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Authors: Mary Burchell

Tags: #Harlequin Romance 1961

Across the Counter

BOOK: Across the Counter
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Mary Burchell

She was engaged to the wrong

When the man you are engaged to tells you that he has fallen in love with someone else, there isn’t much to be done; but Katherine knew that her heart would never recover.

How, then, did she suddenly find herself engaged to another man entirely? And how was it that Paul Kendale’s affairs were becoming so important to her that she scarcely had time to reflect on her broken heart?



Katherine paused
at the head of the great staircase that led down to the ground floor of Bremmisons. For the scene never failed to fascinate her—and perhaps most of all in this moment of the morning, just before the doors of the famous store were opened to the public. It was, she thought, like looking at an empty stage with the most gorgeous setting, and waiting for the drama to begin.

From the first moment she had come to work at Bremmisons as a junior saleswoman four years before, she had been enthralled and stimulated by the atmosphere of the place. It was not only the magnificent sweep of the staircase, or the faultless symmetry of the huge central dome, or even the green carpeted acres where department after superbly planned department displayed an infinite variety of fascinating merchandise. There was—as most London shoppers would agree

something special about Bremmisons.

For one thing, although nothing could be more up-to
the-minute than its impeccable organization and sales promotion, the atmosphere suggested an elegance and aristocratic charm that seemed hardly to belong to the impersonal bustle of the twentieth century. As one customer was once heard to observe, “It’s an experience simply to go to the notions department and buy a hair net.”

And an American visitor took the same idea even further when she said, “It makes you feel good just to walk up that staircase. As though you’re going to your first ball, and maybe there’s a duke waiting at the top to greet you.”

“The staircase is responsible for half the charm of Bremmisons,” Malcolm Fordham, the chief assistant architect, had once declared to Katherine.

It represents a fantastically extravagant use of almost priceless space. But take away the staircase and Bremmisons would be just another Fine store.”

And because at that time Katherine was busy falling in love with the chief assistant architect, she naturally agreed with him.

She thought of him now with a passing sigh for the fact that he was out of London, replanning the big Midland store in Morringham, which Bremmisons had recently taken over. And she wished, not for the first time, that Malcolm was half as good at writing letters as he was at designing buildings.

“Good morning, Miss Renner.” Katherine’s immediate senior, the buyer from the Costume Jewelry Department, paused to see what was engaging the attention of her invaluable assistant. “Are you looking for someone?”

“Oh, no.” Katherine laughed slightly. “I was just thinking how lovely it all looks.”

“How l
ovely all what looks?” The older
and less starry-eyed Mrs. Culver followed the direction of her junior’s gaze to the ground floor.

“The whole store. I think it’s one of the most wonderful sights in London, don’t you?”

Mrs. Culver laughed in good-humored derision. “Not,” she retorted dryly, “on a Monday morning. Five minutes to one on Saturday afternoon is when it looks its best to me. Come and tell me what you think of the latest samples of that Burmese jewelry. I can’t decide if it’s just too odd to be beautiful, or just so beautiful that the oddness adds to its attraction.”

Mrs. Culver was like that. She always made one feel that on
e’s opinion was of value. And u
nder her expert tuition Katherine had learned a very great deal about costume jewelry in the last year. It was some compensation for the fact that promotion had meant leaving the Separates Department, where most of her early experience had been gained and where, to tell the truth, her heart still was.

“Teaming separates gives one the same sort of satisfaction that an artist gets from mixing colors, I imagine,” she had said to Mrs. Culver in the early days of her transfer. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

But the older woman had assured, her that the appraisal and display of costume jewelry had its attraction, too.

“Either one has a feeling for beautiful things or one hasn’t,” she declared, “whatever the medium. It’s nothing you can either teach or learn. You can develop the talent, of course, but you can’t plant it. You’ll see

jewelry will become a passion with you after a while.” And to some extent this was true. In any case, Katherine was realistic enough to be grateful for the change. For in her first department both the buyer and her assistant were young, keen and intelligent, so that obviously her own chances of promotion there were few.

“We feel you have a future in Bremmisons, Miss Renner,” the staff manager had told her impressively. “That’s why we have chosen you to fill the vacancy of assistant buyer in Costume Jewelry.”

So Katherine had taken a step up in the curious hierarchy of the great store. Although she still served behind a counter—for which she was glad because she loved selling—she received more money, shouldered more responsibility and acquired higher status.

In token of this last fact, she was entitled to take her meals in the assistant buyers’ dining room instead of the large, cheerful canteen that served the wants of the hundreds of lesser minions.

She had been surprised and rather amused when she first came to Bremmisons to discover what strong lines of demarcation divide the various grades in any big store. But this had not worried her until Malcolm Fordham came into her life. Then it did somewhat irk her to discover that it simply was no
done for the chief assistant architect to take one of the assistant buyers to lunch in the big restaurant frequented by the public as well as by what were disrespectfully known among the staff as “the really big cheeses.”

They met outside working hours, of course. And the acquaintance, which had started over structural alterations in her department, had ripened rapidly into friendship, and recently into very much more. But Malcolm was immensely popular and socially much in demand. And since his activities revolved largely around his charming converted farmhouse in Buckinghamshire, it was not always easy for him a
d Katherine to spend even their evenings together.

It astonished het-sometimes to realize just how fast their relationship had developed, considering the restrictions on their chances of meeting. But she supposed that time and opportunity had rather little to do with it when one found the one person who really mattered. She had fallen in love with Malcolm the second time she went out with him. And according to his calculations that was just about the time he had fallen in love with her.

They had not had time to do much planning for the future because, before they could get down to practical details, Malcolm had been whisked off on the assignment to reconstruct the Midland store. And even the buying of Katherine’s ring had had to wait until his return to London—whenever that might be.

But he had telephoned several times after his arrival in Morringham, full of affectionate impatience at their separation. And the recollection of these occasions did something to make up for the brevity of the almost impersonal little notes that were all Malcolm seemed able to achieve in the way of love letters.

To make things even more tantalizing, Morringham was actually within twenty miles of Katherine’s own charming, rambling, rather shabby home for which, even now, she sometimes longed with indescribable intensity. She had suggested that he should go there and make himself known to her parents and the beloved assortment of brothers and sisters who made up the family. But Malcolm seemed to think that they should wait until he and she could go there together. And so she was denied even the vicarious pleasure of hearing what he thought of the family and the family thought of him.

Still, I shall be having a week’s leave next month,
Katherine told herself as she followed now in the wake of Mrs. Culver.
And if Malcolm is still in Morringham I’ll go home—and enjoy both him and the family.

Business in Costume Jewelry tended to be slack on Monday mornings. But owing to a brilliant window display of some recent stock, there was first a trickle and then a steady stream of customers on this particular morning.

Katherine, who was a natural saleswoman, was in her element, and more than one customer cast an admiring glance at the slim, chestnut-haired girl with the sparkling hazel eyes, who seemed to take such genuine pleasure in finding them just what they most wanted.

It was about twelve o’clock when, unexpectedly, Katherine received a summons to the staff manager’s office.

“All right—we can cope,” Mrs. Culver assured her cheerfully, for of course there was no arguing with orders, requests or even suggestions from such exalted quarters. And reluctantly Katherine tore herself away from the busy scene around her counter and took one of the elevators to the top floor, where all the staff offices were located.

She was too good a worker to have any real anxiety about being summoned before the staff manager. But few of us are entirely proof against a faint tremor of apprehensive curiosity when called before the principal arbiter of fate in one’s own particular line of work. And this Katherine experienced as she knocked on Mr. Arnoldson’s door.

The staff manager—unquestionably one of the big cheeses—did himself rather well in the matter of accommodation, and it was a handsome office into which Katherine was admitted, and a handsome chair in which she was invited to sit. Mr. Arnoldson then came to the point immediately.

“Miss Renner, how would you view the prospect of working outside London?” he inquired.

“Permanently, do you mean?” Katherine looked slightly dismayed, for she had only recently acquired the pleasant little apartment that constituted her London home.

“For a trial period of a month, let us say, with the possibility of extending the time if you and we so wished. We are anxious to have you take over a rather special job in the new store in Morringham.”

“In Morringham?” Katherine’s face cleared like magic, and her eyes shone so expectantly that Mr. Arnoldson—who would not have attained his present position if he had not been a shrewd and observant man—smiled.

“You like the idea?”

it would have its attractions. Morringham is within twenty miles of my home,” Katherine explained more sedately. “Could I hear a little more, please?”

“Of Course.” Mr. Arnoldson settled himself comfortably in his chair, aware that the girl opposite him was sitting forward on the edge of hers, tense and eager.

“As you know,” he began briskly, “we have taken over the old family business of Kendales in Morringham. And as is sometimes the case where family businesses are concerned, there is a certain amount of—” he slowed down, as though choosing the next word with care “—of resentment felt by those of what one might call the old order toward the newcomers.”

“I suppose there might be,” Katherine agreed.

“Old Mr. Kendale was conservative to say the least of it. And although, of course, we at Bremmisons are conservative in the
sense of the term—” delicately Mr. Arnoldson placed the emphasis in the right place “—we have always known how to move with the times.” He paused, and then said
austerely, “Kendales has
moved with the times.”

Katherine had the curious impulse to defend Kendales at this point. Not that she had more than a hazy recollection of it, since most of the family shopping had been done at the nearby market town of Corham. But she did recall being taken there to be fitted out for her first term at boarding school, and at the time Kendales had seemed to her to be the height of palatial splendor.

However, she hastily recalled her attention to Mr. Arnoldson, who was now developing his theme further.

“Very many alterations will have to be made,” he was saying, so impressively that Katherine hoped she had not missed anything vital during the moments in which she had been recalling the past. “And in these circumstances it is perhaps unfortunate that Mr. Kendale should retain a seat on the new board of management. However, this is the arrangement, and strictly between ourselves, Miss Renner, he is proving singularly uncooperative.”

In spite of herself, Katherine felt faintly sorry for the old man, alone on an alien board, probably unhappy and touchy over every change in the running of the business that had very likely been his life work. But alas, times changed, and one had to be realistic.

Mr. Arnoldson was being very realistic.

“Although I have not visited the store myself—that isn’t my province—our reports are that in certain respects it is deplorably old-fashioned. This is particularly so in the departments catering to youth.”

“Separates, for instance!” exclaimed Katherine on impulse.

“Exactly.” Mr. Arnoldson smiled slightly. “Our idea is that you should go to Morringham, take over from Miss Lester, the present buyer in what is known, I believe, as Blouses and Skirts,” he said disdainfully, “and working from this angle, draw up a suggested plan of reorganization of those departments that might appeal most to the young shopper in Morringham.”

“But, Mr. Arnoldson—” Katherine was divided between gratified surprise and a sort of delicious panic “—that’s a tremendously responsible assignment.”

“Which is why I have chosen you for it, Miss Renner,” replied the staff manager pleasantly. For like all good executives, he knew the value of displaying confidence where it was merited.

“Oh—thank you!” Katherine flushed—not only with pleasure, but with mounting excitement as she contemplated this challenge to her skill and ingenuity.

BOOK: Across the Counter
5.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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