Mark Gregory stood in the center of the entry hall, no tie, shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and his sleeves rolled to his elbows. One side of his mouth contorted into a guarded smile. It left Claire with the impression that part of him welcomed her and the other part was sorry she’d come.
In spying the stray lock of dark hair falling over his forehead—giving him the tussled look of a youth—she almost regretted it herself.
This is business, Claire, nothing personal. Men want children—heirs. Remember that.
“I’m sorry to bother you at home, Mr. Gregory, but I thought we might talk.”
Although her conversation with George prompted this visit, Mr. Gregory needn’t learn the details. He would either welcome the opportunity to work with her or tell her to leave. If the latter, then what?
He nodded some unspoken message to his mother and turned back to Claire. “Please come in, Mrs. Kingsley.”
Mrs. Grzegorczyk crossed the hall. “I will be upstairs where I belong.”
Not too proud to acknowledge that the woman intimidated her, Claire waited until she’d retreated up the steps to the second floor before she stepped into the front hall. “Your mother really doesn’t like me, does she?”
He led her into the drawing room and asked her to be seated. “It isn’t you…exactly.”
What did that mean?
He plopped into a chair and sighed. “It’s a long story, Mrs. Kingsley, but I owe you an apology.” His abashed grin set Claire’s heart pounding with apprehension. “My behavior in the store the first day we met was reprehensible. I don’t know what got into me, but I am sorry.”
It was a nice attempt to make her feel better about that day, but it failed. The confession brought back her own feelings of culpability over the incident. “I wouldn’t call it reprehensible, especially when my foolishness encouraged it.”
“Then let’s say we were both in a frivolous mood that day and leave it alone.”
“We’ll forget all about it.” She’d try. She’d try hard.
“Good. Now, you wanted to speak to me about something.”
How to begin? Claire gathered her thoughts.
“I assume it relates to our meeting with Mr. Dover.”
She nodded. “It’s my turn to apologize. I had no idea he would involve you in his scheme.”
“And if you had?”
Would she have accepted the invitation?
Mr. Gregory eased back in the chair and crossed his legs, his gaze never leaving her face. “You suspected what Dover had in mind.”
“I suspected the subject of the meeting based on our conversation a week earlier. I had no idea you would be included or that he would propose such a…a peculiar deal.”
“Why do you call it peculiar? People collaborate in various businesses.”
“You don’t think it’s strange that he would force two strangers to work together to satisfy a desire to help one of them?”
“Truthfully, I do. I would like to design the man’s house, but I’m not certain it’s a good idea to…” His voice faded.
“Let me save you the trouble of struggling to find words that won’t offend me, Mr. Gregory. What you mean to say is that you’re not certain you want to work with a woman.”
The casual pose he had displayed gave way to an expression that could cut steel. “No, Mrs. Kingsley. What I meant to say was I am not certain I want to work with someone whose training is doubtful.”
“Doubtful?” That was worse than thinking his hesitation was due to her gender, because it not only reflected on her but on Richard. “My husband was a highly competent architect, and my apprenticeship under him was not a matter of whimsy and half-hearted teaching.”
“I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on Mr. Kingsley. I’m only saying that an apprenticeship might have worked a decade or two ago, but that’s not good enough these days, not for me. The practice of architecture is changing. In the not-too-distant future, those who practice it will be expected to have earned a degree. And you only need look as far as the lawmakers in Illinois who want to require architects to be licensed. It won’t be long before other states follow suit.”
“A degree and a license do not guarantee skill.”
“No, but they do indicate a responsibility to the profession.”
“And if I had the formal education? Would you be willing to hire a woman?”
Would he or wouldn't he?
Book One in the Widow's Might Series
When bigotry and Claire’s fears threaten an important commission, will she summon the courage to help Mark succeed, or will she destroy another man’s dream?