EXCERPT: THE WILD MARQUIS
Juliana Merton sat in the back room of her book shop 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, blonde 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’d 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.
“Why on earth didn’t you say so at once?” demanded the stranger with a touch of exasperation. “I apologize for my obtuseness but I was expecting you to be a man.”
“They always do.”
“Do they?” he asked. “And what do ‘they’ do when they find out that J.C. Merton is a female.”
“Often they leave.”
“Very foolish of them. I am distressed. I have descended to the banality of ‘them’ and I try never to be commonplace. And now I think of it, Lord Hugo didn’t use a pronoun when he recommended I come here.”
“Lord Hugo Hartley sent you?”
“He did. I assume that Lord Hugo knows that J.C. Merton is a woman.”
“Of course. He was always one of our best customers and has remained so since my husband’s death.”
The stranger picked up on the chagrin in her statement. “But not everyone has been so loyal?”
Juliana gritted her teeth. “Loyalty doesn’t enter into it. Lord Hugo is wise enough to realize that my stock is superior and my taste impeccable.”
“I infer that others are not as sensible.”
“There are some gentleman,” she said grimly, her grip tightening on the buff boards of the volume she still held, “who don’t believe a woman can know enough about rare books to serve their needs.”
“That looks like the Tarleton catalogue you are holding.”
The stranger’s eyes glinted like polished sapphires. Juliana felt a little dizzy.
“I understand there are some fine books in that collection. Many fine books.”
“Sir Thomas Tarleton,” Juliana said, “was adept at acquiring the best.”
“Did you know him?” he asked.
“My late husband started as a bookseller in Salisbury so naturally Sir Thomas was a customer. I grew up a few miles away.”
“But did you know him yourself?”
“I can safely say that I am intimately acquainted with Tarleton’s methods as a collector,” she said, trying not to let her bitterness show.
“Good. You’re engaged.”
“Engaged? Engaged for what?”
“To represent me at the Tarleton auction.”
“Really?” she asked. The day had taken a turn for the better.
The change in Mrs. Merton’s attitude was comical. She had been buzzing with irritation, like a wasp emerging from an inkpot. Now she smiled and looked pretty. Cain wasn’t surprised. He’d noticed at once that she wasn’t a bad looking woman. Under her monstrous mourning gown lay a slight but trim figure. A strand of fair hair had escaped the hideous cap, and the unrelieved black set off a fine complexion, marred or enhanced by only a sprinkling of fine freckles across the nose.
He shouldn’t have tried to flirt with her, he supposed. His initial examination had alarmed the little woman, respectable merchant that she was. But now she regarded him as though he were the answer to a maiden’s dream. He was used to that look. Though usually from those who weren’t exactly maidens in the technical sense.
For a moment he considered finding out whether he’d been right about the promise of that body disguised by a forbidding exterior and dry-as-dust occupation. He estimated how long it would take him to persuade her out of the abominable bombazine.
“I’d be happy to give you the benefit of my experience,” she said. “For the usual commission, of course.”
He burst out laughing. “I was about to offer the same thing to you, madam. And my usual commission is nothing.”
Mrs. Merton frowned and returned to wasp mode, glaring up him with a mixture of indignation and puzzlement. With hands on hips cinching in the voluminous gown he could see that she was, as suspected, petite but nicely curved.
“No commission? I may be a female but surely the laborer is worthy of her hire? You won’t get better advice anywhere in London and you certainly won’t get it without paying for it.”
“Very well, the usual commission,” he agreed. “And what do I get for it?”
“Is there something particular you wish to buy?” she asked with a frown of concentration. “If it’s outside my area of knowledge I’ll tell you.”
“A manuscript. A book of hours.”
“The Burgundy hours? Les Très Jolies Heures?”
“Those are the ones. The Very Pretty Hours.”
“Do you realize, sir, how much it is worth? I wouldn’t be surprised to see it sell for two thousand pounds, or even more.”
“I think you’re tactfully asking whether I’m good for the blunt. The answer is yes. Allow me to introduce myself, madam. I am the Marquis of Chase.”
Mrs. Merton seemed unabashed by the revelation that she was alone with London’s most disreputable peer. Perhaps she’d never heard of him. Or maybe she was too excited at the thought of his intended purchase. The alert anticipation in her eyes recalled a pointer scenting a pheasant.
“My lord,” she said triumphantly. “You need me.”
“I do,” he agreed, “though I’m not sure why I can’t just march into the auction, stick my hand in the air, and buy the thing.”
“Do you play cards?” she asked.
“And do you reveal your hand to your opponent?”
“Of course not.”
“Think of the auction as a game of whist. You just showed me all your cards. I pray you won’t do so to anyone else.”
For once Cain had a goal more important than his own pleasure. He’d ignore—or perhaps postpone—the pursuit of a woman and take her advice. He’d play his cards very close to his chest.
THE WILD MARQUIS is available at fine book shops, from online retailers and in ebook formats.
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