The Truth About Cads and Dukes(4)

By: Elisa Braden

Jane sniffed and adjusted her spectacles. “Nonsense. One must buy books, just as one must buy ribbons. The fact that it is not something you wish to purchase does not change the definition, Genie.”

She felt Genie’s glare land on her cheek, but she ignored it to search for the proprietor of Norton’s Bookshop. He rushed in from the back room, a blur of thinning hair, woolen twill, and wire spectacles. “Mr. Higginbotham! G-good afternoon. I am looking for—” Jane began, only to be interrupted by an upraised finger.

“Not now, gel.” Bustling by, long wisps of his ever-sparser hair flying high, Mr. Higginbotham did what he usually did: ignored her in favor of a male customer.

“I don’t like him,” Genie commented, her narrowed eyes following the thin man to the front of the shop.

Jane sighed. “That is his way. He is looking after his interests.”

“He is rude. Does he realize who you are? At the very least, he should pay heed to how much you spend in his shop. To treat an earl’s daughter in such a way is simply boorish.”

At times like this, Jane was grateful to have sisters. Genie might seem a frivolous brat, but against outsiders, she was fierce in defense of Jane—or any of their siblings, really. Jane squeezed her arm and nudged her toward the back corner. “Come. If you behave, I will take you next door when I’m finished.” Next door was Genie’s favorite hat shop. But her fondness for bonnets must have dwindled, because she tugged Jane to a halt and gave her a look of queenly hauteur.

“Do not speak to me as if I am a child.”

Now Jane remembered why having sisters was a two-edged sword. “You don’t wish to go next door, then?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I wish to go.”

“Then what is the problem?”

Genie looked stymied for a moment. Inside, Jane smiled. Being twenty, as opposed to Genie’s almost-fourteen, gave her certain advantages—namely, the ability to win an argument with circular logic.

The queenly posture returned in due course, and Her Majesty peered down her royal nose at Jane. “I shall not wait longer than an hour. After that, you may find me next door.”

Giving her a placid look, Jane replied, “Don’t forget to take Teddy with you.”

Red bloomed on Genie’s cheeks, rising along her forehead and painting her throat in blotchy color. Teddy was the handsome new footman who had accompanied them on this excursion … and Genie’s latest impossible fancy. “Hmmph,” Genie grunted, turning on her heel and stomping toward a low shelf full of navigational references.

While her sister pretended a fascination with all things nautical, Jane hid a grin and made her way to the far back corner of the shop. It was a dark and quiet spot, as the shelves rose to very near the ceiling, forming a small room. Jane paused, simply breathing in silent anticipation. Her gloved fingers drifted slowly toward the neat row of spines, slid over their smooth surfaces. She knew what she had come for: A copy of Emma to send to her best friend, Victoria Lacey. Well, now Victoria Wyatt, Lady Atherbourne. Had it been only last year that their friendship began in earnest? Jane smiled and shook her head. It seemed longer.

Jane’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Berne, had been friends with Victoria’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Blackmore, before the latter couple died tragically in a North Sea shipwreck. Two years ago, Jane’s mother became Victoria’s sponsor and chaperone in London, and last year, after a disastrous scandal forced Victoria to marry Lucien Wyatt, Viscount Atherbourne, Jane had been recruited into the effort to restore Victoria’s reputation. Only then did Jane and Victoria converse regularly enough to become friends. In fact, they’d found a rapport Jane hadn’t felt with anyone apart from her sisters—perhaps not even them.

Recalling Victoria’s most recent letter, Jane’s mouth curved upward again. Thankfully, while her friend’s marriage had begun in scandal, it had quickly grown into a true love match, and they were now settled at Lucien’s Derbyshire estate awaiting the arrival of their first child. That was what had brought Jane to Norton’s Bookshop today: Unquestionably, a woman in confinement needed a good book to pass the time.

Jane moved to her right, examining the titles: Mansfield Park, several copies of Waverley and Robinson Crusoe, some volumes of poetry by a man she had never heard of. But no Emma. Dash it all, it was the most delightful novel, a rival for Jane’s all-time favorite, Pride and Prejudice. She had written Victoria glowing descriptions of its many charms, had promised she would send a copy along with her very next letter. It would be such a shame to disappoint her.