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Gilded

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Upper East Side, Manhattan, 1887

~*~

Gold tossed the newspaper onto his desk, narrowly missing his breakfast plate. "The man is stubborn and an idiot," he declared, leaning back in his chair with his coffee cup. "He should have sold to me and saved himself some trouble."

"I hear he's had other offers," Jefferson replied, and took a sip of his own coffee.

Gold raised an eyebrow. "Find out who and how much," he said, waving a hand carelessly, "the usual." Buying out competitors could be so tedious.

Jefferson grinned. "Already started, sir."

"Good man." Gold nodded. No one else could make heads or tails of his secretary's eccentric system of 'organization,' but the man had the most extraordinary memory and a good head for numbers and schedules and things Gold himself couldn't be bothered with.

"And what about the wedding, sir?" Jefferson asked, setting his cup next to Gold's breakfast tray.

"What wedding?" Gold frowned as if he had honestly forgotten.

"Rutherford's daughter, remember?" Jefferson replied, not fooled for a moment by his evasion. "It's been weeks, now. They need an answer, one way or the other."

"They don't want me there," Gold scowled and sipped his coffee, the sweetness of its sugar and cream clashing with his mood. Nobody would actually want him at a wedding.

"That's... possibly true," Jefferson hedged, diplomatic but at least honest. "But they did invite you."

Gold gave him a smile that could as easily have been a grimace. "Only to be polite, my boy." Mr. Gold was, after all, not a man to cross.

Jefferson shrugged as if the solution were obvious. "Well, then you could politely decline."

"No, no, that won't do," Gold shook his head, exasperated, and sat up, setting his cup and saucer on the desk with a rattle. "Can't slight them by refusing, now, can I?" He sighed deeply. "I'll go."

"Will you be bringing a companion?" Jefferson asked, and butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth. Gold shot him a withering look and he held up a hand in surrender. "I wouldn't dare to make an assumption either way, sir," he swore, with enviable sincerity.

"No. I will not have a companion," Gold replied, glaring at his cup as if it had offended him.

Jefferson nodded and made a note in his ledger, seemingly at random since he didn't look before he opened it, loose papers sticking out at all angles. "Very good, sir. I'll send the reply immediately."

"Is there anything important today?" Gold asked with a bored sigh.

Jefferson pulled a sheaf of papers - how could he tell which ones? - out of his ledger and handed them across the desk. "Messrs. Evans and Wright have an appointment at ten this morning to negotiate a loan."

"A loan?" Gold raised an eyebrow and took the papers. "That's the banks' business."

"Of course, sir," Jefferson nodded, "but Morgan referred them to you."

"Did he, now?" A smile crept over Gold's face. J.P. Morgan knew better than to waste his time or, more importantly, his money. "Well, then, I suppose it's worth hearing them out." He flipped through the papers in his hands, which proved to be a proposal, patent application, and schematics; Gold was no man of science, but he knew enough to have a rough idea about what he was looking at. "Not bad," he mused, "Gutsy venture. I can see why Morgan wouldn't take them." He tossed the proposal on top of his discarded newspaper. "But... I am a generous man," he looked across the desk at Jefferson and shared a shark-like grin. "And I do love a desperate soul."

~*~

As much as a man with a cane could, Gold almost pranced into the conservatory later that morning, where Jefferson was already entertaining their guests over tea.

"Good morning, gentlemen," he said, and they shot to their feet to shake his hand.

"Mr. Gold, sir, thank you for meeting with us," Wright said earnestly.

Gold smiled. "It's my pleasure, gentlemen," he replied, and the men waited for him to take his seat before sitting down again as well. Jefferson relinquished his tea-pouring duties to bring his ledger out to record the discussion in his seemingly haphazard way. "I've looked over your papers," Gold said, nodding to them, "and I find your idea... promising. However, I am certain even you are aware that this venture is not without its risks."

Evans nodded. "Of course. But we anticipate a large return."

"Indeed," Gold replied. "And I think you shall have it, so I'll lend you the money." The men smiled like children on Christmas morning. "Jefferson has drafted an agreement with my conditions." He waved and Jefferson dutifully drew out two papers from his ledger and handed them to their guests, who looked them over, but frowned.

"Five percent interest?" Wright said. "A bank would give us three."

"A bank wouldn't give you a red cent for this," Gold replied, tapping their proposal papers, "and we all know it. Why else would you be here?" The two men exchanged an uneasy look, but continued reading. Gold steepled his fingers as their frowns deepened.

"Mr. Gold," Evans objected, "surely you aren't serious about this? Ownership?"

"Consider it... collateral," Gold replied with a shrug. "Ten percent, since we're in this together. If all goes well, you can buy me out once the loan is repaid, and we'll all be very happy men. If you default, I get all the rights, so at least I can attempt to recoup my losses."

"There won't be any losses, sir," Wright declared, and Gold cocked an eyebrow at him. More often than not, bravado was stupid and undeserved, but it was almost always amusing.

The men looked again at the contract and then each other. "May we speak privately?" Evans asked.

"Of course," Gold nodded magnanimously. The two men stood up and walked a ways apart, deeper into the room and nearer the burbling fountain.

"Tea, sir?" Jefferson offered him in the meantime, but Gold waved him off. They wouldn't be here much longer, if he was reading these two right. And he always did.

They came back to the little table, rather grim but resolved. "All right," Evans said, exhaling a deep breath as if he grudged the response. Gold grinned. They didn't even try to haggle; not that it would have done them much good, but most people did anyway. These men, at least, knew they occupied a weak position. Their invention was revolutionary but that also entailed risk. Progress was fast these days; someone was always coming up with something new, and only half those ideas ever saw much traction, no matter how brilliant - it simply wasn't possible to try to implement every single thing that came along. Ultimately, Gold felt this one was a reasonably sound investment, and though he was hardly in the habit of throwing his money away, what was a great amount for Wright and Evans was, frankly, hardly even worth a passing mention to a man like him.

"Excellent," he nodded, and Jefferson opened an inkwell and held up a pen, producing a third copy for them all to sign, as well as handing Gold his checkbook. Gold made rather a show of filling out the check with his practiced carelessness and stood up, handing it to Wright and Evans along with their copy of the signed contract. He smirked as they tried not to stare at the figure as they each shook his hand and thanked him profusely. "Gentlemen, I bid you good day, and good luck. Jefferson will walk you out."

He smiled at their retreating backs as Jefferson led them back out of the conservatory, and sat down again to finally pour himself some tea, the pleasure of a favorable deal sweetening it more than honey could.

Jefferson came back in and resumed his seat and his own teacup. "That went well," he observed, settling into a decidedly casual sprawl now that their company was gone.

"Indeed," Gold nodded. "I had expected them to put up a bit more of a fight. Be a little more entertaining, at least." Of course, Wright and Evans probably didn't find anything about it entertaining.

Jefferson shrugged. "They need the money, and you're the only one who will give it to them."

Gold clicked his tongue. "Lend them, my boy. Lend." Anything from Mr. Gold always came with strings. Everyone knew that.

Jefferson nodded with a bit of a grin. "Of course, sir."

"So, nothing else today?" Gold asked, setting his cup down once it was empty and plainly expecting that there should be.

Jefferson glanced at his ledger and shook his head. "No, sir," he replied, "That was all."

Tempted as Gold was to string him along, he was in a good and therefore merciful mood. "Isn't it your daughter's birthday?" He cocked an eyebrow at the younger man.

Jefferson was, obligingly, surprised. "Um, yes. It is."

Gold smiled. Jefferson was so used to keeping track of his affairs that sometimes he seemed to forget that Gold could, in fact, remember a few things on his own. "Well, if I don't need you, there's no reason to keep you here, is there?" He shrugged with the same indifference with which he had signed the check.

Jefferson beamed. "Thank you, sir. She'll be so pleased."

Gold waved off his gratitude. Generous was one thing, but he couldn't be seen to be soft, God forbid. "Well, it's a slow day, anyway," he demurred.

Jefferson, of course, knew him well enough to see right through him, but also well enough to know better than to point out the fact. "Thank you, again," he said, standing up and gathering the contracts and his ledger and inkwell. "I'll just file these and then go home."

Once Jefferson left the room, Gold did allow himself to smile. He'd met little Grace, a time or two. She was a pretty girl, and clever and polite and sweet-tempered; Jefferson had done well despite bringing her up alone. Every now and then Gold thought the man should remarry, but, true to his eccentric nature, he somehow made it work in his own inimitable way. Gold tried not to think about his own child - no longer a child, now, of course – and what a hash he'd made of things. When he'd been Jefferson's age the world was still bright and full of promise, but he'd lost that optimism and his own wife shortly after the war that damn near took his leg. Now he knew the only shine to be had in the world came from coins.

Gold pushed up out of his chair and headed toward the stairs and his office. Certainly there was some work he could find to do, instead of skulking about and feeling sorry for his sad past.

He was surprised, when he stepped into his office, to find someone already there. Surprised and slightly annoyed: servants, unlike children, should be neither seen nor heard. Mills should have explained that to this one. Not that any servant worth their paycheck should need it to be explained, but, well, so few actually were.

To her credit, at least, this creature was all manner of contrite and demure: gasping in dismay when she noticed his presence, and keeping her eyes averted as she tried to scurry from the room. "I'm sorry, sir," she muttered.

For some reason, her deference annoyed him even more. True, Gold reveled in his fearsome reputation when it came to business matters and avoiding pithy conversation during his rare social excursions, but to have some slip of a girl in his own house cower from him as if expecting a lash, when he hadn't yet said or done a single thing other than walking into the room... well, a reputation was a double-edged thing, it seemed.

Because he would never apologize for walking into his own office, but feeling a little guilty for unintentionally scaring her off, instead he called after her with a rather inane, "You're new, aren't you?"

She stopped in her tracks, just shy of the doorway and freedom, looking like a rabbit in a snare. Gold could almost see the wheels turning in that little head, calculating whether and how to answer. Perhaps Mills had explained the ways of this house to her, and now she was caught between following those instructions to leave him the hell alone, and obliging him by responding to his question. Again, to her credit, she chose him. A clever thing, then, or a brave one.

She nodded meekly and turned back to him. "I am, sir." Quiet and inconspicuous, just as a maid should be. His home had seen plenty and would see many more, but something about this one struck Gold. She was probably trying to hide that accent – many like her did; he had – but that dark, curling 'r' was likely something she would never fully get rid of.

Gold grinned and steepled his fingers. "Oh, and where are we from?" he asked, with no small amount of glee at having someone new to poke and prod and gauge reactions.

"Hell's Kitchen, sir," she replied, a bit reluctantly, but her employer had asked her a question and a good maid should answer.

Gold pursed his lips. Perhaps she was not so brave after all. "I meant before that."

"Ireland, sir." She looked supremely uncomfortable, and he wasn't enjoying it as much as he usually did. Had she lost positions before, for being Irish? Gold knew that happened sometimes.

He hissed and shook his head. "You persist in giving only the obvious answer. Do give me some credit for having ears and a brain between them. Though you've said naught but two words together other than 'sir,' Ireland, at least, is apparent." She looked up at him, and Gold found himself stung a little by her surprise and relief. Had she honestly expected him to turn her out? His reputation wasn't as bad as that, surely.

"Dún Ceartáin, sir, County Mayo," she replied, rather less like a kicked puppy now.

Gold smiled, and with an exaggerated motion, laid his hand on his chest. "Five words all together! Be still my heart."

Perhaps emboldened that he hadn't fired her, the girl dared to frown at him. "You mock me, sir."

That only made him laugh. "I'm a rich man," he waved his hand dismissively. "I mock everybody."

She opened her mouth, and from the look on her face, he was in for a hot retort. Gold was actually rather disappointed when instead she colored, closed her mouth, and bowed her head again.

"What's your name, then, girl?" he snapped, irritated at this return to bland meekness after her surprising display of spirit.

"Aoife, sir," she replied, dutiful and quiet again.

He raised an eyebrow. "Eva?" he asked, deliberately mispronouncing it and hoping to stir her up again into saying more.

Obligingly, her head jerked up. "'Ee-fa,'" she corrected, and belatedly tacked on, "sir."

Gold smirked. "Beauty, radiance. Also a warrior, as I recall the story." He could like this one, and found himself hoping she'd manage not to get on the wrong side of Mills, whose standards in regards to servants in this house were even more exacting than his own.

The girl's - Aoife's - brow wrinkled in what was probably confusion or surprise or both. Gold grinned and tapped his forehead. "And a brain, remember? Names are... a particular hobby of mine." He'd got his start by being good with names, and old habits - especially beneficial ones - stay with a man.

"Then may I be asking yours?" Aoife inquired, fearlessly.

He was amused and surprised, both by the content of her question and the brazenness of the blue eyes she turned on him. "Mr. Gold, of course," he replied automatically, his customary eloquence and humor momentarily lost to him. "Are the drawings in the papers as bad as that?"

Aoife shook her head, and smiled, of all things. Gold was certain he'd never made a servant smile before, and it was... disconcerting. "I do recognize you, sir," she said, "and I know who you are. I'm after asking your name."

He was struck dumb by her forthrightness. Everyone called him Mr. Gold, and had done so for years. At first, he'd been merely amused by the moniker, but it had stuck, and he found it suited him more and more as his life continued its madcap upward trajectory. He'd come to adopt it, embraced it fully; he now wore it like one of his fine coats, and its veneer felt like a second skin after all these years, or like armor. His son had always hated it.

"MacEachran," he replied, disarmed, his own father's long-forgotten accent slipping through.

"May I call you Mr. MacEachran, sir?" Aoife asked, not even the slightest hesitation over the name so many Americans seemed incapable of pronouncing.

"Call me whatever you like," Gold said with an indifferent flick of his hand, too thrown by her manner, and hearing his name spoken for the first time in years, to think better about offering a servant such liberties. He didn't know why he said it, why he answered her at all. Half an hour ago, he would never have imagined he would allow a chambermaid to ask such impertinent, intimate questions. Her eyes weren't that blue.

"Shall I carry on with dusting, Mr. MacEachran?" she asked, with another bit of a smile. Aoife – beauty, radiance – had, it seemed, been named well.

Lest her smile draw one from himself, Gold frowned. More at himself for being an old fool than at her, but even so. "Yes. Of course," he said, waving her back to the mantel. "I was..." He couldn't for the life of him remember why he came in here, now. Damned eyes. "I wanted a book," he lied with a shrug, "I recall now I left it in the library." Gold turned toward the door, but hesitated. "There's no need to... mention my name to the other servants," he said, turning back to her. "We don't want to confuse anyone."

"I shan't, of course, sir," Aoife nodded in agreement, so sincere it seemed she hadn't even considered speaking his name where someone else might hear. That was... gratifying, though still rather awkward and probably inappropriate to share an intimate secret with a chambermaid. He cursed himself for a fool, he who was always so careful with his words. Why had he let her rattle him? "Good morning, Mr. Gold," she inclined her head.

That felt much more comfortable, safe once again within the strictures of formality. "Good morning..." Gold said, halfway through a bow before he caught himself. She's a maid, not a debutante. "... Aoife."

She blushed like a debutante, however, which Gold was certain he'd never made a servant do, and it was even more disconcerting than her smile. She returned to employing her feather duster with meticulous care, perhaps even more so than before he'd interrupted her. He walked out of the room as if he had always intended to, and shook himself once he was free of her presence.