Inappropriately Flirting (55/141)

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They stayed another quarter-hour, going over a few details from the binders and answering questions about their organizational system and notation. After a few minutes, Justin and Miss Vasilver sent Millson to the other room to sort out with her secretary the details of the additional documents she would require. When they were alone, Justin asked, “Do you truly suspect Colbury of fraud?”

“Fraud? No, not on the basis of that. If his accountants intended to deceive, they’d not have categorized the funds as a loan at all. But – mismanagement, perhaps.” Miss Vasilver showed no self-consciousness at being alone with a man. She was intent upon the older financials from the Colbury binder. “It does look like they used funds from the line to pad dividends for some time. Which is not criminal, but far from good practice either.”

“Show me?” Justin circled around her desk to stand beside her as Miss Vasilver flipped between old quarterly statements to show the changes over time, before the line had been maxed twenty months ago.

“See? There’s a rough correlation between these draws and the quarterly dividend payments – those are not supported by the net income, as shown here. Dividends didn’t drop much after the line was fully funded, however, and net income is up. Assuming it’s not padded from something else. No, my main concern is that the business doesn’t appear to generate enough profit to service that debt if the bank charged a market rate on it. Never mind repayment, were it called upon. Are you a guarantor on the debt, my lord?”

“No, Colbury and his father are.” Justin leaned over her shoulder to study the figures. “As I recall, the additional profits recently are from manufacturing-process improvements – the lowered levels a couple of years ago were attributed to the cost of implementing those.” He scanned the columns of labels and numbers. “Ah, here – see, cost of goods were up and total sales likewise rose, but labor costs stayed the same.” Justin rested one hand on Miss Vasilver’s shoulder as he pointed to the figures in question with the other, flipping between years to illustrate the difference.

“Oh, I see – was it an equipment purchase or training?” Miss Vasilver asked, shifting his hand from the binder so she could turn back further to search for the initial expenditure.

“Equipment, I believe, and a team of engineers to manage the installation. There.” Justin stopped her on a balance sheet from two years ago and flipped forward to the next quarter. “The total value of equipment rose in this quarter.”

“That makes sense,” Miss Vasilver said, turning forward again.

“I do sit on the board. I wouldn’t have you think I’ve paid no attention at all,” Justin told her with a wry smile.

The young woman half-turned and looked up at him with calm brown eyes as she placed one hand over his on the desk beside her. “Oh, my lord, I did not mean to imply you’d been remiss in your oversight.”    

“But I have been, haven’t I?” Justin was more amused than anything else by the situation. If she’d lectured him on the immorality of letting his partner take advantage of his connections at the bank, he’d have thought her insufferably naive. But the way her concerns were founded on business reasons was – perhaps a bit paranoid of her, but she had a point. And it was not the only oddity, now that he considered it. “If it’s a capital improvement, Colbury shouldn’t have used funds from an operating line to pay for it.”

“No – but you’re a director for them, not an accountant. And acquiring a loan with no interest charge is not the sort of thing most people would regard as a potential problem.”

“True. I should not expect myself to have the same perceptiveness you do,” Justin said, teasing.

Instead of flustering her, Miss Vasilver answered the remark with, “Isn’t that why you wanted to retain my services?”

Justin grinned, squeezing her shoulder. “True enough.” He became aware of how close he was, of her bare hand over his atop the desk, her face tilted to him as she sat at the desk and he loomed over her. I ought to step back, he thought, and didn’t. Miss Vasilver showed no sign of discomfort with his nearness; he wasn’t sure she’d noticed, which was stranger yet. And a little maddening: I am inappropriately flirting with you here, you could at least do the courtesy of objecting if you are not going to respond in kind.

“I don’t mean to be…arrogant, my lord. Or patronizing,” she was saying, expression solemn. “I am…much better with numbers than people.”

Justin shook his head at her earnestness. “My dear Miss Vasilver, you take me far too seriously.”

She tilted her head to one side. “How should I take you, Lord Comfrey?”

In bed is the most comfortable, Justin thought. He had the sudden urge to dip his head down and kiss her, to see if she’d notice that. I really ought to step back. Her fingers caressed the back of his hand for a moment – oh, she did notice – and then moved away to the desk. But no awareness was reflected in her expression: neither a coy downward glance nor a bold look of invitation. Also, I ought to say something. “In small doses,” he answered her. “I daresay one needs to build up a tolerance to me first.”

“Truly, my lord? You seem quite tolerable to me,” she said, deadpan. Her fingers shifted to stroke his hand again, pale brown eyes unreadable.

“Then you must be a tolerant woman indeed, Miss Vasilver.” Justin heard the scrape of chairs from the adjoining room. He drew away at last to sweep a self-mocking bow to her, then took her hand to kiss it as he rose. Millson re-entered the room and cleared his throat. “But I will not try your patience with prolonged exposure; I imagine you have other business to attend to, and we have your requirements in hand.”

Miss Vasilver stood, her head still cocked to the side as she regarded him. “As you say. Thank you for your time, my lord. I’ll get back to you next week about Ellesex; I’m afraid Colbury will have to wait until some time after the Ascension season before I may complete it.”

Justin waved one hand in dismissal. “No hurry.” He pressed her fingers gently between his before releasing her to take his leave.

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