Authors: Bolen, Cheryl
Praise forThe Brides of Bathseries
Cheryl Bolen’s writing draws you into her fast-paced story. 4 Stars –RT Book Reviews on The Bride Wore Blue
Cheryl Bolen returns to the Regency England she knows so well. . .If you love a steamy Regency with a fast pace, be sure to pick upThe Bride Wore Blue. –Happily Ever After
Cheryl Bolen does it again! There is laughter, and the interaction of the characters pulls you right into the book. I look forward to the next in this series. 4 Stars –RT Book Reviews on With His Ring
“A story of healing, forgiveness and change that will make readers cheer.” –RT Book Reviews on The Bride’s Secret
"Bolen's writing has a certain elegance that lends itself to the era and creates the perfect atmosphere for her enchanting romances." –RT Book Reviews on To Take This Lord
eBooks available from award-winning author Cheryl Bolen
Regency Historical Romance:
The Brides of Bath Series
The Bride Wore Blue*
With His Ring*
The Bride’s Secret (previously titledA Fallen Woman*
To Take This Lord (previously titledAn Improper Proposal)*
Love In The Library*
The Regent Mysteries Series
With His Lady's Assistance*
A Most Discreet Inquiry*
The Theft Before Christmas*
A Lady by Chance*
The Earl's Bargain
My Lord Wicked
His Lordship's Vow
Lady Sophia's Rescue
Christmas Brides (Three Regency Novellas)*
Marriage of Inconvenience*
A Duke Deceived*
One Golden Ring*
Texas Heroines in Peril Series
Murder at Veranda House*
A Cry In The Night
Falling For Frederick*
World War II Romance:
It Had to Be You(Previously titledNisei)*
American Historical Romance:
A Summer To Remember (3 American Romances)
*Also published in paperback
Love In The Library
(The Brides of Bath, Book 5)
Copyright © 2014 by Cheryl Bolen
Love In The Libraryis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.
Table of Contents
Catherine Bexley had been removed from Society—and these sweltering Upper Assembly Rooms—for too long. Her good manners had eroded most deplorably, but she simply could not force herself to listen to Maxwell Longford's incessant prattle when other, more interesting topics were being discussed so close at hand.
She was far more interested in Felicity Moreland's conversation. (Though Catherine was quite certain anyone else's words would be more interesting than Mr. Longford's yawn-worthy accounts of his brother's betrothed—a sixth cousin, twice removed, to a viscount.)
While nodding at and faintly smiling at Mr. Longford as if she had actually been listening to him, Catherine inched across the settee that faced the dancers in order to be closer to Felicity. Now less than a foot separated the two ladies—the same distance that now separated Catherine from the stricken-looking Mr. Longford. It was a gap the determined man soon closed—without the least lapse in his monologue.
Felicity was telling her companion about one of the Steffington twins. "Melvin is nothing like his rakish brother," Felicity had said. "He's quite the bookish one. Can you credit it? One of my brother's friends actually taking a doctorate at Oxford in classical literature? There's nothing Mr. Steffington doesn't know about old books and manuscripts."
At the mention of old books, Catherine's interest spiked.
"That's why I brought up this topic," Felicity continued, lifting her gaze toward the crush of couples dancing in front of them while continuing to speak to the matron beside her. "He's seeking a position at a private library, and I immediately thought of your brother's."
"Oh, dear me." Felicity's rotund companion twisted at the string of huge pearls which dangled from her flabby neck. "Wharton's already got the most able man you can imagine running the library at Havenworth." The older woman shook her head sadly. "Such a pitythatSteffington twin shall have toearnhis living." She could not have sounded more sympathetic were the unfortunate twin lying upon his deathbed. "And to think, the one who shared the womb with him is a baronet!"
The beautiful Felicity offered her companion a devilish smile. "You must know, Lady Ann, that I find much to admire in men who make their own way in life."
Lady Ann's hand flew to her mouth, and crimson rose to her cheeks. "I had quite forgotten your dear husband was a nabob."
Catherine herself had difficulty remembering Thomas Moreland's humble origins. Not that she gave a whit about maintaining the separation of classes. She'd read too much Thomas Paine. (So much, in fact, that her late husband had thrown out her copy ofCommon Sensewhen Catherine had suggested their footman be permitted to vote, and herRights of Manwas pitched into the fire when Mr. Bexley learned she had sat down to tea with their cook.)
Soon the two other women began remarking on the young beauties in Bath this Season, and Catherine's interest wilted.
"I say, Mrs. Bexley," Catherine's male companion droned on as she fanned herself, "I know you don't fancy standing up with men so soon after throwing off your widow's weeds, but surely you don't find a daytime ride in Sydney Gardens too frivolous."
This was the first time Catherine had actually listened to the poor bore since taking her seat on the scarlet damask settee that fringed the ballroom. Now she availed herself of the opportunity to peer at the man. He was possessed of an aquiline nose and strong chin and a very fine face that was framed with fashionably styled hair the color of bark. His starchy cravat was expertly tied in the waterfall fashion. There was nothing in his appearance that did not please. Unless he was standing. His height was considerably shorter than the average man.
"I don't think riding is at all frivolous, Mr. Longford. I know ever so many serious-minded persons who do so daily."
"Then it will be my pleasure to collect you tomorrow afternoon." His watery blue eyes flashed, and his brows lifted cockily. "Now that you have so singularly honored me."
She was rather relieved that her rude disinterest had gone unnoticed by Mr. Longford. What a fine actress she must be. (Or did he believe his words so fascinating that everyone to whom he spoke listened rapturously?)
The man actually felt himself honored! Now if he would just leave her. She was most anxious to question Felicity about the scholarly twin. Perhaps if she were overtly rude to the man beside her, he would take his leave.
It did not come to that. Mr. Longford soon caught a glimpse of his brother—no doubt standing up with the sixth cousin, twice removed, of the much-respected Viscount Someone Important—and asked permission to take his leave. "I must make myself agreeable to Miss Turner-Fortenbury, who you will remember is the cousin of Lord Finchton."
"Sixth cousin, is she not?" Catherine said, offering him a coy smile.
"Indeed she is. It will be just one more connection between my family and the nobility—once she weds my brother."
As he walked around the perimeter of the ballroom, his brows perfectly level with most of the lady's bosoms, it occurred to Catherine that one of the reasons Mr. Longford persisted in sitting beside her could be that he was pleased to find a lady who did not dance. It must be embarrassing when a man's dance partners all exceeded him in height.
Another of her attractions to him, though, could be her connection to the Earl of Mountback. That sort of thing seemed to hold great appeal for Mr. Longford.
Flicking her hand-painted fan against the chamber's stuffy air, Catherine immediately faced her old friend, the fair and lovely Felicity. "Pray, can you tell which Steffington twin is which?"
The lady shook her head. "Blanks is the only one who's ever been able to tell them apart, though I do seem to recall that Glee indicated she thought she was growing proficient at how to detect which was which—or who was who."
"I've never been able to understand how one does tell one identical twin from the other," Catherine said.
As Catherine spoke, Felicity's older companion stood. Light from the five massive chandeliers which trailed along the ballroom ceiling far above illuminated her face as her glance fanned over the assembled dancers. "I seem to have lost sight of my Maryann. I shall just have to assure myself the delicate girl hasn't fainted. It is so terribly hot in here."
Catherine did not understand how anyone could lose sight of Maryann St. Clare for the lady was exceedingly large. Catherine had easily witnessed the violet mass that was the lady's dress amble through the generous doorway to the tea room, where an assortment of cakes was no doubt currently passing through that young lady's lips.
Once Lady Ann made her way toward the tea room, Felicity turned her full attention upon Catherine. "I am so happy to see you back in Society, as are many of the gentlemen here tonight. You are being much too severe in not standing up with them. It's been over a year since Bexley died."
"I know you're right. It's not just that I find dancing frivolous after a death. I also do not like to encourage any men because I have no desire to remarry." Catherine suppressed a yawn, thankful that the evening's festivities would soon draw to a close. She had made the curious discovery that sitting and watching dancers was far more tiring than actually dancing.
Felicity remained quiet, but her sapphire eyes softened. Now Catherine understood why Felicity's husband always preferred her in blue as she wore this night, no doubt to please him.
Catherine shrugged. "Of course, I may be forced to marry if I can't reclaim Mr. Bexley's legacy."
Because they were good friends, Felicity was one of the few persons who knew about Catherine's precarious financial situation. "It's quite beastly that Bexley's only thing of value was stolen. I think you should let it be known far and wide that Bexley's rare treasure was stolen. That should keep an unsuspecting collector from buying it."
"I wish I could, but to honor Bexley's memory, I refused to let it be known that one single item was his only valuable possession, though I will own, it wasextremelyvaluable. Poor Mr. Bexley was such a proud man. He wanted all his friends to think him wealthy." Honoring the image her late husband tried to project was her peculiar way of atoning to him for being a merry widow.
"He was far too proud, and I wish you wouldn't canonize the man. He was a most insensitive husband, and well you know it."
"Oh, I do. That's why I must see that memories associated with Mr. Bexley are pleasant ones, for I'm afraid his final resting place is anything but pleasant."
Felicity giggled. Then apologized. Then gripped her friend's arm with her gloved hand. "Look, Catherine! There's one of the twins. I declare, I haven't seen them in an age, and as soon as we speak of them, one of them materializes."
The widow Bexley spun around to gaze at the door to the card room. There stood one of the dark haired, well dressed, taller-than-average twins. His black jacket fit perfectly. In fact from head to toe, his dress was impeccable. She studied him. Any sense of weakness implied by his slim build was quickly offset by the power of his countenance and the solidity conveyed by his patrician nose. From the man's haughty demeanor, Catherine was almost certain this twin must be the baronet. Is that how Blanks told them apart?
She remembered Glee telling her the smart twin was a bit of an introvert.
Introvert or not, Catherine knew that the smart, introverted twin was precisely what she needed. But how could she enlist him to help her? She had no money, and she refused to use her feminine charms even if that particular twin would be susceptible to such a ploy—which she was convinced he wouldnotbe.
Catherine turned back to Felicity. "Since your brother's one of his best friends, I beg that you beckon him to join us."
Felicity raised a quizzical brow. "If you like, dearest."
As the solitary twin's gaze connected with Felicity's, a smile crossed his face, and he began to cross the lofty chamber toward them.
He bowed before the beautiful blonde, kissing her proffered hand, then nodded at Catherine.
"You remember my friend, Mrs. Bexley?" Felicity inquired, coyly refraining from addressing him so as not to mistake him for his brother.
"Indeed I do." He smiled upon Catherine. "I trust your period of mourning is up?"
"It has been up these two months past," Catherine replied.
"Then you must do me the goodness of standing up with me."
"Alas, I have not yet returned to dancing."
"Speaking of dancing," Felicity said to the twin, "it has been an age since I've seen you at the Assembly Rooms, though my brother keeps me informed about all his friends—including you and your brother."
He frowned. "I daresay the reason you haven't seen me in an age is that Bath has lost its lure since your brother and Blanks have wed and gone to their estates. Even my brother don't hang around anymore."
So this twin definitely was not the scholar.
"You must be very proud of your brother," Catherine said. "I understand he's obtained a Doctor of Letters—a most impressive accomplishment."
"I've always been proud of him, but I do wish he were a bit more fun loving."
"I'm going to sound like an older sister," Felicity said, "and tell you that it's time you settle down and marry like George and Blanks have done."
Catherine's gaze flicked to him, and she nodded. "You must own, those two men appear to be deliriously happy."
"Pray, don't think I'm not vastly pleased that my old friends are happy." He looked at the space on the settee beside Felicity. "Would you permit me to sit beside you, my lady?"
He lowered himself onto the settee and commenced to talking almost as if he were thinking aloud. "Sedgewick certainly deserves the happiness he's found after his grievous loss."
Felicity nodded solemnly. "I know you miss him."
"The fun we used to have before Blanks and Sedgewick were married!"
Though Catherine had never spoken more than fifteen words to either twin, she felt compelled to interject her opinion. "It's my belief, Sir Elvin, that you're simply blue-deviled because you're about to lose your brother's companionship."
His brows squeezed together. "Don't know why he thinks he's got to make his living. I've told him he can live with me always."
Felicity's voice gentled. "I daresay he's exerting his independence. How old are you now?"
"Seven and twenty."
The same as Catherine. "I think he sounds like a most admirable man."
"Oh, that he is," his twin said.
"Where is your brother?" Catherine prayed he was in Bath.
"Oh, he's with me now. . .well, not actually now. What I mean is, he's here in Bath, but he don't like assemblies. He's one who prefers his books to the ladies—which is just another way in which we're different." He gave a little chuckle as his appreciative glance raked over Catherine.
Felicity nodded. "Everyone knows the two of you are vastly different."
"Even if you do look the same," Catherine added.
He gazed at her. "You wouldn't know it if you didn't see us side by side, but Melvin's a full inch taller than me."
"Actually, I once commented on that at an assembly," Felicity said with a little giggle, "but I didn't know which of you was the tall one!"
The dancing had now ended, the musicians were packing away their instruments, and the thousand or so who had filled the chamber moments before were now leaving. Catherine had to act before the baronet left. "I beg that you give me your direction for I should like to send a note around to your brother in the morning."
He gave her a querying look. "We have a house on Green Park Road. Number 4."
* * *
From that house on Green Park Road the following day, Melvin Steffington set off in his brother's tilbury to the Royal Crescent, where Mrs. Bexley resided. Why in the devil did the woman wish to see him? Her short missive had been particularly vague.
Try as he might, he could not remember a Catherine Bexley. He could not even remember Catherine Hamilton—the name Elvin told him she was known as before her marriage.
A pity he could remember every single character inPlutarch's Lives, but he couldn't remember a single female. Except for Pixie. Who wasn't really Pixie. She was Glee Blankenship now that she'd married Blanks. But Pix wasn't like other females. She was one of the bloods.
He tethered his horse in front of Number 17, the address of this Mrs. Bexley. The forty or so houses of the Royal Crescent were some of the finest in Bath—if not the finest. Melvin supposed the vast parkland in front of the semicircle of stately residences contributed to the homes' desirability, but for his taste, he appreciated most the clean classical lines employed by the architect. He was enamored of all things that originated with the Greeks and Romans.
He mounted the steps. Before he even knocked, the door swung open. "Mr. Steffington?" asked a man in lime green livery.
"Please follow me upstairs to the drawing room. Mrs. Bexley's expecting you."
He wasn't particularly interested in furnishings and such, but he could not help but to notice how lovely was the Bexley home. The stairway was constructed of fine marble, and the iron banisters were gilded. Turkey carpets lay below, and a glittering chandelier hung above.
In the pale yellow drawing room he was shown to, light from tall windows illuminated the woman who sat on a silken cream-colored settee in the center of the room. It seemed almost as if the chamber's light framed her face rather like those hooded halos in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna.
He supposed Elvin would find her pretty, but all Melvin could notice was that she was on the smallish size, was not unattractive, and she was of a similar age to him. Possessed of light brown (or was it dark gold?) hair, this woman looked vaguely familiar.
It suddenly occurred to him that in his seven and twenty years he had never been alone with a woman. Other than his mother. And possibly his nurse when he was in leading strings. He could converse for hours with his dons at Oxford, but he was moronically inept when it came to speaking with a women.
She sprang to her feet and moved to greet him, a smile on her face, her hands outstretched to him. What in the bloody hell was he supposed to do with her hands? Though Melvin was unaccustomed to noticing women, he found himself thinking of how lovely was her smooth, creamy skin. And exceptionally large bluish-greenish eyes. At so close a distance he was able to determine that her hair was golden. Yes, indeed, Elvin would find her lovely.
The woman was remarkably friendly. She took both his hands in hers as if they were lifelong friends and proceeded to gush her gratitude. "It is so very kind of you, Mr. Steffington, to come to me today. Please do sit by me so I can tell you why I so desperately need you."
Of what use could he possibly be to this self-possessed woman? Bereft of words, he dropped onto the settee.
Mrs. Bexley had no problem speaking to men she scarcely knew. "When I heard your name mentioned last night at the Upper Assembly Rooms, I knew you would be the very one to answer my prayers."
Good lord! Did the woman have designs on him? He'd heard of women like that before—women who thought like a man, acted like a man, and—at least Mrs. Bexley didn't look like a man. He cleared his throat. "I fear you have me confused with someone else."
She shook her head vigorously. "Not at all! Are you not the gentleman who's looking for a post at a private library?"
His experiences with private libraries convinced him that this townhouse was far too small to hold the kind of library to offer him employment, and he did not think her late husband was in possession of a country home, either. He raised his brows hopefully. "You have such a position to offer?"
Her shoulders sagged. "Not actually."
Their eyes locked and held. He noticed hers were green, or perhaps blue, or perhaps a blending of the two colors. That particular shade reminded him of the Adriatic, which he had greatly admired on his tour of Italy.
"I have a dire problem that I believe a man possessed of your knowledge can help me solve."
"Are you saying you wish to employ me to help solve this problem, madam?"
Then what?Had this unfortunate woman been dropped on her head as a babe? "I confess that you've roused my curiosity."
"My dear Mr. Steffington, you must think me the silliest scatterbrain. Allow me to explain. I need your help in tracking an extremely valuable book that was stolen from my late husband's library."
"May I know the title of the book?"
"Chaucer'sCanterbury Tales.It's one of the earliest—hand lettered on vellum with lovely coloring as well as drawings."
His eyes widened. "That manuscript's 400 years old!"
She nodded. "Yes, I know."
"Such a book would be worth a fortune." A sudden desire to see the rest of the late Mr. Bexley's library seized Melvin. "Are there not only three such manuscripts in existence?"
Her brows lowered as if she were in deep contemplation. "I believe Mr. Bexley, my late husband, may have mentioned something to that effect."
He met her gaze and nodded. "Gutenberg came along in the same century that Chaucer died, and those lovely old holographs went the way of chain mail."
"Pray, Mr. Steffington, what is a holograph?"
"Forgive me. My brother says I have a deplorable habit of not communicating in a readily understood manner. A holograph is merely a document or manuscript that's written entirely by hand."A radiant smile brightened her face, giving her a child-like quality. "I knew it!""Then why, madam, did you ask me what a holograph was?"
"Oh, I didn't know what a holograph was, but I knew last night at the Assembly Rooms when Felicity spoke of you that you were the very one to help restore the manuscript to me!"
In what way did this woman think he could be of assistance? Did she think he cavorted with criminals? "I am truly sorry for your loss, but I fail to understand why you believe I might be able to aid in the recovery of your late husband's book."
"Oh, I understand that you have no expertise in recovering stolen goods, but you, Mr. Steffington, are extremely knowledgeable about old books. Only a person with such knowledge would be interested in a position at a private library. And are you not interested in such a post?"
"I am. But- - -"
She raised a dainty hand, palm facing him. "Please, hear me out. I believe you possess the skills to research all the private libraries in England."
That was true. "But some of these libraries already have manuscripts ofCanterbury Tales. I believe Lord Spencer's library has one in its possession, and so does Lord Oxford's library, which I've had the honor of visiting. You do realize, Mrs. Bexley, you can't just waltz into someone's library and claim their works as yours?"
"You see, you are the very one for this commission!" The crazed woman sat there smiling at him. "You already have knowledge of some of the finest private libraries in the British Isles."
Had she not understood anything he said? His brows lowered. "I am humbled by your confidence in my abilities, but I assure you I am not the man for this assignment."
"That is simply not true. You are the perfect person." Her voice lowered. "I mean to sell the book when I recover it, and I shall give you fifteen percent of whatever amount I receive from the sale."
He calculated what that fee would be based on the recent sale of a Shakespeare first folio and adding fifty percent. Since Chaucer predated Shakespeare, his works were considerably more valuable. Melvin had not heard of anything as valuable as a Chaucer holograph coming on the market in the decade he'd been a serious student, but his knowledge of books told him it should be worth half again as much as a Shakespeare first edition. Perhaps double. After all, Shakespeare wrote a great many plays, but Chaucer had just one major work.
With his cut from theCanterbury Talessale, Melvin would have enough money to buy a cozy home in Oxford—which held all the attractions he could want: namely, libraries.
He would never have to be a financial burden to his twin, of whom Melvin was exceedingly fond.
Mrs. Bexley's proposal was enticing.
But he had no idea how to track stolen literary works. Melvin Steffington did not like to do anything he could not do well. In fact, he not only liked to do things well, he liked to do thingsbetterthan anyone else could do them. He detested failure, and Mrs. Bexley's proposal was primed for failure.
"I assure you, Mrs. Bexley, I am ignorant of the process by which one would trace such a stolen item."
The look she gave him was part pout, part smile, and it displayed ample dimples. Yes, he thought, Elvin would most definitely find this woman attractive.
"Silly man! Of course, I know you have no knowledge of thievery. You're a scholar. That's why I selected you. I simply won't have anyone else."
He stiffened. "I regret, madam, that you have misunderstood what I said. I am attempting to convey to you how ill equipped I am to conduct an investigation of this nature."
She put hands to hips and glared at him in a rather formidable manner. "I won't have anyone else."
Would that he could avoid being rude to the lady, but what was a fellow to do? This search she proposed was out of his realm of expertise. Why could she not merely be seeking an educated man to oversee her library—if she'd had one, that is? "I'm sorry to disappoint, but it is out of the question."
Those aquamarine eyes of hers regarded him most solemnly. Then they brimmed with tears. Dear God, had he made her cry? This was really too shabby of him. "Please, madam, I beg that you not cry."
With that comment, she burst into sobs, burying her face in her hands as her shoulders heaved with the force of her muffled cries.
How in the blazes did one comfort a weeping woman? He felt beastly. He had broken the poor lady's heart. Here she was all alone in the world without a man to take care of her. How could he have been so insensitive?
What could he do to quell her hysteria? He was even more out of his field of expertise with sobbing females than he was at tracking stolen books.
Pitiably hunched over beside him, she seemed so tiny and helpless. Unaccountably, he found his arm extending across her back, his hand gently clasping her shoulder that was furthest from him.
His action resulted in her brushing against him and dropping her tear-streaked face against his chest as she proceeded to wail.
He sat there as helpless as a newborn foal for a considerable period of time, wishing like the devil he knew what to do. He patted her back and murmured in much the same way as he had murmured to the pups Her Whiteness had given birth to last month.
The wails eventually lessened to whimpers, but she still seemed decidedly forlorn. Which made him feel beastly. He would do anything to bring back her smile.
Then he thought of what he could do to make this crying of hers stop.
All her life, Catherine had been possessed of the unfortunate propensity to cry whenever she was gravely disappointed. The ripping of her dress hem could reduce her to tears as easily as the heart-wrenching view of a cripple limping toward Bath’s healing waters. Her exasperated mother had spent years trying to coach her eldest daughter to control these outbursts. It was surely the only thing at which her dear mother had ever failed.
Catherine most definitely needed a handkerchief. What a difficult position she had put poor Mr. Steffington in. (Not to mention the state of his moist cravat. She must offer to have her abigail iron it for him.)
But first, she must figure out a way to gracefully extricate herself from this settee without him seeing her blotchy face. Distraught she might be, but not so distraught that she did not care what she looked like.
“I say, Mrs. Bexley, I did not mean to so offend you." The tone of his voice was so tender, it sounded almost as if he were speaking to a small child. "If I can be of assistance, I shall happily endeavor to be your servant.”
What an exceedingly delightful man! She sniffed deeply, then mumbled, “You’re too kind.” If only her tears would dry of their own accord. She really could not allow the man to see her ravaged face. She had her pride—as shredded as it was at the moment. Sniff. Sniff. “Pray, Mr. Steffington, have you a ha-a-a-nd. . ." Sniff. ". . .kerchief?”
He cleared his throat, and she realized she needed to peel herself from his person in order for him to extricate the handkerchief. “I believe I do,” he said.
Her face still buried in her hands, she returned to her former position—spine straight—on the settee.
From the corner of her eye she saw the proffered linen, gratefully claimed it, and proceeded to dab at her face, eyes, and squirting nose. What a pitiable sight she must be! She continued to hold the handkerchief to her nose while she gathered her wits enough to speak to this kindly man. (It was bad enough he’d have to observe her watery eyes, but she was determined the handkerchief would hide her hideous nose from his perusal. Nothing could be uglier than a lady with a bright red nose.)
“I shall never forget your generosity of spirit,” she finally told him.
“If I am to help you, I shall need to know everything you can tell me about the missing manuscript.”
She stood, grateful to escape his pitying stare—at least for a few minutes. “I suggest you follow me to the library. I shall show you the exact spot where it used to be kept.”
He followed her across the drawing room’s Axminster carpet, back down the stairs he’d so recently climbed, along the Carerra marble corridor and through a paneled door into the library which not so very long ago had been her husband’s domain.
It was an inviting room with its warm colors, dark woods and a fire glowing in its hearth. Unlike the brilliant, shimmering whites that dominated the wood moldings in the rest of the house, the wood in this library was a honeyed dark brown. Tall bookcases stuffed with finely bound leather volumes lined the walls at either end of the room. Though the books looked most handsome, Mr. Christie had informed her they would not fetch much at auction. Such a pity.
She strolled to the place of honor in the room. Many years ago Mr. Bexley’s father had Sheraton construct a classical, gold-leaf table that resembled an altar, and its surface was domed with a clear glass box. The empty table looked as incomplete as a debutante in her chemise and curl papers. “Sadly, this is where the manuscript was displayed.”
She noted that his gaze had swung around the entire chamber before settling on the gilt table. “It was stolen from here?”
“When did the theft occur?”
“About four months ago.”
He winced. “The thief’s sure to have found a buyer by now.”
“I’m not as knowledgeable as you are about such things, but wouldn’t a potential buyer who knew that there were less than five of these in existence also know who owned them?”
“While there’s much merit in what you say, not all collectors are scrupulous.”
“There is that.”
He proceeded to walk around the table, then he dropped to his knees and raised his head to look beneath the table. “You did not have a mechanism to lock the glass case?”
“I don't believe there was one. Very careless, I know. The manuscript was purchased by my late husband’s father before he lost his sugar plantation in the West Indies. He’s the one who commissioned the table as well as this house.”
“Were you present when the book was stolen?”
She shrugged. “I don’t precisely know when it was stolen.”
He quirked a brow. She noticed his eyes were so dark a brown they looked black. Like his hair.
“When the maid noticed the manuscript gone, she thought I’d taken it away or sold it, so she did not mention it to me. And to be perfectly honest with you—and in the strictest confidence—I must tell you that just before it went missing, Mr. Christie had come from London to appraise it.”
“I’ll wager he thought it far more valuable than that Shakespeare folio sale he brokered four years ago.”
She was so proud of this gentleman’s knowledge, she forgot about covering her nose with his handkerchief. Turning to him, she smiled radiantly. “You would win the wager, my brilliant Mr. Steffington! I cannot tell you how exceedingly happy I am that I’ve found a man possessed of your knowledge to assist me.”
He held up a hand in protest. “Oblige me bynotreferring to me asbrilliant.”
She pouted. “Very well, but you can’t keep me from thinking of you as brilliant.”
He cleared his throat, his brows squeezing together. “It is significant that the theft occurred after Mr. Christie came to Bath. It cannot be a coincidence.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting Mr. Christie is dishonorable?”
“No. The man's reputation is above reproach.” His dark eyes regarded her with intensity. Even though the Steffington twins were identical, she thought this one more handsome. Perhaps it was his somber countenance. He was the antithesis of her late husband. Which was a very good thing. There was something utterly masculine about his near-black eyes and near-black hair that when combined with his tall frame and deep voice commanded her complete trust. This was a real man. He would serve her gallantly, whether it be finding the thief, or slaying dragons.
“I also know how slim is the probability of coincidence,” he continued.
Mr. Steffington was not only exceptionally well read, he was also possessed of a mathematic bent. She recalled her Papa using the wordprobabilitywith great regularity, and Papa was most decidedly possessed of a mathematical mind.
Perplexed, she peered up at him. He was a full head taller than her. "Then how can the two events – Mr. Christie coming here and the subsequent theft of the Chaucer manuscript – be connected?"
"That is what we must discover."
We?She thought she rather liked that he was going to allow her to participate in his queries. "Where do we begin?"
"First you must tell me in what ways you have attempted to locate it."
She felt most inhospitable standing there facing him in the cozy library. "Pray, Mr. Steffington, please have a seat on the sofa." The damask sofa of asparagus green was the only thing in the library which she had chosen—and then only because the one it replaced had been threadbare.
Once he sat, she took a seat on the opposite end of the sofa. "The first thing I did—after nearly suffering apoplexy—was to question all the servants."
"And how many have you?"
"Not so many as when Mr. Bexley was alive. I've got my abigail, a Frenchwoman named Jeannine; my footman, who showed you in and whose name is Simpson; my cook, Williams; and a maid, Hathaway."
"No servants have left your employ since the time of Mr. Christie's visit?"
Oh, dear. "The housekeeper, who had been Mr. Bexley's housekeeper before we wed, took her pension and retired to her sister's in Cheddar, but I assure you she's incapable of dishonesty."
"It would be helpful if we could assure ourselves that she's not shown any evidence of coming into a large sum of money."
Catherine liked that his mind was so thoroughly latching onto her problem, but she did not like for him to think ill of Mrs. Higgins. "In order for my former housekeeper to have come into a fortune, the manuscript would have had to have come on the market, and I have not been able to learn that it has."
"I've not heard of that, either. Perhaps Mr. Christie has. Have you written him to apprise him of the theft?"
His gaze narrowed. "Pray, madam, what did youactuallyapprise him of?"
She stiffened. "I didn't apprise him of anything. I merely wrote to him to ask if he'd addressed any inquiries about ourCanterbury Tales."
"Why did you not tell the man it had been stolen? If anyone in the kingdom is in a position to find a buyer for it, Mr. Christie would be the man!" He sounded as if he thought her a complete idiot.
"I have not wished to advertise the fact that the Chaucer has been stolen."
She could tell by the intensity of his expression, he was carefully forming his response to her. Mr. Steffington struck her as a man who did everything carefully and methodically. "It would be to your advantage to let it be known throughout the three kingdoms that a nearly priceless manuscript has, indeed, been stolen from you."
So he did think her a moron. "You're right. I understand that, but I have my reasons for silence."
"Since I am already privy to so much private information, might I ask what reasons could possibly motivate you to do something so counterproductive?"
"The first reason is that my late husband's siblings were naturally disappointed that the manuscript was left to the eldest son. The five of them had hoped it would be sold when their father died, and the proceeds split six ways. I can't imagine how upset they must have been when the family's treasure came to me. And if they learned I'd lost it. . . "
She hesitated before continuing. Her solicitor, her sister Mary Alice, and Felicity were the only three persons who knew the truth about Mr. Bexley's fortune.
"And your other reasons?" he inquired.
She drew a breath. "I don't like others to know that my late husband was not as wealthy as he presented himself to be. In fact, he wasn't at all wealthy. This house is heavily mortgaged. On his deathbed, Mr. Bexley confessed he had nothing to leave me except the Chaucer manuscript. He made me promise I would sell it and live on the proceeds for the rest of my life."
She dare not allow herself to remember those final hours when Mr. Bexley tried to atone for his hedonistic ways, or she would erupt into a crying fit again.
Mr. Steffington's voice softened. "I will do everything in my power to restore the manuscript to you."
Drat! Tears once more seeped into her eyes.
"But not if you're going to continue being a water pot!"
There was a knock at the library door. "Madam?" the footman said, pushing open the door.
"A Mr. Longford is at the door. Should you like me to show him to the drawing room? He says he's here to collect you for the park. He's arrived in as fine an equipage as I've ever seen."
She drew an exasperated sigh as her glance darted to the clock upon the chimneypiece. It was three o'clock. She had completely forgotten she had agreed to go to Sydney Gardens with him. "Please tell Mr. Longford I've had some business. . ." She stood, shaking her head. "No, I'll tell him myself." She turned back to Mr. Steffington. "If you'll excuse me, I won't be a moment."
Upon her doorstep, Mr. Longford stood like a pup with its tail between its legs. "I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Longford," she greeted. "My footman should have shown you in."
As his foot crossed the threshold, she apologized. "Unfortunately, something of grave importance has come up which prevents me from joining you this afternoon."
His glance flicked to a tilbury tethered in front of Number 17.
"Please forgive me." She offered him a smile. "Tomorrow afternoon?"
He could not have looked any sadder had she announced the death of his favorite hound. "I thought after last night. . . after you responded so affirmatively to my . . . my declarations. . ."
Declarations?To what had she responded to so affirmatively? She cast her memory back to the previous night when this gentleman had proceeded to sit beside her and watch the dancers at the Upper Assembly Rooms. Unfortunately, she hadn't paid the slightest heed to what the poor man was babbling about. He was so outrageously boring. Always had been. Even when he had attempted to court her before she married Mr. Bexley.
She would never subject herself to his company if it weren't for the fact they were related. His mother, after being widowed, married Catherine's father's brother, who happened to be Catherine's favorite uncle.
It would serve her right if Mr. Longford had misunderstood her affirmative remark, whatever that affirmative remark was. How deplorable that she never listened to him, and it certainly put her in a quandary now. Should she own up to her lamentable shortcomings and confess that she had not been listening? Doing that, though, might offend the poor man. He already looked woefully sad.
Hopefully, when next she saw him, she would be able to use his contextual clues to know just what she had agreed to the previous night. But, of course, she would have to listen most politely. Which was beastly difficult for her to do when she was with Mr. Longford.
Postponing the trip to Sydney Gardens might allow her to dream up a plausible-yet-inoffensive excuse for not having paid attention to what the man was saying the previous night. She bestowed what she hoped was a sweet smile upon him. "My dear Mr. Longford, I shall greatly look forward to our meeting tomorrow. Now, with the greatest disappointment, I must return to my pressing business." The bit about her disappointment ought to appease him.
* * *
Melvin looked up when she re-entered the chamber. That halo thing around her dark golden locks had vanished, but she still exuded an elegant countenance. She was fair and slender and looked like she needed a man to take care of her. He was surprised that he'd had no difficulty whatsoever speaking with her, even if she was a female.
"Now, where were we?" she asked, returning to her seat on the sofa. She sat upon the cushions, tucking her feet beneath her skirts, then she faced him in the same relaxed way his 13-year-old sister did. But in no other way did she resemble Lizzy. The expression on Mrs. Bexley's face convinced him that she found him interesting. No woman had ever before been interested in what he had to say.
But, then, most women didn't like discussing classics and rare manuscripts.
"Permit me to ask how you think a thief gained entrance to your house," he said.
"He must have come when no one was home."
"And when would such an occurrence be?"
"The only time all the servants are gone at the same time is on Sunday morning."
"When they go to church?"
"And what do you do on Sunday mornings?"
Her dimples creased. "Why, I go to church, too."
"That is the only time when your house is not inhabited?"
"Yes, though I suppose the thief could steal in during the night while we slept."
"But how would he get past your locked doors?"
"Actually, I'm not altogether certain the doors were kept locked—though they are now."
He would refrain from chiding her. The poor woman had obviously suffered a great deal because of that omission.
"I know what you're thinking," she said, glowering at him.
"You couldn't possibly."
"You believe I'm an imbecile."
"I do not!"
"Yet you're thinking that not seeing to the locking of my doors was the most stupid thing you've ever heard of."
"I'm sure I must have heard of something more stupid." His dark eyes flashed with mirth.
And she burst out laughing.
He, too, laughed, and when he was finished, he eyed her seriously. "You have shown me where the manuscript was kept. You gave me an approximate date of the theft. You told me what servants are here, and which one has left since it went missing." He met her intent gaze. Yes, her eyes were an aquamarine. Quite lovely eyes. If one were interested in such things. "And the only other fact I have learned from you—save for your lamentable negligence in not locking the doors—is that Mr. Christie came to appraise the manuscript not long before it went missing."
"And you don't believe in coincidences."
He nodded. "The question now is how would one go about trying to sell so valuable a manuscript?"
She hopped up and scurried across the chamber's Turkey carpet to the desk where she snatched a plume and a piece of velum. "I propose to make a list."
Unlike his twin, Melvin had never made a list in his life. He saw no reason to when it was ridiculously easy to remember anything that would be put on a list.
She came back to the sofa.
"Now," she said, "what shall we list?"
He would refrain from complaining about her unnecessary list. "Most importantly, you must query Mr. Christie. Nothing of value in England is brokered without the man's hand in the pie."
She wrote the numeral one and putChristiebeside it.
"Next, I would proceed to search through everyTimesthat has been published in the last four months."
She had started to write number two, but paused. "I've already done that."
"Every single edition?"
Nodding, she added, "Every single paragraph, no matter how insignificant it looked."
"Of course theTimesisn't the only newspaper."
"But it may be the one most appealing to a discriminating collector of great literary works."
She wasn't stupid as he'd first thought her. "True. We must now endeavor to go back over the other major newspapers published the last four months. Fortunately, our friend Appleton never throws anything away. I believe he subscribes to theMorning Chronicle."
"Capital!" She wrote the numeral two and next to it,newspapers.
"Now, about your former housekeeper. How can we learn if she's living beyond the means of a retired servant?"
"I can hardly ask her."
"I know that."
"Perhaps—if the perusal of theChroniclesisn't productive—I could dispatch you to the city where she lives."
He nodded. "I could make inquiries."
She nodded as she wrote number three and next to it,Mrs. Higgins. "And you're so intelligent, I know you'll think of the most clever way to do so. Though I assure you, the woman doesn't have a dishonest bone in her body."
"Hopefully our investigation won't progress to your former housekeeper in Cheddar."
"Do you have any other lines of inquiry?"
"If none of these actions yield a clue about the manuscript's location, I shall have to seek permission to view some of the great private libraries in Britain. With Dr. Mather's help."
"I suppose he's one of the men of letters at Oxford?"
"You'll have him write letters of introduction for you?"
She really wasn't stupid. "Yes." He cleared his throat. He seemed to do that a lot when he was with this woman. "I should like to make a request."
Her brows lifted.
"I beg that you not speak of my. . . my purported intelligence or. . .forgive me if I sound conceited, my brilliance."
"Do you mean when we're visiting the private libraries—if it comes to that?"
He nodded. "Yes, of course, but I shouldn't like for you to say those things to me. Makes me deuced uncomfortable."
She sighed. "I shall endeavor to abide by your wishes—decidedly difficult as it will be." She took up her pen and proceeded to write number 4,private libraries. "I assume we can eliminate Lords Spencer's and Oxford's libraries because they already have Chaucer manuscripts?"
"Yes, I think it best to eliminate those."
"This will give me the opportunity to see his library."
"I must go with you."
His eyes widened. "That would be most improper."
A flash of anger singed her eyes. "I am not a maiden, Mr. Steffington. I can rent a carriage, and the two of us could travel. We might need to use false names."
"And when we reach the libraries? Am I not to extend my letters of introduction?"
That pouty look reappeared on her face. "Could we not say I was your wife?"
If the wealthy—and probably titled—owners of the libraries had ever gazed at Mrs. Bexley before, they would not be likely to forget her. (He realized other men were not as ambivalent as he to a pretty face.) "Is there not a chance that you might have met some of these gentlemen previously?"
She put hands to hips and stared at him. He was learning that she did this with great regularity. "I suggest we cross those bridges when we come to them."
Of course, she was right. He met her gaze and nodded almost imperceptibly.
"There is one more thing I must ask of you," she said.
He effected a mock bow. "I am your servant."
"I shan't want anyone to know what the nature of our relationship is. You cannot mention the Chaucer to anyone." She paused, her voice softening. "Not even to your brother, with whom I know you're exceedingly close."
He could understand how distressing it would be for her if Bexley's siblings learned of the theft. "My brother is not given to gossip."
"I am sure your brother is all that is gentlemanly, but I would rather he not know exactly what we are doing. He could inadvertently let something slip."
"I will not lie."
"I'm not asking you to."
He got to his feet and peered down at her. "Will that be all for now, madam?"
"There is the matter of me weeping on your cravat. Won't you allow me to have my maid iron it for you?"
He raised a flat palm. "It's not necessary. My brother and I share a most capable valet."
She walked him to the front door. Unaccountably, he disliked leaving the library. He could never remember being in a cozier room.
When Melvin entered the library in their Green Park Road house, Elvin leapt to his feet and threw down the newspaper he'd been perusing (the reading of which was a most unusual occurrence for his brother, to be sure). "Well?"
"Your tilbury has been restored to you intact."
"That's not what I want to know," Elvin said with impatience.
Melvin looked askance at his twin. "Pray, what do wish to know?"
"What the bloody hell did Mrs. Bexley want with you?"
Owing to his promise to the widow, Melvin was not at liberty to tell his brother. Yet, in their seven and twenty years, he had never once lied to Elvin. And he could not do so now. Melvin did not like doing anything dishonorable, and lying to the person he was closest to would cut him to the quick.
He had neither anticipated that Elvin would be curious, nor had he thought of how he would explain the day's meeting at Number 17 Royal Crescent – or the subsequent investigations he would conduct on the widow's behalf.
"Mrs. Bexley is consulting me regarding some research into old documents. I daresay it would bore you to death if I told you anything more."
"Does this mean you'll stay in Bath?"
"Then I shall be indebted to Mrs. Bexley."
The beastly thing about taking a position in a library would be the separation from his brother. Despite their vast differences, they were exceedingly close. He offered his twin a smile.
"She's paying you?"
"We haven't actually come to exact terms with that at present." Which wasn't a lie. Even if he was able to earn the fifteen percent fee, neither he nor Mrs. Bexley knew how much the rare manuscript would fetch.
Elvin cleared his throat. "So. . . did you find her attractive?"
Melvin shrugged. "I hadn't thought of it."
"How could you not? She's very pretty. Do you not remember the Season she came out that I was rather taken with her?"
"As good as my memory is, it is incapable of remembering all the females you've beentaken withthis past decade." If a lady was possessed of a single attractive feature, Elvin was certain to be attracted to her.
Just another way in which the brothers differed.
"I cannot believe you don't remember how unhappy I was when Harold Bexley and Maxwell Longford started dancing attendance upon her." Then he spoke as an aside. "That was when Papa was alive, and I had no money of my own with which to compete with those two gentlemen."
And apparently Harold Bexley's fortune was all a sham. Except for the Chaucer. "You believe she was a fortune hunter?" He was disappointed in that.
"What woman isn't?"
"She repelled you?"
"No. It's just that I didn't think I stood a chance of competing with them, and I dropped back and worshipped from afar."
"I daresay not for long. I can remember at least two dozen other ladies you worshipped—many of them definitelynotfrom afar." He wondered if his brother was still interested in Mrs. Bexley. "Are you still seeing that actress?"
"No. She had the opportunity to go to Drury Lane."
Which probably meant Elvin had been tiring of her.
"If you were interested in Mrs. Bexley—when she was Miss Hamilton, that is—you should not have stepped aside. You're a far better man than either Bexley or that bore Longford."
That face he knew so very well smiled upon him. "And you're the kindest and most brilliant of brothers."
"You know I don't like you to say I'm- - -"
Melvin's lids—and his voice—lowered. "She said it, too."
"I am told women are attracted to brilliant men."
"I assure you, my arrangement with Mrs. Bexley is purely business."
Elvin dropped onto the sofa and peered up at his twin, a cocky smile on his face and devilment in his eyes. "Did she call you Aristotle?"
Melvin glared. "I pray she never hears about that."
"Then you must ensure she doesn't cross paths with any of our friends."
"Speaking of friends, is Appleton in Bath?"
"Yes, in fact we're going to a cock fight this afternoon. Care to join us?"
Melvin regarded his brother through narrowed eyes. "You know better than to ask."
"I know you haven't been in an age, but you did enjoy a good cock fight when we were at Eton."
"I was a lad of thirteen!"
"Why did you want to know if Appleton was in town?"
"I wish to consult his copies of theMorning Chronicle."
"I believe we've got the past three or four days here."
Melvin was surprised his brother had noticed. It was usually just Melvin who read theChroniclecover to cover every day. As thorough as theTimeswas, it still appealed to Tory tastes. And Melvin was most decidedly a Whig—the party appeased by theMorning Chronicle. "I'm a bit more interested in the past three or four months, actually."
"Appleton's the man to see, then." Elvin shook his head morosely. "I pity his poor parlor maids. It's a nearly impossible task to tidy up after him."
"Without throwing out what looks to the rest of us like rubbish."
"Will you go to see him today?"
"Yes. In fact, I thought I'd go now."
"I'll just get Suskins to fetch my hat, and I'll join you."
* * *
Less than three hours after he had left Number 17 Royal Crescent, Melvin returned. By the time he climbed the staircase while carrying a box piled high with newspapers, he had quite lost his breath. Mrs. Bexley was writing at a little French desk when he entered the drawing room.
She looked at him, her brows lowered with concern. "My dear Mr. Steffington, you did not need to carry that heavy box up here!" She put down her pen and stood. "Come, let us go to the library. I perceive you've brought back copies of the- - -" She peeked into the box. "TheMorning Chronicle."
"I've two more boxes."
"My footman will bring them. I wish to use your brain every available moment and allow Simpson to be the brawn." She looked from his chest to the tip of his head, which made him feel deuced uncomfortable. "Not that you're not possessed of both."
So she thought him brawny? How was he supposed to respond to a remark like that?
He chose to ignore it.
Within a few minutes, Melvin and Mrs. Bexley were seated at a large desk facing one another over a stack of yellowed newspapers. "We should be able to cut the work in half with both of us doing it," she said. "Do you have an efficient method you'd recommend? Surely someone who has the discipline to earn a Doctor of Letters knows much about the best way to manage one's time."
"I have stacked them by month. I thought perhaps we could each take two months. I'll start with July. You take August. When I finish July, I'll take September."
"As I move to October. It's good, I think, that we'll use chronological order."
He nodded. He handed her the stack of August editions. "Have a care. They're rather heavy."
She plopped her stack in front of her. "I do hope the thief is not a Whig."
Why was the exasperating woman babbling about Whigs when they were in search of a thief? Did her comment mean this lady was sympathetic to Whigs? Very surprising. Had her late husband not stood as a Tory in the House of Commons? "Pray, madam, why do you say that?"
She peered up from the August 1stedition she was now perusing. "It's just that in my mind, I had the thief pegged for a Tory because I find I don't like them as well as I like Whigs – though I could not own to such an opinion while my dear Mr. Bexley was alive."
Odd that she and her husband had been so diametrically opposed, but Melvin was happy she felt as she did since he, too, had a long-standing abhorrence of Tories.
Before she got too intent on the task at hand, he needed to broach an awkward subject. He cleared his throat. "I should like to bring up a rather personal question."
She stopped thumbing through the newspaper and regarded him with dancing eyes. "You don't strike me as the type of man who bombards one with personal questions."
"Oh," he said in an apologetic voice, "it's not a personal question that actually pertains toyou."
"It's more about your . . . I suppose it's about your financial situation. I noticed that you have not replaced your housekeeper. Would it be impertinent of me to ask if you plan to?"
"No. My mother served as housekeeper of our large home most ably, and since Mrs. Higgins left, I have taken over her duties. Thanks to my hard-working staff, this has been a most agreeable arrangement."
She was obviously too proud to tell him she could no longer afford a housekeeper. He felt compelled to say something that would compensate for the brutally honest reply she'd given. "Then you have hidden talents. Your home appears to be run by a most efficient person."
She bestowed a wide, dimpled smile upon him, then returned to August 1st.
His attention was once more directed at the box in front of him as he ruffled through the pages to give her the other half of the August editions. "You said you read through every word in theTimes, but I don't think that's necessary. I wouldn't expect, say, to see an advertisement for a Chaucer manuscript in the middle of an account from Parliament."
She started to giggle. At first he did not understand why, then he realized the humor in his own last comment. Melvin had no sense of humor. No one had ever accused him of being funny. But now, he realized that what he said could be considered humorous, and he, too, began to laugh.
"Are you always right, Mr. Steffington?"
He did not lie. Looking her squarely in the eye, he said, "Usually."
During the next twenty minutes as they went through the papers, the only sound punctuating the silence was the turning of the oversized pages.
"This is really too shabby!" She flung down the paper she had been reading and met his gaze. "Can you credit it? His friends have launched a subscription to help poor, penniless Robert Sandworth!"
Did everyone in the kingdom know Sandworth had foolishly lost his fortune at the gaming tables? This woman obviously did. "It speaks well for a man when his friends think so highly of him."
She put down the paper. "Tell me, Mr. Steffington, do you enjoy play?"
"I play, but I fail to understand the appeal of high stakes gambling."
"How sensible you are!"
"It seems we've found still another thing upon which we are in perfect agreement."
She gave him a quizzing look. "Pray, what was the first thing upon which we so perfectly agreed?"
He cleared his throat. He wasn't used to declaring his opinions to others unless those opinions concerned Greeks who died 2,000 years previously. "Actually, I am not overly fond of Tories myself."
"How delightful." Her attention returned to the newspaper she'd been reading. "Forgive my outburst. I shall try in the future to behave myself."
She spoke of herself as if she were an errant child, and despite that she must be the same age as he, he had been struck that sometimes there was a childish aura about her. The pouting. The foot stomping. The tucking of her feet beneath her as they sat upon a sofa. Exceedingly immature behavior. The propensity to thrust out her elbows while planting hands at her hips and glaring at him. All of these habits were something Lizzy might do.
Yet in spite of all the lady's semi-transgressions, he found Mrs. Bexley enjoyable to be around. Was that because it was the first time in his seven and twenty years he'd been able to speak coherently to a female? Perhaps it was her child-like qualities that made him feel so at ease with her.
Of course, he didn't have an inkling how he was supposed to act around a lady of quality. He supposed he was going to have to seek advice from Elvin. His twin never had any humiliating lapses when talking with women. In fact, Elvin was popular with the ladies. Very popular.
Then again, Melvin might not need assistance from Elvin or anyone. As long as their conversations dealt with the missing manuscript, he was comfortable conversing with this woman.
During the next hour, the sun slowly left the chamber. Each of them was so intent on searching their respective newspapers they hadn't realized there was only barely enough light to read.
Before the library was in complete darkness, Simpson came and lighted the various candles throughout the chamber.
"Forgive me," she said to Melvin, "for having you sit in a dark room. I tend to get entirely too caught up in what I'm reading."
"It's the same with me."
"That makes three things!"
Had the woman gone mad? Then he knew very well the three things she referred to were their three mutual commonalities. He offered a false laugh. "Right-o."
She sighed, put down her newspaper, and eyed him. "What date are you on?"
"Just the seventh."
"Me too. It's slower going than I'd expected."
"At least it's not tedious, like studying Latin verbs or something dull like that."
She turned up her nose. "That does sound dull." She yawned, covered her mouth, then stretched. "I daresay we need a break. You must dine with me. I shall be ever so happy of the company."
He hated to think of her eating all alone. And, besides, the smells from the kitchen had made him quite hungry. "That sounds very good. I just realized I've not eaten a bite since breakfast."
She stood and stretched some more. "I shall probably continue this work after dinner, but you mustn't feel pressured to do so. I truly don't mean to monopolize all your time."
He straightened. A break was most welcome.
* * *
Catherine Bexley made a discovery at the dinner table that night. Brilliant he might be, but Mr. Steffington was particularly clueless at the art of conversation, especially polite conversation with a person of the opposite sex. When she broached the weather, his responses were of a single syllable. When she asked if he enjoyed shooting, his response consisted of but one syllable. When she asked if he were enjoying residing in Bath, he answered her in a single syllable.
The subjects at which she thought he might speak with proficiency, unfortunately were ones at which she was likely to be inept. But she decided to take a stab. "Pray, Mr. Steffington, you must tell me who your favorite authors are."
He glanced up from slicing his mutton. "Contemporary or classical?"
She had stuck a vein! A Y-shaped vein, at that. "You must tell me both." When he did not respond, she prompted him. "Start with contemporary books."
"I don't like poetry or works of fiction. I like to read about what men think. Philosophy."
Now she hesitated. She wasn't knowledgeable about philosophy. As in Aristotle. But he was discussing contemporary thinkers. Would political theory fall under philosophy? "Do you mean authors like Paine?"
His dark eyes flashed. "I find much to admire in Paine."
"I do as well. Pray, who else do you find who's of a similar mind?"
"Burke is a most logical thinker who also expresses himself most eloquently."
"And what about Voltaire?"
He shrugged. "He and Rousseau led the Enlightenment movement, so their influence has been monumental."
She wrinkled her nose. "But I daresay you don't read their poetry."
He chuckled. "No, I don't. There is one more type of contemporary work I greatly enjoy."
"What is that?"
"England has some demmed fine historians." His hand flew to his mouth. "Forgive my vulgar language. I'm. . . not used to speaking to women."
She peered at him over the rim of her wine glass. "I have heard that particular adjective used with such frequency by my late husband that I had quite forgotten it was not acceptable to be used in mixed company." She set down her glass. "Which historian do you admire most?"
"Oh, but Mr. Gibbon writes about the ancients!"
"But he is a contemporary."
"There is that."
"Have you read him?"
How humiliating for her to admit she had never readThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. "I was just about to begin." She sighed. "I would think that's the kind of work a man like you would like to have written."
For the rest of the meal they were able to converse in a most amiable fashion. After the sweetmeats were laid, she smiled upon him. "Do you know, Mr. Steffington, I marveled that anyone could tell identical twins apart, and now that I've been talking so much with you I believe I can easily differentiate between you and your brother simply by hearing you talk. There's a vast difference in the way you speak."
"The most difficult thing about being a twin is that everyone assumes you are identical in every way."
"I wonder if that explains why you embarked upon scholarly pursuits? Perhaps that was your way to become your own person."
He shrugged. "I suppose it could have been an unconscious decision to blaze my own path, so to speak, but my interest in the classics was inherent."
"And I take it your brother does not share your interest?"
"We have few interests which are the same. As lads, though, we did everything together."
"I'm sure you must be very close to him."
He nodded. "He is not only my brother. He's also my best friend."
She helped herself to sugared fruit.
"Another way to tell us apart is that I am an inch taller."
"That hardly helps one to know which of you is which when you're not standing next to one another."
"A brilliant observation, to be sure."
She began to giggle, and once he realized she found his comment humorous, he smiled too.
When the sweetmeats were gone, he met her gaze, a solemn expression on his face. "What will you do if we can't reclaim the Chaucer?"
"I shall be forced to be dependant once more. This time upon my dear brother—who already has twelve mouths to feed."
"Your brother has twelve children?"
She shook her head. "He has eight children, a sweet wife, my mother, and my youngest sister. I had hoped to bring my sister to Bath, where I could present her." She shrugged.
"So, you're like me. You want your independence."
She never wanted to be dependent upon a man ever again. "Indeed I do." How did Mr. Steffington do this? In their few hours of acquaintance, he had come to understood her better than anyone ever had. She was coming to believe that overhearing Felicity's conversation the previous night was going to be one of the most fortuitous events in her life.
As Mr. Longford handed Catherine into his open barouche, she cautioned herself to be attuned to what the man was saying—which was always an arduous task but much more so now that Mr. Steffington so fully engrossed her thoughts.
She felt incredibly guilty that she would be off riding through the lovely gardens on this uncharacteristically sunny November day while poor Mr. Steffington continued toiling over old copies of theMorning Chroniclein her library.
It was bad enough that he had stayed in her library until past midnight the previous night. His every waking moment was now taken over with her problem. What if they could not locate the manuscript? She had no other way to compensate him for all his trouble. The poor man's significant efforts would be for nothing.
"'Twas so fine a day, I had at first planned to come to the Royal Crescent in my phaeton, but I decided upon my barouche. That way, my coachman can concentrate upon the driving, which will enable me to give you my full attention."
Another thing she disliked about Mr. Longford (besides his unceasing flow of boring words) was that he was given to boasting about his wealth. She was quite convinced the preceding comment was made so that she would know he possessed a variety of conveyances.
Before she had the opportunity to respond to his comment, he launched into another topic—which was his custom. "Pray, is that not the same tilbury which was at your house yesterday?"
As they drove off, she glimpsed at the tethered vehicle, which looked exceedingly modest next to Mr. Longford's fancy barouche. "I take no notice of such things."
"I trust the business which prevented us from going to Sydney Gardens yesterday has been satisfactorily completed?"
Unbelievably, he remained silent for a moment. Which was a feat as rare as the multiplication of loaves. A full minute passed before he continued. "Might I inquire if yesterday's caller at Number 17 is still there today?"
She glared at him. "I hope you don't believe I would have a man spending the night!"
"Oh, no, I assure you, I know you're a very fine lady. I would never consider you would do anything that could tarnish your good name. If I thought such a thing, I would not be honoring you by allowing everyone in Bath to see you sitting by my side."
"What makes you think my visitor is a man?"
"I know of no women who are given to driving throughout Bath in a tilbury."
"If you must know, a man is assisting me with that personal business I had to deal with yesterday and which has not been satisfactorily completed as of yet."
"If there's any way I can be of assistance, pray, you have only to ask. Since you have no man to take care of you, I feel obliged to."
"I shouldn't like you or anyone to think I'm a helpless woman."
He drew her hand into his. "My dear Mrs. Bexley, one has only to set eyes upon you to realize how delicate you are."
Before she could protest, he continued on. "In fact, I would be most agreeable to sending over my secretary to assist you. Somerfield is a most capable man. Why, there's no end to the things the man is able to accomplish."
She shook her head. "I am quite pleased with the person who's currently assisting me." Indeed, she had hardly been able to sleep the previous night for thinking of her good fortune in finding Mr. Steffington.
Mr. Longford cleared his throat. "Would that gentleman be someone I know? A resident of Bath perhaps?"
Were Mr. Longford a woman, Catherine would have thought him the greatest busybody in all of Bath, but one did not usually think of a man as a busybody. (Though Mr. Longford was certainly a very great busybody.) It was difficult for her to conceal her impatience with this man.
She glared at him. For some peculiar reason, she didn't like to admit her connection to Mr. Steffington. At present, their relationship was something that only the two of them knew about. She could not remember ever sharing a mutual goal with anyone else before in her entire seven and twenty years, and she did not want anyone or anything to intrude upon them. The introduction of another person into their private sphere could be toxic.
Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Longford learned who the man assisting her was. "You know Melvin Steffington?"
His brows lowered. "That's the smart twin, is it not?"
Funny, that's exactly how she would describe him—though Mr. Melvin Steffington would not like her to call him smart. She nodded.
"Then I daresay he must be assisting you with the late Mr. Bexley's library. I heard he was seeking a post."
It was easier to allow him to think what he wanted to think. "Indeed." That was as much as she was going to say on the topic.
"If you're thinking about selling the late Mr. Bexley's books, I might wish to have them for my property in Coventry."
And she'd vow he would probably pay a hefty price for them because he liked to flaunt his wealth. "I shall remember that when I'm ready to sell."
"Then I suppose it was his brother I saw at the cock fights yesterday, since Melvin Steffington was engaged with you."
Picturing the bookish Melvin Steffington at a cockfight was as incongruous as picturing their seventy-year-old queen dancing upon the stage at Drury Lane. "I daresay you're right."
"Even if I do say so meself, I am uncommonly good at picking the victors. Won eighty quid yesterday just because I happen to be as intuitively knowledgeable about cocks as I am about horseflesh. Take the matched bays you see before you. Turned down Lord Townson when he offered me five hundred quid for the pair."
Her thoughts drifted away as she planned what she could do were she to get her hands on five hundred pounds. Even the eighty guineas he won yesterday could have been put to good use by her.
And as the carriage wound its way along the streets of Bath, she thought about her dire need for funds and about the bankers clamoring for her to pay on the mortgage and about the tradesmen whose bills she owed.
Unfortunately, in spite of her best intensions, she was not listening to her companion. But, really, the man was droning on and on about roosters fighting! Could anything be less interesting?
After they crossed Pulteney Bridge and neared Sydney Gardens, they began to nod greetings to a number of acquaintances. Some of them were walking along, the women tucking their hands into furry muffs, and many other couples were riding in phaetons. Some single men sauntered along on horseback.
Even as he nodded to acquaintances, Mr. Longford's tongue never slowed. "Take Mr. Horton's nag. Why would a man allow himself to be seen with so common a horse?"
"What does it matter, if it gets him where he needs to go?"
"My dear woman, it matters a great deal. How can a man be thought to have good taste and breeding if he is not discerning about horses?"
For the next ten minutes, while inclining his head from time to time at passersby, he continued on about his impeccable taste in horseflesh, frequently mentioning the various members of the aristocracy who had tried to buy his horses.
Catherine deemed horses as interesting as roosters and wished herself back at Number 17 with the competent Mr. Steffington, who never bored her.
When she eventually returned there, Mr. Longford once again claimed her hand. "Pray, may I call upon you again tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow I shall be extremely busy." She still hadn't dispatched that letter to Mr. Christie. Mr. Steffington wasn't going to be happy when he learned of her omission. Not paying attention to Mr. Longford's rambling, she started drafting the letter in her head while smiling vacantly at Mr. Longmouth—er, Mr. Longford. Felicity had told her that her brother and his friend referred to Mr. Longford as Longmouth. But not in front of him, of course.
"Will you be at the assembly tomorrow night?"
Unconsciously, she wondered if Mr. Steffington danced. She knew his brother did. When she realized Mr. Longford was awaiting a response, she said, "I beg your pardon. What was that you asked?"
"I asked if you would be at tomorrow night's assembly." He did not look happy.
She had told Felicity she would meet her there. "Yes, I believe so."
* * *
There was a distressed look on Mrs. Bexley's face when she swished into the library, apologizing. "You must forgive me for leaving you here to do all the work whilst I was traipsing across Bath."
He would hardly call suffering Longford's company traipsing happily around the city. The poor woman earned his respect for putting up with the walking soliloquy. Then he thought of what Elvin had said about her that Season she came out.Was she a fortune hunter?That would explain why she bestowed her attentions on Longford. The man was obscenely rich.
He stiffened as he looked up to address her. "There's nothing to forgive. What you do with your time is nothing to me."
She stood statue still, a pout on her face. "There's more to confess. I forgot to dispatch that letter to Mr. Christie."
He didn't like to stare at her, but it was really quite remarkable that her frock was that same blue/green as her eyes. Remarkable eyes. Snapping out of his momentary stupor, he said, "I hope you don't believe I would try to tell you what to do. It's just that it would be helpful to learn if anyone has approached Christie."
"Of course, you're right. After all, it was number two on our list."
Our list? He did not like being associated with anything so frivolous as a woman's list, but he would not protest. He shrugged. "It looks as if number one is much more time consuming than at first thought."
She came to sit across from him at the big desk. "That's because you are likely doing what you told me not to do."
He chuckled. "I confess, I have veered off course when something interesting catches my eye."
"It's only natural to do so." She lifted up October 1st. "You'll be happy to know I would not allow myself to go to bed last night until I finished August."
"I amnothappy to learn neither of us has found anything to bring us a single step closer to the culprit."
"There is that." She read on for a moment, then addressed him. "Do you dance, Mr. Steffington?"
What in heaven's name had brought up that subject? He regarded her from beneath lowered brows. "Do I dance?"
"Yes, that's what I asked."
He shrugged. "I suppose I do. I'm a bit rusty."
She thought perhaps if Mr. Steffington were to ask her to dance, she might cast off the last of her mourning. "Why do you not come to the assemblies anymore?"
He did not answer for a moment. "If you must know, I'm not very good at dancing."
"Oh, I see. You don't like to do anything if you can't be the best at what you're doing!"
How could she possibly know that about him? They'd only been in each other's company the last four and twenty hours. "I wouldn't say that."Even if it was the truth. He was not going to act like an arrogant ass, like Longford.
"You shouldn't let it bother you if you're not a great dancer. With your height, it shouldn't matter to any woman. Has it escaped your notice that ladies adore having tall men for dancing partners?"
"But ladies do not adore having their feet trampled."
He was growing to like the tinkling sound of her frequent laughter. "Pray, madam, what is so funny now?"
"I was picturing you stomping on a lady's feet." She shook her head. "I know it's not funny, but I seem to have a perverse sense of humor."
That very perverse sense of humor suddenly struck his funny bone, and he began to laugh.
She clapped a hand to her mouth.
"I keep going back to number one because. . . as you said, it's much more interesting than reading a list of Latin verbs. However, I need to put the interesting work aside for a few minutes in order to compose a letter to Mr. Christie." Then she opened a drawer, took out pen and paper, and began to draft the letter.
He was struck by the excellence of her memory. She had remembered him referring to Latin verbs the previous day. He knew few people who remembered things as well as she. This young woman whom he at first thought to be empty headed wasn't nearly so vacuous as she presented herself.
As he continued reading into September, she scratched out a letter. When she was finished, she held it up from the desk. "How does this sound?" And she began to read:
Dear Mr. Christie,
It grieves me to inform you that the lovely edition of Canterbury Tales that you so kindly came to Bath to appraise was stolen not very long after your visit. I am writing because of all those in the kingdom, you are the one person who's in the position to know if it has come on the market.
I don't need to tell you that the lawyer I consulted told me even if it is sold to another party, it is legally my possession.
Has anyone approached you in these past months about its sale?
I depend upon your discretion that news of its theft not be revealed to anyone else.
Yours ever most sincerely,
"Very good," he said.
"Can you think of anything I've forgotten?"
He shook his head.
Simpson knocked at the library door. "I've brought you the post, madam."
"If you'll wait just a moment for me to address this, I'll have you post it."
When she finished, she and her footman exchanged letters, and he went off to post his mistress's letter.
Not wishing to appear nosy, Melvin refrained from watching her as she read the single post.
But he could not block out the sound of her distress. Her breath hitched, then he once again heard her whimpering noises, which caused him to spin around and face her.
He couldn't bear to see a woman cry, but he could hardly ignore her. "Pray, madam, what is the matter?"
"N-n-nothing." She turned her face away from his scrutiny as if she were embarrassed for him to see her cry. "May I trouble you for a hand. . ." Sniff, sniff. ". . .kerchief?"
He extracted one from his pocket and handed it to her.
Not normally one to pry, he now felt it his responsibility to try to alleviate the poor lady's suffering. What gentleman wouldn't? "Now see here, Mrs. Bexley, you arenotfine! You must tell me what's wrong."
His comment had the effect of making her cry even harder. Her sobs reverberated throughout the chamber, her shoulders quivering with each new wave of cries. Good lord, had his comment sent her off into a fresh torrent of tears?
Obviously, his commanding tone had not achieved the desired result. He sat there for a considerable period of time, all the while trying to decide what he should do next. Did one put his arms around a sobbing woman? Did one murmur sweetly? He was so destitute of experience in this arena that it put him in quite a quandary.
Yet two times in as many days he had found himself in the awkward position of trying to comfort the same weeping woman.
He exercised his new-found habit of clearing his throat, then gentled his voice in much the same way as he did with Her Whiteness's new pups. "Forgive me if I've made things worse."
Her face still buried in her hands, she shook her head vigorously. "No-o-o-o-o."
So she wouldn't forgive him?
Then she continued. "You did not. . ." Big sniff. ". . .make things worse. In fact. . ." She paused to blow her nose. "You have been my sole bright spot."
He felt as if he'd grown a foot taller. "I do so want to help you."
"No one can help me. Read this." She handed him the letter.
The letter was indeed bleak. It was written in the neat script of a professional clerk, this one in the employ of the Coutts Bank in the Capital. Though it was couched in legal terminology, two things were very clear: the date, November 22—which was less than two weeks away; and the fact that if Mrs. Bexley had not paid the overdue amounts owed on the mortgage of Number 17 Royal Crescent by that date, she would be forcibly evicted from that location.
What was the poor woman to do? Melvin—possibly better than anyone—understood her need to stand on her own. She loathed the notion of being a burden to her brother—another trait she and Melvin shared.
Though she fiercely wished to take care of herself, there was some inherent quality in her fair femininity that elicited in him a need to help take care of her. Not like a husband, of course. More like he felt about Lizzy.
But entirely different. Very perplexing.
Perhaps because she had only recently left Longford, Melvin’s first thought of extricating her from this dire circumstance would be for her to wed the man. But he quickly dismissed that line of thinking. He liked Mrs. Bexley far too well to wish her united to such an oaf.
He turned to her and spoke with a conviction he was far from feeling. “I will do everything in my power to locate your manuscript before that date."
She peered up at him, her moist eyes red, her voice quivering. “But there is no way we could have a buyer for it that soon—even if we should find it.”
“I assure you, Mr. Christie would be more than happy to advance you a portion of the money anticipated from the sale—if you have obtained possession of the Chaucer.”
She blew her nose once again (in a most dainty fashion), wiped at her eyes, and attempted to gather her composure as she met his gaze. “You truly are the brightest star in my galaxy, Mr. Steffington.”
Now he felt as if his chest had expanded by six inches. “I may not prove worthy of your trust, but it will not be from lack of effort.” His attention returned to the stack of newspapers in front of him on the big desk. “Now, back to the task at hand.”
He scanned every page with one very specific goal. He was determined not to divert his attention by reading the articles. His thoughtswerediverted by the heavy burden he’d put on his own unworthy shoulders. What did he know about locating stolen manuscripts? What if he let her down? What if she lost her home because she’d erroneously placed her faith in the wrong person?
Why had he made her such a promise? Next, he’d be telling her he could walk on water. Theprobabilitiesof him doing either were nearly the same.
As the footed wooden clock on the chimneypiece ticked away, the afternoon passed, page by yellowed page. His hopes extinguished. Neither of them had found anything promising. Light slanting into the library from the tall, velvet-draped casement grew dimmer. Just like their prospects.
He cleared his throat. “I regret to say that I’m finished with my two months ofMorning Chronicles, and I have found nothing. How go you?”
She frowned. “I’m on October 29th, and I’ve not found anything either.”
His lips folded into a grim line. “Then I go to Cheddar tomorrow.”
A pair of incredibly solemn blue/green eyes met his, and she spoke morosely. “Number three on our list.”
He'd never felt so impotent. “Here, I’ll take the 30th.” He reached across the desk and took the final edition.
As he’d come to expect, they found nothing in the last three newspapers. “I’m sorry number one proved so fruitless.”
She shrugged as she lighted the oil lamp which sat upon the desk. To his surprise, she began to speak like a young girl during her first Season instead of a woman on the verge of being thrown out in the streets. “Please say you’ll come to the Upper Assembly Rooms tonight.”
The only thing he disliked more than assemblies was dancing at assemblies. Why in the bloody hell did he have such a difficult time turning down this woman? He met her hopeful gaze. “Will I have to dance?”
“I have not danced since before I lost Mr. Bexley, but I find I should like to stand up with you.”
"Then it will be my honor to stand up with you, madam."
* * *
While Catherine watched the beautiful Felicity dancing with her husband, Thomas Moreland, she nodded most agreeably to Mr. Longford, who sat beside her, continuing to ramble on. She had tried to listen attentively to him, but, really, the topics on which he spoke were vastly uninteresting. Granted, the weather was a universal conversational gambit, but after lamenting that that day’s fine blue skies had turned to gray rain clouds, how much more could one say?
Not to be deterred from his linguistic dominance, Mr. Longford transitioned from weather in Bath to the disastrous effect such rains would have on his massive farming interests. “You may be surprised to learn," he said, "that I am the largest non-aristocratic landowner in England.”
Before she could inquire about those vast farming interests, he proceeded to tell her he was now in possession of nearly 900,000 acres. “Since my father died, I’ve added two nice parcels, one sixty thousand acres, and the other 100,000 acres.”
No doubt Mr. Longford would think her late father's 30,000 acre farm as insignificant as a cricket field. “Then I pray the rain doesn’t endanger your harvest.” She spoke without removing her gaze from Felicity and her handsome husband.
They were the loveliest couple on the dance floor—and certainly the most in love.
Theirs had been a true love match. Felicity had saved a young, dying Thomas when he’d been left for dead one night on the London Road. He had gone on to India and made his fortune but always remembered Felicity with singular affection. After he returned to England, he rescued her family’s ancestral lands and captured her heart in the process.
Every time Mr. Moreland’s eyes rested upon his wife’s blonde beauty, it was impossible to conceal his adoration of her.
Perhaps the Morelands were the reason why Catherine had vowed never to marry again. Her marriage to Mr. Bexley had, unfortunately, not been a great love match. She often wondered why he had married her when he obviously preferred spending his time with other bloods. Or doxies. She supposed she was merely a pretty object he wished to possess, much like the richly illustratedCanterbury Tales.
Since a love like the Morelands' was a rare occurrence, Catherine knew the probability of embarking on a loving relationship was so low as to be out of consideration.Probability. Mr. Steffington’s use of that mathematic term reminded her so much of her dear Papa. Papa, too, loved books, but he especially loved mathematics, and frequently discussedprobability.
At the end of the dance, Thomas Moreland escorted his wife back to the settee where she’d been sitting beside Catherine, then he excused himself to return to the card room.
Why did Mr. Longford not choose to go to the card room? The man was most provoking! "Do you not agree that the Morelands are the loveliest couple to grace these Assembly Rooms?” Catherine asked him.
He leaned forward to flash a smile at Felicity. “Indeed. A most handsome couple.”
Felicity bestowed a smile upon the gentleman who sat on the other side of Catherine. “Thank you, Mr. Longford.” Returning her attention to Catherine, she said, “Have I told you my sister is increasing?”
“You hadn't told me, but from something you said earlier, I surmised that she was. I’ve been hoping this time it will be a son. There are only so many mirthful names to bestow up on little girls.”
Felicity tossed her head back and laughed heartily. “Yes, I suppose our family has overdone it a bit with Felicity, Glee, and Glee’s little Joy.” She sighed. “I do hope Blanks gets a son. Thomas so adores our boys.”
There was a tap upon Catherine’s shoulder. At first she thought it must be Mr. Longford, but then she noticed Felicity’s gaze lifting, and Catherine turned around, tilting her head to peer up at Mr. Steffington.
Actually, there were two Mr. Steffingtons, and owing to the fact one was bent toward her, she couldn’t tell who was who because she quite obviously couldn’t see which was the taller—the surest way to differentiate the identical twins. Her brows raised.
Still bent toward her, he spoke into her ear to ensure he would be heard over the hum of voices and trills of laughter that surrounded them. “May I have the honor of standing up with you the next set?” Both twins were eying her. Which twin was this? Because she had turned down Sir Elvin Steffington at the previous assembly, she felt this one must beherMr. Steffington. Melvin Steffington.
“It will be my pleasure, Mr. Steffington.” She placed her hand into his and tried to avoid Mr. Longford’s open-mouthed gawk.Oh dear. How would she apologize to the poor man? Why was she always having to worry about hurting Mr. Longford’s feelings? Would that she didn’t have to put up with the man at all. Every minute in his presence was tormentingly tedious.
It was quite the opposite with the man who was leading her onto the dance floor. He never bored her, even though he spoke little. She always felt so comfortable with him.
How handsome Mr. Steffington looked dressed in impeccably tailored black coat, snowy white cravat, and subtle gray pantaloons. She supposed his brother had a say in how his twin dressed for these assemblies for Sir Elvin dressed in perfect taste; his brother's daytime attire had indicated a careless disregard for dress.
The other women must have found his appearance agreeable because nearly every lady in the ballroom was watching him.
Once they took up their position on the dance floor, most of the dancers lifted their gazes to the gallery above as the musicians took up their instruments and began to play. Catherine was particularly happy the dance was to be a waltz. That would enable them to converse, and she knew if she could just be engaged in conversation with Mr. Steffington, she would immediately know without any doubt which twin she was dancing with.
He clumsily drew her into his arms, murmuring. “I pray I don’t trample your feet.”
There was something utterly masculine in his exotic sandalwood scent. She was almost certain this twin was Melvin.Her twin. “If you should step upon my feet, any pain would be offset by my pleasure at dancing with you.”
He peered down at her, his brows squeezing together. He was a great deal taller than she was. The tip of her head barely came up to his shoulders. “Do you know which twin I am?” A devilish glint sparkled in those black eyes of his.
“Of course I do. You’re Melvin Steffington.”
“You must have seen us standing next to one another.”
“I did not!”
“You told me you would be able to tell us apart by our speech, but I don’t thinkMay Ihave this dance? qualifies.”
She started giggling.
“May I ask what it is you find so amusing?”
“You, my brilliant Mr. Steffington, gave yourself away."
He laughed too. "So I did." Then lifting a brow, he asked, "Did I not also tell you I disliked you referring to me asbrilliant?”
“Even when thebrilliantis in jest?”
“So madam enjoys poking fun at a humble scholar?”
“Madam finds it difficult to believe there’s anything humble in a confident scholar such as you.”
“There are many areas in which my confidence escapes me—dancing being the first to come to mind.”
She would not confirm his statement, even though he was not a natural dancer. While he knew all the steps, he was perhaps the most awkward dancer with whom she had ever stood up. Not at all like Mr. Bexley.
Mr. Bexley had danced with the same elegance at which he interacted in society. Those types of pursuits were vastly important to him, especially the nocturnal pursuits, though Mr. Bexley did not confine those bedchamber activities strictly to nighttime.
He had been known to not-so-discreetly keep his carriage outside Mrs. Baddele's House of Cyprians in the morning as well as afternoons. Though he most certainly visited that establishment at night, he preferred giving up his nights to his other mistress, Faro.
Despite that they lived in the same house, she rarely came face to face with her husband.
Try as she might, Catherine could not imagine Mr. Melvin Steffington crossing the threshold at Mrs. Baddele's, nor could she see him wagering large amounts of money at the Faro tables.
There was something ever so solid about him. Not at all like Mr. Bexley.
"But, Mr. Steffington, of all the men in this chamber at present, I would rather be dancing with you."
"I assure you, my brother is a much better dancer."
His brother did remind her a great deal of Mr. Bexley. Not physically, but in their personalities. Sir Elvin was comfortable and confident in the presence of women, and he gave every indication that his other interests mirrored those of her late husband. "Your brother possesses many of the same qualities my dear Mr. Bexley possessed." It was a conscious effort on her part to always speak favorably of poor Mr. Bexley in some lame way of compensating for the inferno which he must be inhabiting at present.
"I didn't know him well."
"Mr. Bexley was fifteen years older than me, and I suspect that's one of the reasons you didn't know him well. You must be near my own age." She would not bring up the other reason the two men were not familiar to each other—that the men had no shared interests.
"I'm seven and twenty."
"As am I."
Neither of them spoke for a few moments, then he cleared his throat and said, "Thank you for what you said."
She found herself squeezing his hand. "About preferring you to all the others?"What have I just said?The meaning was vastly different than preferring to dance with him more than all the others. Oh, dear. Mr. Steffington was sure to think her flirting with him when that was not her intent at all.
He peered down at her, his black eyes smoldering with emotions she knew he could never express in words. And he nodded.
After that dance, she owed an explanation to the patient Mr. Longford. "Forgive me, Mr. Longford. I should have favored you with my first post-mourning dance. It was only today I decided to put the last vestiges of mourning behind me, and I lamentably forgot to tell you." She was mildly ashamed of herself for saying something she didn't mean, but her mother had always told her white lies were acceptable when used to spare someone's hurt feelings.
For once, someone else beat Longford's response. "I am most happy to hear that," Sir Elvin said. "Pray, Mrs. Bexley, I beg that you do me the honor of standing up with me."
What could a lady do? She placed her hand into Sir Elvin's as he led her onto the dance floor for a country set. Before they took their places, he said, "I was happy that your commission will keep Aristotle in Bath."
"Aristotle?" As soon as she repeated the name, she realized just who was referred to by the Greek scholar's name. Immediately, she thought she could latch onto it. It suited Mr. Steffington far better than Melvin. Of course, she would continue to call him Mr. Steffington.
The orchestra stuck up the tune, and there was no more opportunity for them to talk. Aristotle was right about his brother. Sir Elvin danced most elegantly. Because they were not conversing, she gazed upon him, realizing he looked exactly the same as his twin. She had come to appreciate their appearance. Of course, she was not in any way interested in men in a romantic way.
Just as Sir Elvin was handing her off in exchange with another partner, her gaze connected with Aristotle's as he stood at the far end of the chamber, broodingly handsome as he solemnly watched her dance with his brother.
Her breath hitched.
Though he'd been a twin for seven and twenty years, Melvin had never before considered Elvin identical, but as he watched his brother dancing with Mrs. Bexley, the queer feeling that he was watching himself rushed over him. That she peered up at his twin with laughing eyes felt oddly disconcerting.
He was struck by how well the two of them went together. Mrs. Bexley and the elegant dancer. Mrs. Bexley and the personable brother. Elvin was just the sort to win her heart. Even she had remarked on how similar Sir Elvin was to herdear Mr. Bexley.
Melvin swallowed hard as he watched them. He suddenly became cognizant of his brother's many references to the widow over the past two days. Could it be Elvin was especially taken with her?
Though he was exceedingly fond of his brother, Melvin did not like to think of his brother courting Mrs. Bexley. He shouldn't at all like to see Mrs. Bexley hurt. She was so delicate. His twin was notoriously fickle with women: both ladies and demireps. He discarded women as some discarded old invitations, their usefulness spent.
A raging heat pored over him as he stood stone still behind the obnoxious Longmouth—a name the twins' friends had used for years to describe Longford. Not to his face, of course. The heat in the chamber was insufferable. There must be a thousand people or more crammed into this ballroom.
Why in the blazes had he come to this place he loathed so? His hands fisted.Because of her. He rued the day he had met Mrs. Bexley. He disliked what he had become since the morning he first knocked upon the door to Number 17 Royal Crescent.
She had the most mortifying effect upon him. He could refuse her nothing. Thank God she was respectable for if the lady requested that he strip naked and dash through the streets of Bath, he was apt to peel off every stitch of clothing and begin to sprint.
No sooner had Elvin restored her to the seat beside Longmouththan that tiresome man claimed the poor woman for the next set. Why could he not have given her a chance to cool off? Could The Nuisance not see how vigorously the unfortunate lady was fanning herself?
Even in school, Longmouth'sperceptions had been as flawed as a blind man's paintings. Melvin glared at the couple. The sparkle he'd earlier detected in her remarkable eyes had vanished, and no smile lifted her face now.
She not only gave the appearance of being tired, she looked disinterested. Who could blame her? While Melvin was contemplating her change in demeanor, it occurred to him that her sweet smiles had only been meant for Elvin.
His hands fisted with resentment. How could she appear so happy with Elvin when just moments before she had told Melvin she would choose him over any man in the chamber?
His brother came to stand beside him. "She's lovely, is she not?"
Melvin ever so slowly met his brother's gaze with steely eyes. "To whom do you refer?"
"You know I take no notice of such things."
"How fortunate you are to be able to spend so much time in her company."
"Were you in my shoes, I daresay you'd tire of her in a matter of days."
Elvin folded his arms across his chest and was incapable of removing his gaze from the widow. "Care to make a wager?"
Did this mean Elvin was falling victim to the lady's rather sweet ways—and not unpleasant appearance? "You know I dislike wagering."
His brother was far more quiet than was his nature. He seemed mesmerized by the vision of Mrs. Bexley gracefully gliding across the dance floor. Her shimmering silver dress stood out in the sea of black jackets and pastel gowns. "I believe my brother needs assistance in his current endeavors with the pretty widow."
Melvin disliked turning down his brother. When Elvin hurt, Melvin hurt. It had always been thus. As children, when Elvin cried because he wished to ride the pony Melvin sat upon, Melvin would relinquish the beast in order to bring a smile to his twin's face. When the lads were at Eton and Elvin was ravaged by fever, Melvin had to leave their chamber so his brother would not see him cry. Under normal circumstances, Melvin would always defer to his brother's wishes. But Mrs. Bexley had specifically asked that he not tell his twin about the stolen manuscript.
Melvin had given his word. "You would perish from boredom."
"I think not."
Once more, Melvin slowly and icily met his brother's gaze. "You're willing to rise before three in the afternoon?"
The baronet twin shrugged. "I am certain I could manage to be out of bed by noon. If I had such an incentive." He could not remove his eyes from Mrs. Bexley.
Melvin gave a bitter laugh. "Do you realize I rise at eight each morning and arrive at Mrs. Bexley's at nine?"
"Dear lord!" Elvin's face screwed up. "A baronet's son does not rise with the chickens."
"Tomorrow I rise at five in order to perform a particular commission for the lady." If he meant to travel to and from Cheddar in the same day, he could leave no later than half past five.
Elvin's eyes widened, his mouth gaped open. "Then I daresay I don't wish to see Mrs. Bexley that badly."
This time when the lady returned, she dropped onto the settee next to Felicity, exhausted. It was at this time Melvin did something he had never before done. He moved to her and offered to procure for her refreshment.
She gazed up at him, her eyes once again smiling. "That would be ever so kind of you, Mr. Steffington."
She had not called him Sir Elvin, which he had half expected. How in the blazes was this woman able to distinguish between him and his twin?
Feeling as if he were charged with a commission of great importance, he went to the stifling tearoom and waited patiently in line to avail himself of two cups of tea. When he returned, Felicity had moved to the dance floor, and Elvin had confiscated her seat on the other side of Mrs. Bexley.
That lady was at present favoring his twin with the exact same smile she had so recently bestowed upon him. Melvin moved to her and cleared his throat loudly, not really expecting that he could be heard over the throngs.
He was mildly surprised that she looked up at him. "How very kind of you, Mr. Steffington," she said, taking the cup. "My throat is ever so parched."
"It is exceedingly hot in here," Elvin said.
"And the lady has not been allowed to rest." Longford glared at the twins.
She quickly drank the liquid. "I shall, indeed, be allowed to rest for I plan to take myself home at present."
"The poor woman is not accustomed to such strenuous activity." Longford narrowed his gaze at the two men he perceived as his rivals. "I shall be happy to send round for my carriage to convey you back to the Royal Crescent."
Longford was one of a handful of men in Bath who was rich enough to have his own chaise and four—and the man never missed an opportunity to make sure everyone knew it.
The lady sighed. "I would be most grateful. I declare, I do not think I have the strength to walk home."
* * *
At half past five the following morning, Melvin donned his oilskins and beneath still-dark skies went to the livery stable to hire a horse for the long ride to Cheddar. He dared not risk one of his family's beasts for so grueling a mission. As it was, he would have to change horses two or three times.
He had asked that his servant deliver a note to Mrs. Bexley after nine o'clock. The note merely reminded her that he was headed to Cheddar to investigate Mrs. Higgins.I will apprise you of what I learn at the earliest opportunity, he had concluded, before signing himselfYours ever truly, M. Steffington. She had provided him with Mrs. Higgins' address at Pleasant View Cottage.
It was a pity they had to race against the clock—and Coutts Bank—because Melvin would have liked the luxury of waiting until the rainy skies cleared. Instead, he mounted the gray filly and began to charge into the southeasterly winds and the steady drizzle, hoping like the devil the storm would not gather any more strength.
The first half hour was the hardest. The piercing winds cut through him like frozen steel. His face stung from the harsh, cold wind, and his ears became numb. His fine leather gloves did little to protect his chilled fingers, and even his ribcage—like his teeth—quivered from the brutal cold. He could not remember the last time he had been this miserable.
As the murky light of dawn stole over the distant horizon, the cold was less palpable. The second hour of the journey he grew accustomed to the misery. Accustomed, but not accepting. He kept asking himself why he was doing this, why he had encouraged the widow to put her trust in him.
He was so out of his expertise, he wished to God he'd never responded to her initial note. Just a few days earlier, his life had been far less complicated. Far less exasperating.
It was difficult to believe that just a few days previously they had been favored by blue skies and mild temperatures. Which reminded him that Mrs. Bexley had gone with Longmouthto Sydney Gardens that day while he stayed in her library searching yellowing newspapers for something that wasn't to be found.
A gnawing feeling that they would never find the Chaucer manuscript kept eating away at him like hungry maggots.But I've given her my word.
By the time his mount made its way through the mire to Radstock, it became abundantly clear that traveling to Cheddar and back on the same day would be difficult under ideal weather conditions. Under these conditions, it could take three or four days.
Three or four days they didn’t have, especially this time of the year when the days were already so short.
While he was waiting to change horses in Radstock, he consulted the folded map in his pocket. He suddenly realized why there were so few towns between Bath and Cheddar, and his stomach somersaulted. As the crow flies, the distance between the two cities was not great.
But he had failed to notice on his map the vertical script that identified the Mendip Hills. He had never before felt more like a moron. He should have known better than go off half cocked to where he'd never tread before.
He pitied the poor horse which would have to climb the muddy hills.
But more than anything, he pitied himself.
He had let down Mrs. Bexley. She would lose her home.
* * *
When Sir Elvin called upon Catherine that afternoon, she almost thought it was his brother who came strolling into her drawing room, even though Simpson had just announced the baronet. He was the image of Mr. Steffington.
As she looked closer, the differences between the two became more apparent. Her Mr. Steffington was not nearly so careful in his dress. He had come to her in Hessians that were not freshly polished, and his cravat had not been precisely tied. He had been comfortable in brown woolens.
His brother, on the other hand, looked as if he'd spent two or three hours of preparation with a gifted valet. From his charcoal pantaloons, to his claret silk waistcoat, to his rich velvet jacket, he presented a courtly appearance. How had he managed on so rainy a day? He must have been protected in a carriage or hackney.
"Won't you sit across from me?" she said.
He took a seat upon a damask settee that matched the one she sat upon. His gaze circled the chamber. "My brother is not here today?"
So Mr. Steffington had complied with her request not to mention the Chaucer manuscript to anyone. Had he not told his brother anything about what he was doing today? She feared that her version of his activities might conflict with Mr. Melvin Steffington's; therefore, she said as little as possible. "No, not today."
"I say, my brother's been rather quiet about the nature of the research he's helping you with."
She had known since that first day she could put her trust in Melvin Steffington – Aristotle. He had not betrayed that trust by confiding in his twin brother. She cocked her head and regarded him with dancing eyes. "I would be very surprised to learn that your scholarly brother was ever terribly communicative."
He chuckled. "Right-o. He has always been more given to reading than to talking."
His speech was really nothing like Aristotle's. The timbre of their voices was the same, but Sir Elvin's speech exuded the same confidence peculiar to those firstborn. Like Mr. Bexley. Melvin. Steffington, on the other hand, chose his words carefully and sparingly.
She was convinced she would never mistake Sir Elvin for his more sober twin, though as she peered at this one, she was astonished at how much the two looked alike. Astonishing, too, was her disappointment that he wasn't Aristotle. This was the first day she hadn't seen Mr. Steffington since their association had begun.
"What about you, Sir Elvin? Do you enjoy reading?" She wished to steer the conversation away from Melvin Steffington for fear her information might conflict with what he had told his brother.
He shook his head. "I've always preferred being out of doors. I'd rather shoot than anything – another difference between me and my twin brother."
"Yet you two are close?"
"Very. I cannot bear to think of him taking a post and moving away from me. The very thought is almost as painful as a death in the family."
She could not imagine Melvin Steffington ever confiding something so personal. Yet, because Sir Elvin had spoken of something so deeply emotional, she liked him far better than she had expected she would. He was not shallow like Mr. Bexley had been.
Oddly, she understood how Melvin's absence could disturb. For she greatly missed seeing him today. In a very short time she had become accustomed to and comfortable in his presence. "I understand."
"Forgive me, madam, for speaking of death so soon after your mourning has ended."
He displayed wonderful manners—as did most accomplished dancers. A pity he wasn't his brother.
There was a knock upon the door, and Simpson announced Mr. Longford. A moment later, that gentleman entered the chamber, his shiny boots still wet from the day's rain but the rest of him remarkably dry. She supposed his oilskins puddled on her marble entry hall.
Ever gracious, Sir Elvin replaced a cringe (displayed briefly after hearing Longford's name spoken) with a friendly greeting.
Mr. Longford wasn't nearly so gracious. He was unable to conceal his disappointment that Sir Elvin was calling upon the widow he so favored. After stiffly shaking the baronet's hand, he turned to Mrs. Bexley, bowing as he offered her a nosegay. "Allow me to offer these roses that match the bloom in your lovely cheeks."
"How thoughtful of you," she said.
The gentleman could not have looked more pleased with himself had he just placed a crown upon the queen's head. "That is the very same floral arrangement my brother procured for his betrothed, Miss Turner-Fortenbury—cousin to Lord Finchton, you know." He came to sit beside Sir Elvin.
Just to facetiously please Mr. Longford, she turned to Sir Elvin. "That would be Viscount Finchton, a sixth cousin, twice removed of Miss Turner-Fortenbury." Returning her gaze to Mr. Longford, she asked, "Pray, when is you brother to marry Miss Turner-Fortenbury?"
"Next month." Mr. Longford then faced his rival. "I daresay I know not which twin you are."
"Forgive me," she said. "It didn’t occur to me to introduce you two."
Mr. Longford glared at the man beside him. "We need no introduction. We were at Eton together."
She smiled at them. "Then you're friends?"
Sir Elvin shrugged. "I wouldn't actually say we're friends."
Mr. Longford shook his head. "No, not friends."
"Though I daresay we have no ill feelings toward one another. None whatsoever."
Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, dear, I still haven't disclosed the identity of the twin beside you, Mr. Longford. Which of the brothers do you think it is?"
"It must be Melvin because I understand he's been assisting you in some way only a scholar like he could."
"Actually, I am Sir Elvin."
Mr. Longford's countenance underwent a metamorphosis, and a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. (Even a man with the lowly rank of baronet merited Mr. Longford's admiration.) "It's a pleasure, Sir Elvin."
A short silence followed.
"Nasty day, is it not?" Sir Elvin's gaze swung from Catherine to Mr. Longford.
Mr. Longford nodded solemnly. "I had hoped to ride in Sydney Gardens today."
"I can't help but to worry about my brother. I'm not precisely sure what he's doing today, but since he rose at five this morning, I had a feeling he was going on a journey." He eyed Catherine. "It's a frightful day to be on the road on a lone horse."
"He'll be fine," Mr. Longford said.
Sir Elvin frowned. "We lost one of our younger sisters to lung fever after she got soaked in a rainstorm."
Catherine's pulse soared. Was Aristotle all right?
* * *
Long after her callers had gone and long after night fell many hours later, she kept hoping to hear from Mr. Steffington. Hadn't he said he would apprise her of his findings at the first opportunity?
She had difficulty sleeping. Hour after hour she lay in her bed gathering her blankets around her, the wind howling and rain beating against her window. Her thoughts kept coming back to the fact the Steffingtons' young sister had taken lung fever and died after being in the cold rain.
When she did finally go to sleep, she awakened frightfully, every part of her trembling. She could not dispel the horrifying vision of Aristotle's body beneath sodden skies in a muddy ditch. It had taken her a minute to realize where she was, to realize it was just a nightmare.
Nevertheless, she could not go back to sleep.
Rain continued all of the following day. She never left Number 17 Royal Crescent—not only because of the foul weather but mostly because she did not want to miss Mr. Steffington when he called upon her.
When he did not come that day, then that night, she grew alarmed.Something has happened to him. And it's all my fault.
After changing horses and eating cold meat and a bumper of ale at the coaching inn in Radstock, Melvin left that establishment's warmth behind and braved the steadily increasing rain and chilling winds. The road which slithered through the Mendip Hills was nothing more than a muddy quagmire, and progress was incredibly slow. Already it was two in the afternoon, and he'd not covered half the distance between Bath and Cheddar. What a fool he'd been to think he could have made the trip there and back in a single day. No matter how early he had risen that morning.
When planning the journey, he'd no way of knowing he would be inundated with unrelenting rain. Had he to do it all over again, would he have waited? Probably not. Time was more precious than gold. They had but eleven days in which to locate the Chaucer manuscript, and not a single clue had yet been uncovered.
With the rain and mist, his visibility was impaired. But he did not need to clearly observe the miles and miles of verdant hills around him to know how alone he was. That he'd not seen a single traveler since he left the inn three hours earlier could be attributed to the wretched weather. The weather could not be blamed, though, for the absence of houses along the way.
By four o'clock, night was already beginning to fall. How could he expect his weary mount to continue on when they would not be able to see their way?I can't give up.
With the departure of the murky daylight, the temperatures began to drop. It could freeze. He could freeze. To death. He thought of Charlotte, his favorite sister who caught lung fever and died after making her way home from the village in freezing rain. It had been years since he'd allowed himself to recall that painful loss.
I must keep on.
Whenever he thought of trying to take shelter, he would picture Mrs. Bexley lying on a wet street, rain pounding down on her, after she'd been forced from her home. In one of those odd transpositions the mind often plays, Mrs. Bexley's face was interchangeable with Charlotte's.
Because of that vision, he continued on throughout the night.
* * *
Ladies did not call upon unmarried gentlemen, but Catherine was far too worried about Melvin Steffington to have the slightest care for her reputation. So there she stood upon the step to the Steffingtons’ house on Green Park Road, her cloak completely saturated. Hopefully, it had protected the gown beneath.
The gray-haired servant who opened the door looked askance at her. No doubt he thought her a doxy. “I am Mrs. Bexley, and I must speak to Sir Elvin.” Her voice was uncharacteristically strident.
The man’s eyes widened. “Won’t you step in out of the rain?”
He left her removing her hood and shaking off her cloak in the entry hall while he began to mount the wooden stairs.
A moment later, Sir Elvin raced down that same stairway, his eyes never leaving hers. From the stricken expression on his face, she realized he knew no more about his twin’s location than she. “Have you news of my brother?"
A morose shake of her head was her only response. She felt like collapsing into a crying heap.
He recovered enough to assist her with the sodden cloak, which he handed off to the male servant. “Please, won’t you come into the library where it’s warm? You must be frightfully cold.” She was cold, but she had a warm house to go into. What of poor Mr. Steffington? She kept thinking of his sister who had perished from the cold.
During her sleepless night, she had come to the decision that she must share with the baronet the details of her relationship to his brother.
He indicated a silk brocade sofa which was closest to the fire. "Please, won't you sit here."
“I feel so guilty sitting here when your brother is being exposed to all the worst elements. Because of me.”
“Do you know where my brother has gone?”
I must not cry. She gave a solemn nod. But as she began to speak, she was incapable of keeping her voice from cracking with emotion. “He’s gone to Cheddar.”
“But that’s across the Mendip Hills! In this weather?”
“He left early in the morning the day before yesterday.”
His eyes, so much like Melvin’s in every other way, were as cold as anthracite. “Yes, I know when he left. What the devil was he doing going there?” His heated expression softened. “Forgive my language. I’m not myself. Deuced worried about Melvin.”
“As am I.” She drew a deep breath to keep from bursting into tears. It seemed to work. “Your brother is the most noble man I’ve ever known.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
Of course his twin would know every nuance of Mr. Steffington’s most agreeable personality. “I believe he’s exposing himself to untold danger in order to keep a roof over my head.” A sob broke free.
He quickly moved to the sofa, sat beside her, and placed a gentle hand upon hers. “Pray, you must tell me everything.”
She told him about the stolen Chaucer, about the nature of the work Mr. Steffington was doing for her, and ended by telling him that when his twin learned of the letter from Coutts Bank, he promised to do everything in his power to find the manuscript.
“I take it a manuscript like that is worth a great deal of money?”
“There is no book in the English language that is more valuable. Selling it would take care of all my needs for the rest of my life. Even the fifteen percent your brother would get could be a great deal of money.” Her lids lowered as she said a silent prayer for his safe return. She hadn’t the heart to voice her fears to Sir Elvin for he was clearly as worried about his brother as she was.
It was best to change the topic of conversation. "I must beg that you not tell anyone about the stolen manuscript. Your brother gave me his word he wouldn't,"
"My brother's word is as good as money in the bank. And, of course, if you don't want to speak of it, I won't tell a soul."
He looked distracted, then suddenly stood. “I beg your pardon, but I must send for my coach and try to find Melvin.”
"I have to come with you."
He paused, giving her a queer look. "That would hardly be proper, madam."
"I wouldn't be standing here if I were concerned about what was proper."
Their gazes locked and held, and in those few seconds when she peered into his dark eyes, she knew their shared concern for Melvin united them. "I am hardly a maiden, my dear sir, nor am I a girl. I am as old as you. Do you think that young?"
"Of course not."
"As distressing as it is to bring this up . . . what if your brother has fallen ill? I have some skill caring for the infirm. I want to be there in case your brother needs me."
Their eyes locked. It was a moment before he responded. "Very well."
* * *
After traveling all night, Melvin arrived at the posting inn in Cheddar, exhausted, cold, and thoroughly wet. The innkeeper had been most accommodating in leading him straight away to a warm room and sending up a hot meal. By the time Melvin had taken a long nap, his clothes—hung by the fire—had dried.
He dressed and went down to the tavern to initiate a conversation with the innkeeper. Melvin had already planned how he would approach the subject of Mrs. Higgins. “I say, I’ve a friend whose former servant has taken up lodgings at Pleasant View Cottage. Do you know them?”
The older man wiped away a dribble of ale from the counter. “That would be old Mr. Higgins’ place. Poor fellow had seven daughters.”
“How many sons had he?" Melvin asked.
“Not a single one. To make matters even worse, five of his daughters never married. They weren’t a pretty lot, if you know what I mean?”
“Poor man," the innkeeper continued. "Two or three of them went into service, and one of them—can’t remember which—is back now, living with the oldest, who never left home and who is getting way up in years. Mr. Higgins confided in me that in his old age he grew thankful he had no sons.”
“I daresay all parents end up being pleased with the gender of their offspring.”
“It was more than that, actually. He said if he’d had a son he would have had to leave his small farm to the eldest, and there would be no place for his girls to live once they were pensioned off.”
“So now the old maids have a home.” Melvin needed to introduce his topic. “I suppose they live in the lap of luxury, what with one having been in service to the gentry.” He needed to know if Mrs. Higgins had been spending wildly.
The innkeeper shook his head. “I don’t think that’s the case. The one what was in service—the healthiest, she is—has recently begun coming into town to sell eggs. If you ask me, she’s desperate for money. Old Mr. Higgins had nothing to leave them. In his later years he weren't able to farm.”
“Did he lease his land?”
The man nodded. “It's still being leased, but since it wasn’t very large, it can’t bring in much income.”
Mrs. Bexley would be relieved to know her former housekeeper was innocent of the theft. No elderly woman would be making a long trek into town to sell a few paltry eggs if she hadn’t great need of money.
On the other hand, Mrs. Bexley would be sad to know that her Mrs. Higgins was not comfortable in retirement.
If only they could get their hands on the stolen manuscript. Mrs. Bexley would be in a position to help her old servant.
Before he left Cheddar, there were two things he needed to do. First, he would post a letter to Dr. Mather. Those interested in expanding their libraries often consulted Melvin's old mentor. It was looking as if he—and possibly Mr. Christie—were their last hope of tracing the elusive thief.
With that letter dispatched, Melvin went to Pleasant View Cottage to give Mrs. Bexley’s regards to her old employee—and to see for himself if she was living in reduced financial circumstances.
* * *
She thought she would go mad throughout the journey in Sir Elvin's coach. Relentless rain, graphite skies, and a sullen travelling companion were distressing enough, but her added worry over Melvin Steffington made her lower than an adder's belly. When the rain ceased midway through the afternoon, the sun stayed hidden behind heavy, dark clouds. Under these conditions, it would be days before the muddy roads would dry enough for travelers to speed along.
All of her life, Catherine had been terrified of riding in a coach at night. Even the insensitive Mr. Bexley would always have his coachman find an inn as soon as night fell in order to keep from subjecting Catherine to the dark roads where highwaymen lurked. Strangely, on this night, she ignored her own fears—except those fears for Mr. Steffington's well-being.
After ten hours they finally approached the Mendip Hills. Their inquiries at the coaching inn in Radstock had netted them the information that a man fitting Melvin's description had indeed changed horses there two days earlier. They remembered him well because no other lone travelers had braved such treacherous weather that day.
Which made her feel wretched. It was all her fault poor, noble Mr. Steffington was putting his person in jeopardy. She did not want to think about the misfortune that had fallen upon his poor sister many years ago.
Skies darkened after they left the inn. "Are you sure you want to continue on?" Sir Elvin asked. "You understand if our carriage should become stuck in the mud it could be many, many hours before another traveler happens along our road."
Worse than being stranded was the fear of the cold in the wee hours of the morning. But that same cold is exactly what pushed her into an affirmative answer. She couldn’t bear to think of Aristotle alone and cold. Because of his perceived responsibility to her. "I'm sure."
Throughout the journey, the normally congenial Sir Elvin was much too disturbed to make pretty conversation with her. She knew, too, he resented her for endangering the person he was closest to on earth.
What a transformation had come over him. Two nights earlier he had been unable to remove his gaze from Catherine, hovering around her the duration of her time at the Upper Assembly Rooms. Then the following day, he'd rushed to call on her home.
She was relieved that she wasn't going to have to repel the baronet's advances. She had not the least desire to spend the rest of her life subservient to any man. Especially a man who shared many traits with the late Mr. Bexley.
Now Sir Elvin acted as if she were invisible. Was his silence because he hated her? She wouldn't blame him if he did.
The interior of their coach was in nearly total darkness when she finally lifted the velvet curtain. Under the faint moonlight she could see ahead about twenty feet. Thank God the rain had stopped.
Sir Elvin had insisted the driver stay off the rutted roads where they were certain to get stuck. Instead, he asked that the coachman drive on turf. He had more than once expressed his hopes that they were on the same path taken by Mr. Steffington.
By peering from the window she hoped she might be able to see if Mr. Steffington was . . . coming home or if he was in need of assistance. She prayed it wasn't the latter, though she kept finding her gaze fanning along the hillside, dreading to see a lifeless figure.
"I suppose you and I are both being very foolish in our worry over Melvin," he said.
Her brows lifted.
"If we look at it rationally," Sir Elvin said, "Considering the wretched weather, we should not have expected Melvin to be home so soon. Under such conditions, he would be lucky to make it from Bath to Cheddar in two days, certainly not to go to and from Cheddar in a single day. I cannot believe my brother so foolish as to think it a single-day trip."
"There is the fact that he'd never before been to Cheddar."
"I daresay he forgot about the Mendip Hills."
"Your brilliant brother?"
"Don't call him that to his face. He hates it."
"He's not always brilliant. Just most of the time."
"I know." Her gaze continued to scan the landscape, searching for the missing twin.
"I truly hope he's not fool enough to ride over these hills on a cold night like this."
She gave a false laugh. "Is that not what we're doing?" As she spoke, she saw something dark moving toward their coach. Her heartbeat accelerated. The dark outline which she couldn’t make out came closer. She had no idea what color of horse Melvin Steffington would be on or what he would be wearing, but as the dark silhouette of man on horse against the horizon drew nearer, she nearly lost her breath in anticipation. "I see something! Please, have the coachman stop!"
Sir Elvin drove his walking stick into the roof of the coach. "Stop!"
Even before the carriage came to a complete stop, she swung open her door. "Mr. Steffington!"
* * *
When he first heard the voice calling out in the night, he feared he'd gone delusional. It sounded like Mrs. Bexley. Had he been thinking of her? Is that why he thought he'd heard her voice? God knows he'd been through enough physical discomfort these past few days—and still was bloody, bloody cold. Such misery could drive a sane man mad.
Surely, though, his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, too. He was certain a pair of horses were leading a coach in his direction. Why would anyone be trying to cross these hills at night when the dirt roads that had been there were now rivers of mud?
He drew up his mount in order to listen more attentively. He heard his name again.
And this time he was sure it was Mrs. Bexley's sweet voice. What the devil?
The coach came a bit closer, then halted, and a door swung open. "Is that you, Mr. Steffington?"
Those were the sweetest words he'd ever heard. "Yes! Is that you, Mrs. Bexley?"
A second door flew open, and a man leaped from the coach. "Thank God, Melvin!"
It took Melvin a few seconds to piece together what was going on. From the tone of his twin's voice, he could tell he was upset. Which meant these two were out on this frightful night looking for him.
Elvin was prone to worry, and he had obviously worried about him. Melvin suddenly felt remorseful he'd left town without telling his brother where he was going. "Forgive me for not telling you about my journey," he said to Elvin.
By then Elvin had rushed up to him. "How are you? I was beastly worried about you."
Melvin was so happy to see his brother—and to hear Mrs. Bexley's voice—he forgot all about being cold. A warmth burned deep inside him. "I've had a pretty wretched couple of days, but I am fine now. The inside of your coach is most alluring. Where'd you get it?"
"I hired it."
Mrs. Bexley approached the brothers. "I have been worried to death about you—so much so I went to your brother and told him everything."
"Yes. Even about that horrid letter from Coutts."
Elvin slung his arm around his brother, and they moved toward the coach. "Three heads are better than two. I will help you and Mrs. Bexley. Pray, what did you learn in Cheddar?"
He hated to own up to his futility, to slam another door on their search. "Mrs. Higgins is not the one."
"I am happy to have that confirmed," Mrs. Bexley said. "Though it is so very discouraging that we can't see any opening in this dark tunnel."
The coachman took Melvin's mount and tethered it behind the coach before the three of them piled inside. His brother sat next to Mrs. Bexley, who handed off the rug to Melvin. "Here, Mr. Steffington, you take this. You must be chilled to the very bone."
He was too blasted cold to deny what she offered. "I feel as if I shall never thaw."
"I should never have let you go off like that. I knew Mrs. Higgins was incapable of dishonesty."
"By the way, she sends you her regards." He proceeded to tell them what he had learned about the former housekeeper's dire financial situation. "I daresay when we do find the Chaucer manuscript, you'll have to increase the poor lady's pension."
"That's a very good suggestion."
Though he could not see them well, Melvin was swamped with the feeling that his brother and Mrs. Bexley had grown very close during their journey.
It should come as no surprise to him. She had been struck by the similarities between his brother and herdear Mr. Bexley.
They rode on in silence. Melvin was with the two people whose companionship he enjoyed the most. Then why was he growing melancholy? Just a few minutes previously, he'd bubbled with a deep sense of well-being.
For some odd reason, seeing his brother and Mrs. Bexley so comfortable together saddened him. He did not like to think of Elvin tiring of Mrs. Bexley as he always tired of his ladybirds. She was too fine a woman to be taken lightly.
There was also a little niggling disappointment strumming through him. Shehadtold him he was her most favored man. Now it seemed she obviously preferred his brother.
The last person she wished to see upon returning to Bath was Mr. Longford, but there he sat in his fancy coach just as the Steffingtons' rented chaise was bringing her home. As quickly as she scurried from the chaise, he was faster, reaching the top step just before her.
Owing to his lack of height, she stopped on the step just below him so as not to call attention to his short stature.
She could feel his gaze raking over her. Being the fashion conscious person he was, he would be sure to realize from her heavily wrinkled dress that she'd worn it for the past two days. He was also bound to wonder why she needed the heavy, hooded cloak on a sunny day like this one had become. She felt ever so dowdy standing beside the impeccably dressed man of small stature.
“Good day to you, Mrs. Bexley.” His eye flicked to the rented coach. Any hopes he’d had of discovering who she’d been with were dashed when the driver flicked the ribbons and sped off.
She knew just what to do to avoid his prying questions. She spun around to stare at his coach and four. The coach itself was shiny black with gilt paint edging the doors and rich claret velvet curtains. The four black horses looked identical. And they were beauties. Why in the world one would need four matched beauties like those to take him the distance of half a mile within the city of Bath? “I declare, Mr. Longford, I have not seen your magnificent conveyance in daylight before. I already thought your barouche the most elegant ride possible, but this is just too magnificent!”
The man positively glowed. “I commissioned it from the carriage maker to the Duke of Clarence.”
She attempted to effect a look of appreciative amazement. “How fortunate I am to have ridden in it. I declare, I shall feel connected to the Royal Family.”
“It was my intention to take you for a ride in it this very day.”
“You are frightfully kind, but alas, I cannot today. I have a great many business matters to attend to.”
His smiling face fell. “I have been attempting to see you these past three days.”
“My affairs are in a state of flux at present, and they demand my immediate attention.” She whirled toward the door. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to visit with you today.”
“Have you been with Melvin Steffington?” He nearly sneered the words.
She slowly turned back and gave him a cold stare. “Actually, I have been with both of the twins, but I fail to understand why that should concern you.” She rushed into the house.
In the entry corridor, Simpson met her. “Welcome home, madam. Should you wish to see the post?”
“Indeed I would.” She prayed that Mr. Christie had responded to her letter. She picked up a short stack of letters from the sideboard and quickly examined them. Her heartbeat drummed when she saw Mr. Christie’s distinctive handwriting. She rushed to the library, which was quite dark, and drew open the celadon-colored damask draperies. Now the light was good enough to read. She sat down at the desk that had belonged to Mr. Bexley. Really, she must start thinking of these things asherpossessions.
She carefully unfolded Mr. Christie's letter and began to read.
My Dear Mrs. Bexley
It is with unimaginable disappointment that I read your letter informing me of the grievous loss of your nearly priceless manuscript of Chaucer’s major work. It would have been the greatest acquisition I’d ever presided over.
Equally as shocking to me is that I never heard of it coming on the market. It is a rare occurrence when something of that import is not presented to me.
I feel it my duty to point you toward two of the newest, most enthusiastic book collectors in the kingdom in the hopes that one of them can assist you where I have failed. (These would be in addition to Lords Oxford and Spencer, both of them known far and wide for their extensive collections of books.) One of the new collectors is Thomas Whitebread, and the other is Lord Seacrest. I pray this information is of assistance to you.
It grieves me that the theft occurred shortly after my visit. Such an occurrence has the ramification to impugn my character. I have tried to remember to whom I may have spoken of your treasure, but my memory is not so sharp after the passage of four months. If my recall should improve, I vow to contact you at once. Allow me once again to say how very sorry I am over your loss.
Yours ever truly,
By the time she had bathed and changed into fresh clothing, Simpson announced another caller: Mr. Steffington. This caller was far more welcome than Mr. Longford had been.
She understood why he would have been the top pupil in his class. He was possessed of a slavish determination to complete his tasks successfully. Not for the first time, she congratulated herself for having chosen him.
Though she normally saw callers in the drawing room, she felt most comfortable with Mr. Steffington in the library. They had spent so many comforting hours there with each other. "Please show Mr. Steffington to the library."
When she entered that chamber a few moments later, he stood. Her gaze swept from the top of his dark head, along his clean-shaven face, to his freshly starched but inexpertly tied cravat, and his chocolate-colored frockcoat, buff breeches that molded to his long, muscled legs and terminated in a pair of soft cowhide boots that were in need of shine. No doubt, his brother would cringe over his careless appearance.
"Mr. Steffington! I did not expect to see you today. Did I not tell you to climb into bed and catch up on the sleep you have missed?"Because of his loyalty to me.
"We've only ten days."
She was so touched that he shared her heavy burden.
Her face brightened. "I have a lead!" She went to the desk, got Mr. Christie's letter, and offered it to him.
He scanned it, then looked up at her. "Do you know either of these men?"
She shook her head.
He went to the desk. "I shall write to each of them, apprising them of my scholarly pursuits and inviting myself to see their collections. I had originally hoped to have Dr. Mather open the doors for me, but we haven't time now."
She went to the shelf for herDebrett'sand looked up Lord Seacrest's seat. "Lord Seacrest's home is Granfield Manor in Warwickshire." But how was she to discover the direction of Mr. Whitebread?
"I go there today." His square jaw set firmly, and she thought he looked more masculine than any man of her acquaintance.
"Wego there," she said in her most authoritarian voice.
His head cocked as he regarded her from beneath lowered brows. "A lady does not ride on horseback for more than a hundred miles."
"We are not riding on horseback, nor are we taking a post chaise. I shall hire a coach. I'll send Simpson over to the livery at once."
His hand seized her arm. "You are certain you wish to come with me? It will be a long and grueling journey – not to mention the impropriety of it."
"I should die of curiosity were I to stay here." She started for the library door. "I do hope your brother can come with us." Traveling with two men was far more respectable than just the two of them. "Where is he? I thought he had taken an interest in assisting us."
"My brother collapsed on his bed. He has always needed sleep more than me."
She knew the strict discipline which guided Mr. Steffington's life deprived him of anything he considered frivolous – even sleep. "Do you think we can persuade him to journey with us?"
He shook his head. "As it happens, he has promised to preside over our sister Annie's debut tomorrow night. It's the sort of thing that falls into the realm of duties of the firstborn."
"I do believe you're happy not be the firstborn."
"You know me too well, madam."
"There is one thing I must request that you do on our journey."
His brows elevated.
"You are not to go without sleep. We will stop at coaching inns along the way. You've already forsaken too much sleep on my behalf."
"If you insist upon sleep, then I dictate the hours of rising."
"First, I know just the man who can tell me where Mr. Whitebread lives. I will dispatch both letters today on the overnight post. Then after I pack a few things I shall return here. Early afternoon."
* * *
Curiously, Longmouth'sexpensive coach and four was in front of his house on Green Park Road when Melvin returned. Why in the blazes was he there? Elvin would never willingly suffer the man's company.
As Melvin went to enter his home, Longford was leaving. The two men nearly collided. Longford gazed up at him, his eyes narrow. Melvin had never realized how short the man truly was. His nose was directed at the center of Melvin's chest.
"Ah, you're just the man I wished to see," Longford said. His booming voice exuded the manliness his body lacked.
Now it was Melvin's turn to narrow his gaze. "Pray, why would you need to see me?"
"Because you have been spending a considerable amount of time with the woman to whom I am betrothed."
"I don't know what you're referring to. The only woman who's been in my company is Mrs. Bexley."
Longford's green eyes chilled. "Precisely."
Melvin could not have been more stunned had the man declared he was a triplet to Melvin and Elvin. A shorter, more verbose triplet. His thoughts flashed to the last time he had seen Mrs. Bexley with Longford when they had danced. She had been so disinterested in what her partner was saying that she did not even try to maintain eye contact with him. Melvin thought listening to Lizzy discourse on her new bonnet might be more interesting than Longmouth. Er, Longford.
It suddenly occurred to him the reason Mrs. Bexley was keen to recover the Chaucer was so she would not be forced to unite herself with Longmouth.
He couldn’t blame her.
Yet he blamed her for agreeing to marry a man she could never love. All for money. Melvin's good opinion of her lowered.
Melvin's hostile gaze locked with the other man's. "What is the purpose of this visit?"
"I, ah, I just wanted you to know the lady is promised."
"You think I want her for myself?"
"I daresay she would hardly give you the time of day. After all, you are merely a younger son."
"But you're wrong Longford. She's given me more than the time of day." With that, Melvin entered the house and slammed the door on the other man.
* * *
Perhaps she should have stayed back in Bath. What good could she possibly be to this expedition? It was obvious Mr. Steffington had no use for her. He didn't even want to engage her in conversation. They had been traveling for four hours, and he had said fewer than a dozen words during that time.
She wondered if his silence was because he so exceedingly enjoyed the book he was reading or if it was because he found her as boring as she found Mr. Longford. A pity his brother hadn't come. At least he displayed all the courtly traits his twin lacked. He was just as smooth as Mr. Bexley—which might explain why she had heretofore preferred the quiet brother.
"Your book must be very good," she finally said. "Might I inquire what it is?"
He closed the book, keeping his index finger there to mark the page and glared at her. "Euripides."
Her nose scrunched. "No doubt it's about some kind of ancient war. Is it Greek or Roman? I never can remember all those foreign-sounding names."
"Euripides was Greek, madam." He re-opened his book.
"You are very fortunate that your stomach does not prevent you from reading in a moving carriage."
He gave her an impatient look. "Enlighten me, please, as to the relationship between your stomach and reading."
She began to giggle. She laughed so hard, tears began to stream along her face.
"Pray, what is so funny?"
It was a while before she could compose herself enough to answer, and when she did, her sentence came out in pieces. "I was picturing. . ." She broke into laugher again. ". . .a stomach with eyes."
He gazed at her as if she were mad. Then the expression on his face softened, and he, too, began to laugh. A moment later, he confessed. "I visualize a statue of Buddha with eyes protruding from his belly."
"And an opened book facing that huge belly!" She laughed anew.
When the pair of them eventually recovered, he asked, "Why do you link reading and stomachs? This is a new amalgam to me."
"Have you never heard of reading while in motion causing an upset stomach?"
"Never." He studied her. "You are cursed with this malady?"
She nodded ruefully.
"That is a most severe deprivation on a long journey like this." A moment later, he asked, "What do you do for amusement while traveling?"
He had to ask?"When I am not alone. . ."
He removed his finger from the book and firmly closed it. "Forgive me. I have been a most rude traveling companion. To quote Lord Chesterfield, I lackthe Graces."
"At last, Mr. Steffington, we have both read the same book."
"Tell me, did you laugh when you readLord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son?"
She started giggling again. He must think her the silliest woman there could be. But, really, she had laughed aloud when she'd read Lord Chesterfield's admonition to his son regarding the . . . picking of noses, which of course, was not a topic she could discuss with the man sharing her carriage.
"Under no circumstances are you to look at the finger. . ." Mr. Steffington stopped himself from completing his lordship's words to his son. "Forgive me, 'tis a most indelicate topic to bring up with a lady."
She started laughing again. "Itwasawfully funny."
He tried to look serious, but he too began laughing. "My brother and I passed the book around Eton."
She nodded. "It is just the sort of thing lads of that age would especially love."
"I know the man was heavily criticized—posthumously—but never was a parent more obsessed that his offspring should achieve perfection."
"It is touching. Sad, but touching."
"The letters do have the benefit of improving lads who read them at Eton."
The carriage went quiet again.
"I am sure there must be other books we both have read," he finally said.
"But you don't like poetry, and you don’t read novels."
"Certainly not novels such as those written by Walpole or Monk Lewis, but I do like Mr. Scott's historical novels."
She was smiling so frequently now, it was difficult to believe she had been melancholy just minutes before. "As do I, ever so much. I love to read about knights of yore."
"'Tis the same with me."
"See, we do have shared interests."
"What of Longford? Do you share many interests with him?"
She had the distinct feeling Mr. Steffington was glaring at her. What could she have said or done to cause his manner to change so abruptly? "I don't know Mr. Longford all that well. Have you forgotten I only recently came out of mourning?"
"I may be ignorant ofthe Graces, but is it not customary for one just coming out of mourning to wait for some time before embarking upon another marriage?"
"I believe that is customary—and certainly the proper way for a widow to conduct herself."
She was now certain of it. He was glaring at her. It was the kind of glare that might greet anI'm-frightfully-sorry-I've-accidentally-shot-your-dogstatement. Oh, dear. What had she done to anger him?
Well, two could play that game. Her gaze flicked to his book and she spoke icily. "Pray, don’t let me keep you from reading about ancient Greek carnage." With that remark, she lifted away the curtain with a trembling hand and began to peer at the countryside under twilight's dim glow.
* * *
What had he done to raise her hackles? It was he who should have his hackles raised. After all, the woman had gone and gotten herself engaged to a man she could not pretend to be in love with. And this, after she had told Melvin he was the brightest star in her galaxy.
He hadn't thought her the sort of woman to idly ingratiate herself with every man who came into her sphere. He had actually liked her. In much the same way as he liked Annie and Lizzy.
But altogether different.
He supposed she was one of those practiced flirts who made each fellow she was with feel as if he werethe brightest star in her galaxy. His brows lowered, and he stiffened as he moved away from her and practically ripped open his book. Though he made out as if he were reading, he wasn't even on the same page he'd been reading when she interrupted, nor could he have concentrated on it had he been.
This journey was nothing like their last had been. She and his brother had chatted like magpies. She was bound to be decidedly disappointed that Elvin hadn't come with them. Unlike himself, Elvin was possessed ofthe Graces.
He found himself wondering if Elvin fancied the lady. They had certainly gotten on well yesterday and earlier today. More than once she had commented on how very much Elvin reminded her ofdear Mr. Bexley. He sighed. Yes indeed, the woman made a habit of praising men. Anyone who imparted praise and flattery so easily certainly could not be sincere.
Even though she had been the one to get snippy with him, he felt wretchedly rude. As a gentleman, he should be gallant to his companion, no matter how irritating she was.
Or how often she doled out false flattery.
They rode on in silence beneath skies merging from daylight to night. With nightfall, the interior of the carriage became uncomfortably cold. He noted that she stuffed her hands into a huge fur muff. Ermine, was it not? Elvin would know.
His guilt over his rudeness gnawed at him until their coach was in complete darkness, and he closed his book. "How do you feel now? The motion is not making you sick?"
"Not as long as I'm facing forward."
"You mean if you were seated where I am, you would get ill?"
"Just thinking of it makes me queasy. Oh, Mr. Steffington, I don’t know what I was thinking when I inflicted myself upon you. I am the worst sort of traveling companion there could be."
"Now, now don't say that. You're perfectly. . . acceptable."
"I haven't told you another reason I wish to stop for the night."
"I'm frightfully afraid of travelling the main posting roads after dark."
"I'm terrified of highwaymen. My aunt and uncle were murdered by highwaymen when they didn't readily hand over their jewels."
He winced. "Does that mean you wish to stop at the next village that has an inn? It is not even five o'clock yet."
"Yes." Her voice sounded even younger than Lizzy's. The poor lady. She must be petrified.
At once he got the coachman's attention and told him to be in search of a coaching inn as soon as possible. Then he faced her. "You realize we will be wasting valuable hours?"
"I know." A moment later, her voice sounding incredibly frail and youthful, she added, "There's more."
"Pray, madam, are you afraid of dragons?"
She started to giggle again.
What was there about her giggle that whenever he heard it, he was powerless not to laugh with her? In fact, he had laughed more the past week than he had in the past two months. "What do you find so amusing?" he asked.
"The notion of dragons. A learned man such as yourself knows there's no such thing as dragons."
"While they might be as mythical as a minotaur, they are readily referenced in English literature." His voice sombered. "Forgive my levity, Mrs. Bexley. What else is there that frightens you?"
She hesitated a moment before answering. "I am terrified of sleeping alone at a posting inn."
"Now see here, madam, I cannot share your bed!"
She started giggling again. "I didn't mean for you to share my bed. Surely you know I'm not that sort of woman. But can you please demand to have the chamber next to mine? Then I wouldn’t be so afraid."
"Certainly." He had already planned to do that. He did not like the notion of a defenseless woman being alone in a strange inn.
"And I thought perhaps you and I could sit before the fire in the private parlor and chat until one of us gets sleepy."
His presence would keep her from being frightened. "As you wish. I think to protect your good name- - -"
"We should use false names."
He had thought this night would bring him nothing but remorse over the precious hours lost, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. He could not remember when he had more enjoyed an evening. He and Mrs. Bexley—who were at present answering to the name Mr. and Miss Smith—were ensconced in the cozy parlor adjacent to her bedchamber, a good wood fire burning at the stone hearth. While sooty coal fires always brought to mind the teeming Capital, the smell of wood burning always brought to mind fresh country skies.
Because the night had become inky black with an icy sting in the air, and angry winds howled beyond these windows, the warm little chamber cocooned them most happily.
He and Mrs. Bexley had long discussions over Mr. Scott’s historical novels and Mr. Burke’s political—and atheist—beliefs while leisurely eating an excellent country dinner of roasted pork and potatoes. The innkeeper even procured for them a bottle of claret.
After dinner, they carried their wine goblets to the little chintz sofa near the fire and continued their discussion. Since the sofa was really more the size of a settee, they were very close. Physically. Her upper arm kept brushing up against his. It only then occurred to him how improper this was. Mrs. Bexley’s good name would be ruined if anyone ever learned that they had traveled together with not even a lady’s maid to lend propriety. And if it were ever learned they had actually slept at an inn under false names, she would never again be welcome in the homes of respectable people.
No one must ever know. He would protect her reputation in the same way he served as her protector in other respects. The poor lady had no man to take care of her.
“Really, Airy,” she said, “could you not have come up with a more convincing name than Smith?”
“Did you just call me Airy?”
She gazed at him with laughing eyes, her cheeks dimpling—and making her look incredibly young. She fluttered her lashes as she nodded.
“A derivative of Aristotle! Who told you?”
“Do not all of your friends refer to you by that name?”
That was true. “I dislike being called Aristotle.”
“It suits you far better than Melvin.” She scrunched up her nose. “Not just because you’re veddy, veddy smart.”
Good lord! The lady was foxed!
She set down her goblet and eyed him. “But I prefer Airy.”
“That is without a doubt the silliest name I’ve ever heard.”
Placing her hands on her hips, she glared at him. “You dare to say my father’s name is silly? My father was the most intelligent man I’ve ever known. Until I met you.”
“Your father’s name was Aristotle?” He found that incredible.
“No, you silly man. My father’s name was Harold.”
“I thought you said—no, implied—that his name was Airy.”
“It was. Almost. Everyone called him Harry. Do you not think that a remarkably masculine name?”
“Yes, it is.”
She stared at him, her lips pursed. “Melvin just doesn’t suit you.”
He actually found himself agreeing with her. He hated their twinly names. But he wasn’t about to call himself Aristotle. How arrogant would that be? Besides, this was Georgian England, not ancient Greece. “Since only my siblings ever refer to me by my Christian name, it’s hardly worth worrying your pretty head over.”
He had called her pretty. Melvin had never in his seven and twenty years told a female who was not his sister that she was pretty. He hoped she hadn’t noticed, or she was apt to think he was trying to seduce her.
“Oh, Airy, do you really find me pretty?”
He found himself staring at her. The flames sparkled in her golden hair, and the heat tinged her cheeks pink. He had always been acutely aware of the unusual color of those magnificent eyes, but he had not noticed how long her lashes were. But then, he'd never been so close to her. Her faint lavender scent had become as much a part of her as her trilling laughter.
This was entirely too intimate. “Of course you’re pretty,” he snapped. “But really, you shouldn’t address me by my first name.”
“Silly, I’m not. I refuse to call you Melvin.”
What a sad situation he was in when an inebriated woman made more sense than him. “For the sake of making my point, madam, let’s say my first name was Harry. You are not to address me as such without drawing censure. Why, you don’t even refer to your late husband by his Christian name!”
“It didn’t suit him. Only Mr. Bexley would do.”
“May I suggest you only call me Mr. Steffington?”
She lowered her voice in an effort to mimic him. “You may suggest anything you like, but on this journey I shall only refer to you as Airy. Are we not pretending to be brother and sister?”
“Well, yes. . .”
“Then I shall call you Airy for the duration of this journey.” She yawned and folded her head against his shoulder. “Have you heard anything about Lord Seacrest’s library?”
Should he ignore that her head was quite intimately resting upon his shoulder? If he said something, she might remove it. He wouldn’t like that. Even though he knew it was wrong, he felt as comfortable as when he was as a lad in his Grandmama’s big, curtained four-poster. “Actually, after I thought about it, I realized he must have been the earl Dr. Mather had visited in Warwickshire. That peer was keenly interested in Shakespeare’s folios and was determined to use his fortune to acquire one for each play.”
“So he’s very wealthy?”
He nodded. “In addition to owning a huge piece of Warwickshire, he also owns coal mines in Wales and a sugar plantation in the West Indies.”
She held up her hand. “Say no more! One who owns coal mines controls the world.”
“I learned one more interesting thing about him.”
"He is a recluse."
"Then there will be no possibility he will recognize me!"
She was quick witted. She neither read Latin nor Greek nor had an interest in those two ancient civilizations that thrilled him, but she was possessed of uncommon good sense, and she displayed good understanding of the books she had read.
Altogether, he thought her intelligence superior to that of his sisters, but that was no great compliment, owing to the fact his sisters were far more interested in reading Ackermann's than theEdinburgh Review. Still, it was enlightening to him that women were not as dull as he’d once thought them.
All of a sudden he realized this woman whose head had softly rested upon his chest was affianced to another. He stiffened, took two firm hands and removed her from his person, then angrily rose.
All the nice feelings he’d had for her vanished with the realization this woman was nothing more than a flirt and even worse—a fortune hunter. Both were abhorrent to him. “You are tired, and we must rise early. I bid you goodnight, madam.” With that, he grabbed what was left of the wine bottle and stormed from the chamber. He had a very good mind to get thoroughly foxed himself!
“Night, night, Airy. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
* * *
A steady tapping upon her chamber door awakened her the following morning. It took her a moment to remember where she was. There was no sign of the green silk bed curtains she was accustomed to seeing the first thing each morning. She rose on her elbows and gazed around the austere cream-colored chamber with its huge wooden ceiling beams. Her fire had died out, but the room still held its warmth.
“Who is it?”
“Melvin Steffington. I’ve brought you breakfast.”
As soon as she heard his name, a flood of memories from the previous night embarrassed her. She had insulted him by saying she disliked his name. Worse yet, she had called him Airy! She had a lamentable habit of saying the most stupid things when she consumed wine. What must he think of her?
It was bad enough that he would think her ill-mannered, but now he was apt to also think her a lush. She was sure, though, that there was wine left when Mr. Steffington left the chamber, and since he too was drinking, she could not have drunk more than two glasses—which was one more than what was customary for Catherine.
When she went to move from the warm bed, pain surged to her temple. Another casualty of the wine. She stepped cautiously toward the door. Each step vibrated to her throbbing head. “That is very kind of you,” she said to the door that separated them. “Please go ahead and eat. Perhaps by the time I’m dressed, I will feel more like eating than I do just now.”
He cleared his throat. “If there’s a need, I’ve brought tisane.”
“There is need,” she groaned.A very great need.
“If you’ll just open the door a bit, I’ll hand you the glass. It’s our valet’s own special decoction which my brother swears by to banish the bad head after. . .”
She was utterly mortified. “After one has imbibed too much?”
"I wouldn't necessarily say that." His voice was ever so polite. "You scarcely had two glasses."
"You are too kind, Mr. Steffington." She inched the door open and stuck out her hand for the elixir.
It tasted nasty, but if it would rid her of the wretched headache, it would be well worth it.
Because she was unaccustomed to dressing herself, it took her longer than normal, and still her hair was a disaster. Fortunately, Mr. Steffington wasn’t the sort of man who would notice. As she peered at herself in the looking glass, she unaccountably wondered which of her features he would take notice of. If he were apt to take notice of any.
This was not her best day. Her eyes were dull, and she looked pallid. And she prayed he would not notice that no matter how hard she had tried to arrange her hair, it still looked as if she had just climbed from her bed.
When she finally made her way to the adjoining parlor, her head still throbbed.
He stood as she came through the doorway, and she inclined her head ever so slowly so as not to jar it and send her into agonies of pain. Her glance flicked to the plate in front of him. He had eaten every bite.
The very sight of her own plate with toast and hog's pudding sent her stomach reeling. She could not even sit in front of it. Instead she remained standing, even though he indicated for her to sit in front of untouched plate full of food.
When she didn’t move, a sly smile lifted one corner of his very agreeable mouth. “Allow me to guess. Could Mrs. Bexley be feeling poorly today?”
“Your amusement does not amuse me, Mr. Steffington, for it comes at my cost.”
“Forgive me, but you were so. . .so delightful last night.”
Her eyes narrowed. “In what way?”
"Have no fear that you've done anything less than expected of a lady."
That was a relief. "So, in what way was I delightful?" Uh, oh. She vaguely recalled placing her head against his chest. Oh, dear. Crimson hiked into her cheeks.
He shrugged. "Allow me to say that you behaved as if we were very old friends."
She certainly hoped he meantfriendand notdoxy. "I feel as if we are old friends." Truly, he'd been more loyal to her than any man she'd ever known. Even Mr. Bexley.
She frowned. Especially Mr. Bexley.
"If you're not going to eat, we need to carry on."
* * *
Because the sun had not risen high in the sky when they first started their journey, it was cool enough to have Catherine stuffing her gloved hands within her muff—after throwing a rug across her lap. As skies brightened, she was able to throw off the rug.
A pity she couldn't get rid of her headache that easily. "I thought you said your valet's elixir of tisane always brought relief to your brother."
His brows lowered. "It's not helping you?"
"Oh, it's helped lessen the intensity of the pain."
"I'm terribly sorry. It's my fault for continuing to fill your glass."
"You didn't pour it down my throat. I really should have known better. It’s just that I have not had a single drop of wine in these past fourteen months. It didn't seem right while I was in mourning."
"That would explain why after so small amount, you . . . experienced the effects of the spirits."
"I know you're trying to be the perfect gentlemen by reassuring me, but I would prefer to speak of my embarrassment no more."
"As you wish. What would you like to speak of?"
"Our quest. When shall we arrive at Lord Seacrest's?"
"I hope to be there by three this afternoon."
"If you read the map correctly." She flashed a smile. "You did account for hills, dales, and mountains this time?"
He tried to look angry, but he was unable to suppress his smile. "Allow me to make a proposal. I won’t speak any more about your . . . wine binge if you won’t speak about my mapping mishaps."
"Wine binge?" she shrieked.
He started laughing, and she was powerless not to join him. She loved to laugh. Always had. It had been a great disappointment that Mr. Bexley had neither a sense of humor nor was he clever enough to know when she was teasing.
In spite of her dull headache, she was nearly swamped with a feeling of well-being. Mr. Steffington was so very good for her. Perhaps, though, her happiness was connected to the emerging sun. Sunshine always had that effect upon her.
What a pretty site all those red and gold autumn leaves made as they scattered beneath the blue skies. Even the stark branches of the beech and oak were lovely to behold on this cheerful day.
If only the motion of the carriage did not disturb the contents of her stomach. If only her head did not throb.
"I think when we arrive at Granfield Manor, you ought to stay in the coach. That is," he said, eying her muff. "If the weather doesn't turn too cool. We are going north."
"So it is expected to be cooler."
"I don’t wish to stay in the carriage." She folded her arms across her chest.
"Then what is it you would like, madam?"
"I want to be your wife."
What the devil!She wants to marry me?Their gazes locked and held. For that one moment, he fancied that she really did wish to marry him. But as quickly as she had uttered the words, he realized she didn’t want to be his wife but wanted to be his fake wife for an afternoon.
For some odd reason, the truth deflated him. Not, of course, that he wished to be married. He had no desire to be shackled for life to some empty-headed female. It was just that. . . well, the notion of a lovely thing like Mrs. Bexley being attracted to him couldn't help but please any man.
Good lord, that was the sort of reasoning that ruled his twin—not the serious, pragmatic brother. He had best push away such destructive thoughts.
He met her gaze squarely and shook his head. "No, no, that won’t do."
She gave him that pout she had so successfully employed in the past to get exactly what she wanted from him. "Give me one good reason why it won't."
"Your good name. There's one good reason."
"Lord Seacrest need never find out my true identity."
"You couldn't possibly know such a thing."
She eyed him with a smug look that accentuated the dimple in her cheek. "But there is theprobabilitythat he will never learn who I am. Are you not a believer in mathematical probabilities, Mr. Steffington? Are you not given to looking at life in terms of mathematics?"
He was, so much so that he had once seriously considered being a mathematician. Before he realized he loved books more. How was it this woman knew him so well? It was deuced awkward having a woman getting so close. He cleared his throat. "You know I am."
"Then there you have it!"
"No, I don't. Why can't you just stay in the coach and let me do what you came to me to do in the first place?"
"I have a very good reason for not wanting to stay in the carriage. Unless Lord Seacrest has the Chaucer on display under glass as did my late husband and his father before him, determining if Lord Seacrest has the Chaucer might take a concentrated bit of deduction. It could be hours. It's not like you can just waltz in there and demand to see the Chaucer. You must go about searching for it in a polite manner. Have him think you're looking for something else."
"I had hoped to play to his vanity and make it appear I have come to see one of the finest libraries in the kingdom."
"Oh yes, I am certain he'd like that. Man doesn't collect not to share."
"Dr. Mather said the very same thing." And Mather was one of the most intelligent men he'd ever known. He cleared his throat. What was there about this woman that had him prefacing so many remarks with a rumpled cough? "And what if we discover the Chaucer in his possession? Then will you reveal your true identity?"
She puckered her lips in thought. "That's a very good question." She sighed. "I shall have to cross that bridge when I come to it, but if I must claim it, then I'm ever so happy to have a strapping man like you with me."
Strapping man? No one had ever referred to him in that way before. Elvin had likely been referred to in such a manner. And he supposed they did look exactly the same to most people. Hewaseven the tallest twin by an inch.
Suddenly, he grew suspicious of her comment regarding his size. Why should his size matter? Did the lady want him to seize the book and fight off the peer's servants as he and Mrs. Bexley made a getaway? He could see he was going to have discuss this further with the woman.
But first, he needed to address what she'd said just prior to thestrappingpraise part. "Now see here, you can't just sayI'll cross that bridge when I come to it. The key to any successful mission is a well-thought-out plan." Now he folded his arms across his chest. "I refuse to step one foot inside of Granfield Manor without a plan."
"There are some things in life for which one cannot plan."
One minute ago he was a strapping man whose company she desired, and now she spoke icily as if she must wish him to Coventry.
"I always have a plan."
She glared. "It's impossible to be prepared for every contingency. I like to get the lay of the land before I decide upon a course of action."
"Then it is very good thing you are not leading men into battle because you could lead your troops to slaughter."
Her eyes narrowed. "You are accusing me of gross incompetence."
"Do you know how ridiculous you sound? You're not a general, Mrs. Bexley."
She started to giggle. Her laughing increased. She laughed so hard, rivulets streamed from her lovely eyes.
Once again, her laughter was contagious. Why was it she made him laugh so easily? No one had ever had such an effect upon him.
After a considerable period of time, she wiped away the last of her tears and faced him. "It really is too funny imagining me as a general! You do say the silliest things." She drew a breath. "But to return to our discussion, can we not reach some sort of compromise? Partial plan, partial improvisation?"
"Would you care to elaborate?"
"All right. Let's say that as soon as you enter his library, you see the Chaucer prominently displayed. Let's form a plan on how we would handle it. On, the other hand, if it's not readily discernible at first, we form a plan on how to discover it."
He nodded. "Exactly what I'd like to do."
"Good. So plan away, Mr. Telford."
Very good. How many women would know the name of England's greatest engineer? "First," he said with a nod, "what should we do if the manuscript is on display? Will you wish to immediately reveal your identity and claim it? I did some investigation of my own which substantiates what you had learned about the rightful ownership of stolen goods."
"Legally, it is mine, is it not?"
"Then I think I would—under those circumstances—reveal my identity and claim it."
"If that's what you wish, I will back you up."
"But—owing to the fact you want to plan for every contingency—what should you wish to do if he summons big, burly footmen to take it away from you after you've taken it away from him?"
"I would bloody well get out of there."Oh oh. He wasn't supposed to say bloody in front of a lady. His mother was forever chastising the twins for using such language in front of their sisters. "I beg your pardon for my choice of words."
"I assure you, my husband often said much worse, and he never asked for forgiveness."
What a beast the fellow must have been. Why would she continue to refer to such a man asmy dear Mr. Bexley?
"Since you wish to make a thorough plan," she continued, "how many burly footman would it take to have you racing from the house? Two? Three? Five?"
"I should have to see them."
"Ah ha! See, some things just cannot be calculated ahead of time."
Now it was his turn to glare. "You have made your point, madam."
She held her head high, a smug smile crossing her face. "Now, let us discuss how we react if the Chaucer is not readily visible."
"I thought I would say that it is my desire to see the rare editions that are in his possession and for which he is so noted."
"Playing to his great vanity, again," she said with a nod. "Very good."
"Surely if he had the Chaucer, he would reveal it at that time. As you said, one does not collect who does not wish to display."
"And so, if he then reveals it, we go back to the initial plan, declare ownership, claim it, and leave—unless you find the size of the footmen giving chase too terrifying." She gave a little giggle.
"Now see here! I never said I would be terrified." He sat rather straighter and expanded his chest in an attempt to appear as manly as possible. "In fact, I daresay if I ever thought you in peril, I could defend you most adequately."
"Would you really, Airy?" Her voice had gone all youthful again.
"You must guard your good name, Mrs. Bexley. It is improper for you to address me by my first name."
"Oh, but I didn't really address you by your first name. 'Tis just a little name I choose to call you when it is just the two of us."
"You will give me your word not to use it in the presence of others?"
She nodded sheepishly.
At that point he realized he had actually consented to allow the woman to address him by that ridiculous name. A name he disliked. A derivative of Aristotle. He was mad at himself for not holding his ground better with her.
He pulled open the carriage curtains at peered at the hilly Warwickshire countryside. Already the sun was waning. Their timing could certainly have been better. If they tarried for long at Granfield Manor, it would be dark when they left. Having their coachman traveling strange roads at dark could be problematic. And what if there were no posting inns? This was a most aggravating situation. He certainly had not planned very well.
"As much as we are racing against the clock—and Coutts Bank," he said, "perhaps we should find a posting inn for the night and show up fresh in the morning at Granfield Manor."
She gave him a somber look. "I understand your concerns, but I think we won’t be long at Granfield. Shouldn't we be there shortly?"
"According to my calculations, we should be there in the next half hour."
"Pray, Mr. Steffington, don't worry about getting stranded at night. If anyone should worry, it should be me—the world's biggest coward—and I know we'll be safe tonight."
"How, madam, can you possibly know such?"
"Women' intuition," she said without a second's hesitation.
He frowned. "That's just like something a woman would say. There is no logical foundation whatsoever for what you've just said."
"Are you saying that women are stupid?"
He thought what she said was very stupid, but only a fool would tell her that. "Of course not. You know who Thomas Telford is. You are not stupid, madam."
"But I'm illogical?"
"Well, actually, yes!"
She turned to peer from her window, presenting him the back of her head. For the first time he noticed that her hair did not look quite the thing. In fact, it rather looked as if she hadn't brushed it this morning.
"I refuse to speak to you, Mr. Steffington, until I must when we reach Granfield Manor."
"As you like it, madam."
* * *
By the time their coach reached the gatehouse to Granfield Manor, the sun was slipping behind the distant hills, casting a deep shadow over the wheat-colored parkland that spread out before the Elizabethan structure that had to be Granfield.
While not as large or as magnificent as Burleigh House, Granfield was a grand old house anchored on either side with stately ogee-topped towers. As they drew closer, she realized it was built in the old courtyard style of architecture.
Their coachman pulled into the courtyard and drove to the large, timbered front door. A footman came and opened their door.
Melvin cleared his throat, then spoke in a most strident voice. "Dr. and Mrs. Melvin Steffington to see Lord Seacrest's library."
"He is expecting ye, sir?"
Melvin shrugged. "I'm not sure. A letter was dispatched to him earlier in the week."
"If you will just come into the morning room, Dr. Steffington," the footman said, "I shall tell 'is lordship ye are here."
In the morning room they each sat in one of the two large velvet-covered chairs that faced the fire. The chairs' wooden arms gave a bit of a throne effect. Despite the fire, the room was bloody cold with its icy stone floors and a cool draft whistling around the closed, Gothic looking windows.
Melvin noted that Mrs. Bexley's hands were trembling. Perhaps she should not have left off her muff. Even though it was not yet four o'clock, night was falling fast. The farther north they went, the earlier night came this time of the year.
Presently, a man he assumed was Lord Seacrest emerged from a doorway at the opposite end of the long corridor, a smile on his face. Though Melvin had expected the peer to be a stooping white-haired man, he was anything but. He was only slightly older than Melvin and was in possession of a thick head of light brown hair. He dressed well. Melvin was sure Elvin would approve of his wardrobe choices.
Melvin and Mrs. Bexley stood as he approached.
"Dr. Steffington! Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Seacrest. I received your most welcome letter just this morning. I must say, I hadn’t expected you so soon."
His attention then turned to Mrs. Bexley.
Melvin cleared his throat. "Allow me to introduce my, er, wife to you, my lord."
Lord Seacrest effected a bow. "Very good to meet you, madam. Won't you both come to my library?"
"It will be our pleasure," she said, slipping her arm through the crook in Melvin's arm.
Seacrest's gaze swung from her to Melvin. "Do you know, Dr. Steffington, I had already heard of you?"
"Is that so?" Melvin was shocked.
"Yes, when Dr. Mather was here during the summer, he said if I ever lost the services of my man of letters, he would highly recommend you."
"He actually named me?"
"He did, indeed." Lord Seacrest opened the door to the library. "This is, as you surely know, my obsession."
"Ah, we speak the same language," Melvin said as he moved into the chamber and stopped, his gaze slowly taking in as much as he could of the room. Nothing about it looked Elizabethan. Vastly different from other libraries Melvin had toured, it was a huge, square room. Scarlet draperies had been pushed away from the three casements which provided a view of Seacrest's park. It would have been even more stunning at mid-day when the sun sparkled over what Melvin suspected was River Avon.
All four walls of the library were lined with beautifully bound leather books. Thousands of them. At the far end of the chamber, a fire blazed in the huge marble chimneypiece, where a half a dozen throne-like chairs formed a cozy semi-circle facing it. Some half a dozen other intimate seating areas scattered across the chamber's huge red Turkey rug.
Melvin moved to the nearest section of the library and began to read titles, some of which he unconsciously translated from the Latin or Greek to English: Homer, Aristotle, Euripides, Plutarch, and many other ancients.
So mesmerized was he examining the library, so happy was he to be viewing this wondrous collection, he almost forgot his reason for coming. He abruptly quit looking at titles and ran his eye around the chamber once more, this time seeking a prominent display worthy of something as significant as the Chaucer.
On the wall to his left, he spied a glass enclosed bookcase and began to stroll toward it. As he came closer, he noticed it was locked. Very good. Whatever was in there was indeed valuable.
"What have you here, my lord?"
Lord Seacrest shadowed him. "That, Dr. Steffington, features the choicestjewelsof my collection." He extracted a key from a small pocket in his yellow silken waistcoat and inserted it into the lock of the glass-doored case.
At closer inspection, Melvin realized this was no common glass but appeared to be extraordinarily thick.
"Your Shakespeare folios?" Melvin asked, disappointed as he came closer and saw the quarto books with which he was so familiar. There was nothing else there, save more than a dozen of these exceedingly valuable two-hundred-year-old books.
"Indeed." It was impossible for Lord Seacrest to tamp down his surging pride in his voice.
"Why, you must have the most extensive collection of these in the entire kingdom," Mrs. Bexley exclaimed.
Oh, she was good at playing to men's vanity.
Melvin should know. As did Elvin. And Longmouth.
Seacrest shrugged. "That is my goal, Mrs. Steffington, but alas, Lord Spencer's collection is far better than my own."
"Lord Spencer is much older than you," she said, smiling up at the earl. "It's taken him decades to achieve what he's got. And look at how young you are! To think you've done all of this in so short a time."
Oh, she was good! Melvin glared at the flirt in action.
The earl was doing anything but glaring. Were he bird, he would be a peacock at this moment, preening under her praise as he cast admiring glances at her.
The peer spent the next half hour gloating over his folios, insisting that his visitors don gloves and examine them, and talked to them rather as if they were uneducated baboons. Melvin decided he did not like Lord Seacrest. Especially since the man addressed nine comments out of ten to Mrs. Bexley and swept his approving gaze from her face then slowly down the length of her torso, pausing appreciatively at her breasts.
Melvin decided that her dress was much too low cut in front. It was a wonder he hadn't noticed it that day as they rode together in the carriage all those hours. Why did she not pull together her cape about her throat? She was apt to take lung fever from being so inadequately dressed.
It was difficult for Melvin to get excited over these Shakespeare folios, given that he was well acquainted with others like them. They were not all that rare. Nothing like an illustrated Chaucer manuscript. Getting his hands on that—even if he'd never met and agreed to help its female owner—would send Melvin's pulses surging with excitement.
Once the last folio was restored to its special place on the glass shelf, Melvin said, "I assume these are your most rare books?"
"I believe so." Lord Seacrest turned to Melvin (finally realizing her husband had accompanied the lovely lady with whom he was so enchanted). "Though I am in possession of a Bible, the origin of which your Dr. Mather was unable to assist me in establishing. Pray, come here and let me show it to you. Perhaps you shall be better able to date it for me."
Melvin followed the home's owner, his gaze flicking to the tall windows. Uh, oh. It was already pitch dark outside with nary a moon to offer brightness.
Lord Seacrest unlocked a small, built-in cabinet made of walnut and withdrew a fat Bible, then placed it in Melvin's still-gloved hands. "Feel free to flip through it and tell me what you think."
The worn leather binding gave no clue as to its age because often books falling into disrepair were rebound in such a manner. Not having original binding, of course, decreased the value of items like this.
His eyes narrowed as he carefully opened the book and started to read at around the thirty percent mark. It took no more than a page for him to pinpoint the date. He looked up at Lord Seacrest. "I'm surprised Dr. Mather was unable to date this."
"He said that books covered in this manner weren't very old."
"He must not have gotten much farther than the cover, and I will own that having a contemporary-style cover does devalue the book, but one has only to read a few pages of the old English to date it." He handed it back to Lord Seacrest. "Congratulations. Your Bible predates your Shakespeare."
A smile flashed across their host's face. "Then I am very happy you have paid me a visit today. Now I wish to repay you with dinner. I know I may sound boastful, but my chef is one of the finest in England. He's French and was formerly chef to the Prince Regent in Brighton." No doubt, Seacrest was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted. His pockets were undoubtedly deep enough.
"We really can't," Melvin said.
At the same time, Mrs. Bexley said, "We should love to!"
Melvin bowed to her. "A wise husband defers to his wife." He was grateful for the opportunity to remind Seacrest that Mrs. Bexley was married to him. Sort of.
Over the three-hour dinner, Melvin kept looking at his pocket watch. Another day was almost gone, and they hadn't gotten any closer to finding the Chaucer than they were on the first day.
He was concerned, too, about traveling these strange roads so late at night, particularly because of his wife's fear of highwaymen. Well, not exactly his wife, but the earl needn't know that.
To his consternation, he learned there was no posting inn near Granfield Manor. "You'll have to travel all the way to Redditch to find one," their host said.
"And how far is Redditch?" Melvin asked.
They were no longer on flat land. Those twenty-five miles could take many hours to traverse.
"Do not worry, Dr. Steffington. I've had a room freshened for you and Mrs. Steffington to stay the night."
Mr. Steffington closed the bedchamber door behind him. "Now see what you've gotten us into? We should have left when he invited us to dinner. Why did you accept?'
"Because I was starving! Recall that I hadn't eaten all day." She had been ever so unwell that morning that even the sight of food was enough to have her casting up her accounts.
He frowned. "And now we're stuck in this room together. Why could you not have been my sister as we were at the Duke's Arms last night?"
"But you are mistaken, Airy. I wasn't actually your sister at Duke's Arms."
"You know what I mean." He gave her an I'd-like-to-gag-your-mouth-with-a-used-handkerchief look.
She attempted to out stare him.
Mumbling something incoherent beneath his breath, he looked away, his gaze fanning over the unexpectedly plush room. Broadloom carpet in pale gold covered the floor. A fire blazed in the Carerra marble fireplace over which a gilt mirror hung. The chamber's two tall windows were draped with gold silk. Her gaze then followed his to the bed, where more silken draperies hung from the big four-poster.
"Of course, I shall sleep on the floor," he said.
"Of course." She shrugged. "It does look softer than most floors. And I shall insist you take the counterpane to fold into a little mattress."
"Will you be warm enough without it?"
"Oh, yes. I shall have the bed curtains closed to hold in the warmth."
"I suppose they shall also give you privacy."
"True. I shouldn't like you to see me sleeping. I mean, what if my mouth gapes open like a moron—meaning no disparagement to those poor afflicted souls."
"I cannot imagine you ever looking anything but ladylike."
"Oh, Airy, that is so kind of you." That he was incapable of staying angry with her, endeared him to her. The girl who would one day capture his heart would be very fortunate. Very fortunate, indeed.
As she directed a smile at him, his lashes lowered. She was certain his compliment now embarrassed him. He was not the smooth-talking, bed hopper she'd wager his twin brother was. She rather pitied the girl who marriedthattwin. Reflecting over her own smooth-talking, bed-hopping late husband, she was now happy that he'd been possessed of those traits. Otherwise, his demise would have been too, too painful.
She sighed. Yes, the girl who married Mr. Steffington would be most fortunate.
"You must allow me to make your bed," she said. "I am ever so experienced. Whenever my little nephews visit me in Bath, I make them a pallet on the floor of my bedchamber." She set about to remove the quilt from the bed, fold it lengthwise, and place it on the floor beside her own bed, just as she had done with her nephews.
Then her gaze traveled over him from head to toe. "I fear you may be too tall."
"My feet won't mind hanging off."
She started to giggle.
He cracked a smile. "Allow me to guess. You are now imagining my feet talking."
Still giggling, she nodded.
"You are possessed of the silliest sense of humor." He eyed the pallet. "Perhaps you shouldn’t put it so close to your bed. What if I snore?"
"I am accustomed to men snoring." Her hand clapped around her mouth. "I didn’t mean to imply I've slept with multiple men. Only one, actually."
His dark eyes flashed with mirth.
And they both laughed.
He went to the pallet and moved it from its position parallel to her bed and placed it in front of the fire, parallel to the footboard of her bed.
"I'm not a bit sleepy." She eyed the room's little floral loveseat. "Should you like to talk for a bit? I promise I'm not inebriated tonight." She moved to the love seat, sat on it, and patted the cushion beside hers. "Please, sit beside me."
"I never said you were inebriated."
"Because you're too nice."
After he sat, she said, "Are you satisfied that the Chaucer is not in Lord Seacrest's possession?"
"I am. A man as proud of his library as he would not hide its crowning jewel."
"I suppose you are right, but did you not have the urge to look behind the library's various doors to see what was concealed?"
"I always wish to look behind the doors to see what treasures are to be found in libraries, but something as magnificent as a one-of-a-kind, illustratedCanterbury Taleswould be proudly and prominently displayed."
"But what if Lord Seacrest knows it was stolen? He may even be the one who stole it. Or had someone steal it for him."
"While I did not exactly warm to the man, I don’t think he would be capable of criminal theft."
"Why did you not warm to him? I thought he was charming."
Mr. Steffington frowned. "You would. He shamelessly flirted with a married woman!"
"Well. . .I'm not actually a married woman."
"He doesn't know that!"
Mr. Steffington's deep sense of morality touched her. She gave him a puzzled look. "I hadn't noticed Lord Seacrest flirting. He was merely being friendly."
"Only to you. He was jealous of me."
"Why would he be jealous of you?"
"Because I had the good fortune to marry you." He shrugged. "At least, that's what the man thinks."
"Oh, Airy, that is so sweet that you think being married to me is a good thing."
"I didn't say that."
He stiffened and slid in the opposite direction from her. It was obvious he did not want any part of their bodies touching. He was such a proper gentleman.
"Allow me to change the subject," she said. "What did you think of his library?"
"I thought it an ostentatious display of wealth."
"But was it a good library?"
"It was a good library."
"But I thought he was more concerned about the bindings on theoutsideof the books than the contentsinside."
"You must own, it was a very attractive library."
"I prefer ones with upper galleries."
"Now see, you too are concerned with aesthetics."
"I'm notconcernedwith aesthetics, but since you asked my opinion, I voiced it."
"What criteria do you use to judge if a library is good or not?"
"I look at the collections, and I must say Seacrest's collections are good, and they cross all the important time periods in philosophical thought."
"You will lose me if you go into philosophical thought. I did note that there was a section in the library dedicated to poetry—which I adore."
"Yes, he even had good translations of Virgil—including one of mine, though he didn't remember my name in that context. I get the feeling his librarian handles his acquisitions."
She was astonished. "I did not know you translated Virgil! I must have a copy."
"It will be my pleasure to present you with one. The ones I own are not bound in fine leather like Seacrest's."
"I don't care. I shall treasure it. I am so honored. I have never before shared a room with one who wrote books, and now I'm actually sharing a bedchamber with one! This is so exciting."
"Pray, Mrs. Bexley, don't tell anyone you and I have shared a bedchamber."
She nodded. He was so noble to be so concerned over her good name. "But you told me you didn't like poetry when you obviously like Virgil's."
"I do read poetry, but then I read everything. Except Byron. I never had any interest in reading about so hedonistic a central character."
"I do believe you're a prude. You judge Lord Byron's poetry by the man's low moral principles."
"I am not a prude." He glared.
She thought of the company he and his brothers kept in Bath and decided perhaps he was not a prude. Felicity's brother, Lord Sedgewick—before becoming a family man—had been quite the rake. In fact, the whole lot of them had led the life of privileged bloods. They gambled, went to race meetings, and frequented Mrs. Baddele's House with great regularity. Everybody knew.
Her entire demeanor brightened. "I have an idea."
"When you get that look in your eye it disturbs me."
He was getting to know her entirely too well. "What look?"
"The look that says I'm not going to like your idea."
He was likely right. "After the house quiets and everyone is asleep, we can stealthily make our way downstairs and look behind all those locked doors in Lord Seacrest's library."
"That is a ridiculous idea."
"Because it's a good way to get shot."
"Why would Lord Seacrest shoot us? You said yourself he fancied me."
"Then he'd have a good reason for killing me!"
Her brows lowered. "I shouldn't like that."
"I appreciate that." He looked at her with skepticism. "You realize, don't you, that a man who invests so heavily in his library is not likely to leave it unguarded?"
"Perhaps not. Remember, I had the most valuable book in all of England, and I did not have it guarded. I'm not even sure if our doors were ever properly locked."
He inclined his head. "I rest my case."
"So you think it's my fault the Chaucer was stolen?"
"Actually, I do. If it had been in my possession, the library would have been locked at all times, and the house would never be left unguarded."
Of course he was right, but she didn't like him acting like a scolding father. Her gaze narrowed, then swung away from him as she glared angrily at the flickering fire. "I happen to be a trusting person. I like to think the best of my fellow man. It never occurred to me that someone would steal the Chaucer from my home."
"I would be shocked if Seacrest were a trusting person. I noted the special locks he'd had installed on the windows."
"So you're saying you're not interested in a late-night excursion to the Seacrest library?"
"Under no circumstances would I do something so unethical. It's bad enough that I've already lied about my relationship with you."
Very well. She would wait until all of them—including Airy—went to sleep, then she would go herself.
She feigned a yawn. "I suppose I am rather tired."
His glance flicked to her valise, then to his beside it. He cleared his throat. She was coming to learn that he cleared his throat every time he was about to say something that he thought might be construed as too intimate. "Would you like me to leave the room whilst you dress for bed?" He was unable to meet her gaze.
"You don't have to leave the room."
His gaze absently lowered to her bodice, then whipped away. "Then I vow to turn my back and close and my eyes whilst you . . . ah, remove your. . . well, you know."
"You don't have to close your eyes."
Those dark eyes of his rounded. "Oh, but I must. You're a lady, and I'm a gentleman."
She stood. "That won't be necessary. I'll pull the curtains around my bed and then disrobe."
"Capital idea!" He looked exceedingly relieved.
She went to her valise, removed her night shift, then crossed the room and climbed on top the big bed.
"Here," he said. "I'll close the bed curtains for you."
It was much easier for him because of his height. He closed the ones to the right, then the ones at the foot of the bed, then when he closed the ones on the left she was in total darkness.
She sat on that left side of the bed and listened to his footsteps move away. "Thank you, Airy. Good night, sleep tight- - -"
"And don't let the bedbugs bite," he finished.
"I doubt Lord Seacrest has to worry about bedbugs."
"You're likely right."
While she was removing her clothing, she unintentionally pictured Airy standing in front of the fire removing his shirt, the firelight glistening along the length of his bare torso. Her mouth went suddenly dry, and she fought the urge to peek through the curtain at him.
What a magnificent sight he must be. She found herself wondering if he slept nude but realized even if that were his custom, he would never do so in the same room with a lady of good birth. He was more noble of character than any man she had ever known. Except her father.
Once she had changed into her night shift and got beneath the covers she called out to him. "I'm decent now, but I find I don't like the dark. If you weren't in the chamber with me, I would be terrified."
"Should you like for me to crack open your bed curtains?"
"I, ah, shall need to restore my shirt first."
How she would love to see him without his shirt. "Don't bother. I'll close my eyes."
"Are you sure?"
He needn't know if she peeked. After all, it was quite dark within the cubicle of her bed. "Certainly!"
"Forgive me. I didn’t mean to imply. . ."
"Of course you wouldn’t."
He quietly moved across the carpet. "Where should you like the sliver of light?"
"The foot of the bed will do nicely, thank you." And would afford a glimpse of him.
Seconds later, a buttery vertical light striped the foot of her bed, and she stealthily watched as he moved back to his pallet with the powerful majesty of a panther. Firelight glanced from the tawny length of his long, lean—and wonderfully bare—torso.
Yes, she thought to herself, her breath a bit ragged, the girl who snared dear Mr. Steffington would indeed be fortunate.
One side of her face smashed against the pillow, she listened for the change of breathing that would tell her he'd gone to sleep.
He must have been very tired for less than five minutes after he laid on the pallet, he started softly snoring. How long should she wait to assure herself Lord Seacrest and his servants were soundly asleep?
She remembered Mama's lamentations that women's cares settled on them in bed each night, but that men fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow. That had certainly been the case with the late Mr. Bexley.
She forced herself to wait a considerable period of time before she crept from her bed, took an unlighted candle from the side of her bed, and tiptoed to the door where she unlatched the lock and quietly opened the door. It squeaked; she stiffened and turned toward Airy's pallet. He still slept soundly.
Easing the door closed behind her, she stood still in the darkened second-story corridor and listened. The house was eerily quiet. Her heartbeat accelerated. Her fingers coiled around the wax candle as if it were her lifeline. After a few moments, she stole to the stairway and stood statue still for several minutes, listening for any noise.
There was none.
Her pulses pounded as she began to descend the stairs, her bare feet as quiet as a cat's soft paws. By the time she reached the ground floor, she was relatively confident she was home free. Still, she moved slowly and with quiet movements.
Before the library's closed door, she paused and—remembering the late nights when Mr. Bexley had stayed in his library—listened. She heard nothing. But what kind of sounds could she expect to hear if a lone man were reading there? The very thought of strolling into his lordship's library in her night shift caused her no end of mortification.
Several minutes passed before she took a deep breath and opened the door. When she saw that no one was there, she let out a huge sigh and strolled into the chamber. To her relief, the fire had not gone out and still faintly illuminated the room. She went to the fire and stuck her unlighted candle into the flame until it lit.
Then she set about opening every closed cupboard or door within Lord Seacrest's prized library. The first cabinet was much deeper than she'd expected and contained tall stacks of various newspapers but mostly copies of theEdinburgh Review.
She moved on, opening each door along the west side of the chamber, then moved to the right and started examining each of the closed cupboards there.
The library door swung open so violently, it slammed against a wall.
Her gaze arrowed to the doorway. There stood Lord Seacrest. Even from the distance of twenty-five feet, she could see the anger singe his face. "May I help you, Mrs. Steffington? Or is that your real name?"