© Clare London
Simeon Allan lit another candle on his desk, sat in his leather-upholstered chair and gestured for me to sit on the other, far less comfortable chair. His face was stern. During the working day he often turned this look on me, but the eyes were always lightened by the reflection of daylight, or interest in his correspondence, or even amused irritation at my inability to keep up with his business. But now his eyes were dark, the expression hard and cold. At least, they made me shiver.
I stared at him across the desk top, feeling as if I were a recalcitrant servant awaiting punishment, or at another interview for a position that I knew was far above me. It was strange to be sitting here in the night, rather than the working day, and the candle flame cast shadows over the dark room. Only part of his face was illuminated at a time, making it difficult for me to gauge his mood.
“Nicholas.” It was not said questioningly, though I lifted my face to look him in the eyes. “How long have you been in my employ?”
I blinked hard. “Three months, Mr. Allan.”
He nodded. “Three months.”
Another non-question. I was at a loss what to do or say. The room smelled of parchment, leather and the smoke of his cigars. Everything around me was to do with him. There was residual comfort from the hearth behind his desk, where the evening fire had reduced to warm ash, but my body was still shaking. I felt oddly claustrophobic.
“Nicholas, do you wish to leave?”
I swallowed hard, staring at him like an imbecile. “Leave?”
He steepled his hands under his chin, and the signet ring on his finger glinted against the unshaven skin of his jaw. “You steal my money. You disobey my orders. You encourage corruption of my servants.”
“I will tell you when, or if, you may speak. Your behaviour leads me to believe that you are unsuited to be here. That you should, in fact, be sent back to your home.”
“No!” It was just one word, and not one I intended to speak aloud, but it burst from me with shock. Ashamed, I hung my head.
“Do not look away, Nicholas.” He continued to use my given name with an easy familiarity. Was I to be offended or flattered? “Look at me.”
I looked up again, my eyes now full of stinging tears. “I do not wish to leave the house. To leave you.”
The silence was long and pregnant. I considered how it would be to leave the luxury and comfort I’d grown accustomed to and return to the frugal, stultifying life of my unsympathetic parents. Not only would I be judged a failure, I’d return to scorn and beatings. I couldn’t help the shudder that ran through me.
Mr. Allan sucked in a breath. Had he seen my reaction? “I don’t want you to leave, either, boy. I have grown used to your company. You are a damned useless secretary, but I enjoy your wit and youth.” He watched as one of my tears spilled free and ran a ragged path down my cheek. “I admire your sensitivity. I … am excited by it.”
The tension between us had subtly changed. “My sensitivity?”
His smile was grudging. “You are attuned to the human condition. You feel the emotion between us, don’t you? It is a rare gift.”
“I have no gifts,” I protested.
Mr. Allan was still smiling. “With my help, you can learn to develop it… if you wish to.”
“I do!” The words burst from me again. I didn’t understand why his brooding watch of me inspired this passion, but it was true. I did wish to learn! “Let me stay. Please.”
He stood, left his chair and came to stand beside me. He brushed his hand over my head, his palm grazing my temple. “You like men, Nicholas. You want men.”
I didn’t know whether I should reply to that so I kept silent.
“But in truth, you need just one,” he murmured.
“You, Mr. Allan?” I knew I had been too insolent when his hand tightened painfully in my hair.
“You are very foolish and very careless. But you are the prettiest molly I have ever seen. I knew as soon as I saw you that you belonged here. But if you wish to stay, you must be more respectful. More obedient.”
I gazed up at him. “I will, Mr. Allan. I will…sir.”
“You do not need to call me that, boy.”
He had never asked me to show the subservience of his domestic staff: we had always been Mr. to each other. Yet I knew what was meant by the drop of sweat upon his upper lip, and I had seen his knuckles whiten when I called him sir. “Please, sir,” I whispered, “but I wish to.” And, slowly, I slid off my chair and sank to my knees on the rug before him.
His breath caught, and I did not mistake his soft sigh of satisfaction. I had judged him well.