London, August 1812
Sarah Shipton halted on the stairs to the offices above the bookshop her parents—correction, her mother—owned. She could hear the sound of quiet weeping, yet the sun had barely cleared the horizon and no one was due in for at least another hour. She tiptoed up the rest of the stairs with her skirts clutched in one hand, pausing at the top to listen again, forgetting all about the odd man who had followed her for half of her walk to the shop.
The voice belonged to her mother and a flash of understanding lit Sarah’s mind. Her father had died six months ago and though Mrs. Shipton had calmly taken the reins of their business, she was still occasionally overcome by grief.
Sarah snuck down to the bottom of the stairs then once again made her way to the landing, this time with heavy footsteps. By the time she entered the clerk’s room where her mother was sitting, Mrs. Shipton had wiped her tears away and blown her nose. Her eyes were still red and swollen, but Sarah pretended not to notice.
“Mother! I didn’t expect to see you here so early this morning.” Sarah kept her tone light and hoped she sounded surprised.
Mrs. Shipton smiled at her daughter. “I didn’t expect to see you here, either. I thought for sure you’d be sleeping in today after arriving home so late last night.”
Sarah’s mouth curved into a smile of her own. She’d spent the past month visiting her aunt and cousins in Dover, enjoying the summer sun…and the company of the local squire’s steward.
“You know I’m no good at lying about all day. I thought I would go over the accounts this morning, then help Mr. Higgins with the new inventory.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Shipton’s face crumpled and Sarah watched her mother struggle for several painful moments to bring her emotions under control. “I don’t know how to say this, but…there is no new inventory.”
“Nothing new today?” That was odd. There was always something coming into the shop—second printings of popular books, the newest Minerva Press novel, special orders for customers who wanted something particular.
“Nothing new at all.”
Mrs. Shipton reached out and took her daughter’s hand as tears dripped down her cheeks again. “The bookshop has been losing money for months. The only thing that kept us in business was the savings your father had put aside and your dowry. Both are gone now.”
Her dowry and the bookshop? That couldn’t be right. It would mean Mrs. Shipton had lost Sarah’s whole future in addition to the bookshop. “Are you saying that we have nothing?”
Mrs. Shipton nodded. “We have money enough to live on until the end of this month. After that…” She bowed her head against Sarah’s arm and cried.
“Mother, what are you talking about?” Sarah asked the question as gently as she was able, but her mother wasn’t making any sense. Sarah had personally kept the ledgers for the shop since her father died six months before, and had a hand in them for years prior. Everything had appeared to be in order.
“I’m so sorry,” came the muffled reply. “I should have told you sooner. Now it’s too late and we’ll end up in the workhouse.”
No, no, no. Sarah would do anything to keep that from happening…if it was even true. “The shop was making money when I left for Dover. What’s happened since then?”
Sarah felt her mother take a deep breath and lift her face. “I made up a false ledger for you to work in when your father died and the shop began to lose money. And I hid some of the bills so you wouldn’t worry about our finances.”
False ledger? Hidden bills? “Then we really do have nothing.”
And Sarah’s whole future took on a shade of bleakness she’d only ever read about.
Mrs. Shipton nodded again, releasing her grip on Sarah to cover her face with both hands. Sarah rubbed her mother’s back as her mind spun through possible solutions—she would deal with her mother’s duplicity later. Her father was kin to a timber merchant in Birmingham, but there had been some sort of falling out and she was sure they’d find no help there. Her aunt in Dover was widowed and lived on a small annuity that only just met her needs, while Sarah’s cousins worked to provide everything beyond the basics. They might be able to house Sarah’s mother for a short time if Mrs. Shipton sold or let her house, but Sarah would have to find work quickly to keep from depleting her aunt’s meager resources.
“Diana’s ball.” She hadn’t meant to say the words aloud, but they popped into her head and out of her mouth with a tinge of despair. Diana Talbot had been Sarah’s closest friend for the past nine years, and she was celebrating her recent betrothal with a ball given by her godfather, the Marquess of Preston. Sarah had been looking forward to the event for the past month, but how could she go now?
“Diana’s ball,” Mrs. Shipton repeated, lowering her hands into her lap. “It’s tonight, isn’t it?”
“And your dress has already been paid for.”
Where was her mother going with this? “It has.”
“Then we have one hope left.” Mrs. Shipton’s eyes widened. “You can play Cendrillon and enchant a prince, a husband with wealth to save us.”
That explained it—she’d been reading Perrault again. The story of Cendrillon and the handsome prince was one Mrs. Shipton had read to her daughter countless times in her own English translation when Sarah was younger, then in the original French as she grew older. It was naught but a fairy story, yet the happy marriage for the little cinder girl had captured Mrs. Shipton’s heart.
“I doubt I’ll enchant anyone in an evening, Mother.”
“You are worried about your age and your dowry, but you forget that you are the great-granddaughter of an earl. You are every bit as well bred as Miss Talbot and her friends, and your education is far better than theirs.”
At seven-and-twenty Sarah was no longer in the first blush of youth, and her lineage was less impressive among the ton than it was among her fellow shopkeepers. Combine those facts with her sudden lack of a dowry and she’d be lucky to find any husband at all, let alone a wealthy one. But her mother was right about her education, and her ability to run the bookshop should transfer well to running a home of any size. She would simply have to find a gentleman who valued such things.
Sarah gave herself a mental shake. How easy it was to become wrapped up in her mother’s daydream. The far more practical plan would be to obtain a position as a clerk—if anyone would hire a female clerk—or a shop girl, or even a governess.
But aloud she said, “Yes, of course.” The idea of Sarah meeting and marrying Society’s equivalent of a handsome prince seemed to calm her mother, despite its improbability.
“Good.” Mrs. Shipton sighed and wiped her eyes, her smile returning. “Then it’s settled.”
“Might I have a look at the ledger, Mother?” Sarah asked. “The real one, please. I’d like to see for myself what happened.”
Her mother disappeared into the small back room and reemerged a few moments later with an account book the same size and color as the one Sarah had been poring over for the last several months. “Her you are, my dear. Though why you want to wade through all those numbers now is beyond me.”
Though Mrs. Shipton had been a competent bookkeeper when her husband was alive, it was Sarah’s father who had most often tended to the bookshop’s finances. It was therefore possible that her mother was mistaken about how bad the situation was, and perhaps there was still a way to rescue the shop and keep their livelihood.
Sarah didn’t say any of that aloud, though. She simply thanked her mother and collected the account books, taking them downstairs to study at the counter when there were no customers needing help.
But three hours later Sarah was no closer to saving the shop than she’d been when she arrived. The bell over the door tinged and Diana entered, grinning and holding her arms out to her friend.
Sarah emerged from behind the counter to embrace her. “You’re up early.”
The contrast in their daily schedules was a running joke between them, and Diana chuckled. “I’ve been haunting the bookshop waiting for your return. I need your help making some last minute decisions for the ball.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Sarah replied, giving her friend a tight squeeze before releasing her. “I could use your help as well.”
“You first,” Diana said, allowing Sarah to lead her to the counter. “Is it that steward you wrote me about?”
Sarah allowed herself a brief moment to picture him in her mind, walking her to her aunt’s home. Then she pushed the thought away. “No, it isn’t him. It’s the shop.” She glanced around to make sure the vicinity was empty of listening ears and lowered her voice. “I know it’s vulgar to speak about money, but mother and I are about to lose our livelihood.”
She told Diana about the shop’s finances, gripping her friend’s hand when she explained her mother’s deceit with the false ledger. “I just can’t believe she kept this from me—for six months! Even if I couldn’t have helped the situation at all, I had a right to know what was going on. This affects my life just as much as it does hers.”
“And now it’s too late to save the bookshop.”
It wasn’t a question, but Sarah nodded anyway. “I think so. We can’t afford to keep it open more than a few weeks, and that hurts almost as much as my mother’s duplicity. My father opened this place just before I was born. I spent more of my childhood here than I did at our house.”
“You poor dear. And here I was overwrought because the florist didn’t have enough red roses for the ball.”
Sarah managed a smile at that. “But red roses are your favorite.”
“Yes, but I don’t have to worry about living on the street.” Diana reached out with her free hand and took Sarah’s, squeezing them both. “You know I will help you any way I can.”
But they both knew she could not offer enough money to alleviate the problem, having no coin to her name but the pin money her father allowed her. Her father or fiancé might help, but neither knew the Shiptons well enough to extend such an offer. It was not the done thing to speak of such matters with mere acquaintances.
“I do know, and I am grateful for it. I will certainly need your support in the coming days.”
“That I will always give you.”
“Good. I’m going to be in particular need of it after your ball. My mother has it in her head that I’ll meet a wealthy gentleman who will marry me and solve all of our problems.”
Diana giggled. “Wouldn’t that be marvelous?”
Sarah sighed softly. “It would certainly take some of the weight from my mind. But I always wanted a marriage like my parents had—an affectionate partnership. I don’t know if that could be achieved with a man I only just met, especially if he has to rescue me financially.”
“It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, though.” The bell over the door sounded again as a customer entered, and Diana released Sarah’s hands. “I shall return home and search through the guest list for some likely candidates.”
“If you find someone, your worries are over. And if you don’t, well, there’s no harm in trying.”
Sarah bid her farewell and helped the new customer with a special order he’d placed, mulling over Diana’s words. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to have a look at the gentlemen attending the ball. If her expectations were nonexistent to begin with, she couldn’t be disappointed.
Andrew Elliott, Earl of Hartland ran a hand over his face as he entered Shipton’s Books. He knew he looked presentable because his valet had refused to let him leave the house that morning without a bath and a change of clothes. Hart felt like something left behind on the boot scraper, though. The bright sunlight aggravated the pounding in his head, his empty stomach hovered somewhere between nausea and hunger, and he was having a difficult time keeping his eyes open. He’d either spent the past three days in a gaming hell or his workshop, and he honestly wasn’t sure which it had been.
But Shipton’s had specially ordered a collection of The Emporium of Arts & Sciences for him all the way from Philadelphia, and he’d been looking forward to its arrival for weeks. A good book—particularly a scientific one—would either settle his mind enough to allow him a good night’s sleep or send him into another days-long spree in his workshop. If the former happened, perhaps the events of the last few days would come back to him. If it was the latter then he might end up with a new invention or blend of steel, and those could prove useful, too.
He also knew the proprietor’s daughter would put aside an interesting volume or two for his perusal, and he was curious to see what she had for him today.
“Good afternoon, Lord Hartland.”
“Good afternoon to you, Miss Shipton. Has my order arrived?”
“I believe I saw it in the back room when I came in this morning. Let me check.”
He browsed the shelves for the few moments she was gone, then reciprocated the smile she wore upon her return. “It’s here?”
“It is. And I had Mr. Higgins hold a copy of Elements of Chemical Philosophy for you when it came in, too. It was written by Sir Humphry Davy of the Royal Society.”
Ah, she’d chosen well. Chemistry would put him right to sleep. “Davy? Isn’t he the fellow who gave the paper on combining carbonic oxide and chlorine earlier this year?”
“It was his brother’s paper, but yes, Sir Humphry is the one who presented it.”
He picked up the book and leafed through a few pages. “Have you read it?”
“The paper or the book?”
Her smile widened a bare fraction of an inch. “Yes.”
“What did you think?”
“I thought both brothers explained themselves in language that was easy to understand. One needs a bit of background in chemistry to appreciate the ideas being put forth, but one does not have to be an Oxford don for said ideas to make sense.”
His eyes were back on the book in his hands. “Light reading, then.”
“Compared to the rest of your library, yes.”
Hart glanced up and caught a glint of amusement in her blue eyes. She would know about his library—she’d selected half of it for him. “Very well then, add it to my order.”
He waited while she wrapped up the books for him then bid her good day, scanning the street outside the shop for his town coach. This was the last errand he needed to complete, and he was looking forward to draping himself across the coach seat for the short trip back to his estate in Hampstead.
There was no peace to be found at Elliot House, however. Hart’s butler was waiting by the front door with a sealed letter on a salver.
“This came for you just after you left, my lord. It was the special messenger that delivered it.”
“The special messenger” meant the letter was sent by someone in the unofficial intelligence gathering ring Hart belonged to, headed by the Earl of Wellington. The communications Hart received most often had something to do with a degenerate specimen of a man wreaking havoc in an area near one of Hart’s estates. From time to time there was even the stink of treason on said specimen, and Hart was always relieved to see such men contained and dealt with appropriately. Even better when the population at large never knew they were in danger.
He handed over his hat and gloves, taking the letter from the butler and cracking the seal as he walked toward his study.
I haven’t much time, so I’ll keep this brief. A woman called Sarah Shipton has angered someone very powerful in Dover, and word has spread that this person is offering one hundred pounds to whomever kills Miss Shipton and provides proof of the deed. The proof is to be brought to a tavern called The Black Horse in Seven Dials as soon as may be, and payment will be offered anonymously. You know more people in London than anyone and it sounds as if this Miss Shipton might be there. I hope you can find her in time.
Adam St. Peters
Sarah Shipton? From the bookshop? How on earth had she managed to provoke a threat of death?
Hart scrubbed a hand through his short, dark hair and dropped onto the leather sofa in his study. He wasn’t in the habit of letting information go to waste, nor of allowing ladies be killed. But what could he do here? His usual modus operandi was to put on one of the armor variations he’d crafted and go at the criminal head-on. But this time he didn’t even know who the criminal was. And even if he did, it wouldn’t matter; this criminal had authorized anyone and everyone to do his bidding. Taking just one person out of play wouldn’t do any good.
The most straightforward action would be to return to the bookshop and tell Miss Shipton to leave Town. But how would he convince her to do so? He couldn’t tell her about the intelligence gathering ring—only the eleven members and Wellington himself knew of its existence and they’d all been sworn to secrecy to protect each other. Perhaps he could tell her about the letter without revealing its origins? No, he doubted anyone would pick up and leave their home indefinitely based on the claims in a letter they couldn’t verify.
He leaned his head back against the arm of the sofa, wishing he’d had more sleep. Or less wine. Whatever it was that was muddling his brain he now wished to perdition. Not that it would stop him the next time he went on a winning streak at cards or had a breakthrough with an invention, of course. But perhaps he wouldn’t indulge again until Miss Shipton was out of harm’s way.
What if he arranged for her to visit Paris? Or Milan? Or Dublin? He had friends in Dublin that could discretely see to her safety. Would she go if he presented it as her own version of the Grand Tour?
Hart must have drifted off to sleep, for the next thing he knew his valet was shaking him awake.
“I’m sorry, my lord, but you told me to make sure you looked your best tonight for Lord Preston’s ball.”
“What does that have to do with anything, Richards?” Hart asked, his eyes squeezed shut.
“You also told me you needed to leave by seven o’clock.”
“And what time is it now?”
“A quarter past, my lord. I tried to wake you earlier, but you swung your fist at me and told me to go to the devil.”
Hart turned onto his side and tried to bury his face in the leather of the sofa. “How quickly can you have my clothing ready?”
“It is ready now, my lord.”
“Good man.” He wasn’t surprised. Richards had been with him for nearly two decades and was more than familiar with Hart’s idiosyncrasies. “Just let me peel myself off the furniture and I’ll be right up.”
Forty-five minutes later Hart was greeting the Marquess of Preston and his goddaughter in the receiving line at Preston’s home in fashionable Mayfair. He pasted on a smile for the sake of the lady and hoped he didn’t look as bored as he knew he was about to feel.
Dancing turned out to be tolerable, particularly when he partnered one of his favorite merry widows and another just two sets later. Both seemed disappointed not to have secured a liaison with him, but Hart held firm. He enjoyed flirting with women, certainly, and pushing the bounds of propriety was enormously entertaining. But sometimes playing the libertine was more fun for him than actually being one, and it kept eligible ladies from thinking they might want to be the future Countess of Hartland.
It was Preston’s goddaughter…what was her name? Tiverton? Taggart? “Good evening, Miss Talbot. May I offer my congratulations on your engagement?”
“Thank you, my lord.” She gave him a demure smile. “I’m glad that you were able to attend this evening. It means a great deal to my godfather.”
“He wanted a crush for your celebration, no doubt, and the easiest way to get a large number of people in one place is to invite me.” He waggled his eyebrows. “But I do wish you every happiness in your marriage.”
Hart gave her a small bow and turned to go, but she caught his arm. “Might I have just one more moment of your time, my lord? There is someone I’d like to introduce to you.”
He struggled to keep from rolling his eyes, but allowed her to turn him back around. If he fought the introduction he would lose more time than if he simply let it happen. “Certainly, Miss Talbot. It is your party, after all.”
She kept a hold of his elbow and towed him a few steps toward a brunette in a pale green and silver gown. “Lord Hartland, this is my very good friend, Miss Shipton.”
Well, here was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Hart reached for Miss Shipton’s gloved hand even though she hadn’t offered it to him. “Yes, we’ve been acquainted with each other for many years, haven’t we?”
“We have,” she confirmed, taking back her hand. “Lord Hartland is a regular patron of my mother’s bookshop.”
“And a friend, too, I hope.” Hart smiled at each lady in turn. “Are you engaged for the next set, Miss Shipton? Perhaps you would do me the honor?”
Miss Shipton’s eyes darted from Hart’s to Miss Talbot’s then back again. “Certainly, my lord.”
He took her gloved hand again and placed it on his sleeve, but instead of leading her toward the dance floor he headed for the ballroom door. Miss Shipton glanced back at her friend, but Hart leaned closer to her ear and said quietly, “I know this is unusual, but I must speak with you. Your life is in danger.”
Copyright © 2017 by Cora Lee
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