Bond Street, London Rowena Fairweather had many pleasures. She was as equally delighted by piecing together a damaged violin as she was at bringing an instrument into tune. She was seduced by records of income from her luthier’s shop when profits exceeded the inevitable long columns of household expenditures. And on days like this one, when her accounts bled red ink and the rent on the shop building was soon to increase beyond a prayer of paying it, she was charmed into forgetfulness for a few brief moments by a book. At last, her turn had come for a copy of How to Ruin a Duke, the titillating novel that had all of London Society buzzing that it was no fiction at all. Rumor had it that the book was a thinly veiled revelation about the handsome Duke of Emory’s private life—much like the novel Glenarvon that had skewered Lord Byron three years before. The author of Glenarvon, Lady Caroline Lamb, had been ostracized for writing such a livid satire of Society. Wisely, the author of How to Ruin a Duke hid under the cloak of anonymity. Which meant London’s elite had the pleasure of gossiping not only about the Duke of Emory, but also about who could have written the book. As a shopkeeper, Rowena was hardly a member of London’s elite. But she entered their homes to tune their pianofortes; she repaired their violins and restrung their harps. It was good business for her to know their fortunes and pedigrees…along with the latest gossip. And so it was for business, she told herself—and not entirely for curiosity’s sake—that she had put her name down for a copy of How to Ruin a Duke. Her subscription to a circulating library—an expense shared with her friend Lady Edith Charbonneau—allowed her to devour every Gothic novel published. But today, on this misty spring day, the Duke of Amorous was more fascinating even than an insane monk or a mysterious skeleton in a castle tower.
Elbows propped on her worktable, she turned the pages of the volume with growing wonder. How much gin could a duke drink without dying of it? Why would he race from London to Brighton in a curricle by the light of the moon? In what manner could a man wager against himself in the White’s betting book? As her right hand weighted down the pages, she gasped at one particularly scandalous anecdote. “He hid a note inside a violin?” Lifting her head, she regarded the tools of her trade. The long worktable with the great magnifying lens in an articulated frame. Tools for carving and clamping, for applying glues and varnishes. Neat racks along the wall for scraps and planks of boxwood, rosewood, spruce, maple, ebony. Strings of pale catgut in neat loops. Instruments in all stages of repair, from the restored violin ready to be returned to Lady Davidson, to the just-arrived violoncello with a broken neck, its scrolled top and pegbox dangling sadly from the strings. And the Duke of Amorous, and perhaps Emory, had shoved a note inside one of these lovely instruments as if it were a mail coach. Rowena shook her head.
“What a monster.” From a cushion on the workshop floor, all the better to chase and eat beetles, Rowena’s hedgehog Cotton lifted her spiny head and twitched her little black nose as if in agreement. Had the Duke of Emory really inspired every action of his fictional near-namesake? Rowena would ask Edith. Edie had worked in Emory’s household for two years as the companion of the present duke’s mother, leaving her post only five months before. She’d know how true to life the portrayal of Emory was. But Edith would have to wait her turn to read this book, as she had taken both Nightmare Abbey and Frankenstein before Rowena. Rowena had had to wait for endlessseeming days to read them herself, while Edith had hinted winkingly at every twist in the plots. Not that Edith would really spoil the secrets of a good novel. Unlike the Duke of Amorous, she wasn’t a monster. As Rowena turned the page, the bell over the shop’s front door jingled.
“Hullo?” called a male voice from the other side of the velvet curtain that separated the workshop from the small public office. Rowena sighed. How badly she had wanted to forget her worries for a while, to sink instead into the latest popular work of delicious scandal. Never mind. Customers, clients, patrons came first. She left the book on her worktable, then smoothed her black hair and ducked around the heavy curtain into the office where she welcomed clients and carried out simple jobs. She arranged her hands behind her back and prepared her polite, public smile. Welcome to Fairweather’s, Luthier to the Crown , was what she ought to have said to the prospective customer. Two issues halted her tongue before it could utter the familiar script, so that only an “Oh!” of surprise burst from her lips. First, the man who entered was neither a liveried footman nor a tonnish papa.
Those two sorts of male shoppers, both representing a pampered and wealthy young lady of a musical inclination, were Rowena’s bread and butter during the London Season. But this man was too young to be the father of a Society maiden, too plainly dressed to be a footman. He looked about thirty, only a few years older than Rowena’s twenty-six years, and was garbed in well-cut but simple clothing. Second, he was holding a horn. Not a violin, a viola, or even a violoncello. A horn, with nary a string in sight. On the floor, an open instrument case splayed. For a moment, Rowena fumbled for words. At last, she said, “Welcome to Fairweather’s, sir. This is a luthier’s shop.
Is all well with your horn? It’s not the sort of instrument I usually work on.” “You are the Fairweather of the shop name, then?” The man raised puckish dark brows. “I expected someone older and—” “Male, no doubt,” Rowena interrupted smoothly. “Before my father passed on a year ago, you’d have got both age and masculinity. But I represent Fairweather’s now, and I’ve had more than two decades of experience building and repairing stringed instruments.” “Very well. This ought to be easy as winking for you.” He heaved his horn onto the sleek counter between them. Rowena’s gaze flicked from the brass instrument to the dark eyes of the customer. They were warm and red-brown like heart of rosewood, uncommon for use in violins but a lovely surprise when it appeared.
The good cheer in this man’s expression was also uncommon but, in its way, lovely as well. She tried not to smile. “I assume you are aware that a horn is not a stringed instrument.” “I am,” he granted. “I’m also aware that something is blocking the flow of sound, which caused me to be sacked by the family that hired me to give lessons to their son. I’ve only just time to get to a rehearsal at Vauxhall Gardens, and I’d prefer my horn to emit notes so that I won’t lose two jobs in one day.” “A reasonable wish.” “I knew you’d understand. And when I passed your shop, I thought, well, a luthier is better than no one.” Now she did allow herself an amused quirk of the lips.
“Surely you meant to say ‘a luthier is better than almost anyone.’” The man’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Did I misspeak? That’s exactly what I meant to say. A luthier will know how to fix my horn, because luthiers are excellent and wonderful.” “Wise man. Very well, I’ll look it over. If need be, I’ll take it into my workshop, but I might be able to help you here.” A horn didn’t have a terrible lot of parts. Either the structure was damaged—and the shining surface looked all right—or there was something caught inside. Crouching, she peered into the bell but saw nothing.
“I played at a musicale last night and the horn sounded fine,” explained the man. “I must have used all my crooks for changing keys at one point or another, so the problem’s not with one of them.” “Hmm.” She needed something fine to fish about for an obstruction. Rowena considered the tools behind the workroom curtain, then instead plucked a pin from her heavy twists of hair. Stretching the curved bit of metal into a straight wire, she fashioned a little hook at one end, then plunged it into the depths of the horn. She wiggled the pin about, easing it into the innards of the horn to feel for anything that wasn’t as it ought to be. “Ah. There we have it. There’s something in here.
” With her makeshift tool, she tugged at the obstruction. “Let me help you with that,” the man blurted. “I can do that for you.” Oh. She’d used her right hand to fashion the hook. Damn. She hated this sort of response, when courtesy turned into condescension. Rowena wasn’t ashamed of her right hand, exactly, but she didn’t like it being stared at. Save for the thumb, the fingers on that hand were truncated and twisted, the nails little chips. She’d been born that way; she was accustomed to it, even if the world wasn’t.
Though her fingers sometimes pained her, she prided herself on being as dexterous as anyone with a perfectly matched pair of hands. So she shot her customer a Withering Look—so withering that only capital letters would do to describe it. “You came to me for help, sir. Allow me to oblige.” He hesitated, but instead of protesting, he said, “I’m sorry. Of course. You’re right. Carry on.” A ready apology was impossible to argue with, especially when the person apologizing was reduced to speaking in two-word fragments. So she only nodded, then returned to her work.
She’d never been fishing—one wouldn’t want to eat whatever was pulled from the Thames—but she imagined she was angling for some elusive prey now. Just a little twist of her wire hook, and she’d have it… “Aha! I’ve captured the Great Horned Blockage. A rare species, I hope.” Rowena fished out a wad of paper and set it on the counter. Her customer poked at it cautiously. “That was in my horn? Good Lord, it’s half the size of an egg.” Rowena recalled the troubling passage from How to Ruin a Duke, currently reposed on her worktable. “I think someone’s been clever and passed you a secret note.” “A note. In my horn.
” The customer gave the folded paper a dark look. “A note. It’s because of that cursed book, isn’t it? How to Ruin a Duke. Have you read it? I haven’t yet, but I know the duke puts a note in a violin. My fellow horn player at Vauxhall has been inspired to exchange notes with every woman in London.” “Every woman? He’s prolific. But I’ve missed receiving mine. How sad for me.” “If you’d met Botts, you’d know it wasn’t a tragedy. He’s an incorrigible flirt.
” “And you are…?” He extended a hand. “Simon Thorn. Not an incorrigible flirt, I hope, but newly a great admirer of luthiers.” He shook hands with her as if they were old friends. As if her right hand was perfectly normal, perfectly worth shaking. Thorn. The customer’s surname suited him, a simple and crisp sound to match his appearance. “Rowena Fairweather,” she replied. His hand felt good on hers, warm and weighty and broad. But she pulled back after a moment, for she wasn’t in the profession of groping strange men’s hands.
She was in the profession of repairing instruments. A realization struck her. “Notes! Hidden notes! That’s what happened to—well, I’d better not say whose violin, but a certain customer of mine. The sound post has been knocked out of position four times this past week. She said it was due to vigorous playing —” Simon Thorn choked. “—but I’d wager she was fumbling for a note.” “You could be right. At least you got to collect four fees for your pains.” “And at a higher rate than usual for providing emergency service.” Rowena grinned.
“Do you want to read your note?” “Yes, all right. You’ve earned the right to have your curiosity satisfied, Miss Luthier Who Can Fix Anything.” He unfolded the paper and read out, “‘Mr. Amorous—you cannot be ruined except by your own folly, and what an entertaining spectacle that is!’” His brow creased. “That’s not even my name. What is this rubbish? Is it a threat?” “Mr. Thorn,” Rowena tried out the name delicately. “Someone is flirting with you. That text comes from How to Ruin a Duke. May I?” She extended a hand—her right, boldly—and took hold of the paper.
“ ‘Have many pleasures.’ ‘Essential qualities.’ ‘Cards and curricles.’ Yes, those are from How to Ruin a Duke too. It’s full of alliteration. ‘Meet me at…’ Ahem.” She thrust the paper back at Mr. Thorn, her cheeks growing hot. “If that last bit is from the book, I, ah, haven’t got to that part yet.” “Clearly, I should read it.
It must be a most intriguing book.” With a sigh, he crumpled the note. “So, someone wants to foster a flirtation with me, but without putting any thought into it.” “Now you’re being alliterative too. Maybe you wrote this note to yourself.” He scoffed, but before he could reply, a whisper of movement at the curtain had Rowena turning away. It was no person, but a spiny little mammal wandering in from the workroom. Thorn craned his neck to regard the new arrival. “Who’s this?” “The younger Miss Fairweather by far.” Rowena scooped up the animal, cradling the familiar protective ball that Cotton made of herself.
“This is my hedgehog, Cotton. She gobbles down all the insects that would otherwise eat my woods and resins and glues.” “A useful partner, then.” Thorn extended a hand toward the animal, then halted. “May I pet her?” Rowena liked that he wanted to, liked even more that he’d halted himself and asked permission. “Of course you may.” She set Cotton on the counter, where the hedgehog nosed at the shining brass horn with her little quivering snout. Thorn was gentle as he stroked her prickly back, so gentle that Cotton didn’t even roll up again. Rowena liked that, too, the care he took with her pet. Once Cotton had determined that the horn wasn’t food, she regarded Rowena with reproachful black button eyes.
No treats? Then she picked her way gently along the counter, pausing every step or two to sniff the air as if something new and delicious might have entered the shop. Perhaps it had. Rowena regarded Mr. Thorn from the crown of his hat to the toes of his boots, and she couldn’t fault the sender of the hidden note for its seductive tone. So she asked, “Who could have stuffed a note into your horn?” Curiosity might have killed a cat, but it had never been known to harm a person or hedgehog. “The mother of the young fellow I was meant to be tutoring? Wife of the man who dismissed me? I can’t imagine who else.” Thorn frowned. “Maybe that’s why he dismissed me, if he saw his wife shoving a note into my horn.” “Dear me, yes. Flirting with a married woman? How scandalous.
” “In this instance, it was one-sided. I can’t help what someone writes to me in a note.” He sounded frustrated as he began to pack his horn back into its case. “If How to Ruin a Duke is to cost me clients, I ought to bill the author.” “Fortunately for him or her, the author is anonymous.” “Ah. Bad luck for me.” He shook it off, flashing a grin. “Or not so bad, since it brought me here.”