As one would expect of a young woman raised in a bookshop, Georgette Frost was accustomed to flights of imagination. But not even in her most robust fancies could she have dreamed her present situation. Not because she was garbed in boys’ clothing. Many the blue-blooded heroine of a conte de fée had disguised herself to escape the cruel predations of a wicked relative. True, Georgette’s veins ran with the ink of her family’s longtime bookshop rather than blue blood. And Cousin Mary was not wicked; merely overwhelmed by the ceaseless demands of the shop and her multitude of children. Nor was Georgette dismayed to set out on her own, with all her worldly possessions in a small trunk. Freed from the endless shelves of the shop, the constant questions of starched-collar customers, she had felt gloriously unfettered as she sought a coaching house and prepared to join her elder brother on his travels for the first time. There was only one problem, but that problem was a significant one: six feet tall, hawkish of feature, and stuffy of temperament. Lord Hugo Starling, the youngest son of the Duke of Willingham. Friend of Georgette’s elder brother, Benedict. Representative of everything chill and sterile about the life of the mind: study, solitude, and sternness. Every time he had visited Frost’s Bookshop, he had demonstrated this anew, curt and exasperated by the world outside of the latest book on which he had his eye. Unfortunately, Lord Hugo didn’t remain confined to bookshops. He had encountered Georgette at the coaching inn before she could take her seat on the stagecoach.
After a public spat, which did credit to neither of them—though far less to Lord Hugo, who ought to have kept his high-bridged nose out of her business—Georgette had grudgingly scrambled into his carriage. She now faced him, glaring, as he settled against the soft velvet squabs. “How can you say what I want is impossible? You asked where I wanted to go.” “I asked, yes. But I didn’t say I would take you there. It would be wrong to send you to the wilds of Derbyshire.” The wilds. She almost snorted. Likely Derbyshire, all grasses and livestock, did seem wild to a London-bred noble with a perfectly knotted cravat. Georgette was London-bred herself, but with an elder brother once in the Royal Navy, she felt she’d seen a bit of the world, if only through his letters.
This carriage, though, came from a world of luxury she’d never known. Unmarred and sleek, the wood shone with lemon-scented oil. Within sparkling-clear glass globes, the wicks of the unlit lamps were trimmed. The velvet squabs were brushed clean and soft. Her secondhand jacket and cheap boys’ shoes had seemed the perfect disguise when she was outdoors. Now she felt shabby and false, her pale blond hair falling in drab strands from beneath the cap. Rapunzel, back in a different sort of tower. Cendrillon, doomed to a new sort of drudgery. In retrieving her—no! abducting her—Lord Hugo had been splashed with mud and cheap liquor, his fine coat stained and reeking. Somehow he still managed to look confident and unbending.
Like the carriage, he was tidy and elegant except for his encounter with Georgette. She set her jaw. “I wish you’d left me alone. I was going to find my brother.” He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like fool’s errand . “You want to seek the Royal Reward, don’t you? Your brother is sure he’ll find it, and you want to help him.” She waved a hand. “Of course. Who wouldn’t want five thousand pounds?” For such was the reward offered by the Royal Mint to anyone who located fifty thousand missing gold sovereigns. New coins, not yet circulated, they had been stolen from the Mint in a mysterious and violent rampage some weeks before.
Four guards had been killed, and six trunks of the sovereigns stolen. Since then, no evidence of them had been found—until one gold sovereign was spent in a Derbyshire village, drawing the curious and the treasure-mad from all corners of England. That village—called Strawfield—was where Benedict had gone as soon as he returned to England from his latest voyage. And so that was where Georgette would go to find him, and her fortune. “Until I can write your brother, I shall take you to stay with my mother,” Lord Hugo decided. “You shall be the guest of the Duchess of Willingham. Won’t that be . er, nice?” She could almost hear the gears of his mind grinding. Smile! Present single option as though it were appealing while giving no choice! “No.” She folded her arms.
Rude, yes; but he had been rude in taking Georgette away from her coaching stop. Her ticket, purchased with scraped-together savings from her salary at the bookshop, was now money wasted. “None of your behavior has been nice at all. I cannot believe you told a crowd of strangers that I was your criminal nephew who had stolen silver from my dying mother.” Instead of looking chastened, the cursed man shot her a grim smile. “Turnabout is fair play. You told them I was drunk. And you told your own cousins at the bookshop that you’d been invited to stay with my family. Won’t it be agreeable to convert one of your lies into the truth?” “Certainly. You have my permission to get drunk.
As soon as you return to me the price of my wasted ticket, that is.” He scrubbed a hand over his face, then sank back against the squabs with apparent weariness. “I took you up, Miss Frost, because your brother would want you to be safe. And that is the end of the discussion.” “Oh, good! Then you agree with me.” She bared her teeth in a grin. “You should let me go to Benedict.” “I can’t let you go alone, Miss Frost,” he replied. “It wouldn’t be right. A woman alone .
there are those who would hurt you.” Thus my disguise as a boy. She rolled her eyes. “If your conscience won’t permit me to travel alone, you may accompany me to Derbyshire.” “Out of the question. My business holds me in London.” “What business?” “Endless business. Only today, I have a meeting at Somerset House with the president of the Royal Society. Then I must review a new treatise on infection at the Royal College of Physicians.” “Say ‘royal’ once more.
” His dark blue gaze snapped to meet hers, suspicious. “Why?” “Because I hadn’t got it into my brain that you’re a lord who moves in exalted circles and can do whatever he likes.” The carriage rocked on its well-oiled springs, swallowing the roughness of London’s roads. Twisting and cornering. Taking her away from the coaching inn. Was she closer to Derbyshire now, or farther away? Farther. Definitely farther. She sighed. “Lord Hugo, I don’t want to stay with your mother. I want to go to my own family.
Surely you can understand that.” He lifted a brow. “Such a wish is unfathomable to me. But then, my family is ashamed of me.” Dark suppositions about hidden chambers and monstrous deeds flooded her mind. Now it was her turn to ask, with some suspicion, “Why is that?” “Because I went to medical college instead of into the clergy. Because I call upon ill people and sometimes perform surgeries.” Georgette released a caught breath. “How terrible. I can understand why they are disgusted by you.
” He winced, then tried to cover it by adjusting his starched white cuffs. Oh, dear. “I’m teasing, Lord Hugo. I can understand nothing of the sort. To me, such behavior seems . ” She cast about for the right word. “Acceptable.” “Acceptable,” he repeated drily. The carriage gave a sway, and he steadied himself with a broad hand against the fabric-softened ceiling. “Is that why you’re going to all those royal locations? To learn something about patient care?” “Nothing so admirable.
I’m looking for a patron for a private hospital.” He lowered his hand, regarding her narrowly. “You’re about to ask why again, aren’t you?” “I would never intrude into a matter that was no business of mine.” She fired a pointed stare at him. “Right. I’m sure you wouldn’t.” The curve of his mouth was distant and haughty, the sort of notquite smile worn by classical statues. “Surgeons with little knowledge cut and operate, while the physicians with the most medical training drone and profess and hardly ever see patients. I think the best of both roles should be blended. I intend to see that it is.
” “So your meetings are to ask important people to give you money because your family will not support your scheme?” “Indeed. Honesty is the most expedient way of getting what one wants.” “When one is dealing with the elite?” She hooted. “Not likely. I’ve changed my mind. Take me along with you. I want to watch this.” “Ah—well. No. This is a delicate matter.
If I hope to persuade them this time—” “This time? You’ve asked before?” His gaze slid away. “Twice.” “So you’ll batter them with arguments and proposals they’ve already rejected. Twice.” “Because they are wrong.” “Say no more. That would convince me.” “I ought to put you out of the carriage right now,” he muttered. “If you’ll give me coach fare to Strawfield village in Derbyshire, I’ll be on my way.” It wouldn’t be the first time she’d left right before being evicted.
After Georgette and Benedict’s parents died, Benedict had inherited the bookshop—and sold it to Cousin Mary and her husband with the understanding that they would house Georgette until she turned twenty-one. But in the cramped family quarters above, Mary needed another day maid much more than she needed a cousin who served as bookstore clerk. And Georgette’s wages, meager though they were, would easily hire Mary the help she needed. Better to leave now than to find herself cast out—with kindness and apology—in a few more weeks. Better to descend from Lord Hugo’s carriage before she found herself in a world she knew not at all. She had raised her hand, prepared to rap on the ceiling and bring the carriage to a halt, when Lord Hugo spoke: “Wait. Please.” She glared at him. “Miss Frost. Please do not make yourself unsafe.
” His tone was stern, but not unkind. How odd. She let her hand fall to her lap, fingers twisting together. “My lord, I don’t wish to be unsafe. I wish to go to my brother.” This observation seemed to strike the high-handed man in the solar plexus. “I am trying to help your brother. And you. Why do you think I visited Frost’s Bookshop so often?” “Because you wanted books.” “I could buy books anywhere.
” Her mouth opened—and then closed again. He turned aside, working at the latch on the carriage window. “Warm day,” he grunted. “Some air would be—ah. There. Isn’t that pleasant?” The gruff tone of his voice had gone tentative. In fact, the air was humid and close outside as well as in. With the window open, smuts wafted in like a sprinkling of black snow, making him blink. If his expression were always thus—a little weary, a little befuddled—he would be quite handsome. Digging her split-seamed shoe into the mat cushioning the floor of the carriage, she looked down.
“Thank you for your concern.” “If you were my sister, there is no way in heaven I’d let you run off and seek treasure.” As quickly as that, the moment was spoiled. Her head snapped up. “Let, let, let. Just stop. If I were your sister, I wouldn’t need the money, so the point is moot. If I were your sister, I’d have been raised on clouds of spun sugar and dined off dishes made of carved diamond.” “That is ridiculous. Diamond is far too hard to carve for use as crockery.
Too small as well.” He considered. “However, my sisters-in-law are remarkably fond of spun sugar.” “Hugo.” She used his name without the honorific for the first time, and his brows lifted— displaying surprise, but not, she thought, displeasure. “You asked where I wanted to go. Besides the cousins I have left behind, my brother is the only close family I have in the world. I do not know him well, and I do not know what his life is like. But I know being in his company would be better than being alone.” And then an idea struck her.
A marvelous, wonderful idea, worthy of a heroine in a fairy tale. “You really could come with me,” she said. “Leave your business with Royal This and That behind and try something new. Pursue the Royal Reward instead.” * * * Impossible. Illogical. Yet as Hugo turned the suggestion over in his mind, it did not seem inconceivable. He bought himself a moment to think. “Not while you’re wearing those ridiculous boys’ clothes. I can’t imagine how you fooled anyone.
” She shrugged. “People see what they want to. I couldn’t have deceived Benedict, of course.” This was undoubtedly true. Her brother had lost his sight due to a tropical illness during his stint in the Royal Navy. Ever since, Benedict had navigated the world—including medical college alongside Hugo—through hearing and touch, and there was little nuance that escaped his notice. “There’s an idea,” she went on, sounding pleased. “If you don’t like my boys’ costume, I can change my garb and travel as your sister.” “I never said I would travel with—” “It’s perfect.” She leaned forward, eyes wide with enthusiasm.
The already precarious cap tumbled from her head, allowing all that fairy-pale hair to fall. Down about her shoulders; down, down, to her waist. “If you help me, I will take the reward and you may take all the credit. You can use the popular notoriety to gain acceptance for your pet project.” Hugo bridled. “‘Pet project’ is hardly the way one ought to refer to a private hospital with the potential to save many lives. And why should I not set off on my own and have both the acclaim and the reward?” “Because that would be horrid of you. And if you have the acclaim, you won’t need the reward.” His brows lifted. “So you say.
Another thing I won’t need is the scandal of being thought to have abducted an ungrateful whelp.” “I give you my word, I won’t tell a crowd of strangers you’re trying to abduct me. As long as you don’t try to abduct me,” she added. “Again.” Abduction. God. This was his thanks for rescuing her from a crowd that, if they recognized her as a gently bred young woman rather than a scrubby youth, would have turned on her in every way imaginable. “If you accompany me to Strawfield,” Georgette added, “I shall behave properly.” Feigning docility, she lowered her eyes. Light eyes, like the pale of a summer sky.
Pale hair and skin, too. Seeing her among the mazelike shelves of Frost’s Bookshop, Hugo had always thought she looked as though she were half faded into the pages of a story. A fanciful observation. Most uncharacteristic of him. Especially since, as his visits to the bookshop stacked in number, he saw how hard and how prosaically she worked. Because Hugo had befriended her brother during their medical studies in Edinburgh, Georgette seemed not to regard the duke’s son with the formality she would a stranger. In his presence, she carried garments for the laundress, scooped up her cousin’s wayward toddlers, marked accounts, stacked books—and so on, in ceaseless motion. “Do you want to search for your brother, Miss Frost? Or for the stolen coins?” She considered. “First the second thing. Then the first thing second.
” “I should have guessed,” he murmured. “Do explain to me. My family already disapproves, and my would-be patrons have already declined. How would notoriety for finding stolen sovereigns increase my credibility in medical circles? And better still, how would it translate into financial support for my hospital?” “Finding the sovereigns would make you tonnish. Then everything you said and did would be acceptable to people of influence.” She spoke matter-of-factly, as though this were obvious. And maybe it should have been. These people of influence—of which his father was one, and of whom his family was constantly aware—were unimpressed by the carefully constructed appeals to logic on which Hugo prided himself. By accounts of the increased productivity of fields when tenants were fit and healthy. By evidence of the opposite, too: tales of infection, of suppuration, of dirty wards, of lives that should have been saved.
Accompany me to Strawfield: the words painted a lovely picture such as he had not seen for years. A wide sky, absent the caustic smell of chloride of lime and the heavy odor of ill bodies, often beyond help. People who listened to him simply because they thought him worth listening to. Not because they had to, because his father was a duke. Not dismissing him, either, as a younger son with wild ideas that trespassed against the upper class’s notions of suitability. When influenza broke out among the dukedom’s tenants, Hugo’s own father, the Duke of Willingham, had called Hugo mad to quarantine ill tenants away from their healthy relatives. Everyone knew that influenza came from an imbalance of humors, said his father, so what use would a quarantine be? But when the spread of illness was halted and the outbreak ended almost as soon as it began, the duke granted that perhaps Hugo had been right. Not right enough to support his other medical ideas, though. Not right enough to grant that Hugo’s chosen field was a worthwhile way to spend one’s life. They hadn’t spoken in quite some time.
It was better that way. “Think of all the people you could help with your hospital,” Georgette coaxed. Hugo folded his arms. “You are thinking of one. You.” She beamed. “You only fold your arms when you’re about to change your mind.” “I do not.” He unfolded his arms, but they snapped back into a cradle about his midsection. “How did you—why .
” “I learned such signals working in the family bookshop. When to push someone harder. When a bit more persuasion would help me to make the sale.” She had sorted him out, that was true enough—though he wasn’t prepared to tell her he’d give in. Despite himself, his mouth curved up at one corner. “All that fluffy blond hair covers a diabolical mind.” Her brows knit. “What is diabolical about both of us getting what we want?” To this, he had no answer: only a question. In this agreement, would he be the devil, or poor Faust, who sold his soul?