not a rapacious swindler of the poor. If the dim, book-lined shelves on either side of the room were any indication, he rarely saw the light of day.
He looked up, catching her observation. He waved a hand to a seat in front of the desk, as if just then noticing that she still stood in front of it like a servant awaiting orders. "Please, my lady, have a seat."
"Miss Breton," she corrected quietly but firmly, determined to get that established from the outset, as she took the chair indicated.
"Very well, Miss Breton. Could you be so kind as to explain to me why someone of your rank should want to lower herself to a position of nurse?"
Althea looked at him, aware it would not be easy to explain. He had removed his spectacles. The dark, hooded eyes stared back at her, their skepticism telling her beforehand that he would not easily accept whatever she told him. "Nursing ought to be seen as the honorable and noble profession it is."
His lips curved in a humorless smile. "Please spare me a eulogy on the glories of bathing a sick body and emptying its slop basin."
She colored and bit back a retort. Leaning forward and placing both her hands against the massive desk, her eyes sought an entry through the curtain of contempt and disbelief confronting her. "Mr. Aguilar, if you will permit me."
He raised a black eyebrow, looking like a falcon deciding the fate of its prey. She glanced down at her hands splayed against the polished wood, like a tiny sparrow's feet gripping the safety of a tree limb. She removed them and balled them in her lap, clearing her throat to give it more authority.
"My brother told me you were in need of a nurse for your child -- a young girl, I believe." The words sounded clipped to her ears -- she spoke in what the street urchins recognized as her "brooking no nonsense" tone.
At his curt nod, she continued. "I have some years' experience nursing the sick. I can assure you I am well able to care for your little girl."
"You hardly look old enough to have spent several years in the sickroom." He fingered his pen impatiently as he spoke, and she had the impression of hands never still.
"I am older than I look. My brother must have explained to you -- "
He let the pen go and waved the same hand in the air. "Yes, yes, Sky filled me in on your impeccable qualifications. Lady of rank, renouncing all her worldly position and goods -- including the honorific, I come to see -- to become a Dissenter, live among the poor and tend to the sick. I hope they are grateful."
"I am not a Dissenter!" Realizing how sharp her voice sounded, she took a deep breath and began afresh." Methodist is the correct term, if you must label me."
She felt her cheeks burn and was annoyed with Tertius for having divulged her personal history, then quickly understood her brother must have been trying to convince his friend of her qualities for the position -- a position she was by no means convinced she should accept. She sat back and silently asked for grace to maintain her temper. Where was the fruit of patience she had cultivated for the past eight years?
"I only wish to help in any way I can," she added more gently.
It was Simon Aguilar's turn to take his gaze away first, using the moment to remove a handkerchief from his pocket to polish his spectacles. "Yes, well, there's not much anyone can do but make Rebecca as comfortable as possible and keep her entertained. Her original nurse left us last year when she chose the life of a baker's wife over that of nursemaid. I replaced her with a governess, who was with us up until about a month ago, when it grew too taxing for Rebecca to continue her lessons on a regular basis. That is not to say you can't teach her things or read to her when she wishes." He replaced his spectacles as he ended the summation.
Althea nodded, digesting the information, determined to keep her mind on the reason she was there. "What exactly is wrong with . . . Rebecca?"
He shrugged, toying instead with a brass seal on his desk. "The physicians each have a different opinion. But the truth is, none of them know." He scowled. "Some say a brain fever, others a blood poisoning or liver ailment. She gets sick very often and tires easily." Once again he fixed dark, brooding eyes on her. "The truth is, she is dying."
In the stillness Althea heard only the faint sound of a late-winter rain outside the windows behind the desk, the steady drone impervious to the plight of the individual lives being played out within. She watched her future employer's long, pale fingers realign the papers before him into a stack. She realized with a start that she was already calling him her employer.
No, Lord! she cried silently; she'd by no means accepted this as His path for her. Just as quickly, shame swept over her at her pettiness when a little girl's life was at stake.
"There's not a thing I or the best physicians in London -- or you -- can do about my daughter's condition, but make Rebecca as happy and comfortable as possible until then. Do you understand? Do you think you can manage that? You won't have an attack of the vapors the first time you face a crisis with her?"
Althea drew in a breath, her pity evaporating. If he'd seen half of what she'd seen in her six years in the East End, he would know it took more than an ailing child to overset her nerves. After a few seconds she answered dryly, "No, sir."
He dipped his pen into its inkstand. "I will pay you twelve pounds, fifteen shillings per quarter." His attention switched back to the stack before him. He made a notation on the margin of the topmost sheet. "Does that suffice?"
He looked up and she nodded, caught unawares. She hadn't even considered remuneration when her brother had asked -- pleaded with -- her to come here.
"I feel strange offering such pitiable wages to a peeress."
"I am not a peeress," she stated, exasperation edging her tone. "I have no hereditary title."
He looked back down, ignoring her comment. "One more thing. I am hiring you officially as 'governess' to Rebecca, although unofficially you will be her nurse. I suspended her lessons, as I said."
"But why the title of governess if I am to be her nurse?"
He replaced the pen in its stand. The long, almost bony, fingers pushed through the dark, thick curls, leaving them in more disarray than before. "Because, Miss Breton, as should be obvious to you, I would prefer my daughter not realize she is so sick as to need a nurse."
Althea bit her lip at her obtuseness.
He continued in a slightly more civil tone. "Besides, it is not the norm to have a young lady of noble birth working in one's household as a nurse. Governess would seem to excite less curiosity. It has a certain veneer of respectability to it. A nurse usually hails from the lowest dregs of society . . . at least, that has been my experience up until recently," he muttered, looking down at his papers once more.
He took up his pen, as something caught his eye on the page before him. He made another notation. Althea continued observing him, trying to reconcile his appearance and manner with the preconceptions she had of his people.
"What is it?"
She felt the blood rise in her cheeks, wishing for the first time in her life that she had more freckles to hide her heightened color. "N-nothing."
"You find me interesting to look at?"
"No . . . not at all."
"Does my Jewish heritage intrigue you?"
She started at his perception. After a few seconds she nodded.
"I expect your brother informed you of my conversion to the Church." His lips curled sardonically. "But I imagine you, as most, assume it was only skin deep --"
He rolled the pen between his fingers.
Her eyes were fixed on the motion.
"You are correct in your supposition that it was a conversion in name only. Indispensable, you understand, for my entry into Parliament."
He plucked at the dark sleeve of his jacket. "The marks of generations of Jewry cannot be so easily effaced, can they? Once a Jew, always a Jew -- isn't that what you think?" She stared at him, disconcerted by the frank admission of the purely materialistic rationale for his conversion.
"Tell me, my curiosity is piqued, did I meet all of your expectations? What did you come here expecting to see? An old man hunched over in a moldering coat, counting out his coin? Fangs, perhaps? A gross deformity? After all, we are the Jesus killers, are we not?"
He didn't give her an opportunity to answer. "Well, Miss Breton, I can assure you, you shall be perfectly safe under my roof. I have managed to control the baser instincts of my race under this semblance of the gentleman you see before you." He leaned back in his chair, his dark gaze assessing her, making her feel as if she were the one at fault.
She found herself struggling to meet that gaze, which seemed to see beyond her pious garb and acts of mercy, to something deep within her of which even she was unaware. This was ridiculous, she told herself. She had nothing to reproach herself for; she had seen firsthand what those moneylenders had accomplished with their extortionary techniques.
Deciding she would merely ignore his words, just as he had so many of her own, she asked, "What precisely are you looking for in a nurse?"
He looked at her as if trying to explain something to an imbecile. "Miss Breton, I am frequently not at home. I need someone I can trust with my child. I need someone to take care of her as if she were her own. I realize that may be difficult for a childless woman, much less a hired one, to comprehend, but nevertheless that is what I require. That is what Rebecca needs." He sighed, raking a hand through his hair, a gesture Althea was coming to recognize as expressing his impatience with having to explain things to people of less astuteness or intelligence.
He gave her another assessing look. "I don't expect you to understand this. I only agreed to this interview because your brother spoke so glowingly of your abilities. Quite frankly, I must admit my doubt."
"I see," she said, bowing her head and looking down at her tightly clasped hands, their firmness belying her inner trembling. She did not know what she had expected from this interview, but certainly not the doubt, much less the downright hostility, in the man before her. All at once it occurred to her that she had come harboring those very same sentiments, yet had felt perfectly justified in holding them. The realization piqued her conscience. For a split second she experienced the clarity of God's spirit touching something within her. It was like a door opening upon an unused room, letting in a shaft of light. One could choose to shut the door, or allow it to open farther and flood the area. The latter way held an element of risk.
What had she expected from Mr. Aguilar? the still, small voice of the Spirit asked her. Gratitude for her condescending to leave her present position and come to his aid?
Her life was not her own. It hadn't been for the past eight years. Whether she came into this household as a nurse was not up to her, nor even up to Simon Aguilar, she thought, looking up at the man seated behind the desk.
All she needed to know was whether her Lord and Savior Jesus was directing her to this household. Whether He was making her give up everything familiar, everything fulfilling -- her very life's work -- for a season -- a season of unknown duration -- to come and serve in this household was not the issue.
She met Simon Aguilar's gaze full on. "I can only say, give me a trial -- whatever length you deem sufficient -- a week, a fortnight -- to satisfy yourself. I can only promise to do my best, by God's grace, to help your daughter Rebecca in any way I can."
Althea left, exhausted from the ordeal. She felt confused, deflated . . . downright terrified. How could the Lord possibly want her in the employ of one so irreverent and antagonistic of everything she believed in? She looked around at the neighborhood as she left the pale-blue stucco mansion on Green Street. Even the neighborhood contradicted all she'd given her life to in the past six years. Mayfair was as far from her present residence in Whitechapel as London from Bombay. She gave one last look down the street, taking in the black-painted, wrought-iron fences and neat tree-lined sidewalks as she mounted the coach. Before her ride was over, they would give way to the dirty, dilapidated buildings and muddy streets of the East End.
It took Simon a good quarter of an hour after Miss Breton's departure to return to editing his speech on the repeal of the Corn Laws. It wasn't every day the rank and file got the opportunity to address the ministers on the treasury bench, that coveted first row in the House of Commons. Backbenchers must stand awkwardly wedged between the tiered rows, clutching their notes but forbidden to read from them. Simon, gifted with oratory skills, relished the moment. After seven years in the House, he'd advanced from the top tier to the bench just behind the treasury bench, where Liverpool and all his cabinet lounged. He promised silently that he would make them sit up and pay attention.
But now the speech he had written in the wee hours of the previous night lay before him untouched as he thought about the woman he'd just interviewed. Simon twirled his quill between his fingertips more than once, his thoughts straying from the quotas and price fluctuations in imported and domestic wheat to the young lady who claimed to be a nurse.
Something more important than his career or the affordability of grain was at stake at the moment: his daughter's well-being.
Very few things took precedence over his political career and the affairs of state. In fact, they were the only things he was passionate about. Simon had come to the conclusion long ago that he was in essence a cold-hearted, calculating man. Although he would defend his family's honor to the grave, very few in that enormous tribe of Sephardic Jews known as the Aguilars truly engaged his heart.
He sometimes wondered if he even had a heart. The only proof to the contrary was his daughter. If anything showed he could still bleed it was Rebecca.
His fingers gripped the quill tightly until it broke. He would give anything to make her well.
He set down the mutilated pen and observed its ninety-degree bend. The question was, had he done right in agreeing to hire Miss Breton for a trial period? His glance strayed to the chair recently vacated by the lady in question. For indeed she was a lady, for all her Quakerish gown and renouncement of the honorific. Every well-modulated word, her very demeanor and bearing, spoke of good breeding. The kind of breeding his family had paid dearly for him to obtain.
Simon sighed, shoving aside the pen. He'd already been through three nurses-a fact he'd deliberately kept from Miss Breton.
At least she presented a more pleasing countenance than the other three, he admitted, recalling the slack-jawed, blank-eyed first nurse; the puckered mouth evidencing a lack of teeth and the greasy gray hair of the second; and the shifty-eyed, lipless third.
Copyright © 2003 Ruth Axtell Morren