Line by Line

Line by Line

Love Along the Wires series, Book 1
June 30, 2020
Bethany House Publishers
ISBN: 978-0764234927

Since she was young, Alice McNeil has seen success as a telegrapher as the best use for her keen and curious mind. Years later, she has yet to regret her freedom and foregoing love and marriage, especially when she acquires a coveted position at an important trading firm. But when the company’s ambitious junior director returns to London, things begin to change in ways Alice could never have imagined.

For Douglas Shaw, years of hard work and ingenuity enabled him to escape a life of grinding poverty. He’s also determined to marry into high society—a step that will ensure he never returns to the conditions of his past.

He immediately earns Alice’s respect by judging her based on her skills and not her gender, and a fast camaraderie forms. However, when Alice accidentally angers a jealous coworker and his revenge threatens both their reputations, Alice and Douglas are forced to confront what is truly important in their lives. Will their growing bond give them the courage to see the future in a different light?

The day was hot—summer had arrived in earnest. Douglas took a few steps into the shade of the nearby pedestrian lane where it was cooler. He leaned against the wall and looked up. From here he could see the telegraph wires that ran across the buildings and into the offices of Henley and Company. He smiled as he contemplated the sight. Although the wires were not aesthetically pleasing, they were beautiful to Douglas. The telegraph had been an electric lifeline, pulling him up from poverty and on to better things.

The office windows were open. They were just above his head, so he couldn’t see in, but Douglas knew he was standing at the window by the telegraphers’ desks. He listened for the sounder. It was quiet at the moment. He could hear voices, though. Without the slightest shame, he moved under the window in an effort to hear what they were saying. He was so accustomed to gathering information via his ears that this sort of thing never felt like eavesdropping.

“I’m so glad you decided to return. We were about to send out a search party.”

Douglas recognized the caustic voice of Archie Clapper. He shook his head in amusement. That man always sounded out of sorts. He was the type who could see the downside to anything in life, no matter how good it was.

“I’m only two minutes late. You needn’t make a case out of it.”

This retort came from a woman. Douglas wasn’t familiar with her voice. He could only presume it belonged to Miss Alice McNeil, the new telegrapher. He knew she’d been recently hired, but he had yet to meet her in person. If she sounded more acrimonious than he’d expected, he would just put that down to the fact that she was, after all, speaking with Clapper. That man would draw venomous words from a saint.

As the conversation continued, it devolved into something more akin to a battle of wits. This Alice McNeil was standing up for herself in a most interesting way. Douglas liked her already. He settled in and listened, the smile growing on his face as the conversation continued.

****

“I’m so glad you decided to return. We were about to send out a search party.”

Despite his sneer, Archie’s eyes lingered on Alice’s scarf for a few seconds. Perhaps Lucy was right when she’d pointed out how becoming the color was.

Alice dropped into her chair and quickly stowed her gloves and reticule in a drawer. “I’m only two minutes late. You needn’t make a case out of it.”

“Look at the work that has piled up.” Archie pointed to the basket that sat on the ledge between their two desks.

“Piled up in the last two minutes?” Alice raised an eyebrow. “Or am I now to be admonished simply for taking lunch?” She picked up the stack and riffled through them. There were perhaps a dozen missives, none terribly long. “Why, there must be nearly three hundred words here, all total.” As an accomplished telegrapher, she could send over forty words per minute. Getting through this stack would take no time at all.

“I had no time to send them, as there was a lot of incoming.” Archie pointed an ink-stained finger toward Mavis Waller’s desk on the other side of the office. It did indeed have a pile of papers on it. Mavis’s task, among other things, was to type up incoming telegrams.

Alice sent Mavis a questioning look, wanting to confirm Archie’s assertion that they’d been busy. But Mavis kept her eyes down and continued typing as though oblivious to the conversation. Alice knew she was cowed by Archie, perhaps even afraid of him. Though how anyone could be afraid of that slothful lump of obstinacy was beyond Alice’s comprehension.

“There will be more to come, now that the Americans are finally getting to their offices.” Archie’s tone suggested that the Americans were unforgivably lazy for keeping to their own time zones for work, given that nine o’clock in the morning in New York was one o’clock in London. Alice suspected that was why Archie preferred to take the later of the two lunch hours. There was always a flurry of messages from the Baltimore office first thing. By taking lunch at that hour, Archie was leaving one of the busier times for Alice to handle.

Sure enough, the sounder began to click the opening salvo that someone was on the line. Alice sent back the reply Ready and picked up her pen. This message wasn’t coming from overseas, however. Alice recognized the sender’s initials, as well as his sending style: it was Jimmy Smith from the Liverpool office. He was a particular friend of Archie’s, and they were often in cahoots. Alice had survived a hazing from Jimmy on her first day on the job. Also known as rushing, it was an attempt to show her up by sending the message so fast that she couldn’t keep up and would have to “break” and ask him to repeat. But she had triumphed and been doubly rewarded by Archie’s dumbfounded amazement.

“Of course, if you feel the incoming messages are too much for you to handle, I am happy to stay.” Archie would have heard the initials of the sender as well and known it was Jimmy. He looked at Alice as though daring her to accept his offer.

He should have known better. “Thank you, but you needn’t bother. Please don’t let me keep you from going out. We could use more air in here.”

Archie’s face hardened. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” As he grabbed his hat, his lips twisted into a weird position that might almost represent a smile—if he had known how to accomplish that facial expression. Alice knew that look; he was up to something.

The sounder was loud and insistent. Even after that first week, when she had proven her mettle, there were still times when Jimmy—usually goaded on by Archie—would see if he could best her. Most of the time Alice enjoyed rising to the challenge. Today, however, she would have preferred not to have to deal with this.

“Of all the days,” she muttered under her breath. But she was determined not to break.

Several drops of sweat tickled down her neck. The room was hot even though she had persuaded Archie that they should keep the windows open.

With one ear, she heard Archie greet someone he apparently met coming in. “Good day, sirs.” He only used that obsequious tone of voice around one person: Mr. Henley. He must be returning with Mr. Shaw. Alice would have turned to greet them, but the incoming transmission was too fast.

She could hear Mr. Henley and Mr. Shaw speaking to Mavis behind her. Mavis’s voice changed to a shy warmth as she spoke with Mr. Shaw. Evidently he didn’t intimidate her the way Archie did. Alice kept to her task. That was aggravating, because she had been keenly wanting to meet Mr. Shaw in person. They’d had a few exchanges yesterday when Mr. Shaw had sent some messages himself from Liverpool—in a much cleaner and friendlier style than Jimmy Smith was using. Alice was intrigued by this man who had risen from a telegrapher to the second in authority to the owner.

“This is Miss McNeil, our new telegrapher,” she heard Mr. Henley say. “Miss McNeil—”

Alice held up a hand to indicate she could not talk at this moment. She could tell this message was nearing its conclusion, and she wasn’t going to allow the thread to drop.

“Miss McNeil and I have had several communications over the wire.” Mr. Shaw’s voice was smooth, like butter—if butter had a sound.

Alice steeled herself to keep up with the sounder. This was no time to get distracted by a voice. She was a master at keeping up with any incoming message, no matter what might be going on around her. It was a point of pride with her.

But Mr. Henley would keep talking. “Miss McNeil has very nearly mastered that code book and our other protocols for sending messages. For speed, she is as fast as Mr. Clapper. Quite astounding. Oh, but that’s right, you learned Morse code as a child, didn’t you?”

That last part was directed at her, but Alice didn’t answer. She bit her lip and kept transcribing the message, pushing her attention to stay with the sounder. Finally, the message ended. She sent back the short confirmation just as rapidly, almost slamming the key on the last stroke. Then she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. That would teach that lizard Jimmy Smith not to try showing her up.

“Bravo, Miss McNeil,” Mr. Shaw said. “Whoever was on the other end must have been sending better than forty words per minute. Yet you did not break.”

Recollecting herself, Alice turned.

And beheld the most handsome man she had ever seen.

Alice almost fell out of her chair. Not because she had turned too quickly and gotten unbalanced, but because she was shocked that this ridiculous observation about a man’s looks had intruded itself on her brain. She carefully closed her mouth, which had somehow fallen open. She blinked a few times, as though by getting a clearer look at him she would realize that her first impression—that no man could really be the most perfect specimen since Adam—had been caused by a mere trick of the light.

It was a vain hope. He was still devastatingly handsome. Tall, square shoulders, dark hair and eyes. Neatly trimmed side whiskers. A clean-shaven face revealing a nicely formed chin. Nose, brows, forehead—everything in flawless proportions.

He was smiling at her. He had just said something. What was it? It really was too warm in this office. Maybe her brain was frazzled by the heat.

“I said, what you did was quite impressive,” Mr. Shaw supplied, as though he could read her addled thoughts. His voice was pleasant to the ears, his accent hinting at Scottish origins.

Alice rose. Her legs were shaky—but that must be because she’d just spent a very tense few minutes keeping up with a racing telegrapher.

She breathed in, accepting his compliment and straightening with pride. She realized that since he was a telegrapher himself, he would know exactly what she’d just accomplished.

“How do you do?” Alice held out a hand to offer a handshake. After all, they were greeting each other as colleagues, even if his position in the company was higher than hers.

He looked momentarily surprised but didn’t hesitate to respond. He grasped her hand with a warm grip that was neither too firm nor too weak, but which somehow made her legs wobbly again. “We’ve already had a few conversations, haven’t we, Miss McNeil? Via the wire, I mean.”

His eyes were as warm as his smile. His gaze lingered for a moment on her new scarf, but he seemed more intent on her face. As though he were trying to get to know her by studying its contours. Not that there was much to see, Alice thought. Lucy always told her she was too thin, and Alice was well aware that her angular face and straight nose were not the least bit interesting. Perhaps he’d noticed how the scarf highlighted her eyes?

Alice McNeil, do not go down that path, she told herself sternly. She was not about to become one of those vain and frivolous women who cared about such things. “Yes. The, er, wire.”

©2020

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