Too Rich for a Bride
Portland, Maine18 September 1896
Ida Sinclair didn’t know where her ambition would take her, only that she possessed a liberal measure of it. That was why the Merton School of Business was the perfect place for her. And why she sat in the front row of the classroom. She didn’t want to miss any bit of information or instruction that could move her closer to success.
Gazing from the calculations on the blackboard to the guest lecturer’s dark eyes, offset by traces of silver at his hairline, Ida waited for Mr. Bradley Ditmer to finish his point about customer relations and then raised her hand.
“Miss Sinclair, you have another question?”
Ida moistened her lips. “Yes. I’d like to know how one goes about securing financing to launch a busi—”
A roar of deep laughter startled her and she turned to glare at the source—a gangly, beak-nosed young man in the row beside hers.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about financing, missy,” he said. “Learn how to make a good pot of coffee and keep a file cabinet organized, and maybe I’ll hire you to work in my company.”
More laughter swept across the room until the professor made his way to the mouthy student’s desk. Mr. Ditmer’s footsteps stilled all other noise.
“You are a child to indulge in such hubris. Kindly keep it to yourself.”
Ida felt the same burn she’d become accustomed to since her first day in class. Her fellow students didn’t approve of her plans and aspirations. Even the women. But she also felt somewhat vindicated by Mr. Ditmer’s gallant stand against such boorish rantings.
The professor cleared his throat. “To answer your question, Miss Sinclair, bankers, private investors, and those on the stock exchange could provide necessary funding for a business.” He sauntered back to the front of the room then turned to face her. “However, no investor is wont to throw away money on frivolous pursuits. Each business proposal is weighed individually by its likelihood of success.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ida sealed her mouth shut against the numerous questions his answer raised.
She was still recording her thoughts and ideas in her notebook when Mr. Ditmer dismissed the class, making her the last to head for the door.
“Miss Sinclair?” Mr. Ditmer’s clear tone resonated off the empty desks in the room.
Ida stilled her steps a few feet from the classroom door and turned to face her instructor. A pleasant view, to be sure. The man was no Teddy Roosevelt, but he exuded the same commanding presence and compelling confidence.
She glanced down at the reticule she held in one hand and her satchel in the other, then looked back at the first row of desks. She saw no evidence to indicate she’d left anything behind. So what did Mr. Ditmer want?
He walked toward her, then stopped at a respectable distance. “I wondered if I might have a word with you.”
Ida nodded while her mind raced after an explanation. She had asked a lot of questions during class this morning, but she didn’t detect any irritation in his gaze. “Is there a problem, Mr. Ditmer? I didn’t intend any disruption, sir. It’s just that I find the topic of business ethics intriguing.”
“Your questions posed no disruption, Miss Sinclair. On the contrary.”
A smile revealed perfectly straight teeth. “I, for one, appreciate your participation and find your interest and questions thought-provoking. Even rewarding. Discussions on business ethics can be—as a rule—a mite drab.”
If her instructor wasn’t set on scolding her for an overactive curiosity, then what did he want to talk to her about?
“Miss Sinclair, you have your sights set on success in what has been dubbed a man’s world.” It wasn’t a question.
Although he didn’t seem the least bit intimidated or put off by her unconventional aspirations, she squared her shoulders anyway. She was prepared to defend her determination to him or anyone else who might question her entrance into the world of business. “Yes, sir, I do.”
“Then I’d like to discuss some possibilities with you.”
Ida shifted her weight to one foot, hoping the act would slow her pulse and make her appear more relaxed than she felt. Bradley Ditmer owned a large clothiers chain in New York City. She’d love nothing more than to discuss business with him, especially if their conversation held any promise for her future livelihood.
She glanced up at the clock atop a bookcase. Thirty-five minutes after twelve. Only twenty-five minutes remained of her lunch break between classes and her work in the school’s main office.
Unfortunately, she had no wiggle room in her schedule today, and such a discussion could require every minute of her remaining break, and then some. Her employer was out of the office until Monday, and he counted on her to see to the mound of work he’d left for her, including interviewing two prospective students. Still, this was the Mr. Bradley Ditmer, one of New York’s foremost commerce tycoons standing before her, interested in her business ambitions.
“You want to talk with me about my future in the world of business?” she asked.
“If you’re amenable to it.”
“Yes.” She’d allowed herself to sound far too anxious. “I’d be most interested in hearing what you have to say.”
“I have a luncheon appointment. And I know you have a job to attend to.” He pushed a silver-tinted strand of hair from his temple much the way her father did, only Father’s was more salt and pepper than gray. “We could chat after you’re finished with your afternoon’s work.”
A meeting after work would make for a long day, and perhaps mean she wouldn’t get home until after dark, but Mr. Ditmer was very knowledgeable and influential. Father would want her to pursue her dream, and knowing she had a bright and secure future ahead of her would be a comfort to him.
“We can discuss job possibilities over coffee.” His eyebrows arched into a question mark.
“Coffee sounds lovely.”
“Very well, then. I’ll brew a fresh pot in my office at five o’clock.”
In his office. Ida fussed with the wrap draped over her shoulders. Of course he’d want to meet with her in his office. It made sense that he’d keep his list of contacts there—all of his business resources. She brought her bags together in front of her. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been in his office before. She’d delivered files and telephone messages to him there. The twinge of apprehension niggling at her stomach was senseless. She was behaving like a nervous schoolgirl, something a woman with her “sights set on success” couldn’t afford to do.
Ida offered him a tight nod and took quick steps out the door, closing it behind her. She pulled her mother’s pendant watch from her reticule and glanced at its face. Only fifteen minutes left of her break, barely enough time to scoot down the hall to the washroom and then unlock the office door by one o’clock.
At the end of four hours of filing, typing, and bookkeeping, Ida retrieved her belongings from under her desk and put on her wrap.
Mr. Ditmer, as the guest lecturer for the final month of school, had an office at the end of the empty corridor. Ida’s low-top shoes drummed against the parquet flooring as she made her way around the corner and past three quiet classrooms. She drew in a fortifying breath as she approached his office.
Mr. Bradley Ditmer had taken notice of her business acuity. Her father and her sisters Kat and Nell expected her to move to Cripple Creek, Colorado, next month following her graduation, but surely they’d understand that she couldn’t turn down a lucrative job in New York City. That’d be plain foolish.
After admiring the shine on the brass nameplate—Bradley P. Ditmer III, Industrialist and Adjunct Professor—she knocked lightly on his office door.
“Do come in.”
She did, and was met with the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Her instructor stood behind an oak desk, his suit jacket draped over a brass hook behind him. He motioned for her to be seated in one of the two high-back leather chairs that faced his tidy desk.
Ida left her bags by the door and sat down, watching him pour the steaming liquid into two cups at a buffet in the corner. She’d expected him to ask her to make the coffee, or at least to pour it. Instead, he was serving her. And given his calm response to her many and varied questions in class, he seemed perfectly capable of picturing a woman’s role in business as something more than a kitchen aide and secretary.
“Cream? Sugar?” He returned the pot to the hot plate on the buffet and turned toward her.
“No, thank you.”
He crossed the room and handed her a full cup on a saucer. “One cup of coffee, undiluted.” He smiled. “I should’ve guessed you liked your coffee full-strength. You seem to be one who appreciates the straightforward and direct approach.”