Tempting the Bluestocking – Victoria Vale

The clamor and cloying stench of the London docks faded into obscurity as Edward Norton crossed the threshold of Norton & Rivers Line. The dimly lit interior and cold hearth struck him as being particularly depressing, seizing him with the urge to duck back out into the chilly morning. He could hail a hackney and be on his way to his lodgings in a matter of minutes. But, the sign above the door proclaimed for all the world that this place was now his responsibility. Besides, he had avoided his duty long enough. The remains of what had once been his father’s business weren’t going to fix themselves, nor would the piles of his debts be paid if he went on pretending they didn’t exist. He had danced on the edge of avoidance long enough, and as the eldest of his siblings it fell to him to set matters right. Of course, he had no notion of how he might do that, but he’d made up his mind that these affairs needed handling. After all, if he didn’t mend this no one else would. His brother, Jacob, was just barely out of university and hardly knew his right foot from his left, let alone anything that might prove useful in bringing a failing shipping company back from the brink of devastation. As for Edward’s sister; she was the typical unwed gentry chit, her head filled with whatever nonsense a girl is taught when it comes to the pursuit of a husband. Their fates rested upon his shoulders as heavily as his own. Doffing his hat, he searched the large front room of the establishment. Two imposing desks faced each other from opposite sides of the room, one of them strewn with documents and ledgers in a jumble that made his left eye twitch. The other was startlingly bare by contrast, a fine layer of dust coating its surface, while cobwebs stretched between the slats of the wooden chair behind it.

The abandoned desk confronted Edward with a reminder that this wouldn’t rest solely on him had his father not chased away a perfectly good business partner. As it stood, the ‘Rivers’ half of Norton & Rivers had retired to Paris on the amount his part of the line had been bought for. Which left Edward between the hammer and the anvil at present—with the mistakes of his father beneath him, and his own lack of funds battering him with overwhelming force. Seated behind the mess-strewn desk was Mr. Jasper Bullock, his father’s former solicitor. Short and reed slender, he reminded Edward of a bird with his sharply pointed nose and close-set eyes. He stood as Edward approached, beady eyes going wide as if with alarm. Edward knew the unrelenting black he wore did nothing for his coloring, and that lack of sleep had him looking a fright … but, honestly, the man had nothing to fear. It wasn’t as if he’d walked into this office without knowing to expect the worst. Forcing a grim smile, he offered Bullock a hand.

“Good morning. Thank you for taking the time to meet me. I realize you aren’t obligated to help me, but as the man who knows more than anyone else what the state of affairs is here …” Bullock nodded several times in swift succession, his movements disjointed and jerky. “Yes, yes … it is no trouble. And, as you said, I can give you the clearest picture of what you have inherited.” Edward wanted to point out that what he’d inherited was akin to having a boulder tied to his ankles before being dropped into the ocean. But, Bullock did not look like the sort of man who would appreciate his brand of wry, self-deprecating humor, so he refrained. He procured the chair from behind the empty desk, swiping away the cobwebs before carrying it to where Bullock waited. He dropped it beside the one the solicitor had occupied, then sat. “Shall we begin?” Bullock cleared his throat and resumed his seat, shuffling several documents before glancing at Edward from the corner of his eye.

“Mr. Norton, I must warn you … well, I knew things were bad, but I could never have realized just how—” “Bullock,” Edward cut in. “I loved my father dearly, bless his soul, but the man was a horrible businessman. On my desk at home are dozens of bills from my father’s creditors. The sums are so astronomical it is a wonder he wasn’t carted off to debtor’s prison. There is nothing you could tell me about the state of Norton and Rivers that would shock me. So, please get on with it. Tell me everything and speak plainly, so I can get to work fixing this mess.” Bullock had been staring at him in a stunned sort of stupor, but quickly snapped out of it, clearing his throat yet again. “Very well, I shall speak plainly.

In truth, Mr. Norton, without a large influx of capital there is no feasible way to keep the line afloat. As it stands, your father made the worst possible decision by buying out Mr. Rivers’ share. It marked the end of the business’ most profitable years.” Edward pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I warned him not to do it, and even tried to talk Rivers out of selling his share. But, I can hardly blame the man. He and Father were old school friends, but where Rivers had a head for business, my father most certainly did not. The man wanted to cut his losses and get out before he went down right along with Father.

It’s no more than I would have done.” Mr. Bullock grimaced. “Without Rivers here, your father ran the line on his own, and his mismanagement is responsible for its decline. As of now, you’ve only one ship that’s fit enough to make the voyage along its route, and even it is in dire need of repairs. Its crew is sparse as well, many of the seaman having abandoned ship when cargo and profits became scarce.” Edward drew in a deep breath, a slow pounding beginning in one of his temples. “Norton and Rivers used to have a fleet of ships, a dozen at least. What happened to them?” Bullock lifted a register from which he read aloud. “One overtaken and commandeered by pirates somewhere along the East Indies route, another sunk with its cargo in a storm off the coast of the Mediterranean.

All the others simply cannot be taken to sea without repairs and men willing to crew them.” Edward didn’t want to ask his next question aloud; he really didn’t. But these were things he needed to know if he had any hope of cleaning up his father’s mess. “If the records are to be believed, some of these ships haven’t seen a voyage in as long as a year. Why have they gone so long without repairs?” One would think repairing ships was a priority around here—more vessels coming and going from London with cargo meant more profits, which could eventually mean more ships, better ships, faster ships. But, his father’s mind had never been so linear. The man had thought in circles and ellipses and tangles so convoluted no sane person could follow. Bullock offered him a stack of familiar-looking documents that had Edward’s heart plummeting. They were receipts for the cost of timber and other supplies, as well for the services of those who repaired and equipped ships for their voyages. Some of them dated back a year or more, which would explain why so many of their vessels had been out of commission for so long.

“So, we owe these suppliers and craftsmen so much money they’ve stopped doing business with us until such time as they are paid?” “Precisely,” Bullock replied. “As well, there is the matter of the rents on your warehouses. They went unpaid for so long that Norton and Rivers no longer has the capacity to store cargo. So even if your ships could voyage to other ports and return with goods …” “We’d have no bloody place to put them,” Edward grumbled, suddenly in need of a stiff drink. “Correct.” “Would I also be correct to assume that all of this has resulted in the loss of this company’s reputation? I would imagine most of our loyal clients have now turned to a line better fit to meet their needs.” “Unfortunately, you have the right of it,” Bullock said. “Business has come to a standstill without warehouses, ships, or crews. And without the funds to fix the ships, rent the warehouses, and hire crews …” “We’re rolled up,” he muttered. Then, he issued a short, sarcastic bark of laughter.

“I’m rolled up … ruined. Damn it all to hell.” Bullock didn’t reply, simply giving him a look that portrayed the deepest of sympathies. No wonder the man had been reluctant to tell him the truth about how dire his straits were. He now felt as if he’d been thrown into the depths of the ocean with no notion of how to swim. He was university educated, but had never actually worked for a living, since Norton & Rivers had pulled in enough capital to support the entire family. Or, at least, it had seemed to support them. Only after he’d grown old enough to truly pay attention did he realize that his family merely displayed an illusion of wealth outwardly, while in truth they’d been drowning in debt, suffocating under the weight of his father’s mismanagement for decades. He’d tried to offer his father assistance, and had even begged the man to make him his partner once Rivers had left, but Edwards’s pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Aside from being a terrible businessman, his father had suffered from tender pride and a stubbornness that would put a mule to shame.

He’d insisted he had things well in hand, and had refused Edward’s help. For a scant few seconds, Edward wrestled with an intense loathing for his father. His jaw clenched until it ached, and his body practically hummed with the force of his anger at the man who had died a few short weeks ago, leaving Edward to clean up the mess he’d made of all their lives. But then, he remembered all the good things about his father that had always seemed to overshadow his flaws. His tolerance for Caroline’s choosiness when it came to the selection of a husband. His patience with Jacob, whose lack of direction had worried their mother to no end. He’d been the best father three children could ask for in all the ways that counted, and Edward supposed he could be forgiven for failing at managing his money and his business. As Edward stood to shake the solicitor’s hand, his mind already raced through a number of solutions to a problem he feared he might never solve. However, each idea was tossed aside as he realized they all required the one thing he did not have at the moment: a large influx of funds. SEVERAL HOURS LATER, Edward sat across from an old friend in a coffee house in Covent Garden.

He could hardly afford the expense of indulging in the curry and rice steaming before him, but neither could he afford to continue paying the woman who cooked his meals at home. So, it hardly mattered, did it? He’d developed a fondness for Indian cuisine while visiting the home of a friend from university. The man’s father had been an officer of the East India Company, who’d returned to England with a cook from Calcutta. During his time with his friend’s family, Edward had experienced various curries and channa masala, finding he enjoyed the robust flavors. It was to curry he turned now, finding comfort in the dish as he stared morosely at the man sitting across from him. The Honourable Mr. Hugh Radcliffe had befriended him at university, and the two often found themselves in one another’s company. As a gentleman lacking a title or any familial connection to the beau monde, Edward had very few friends of the peerage. But, Hugh often reminded Edward that he could hardly be considered ton any longer—not after being disowned for pursuing a career as a portraitist. He’d been cast out of his family, his financial situation as dire as Edward’s— perhaps even more so.

“I don’t know what the bloody hell I’m supposed to do,” he muttered between bites of curry with a shake of his head. “The old man left nothing, not even a business that could be salvaged to create some sort of living for our family. It seems wiser to burn it all down to ashes as opposed to trying to raise it from the dead.” Hugh gave him a sympathetic look while reaching for a flat disk of naan bread. “Could you just sell it to someone looking for a project—some enterprising gentleman with deep pockets who could transform the business into a steady stream of income?” Edward scoffed. “He’d be purchasing a mountain of debt on top of a defunct fleet of ships. Said gentleman would also have to be completely mutton-headed.” “You make a good point. Perhaps a money lender of some kind?” “One who will charge me interest I can’t afford, and extract my teeth one by one when I’m unable to pay him back? No, thank you.” Hugh chewed, seeming to mull over his words before he spoke.

He looked as if he were on the verge of disclosing some scandalous revelation, and despite his morose situation, Edward found his curiosity piqued. “I think … I might know of a way you could earn a large sum of money in a matter of months. But, I cannot tell you what it is. Not yet.” Edward scowled, taking a closer look at his friend. He hadn’t seen Hugh in months, and ought to have noticed the changes. His friend’s outmoded, ill-fitting clothing had been replaced with perfectly tailored togs, most of which looked brand spanking new. He flaunted a fresh haircut, and had even gained back the weight he’d lost when lean months had seen him taking meager meals. Hugh was a new man, and it would seem this mysterious source of money had been responsible for the change. A dart of hope arrowed through him and Edward leaned forward.

“Why can’t you tell me what it is?” Hugh glanced about as if he didn’t want to be overheard. “The person who runs this… agency…he has the final say when it comes to who can be invited to join us. But, the money is good. Better than the allowance I was once entitled to from my father. It might not solve all your problems but it could be enough to pay some of the creditors, perhaps get your ships up and running again.” Edward’s spine snapped straight, excitement flooding him in a rush. Working ships would attract crews to sail them, which might, in turn, earn back their clients along with a few new ones. Maybe there would be enough to rent a warehouse. If he could start generating some sort of income, things wouldn’t have to be so grave. His family name needn’t continue to be synonymous with bad business, not if he could prove that Norton & Rivers was making strides under new management.

Caroline and Jacob could have a secure future. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it,” he said. “Tell your associate I’ll meet any requirements he might have.” Hugh held a hand up to silence him and leaned closer, lowering his voice. “The agency is kept secret for a reason. The work we do is the sort that could cause a scandal unlike anything London has ever seen if we’re exposed. You have to understand … those of us who founded it were desperate. We needed the money and, like you, had no other recourse. It’s been a year since we began, and now I’m flush enough to support myself until I can have my work displayed in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.” Now Edward really must know just what Hugh had done to earn himself that sort of blunt.

The man had stood weeks away from being evicted from his suite of bachelor’s rooms the last time they’d spoken. Now, he was about Town dressed in the height of fashion and looking as well-fed as ever. “I’m not concerned with the scandalous nature of this business,” he vowed. “I want in, Hugh. Whatever it takes.” Hugh nodded. “Fine, meet me at Number 8 Clarges Street at noon tomorrow. My associate will be there, and we’ll discuss the particulars.” Edward found himself once again taken aback. The address Hugh had given him was one far too fashionable for a man in Hugh’s position.

That must mean he truly had done well for himself this past year. Whatever he’d been up to, Edward would follow in his footsteps. So long as it wasn’t moonlighting as a highwayman, he saw no reason to balk at whatever unseemly tasks it might entail.

.

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