"Mr. Hastings." The finely dressed man in a black waistcoat moved to the other side of the library desk. He lifted the ivory inlaid-on-gold lid of a smallish box on the wide mahogany surface as he paused, for what he could only have meant to be dramatic effect, and withdrew a cigar. "Lord Atherton has selected you specifically for the task."
"With all due respect, I don't know Lord Atherton nor do I know why he's requested my assistance."
The secretary sat behind the desk, looking mildly bored and as though he'd smelled something unpleasant. He'd called himself Mr. Leedy, Michael recalled. Mr. Weedy would have suited better for all his reed thin form and the way he swayed when he spoke.
"You're a third son, are you not? It has come to my attention that you'd benefit from an arrangement such as this, where funds elsewhere would perhaps be lacking."
Michael tried to listen with interest, tried to subdue his impatience with the posturing importance of the secretary's demeanor. The enormous beast poised like a great furred warning beside Michael's chair made listening to Mr. Leedy challenging, as well. Michael curled his fingers over the armrest wondering if the wingback could be used as defense against such a creature should it decide Michael no longer amused him.
"Is that a wolf or a breed of hound?" Michael asked, unable to avoid the question longer.
"Wolf," Mr. Leedy answered, distractedly.
"Must it remain?"
"How you handle Lord Atherton's wolf is absolutely indicative of how you will proceed here."
Michael flicked his eyes to the beast having heard once that animals sensed fear in humans. Perhaps that was why the large gray wolf hadn't moved an inch from Michael's side since he'd entered the library of his potential employer. He tried to continue the conversation as though the animal didn't matter.
"Mr. Leedy, my financial circumstances aren't your concern. It's bad form for you to speculate and worse form coming from a man of no family consequence when speaking to another of superior breeding." Michael rose carefully, giving attention to the beast who'd been sitting on his haunches until that moment.
The animal rose with him. His muzzle wrinkled, pulling the fleshy mouth back to reveal startlingly white canines. Mr. Leedy seemed to give acute attention to the wolf.
"Please sit, Mr. Hastings. We've more to discuss." Mr. Leedy clipped the end of the cigar and took his time lighting it. Gray plumes that matched the color of the wolf puffed from Mr. Leedy's mouth as the secretary continued to watch the animal.
Michael took his seat, wondering how he'd extricate himself from the situation without further impertinence.
"I apologize for my blunt words." Mr. Leedy didn't appear to be apologetic. He appeared coolly calculating. "Lord Atherton has permitted me to offer a generous sum in return for your instruction."
"How generous?" Michael asked. It would have to be very generous in order to risk life and limb daily, alongside the wolf.
"For your tutelage, you'll be provided room and board in the family wing, access to all gentlemanly pursuits, including use of the stables, guns, and carriage as needed. In addition, you are to be given a sum of two thousand pounds. One for each month of service."
Michael swallowed hard. "Lord Atherton is generous, indeed." He tried not to be stunned by the offer because the terms had yet to be discussed. "Precisely what would my duties entail?"
"Social grooming. You are to prepare your charge for full social introduction by the date of the Throckmorton Christmas Ball."
"Two months to prepare an introduction? Why not hire a governess?" Michael asked.
"Because the charge is neither female, nor a child, but Lord Atherton himself."
Michael stared at the pluming cigar held expertly between Mr. Leedy's fingers. He watched the side of Mr. Leedy's thumb tap-tap on the desk, then come to a stop.
"Forgive me," Michael began, trying to phrase his thoughts as delicately as he could and still obtain the information he required. "Lord Atherton is a peer of the realm. Surely, he's been afforded every opportunity his title suggests. Why would he require my services?"
The secretary leaned forward, propping himself on the desktop with his forearms. "Because, Mr. Hastings, Lord Atherton knows the exemplary reputation of your family and of you, specifically. He's aware of your complete education in social matters and has had the opportunity to hear of your charm when it comes to the notice of ladies. Lord Atherton has a keen interest in wedding. He is willing to hire you, sir, to teach him the fineries of such an endeavor." Mr. Leedy sat back in his chair. A plume of gray smoke obscured his squinty-eyed observation of Michael. "It's because he's a gentleman that he only requires two months of your time."
Michael frowned. The wolf had yet to return to his haunches. It stood, muzzle far too close to Michael's knee, staring at him with golden eyes that seemed to be as intent on Michael's answer as Mr. Leedy was.
Michael returned his attention to the secretary. "He's been instructed in proper social graces?"
The secretary's eyes flicked to the wolf. "He requires polish which you have in abundance. Will you accept the offer?"
Michael couldn't afford to ignore the offer. Mr. Leedy had been correct in assuming Michael needed the funds. As a third son, he didn't have an inheritance to claim, nor did he wish to go into the ministry as many of his contemporaries had chosen. Instead, his father had sent him through University, bred him as a gentleman, and left him without so much as a title to hope for.
No, when his father passed on, he'd be dependent on the generosity of his brothers, and the pity of whichever woman would take him. It was made worse because Michael wanted no woman. Should his unnatural proclivities be discovered, he could also count on his family's disdain. Death and destitution were all a man could hope for when he favored other men for his bedmates.
Two thousand pounds loomed like a beacon of hope. It wasn't much to live a lifetime on, but it would do. It would help.
"Two months? Might there be opportunity to expand the duration of the contract?" Michael asked. Two thousand offered hope. Four thousand guaranteed it.
"No. His lordship merely requires a bride, which you will help him obtain at the Christmas Ball." The wolf snarled, turning its head toward Mr. Leedy. The man paled. "Rather, Lord Atherton will secure his bride on his own. He requests only your guidance in the smaller social graces expected from a peer, as he offers for a young lady of breeding."
"I still don't understand why he needs me when surely he was brought up with the best his station has to offer."
The hairs on the back of the wolf's neck hadn't settled since the snap at Mr. Leedy. With the feral gaze redirected at Michael, he could only shiver with the certainty that the wolf was following their discussion. If not their words then surely the tension in the air had set the animal to alert. Michael made a studied effort to relax, hoping to calm him.
"Lord Atherton's upbringing is of no consequence to you. Either the offer of employment is acceptable or it's not. I'm meant to obtain your answer today, please, sir."
"Very well," Michael murmured thoughtfully as he considered the information he'd be given. "I'll be teaching his lordship social graces only? Dancing, conversation, methods of address, manners?"
"And I'm to do so in such a way that no one will question his lordship's place among his peers as he seeks his bride."
"There should be no question of his superlative lineage at any time," Mr. Leedy acknowledged.
"I have two months and the offer stands at two thousand for that duration, to terminate the agreement upon the Throckmorton's annual Christmas Ball," Michael clarified.
Mr. Leedy agreed.
Michael tapped his lip with a forefinger. If he never asked, the answer would be no by default, he decided. "As there is much to do in the way of small nuances for social manner, and a brief time to carry out the charge, I'll require all you've stated already and four thousand pounds."
Mr. Leedy's eyes bugged and he sputtered unhappily. "The offer is already more than generous."
"Yes, but you forget that Lord Atherton specifically requested my services. He's apparently recognized in me something not found in another son of the realm. Therefore, I'll require unique compensation for my unique talents." Michael tried to curb the smile tugging at his lips, but he knew he failed.
"I'll have to discuss this unfortunate turn of events with his lordship," Mr. Leedy snapped. "Wait here."
Mr. Leedy stormed out of the room. The wolf followed him to the door, yipped, but stopped short of leaving. Michael looked at the animal warily.
"Good dog," Michael said.
The gray beast trotted back to him with a snarl. Its nose shoved hard to Michael's groin, and the sharp point of teeth closed around his sac. Michael sucked in sharply. He froze as he stared down at the animal that held Michael's entire future in its mouth. He was very fond of his man parts and the rapid staccato of his pulse began the steady roaring of blood in his ears.
"Very good wolf," Michael amended with a whisper. An eternity passed before Mr. Leedy came back. The wolf released and sat squarely between Michael's legs almost as though mocking him.
Mr. Leedy cleared his throat. "His Lordship agrees to your conditions, and gives you one of his own."
"Keep the wolf off me, and I'll listen."
It trotted to the side of the desk.
"He'll honor your demand for four thousand pounds. In return, should successful acquisition of his bride not be made for some preventable cause owning to your talents, his lordship will retain your services for the next four years to pay off the expense."
"Four years?" Michael exclaimed.
"At an average of one thousand pounds a year for a position among his assistants is still a lucrative offer."
Michael swallowed hard against the relief and the sting to his pride at Mr. Leedy's words. A lowly assistant? But reason warred with him, reminding him that either way, he'd receive room and board in addition to four thousand pounds. If he merely had two, he'd be required to find work at a future date as the funds wouldn't be sufficient to support him indefinitely. The offer was a slap in the face to his family connections, but not unreasonable.
"And the wolf?"
Mr. Leedy looked down at the animal. It held Mr. Leedy's gaze then rested its muzzle on the edge of the desk.
"The wolf won't be an issue."
Slowly, Michael nodded. He needed the money. His future required it. Michael held his hand out to seal the bargain. "I won't fail, Mr. Leedy."
The secretary gripped his hand firmly. "See that you don't."