Authors: Miranda Neville
Tags: #English Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance - Historical, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romance: Historical, #English Historical Fiction, #Historical, #Romance & Sagas, #General, #Fiction - Romance
The second pint might have been a mistake.
It was the most beautiful illuminated manuscript ever created. At…
“Chase!” Arthur Nutley’s tone was deep with disapproval. “My dear Juliana,…
Juliana was headed for a red morocco binding behind the…
It should have been the footman’s job, but Chase wasn’t…
Lord Chase offered to take Juliana home. Since it was…
During eight years in London, three of them as a…
On a chilly and damp March night the red chariot…
Cain loved morning sex.
Juliana would have slammed the door in Cain’s face when…
Cain returned to Berkeley Square some time after noon in…
“You smell of wine, John.”
“Good afternoon, Juliana.”
“Why can’t I have a purple dress?” Esther’s eyes followed…
Cain had given up everything that made life worth living.
The auction viewing room was crowded with men looking over…
His final argument persuaded Juliana. “I need a place for…
The following afternoon Cain visited the village of Fernley. Since…
Cain’s head rested on her bosom when Juliana returned to…
“If Cassandra was married, my grandfather didn’t know it.” Juliana…
Juliana sat in the vestry awaiting Cain’s return. Mr. Howard had…
The black chariot with its red appointments had become home…
This sudden boldness on Juliana’s part fascinated Cain. Not that…
Juliana couldn’t sleep.
Cain was unhappy to leave Juliana in St. Martin’s Lane. Not alone,…
At nine o’clock the next morning Juliana asked Tom to…
Cain had forgotten what a beautiful house it was.
Juliana arrived early at the sale room. Knowing the last…
Cain found himself the hero of the hour. He suffered…
After many hours of dealing with constables, magistrates, coroners, and…
Although eleven o’clock had long passed, Lord Chase found his…
he second pint might have been a mistake.
Joseph Merton considered the stairs, which swayed a little. Yet it wasn’t every day a man discovered a fortune and the occasion demanded a celebration. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife.
A good woman, his wife. He’d thought himself lucky to get her. A humble bookseller’s assistant wouldn’t normally aspire to a pretty girl with a fine education and a knowledge of his trade. And then there had been the matter of her one thousand pounds. Enough to set him up in London. Certainly he had never expected any more.
Over dinner in the noisy tavern he raised a silent toast to Juliana, with a fondness undiluted by consideration of her more annoying traits. Her tendency to develop contrary opinions was forgotten in the prospect of a greater fortune coming his way.
Not even three flights of stairs could disturb his good mood, though he might have taken a more ex
pensive room on a lower floor had he known what he’d learn today.
Such indulgence would be hasty, he reminded himself. He still needed to lay his hands on the proof. He trusted the old woman was right when she said the vital document would be found among her books. That he wouldn’t be transporting several hampers of worthless volumes to London for nothing.
He stumbled on the top step, almost fell into the narrow passage, and crashed against a door, fortunately that of his own room. To his surprise it opened. The books he’d left in neat piles were strewn about the room. He had a visitor.
Joseph knew the man by sight and he knew what he wanted. Cheerful tipsiness faded to chill sobriety.
“Where is it?” the man asked.
Though not physically strong, Joseph was no coward and he tried to fight for his life. He never had a chance. His assailant wielded his knife with ungentlemanlike efficiency.
As his life drained away, Joseph’s last thought was for Juliana. He hoped she would be able to manage without him. And wondered if she’d ever learn why he died.
The Library of the late Sir Thomas Tarleton of Wiltshire, to be sold by order of the Trustees beginning 24 March 1819, at eleven o’clock, by Mr. Sotheby, Auctioneer, Waterloo Bridge Street, Strand.
t was the most beautiful illuminated manuscript ever created. At least that’s what Mr. Sotheby’s catalogue said. The catalogue also opined that the Burgundy Book of Hours was the most precious object in Sir Thomas Tarleton’s vast and storied collection.
The Marquis of Chase found this surprising. He had no argument with the aesthetical judgment, but he was under the impression the manuscript belonged to him.
Cain recalled the last and only time he’d seen it, the family’s greatest treasure and, in his father’s eyes, its greatest shame. Back then, before he knew better, Cain had regarded the late marquis with a mixture of respect and awe. He’d felt nothing but pride when summoned to the locked muniment room to learn the family secret. Eleven years old
and unusually innocent, even for his age, Cain had been enthralled by the beauty of the illustrations, so much at odds with the austerity of Markley Chase Abbey under his father’s puritanical rule.
The ladies wore elaborate winged headdresses adorned with gauzy veils that fluttered in the wind and against the shoulders of flowing gowns in glowing green and lapis blue. Even within the constraints of the vellum pages, no larger than a foot tall, the artist managed to convey the textures of the gowns, tempting the viewer to touch, to stroke the costly figured cloth trimmed with rich fur. Cain had been admonished to keep his hands behind his back.
Thumbs caught in the pockets of his waistcoat, the former callow schoolboy and present marquis tipped back in his chair at Sotheby’s auction rooms. He stared at the open book from the perspective of an extra dozen or so years, and what felt like a weary century of experience. The volume was a book of hours, a devotional work. The sentiments it aroused in the adult Cain were far from religious. He surveyed the women’s bodies revealed by the painted fabrics: small high breasts and swelling bellies.
A combination not often found in nature, he mused, except among the slightly pregnant. It must represent the ideal of feminine loveliness in early fifteenth-century France. Fashion was interesting that way. To look at the portraits from Restoration England, for example, one would think every lady of that era suffered from protruding eyes. Nowadays, Sir Thomas Lawrence, society painter par excellence, portrayed
haughty, elegant beauties with eyes that would freeze the bollocks off any man who tried to bed them.
Fortunately fashion lied. Cain knew firsthand that several of Lawrence’s subjects were far from cold. Though the ladies of the
might eschew his presence in their drawing rooms, some of their number were more than willing to welcome a marquis, however disreputable, into the bedchamber. Lady or actress, wife or whore, they were all women beneath their garments. And Cain knew the truth that eluded many men. That what made a woman beddable had little to do with the particulars of her appearance and everything to do with what went on in her head.
Les Très Jolies Heures
.” A courtly voice interrupted his thoughts. Late in the day, he’d had the dusty book room almost to himself, save for a house porter waiting patiently for him to finish perusing the Limbourg Brothers’ last masterpiece, created for a Duke of Burgundy. He righted the chair and stood to greet Lord Hugo Hartley with a curt bow.
“Beautiful, Chase, isn’t it?” Lord Hugo was not numbered among Cain’s intimates who used his nickname. Few members of the
were. And very few had held an unchallenged position among the elite longer than this octogenarian son of a duke. Cain was surprised Hartley even acknowledged his existence.
“Exquisite,” Cain agreed. “Are you interested?”
“Too rich for my purse,” said the elderly connoisseur, his voice tinged with regret. “The most important manuscript I’ve ever seen offered, and all the
more desirable since it disappeared three hundred years ago. How extraordinary that Tarleton owned it and no one knew.”
Lord Hugo had no idea how extraordinary.
“Where did he find it?” Cain asked carelessly.
“That’s what every collector in England would like to know.”
“I thought you knew everything.”
“The reports of my omniscience have been greatly exaggerated.” Lord Hugo’s face was as straight as his back but he regarded Cain with a glint of interest. “And you, Chase? I’m surprised to find you in this setting.”
“I just wandered in off the street.”
Which was true in a way. It would never have occurred to him to set foot in a book auctioneer’s premises had the handbill with the name of Tarleton not caught his eye.
“Are you looking for something to read, perhaps?”
Cain gestured at the manuscript that lay open on the table. “Lovely illustrations but the story lacks drama.” He thought for a moment, wondering if Lord Hugo might have any useful information. “Markley Chase Abbey boasts a famous collection of devotional works.”
“How appropriate for the family of the Saintly Marquis!” Maybe he imagined it, but Cain heard just a hint of derision in Lord Hugo’s mellow tone when he referred to Cain’s late lamented father, whom most regarded with an admiration bordering on reverence.
“Perhaps I’ll buy this one in memory of him.”
“I had no idea you possessed such filial piety.” Lord Hugo now made no effort to disguise his amusement, justified given the common knowledge that Cain’s father had thrown him out of the house at the age of sixteen.
“Just a whim,” Cain said. “Besides, the ladies are lovely, and that’s very much in my line. It amuses me to think of some French prince slavering over those pretty titties as he prayed.”
He spoke with deliberate vulgarity, his reflex when confronted by his social peers. Lord Hugo didn’t seem shocked. He looked down at Cain from his six-inch advantage in height, his posture proudly erect despite his years.
“For some reason,” he said, “I don’t believe you’re as completely worthless as you like to appear.”
Cain met the keenly observant eyes. “Of course I am,” he said flippantly. “Pray don’t dismiss my only accomplishment.”
He inwardly flinched at a fleeting expression that might have been pity. Hartley said nothing for a while, and when he spoke his voice was matter-of-fact.
“Do you know why Tarleton’s collection is to be sold?”
“I imagine it’s because he’s dead.”
“Tarleton suffered from the affliction known as bibliomania, the insatiable hunger for books. The disease, for which no physician has yet found a cure, depleted his estate, and that of many others I could list.”
“I think I can buy a volume or two with impunity.” Cain grinned. “I’m quite adept at avoiding disease.”
“If you intend to begin your book-collecting career
at the most eagerly awaited auction in years,” Lord Hugo continued sternly, “you’ll need advice.”
“Advice? Don’t I just turn up on the day and bid?”
“Wiser men than you have contracted auction fever and ended up ruined.” Lord Hugo’s tone suggested that he wouldn’t have to look far to find a wiser man than the marquis.
Instead of dismissing the comment with a laugh, his usual reaction to a hint of disapproval, Cain nodded. “I’d like to know more about the manuscript, and I find myself curious about this fellow Tarleton.” He glanced around at the thousands of books lined up on shelves, displayed in glass cases, or merely piled on tables. “He seems to have acquired quite a lot.”
“If ever a collector deserved to be described as omnivorous, it was Tarleton. His ability to track down rarities and persuade their owners to sell was legendary.”
“How could I learn more? And, of course, protect against catching a ruinous fever.”
“Engage a knowledgeable bookseller to consult and act for you.”
“Where would I find such a valuable fellow?”
“I’d recommend you call on J. C. Merton of St. Martin’s Lane. You’ll find all the knowledge you need there.”
Knowledge. That was exactly what Cain required, though not in the way Lord Hugo meant. He needed to know why Sir Thomas Tarleton had called on his father at Markley Chase Abbey shortly before Cain’s own exile from home.
Was that when Tarleton had acquired the Hours? And if so, how had he managed it? The thought of the Saintly Marquis parting with the book did not fit with what Cain knew of his father’s intense family pride. Did the disappearance of the Hours have anything to do with the deterioration of his father’s temper? Always a rigid and irascible man, his father had seemed very nearly unhinged in the weeks after Tarleton’s visit—weeks culminating in Cain’s expulsion from the family. Since then he’d barely spoken with his mother and hadn’t set eyes on his younger sister.
Restoring the Burgundy Hours to his family merely required money. By discovering why Tarleton owned it, Cain might win back his family, and his reputation.
Juliana Merton sat in the back room of her bookshop and counted out the coins for the third time. However often she did it, her conclusion remained the same. She wouldn’t have enough money to buy the Fitterbourne Shakespeares.
Books that should have been hers had ended up in the library of the loathsome Sir Thomas Tarleton. To prevent them being sold to other undeserving collectors, she needed to earn more in the next month than she’d managed in the entire year since Joseph’s death. Customers were scarce at J. C. Merton, Purveyor of Fine and Rare Books.
She reached for the Tarleton catalogue and leafed through it for the hundredth time, torturing herself
with contemplation of the rarities Tarleton had acquired by fair means or, more often, foul. Finally she could stand it no longer and drifted off into fantasy.
I intend to make substantial purchases at the Tarleton sale. I’d like you to represent me, Mrs. Merton. For the usual commission, of course.
I’d be honored, Lord Spencer
, Juliana replied.
You know my tastes very well. I shall gladly follow your counsel as to the condition and value of the books.
Why, Juliana, wondered, were conversations she imagined so much more satisfactory than any she enjoyed in real life? Sadly Lord Spencer, England’s premier book collector, was not in her shop and never had been. And no one had engaged her to act for him at the Tarleton sale.
With no more lucrative prospect in sight, she might as well tackle the long postponed task of cleaning the shop windows, untouched since she’d had to dismiss her servant. Closing the catalogue with a snap she stood up, knocking over the sad little pile of coins. Still clutching the volume, she chased a precious golden guinea as it fell to the floor and rolled out into the main room of the shop.
“Confound it,” she muttered. The coin wedged itself between a bookcase and the floor. She had to get down on her knees and use both hands to pry it loose. As luck would have it, she was almost prostrate when the door creaked open to admit her first customer of the day.
The first thing she learned about her visitor was that he possessed a fine pair of boots.
Then he offered a hand. Disconcerted, she accepted the help without thought. As she rose she had an immediate impression of youth and elegance. Not that all book buyers were old and unkempt. Bibliophilia gripped gentlemen of all stripes. But Juliana knew most of the serious book buyers in London by sight, and not one of them sported such effortless masculine grace.
The impression made by his figure withered when she met a pair of crystal blue eyes, scanning her from head to foot with alarming intensity. His scrutiny raised a flush in her pale skin and made her grateful for her high-necked black gown and close-fitting cap.
In the past, when alone in the shop, a man had occasionally made an amorous advance. So Juliana dressed herself in enveloping gowns of a particularly beastly cloth, which managed to be both shiny and ineffably drab. Add the sensible linen cap tied under the chin and covering every strand of hair, and the problem had disappeared. She resembled, she knew, a diminutive nun of more than common virtue, or a small black beetle. Her forbidding appearance was supposed to make book buyers see her as a well-informed bookseller and forget she wasn’t a man.
With this visitor it wasn’t working. His gaze told her he saw through her disguise and knew she was young, blond, and female. Lord, she wouldn’t be surprised if he saw through her garments. She’d never encountered a man who exuded such raw seductive potency.
With little knowledge of the species, she had no difficulty recognizing a member of it. This was a rake.
For no reason at all, she was a little breathless. She dropped her eyes and realized her hand was still in his. Even through a glove his grasp gave her a jolt. She almost snatched away her hand and stepped back a pace or two.
“Good afternoon.” His low-pitched voice made the ordinary greeting a caress.
Giving herself a moment to recover her composure, she stooped to retrieve the catalogue from the floor.
“Welcome to J.C. Merton,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“I don’t know. Can you?”
“Why don’t you tell me what you want and I’ll see what I can do?”
“How can I resist such an offer?”
His smile sent shivers through her. He was flirting with her, and she was alarmed by her instinct to reciprocate. She wasn’t sure she hadn’t already. He seemed to have found her last answer provocative.
“Are you looking for a book?” she asked, trying to sound stern.
“I’m looking for Mr. Merton. Is he available?”
“I’m the only one here,” she answered, her usual cautious response.
“Are you sure you don’t have someone hidden away in the back?”
“As I said, I’m the only one here.” Then, since discouraging an obviously prosperous customer was hardly in her interest, she indicated her shelves. “I’d be happy to help you find your way about the stock. Are you looking for something in particular?”
“I am looking for Mr. Merton. J. C. Merton,” he said with a twinkle of blue. “Are you J. C. Merton?”
“I am Mrs. Merton,” Juliana owned.
“Ah, but are you J. C. Merton?”
Usually Juliana managed to engage a new patron for a while before revealing herself as the owner of the shop. By that time a buyer might be impressed enough with her knowledge to forgive her sex. “Yes, I am J. C. Merton, the proprietor of this establishment,” she said with a ghost of a sigh.