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Love and Other Perils
A Regency Novella Duet
Take one scientific swain, one dashing lieutenant, one no-nonsense librarian, one adventurous young lady, one very large tomcat, and two mischievous kittens…and what do you have? Two recipes for disaster! Or perhaps for love…
KISSES AND CATNIP, by Grace Burrowes
Max Haddonfield is a man of science, devoted to logic and rational observation. That he also finds homes in libraries for stray cats is merely a sensible exercise in controlling the mouse population…or something.
Antonia Mainwaring is practical to a fault and all but on the shelf. When a certain soft-spoken library patron talks her into allowing a large male feline to bide on the premises, somebody starts purring–and it’s not the cat!
LIEUTENANT MAYHEW’S CATASTROPHES, by Emily Larkin
When Lieutenant Mayhew boards the stagecoach bound for Southampton he anticipates an uneventful journey. True, he’s carrying kittens, but it’s only eighty miles. What could possibly go wrong?
He’s not expecting to meet the enchanting Miss Willemina Culpepper. Nor is he expecting the kittens to be quite so good at vanishing. Mayhew has faced many challenges in his career as a soldier. Traveling from London to Southampton should not be a challenge. Except that it is.
Lieutenant Mayhew’s Catastrophes
The stagecoach door banged shut and the guard gave a final blast of his horn. Willemina Culpepper only just managed not to wriggle with excitement. It was finally happening. Her journey had begun and in a few short seconds the miles would start to roll away beneath the carriage wheels.
Willie let out a tiny sigh of happiness. She wanted to bounce in her seat and say to her fellow passengers, Oh, isn’t it so marvelous to be traveling again!
But she was twenty-five years old, and twenty-five-year-old ladies didn’t wriggle or bounce or blurt out remarks to utter strangers. And, sadly, none of these strangers appeared to share her enthusiasm for travel. The stout matron alongside her sighed and muttered as she rummaged through her reticule. Dawn wasn’t quite yet upon them. The carriage was full of shadows, only the faintest of illumination coming from the lamps outside, but there was enough light to see the matron dab the contents of a small vial onto her handkerchief.
A scent wafted its way to Willie’s nose. Lavender. It mingled with the other smells in the narrow confines of the carriage: perspiration old and new, tobacco, ale, and for some reason that Willie couldn’t fathom, marmalade.
The stout matron pressed the handkerchief to her nose and closed her eyes. A poor traveler, Willie deduced.
With a loud clatter of iron-shod hooves on cobblestones the stagecoach lurched into motion.
“Late,” the other female in the stagecoach muttered. “Two whole minutes late already!” She was as thin as the matron was stout, her mouth pinched shut in a way that gave it wrinkles all the way around.
The stout matron sighed. So did the thin woman. Two different sighs. One long-suffering, one annoyed.
Willie bit back a smile. Not at the stout matron’s discomfort or the thin lady’s irritation, but a smile of gladness that she was in this carriage with them, that she was moving again.
She turned her attention to the final passenger. It was from him that the smells of tobacco and ale came. He wasn’t sighing like the matron and the thin woman; he was already asleep, his chin pillowed in the folds of a rather dirty muffler.
The stagecoach navigated the tight corner onto the street, swaying ponderously as it did so. The matron moaned and pressed the scented handkerchief more closely to her nose.
Willie didn’t mind the swaying in the slightest. She would have preferred to be up on the roof, where the swaying was at its worst, but respectable young ladies didn’t travel on the roofs of stagecoaches, where their faces might become dusty and sunburned and their hair windswept, and where every Tom, Dick, and Harry might gawp up at them.
But even if she couldn’t be on the roof, her heart beat as fast as the horses’ hooves, a quick tempo of anticipation and happiness. Today, she was in London. Tomorrow, it would be Owslebury. And next month, she was off to the continent again!
Willie couldn’t quite prevent a squirm of excitement. Fortunately, no one noticed.
The coach halted at the Bell and Crown, its final stop in London, and three more passengers came aboard: a woman and her young son, and a soldier.
The soldier was wearing the familiar green uniform of the Rifle Brigade, with the epaulettes of a lieutenant.
Willie’s breath caught in a moment of pure homesickness. Although, could it be called homesickness when it wasn’t a single place she missed, but many? She missed Egypt and South Africa and even the disaster that had been South America, and most of all she missed the people who’d been in those places. Men like her father. Men like the officer now settling himself opposite her. Men who’d worn uniforms. Men who’d trained and fought and endured hardship, who’d laughed and joked and lived with enthusiasm because they knew that death might be just around the corner.
Willie released a silent sigh. How she missed the army. Missed the people and the purpose, the busyness, the travel and the places, and yes, even the discomfort of being on campaign, the heat and the cold, the mud and the rain.
But not the deaths. She didn’t miss those. What she did miss was the sense that every minute of every day was to be treasured, even if it contained sleet or choking dust or saddle sores, because today one was alive and tomorrow one might not be.
“Three minutes late, now,” the thin woman said, as the guard secured the door.
That was another thing she missed: the stoicism of army life—and the jokes that went with that stoicism. Here in England, people complained if it rained, or if their shoes got muddy, or if a stagecoach was three minutes behind schedule. Soldiers didn’t complain about the little annoyances of life; they joked about them. A lot.
Willie did miss the jokes.
“All aboard the coach to Southampton!” the guard cried, and gave a blast of his horn. Willie’s heart lifted, while the stout matron sighed into her handkerchief and the thin woman looked at her timepiece and tutted sourly and the man with the dirty muffler snored faintly in his corner.
The mother was fussing over her young son, settling him carefully on her lap, and the lieutenant was taking almost as much care with the covered basket he was carrying. He held on to it firmly, as if something breakable were inside.
The lieutenant glanced up, caught her gaze, and smiled cheerfully. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Willie said. She wanted to say more, wanted to say, Tell me how things are with the Rifle Brigade. How’s Colonel Barraclough? How’s Charles Pugsley? What’s it like in France right now?
She would have asked those questions under other circumstances, but there was enough dawn light now leaking into the carriage to see the obvious appreciation in the lieutenant’s gaze, and Willie had learned years ago that when men looked at her like that it was best not to encourage them. It had been true when her father was alive and was doubly true now that he was dead.
She was a female, she was alone, and she was on a public stagecoach, and as much as she wished to talk about the Rifle Brigade with this lieutenant, it was wisest not to.
Willie smiled politely at him as the stagecoach rolled out of the Bell and Crown’s yard, springs creaking, wheels rattling, harness jingling jauntily. She turned her attention to the window and the glimpses of London it afforded—brick and stone façades, windows and doors. Dawn was pink above the roof tops. Her heart beat a happy rhythm. It’s started. I’m on my way.
A tiny, shrill squeaking drew her attention. Not the squeaking of springs or wheels or harnesses, but a squeaking that sounded alive, and not only alive but inside the carriage.
Mice didn’t scare Willie, but she didn’t particularly wish to be in a stagecoach with one. Not once her fellow passengers realized there was a rodent aboard. The thin lady would undoubtedly have the vapors. Probably the stout matron, too.
She cocked her head, trying to determine the location of the sound . . . and realized that it came from directly opposite her. More precisely, from the basket that sat on the lieutenant’s lap. The covered basket that he held so firmly and so carefully.
There wasn’t something breakable inside, she realized. There was something alive.
The sound came again, high-pitched, more mew than squeak.
Willie glanced at the lieutenant. Their eyes met again in the half-light, and he gave her a wide, cheerful smile. He reminded her so much of the young officers who’d been under her father’s command that her heart gave another great pang of homesickness.
“Your basket is making noises,” the little boy seated on his mother’s lap observed.
“So it is,” the lieutenant agreed.
“What’s in it?”
There was just enough light for Willie to see the lieutenant wink at the boy. “Baby monsters.”
There was also enough light to see the little boy’s eyes grow wide. “Monsters?”
“Monsters with teeth as sharp as needles,” the lieutenant said, with utmost gravity. “And claws that would tear your clothes to shreds.”
“Oh,” the little boy said.
The lieutenant lowered his voice and said in thrilling accents, “I daren’t let them out of the basket for fear of the havoc they would wreak.”
The boy’s eyes were now as round as saucers.
“Do you want to know what type of monster they are?” the lieutenant asked.
The boy nodded cautiously.
The lieutenant winked at him again and laughed, a merry sound. “They’re kittens, my young friend.”
The little boy laughed, too, a trill of delight. “Kittens?”
“A kitten apiece for my niece and nephew.”
“Can I see them?” the boy asked eagerly.
“When we stop,” the lieutenant said. “Kittens and carriages don’t mix.” He smiled at the boy’s mother. “And only if your mother allows.”
There was enough light, too, to see the boy’s mother blush upon receipt of that smile, as well she might; the lieutenant was a good-looking man, with his fair hair and his easy smile and his green rifleman’s uniform. Quite dashing, in fact. But Willie had grown up following the drum. She had met a great many officers, handsome and otherwise, and she knew better than to judge men by their smiles. The lieutenant certainly looked attractive, but she knew nothing of his character.
Except that he was cheerful. And he liked to joke. And he gave kittens as presents to his nephew and niece.
* * *
They changed horses at Twickenham and again at Chertsey, and stopped for a meal at Bagshot. The lieutenant was first out. He set his basket on the cobblestones, then helped the stout matron, the thin lady, and the mother and her son to descend. When he held up his hand to Willie, she took it, even though she was perfectly capable of climbing down from a stagecoach by herself.
It would have been discourteous not to.
The lieutenant was even more handsome in full daylight than he’d been in the gloom of the coach. His eyes were a warm, laughing brown with flecks of gold.
Those laughing eyes and that charming smile and the smart green uniform made her heart flutter a bit. But only a very tiny bit.
“Can I see the kittens now?” the little boy asked. “Please?”
“Certainly,” the lieutenant said. “Anyone who wishes may make their acquaintance.” His smile included Willie.
Willie decided that she would quite like to see the creatures. Purely because she liked kittens. It had absolutely nothing to do with the lieutenant’s eyes or his smile.
Kisses and Catnip
“You have mice.” Three words, laden with judgment. The sentence wasn’t spoken so much as intoned, a Dies Irae rumbling in masculine tones across the library’s quiet.
Because the speaker held a cat, and because that cat peered at Lady Antonia Mainwaring from her eye level, it seemed as if the cat had spoken. Antonia had a ferociously firm grip of the English language and a firmer grasp of common sense. She had nonetheless needed the moment it took to remove her spectacles and fold the earpieces to orient herself.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” She remained seated, as was a lady’s prerogative.
The cat—a large, long-haired gray tom with a grumpy green gaze—switched its tail. The beast reposed in the arms of a tall man with light brown hair. The fragrance of a bakery clung to him, and his clothing suggested he worked for whatever daily bread he consumed. His coat was heavy wool, rumpled, and none too new. He wore no hat and the red plaid scarf about his neck was missing half of its tassels.
“Mice,” he said, in the same inflection a preacher used when referring to original sin. “They delight in books. They chew the bindings to feast on the glue, shred the pages to make their nests, destroy wisdom itself for their furry little comfort.”
This big, unkempt man and his disgruntled cat tempted Antonia to get to her feet, the better to run from any stray thunderbolts.
“I have seen no evidence of mice on the premises. Are you a library patron, sir?”
Winter was bearing down in all its unrelenting bitterness, and the library was a refuge for the homeless. Antonia’s emotions on that point were mixed. In a city that considered itself the jewel of civilization, nobody ought to die of exposure to the elements, but she was at a loss for what one said to a person in such straits. “May I help you find a book?” seemed unforgivably insensitive, and yet, who deserved the comfort of wisdom and great prose more than those tempted to despair?
And must London’s unfortunates be so formidable?
“I am a patron,” he said. “Lucifer cannot say the same.”
The cat commenced purring, as if the beast enjoyed mention of his name. His expression made clear that the library was poorer for not extending to felines the privileges of membership.
“Where do you see evidence of mice?” Antonia asked.
“Come,” the fellow replied, supporting the cat with one arm and striding off in the direction of the biographies. The only patrons at the library today were the Barclay sisters, a pair of white-haired spinsters who pretended to read Fordyce’s sermons by the hour. Antonia suspected they were conserving coal while hiding from their neighbors, for they never took Reverend Fordyce home with them.
The gentleman with the cat disappeared between two rows of shelves and then took the spiral steps up to the mezzanine. His pace was deliberate, and for a big man, he moved quietly.
The sisters exchanged a glance as he passed them. Miss Dorothy wrinkled her nose.
He seemed impervious to this rudeness, though the cat sent a glare in Miss Dorothy’s direction.
“Here.” Still holding the cat, he knelt at the back of the H through T row of biographies. “Mice.”
He pointed to what could only be mouse droppings.
His fingernails were clean, which struck Antonia as odd.
“Lucifer can solve your problem, madam. He’ll expect the occasional saucer of milk and a bit of fish for his wages. If you crack a window for most of the day he’ll come and go as nature demands. Feed him on the premises, and he’ll defend the books all night from any and all rodents.”
He passed her the cat before Antonia could step back. In the narrow space between the bookshelves, that left Antonia and Lucifer’s owner exactly one cat-width apart.
One surprisingly light cat-width. “You are nothing but skin and bones, you poor fellow,” Antonia cradled the beast to her chest, enjoying the feel of his purring. “You look formidable, and you make a prodigious noise, but you’ve missed a few meals.”
The shameless creature licked her chin. The sensation was odd, halfway between a scrape and a tickle. The cat was too light, a ball of fluff where a muscular predator should be.
“He’ll do the job God intended him to do,” the man said, “your books will be safe, and the mice will decamp for less perilous surrounds.”
Antonia had grown up with the requisite progression of pantry mousers, though she didn’t particularly like cats and certainly hadn’t been permitted anywhere near the kitchen. Cats lacked a dog’s loyalty, lacked sufficient size to discourage intruders, and—probably their worst failing—lacked an adoring gaze.
“I don’t have the authority to permit a cat to live on the premises,” she said. “I’m a volunteer, and I’m sure the manager and the board of directors will have to convene a meeting and discuss—”
The man stroked the cat’s head, which meant his hand was very close to Antonia’s person. She wasn’t frightened, but neither was she accustomed to biding so near a fellow unless he was standing up with her before a ballroom full of chaperones.
“By the time the Board of Fossils assembles,” Lucifer’s friend said, “by the time they conclude their dithering, you will have lost a dozen bound volumes to the ravages of the rodents. Who will pay to have those books replaced, assuming you can find copies of the damaged titles? Which would you rather explain, the minuscule expense of feeding Lucifer, or the ongoing drain of resources a plague of mice will effect?”
His speech was educated, for all his hair was untidy. He was, in fact, a handsome man, now that Antonia studied him. His eyes were an arresting shade of blue, closer to periwinkle, and the stubble on his cheeks was golden. He struck Antonia as a book with its pages bound in the wrong order.
He smelled of the bakery, but was built to handle a plough.
His hair needed a trim, though his diction was precise.
His wore a laborer’s rough clothing, while his touch on the cat’s head was gentle.
From a distance, Lucifer’s friend might have been an unlettered lout, but his eyes held intelligence… even a hint of humor? Or challenge. He was challenging Antonia to accept this feline.
“I make no promises,” she said. “You may leave the cat with me for now, and the chophouse can oblige with some sustenance for him. I’ll have to discuss this with Mr. Kessler.”
Lucifer preened under one last, slow caress. “Be vigilant, my friend. The literacy of Bootjack Street depends upon your courage and devotion to duty.”
Antonia led the way back to the steps, and while she could have put the cat down, she didn’t. He was a comfortable sort of cat to hold, not the kind that struggled and clawed against being carried.
“If the board should disapprove of Lucifer, how can we return him to you?” Antonia asked.
The day was frigid, but at least no precipitation fell. The weather alternated between sleet, snow, and rain of late, and sometimes all three at once. Lucifer’s friend paused by the main door and rewrapped his scarf about his neck.
“You’ll remember to crack a window for him?” he asked.
“I know that cats must heed the call of nature. I’ll leave instructions that the window by the service door is to be cracked during daylight hours. Mr. Kessler will likely have an apoplexy, but we don’t heat the back hallway in any case.”
Lucifer rumbled along, the most placid mouser Antonia had ever encountered.
“He likes haddock,” the man said, his hand on the door latch.
“Very well, but how can I return him to you? I must have a name and a direction.”
She had the sense that leaving Lucifer behind was difficult, which implied the man didn’t intend to see his cat again. That bothered her, and not because the board of directors was likely to evict the cat. They wouldn’t, not when the alternative was to hire a rat catcher.
“Don’t bother the board,” he said. “Tell Kessler you got the idea from the Countess of Bellefonte, who keeps mousers in all of her libraries. Show Kessler evidence of the infestation, and he’ll soon decide that acquiring a cat was his own idea.”
Mr. Kessler was nothing if not fastidious. Mouse droppings would horrify him. “I need your name and direction,” Antonia said. “You clearly care about this cat, and he’s not fared well recently. If he’s turned back out on the street, he likely won’t last the winter.”
Now the wretched beast was butting his head against Antonia’s chin, while Miss Dorothy was doing a poor job of pretending to browse the travelogues while she eavesdropped.
The man bent near. “Max Haddonfield. My rooms are above the bake shop on Dinwiddie Lane.”
He left on a gust of frigid air and pulled the door firmly closed behind him.
“But did she like him?” Dagger asked, trotting at Max’s heels. “You didn’t just leave him there, did you? Poor old sod, down on his luck, and winter setting in. You probably dropped him behind the dustbin without a bleedin’ Happy Christmas or a—”
“Lucifer was purring in the lady’s arms as I left,” Max said. “Snuggled into the warmest embrace he’s known in his miserable, lazy life.”
Dagger slowed. “You’re sure? You could hear him purring?”
“Like thunder.” Beelzebub would be next, though Max would have to give him a different name. Lucifer, in addition to connoting the fiend, also brought to mind the dawn star, a happy image.
“What if the library patrons decide Lucifer’s bad luck?” Dagger asked. “They’ll toss him into the snow, and we’ll never be the wiser.”
Max understood the boy’s emotions all too well. Next to the hope that one more helpless creature had found a safe, warm, happy station in life, was the gaping wound of saying good-bye to a friend, a friend one had chosen to entrust to the world’s kindness.
Dagger well knew the world was not kind to the helpless, much less to skinny old cats too slow to catch a regular meal.
“If Lucifer fails to win the hearts of the patrons, I suspect Miss Antonia will intercede. She is kind.” She was also starchy, prim, and a great believer in the fantasy that rules must be obeyed, but her heart had gone out to Lucifer, just as Max’s had.
“Was she old?” Dagger asked. “Old ladies die, and nobody looks after their cats. It’s a bleedin’ disgrace. Dogs is always safe, because they’re too stupid to manage on their own, but a cat’s got to look out for his self.”
“Dagger, the library is two streets from our rooms. If Lucifer is cast out, he will eventually toddle back to us, probably two stone heavier.”
“You’re being unscientific. No cat weighs that much.” Dagger had learned to whip that five-syllable word around as lightly as he skipped down the street at the sight of a watchman.
Unscientific was a good modifier, having much applicability in a chaotic and hypocritical world. Dagger would cultivate that term for a time, then move on to another. Max had heard him, late at night, slowly pronouncing any number of learned words.
Corollate. Indicate. Verification. Variability. Lovely words.
“How old was she?” Dagger asked. “You say the old ones are most likely to take pity on a miserable cat, but Miss Antonia doesn’t sound like a white-haired name.”
The scent of baking bread wafted up the street, and though Max knew the notion was ridiculous—the bakery was a commercial enterprise—the smell brought a sense of homecoming. The Haddonfield family seat in Kent was a massive edifice suitable for an earl’s large and busy family, and yet the scent of baking bread, like a purring cat, was a universal indicator of well-being.
“Miss Antonia has decades of life yet to enjoy, if the Deity is merciful.”
“Which He seldom is. What sort of Deity sends us weather like this and then tells us we’re to have a holiday while we freeze and starve?”
Max turned down the alley. “When better to celebrate an occasion that reminds us to be kind and generous, than in the darkest week of winter?” That was the answer his brother-in-law Daniel might have offered, but then, Daniel was former clergy and a happily married man who, unlike Max, enjoyed the company of children.
“Fetch the day-olds,” Max said, passing Dagger a coin. “And now that Lucifer is settled, we can start looking for a home for Beelzebub.”
“Right-o. Day-old bread, coming right up, and after Yuletide we can start looking for a library for Beelz.”
Sorry, my boy. “Beelz will soon be too hearty a specimen to pluck at anybody’s heartstrings, Dagger. We will find him a new home in the next week.” The library on Constable Lane was large enough to keep a cat happy, and the Thursday through Saturday librarian was a lovely aging Scotswoman who knew more about whiskey distillation than any old dear ought to.
“Next week? That’s too soon. We just got him, and he’s great friends with Hannibal, and Edward likes him, and why next week?”
The boy kicked a pile of slush, spreading cold and wet in every direction. Once upon a time, Max had been an angry boy, then he’d been given a copy of Newton’s Principia, and anger had faded into curiosity and wonder.
“Next week, because people are at their most charitable as the holidays approach. The shopkeepers are being paid for a year’s worth of custom, the preachers are encouraging us to be generous. The streets are full of carols and kindness. Beelz is shy; he’ll need a patient librarian who doesn’t give up on the fussy patron, and next week is his best chance.”
Dagger left off murdering the slush pile. “I hate this. Why do we always have to give them away?”
“We don’t give them away like a pair of old boots. We find them respectable addresses and good company. The libraries get safety from mice, the cats earn good homes. We can’t take them all in, Dagger. We’ve had this discussion. If you’d seen Lucifer, cuddled in Miss Antonia’s arms, rubbing his head on her chin. . .”
Dagger wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Like that, was it? Flirting with her?”
“Not flirting.” Max hadn’t been able to watch it, whatever it was. “Getting acquainted, settling in. Making a new friend. Letting me know he’d handle matters on his own from now on.”
The boy’s shoulders slumped. “Least old Lucifer can be respectable.” Not so, a climbing boy who’d grown too large for his occupation.
“Keep working on your vocabulary—your words—and you can be respectable, too.” If you’ll just stop with the thievery. “Best get the day-olds before they’re all gone.”
“My vo-cab-u-lar-y.” Dagger took off up the narrow space between the bakery and the neighboring pub. His penchant for stealing puzzled Max, because by an urchin’s standards, Dagger was well provided for. He slept in the inglenook beside Max’s hearth. He had enough to eat. He had clothes to wear and boots on his feet.
And yet, an inventory of Dagger’s pockets at the end of the day had become necessary. He’d taken to snatching monogrammed handkerchiefs from the coats of dandies. Many talks, and the exercise of returning three stolen handkerchiefs to the various victims, hadn’t stopped the habit.
Max climbed the steps to his rooms and unlocked the door. Leaving the cats at their new homes was hard, coming home to the remaining members of the household was harder.
Hannibal stropped himself around Max’s boots, though the cat’s eyes held a question. One-eyed Edward, who was curled up in a basket on the hearth, had been through the drill often enough to treat Max to the worst hurt of all, utter indifference. Shy Beelzebub peeked out from under the sofa, while the three others gazed at Max expectantly.
“Lucifer won’t be coming back.” Talking to cats was unscientific in the extreme; ergo, Max was talking to himself. “He’s found a good home. He’ll be better off, and his leaving makes a place for another here. Dagger will doubtless start searching tomorrow.”
Hannibal squinted up at him.
“She’s pretty, she’s young, she’s kind,” Max went on, “and if the library won’t have him, Miss Antonia will.” Max hoped. Spinsters were a self-possessed lot, much like cats but not half so prone to purring. That she was Miss Antonia at her age, not Miss Smith or Miss Whoever, suggested an even older unmarried sister. In some families, that meant the younger sisters waited in vain for a match, or perhaps in her case, they contented themselves with the company of books.
Beelzebub and Hannibal touched noses, and Hannibal joined Beelzebub under the couch.
“Fine, then,” Max said, unwrapping his scarf and trailing it slowly over the carpet. “I’ll check on him next week, only because you insist and only the once.”
Edward yawned, stretched, and squinted at Max out of his one good eye, then joined the other two under the couch. Max suffered an unaccountable urge to go back to the library and check on Lucifer at that very moment, but that would set no sort of example for Dagger.
He tossed his scarf onto a peg behind the door and added half a bucket of coal to the fire.
Mr. Paxton slapped the book down on Antonia’s desk loudly enough to wake the cat, who was curled in a basket beside the fireplace.
“I specifically told Mr. Kessler to locate a first edition of Richardson’s treatise,” Mr. Paxton snapped. “This is not a first edition.”
Across the reading room, the Barclay sisters peered at Antonia over their sermons. They’d intervene if she indicated a need for assistance, so she ignored them and met Mr. Paxton’s glare with a calm eye.
“This is a fourth edition, sir, though your request was made only the day before yesterday. We’ll be happy to notify you if and when a first edition arrives. You are welcome to borrow this copy until then.”
Antonia remained seated, while Mr. Paxton drew himself up, a hot air balloon of male self-importance preparing to lift into a flight of indignation. The bell on the front door tinkled and Lucifer left his basket. He greeted each patron as conscientiously as a butler would, then went back to his basket, almost as if he were expecting one caller in particular.
“What sort of librarian,” Mr. Paxton began, “cannot tell a first edition from subsequent printings? What sort of institution employs staff who cannot fulfill a simple loan request? Was I not clear that I wanted a first edition?”
He braced his hands on the desk and leaned closer. “Did I not complete your form to Mr. Kessler’s satisfaction? Did he perhaps allow Mr. Lincoln Candleford to have the first edition before I was permitted to see it? I know the library on Constable Lane has one, but it’s lent out, and they won’t tell me who has it.”
Mr. Paxton needed a closer acquaintance with several sheaves of a fresh parsley. His breath reeked of the tobacco habit, which did not blend well with the excessive rose pomade in his hair.
“Libraries value the privacy of their patrons,” Antonia replied. “If Constable Lane had a first edition available to lend, I’m sure they’d have sent it around. Did you seek to research a particular topic covered by Mr. Richardson’s treatise?”
Mr. Paxton’s gaze crawled over Antonia’s feminine endowments. He might have been any one of a hundred half-drunk, blond, blue-eyed fortune hunters forgetting himself in a Mayfair ballroom, and in that setting, Antonia would have known what to do about him.
The cut direct, a raised eyebrow, a knowing glance to the chaperones waiting to pounce on a man’s reputation from among the potted ferns. He’d find himself in want of invitations for the remainder of the Season, which was a fortune hunter’s version of doom.
“Young woman, are you listening to me? Is your female brain overtaxed by a patron’s request when that request is plainly and succinctly put before you? Must I complain to Kessler about his paltry collection and his dimwitted staff?”
Antonia rose, standing eye to eye with Mr. Paxton, the desk between them. “Your request has been submitted to our sister institutions. Is your male brain too limited to grasp that Mr. Richardson’s treatise was published in 1788, and first editions have had nigh on three decades to become lost, damaged, or destroyed? Locating one might take more than two days, though I suggest you retrieve your manners in the next thirty seconds.”
His gaze roamed over her in a manner so far beyond insulting that had Antonia been at one of polite society’s social functions, she would have slapped him.
He obviously knew she couldn’t. Not here, where she was a volunteer on probation until a paying post became available. Not now, with only a pair of old women to gainsay Paxton’s version of events. At the library, Antonia was simply “young woman,” not an earl’s daughter with a private fortune. For the first time since embarking on this literary adventure, Antonia understood why her cousins had tried to dissuade her from it.
She wasn’t afraid, exactly, but she was uneasy.
“You were a governess, weren’t you?” Paxton said. “A long meg like you was passed over by the bachelors. You probably lost your position because you got above yourself. You think a little French and a smattering of Italian make you an intellectual. What you need is—”
The smell of freshly baked bread gave Antonia an instant’s warning that her conversation had acquired another witness.
“What you need,” Mr. Haddonfield said, positioning himself at her elbow, “is to leave. Now.”
Paxton put a hand on his hip. “Who might you be and what gives you the right to intrude here?”
“Max Haddonfield, at your service. Your rudeness invites any gentleman in the vicinity to intercede. Apologize to the lady for behaving like a petulant brat and find another library to patronize.”
“Please do leave, Mr. Paxton,” Antonia said. “You’ve disturbed the other patrons, and contrary to your imaginings, librarians are not magicians. Finding a thirty-year-old first edition will take some time.”
“Go,” Mr. Haddonfield said, making a shooing motion.
“And are you a librarian, sir, to be so dismissive toward a man of my academic credentials?” Paxton sniffed, picking up the book.
Mr. Haddonfield plucked the book from Paxton’s grasp. “I’m a chemist.” He smiled at Paxton as if being a chemist was better than having put Wellington on his first pony. “Haven’t blown anything up in more than two weeks. I grow short-tempered when I can’t blow something up.”
Paxton took two steps back. “Kessler will hear about this.”
Mr. Haddonfield crossed his arms, which made his coat stretch over broad shoulders and muscular biceps. “He certainly will. Your rudeness toward both the staff and the other patrons will doubtless result in revocation of your lending privileges.”
“Other patrons? I assume you refer to yourself?”
Mr. Haddonfield twirled his finger. Paxton glanced over his shoulder, to where the Barclay sisters were no longer even pretending to read. Miss Dottie waggled her fingers. Miss Betty smiled over a bound volume of the Reverend Fordyce’s wisdom.
“Other patrons,” Mr. Haddonfield said. “Away with you. Be gone.” He clapped his hands rapidly at Mr. Paxton, like a housekeeper impatient with a sluggardly maid.
Paxton leapt back, jerked his coat down, and marched for the door. The silence in his wake was broken by bells on a passing gig, a merry sound.
“Do you really blow things up?” Antonia asked.
“Yes, but usually only on purpose.”