The five-story building loomed above me, and I sighed. At last I would appease my sister. An entire season, and I had not fulfilled her request until now.
The wind had pestered me all afternoon, sending my hair in disarray around my bonnet and drying my lips to a crack. My last errand in London would soon be over, and I would leave to Haven’s Landing without a second thought of the dirty streets. Or, so I kept telling myself.
Mr. Braithewaite’s proposal still rested against my every thought, until I dreaded thinking at all. The streets were abuzz with carriages and passersby, all hurrying about to escape the madness or—on the contrary—to relish their final moments of the season. I felt neither relief nor sadness at leaving London.
Mama dabbed a handkerchief in the corner of each of her eyes. “Must you spend the remainder of your meager pin money on a book? Mrs. Somerville expects you tomorrow morning. Haven’t you more important things to do?”
Anna’s invitation had never been a question. Country girls like me did not often receive such offers, and, as I wished to go, Mama would not deny me.
I bit my tongue, exhaling out my nose. The Temple of the Muses was renowned. Juliet had asked one thing of me when I left for London and one thing only—to visit the “Cheapest and Largest Bookstore in the World” and describe in detail the sight of two hundred thousand books.
Mama surveyed my stubborn expression and sent back a familiar, but equally recognizable expression of her own—exasperation. Her lips had a way of disappearing when she was bothered, and her breathing seemed as dramatic and labored as a fire-breathing dragon.
“I promised Juliet,” I said. Remaining calm amidst her theatrics took significant restraint. “Are you not the least curious? Five floors of books in a building that boasts it can house a coach and four in the front room?”
Her scowl softened. Her porcelain skin was nearly as soft and even as ladies my age, and her eyes more alluring than most. If not for Mama’s maternal manners and rounded figure, she might have been mistaken as a debutant. “You say you promised Juliet?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Very well.” She ran one finger down my arm, her body bobbing back and forth like a child choosing a sweet at the confectionary counter. “Perhaps I shall wait in the gallery or lounge whilst you make your selection.”
A second later, and I stood beneath the shop dome that spanned four floors above, all of which were lined in books. Two hundred thousand books—unimaginable before that moment. I breathed in slowly.
Somehow, the sight seemed more sacred than a cemetery, for books told much more about one’s love and life than a decaying corpse with a faded inscription for a headstone. Books held fragments of authors’ souls, and I imagined each book a voice, whispering from its row along the shelf, “I have things I must tell you.”
“Collect me when you are finished,” Mama said before ascending the grand staircase.
My gaze remained fixed to the dome. If only I was more like Juliet. I had always considered books educational, entertaining, and important, and I endeavored to read as most young ladies did. But Juliet—books were more to her; they were like travel companions and close confidants. Words were her instrument, and my sister played them as well as the most accomplished violinist in all of England. Juliet would have lived in this place if given the chance.
“May I help you, Miss?” came a scratchy voice.
A faint heat crept over my cheeks, and I cleared my throat.
Behind the circular counter, stood a man not much older than my father. He wore a black waistcoat, a simple ensemble for someone employed in such a marvelous place. A thin mustache hung on his upper lip like lace on a collar, a delicate and modest embellishment. “Is there a specific book you wish to lend or buy?”
“Yes, thank you.” I recovered momentarily from my awestruck musings, long enough to retrieve the slip of paper from my reticule. “Fantasmagoriana by Eyriès,” I read.
The man’s brows lifted, and his lips spread into a pleasant curve. “Ghost stories then? At least they will sound beautiful in French. Yes, I believe we have a variety of copies of Eyriès’s work. I can send someone to assist you.”
I shook my head. I did not wish to be rushed through such a building, not when my sister wished for every detail. “Is there a catalogue?”
He nodded and thumbed through the book spread in front of him, pausing when he came to the section with titles beginning with the letter f. He tapped a fist against the book. “Right up the stairs, fourth floor, Miss. You’ll find Fantasmagoriana along the north wall, alphabetized by the author’s last name.”
Staircases led to landing after landing of books. I had thought the majority visible from the dome in the grand entrance, but each step proved otherwise.
The E section filled four floor-to-ceiling bookcases along the wall. Row after row of books—many of which were duplicates but in various bindings and conditions.
So many people had labored to put their ideas to paper, and those ideas sat dormant, like a seed, awaiting the moment when someone would discover them, allowing them to spring forth once more. A set of German ghost stories written in French seemed trivial in comparison to the volumes on philosophy, religion, science above me. Yet, I had the inkling that imagination and feeling, fear and humor, love and adventure, were just as important—if not more so—than fact. My eyes wandered down each bookcase, until I could just make out the letters Eyr on one of the spines. I stood on my tiptoes but still stood two shelves too short.
Perhaps I should have accepted help from the clerk downstairs. My eyes scanned a ladder further down the shelf, and I released a heavy breath.
Another clerk, wearing the same black waistcoat as the man downstairs, crouched over a box of books a few feet away. He spun several volumes on their sides, inspecting the spines. Taking a step in his direction, my earlier decree that I would find the book myself rang in my ears.
Independence and impulse—I recognized my follies, and yet, I was too prideful to retreat from my course of action. I crossed the room and tugged on a ladder, striding across the room. The wheels screeched across the track, sending unearthly shivers down my spine and, without a doubt, attracting the entire room’s attention.
I halted instantly, irritated I had not moved with more grace.
I caught sight of Eyr once more and waited until the attention dissipated—now that the ladder screeching had ceased. If I was quick, not a single soul would notice my ladder-climbing. I bounded up it, stopping at the fourth rung and thinking the better of it. Four rungs was far too high for a lady to climb. I retraced my way back to the second rung. Much more acceptable.
Juliet would adore the fact that I climbed a ladder in public to retrieve her book. She would laugh. She always did when I acted so outrageously. My sister was much more careful, a fact that caused me to lament my current season; Mama’s hopes might have been fulfilled if she had brought Juliet to London instead of me. But the old tradition of the eldest marrying first and best was still deeply engrained in Mother’s beliefs.
The book, in three separate editions, lay just out of my reach. I rose to my toes, frantically scrambling my fingers along the spine. The books were wedged far too tightly, and in my frantic movements, I almost lost my footing. My fingers scraped against the spine in one final attempt, and to my horror, I knocked another book down. Right atop the clerk crouched over the books.
“Blast,” he said when the edge of the book knocked him squarely on the head. He glanced up, dark brows furrowed in condemnation.
I descended the ladder quickly, apologizing all the way. My cheeks burned, causing me to shake in humiliation. “I beg your pardon, sir. I was careless and thoughtless in my attempts. I should never have—”
He gritted his teeth, brandishing a smile that seemed more forced than anything. “All is forgiven.”
“I assure you that I had no intention of disturbing you, least of all with a book to your head, but then again, if you hadn’t been sitting there…” I closed my eyes, shaking my head. I was making a mess of this entire apology. “That is not to say your position had any bearing on my clumsiness. I am sure you were only doing your job.”
“My job?” he asked, placing a hand to his waist.
“I did not notice you there, shelving the books…but that is not to say you are not noticeable.” I waved my hand, aware that I was turning the fourth floor into a madwoman display, and sighed. “I believe my apology is turning out clumsier than my fingers.”
A corner of his mouth shifted upward. “Not to worry, Miss.”
Goodness. Was he smiling at me in earnest? I scanned his person. Perhaps the book had hit him harder than I first thought. “Are you well?” I asked him.
He stood up, towering a full head taller than me. His honey-brown eyes were almost as warm as his words. “Fortunately for me, I am extremely hardheaded. Just ask my mother.”
Hitting anyone atop the head with a book was inexcusable, but my humiliation at injuring such a handsome man nearly choked me. His high cheekbones and square jaw, coupled with his thick, dark brows and fire-flecked gaze—his looks had doubtless earned him many admirers. This gentleman did not belong working in a bookshop—he was created to command a room.
“I cannot apologize enough,” I said again.
“You have already, Miss, quite profusely actually. I have forgiven the matter.” His gaze flitted over my face for a moment before our eyes met. “Were you, by any chance, at Almack’s the other evening, searching for your carriage in the rain?”
A fresh round of heat covered my cheeks.
“I was about to offer assistance when both propriety and my driver’s ability to navigate took the chance from me.”
“You are a clerk with time for Almack’s?” I asked.
A fuller smile this time, showcasing his cheekbones. “It would appear so.”
I fiddled with my hands, twisting my thumbs together. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to continue speaking, let alone breathing. Perhaps he had acquired mild amnesia.
He seemed to sense my discomfort, retrieving the book from the ground. “Here. Your book.”
I bit back laughter when I saw the spine: A Spinster’s Handbook by Robert Eyring. I shook my head. “That is not my book. I should have asked for your help in the first place. The man at the counter—I presume your employer—offered assistance, but I was stubborn and tried to assist myself.”
His eyes fell to the book in my hands. His lips curved in a mischievous way. “Oh yes. My employer is most serviceable. Allow me to help you.”
“Oh, what kindness, and after I hit you atop the head. Would you?”
“I would be glad to.”
I reached for my reticule to retrieve my slip of paper. “Eyriès—the leather-bound one please.”
He looked at the paper, twisting his lips into a smirk as he scratched his chin. “Fantasmagoriana. Ghost stories? I would have thought you the romantic type.”
“Pardon?” Was I ill? I was not the type to blush at a man’s teasing, but the heat in my cheeks would not leave. “The book is a gift for my younger sister.”
“Ah, your younger sister.” He smiled once more and reached above me to pull out my book. He did not need the ladder at all. “I have been told my height is good for a few things.”
The aroma of sandalwood emanated from him, a far more pleasing smell than my cheap perfume imitations. “I imagine your employer agrees—about your height of course.”
Laughter split apart the man’s lips, but he recovered quickly. He thumbed through my book. “Yes, I believe my employer would agree. How is your French?”
I tucked a curl behind my ear, but my nail snagged another strand free. I’d nearly forgotten the wind’s damage to my appearance. This man must think me a ridiculous sight. I grimaced—I’d never cared what another thought of my appearance. I managed a weak reply. “My French is well enough.”
Withstanding the presence of this man, for another minute, might be the death of me. My clumsiness, matched with his handsome look, threatened to turn me into a silly child. I snatched the book from his hands, determined to flee the scene.
He inhaled sharply, and a line of blood marked one of his perfect fingers.
I cringed, dropping the book. This poor man did not deserve another moment of my presence, not when I kept causing him pain. I pulled the silk ribbon from my hair and began wrapping it around his finger before he had a chance to protest. “Is it possible you can find enough mercy to forgive and forget once more?”
His other hand came over the pair of ours, attempting to tug the ribbon free. “You are going to bloody it, Miss. It is only a paper cut.”
I pushed his other hand away, continuing my work with the ribbon. At least I’d had the sense to keep my gloves on while searching. Our hands touching would surely set my traitorous cheeks on fire. I wished to relive the last hour so that I might repent of bothering this man. “Yes, but perhaps you will find it easier to forget my actions if I pledge my regret with a ribbon—and not just any ribbon. My favorite. Blue has always been my favorite color.”
“Forgiveness, I can offer,” he said, searching my expression without the hint of irritation. “But I cannot promise to forget.”
I imagined he would recall this day with humor, reporting to his fellow clerks and employer of the strange, ridiculous girl that had hit him atop the head with a book and given him a quite a cut. I bent to retrieve my book and dipped my chin in finality. “I wish you good day, sir. Thank you for retrieving my book. I am sure my sister would thank you too.”
I turned on my heels, walking much too quickly. I hardly noticed the details—books, architecture, and the grandness of the place altogether—that had earlier so captivated my attention. In fact, I wished I had never promised Juliet to come to the bookshop at all. In doing so, I had witnessed a disaster of a lady.
No wonder I had not made a respectable match.