The third wave of Americans sweeps into the London compound just as she's got the last group sorted out and operational. Peggy screws her lips into a smile and accepts the stack of transfer papers from a brown-uniformed lieutenant with a roving eye. He leers, calls her Miss, and looks about for a man to give him orders. Ten seconds later he's standing at rigid attention, cheeks flushed and middle-distance gaze locked an inch above her head. Peggy dismisses him toward the rows of already-occupied desks after his first, stammered apology. She doesn't have time to waste on repetition.
Four more scientists, two strategists, a handful of engineers to reinforce the bunker, and one private with no orders to speak of…. Peggy matches faces to photographs before directing each new arrival to whatever scrap of workspace can be found in the crowded SSR compound. At last, the private stands before her: big blonde curls, smartly tailored uniform, and a knowing, slanted smile.
Peggy scowls and flips through her file. "Private Getz. Where are your orders?"
The private's lower lip wrinkles prettily, and Peggy's instincts flash a warning. "I'm Colonel Phillips's personal assistant, Ma'am."
Peggy raises an eyebrow.
"He sent me ahead while he finishes in Washington. Until he arrives, I suppose I could be your assistant." She tips her chin down when she shrugs, blue eyes peeking through dark lashes.
Peggy snaps the file closed and points Private Lorraine Getz toward the colonel's empty office until she finds something for her to do. Once the private is out of sight, Peggy reopens her file.
Eight years ago, Peggy was an agent-in-training under the mentorship of Agent Rebecca Hannigan. A hard woman with an even harder eye, Agent Hannigan sneered at Peggy's marksmanship scores, her avid review of every classified after-action she could get her hands on. "Quit fooling yourself, girl," she said often, smoke wending gracefully over her tongue. "With a face and figure like yours, there's only one thing you're good for."
Hannigan's own figure was going, corset cinched bruisingly tight under her uniform to shore up what remained. But a woman's best asset, she explained with painstaking condescension, was always her mouth. A certain smile could flatter a man without rousing his spouse's suspicions. Another could offer earnest, eternal attachment. Yet another could promise things even his mistresses balked at. Hannigan had turned men traitor with those lips alone, and her list of foreign conquests was readily available from the SIS gossips or heavily redacted basement files.
From the elegant crossing of her ankles, to the coyly demur tilt of her head when addressing the male agents and supervising officers, to her stinging slaps whenever Peggy failed to learn a lesson, Peggy hated the woman. Agent Hannigan was the master of leveraging feminine attributes in service of king and country. And hers was the only door left open after all the others slammed in Peggy's face. So Peggy stayed, and she learned, and then she blew a mortar through the wall to make her own door when her superiors tried to lock her in.
Peggy flips through the morning reports, a scowl creasing her chin at the preponderance of typos, transposed letters, and poor dictation from her last meeting with Howard Stark. In her peripheral vision, Lorraine primps her curls, gaze fixed on a pock-skinned lieutenant colonel of dubious hygiene. Peggy notes every shift Lorraine makes, swinging an ankle, touching her lower lip, fingers drifting along her neck.
She's quite good.
Peggy drums her fingers on her desk, annoyed to not have settled the question yet. If American Intelligence wants eyes inside the SSR, the assistant at Colonel Phillips's elbow would be a logical choice. That would certainly explain Lorraine's many shortcomings as a secretary…and her wealth of other skills.
The lieutenant colonel glances over his shoulder and smiles. Lorraine swivels in her seat, fingers returning to her typewriter, the picture of prim diligence.
Peggy has had it with wondering.
She strides past Lorraine's desk with a brisk command to follow her to Phillips's unused office, where she motions for Lorraine to close the door and sit. Peggy takes the colonel's chair, exploiting the extra height it gives her to look down at Lorraine. Her curls shine golden in the yellow lamp light, bright amongst the shadows of the bunker and the red brick walls that shake with every falling bomb above their heads. Lorraine smiles with her red lips, but not her eyes.
"I'm worried about how you're settling in," Peggy says. "Your work isn't up to the level I expect from someone Colonel Phillips hand-picked. How are you doing here?"
Lorraine goes stiff and then soft. It's nearly convincing when she leans forward, fingers slipping out to touch the desk just inches from Peggy's hand. "Well, you know how it is. Being one of the only women in a bunker full of guys. They don't exactly go easy on us." She jerks her chin toward the teeming office, as though she and Peggy are co-conspirators or friends.
"They do like to give orders," Peggy agrees.
Lorraine beams, warm and informal. "Thank you for looking out for me. We girls have to stick together."
Peggy sighs and resettles in the chair, giving Lorraine more than enough physical cues to change tack.
She doesn't, though. "Really. You've been my best commanding officer since stenography school."
"Private," Peggy says, not sharp, not yet, but disappointed. "I'm still going to need to see improvement. These typos, and your filing…I wouldn't let a man get away with them. I can't give you special treatment."
Lorraine's shoulders betray confusion, even as her eyes hold steady. And Peggy waits for what comes next—posturing, manipulation, perhaps implicating a rival. She doesn't expect Lorraine's lips to part, fingers to stretch the remaining inches and take Peggy's hand. "I wouldn't ask you to," Lorraine says, voice gone throaty, chin down and eyes heavy, and Peggy is genuinely astonished as Lorraine stands, back arched so her breasts precede her.
"Private," she warns, spine gone straight, but Lorraine isn't reading her, hasn't been the whole time.
Lorraine eases around the desk, a sway and a step and a devastating smile. It would fool a man, but Peggy spent a year learning to fool the most observant of them all. To be sure, Agent Hannigan would have lifted her silk skirts and danced the foxtrot if Peggy had shown half this girl's instincts her first week, but as a seductress, Lorraine is more qualified for Head Girl at public school than American Intelligence.
Oblivious, Lorraine perches on the edge of the desk, brown wool pencil skirt dragging above her knee. She settles their joined hands there, on the rough silk of a regulation stocking, her skin a millimeter away from Peggy's fingertips. It's the wrong choice; their hands should be on the supple curve of her hip, giving Peggy the power to draw her in, and the protection of deniability in case of interruption. But it is undeniably effective. Peggy catalogues her own speeding heartbeat, every flutter of her breath as Lorraine leans down, a curl swinging free of its pin, Lorraine's delicate fingers tucking it back before dipping in the open collar of Peggy's blouse.
"That's enough," Peggy says, her voice gone ragged. "Sit down, private."
Lorraine hesitates, and Peggy meets her eyes with cool authority despite the warmth gathered in her cheeks. Unsettled, Lorraine releases her hand and returns to her wooden chair, knees together, fingers knotted in her lap.
"You clearly have natural talent, and I'm sure you've had some success with that approach," Peggy says, "but it was amateur work. Just like your dictation, your typing, and your filing."
Lorraine's response is sullen silence.
"You're a clever girl. And very beautiful. But your smile won't take you much further than this. There are other options, if you're willing to make them for yourself." The colonel saw something in Lorraine worth hiring as his secretary; Peggy could see her with a pistol, or a courier's packet of top secret documents, or even Agent Hannigan's red hand print on her cheek. Anywhere but here, ruining the filing and riling the men with idle schoolgirl antics. "I can help you, but you have to want it, want more than this."
Her pout is even more beautiful than her smile. Hannigan never had that in her arsenal, but then, she never laid down and accepted defeat. Narrow as Hannigan's ambitions were, she chased them with tooth and nail and succeeded on those fronts. Watching Lorraine's stubborn complacency turns her stomach.
After a long moment, Peggy clears her throat and says, "Very well then. I'll expect to see fewer mistakes in your work going forward. Dismissed, private." Before Lorraine opens the door, Peggy adds, "When you're ready for another option, all you have to do is ask."
Lorraine bobs her head and gives a pointedly insincere smile, a polite, "Yes, Ma'am."
Peggy straightens her blouse and doesn't give in to impotent anger over the waste, one soldier dancing with chorus girls for war bonds, another flirting her way to a secretarial salary and ever-tightening corsets. There is always another option, if they would only fight for it. Peggy heads back to her desk, passing the hopeful lieutenant colonel and Lorraine's nimble fingers on the typewriter.
She hopes Lorraine is bright enough to realize what she truly wants before she finds herself trapped there for good.