July 1634, Magdeburg
Katherine Franzius surveyed the contents of her wardrobe. What to wear to work today? It hadn’t been a problem when she first started work at Magdeburg Concrete two years ago. Back then she’d made do with a single dark blue skirt and jacket, and choice of two linen blouses for work—the standard uniform of typewriter operators. However, it wouldn’t do for the executive assistant to the head of operations to be mistaken for a lowly typewriter operator. She now wore clothes that properly portrayed her importance and standing within the company. She spared a glance for the several inches of empty wardrobe. Maybe it was time ask Ronald about granting her a dress allowance again. It must be all of two months since she last asked, and clothes that projected the required image were expensive.
She finally settled on a white cotton blouse with a narrow lace ruff and a slate-blue calf-length linen skirt topped with a fitted doublet-style linen jacket in the best black Lothlorien Farbenwerke could produce. She adjusted the lace ruff so that it showed above the jacket collar and twirled around a couple of times, looking in the mirror to admire how the skirt swirled around her silk-stocking clad legs. Happy with her choice, she hunted for a particularly nice silver-buckled belt and matching handbag she’d bought just the previous week and examined the finished product in the mirror. That brought a happy nod from the image.
Next she opened her shoe cupboard. The last few days had been particularly hot, so she wanted something open. But she also had to walk to work, that meant the light sandals wouldn’t do. There really wasn’t anything suitable, which meant she needed to go shopping for shoes again. That brought another smile. Katherine enjoyed shopping. It was one of the fruits of her climb to executive assistant that made it all worthwhile. When she first started work at Magdeburg Concrete she’d barely earned enough to pay the rent on a single room apartment, let alone a shopping spree. However, her position had grown with the company. Within weeks of starting she’d found herself assigned as secretary to Ronald Chapman, probably the single greatest piece of luck to ever fall her way. With Ronald heavily in demand outside the office for his knowledge of how the concrete machines worked, she’d often been left in sole charge of the office. She’d flourished on the responsibility, actively seeking more and more of it until now she was more than a secretary; she was Ronald’s executive assistant, his trusted confidant and advisor, and one of the highest paid employees at Magdeburg Concrete. Ronald happily left her in charge whenever he could escape the office.
Katherine settled for a pair of low-heeled black pumps with a narrow strap. Her hair, in its businesslike chignon, needed something more than just hairpins to hold it, so she dug through her hats, scarves and gloves drawer for a crocheted white snood and pinned it on over her hair. She examined herself critically. The white lace netting contrasted attractively with her almost black hair. Now all she needed was a little jewelry and she’d be dressed. She unlocked her jewelry drawer and ran her fingers over the various compartments. Yes, the small silver wristwatch today, and a similar sized silver bracelet for the right wrist for balance. No rings for work, but a pair of simple pearl earrings would be okay. Katherine checked that she had money for breakfast and lunch before slipping her purse into her handbag and then picked through the contents of the bowl on her bedside table for a few office-day essentials. She added a couple of handkerchiefs from the top drawer, wound her watch and checked it against the more reliable bedside clock. She’d been awake less than an hour and she was already ready to leave for work.
Ronald Chapman rolled out of his bed and staggered over to the jug and bowl on a table by the window. Splashing cold water over his face helped him wake up. He shaved as best he could with his clockwork shaver. A blade shave would have been better, but he wasn’t game to try it with cold water, especially in his present condition.
He was doing up his boot laces when his eyes fell on a scrunched up ball of paper, the letter from his landlord he’d found tacked to his door when he stumbled home at two in the morning. That had been the perfect end to the perfect day. The number two kiln had been working perfectly all year and then, right in the middle of a major order, and a week before it was scheduled to be taken offline for preventative maintenance, it decided to fail. It’d taken Ronald and his team less than an hour to locate the problem—uneven wear on a bearing because of a poor casting—and another ten to fix it. He smoothed the letter out and read it again. Yep, it still said that the owner wanted to turn the apartment building into condos, and unless he wanted to buy his apartment he wasn’t going to have a home come September. He’d have to get Katherine to find him a new apartment.
Arendsee, Altmark, north of Magdeburg
Christine Niemand was the first of her family to waken. She slipped out from under the thin blanket that was their only covering and quickly washed and dressed before waking her brother and sister.
While they washed and dressed, she got breakfast ready. She lifted the heavy stone off the lid of the cooking pot and divided the cold remains of last night’s eel stew into three bowls, putting the empty pot to one side to be washed later. Then she turned to another old pot and removed the heavy stone and lid from it. It held the remains of an almost stale loaf of bread. She cut off chunks for each of them and placed them on the table before putting the remaining bread back into the pot and covering it. She’d learned the hard way that the extra weight of a stone was necessary to stop the rats getting into the food.
She looked up after saying the prayer for their meal to find her brother Claus looking at her. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Pastor Heyl thinks I could earn a scholarship to the Latin school in Stendal if I could get extra tutoring before the tests.”
Christine reached out and hugged her brother. If he could earn a scholarship that would be one less drain on her meager purse. Unfortunately they both knew there was no way she could afford to pay for the extra tutoring.
“Pastor Heyl is sweet on you, Chrissy. If you were to marry him . . . ” Claus fell silent.
Christine couldn’t meet her brother’s eyes. She tried to remember that he didn’t mean to be selfish. She tried to remember that earning a scholarship to the Latin school was his best chance of helping them better their situation. The alternative was a life of poverty, and at seventeen that wasn’t a pleasant future to look forward to. “I’ll find the money somehow, Claus. Now eat your breakfast.”
After breakfast Christine sent Ilsa and Claus off to school with an eel pie wrapped in a square of cloth for lunch before tidying the cottage and washing the dishes. Then she walked over to her friend Margarethe’s cottage where she poured out her problems while they carded wool together.
“How are you going to afford the extra tutoring for Claus?” Margarethe asked.
Christine paused in her carding. “I don’t know.”
“Pastor Heyl is sweet on you,” Margarethe suggested.
“Not you too, Margarethe. Claus has already suggested I marry the pastor, but he’s so old. Why, he must be at least forty.”
“That’s not so very old.”
“Maybe not to you, but if I have to marry, I’d rather it be to someone with a little life in him. Not some dried up old stick like the pastor.”
Margarethe sighed heavily. “What about Fritz Winkler? He’s been sniffing about since your father died.”
Christine shuddered. There was something about Fritz and the way he looked at her that scared and revolted her. “No. Anybody would be better than him, even Pastor Heyl.”
“Anybody?” Margarethe asked.
Christine looked at her friend suspiciously.
“I was tearing out a few pages to help start the fire this morning when one of the advertisements caught my eye.” Margarethe reached for a much mutilated catalog and passed it over.
Christine looked at the advertisement. “Wives of Distinction?”
“Yes. You should get your name on their books. You never know, you might find yourself a rich husband.”
Christine snorted. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Yes, well, maybe expecting a rich husband might be a bit much, but surely someone better than Fritz Winkler or the pastor. What do you have to lose?”
Christine sighed. She didn’t really have anything to lose and she could gain a future for herself and her brother and sister. “Very well, I’ll write a letter.”
The first thing Katherine did after sitting down at her desk at Magdeburg Concrete was to reach for the contents of her out-basket. An executive assistant shouldn’t have to check her out-basket at the start of every day, but her boss often worked long after she’d left for the day and when his in-basket ran empty he often started on hers, dumping anything he finished into her out-basket. From where, if she didn’t intervene, it could be filed without her ever seeing the documents. At least this morning she didn’t expect to find any surprises. The gate guard had told her that the cement kiln Ronald had been called away to work on early yesterday afternoon hadn’t been fixed until nearly two in the morning. He should have been too tired to come into the office after that. She let her mind wander, imagining a world where Ronald left her in-basket alone.
She glanced down at her wristwatch. Was that the time? With Ronald having worked so late he’d need his morning caffeine fix more than ever today. She rushed into the small kitchenette off her office and started preparing the coffee.
Ronald waved to the guard as he walked through the gates of Magdeburg Concrete and walked to the company cafeteria where breakfast was being served.
It was a cheap and simple meal of hot mush and a thick slice of bread spread with dripping. All washed down with a mug of small beer. The company firmly believed that offering a good meal to start the day kept the accident and absenteeism rates down. Ronald paid for his meal and hunted for a seat.
Even though he was the sole up-timer in the cafeteria, and one of the bosses, everyone ignored him. He’d been using the cafeteria since it was first started and now the workers were used to him eating with them. They left him alone and got on with their meals and conversations, leaving Ronald to eat in peace.
When he finished eating he took his tray to the cleaning station like everyone else. He didn’t make a fuss about the workers who were still eating. As long as they put in an honest day’s work he didn’t care how long they took. So far this studied disinterest was delivering the dividends in worker-employer harmony he’d promised when he proposed the policy to the company’s directors.
Ronald pushed open the door to his office and settled himself behind his desk. After dropping into his chair, he glared at the empty desk in the outer office. “Kathy!”
Katherine poked her head out of the office kitchenette. “Two minutes.”
He sighed. With barely four hours sleep he desperately needed that first hit of caffeine.
A couple of minutes later Katherine waved a mug of coffee under his nose. He grabbed it and inhaled the first couple of inches. Then, still sipping, he gently leaned back on his chair and looked up at his executive assistant. “You’re a lifesaver, Kathy.”
She smiled modestly back. “Herr Knaust wishes you to contact him as soon as possible.”
“Any idea what he wants?” The question was a polite fiction. Katherine was a compulsive knower of everyone’s business.
“There may be delays in the Magdeburg Towers project.”
“What does that have to do with me? Aren’t the Towers being built by Magdeburg Growth Holdings?” Ronald was pretty sure he was on firm ground here. He walked past the construction site nearly every day and you couldn’t miss the billboards advertising the development. However, he didn’t like the way Katherine was looking at him. It was sort of condescending, and she sure did condescending well. “What’s my connection to Magdeburg Growth Holdings?”
“You are Magdeburg Growth Holdings, Ronald. It’s your personal front company.”
“I have a front company?” Ronald was surprised. “I thought it was only criminals and people with something to hide who had front companies?”
“We set it up last year when you invested in the new bridge. You didn’t think it would look good if a principal of a concrete company was a major shareholder in the new bridge.” Katherine paused to glare at Ronald. “You signed the authorization yourself, remember?”
Ronald tried his best to out-glare Katherine. He definitely remembered that conversation. He even remembered talking about building a skyscraper to profit from the booming demand for accommodation. What he didn’t remember was asking her to do the paperwork to create a front company. Nor, for that matter, did he remember asking her to invest his hard earned money in the new bridge over the Elbe or an apartment block. He didn’t doubt he had signed the authority, he just couldn’t remember doing it. But then, last year he’d been so busy with the expansion of Magdeburg Concrete’s production capacity that he hadn’t had time to actually read every file that passed across his desk before signing off on them.
Things had improved over the last six months, though. With the mad rush over he’d actually had time after the rest of the office staff left for the day to read the documents Katherine left in his in-basket. Heck, sometimes when he finished the contents of his in-basket he even helped Katherine by clearing the contents of her in-basket.
His glare failed to make any impression on Katherine and she continued to stand in front of him, completely unaffected. “Okay, so I own an apartment block. What’s gone wrong?”
“Nothing has gone wrong. Construction is ahead of schedule and the Towers should be habitable three months early, on the first of October.”
Ronald had learned the hard way to be sensitive to words. He easily picked up on the important one. “Habitable?”
“Yes. If you don’t insist on the elevators running Herr Knaust is proposing a deal that can have everything else up and running by the end of September. However, if you want the elevators, it will now be April of next year at the earliest before they can be completed.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Towers supposed to be seven stories high?” Katherine nodded. “And aren’t they supposed to be luxury apartments?” Again Katherine nodded. “Nobody willing to pay for luxury is going to pay to walk up stairs. Of course I want the elevators. What’s the hold up?
“Furttenbach and Parigi won the design competition for the new opera house complex and our elevator contractor wants to supply the elevators the design calls for. However, they can’t meet the opera house’s tight deadline and deliver your elevators on schedule. They want you to accept a delay of three months.”
“What the elevator contractor wants to do isn’t our problem. Don’t we have a contract?” Ronald asked.
“Yes, but Herr Knaust believes he can get the contractor to lower his price and as they need the elevators delivered on a very tight schedule, Kelly Construction has suggested that they could connect the Towers to the opera house power plant. That would give the Towers steam for heating and electricity at a much lower cost than if you had your own steam plant and generators. As it only adds three months to the existing schedule and you can still let the apartments—even if at reduced rates—two months early, Herr Knaust considers it a win-win situation.”
“What about the boiler and generator that were supposed to go into the Towers?” Ronald asked.
“They aren’t installed yet, and Herr Knaust is confident they can easily be sold to another developer.”
Ronald chewed over the information. Here and now a steam plant, even for something as small as Magdeburg Towers, was a pretty significant capital investment. And, as for running costs, if the plant at Magdeburg Concrete was anything to go by, he was sure they’d be high. “Okay. Tell Herr Knaust to get the best deal he can.”
“I’ll just go and type up instructions for Herr Knaust for you to sign.”
Ronald knew Katherine well enough to be sure she had already typed up instructions based on what she thought he should do. The time it took before she came back would tell him how well his decision matched what she thought should be done. He waited until she was at the door before calling. “Are you sure you don’t already have instructions typed out ready for me to sign?”
Katherine hauled open the office door and, as if the thought had never crossed her mind, turned and glared at him. Then she stepped right into William Roberts, the other up-time senior executive of Magdeburg Concrete, who had just stepped through the door.
There was an exchange of stilted apologies full of “Fraülein Franzius” and “Herr Roberts” before Katherine escaped, shutting the door after her.
Bill Roberts looked from the closed door to Ronald. “You done something to upset your secretary?”
Ronald shook his head and leaned his chair back on its back legs. “Kathy’ll get over it easily enough.”
“I hope you’re right, because Debbie’s dumped another charity event on my lap. The Arts Council ball, and I don’t see why I should be the only one to suffer. Unless you’ve got someone I haven’t heard about tucked away, you’ll have to ask your secretary to save you from the ravaging hordes again. Is she likely to be agreeable?”
Ronald grimaced. At any social event he attended he faced having the down-time partners of Magdeburg Concrete introducing him to their daughters and grand-daughters, all the time suggesting that it was time he thought about marrying. It had gotten so bad lately that he’d been driven to begging Katherine to accompany him in an attempt to deflect some of the attention. It was enough to put a guy off marriage completely.
Katherine poked her head into the room and nodded vigorously. “And I’m Ronald’s executive assistant. Not his secretary.”
The door shut as quickly as it had opened and Ronald and Bill were left alone in the office. Ronald glanced over to Bill. “We’ll be there.”
“She listens through the door?”
“Kathy assures me it’s an essential part of being a successful executive assistant. It means she doesn’t have to rely on me to tell her things she needs to know to make my life easier.”
“Jeez. And you let her get away with that?”
“Bill, it works for us. As you’re always telling me, if it’s not broke . . . “
“Don’t fix it. Okay, if you’re happy, I’ll stay out of it. But it wouldn’t work for me.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not me. If you can get the invitations to Kathy, she’ll make sure we turn up.”
“You know, your secretary just about runs your life as it is. Why not marry her and let her run the rest of your life?”
Bill had only been gone a few minutes when Katherine came in with the authority for Herr Knaust. She sniffed delicately. “I wouldn’t marry you even if you asked me.”
Ronald signed the letter and handed it back. “I know. I’m not mature or sophisticated enough for you.”
The pair exchanged smiles of mutual understanding.
“Partnering me to the Arts Council ball isn’t going to interfere with your love life is it?” Ronald asked.
Katherine shook her head. “No. Joachim is busy that evening.”
“He must be a real understanding guy if he doesn’t mind you going out with your boss.”
“Joachim understands that the duties of an executive assistant are many and varied, and that I get paid triple time after midnight.”
“Yeah, I love you too.” He shook his head. “Debbie’s going to have to cut down on her charity events. They’re costing me a fortune.”
“Do you know what you need, Herr Chapman?”
Ronald lowered his chair onto all four legs. When Katherine called him Herr Chapman, he knew he wasn’t going to like what she had to say. “No, Fraülein Franzius, I don’t know what I need.”
“You need a wife.”
He was glad he wasn’t still leaning back on his chair. That suggestion coming from Katherine would have had him rearing right back and tipping over. “Not you, too? I thought you were on my side.”
“I am. You don’t have to marry one of your partners’ daughters or grand-daughters, though. Any suitable woman would do. Think of the money you’d save. Besides, you’re lonely. You need a companion.”
“If I want a companion, I’ll get myself a dog.”
“And where would you keep it? You live in a one-room apartment on the third floor of a residential hotel. At least a wife can clean up after herself, and exercising her would be much more fun.”
Ronald glared at Katherine. It was so long since he last had a woman the idea of a wife was almost attractive. It wasn’t that women, even prostitutes, weren’t available. The big problem was that he was scared. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases were endemic and the antibiotics to treat them were sadly lacking. Sure, they had condoms here and now, but he’d heard they had to be made to measure out of sheep intestine. Just trying to picture being fitted for one was enough to put him off.
Suddenly he remembered the letter from his landlord. He passed it over to Katherine. “Can you find me somewhere else to live?”
“I can investigate what’s available, but what about Magdeburg Towers? You could move in to the penthouse with your new wife.”
“I don’t need a wife, Kathy. I’m not even looking for one,” Ronald protested.
“That’s because you’ve forgotten what you’re missing and you work too hard to meet anybody but the simpering girls your partners push under your nose. But don’t worry, a good executive assistant is always ready to provide her boss with everything he needs.”
“I am not going to some tacky singles bar, and I don’t do blind dates.” Hopefully that would stymie Katherine. Without his cooperation there was no way she could find him a wife. Although the way she smiled just before she waltzed out of the office didn’t look good. Ronald leaned his chair back on its rear legs again and mulled over his conversation with his executive assistant. Surely he’d covered all the bases?
“Stick out your tits, love. The customers like to see what you’ve got to offer.”
Christine swallowed her temper and stuck out her chest as directed so the photographer from Wives of Distinction could take his photograph. She didn’t approve of having her photograph taken, but Frau Saling, the agent from Wives of Distinction, had insisted that men responded more often to listings if they knew what a woman looked like.
“Right, love, you can relax now.” The photographer removed the double-dark from the back of the camera and handed it over to Christine. “Take that over to my assistant and wait.”
Christine took the flat wooden cassette gingerly in her hands and hurried over to the photographer’s tent. Behind her she could hear the photographer calling out instructions to the next girl in line.
“Name?” The photographer’s assistant asked.
“Christine Niemand.” She watched the assistant write her name in chalk on a blackboard. He pointed to a bench. “Wait over there. In this light, it’ll be half an hour before your prints are ready.”
Christine walked over to the bench and sat down. She felt as if she was selling her body for a wedding ring and security for her family, but in the last couple of weeks her situation had deteriorated significantly. Frau Cratzmann had discovered that her precious son, Fritz Winkler, was pursuing Christine. Unfortunately, she held Christine responsible for his behavior, and as her husband was Christine’s village-appointed legal guardian things weren’t looking good for Christine keeping her family together.
Christine jerked up, saw Frau Saling and hurried over to her. She was examining a couple of pictures. It took a moment for Christine to realize they were her pictures.
“These are good enough. There’s no need to take new ones, so you’re free to go. I wish you success in your hunt for a husband.”
It was a few seconds after Frau Saling walked away before Christine realized it was all over. She was going to be listed with Wives of Distinction. She looked around. Some of the other girls were milling around talking to each other, but for Christine time away from her spinning and carding was time she wasn’t earning. She started running for Margarethe’s.
Late August, Magdeburg
Ronald and Katherine’s footsteps echoed throughout the penthouse. The space was enormous, especially when he compared it to the hotel room he’d been living in the last couple of years.
“Master with full en suite. You’ll be needing a bed, linen, a dresser and a chest of drawers.” Katherine stood in the middle of the room taking notes.
Ronald looked into the en suite. There was a sunken tub big enough for two, twin shower, and twin hand-basins. He could fit his current apartment in one corner and still have plenty of room. “I don’t think I’ll be moving in here. I’d get lost.”
“Nonsense. A few weeks and you’ll be wondering how you survived in your poky little room.”
“This whole apartment is way too big for one person.”
Katherine smiled at Ronald. “There’s an easy solution for that.”
He glared back at her. He’d hoped she’d forgotten her silly idea of finding him a wife. She’d certainly been quiet on the subject lately.
“Anyway, if you remember, your landlord is kicking you out shortly. You need somewhere to live before the end of the month. As you own the Towers, it’d be foolish for you not to live there.”
“But the penthouse? Why not a nice little studio apartment on the second floor?”
“Because until the elevators are installed the closer to the ground an apartment is, the higher the rent it commands, and you need all the income you can get to service your mortgage,” Katherine answered.
“Surely the rent for the penthouse would be more than the rent for a studio apartment lower down?”
Katherine shook her head. “You know better than that, Ronald. Nobody who could afford the rent for this much space is interested in climbing seven flights of stairs.”
“So I get stuck with it,” Ronald grumbled.
“You and your family.”
Ronald suddenly had a horrifying thought. “Hell, with this much space they’ll expect me to put them up whenever they visit.”
“All the more reason to start your own family,” Katherine answered.
“Will you stop that? I am not looking for a wife.”
“How will you feel when you’re a lonely old man with no family to comfort you?”
Ronald snorted his contempt for that idea. “A hell of a lot better than my big brother will feel with his mob of bloodsucking leeches hanging around.”
Katherine glared and stamped off into the distant bowels of the penthouse apartment. Left, for once, triumphant, Ronald celebrated his victory over his executive assistant by investigating his new home.
Katherine had met Ronald’s brother and his children. Calling them bloodsucking leeches was probably an exaggeration, but there was sufficient truth in the comment for her to feel Ronald had won that argument. Losing wasn’t something Katherine condoned, especially not losing to Ronald. Recovery from such a serious blow to her self-esteem was going to take serious therapy, and when a woman needed serious therapy there was only one kind worth bothering with—retail therapy.
She tried a few of her regular shops, but nothing called out to her. So she drifted a little further afield. That’s how she came across the tiny office of Wives of Distinction. A brief perusal of the exterior advertising perked up her spirits. A marriage agency! Why hadn’t she thought of that?
The gentle tinkling of the door bell attracted the attention of the woman seated at a desk. She looked up from what she was reading. “May I help you?”
“I was just passing when I saw your sign. You find husbands for single women, don’t you?”
“Yes, we do. Are you looking for a life partner?”
Katherine shook her head. “Not for me, for a friend.” She saw the knowing look in the woman’s eyes and hastened to correct her. “Truly, a friend of mine is looking for a wife.”
“Ah, Then you’ve come to the right place. What kind of wife is your friend looking for?”
“Young, healthy, intelligent . . . ” Katherine hunted in her mind for other qualities Ronald might like. “Not too plump. Actually, skinny would better describe his taste.”
The woman opened an index card box and collected several lengths of wire from a drawer. “How young?” she asked, a wire ready to thread through one of the holes punched along the edge of the cards.
“How young do they get?” Katherine asked.
“I’ve recently added a seventeen-year-old, but most of my clients are in their mid-twenties or older.”
Katherine was surprised. Most people waited until they were in their twenties before marrying. It tended to take that long before they could afford to do so. “Why would a seventeen-year-old be looking for marriage?”
Frau Saling pulled a card out from the back of the index box. “The poor thing was orphaned last year and left with the care of her younger brother and sister. She’s currently supporting her family on what she earns as a spinster.”
“In other words, she’s slowly starving to death?”
“She’s certainly not plump, and as for intelligent, her brother hopes to attend the local Latin school on scholarship.”
“Could I have a look at that card?” Katherine asked.
Frau Saling passed it over. “Would you like me to sort out some other candidates?”
Katherine was busy reading the scant details on the card and waved Frau Saling’s question off. “It says here that there are two photographs. Could I see them?”
“Viewing a girl’s photographs costs ten dollars.”
“What? Ten dollars just to look!”
“I run a business here. A lot of my clients can’t afford the services of a photographer, so I send out my own man and charge the men for photographs to cover my costs.”
A nice little racket if ever there was one, Katherine thought as she rummaged in her handbag for her purse. The woman probably did way better than just cover her costs.
Frau Saling pulled a folder out of her filing cabinet and placed the two photographs on her desk.
Katherine looked at the girl in the photographs. She was perfect. Her story would appeal to Ronald’s noble instincts, of which she felt he had way too many, and her looks would strike at the man in him. “Could I have a copy of the listing and the photographs, please?”
“Just the one girl? You shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. After all, the girl might not be interested in your friend.”
“Just the one.” Katherine was adamant.
“You’ll have to wait a couple of days for my photographer to print off your copies.”
Katherine looked down at the photographs. She wanted to strike while the iron was hot. “Why can’t I have these photographs?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that. What if someone else wanted to see them?”
Katherine hadn’t risen to the position of executive assistant to the operations manager of Magdeburg Concrete by being stupid. She reached for her purse again. “How much?”
Frau Saling smiled. “For one hundred dollars you can have the photographs and as a special favor, I’ll remove Christine’s listing until I get replacement prints.”
Katherine thought about it for a full thirty seconds. Even on her salary it was a lot of money, but the opportunity was too good to miss. She peeled off a hundred dollars and passed the fistful of notes over. “I’ll take it. What’s the deal if my friend wants to get in touch with the girl?”
“On payment of a small fee he gets a letter delivered to the girl and a guaranteed reply, even if it’s just a ‘thank you, but no thank you.'”
Katherine accepted the schedule of fees from Frau Saling, and nearly choked when she read the magnitude of Frau Saling’s “small fee” to deliver a letter outside of Magdeburg. She stared down at Frau Saling and pointed mutely to the offending number.
“I have to make a profit, and it does cost a lot to have a courier deliver the letters and collect replies. Of course, if your friend puts his address in his letter to the girl there is nothing stopping her writing to him without going through my agency, using the regular mail.”
Katherine could understand her point. The fee for delivering the introductory letters might be the last she received from a client, so she would have to charge as much as the market could bear to remain in business. “Do you have any recommendations as to what my friend should say in his letter?”
Frau Saling pulled a single printed sheet from a box by her desk and passed it over. “Just get him to follow these simple rules, and tell him he should include at least a full face photograph. It’s only fair that the girl gets to see what the men who wish to correspond with her look like.”
If the men were writing letters and adding photographs, how, Katherine wondered, did Frau Saling know the photographs were actually of the men writing the letters? Immediately following that thought Katherine started worrying about Christine’s photographs. “How do I know these photographs are really of the girl in the listing, or even that she really exists?”
“My agency’s continued existence depends on its good name. Every girl I list has been personally vetted by me or one of my assistants. I can assure you, Christine exists, and she is the young woman in the photographs. I know. I was the person who vetted her.”
Satisfied, Katherine took her leave.
Now, how was she going to draw Ronald’s attention to Christine? Katherine spent the walk back to the office mulling over the problem. Finally she decided she’d hit Ronald when he came into work the next day. Around the time he had his first caffeine hit of the day, when he was at his most relaxed and susceptible. Katherine smiled smugly to herself. A girl didn’t rise to executive assistant without learning how to manage her boss.
Next day, Magdeburg
Katherine spied Ronald walking past the gatehouse. She put down her binoculars and went to start the coffee. Ronald was a creature of habit and she knew to within a couple of minutes how long he’d take to finish his breakfast at the staff cafeteria.
Then she went into Ronald’s office to check that everything was ready. The folder with Christine’s data sheet and photographs was sitting on top of his in-basket, ready to be the first thing Ronald reached for after she served him his coffee. Perfect. Now she just had to wait.
Ronald was greeted by the smell of freshly brewed coffee as he entered his office. He could see the mug sitting on his desk waiting for him. Grabbing it, he slumped into his chair and reached for the first folder in his in-basket. He dropped it onto his desk and flipped it open.
He stared. Who the hell was this girl? He laid the contents of the file out on his desk. There were two photographs, a typed description, and an information sheet from “Wives of Distinction” giving instructions on how to write an introduction letter. “Katherine Franzius, get in here right now!”
Katherine appeared. “You called?”
Ronald pointed. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“It’s the woman I think you should marry.”
“Woman? She’s just a kid.” Ronald grabbed the data sheet and read it again before waving it under Katherine’s nose. “Hell, she’s the same age as Gerald’s daughter.”
“A little younger, actually, but if you read her description of herself you’ll see that she’s virtually raised her sister as her own child since their mother died five years ago. And more recently, since the death of their father last year left her and her brother and sister orphaned, she’s been the sole source of support for her family. That kind of thing matures a person very quickly.”
Ronald read further down the data sheet. Yes, it did tell about Christine’s situation. “Why the hell would a seventeen-year-old girl want to marry an old guy like me?”
“Security. Maybe even affection. And if she’s lucky . . . love.”
Ronald looked up at her in surprise. That wasn’t the kind of thing he expected to hear from his ever-so-elegant assistant. He pushed the photos to one side and reached for the next folder. Katherine was still standing beside him. “Don’t just stand there. Get back to work.”
He pretended interest in the new file until Katherine was back in her office, hammering away on her typewriter. Then he lowered the file and glanced over at the photographs. The full length one was a bit tacky, until you looked at the eyes. They seemed to be calling out “this isn’t the real me.” And then there was the portrait. There was something about the girl in the photograph that just reached out and grabbed him. He turned back to the file he was supposed to be reading.
At three o’clock Bill Roberts dropped by for a mug of coffee. He couldn’t help but notice Ronald hastily covering something on his desk. So he deliberately lifted the files to reveal two photographs. He got a hand on them just before Ronald could grab them, then stepped back to examine them. She was a good looking girl, but he didn’t recognize her. “Who is she?”
“She’s the seventeen-year-old girl currently at the top of Kathy’s list to become Mrs. Ronald Chapman.”
The statement was delivered so nonchalantly that at first Bill didn’t take it all in. Then it struck. “Your secretary is trying to marry you off to this sweet young thing?”
“Yes, and I’ve told her the girl is way too young for me.”
Bill reexamined the photographs. He had vague memories of some of Ronald’s previous girlfriends. The memories were so vague that he started wondering just how long it’d been since Ronald had a girlfriend. His best guess was some time back up-time. This girl was attractive without being really beautiful. However, she had the kind of looks that promised to improve with maturity. And why, if she was way too young, did Ronald look as if he wanted to mug him to get the photographs back. “Be sure to invite me and Debbie to the wedding.”
“I am not getting married, Bill, regardless of what Kathy thinks.”
Bill waved the photographs, and Ronald snatched them from his hand. “Anything you say.” Bill wanted to laugh. His friend was all tied up in knots over a seventeen-year-old girl he’d only seen in a pair of black and white photographs. He’d have to tell Debbie about this.
All through the afternoon Ronald found his eyes drifting to the photographs. There was something about the girl that got to him. It was more than just her story of sacrifice. There was also the way she looked. It wasn’t any one feature—although her enormous eyes held Ronald every time he looked at her portrait—it was the whole package. Ronald felt more aroused than he’d been in years, and the photographs weren’t even mildly pornographic.
He tried to decide why he was responding to the photographs. Maybe it was the promise he saw in those eyes. And maybe he was just fooling himself, seeing something that wasn’t there. He pushed the photographs to one side and got back to reading files.
Finally, just after four-thirty, he gave in to the siren call. Maybe she wasn’t what he imagined. Maybe she wouldn’t want anything to do with a man more than twice her age. But it couldn’t hurt to make contact. Ronald grabbed the folder and walked out to talk to Katherine. “Okay. What do I have to do?”
“Write to her telling her you would like to get to know her better, objective: marriage.” She passed a couple of typed pages. “I’ve made a few suggestions. And you’d better put in some photographs so she knows what she’s getting. I suggest you pick one or two of these.” She handed him six photographs of himself. “I recommend these two.”
Ronald scowled. He’d only just arrived at the idea of finding out if the girl he imagined really existed and here she was talking about marrying the girl already. Could he marry a girl half his age, one who was younger than his niece? Well, certainly not if she was anything like as immature as Elizabeth Ann. But maybe this girl was the girl he imagined her to be. He turned his attention to two photographs Katherine had recommended. One was a full face shot and the other a full length one. He could see why the full face had been included. It was a good honest photograph of his battered face, but . . . “Why that full length shot?”
“Because it shows you in the Magdeburg Concrete company coveralls. You want to provide evidence that you are gainfully employed.”
“Surely the one in the suit would be better for that?”
Katherine shook her head. “It’s obviously an up-time suit. You want to look as if you can afford to support Christine and her family without looking rich, and everyone knows all up-timers are rich.”
Ronald collected Katherine’s suggestions and the photographs and retreated back to his office. There he sat down over a blank piece of paper and wondered what the hell to write. “Kathy, any chance of coffee?”
“I’ll put on a fresh pot.”
“Thanks.” While he waited for the essential thinking fluid, Ronald jotted down ideas of what he should say. He didn’t like some of Katherine’s suggestions, so he crossed those out. He had to think carefully about what to write if he wanted to discover if she was the girl he was imagining her to be.
A few minutes later. Katherine came in with a mug in each hand. Placing his in front of him she sat on the corner of his desk and sipped her own. “How’s it going?”
Ronald grabbed his coffee and took a healthy swig. “How do I tell her where I live without giving away what I’m worth?”
“That’s simple. Just tell her you live at the top of a seven-story apartment block. Her imagination will fill in the blanks.”
“I doubt she’s heard of elevators. She’ll most likely associate living on the seventh floor with cheap accommodation.”
“Okay, that solves that problem. What about the fact I don’t have a down-time name?”
“You might not have a local name, Ronald, but it could be an English name. I wouldn’t worry about it. Just don’t tell any lies. Nothing gets a girl’s back up like being lied to.”
Ronald took Katherine’s comments seriously. He also wondered who’d had the nerve to lie to her. “Right. Thanks for the coffee. You can go now. I’ve got a letter to write.”
He waited until Katherine was back at her desk before he went back to his letter. He wanted to say something that would capture Christine’s interest enough for her to want to respond without telling her too much, or making any commitment.
After dozens of screwed up attempts he finally put down his pen. While he stretched his fingers, he read the letter through. It wasn’t perfect, but then, who could write a perfect letter to a stranger? However, it said what he wanted to say. He just hoped it was enough to get Christine to respond. Heck, could she afford to respond? Could she even afford paper and pen? He got to his feet and walked over to the stationery drawer in Katherine’s office.”
“May I help you?” an aggrieved voice asked.
With his hands buried in the drawer, pushing papers all over the place, Ronald realized Katherine didn’t sound happy about something. “I’m after some reply-paid envelopes.”
Katherine pushed Ronald aside, pulled out another drawer, and produced a reply-paid envelope.
“Could I have half a dozen, oh, and some writing paper and maybe a good pencil or two?”
Katherine dutifully produced the requested objects. “Are you thinking Christine might not be able to afford to correspond with you?”
“That’s very good thinking, Ronald.”
Ronald was back in his office and assembling the package for Christine when the similarity between Katherine’s tone of voice and his mother’s whenever he’d done what he was told as a child struck him. For a moment, he wondered what his mother would say about him marrying a seventeen-year-old. Then he laughed. She might call him a dirty old man because of the age difference, but she’d be happy to see the last of her six children finally married.
He was just about to take the letter to Katherine for delivery when he remembered just who’d be handling delivery of his letter. There were some things a man didn’t want his executive assistant seeing, and he knew Katherine too well to expect her to deliver this letter without wanting to have a look at what he’d written. Pulling out his wallet, he found a stamp, which he stuck across the flap before signing his name across both it and the envelope. Now there was no way she could inspect the contents without leaving a clear sign the envelope had been interfered with. He walked out and dropped it on Katherine’s desk. “What do I owe you?”
“Plenty.” Katherine handed him the receipts from Wives of Distinction.
The total surprised Ronald but if Katherine was happy, who was he to complain. “Fill out a chit for me to sign and you can draw it from petty cash.”
Katherine walked into Wives of Distinction just as Frau Saling was closing.
“Is it something quick, I’m just closing,” Frau Saling said.
Katherine proffered the envelope and a bundle of notes. “My friend would like to have this sent to Christine as soon as possible.”
Frau Saling carefully counted the money. “It’ll take several days for delivery. Please tell your friend not to expect a reply for a couple of weeks.”
“A couple of weeks? For the fee you’re charging, I expect a little more urgency.”
“Fraülein Franzius, Arendsee is four days away by horse.”
“Oh! So Christine lives in Arendsee?”
Frau Saling shrugged. “You’ve paid for me to deliver a message. If she chooses to respond she will probably give you her full name and address anyway, so what have I lost? Just don’t let your friend go looking for her without her permission.”
“I’ll tell him. Thank you, Frau Saling.”
Sarah Saling shut and locked the door after Katherine left. Then, after pulling down the blinds, she sat down with the letter from Katherine’s friend.
Rats! Someone had sealed it. Then she realized it had been sealed with a stamp. Who would waste a dollar stamp to seal a letter? She tried to decipher the signature. It looked like “R something man.” She sat up. That messy connected writing was mostly only used by up-timers and she knew Fraülein Franzius was a secretary at Magdeburg Concrete. Maybe it was one of those up-timers. She reached for her copy of the Who’s Who of Grantville Up-timers. William “Bill” Roberts was married, which left Ronald Chapman. That certainly fitted the signature across the stamp. She read further. Ronald Chapman was one of the few remaining single up-timers with real money and prospects. But what would a wealthy up-timer want with a young girl like Christine? Then she remembered what she knew of human nature. She frowned down at the letter in her hand. Should she, shouldn’t she? The trouble was she’d accepted money to send the letter, and besides, what a feather in her cap it would be if one of her wives of distinction married Ronald Chapman of Magdeburg Concrete.
“Chrissy, there’s another letter waiting for you at the town hall.”
Christine jerked out of her working trance and looked up to see her brother. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Pastor Heyl sent me. Everyone wants to know if this one’s any better than the last one.”
Christine looked over at Margarethe, who was listening intently. “Off you go, girl. Maybe this one’s the one.”
“Go on, off you go, girl.”
Christine put down her carding paddles and ran barefoot after her brother.
Christine opened the envelope as she walked away from the town hall. There was the usual cover letter from Wives of Distinction and a thick envelope. The cover letter was from Frau Saling and said that the enclosed letter was from “Ronald of Magdeburg.” She stuffed Frau Saling’s letter into the pocket in her work apron and concentrated on the letter from Ronald. It was addressed simply to “Christine,” which was all the address he should have for her.
She found a bench to sit on, spread her apron across her knees, and emptied the contents onto her apron. She welcomed the photographs. The last couple of men hadn’t included any. Ronald of Magdeburg wasn’t a young man, and he wore spectacles, but he wasn’t unpleasing to the eye, and he had a nice smile. He certainly looked as if he still had all his own teeth, unlike some people she could think of.
“Can I see?” Claus asked.
Christine passed over the photographs and continued to look through the contents. There was a pencil, one of the fancy new ones that Claus dreamed of having. She’d have to keep a firm hold on that. There was also good quality writing paper and reply-paid envelopes. It certainly looked as if Ronald of Magdeburg really wanted to hear back from her. That was a change after the last man. He’d seemed to think Christine should up stakes and move to his village just because he wrote to her. She knew her situation wasn’t good, but it wasn’t that dire.
She looked at the envelopes. They were addressed simply to “Ronald Chapman, Magdeburg Concrete Inc, Magdeburg.” She stuffed those with the writing paper into her apron pocket. That left the letter.
“Well, is he better than the last one?”
Christine hastily shoved the letter protectively into her apron pocket. Margarethe had finally caught up with her, and she wasn’t the only villager standing around looking interested. “Yes.”
“What’s his name? And what does he have to say for himself?” Margarethe asked.
“His name is Ronald Chapman. He’s nearly forty, never married, and lives in Magdeburg where he has worked for Magdeburg Concrete for over two years.”
“That’s nice. It sounds like he can afford to support you and your brother and sister,” Margarethe said.
Christine pulled out the letter and continued reading. “He says Claus could go to any of the Latin schools in Magdeburg, that Ilsa can attend the local St. Veronica’s Academy, oh! And if I’m interested, I can enroll for classes at the Duchess Elisabeth Sofie Secondary School for Girls.” She hugged the letter to her breast. “I could go to school, just like Claus.”
“It sounds as if you’ve found yourself a rich man this time,” Anna Cratzmann, mother to Fritz Winkler, interrupted. “You’d be wise to snap him up whilst you’ve got the chance and save the village the cost of your support.”
“Oh shut up and leave the girl alone, Anna. Go on, Christine, tell us more. Where does he live?” Margarethe asked.
Christine searched through the letter. “He says he’s recently moved into new accommodations on the seventh floor of a new apartment building, and that there is plenty of room for all of us.”
“The seventh floor! Who’d want to live on the seventh floor? Think of all the stairs. Maybe he’s not so rich after all,” Anna said.
“I’m not looking for a rich man, Frau Cratzmann. Just a good man who will care for me and the children.”
“Well, you haven’t had much luck to date. Maybe you should catch hold of this one.”
Ronald looked at the envelope Katherine had just dropped on his desk. It was one of the envelopes he’d sent Christine and surprisingly enough Katherine had failed to open it. He waved it gently. “You on strike?”
“I thought that you would prefer I didn’t open it.” Katherine came back with the sweetest of sweet smiles.
Ronald wanted to take that comment on face value. It was unusual for Katherine not to read any mail that came to him through the office, but then, she knew a letter from Christine was likely to be personal and confidential. He slit it open and was pulling out the enclosed letter when he realized Katherine had moved to stand just behind his shoulder. He glared over his shoulder at her. “Do you mind?”
“This letter is important to me,” she protested.
“How do you work that out?”
“Because it might be from the future Mrs. Ronald Chapman.”
“Kathy, if you behave yourself I might let you look at it after I’ve finished reading it, but you’re not going to read it over my shoulder. Okay?”
It was obvious to Ronald that it wasn’t okay, but it was equally obvious Katherine was ready to concede some ground. He waited until she was back at her desk before he pulled out the letter and opened it.
Christine sat staring at the latest letter from Ronald. “Margrethe, he wants to meet me.”
“Progress at last. I thought he’d never ask. After all, there’re only so many ways you can beg him to come and rescue you without actually saying so.”
“I haven’t been begging,” Christine protested. Yet, she thought. It might have come to that if Ronald hadn’t asked this time though, but now that he’d written saying he wanted to meet her, she was terrified. She didn’t want her desperation to scare him off. “But I’m not ready. How do I convince him to marry me?”
Margarethe patted Christine gently on the shoulder. “I didn’t outlast three husbands without learning a thing or two about men and what makes them tick. Are you still a virgin?”
“Yes.” When had she ever had time to be anything else?
“That’s a good start. Now, what you have to do is . . . “
Ronald leaned back in his chair and reread Christine’s letter. She was happy for him to visit. That was a major step. He pulled his old Rand McNally atlas from the bookshelf and flipped it open to central Europe and looked at the small dot that was Arendsee. It was about fifty miles away as the crow flew, or about eighty miles following the modern roads. Unfortunately, he had no idea what roads actually existed that far north of Magdeburg here and now, and with work commitments and winter upon them this would probably be his only chance to see Christine in her home town before next spring.
He frowned at the thought. Reading between the lines Ronald was pretty sure Christine was living hand to mouth, which meant she might not be around next spring. He had to see her soon and persuade her to marry him.
He froze. Where the hell had that thought come from? Ronald stared unseeing at the atlas. Was he really thinking of marrying a seventeen-year-old girl? He fingered her latest letter and traced a finger over her signature. It sure looked like it, but why? He wasn’t in love with her. He couldn’t be. He’d never met her, and surely you couldn’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Maybe her situation was dire, but rescuing her and her family from near certain death was hardly a good reason to marry her. He could always send her money. He had enough of it. He pulled open his top drawer and pulled out Christine’s photographs. He sat and stared at them and found that they still had their power to arouse him. Sex? Was that why he was prepared to marry Christine? Was safe sex a good enough reason to marry anyone? Ronald placed the photographs back in their drawer and stood up. It might not be a great reason, but it was more realistic than imagining himself in love with her. Besides, maybe he’d find that they didn’t suit each other and all this worry was just wasted effort. Anyway he needed to tell Katherine she’d be minding the office for the next week or so.
Katherine looked up as Ronald approached her desk. The fact that he was carrying the atlas suggested he might be going on a short trip sometime soon. About bloody time, she thought. He’d shared Christine’s letters with her, so she understood the terror Christine must be feeling as Ronald dilly-dallied about.
“I need to be out of the office for a few days.”
“You intend traveling to Arendsee?”
“Yes. It’s past time I met Christine. Letters just aren’t a good enough way to get to know someone.”
Katherine reached into a drawer and removed a folder. She passed it over. “Travel documents, tickets and two thousand dollars in cash.” She reached back into the drawer for a draw-string purse which she placed on top of the folder. “And five hundred dollars in coins, just in case the smaller villages in the old Brandenburg territories don’t accept paper money.” She traced along the River Elbe on the map. “The steam ferry can carry you as far as Werben. From there you’ll need to hire a horse or walk about twenty-five miles to Arendsee. At this time of year that’s nearly a full day’s travel, so unless you want to arrive tired and exhausted as the sun sets, I’d advise you to stay overnight at Seehausen.”
“You seem to know a lot about that area of the world.”
“The travel arrangements are the same as those Joachim used last time he visited his parents. He had to pass through Arendsee on his way to Salzwedel. Now, the real question is, having decided to meet Christine, will you be asking her to marry you while you’re in Arendsee?”
“I wouldn’t be going if I wasn’t seriously thinking of asking her to marry me.”
“Good, and if you ask I’m sure she’ll accept.” My God, was Katherine sure Christine would accept. She passed Ronald an envelope. “Then you’ll want this.”
Ronald accepted the envelope gingerly. “What’s in it?”
“Character references and a copy of your tax returns. You’ll need them to convince Christine’s legal guardian to give permission for her to marry.”
Ronald fingered the envelope. “I’m more than twice Christine’s age. Do you think there’ll be any trouble getting her guardian’s consent?”
Biting back a grin Katherine shook her head. “No. I doubt there will be any trouble.” Was she ever sure there would be no trouble! Ronald was offering to rescue the village from the possibility of having to support Christine and her brother and sister. Whoever the council had appointed as the family’s guardian wouldn’t hesitate to consent to the marriage, as long as the documentation was all in order. “Finally, you’ll need a betrothal gift. I can get something suitable . . . “
“No, I’d better do that.”
Twelve months ago Ronald would have been only too willing to allow her to purchase a betrothal gift. Katherine hoped the future Mrs. Ronald Chapman would be properly appreciative of how well she’d trained her husband. “I’d recommend that you look for something small and pretty, like some decorated combs or even an enameled cosmetic box. Anything too big would be a nuisance to carry that far and fine gloves or shoes would only be a good idea if you had an idea about her size.”
“Shoes? As a betrothal gift? I can understand the others, or even jewelry, but what woman would want shoes?”
“Ronald, strange as it may be to you, most people consider themselves lucky to have one pair of shoes. A new pair of shoes would be a magnificent betrothal gift.”
She followed Ronald’s stare down to her feet. Today she was wearing a pair of red low-heeled pumps. She smiled. “Obviously, I’m not most people.”
“Obviously. Well, Christine can buy all the shoes she wants when she gets to Magdeburg. I guess I’d best look at some fancy combs.”
“With her mass of hair, combs are a good choice. If you tell whoever serves you that they are to be a betrothal gift, you’ll be shown something suitable.”
Ronald hadn’t realized just how unfit he’d become over the years. He’d certainly thought all the walking he did just going to and from work, as well as coping with seven flights of stairs twice a day, would have prepared him for the hike from Werben to Arendsee. How wrong he’d been. Of course, the fact that it started to rain just as he left the ferry at Werben and hadn’t let up since hadn’t helped. He could have hired a horse, which would at least have lifted him out of the sea of mud that was the road to Arendsee, however, never having ridden a horse in his life, Ronald hadn’t thought that this trip was the best time to start.
Where did he start looking for Christine? The church was surely the center of everything in such a small community. At the very least there would be someone there who could point him in Christine’s direction.
Someone dressed like a Lutheran pastor answered the door. “Excuse me, but could you tell me how I could find Fraülein Christine Niemand?” Ronald asked.
The pastor didn’t look at all friendly while he studied Ronald. “I could.”
Ronald waited patiently. It didn’t look as if the pastor wanted to help him find Christine. In fact, he didn’t look happy to see him at all, and it wasn’t as if Ronald was standing in the church dripping all over the floor. “Yes?” Ronald prompted.
“Are you the man from Magdeburg that Christine is expecting?”
“Yes.” Ronald certainly hoped he was.
For a moment he thought the pastor was going to slam the door in his face. Instead the man asked, “Please wait outside while I locate a guide.”
The door was shut before Ronald could get a word out.
Several cold and wet minutes later, the pastor returned with a boy. Ronald realized who his guide must be just as the pastor introduced him.
“This is Claus. Christine’s brother. He will guide you.” The pastor turned to Claus. “Hurry right back.”
They were a safe distance form the church before Claus broke the silence. “Are you really going to marry Chrissy and take us back to Magdeburg with you?”
He was happy to hear that Christine had openly talked about marrying him and moving her family to Magdeburg. It gave him hope. “If we find we like each other I was actually thinking that we’d marry in Magdeburg.”
“Like each other? But you have to marry Chrissy.”
“Why?” Ronald had his guesses, and even though he was sure Christine wouldn’t be happy to know he’d questioned her brother, he felt he needed all the information he could get if he was going to persuade Christine that she really wanted to marry him.
“Chrissy isn’t really earning enough to support us and she won’t be able to catch any eels when the lake ices over. Not that I’ll miss eating eel.” Claus stepped in front of Ronald and stared up at him. “We won’t have to eat eel, will we, in Magdeburg?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten eel.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” Claus replied authoritatively.
“Then I can promise you eel won’t be on the menu unless someone asks for it.”
“You mean Chrissy? That’s all right. I don’t think she likes eel either.”
“Then I’m sure you won’t be expected to eat eel in Magdeburg.”
They walked on in silence for a few minutes before Claus started talking again.
“You’re awfully muddy.”
Ronald smiled down at the boy. “And wet. Don’t forget wet. It started to rain just as I landed in Werben.”
“Werben? Did you come down from Magdeburg in the steam ferry? Are we going to travel to Magdeburg on the steam ferry?”
Right there Ronald knew how he could gain Claus’ support for his marriage to Christine. “Are you interested in steam engines?”
“Oh, yes, especially the new steam turbines American Electric Works is developing. I’ve read everything the newspapers have reported about them.”
“The new opera house just across from my apartment is supposed to be getting a steam turbine early next year. I know some of the people involved and I might be able to arrange a visit, if you’re interested?”
“Interested? In seeing a steam turbine? Oh, yes, Herr Chapman.”
“Then when we get to Magdeburg I’ll arrange for you to be shown around the new power plant. Of course, your sister might not want to marry a man twice her age.”
“Oh, Chrissy wants to marry you, Herr Chapman. You might be nearly forty, but at least you’re not a dried up old stick like Pastor Heyl.”
Ronald assumed Pastor Heyl was the man back at the church. No wonder he’d been so short, the poor guy must have wanted Christine for himself. Well, tough titty. It looked like the better man had won.
“Chrissy, Chrissy, he’s here. Herr Chapman’s here to take us back to Magdeburg,” Claus called through the open window.
Christine put down her carding combs and hurried to the door. “Come on in out of the rain.” She held the door open for Ronald and Claus. “Get those rain capes off. Claus, you hang them up.”
“Pastor Heyl said I was to go straight back after guiding Herr Chapman here.”
Christine cursed quietly to herself. Not only was her friend Margarethe out when she most needed her, but Claus was about to desert her as well. “Very well, off you go.” She turned back to Ronald who had taken off his rain cape and was standing looking a little lost. “Here, give me that.” She took the dripping cape and hung it from a peg.
She turned and had her first good look. He was looking back at her just as intensely. Christine hoped he liked what he could see. Not that he could see much. She’d bundled up as best she could in an attempt to stay warm while she carded wool. She was nervous and didn’t know what to say or do.
“I don’t suppose I could warm myself in front of the fire?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You must be near frozen. I’ll just add some wood.” Christine hastened to add some wood to the fire and then moved to close the shutters. It was silly to build up the fire when the window was open. This darkened the room, making it feel much more intimate than she liked. “If you stay where you are, I’ll light a candle.”
“No, don’t bother. I’ve got a lantern.”
Christine watched a flame appear in Ronald’s hand, and then there was the yellow glow of a lamp.
Ronald set the storm lantern on the mantelpiece and had another look around the room. It didn’t look any better in the lamplight than it had when he first walked in. Three people actually live in this tiny little hole? It was smaller than the room he’d had in the hotel and that was saying something. The window Christine had been working by had been the only source of light, and he was only calling it a window as a courtesy. It was just a rectangular hole in the wall that could be shut off by closing a couple of heavy wooden shutters. Certainly there was no glass to keep out the elements. No wonder she was bundled up, she must be nearly freezing. “There’s no way you can stay here. How soon can you be ready to leave for Magdeburg?”
As soon as the last word past his lips he mentally kicked himself. You silly, silly fool. He was assuming way too much. He reached out to hold Christine’s hands. They were cold. He kept hold of them while he stared into her eyes. “Christine. Can I call you Christine?” She nodded. “Christine, will you do me the honor of being my wife?”
There was a startled cry from Christine, then a quiet, almost whispered, “yes.”
Ronald swallowed. He knew he was close to screwing up. He released her hands and hurried over to his backpack where he extracted a small box before returning to place it in Christine’s hands. “I was told that I should get a suitable betrothal gift. I hope you’ll like this.” He felt a bit guilty offering a girl a bunch of plastic combs instead of an engagement ring, but the woman in the store had insisted they were perfectly acceptable.
Christine accepted the gift wrapped box tentatively, as if she was shocked by what was happening. Ronald wasn’t at all surprised. He was a bit shocked himself. Things certainly weren’t going as he’d planned.
She carefully untied the ribbon, rolled it up and placed it in her apron pocket. Then she peeled away the colorful wrapping paper to reveal a fancy gold leaf embossed red cardboard box. “It’s beautiful, thank you, Ronald.”
“Open the box, Christine.” Ronald was shocked that a simple cardboard box could inspire such a reaction, but then, maybe Christine’s life had been a bit short in gifts of any kind.
Christine opened the box, and froze. She carefully touched each of the, in Ronald’s opinion, gaudy plastic combs. “Oh, Ronald.”
“You need a mirror. Just a minute, I’ve got one in my pack.” Ronald hurried over to his pack and found his portable shaving mirror. When he handed it to Christine, he could see the tears in her eyes.
She turned to set the mirror on the mantle above the fire and started fiddling with her hair, leaving Ronald to stare at her back. It was a very nice back, and that neck . . . Ronald felt certain physical stirrings and clamped down hard on them.
“How do they look?”
Ronald realized Christine had finished doing her hair while his mind was wandering. “Nice.” As soon as he said it he recognized it was a typical male cop-out phrase. “Really, they look pretty. You look pretty.”
Christine smiled tentatively and Ronald relaxed. He was betrothed. He reached out for her hands again. “I have to get back to work soon and as I don’t think we can marry before I have to get back, will you be happy to wait until we get to Magdeburg before we marry?”
“Right. Well, when can you be ready to leave?”
Christine pulled her hands free from Ronald and took a step back. “Leave?”
“Well, yes. I work in Magdeburg. Surely it was understood that you’d have to live in Magdeburg if we marry?”
“I’m sorry. Of course I knew we would have to move to Magdeburg. It’s just . . . ”
Ronald regathered Christine’s hands. “You’re scared of leaving the safe world you know. Don’t be scared. I’ll look after you.”
Ronald was surprised by the sudden defenseless look on Christine’s face and the tears that started falling. He drew her into his arms and Christine buried her face in his chest. He finally realized what it had been that had called out to him from those photographs back in Magdeburg. Need. Not just the need for someone to rescue her from poverty, or for someone to take some of the weight of responsibility for Claus and Ilsa from her shoulders. No, what Christine really needed was someone to care for and about her as a person in her own right. Ronald had never been needed before. The feeling of being needed by Christine was . . . just amazing. He felt so strongly that he was scared that he might be too demanding, too soon. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head and mentally promised to let her set the pace of their relationship from now on.
He didn’t know how long they stood there, but eventually Christine pushed them apart so she could comfortably look up at him. “We’ll need permission from my guardian, Herr Winkler, for me to marry, and I’ll have to see my landlord, but there is nothing to keep us in Arendsee.”
Ronald reached inside his jacket for the envelope Katherine had given him and passed it over. “That’s a couple of character references and a copy of my last tax return. Will there be any trouble getting permission for you to marry?”
Christine passed the envelope back to Ronald. “Please keep it to show to Herr Winkler. I’m sure there will be no problem getting his permission to marry, but you’ll have to talk to him yourself.”
“Sure. How about you lead me to your Herr Winkler and then you can go off and see whoever you have to see before you leave.” Ronald pulled a drawstring purse from inside his jacket and passed it over. “Here, take this. It’s likely to be a three day trip back to Magdeburg. Buy anything you and your brother and sister might need.”
The sun was breaking through for the first time in five days, just in time for their arrival in Magdeburg. Christine snuggled down with Ilsa in Ronald’s sleeping bag and studied her betrothed as he stood at the railing with Claus. She was happy that Ronald and Claus got on so well. It was the one bright spot of the trip to Magdeburg. Ilsa had not traveled well. She’d tired quickly, walking mile after mile in the mud and Ronald had had to carry her most of the way. Then she had been sick on the ferry and Christine had spent the whole trip caring for her.
She wished she’d been able to get to know Ronald better on the journey instead of spending all her time caring for Ilsa, especially as she was still getting over the shock that he was one of the up-timers. She’d realized he must be quite well off when she examined the contents of the purse he’d so casually given her so she could do a little shopping, but not that well off. Not up-timer rich. It had been Claus who had asked. He’d picked up on Ronald’s fancy rain cape, the mirror, the sleeping bag, and the little things that Ronald just seemed to accept, like the plastic water bottle, the plastic bags that had kept everything dry in his pack, and the magnetic chess set he used to play with Claus.
Christine could sort of understand why Ronald had kept it quiet. A rich man could never know if a woman would have married him if he wasn’t rich. Sure she had only agreed to marry him because he could afford to provide for her family, but that was normal. No sensible couple married if there wasn’t the money to support the household. Ronald was just better able to support a family than most men. What she didn’t understand was why he wanted to marry her. Surely a rich up-timer could have his pick of women?
A couple of days later
Katherine waited for Ronald to have his first mouthful of the first mug of coffee for the day before popping her first question. “How are you enjoying the benefits of being betrothed?”
Katherine froze. Surely not. She studied Ronald closely. He wasn’t blushing, which was a really bad sign. He nearly always blushed when she talked about sex. “You are aware that the three purposes of marriage are procreation of children, mutual support and companionship, and a remedy for lust?”
“I know you, Katherine. You’re asking are we having sex. Of course we aren’t. We’re not married yet.”
Katherine clamped down hard on her tongue. She really shouldn’t give voice to her thoughts. Not to her boss. On the other hand, what could he do? He couldn’t afford to fire her, he depended on her too much. “What kind of pea-brained inadequate jerk are you? You’re in the seventeenth century now, not the twentieth. Being betrothed is almost as good as being married. That poor girl is probably curled up in her bed, crying her eyes out, wondering why you aren’t interested in her. Any normal man would have already dragged her into his bed, but no, not you. You have to be noble and . . . “
“Kathy, she’s only seventeen.”
“Seventeen is old enough to marry and have children.”
“Yeah, well, that’s another reason. Christine’s spent the last five years being a mother to her baby sister. She should have some time without responsibility for a baby.”
“Ronald, there are ways of preventing conception.”
“Yeah, and the doctors back in Grantville have a name for couples that use them. They’re called parents.”
Katherine could see Ronald wasn’t interested in a discussion on the merits of the various tried and true contraceptive techniques available to down-timers. Well, there were always the modern tried and true methods. “Magdeburg Rubber Products is making Beaubriand-Lévesque Rubber Preventatives under license in their new factory.”
“Condoms? Why are they wasting precious rubber on condoms?”
“I believe the military is one of their largest customers.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. “You can get some from the company store, and on your way home stop off at the store on the corner and buy her some chocolates and flowers. And make sure you get at least the one pound box of Dulcinea Special Collection Dark Chocolate. Nothing says you’re sorry like fine chocolate.”
“You’re saying Christine has been expecting to share my bed ever since we became betrothed?”
“Well, of course she has. Now, get off with you. I don’t want to see hide nor hair of you before tomorrow, and I want a full report.”
“What the hell? A full report? Not damned likely.”
Katherine grinned at the horrified look on Ronald’s face. The poor dear was so horrified by her suggestion that he hadn’t even realized he’d used expressions more suited to the shop floor in front of his executive assistant. “Well, just make sure something happens that you could have reported if you felt so inclined.”
Ronald pushed open the door of the penthouse and poked his head in. He couldn’t see anybody. He left his boots by the door and leaving his gifts on the dining room table he headed for Christine’s bedroom in case she was, as Katherine had suggested, curled up crying in her bed.
She wasn’t in her own room, so Ronald widened his search.
He found her in Ilsa’s room. She was curled up hugging a well-loved soft toy, a Brillo-the-ram that her father had bought for Ilsa just before his death. He walked over to the bed and gathered the sobbing girl in his arms and carried her into his bedroom. All the way there he could feel the tension in her body and her brilliant blue eyes staring at him.
He lowered her to the bed and pulled the quilt over her. Then he climbed in alongside her, spooning his body around hers and putting his arms around her. Gradually the tension left her body.
Katherine studied the smiling faces of Ronald and his betrothed. It appeared that everything was on track for a satisfactory conclusion. Ronald was being very attentive to Christine, and she was responding well to the attention.
She was everything Katherine could have hoped for. Young and healthy, the girl would occupy Ronald’s time quite nicely. However, first things first. “Lutheran?” She directed the question at Christine.
“Right. Then we’ll want to make an appointment to see Pastor Gerhardt about posting the banns. He’s the current must-have Lutheran celebrant. “
“Must-have celebrant? This is a marriage we’re talking about, not some social event,” Ronald said.
“Ronald, remember who you are. Your wedding is a perfect time to repay your social debts and it’ll be a marvelous business opportunity. Frau Roberts and I have already assembled a guest list for the wedding banquet.” She turned to Christine. “Is there anybody you would like to invite?”
“Just my mother’s friend. She was a great help to us when Mama and then Papa died, but Margarethe could never afford to travel all the way to Magdeburg.”
“Nonsense. Ronald, tell your betrothed that if she wants her mother’s friend at her wedding you’ll happily pay for her to come.”
“She’s right, Chrissy. It’s your wedding day. If you want Margarethe there, just say so.”
Chrissy didn’t say anything. She just reached out. Her arms snaked around his neck, pulling his head down to hers.
Katherine looked on with interest. Ronald’s technique needed a little work, but he seemed to have the basics down pat. At least he wasn’t fighting her off. “I’ll see about the invitation after we’ve confirmed things with Pastor Gerhardt. Now, Christine, your first important appointment is for this afternoon.”
Ronald drew his mouth away from Christine’s. “Appointment? What appointment?”
“With the designer. You and your bride-to-be need new clothes to be married in,” Katherine explained.
“I don’t need any new clothes. Why don’t you take Chrissy shopping, Kathy, and I’ll stay and get some work done.”
Katherine shook her head. “No, you need to be fitted for a new suit as well.”
“I’m not getting fitted for a blasted penguin suit.”
Katherine just smiled and led the happy couple out of the office.
The wedding banquet was being held in the Magdeburg Concrete Company cafeteria. It wasn’t the biggest space available but it was properly heated. Something all the guests were happy to appreciate as sleet battered against the windows.
Ronald’s eyes locked onto Christine. With her white skin, a white wedding dress would have been wasted on her. Instead she and Katherine had settled on a dress of the finest merino wool in the same shade of blue as her eyes. The low scooped neckline left a lot of skin exposed, which was a perfect setting for Ronald’s wedding gift, a truly magnificent lapis lazuli necklace that closely matched the color of her eyes.
Right now she was talking to Otto Gericke and another Magdeburg socialite. A month ago she would have been terrified at the thought of talking to them. Fortunately, Lady Beth Haygood and the staff and senior students at Duchess Sofie’s had taken her in hand over the last three weeks and now she was greeting guests as if she’d been born to it.
Christine Niemandin verh. Chapman tried desperately not to wipe her sweaty palms on her pretty new dress. She’d never had to deal with such people as Otto Gericke and, and—oh dear, she’d already forgotten the other man’s name—before. The staff and senior students at Duchess Sofie’s had done what they could to help prepare her for dealing with such important personages, but three weeks just wasn’t enough time.
She rubbed her fingers over the wedding band Ronald had given her. Just touching it reassured her that she was really married, and that she and her brother and sister wouldn’t go hungry again. She had promised herself that she would be a good wife, but she didn’t know what Ronald wanted from her. Surely no single man would rent an apartment as big as the penthouse if he didn’t intend to marry and have children. But he was still taking precautions against getting her with child. Maybe he hadn’t expected to take on a ready-made family. Christine thought about that for a few seconds. That had to be it. Maybe he couldn’t really afford more children yet. Of course she could suggest ways in which they could economize, such as moving to smaller, cheaper quarters. And she didn’t really need lots of new clothes. But what about shoes? She glanced down at her feet. They were clad in a light pair of dancing pumps, but she’d also bought three pairs of real leather shoes and a pair of outdoors boots. It had been so good to have properly fitted footwear that she’d gone a little overboard. Maybe she’d overdone it. She’d have to ask Ronald’s executive assistant what she thought.
She glanced around. She could see Katherine standing to one side with her partner, Joachim Schnobel. She raised her hand and gave Katherine a little wave. Then her eyes found Ronald. They stared at each other for a moment. Ronald’s face lit up and he started to walk toward her. Christine knew her duty. She set off to meet her new husband halfway.
Katherine was quietly confident that her in-basket was safe from Ronald’s depredations for the foreseeable future. He was enchanted with young Ilsa, basked happily in the hero worship of young Claus, and finally, he was quite clearly totally besotted with his child bride, and she with him. Yes, with his new responsibilities to occupy his time Ronald wasn’t going to continue working in the office long after everyone else had gone home. Nor would he be coming in on Sundays to do a little work. Gone forever, she hoped, was the risk of Ronald initiating something when she wasn’t around. Now, at last, nothing would happen in the office that she didn’t know about.