Jonah Woolner’s life is as prudently regulated as the bank where he works. It’s a satisfying life until he’s passed over for promotion in favor of newcomer Reid Hylliard. Brash and enterprising, Reid beguiles everyone except Jonah, who’s convinced Reid’s progressive ideas will be the bank’s ruin. When Jonah begins to discover there’s more to Reid than meets the eye, he risks succumbing to Reid’s charms—but unlocking the vault to all of Reid’s secrets could lead him down a dangerous path.
Losing his promotion—and perhaps his heart—is the least of Jonah’s difficulties. When the vengeful son of a Union army vet descends upon the bank to steal a government deposit of half a million dollars during the deadliest blizzard to ever sweep New York, Jonah and Reid are trapped, at odds and fighting for their lives.
Two minutes late, by the somber reckoning of the Trinity Church clock. Three, by his reliable old Waltham, which had kept him punctual for fourteen years while the rest of New York hurried to keep up. It was only on this morning, twisted into disorder by weeks of expectation and anxiety, that he had failed the Waltham and himself.
Braced for the wind, he jumped from the streetcar the instant it stopped and navigated a path through the muddy slush to the sidewalk. There, fueled by stomach-churning anticipation—fourteen years’ worth—he stepped into the crowd and proceeded down Wall Street.
When Bennet Grandborough had first entrusted him with drafts for collection at the callow age of nineteen, a promotion to bank officer had seemed as unattainable as the stars. Though he had performed many of the duties of cashier during the years of Mr. Crowe’s increasing frailty—and taken on all the rest upon Mr. Crowe’s passing—the board had yet to vote.
Grandborough naturally wanted a respectful interval in which to honor Crowe’s twenty-seven years of service. But in the four weeks since, the impending announcement had hung as weighty and ripe as an apple in autumn, increasingly tormenting Jonah as each day passed without that bounty dropping into his lap. Then, with Christmas past, the directors had met privately—which pointed to one thing. Today, with the first business of the new year, was the day.
And he was late. Not an auspicious start, but it couldn’t be helped. He’d awakened earlier than usual, but the well wishes of his fellow boarders had slowed his progress out of the house. He had missed both the usual omnibus to Broadway and the usual streetcar down. Rather than wait, he’d braved the muck and congestion of that thoroughfare until a car could spare him standing room the rest of the way.
Making up for lost time on foot along Wall Street was not to be thought of. The tide of humanity had grown from the customary seven o’clock tempest to a depth and breadth sufficient to drown a fellow. By the time he rounded William Street and covered the short distance to the bank, no amount of reproach in the Waltham’s minute hand could tip the scales against his own. Still, it would not do for Grandborough Bank’s new cashier to be seen dashing madly into the lobby. He took the steps up the broad stoop with barely contained haste and arrived at the landing just as the porter opened the door.
“Good morning, sir.”
Jonah nodded. “Good morning, Mr. Satterfield.”
The clerks and tellers huddled at the wide curve of the counter, a marble and mahogany bulwark from whence they could peer across the lobby to the cashier’s office. Jonah suspected they had stationed themselves there ever since Bennet Grandborough had gathered his vice president and one of the more vocal directors into the office to meet with someone Jonah couldn’t recognize through the plate-glass partition.
Mr. Satterfield coughed gently. “Out late celebrating, sir?”
“No….” Jonah tried to pull his thoughts together. The tableau in the office bewildered him. “I was waylaid this morning and had no means to traverse Broadway except by my own locomotion….” He hesitated, aware that Mr. Satterfield, still troubled by a game leg twenty-five years after his wounding at Fort Fisher, might not sympathize with such a complaint.
But Mr. Satterfield, who had a way of smiling as if there were little he did not understand, only bobbed his gray head and looked sheepish, himself. “Only meant a joke, sir. Begging your pardon.”
“Oh. Of course. I beg your pardon.” Jonah took note of Mr. Satterfield’s dubious glance toward the office. “A new depositor, is it?”
“Not my place to speculate, sir.” Mr. Satterfield resumed sweeping the smoke-gray marble with more than his usual energy. Jonah looked toward the office, at the stranger who sat on the arm of a chair, hat resting on his knee, one hand fingering the watch chain draped across his cream-colored waistcoat. He wasn’t more than thirty and had the manner of someone at ease in any company. He chatted with Mr. Grandborough and the other two as if they were old chums, but Jonah resisted the notion that it was an interview for a bank position. Grandborough Bank was as strict as any other in the matter of attire. The brown sack coat was too casual, the blue tie too—blue. The fellow seemed more suited to employment at a notions shop or haberdasher’s, where passably attractive features and an ingratiating smile served above other skills.
Besides, Mr. Grandborough always promoted from within—even Simon Campbell, who was habitually late and flirted with the female clerks.
“Oh, Mr. Woolner!”
Speaking of which…. Helen MacDonald, deserting the huddle at the counter, had reached his side with a flounce of taffeta underskirts, to gaze at him with dangerously moist eyes. “Oh, Mr. Woolner, is everything all right?” She laid a trembling hand on his coat sleeve. “You will tell me, won’t you? For the sake of our long-standing association. For our respect mutuel.”
She had been reading French novels at her desk again. Jonah checked a sigh. “No need to worry, Miss MacDonald—”
“No one is being discharged?”
“Discharged! Wherever did you come by that?”
Helen blinked. “Simon told us—”
“Yes, you may inform Mr. Campbell and any other concerned parties that promotions in this bank are handled according to tradition.”
“Oh, sir.” She clung to his sleeve. “Who is he, then?”
Jonah followed her gaze toward the office. “Well, to be honest, I don’t know. But neither, I daresay, does Mr. Campbell, so you will kindly not succumb to unfounded rumors. It’s not in the bank’s best interest.” He gently disengaged her. “I think a word with Mr. Grandborough will squelch this nonsense once and for all.”
“Shall I take the minutes?” she asked, pulling a pencil from the loose bun of her dark hair.
“It would be best if I went in alone.”
A little of the excitement faded from her face as she returned the pencil to its niche. Mr. Satterfield persisted in sweeping the same spot within earshot as Jonah passed. The clerks and tellers observed it all like mourners at a procession.
Ignoring the furtive gazes through the iron scrollwork, Jonah stalked into the wide corridor, past the offices on either side. With the bank in the midst of staff changes, rumors were common enough. He supposed they were even more likely when a bank made the momentous move from state to national. But if anyone on the staff had earned the wrath of Bennet Grandborough or Vice President Naughton, the directors would have summoned him upstairs to discuss it. They were always forthcoming and understood that even a depositor with a cross word was part of the business. No reason to discharge anyone. He would have a word with Simon Campbell about perpetuating such rumors.
At the cashier’s door, he knocked and was glad at once to see the welcoming smile on Mr. Grandborough’s bearded face as he rose before anyone else to admit Jonah. “Just the man we were waiting for. Jonah, I would like you to meet Reid Hylliard. Reid, this is Jonah Woolner, our assistant cashier.”
Assistant. He’d begun to loathe the word. Fortunately, he would not have to endure it much longer. When Reid stood, hand outstretched, Jonah took it, matching the man’s polite smile with one of his own. “A pleasure, Mr. Hylliard. Will you be opening an account with us?”
“In a sense.” Behind the smile, Reid seemed to be taking the measure of him. “I understand you’ve been at Grandborough fourteen years.”
“Not quite that long, sir. Thirteen years and ten months.” He couldn’t conceal the question in his eyes as he turned back to Mr. Grandborough.
If the bank president noticed it, there was no sign in his usual brisk manner. “Jonah, please sit. I’d like to have this matter disposed of before we open for the day.” Mr. Grandborough laid broad hands on the desk and laced his fingers. “This will be a momentous year for Grandborough National Bank.” His smile stretched until his blue eyes were quarter moons shining under bushy silver brows. Jonah could tell by Naughton’s and Gavet’s beaming countenances that they savored the new title as thoroughly. He savored it himself.
“A momentous year,” Mr. Grandborough went on. “It is no small matter to be designated a national depository, gentlemen. We have always sought to combine prudent management with the adoption of sensible innovations, a policy which has won us the confidence of not just the community, but President Cleveland, himself. I will not, however, permit us to become complacent in our success. No, indeed. To that end, I’ve spoken with the directors, and we’re agreed that, for the betterment of the bank, we should seek to view our inner workings through a new pair of eyes.”
The sudden knot in Jonah’s chest threatened to choke the breath out of him. Dear God, it was true. He was being discharged. “Sir, if I may—”
Mr. Grandborough turned to him, still smiling, and mowed down the protest before Jonah could gather up steam. “In this, Jonah, we will require your assistance. Mr. Hylliard comes to us with extensive banking experience. He’s assisted before in the transition from state to national, and he can see us safely through our apprenticeship, as it were.” He chuckled, the others joining in, and Reid smiled.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Hylliard. As I was saying, you’ve all the skills we require, lacking only a familiarity with our own standards and practices. For that, you may rely unequivocally on our assistant cashier. Jonah has been taking on the cashier’s work since Mr. Crowe’s passing. For nearly fourteen years, he has been as steady and circumspect as any bank president could wish.”
The note of fatherly pride made Jonah’s heart only ache the more. “I have always worked for the betterment of the bank, sir.”
“Of that, I have no doubt.”
“Yes, so you will understand if I—”
“Don’t decide anything in haste,” Mr. Naughton said suddenly, and shifted an uncomfortable gaze toward Mr. Grandborough, who only shook his head, attention still affectionately directed at Jonah.
“Our Mr. Woolner does nothing in haste.” He rose. “A tour of the bank is called for, I think, and introductions all around.”
Jonah found his own feet. “I… must put my things away, if you will allow me a minute.”
He escaped across the lobby to the cloakroom, and in the close confines, collapsed on the seat beside the lone window. The room smelled damp from clothes and overshoes encrusted with melting snow. The two rows of coats in their cubbies on each side of the narrow room sheltered him from voices drifting in, at least until Helen appeared—trailed by Simon Campbell, who probably feared she would miss some morsel of gossip in relaying it secondhand.
“Oh, Mr. Woolner….” Helen exhaled the words and pressed clasped hands to her chest as if she had expelled her last breath. “It cannot be—”
Simon ceased cracking gum long enough to interrupt her. “You sacked, then?”
Jonah stood and began to unbutton his coat with hands he would allow to be nothing less than steady. “I am not, as you put it, sacked, Mr. Campbell. You’d best get back to work, the two of you. You’ll want to make a good impression on your new cashier.” Though he didn’t suppose he had.
“Oh, Mr. Woolner—”
“He’s in?” Simon looked astonished. “Damn—”
“Not at the bank, if you please.” Jonah hung his coat, smoothing the shoulders to be sure it draped evenly on the wooden bar. Snow sparkled against the black worsted, and he brushed it away with burning fingers; he wanted to run outside to bury his hands and face in it. He turned back to two troubled visages and a smile came, out of necessity. “Nothing to worry about. Our positions are secure.” Perhaps too secure. “Back to work, please.”
Simon raised a coppery eyebrow. “Think you’d be mad the old man passed you over.”
Jonah shook his head. Supervising Simon Campbell was one task he did not envy the new cashier. “We are about to open, Mr. Campbell. The ledgers—”
“On your desk, sir. Or his desk, as the case may be.”
“We’re to go to him?” Helen asked, as if the idea cut her to the quick.
“And treat him same as we treat you?” Simon asked.
God forbid. “Treat him as you treated Mr. Crowe. I have not been, nor will I be, chief cashier. At least, not in the eyes of the directors.” Jonah stopped himself from saying more. He’d felt mostly numb and bereft, but now a sense of injustice was creeping in, and he would only regret letting it show. “Please tell Mr. Grandborough I will be out in a moment.”
The only place left to escape curious stares was the washroom, and he went there to try again to collect himself. The face in the glass appeared unusually pale, but there were no telltale signs of moisture on his lashes to give him away. It was fortunate he’d become so practiced at hiding things. Perhaps he should pinch his cheeks after the fashion of Helen MacDonald whenever John Darlington came into the bank. He combed his hair and straightened his tie, instead. It was back to his old office now: his desk with the worn-smooth cubbies, his chair with its sideways wobble, his ever-leaking radiator. He would miss Mr. Crowe’s office and the way the sun came in so cheerfully in the afternoons. Of course he would still be called in to take instruction from Mr. Hylliard.
The face in the glass looked back at him in resignation. He had performed conscientiously so that none could find fault with him. What had Mr. Grandborough called him? Steady. Circumspect.
And still not suitable.
The board’s decision was made. He might consider leaving Grandborough altogether, but he wouldn’t. He could not leave the bank in other hands. Reid Hylliard might know more—might be the cleverest cashier in the state—but he didn’t know Grandborough Bank. He didn’t know its ins and outs, its quirks and practices. And no one was in a better position to enlighten Reid on those matters than he. Not even Mr. Grandborough, himself.
Jonah squared his shoulders and assumed an air of ruthless self-possession. He would be as proficient and cooperative as expected. No one would have reason to gossip about him at the end of the day. And a long day it would be. The pity of staff and depositors alike would have to be borne, as well as any commiseration awaiting him at home. He dreaded simply going into the lobby, but he’d lingered long enough to fuel a likely rumor that losing the promotion had quite destroyed him.
And rumor was all it was.
He marched out of the washroom and nearly ran into Margaret Noble, poised to knock. No pity to match Helen’s deluged him from Margaret’s direct gray gaze or her cordial smile. Sympathy, yes, but even that was offered in thrifty measure. It brought to mind how she had once admonished a downhearted Helen to give up dwelling in the shadows when the sun shone just around the corner. Jonah knew it was not merely talk, as Margaret seemed to live accordingly, despite—or because of—her widowed state.
“Mr. Grandborough wished me to collect Mr. Crowe’s keys….” She coughed gently. “Your keys to the vault gate.”
“Mine? Mr. Grandborough has his own—” Jonah bit back the rest, certain he could not be a more blessed fool. “For Mr. Hylliard. Of course.” He handed her the keys. “I suppose he’ll want the desk keys too. I’ll bring them,” he added as she once more extended a hand. “Mr. Hylliard should not attend the correspondence without my assistance.”
Margaret looked approving. “You are always the gentleman. Would you rather…?” She held out the vault keys.
Jonah hesitated only an instant. He supposed there was nothing for it but to surrender with dignity. “Yes, I think I should. Thank you, Margaret.”
“You’ll be all right, my dear,” she said quietly as he moved past her. He found some comfort in her thinking so. His own confidence remained on fragile ground, threatening to topple altogether at the sight of newly arrived directors crowding into Crowe’s office to welcome their cashier and shake hands all around. Jonah slipped inside his own office further along the corridor and closed the door. It took him a minute to fumble the key into the drawer lock and retrieve his old copy book. It had lain forgotten since he’d taken on all the bank correspondence in the last year. Now he would be reduced to those duties Reid saw fit to give him.
He locked the empty drawer and trod an uneasy path back to the cashier’s office. Laughter came from within, and through the beveled glass, Jonah saw the directors listening attentively as Reid rambled on, no doubt about his vast wealth of experience in various banks around the state. About to knock, Jonah went in uninvited instead. He hadn’t the title, but he’d worked too long in the cashier’s office to be made to feel he must ask permission before entering.
The laughter dwindled to quiet chuckles, and Jonah wondered if a guilt-stricken conscience or two provoked the businesslike demeanor suddenly overtaking everyone. In the quiet that reigned, he felt he should say something.
They stepped gingerly with their replies, no one remarking on anything other than the weather as they bid him good morning and left the office one by one. He smiled politely as if it were merely another day at the bank and mused in amazement that the searing humiliation hadn’t left him a pile of ash on the floor. He wanted to walk out, too, out of the building and away from his failure, away from the pity he knew everyone felt, whether they showed it or not.
Reid rose from the broad sill where Mr. Crowe had once kept a row of prize-winning gladioli. “I think I’m somewhat at your mercy, Mr. Woolner.” He moved toward the desk that was almost a vault itself, with its array of drawers, shelves, pigeonholes, and an expansive writing surface locked, for the moment, behind its cover. Placed against the wall to afford a view out the window, it was a pleasant place to work.
Jonah unlocked the cylinder and slid it back. “It sticks in certain weathers, but you’ll get the feel of it.” He held out the key, and Reid took it.
“I wasn’t just referring to the desk—”
“Of course.” Jonah met an expectant gaze. “I am at your disposal.”
The lift of Reid’s brows betrayed surprise. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that. No simple thing, to come into an established business and upset the status quo. I’m sure you have ideas of your own—”
“No need to worry, Mr. Hylliard. You may be sure I am in favor of those innovations which will benefit the bank.”
That measuring look again, in contrast with the easy bloom of his smile. “It’s Reid. And I’m pleased to see we’re thinking along the same lines. Thank you, Jo.”
There was only so much presumption one could overlook. “Jonah. If you don’t mind.”
A rueful humor flattened Reid’s smile, and he began to nose through the drawers. “Impressive,” he murmured after a moment. “Up to date, organized, not a scrap of paper out of place.”
“This is a bank.”
“Yes.” Reid blew out a breath and straightened. “Your office is nearby?”
“One door down. I’ve used this office in the last month.”
Reid glanced around. “I’m sorry to steal it from you,” he said, with a nod toward the cabinet full of books and the armchair beside the radiator. “It’s a comfortable spot.”
“The chair and books belonged to Mr. Crowe.” It seemed a lonely spot, with Mr. Crowe no longer hunched over his shawl-covered knees, paging through the ledgers. “He was in a fragile state during his last weeks.”
“So I understand. I’m sorry.” Reid’s attention continued to roam the reaches of the office, finally seeming to settle beyond the partition glass to where the morning lull was giving way to activity. “Excellent view of the lobby. Probably discourages staff idleness.”
“Our staff is not idle—”
Reid laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ve got nothing against an idle moment now and then.” His glance dropped to the books Simon had left in the desk chair. “You’re going to catch me up this morning?”
Presumptuous altogether. “I expect it will take a little longer than that.” Jonah scooped up the books. “We have been in business thirty years, after all, and our old practices have gotten us pretty well along in the matter of keeping the public trust. I know you intend to implement new practices—”
“Depends. Some banks hold on to outdated practices till they’re smelling like week-old mackerel. I’ll need a few weeks to see how fragrant the air is here.” Reid followed that with a grin he no doubt imagined quite disarming.
Jonah smiled politely back. “We’ll start with the correspondence. I’m sure you’ve handled your share of it.” He laid the books on the desk and shifted out the pile of letters stuck between them. “We’ve the usual applications for discounts, requests for opinions, proposals, stock and bond orders—”
“All banks will have those.” Jonah pulled out the main copy book and his own. “Here are the correspondence books. I think if you observe while I attend each letter, it will familiarize you with some of our depositors as well as our practices. Our receiving teller, Matthew Falk, will bring you the newspapers and letters as soon as you feel ready for them—”
“Beginning tomorrow will be fine.”
Jonah hid his exasperation but not his surprise. “There’s no cause for haste. As you said, it will take some weeks to acquaint yourself with the workings of our bank.”
“I know how to answer letters.” The humor in Reid’s voice did not mask an apparently obdurate nature. “If I need help in the particulars, you’re just next door.”
Jonah bit back an argument. To clash with Reid at this early point would only make him appear resentful in the eyes of Mr. Grandborough and the directors. He sat at the desk and unstopped the ink stand. “We’ll begin with John Darlington,” he said, as Reid removed a begonia that had taken over a straight-backed chair and pulled the chair beside Jonah’s. “Mr. Darlington has been a depositor in excellent standing for more than twenty years. When he is next in the bank, I will introduce you—”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The date. You wrote eighty-seven.” Reid sat back, fishing around in his coat pocket. “I guess everyone’s allowed a little room for error around the first of the year.” He held out a small white paper bag. “Taffy?”
Jonah eyed the bag, at a loss. “Mr. Hylliard, there is a time and place—”
“For taffy?” Reid’s grin came back, gentler, with its own touch of exasperation. “I believe I extended an invitation for you to address me by my given name.”
Jonah laid down the pen. “Are you familiar with the expression that he who is intimate on short acquaintance is sure to be—”
“Short on intimate acquaintance. Clever but not necessarily true.” Reid straightened in his chair and tucked the bag in his coat pocket. “Can we work together or should I ask Mr. Falk or Mr. Campbell to assist me for the time being?”
Jonah crumpled the paper and drew another sheet. He could not meet Reid’s gaze. Instead, he pushed back his shirt cuffs and with his neatest script set down the correct date. “You’ll want to be sure the clerks are preparing the exchanges. Or I would be pleased to do it, if you wish.”
Reid stayed quiet, perhaps pondering if a word with the directors was in order. Jonah found himself welcoming it as a chance to formally protest the board’s decision, but one glance at Reid told him it would not be thought of. Jonah saw it in the curve of his lips, the gleam in his eyes—confidence that he could handle anyone, even a disagreeable assistant cashier.
Tamara Allen resides in the piney woods north of Houston with her cozy family of husband, son, and cat. Her primary occupation is keeping them out of trouble, but on the side she likes to make up stories, for the pleasure of living briefly in an era long gone by.