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  • A Muse for the Lonely Marquess

Chapter One
“He took her in his arms, and she was everything warm and wonderful in the world, and at last he knew peace.”

Meredith gave a dreamy sigh as she let the back cover of the book shut with a slight thump. Motes of dust swirled up from the pages and danced in the morning sun slanting through the window in the back room of her father’s bookstore, The Quill.

The weight of the book lay heavy on her soul, and Meredith found herself running her fingers over the cloth cover, still a fresh bright green on account of being so new. On the Wings of Angels was the ninth novel from Ethan Neville Jones, and they had just gotten it in that week.

As much as she wished she could savor the work of her favorite writer, she always devoured it like a starving beggar given a crust of bread. The only reason they had it in the store for a whole three days before she read it was the fact that she had just begun another and refused to leave it unread, lest she not return to it.

Jones’s other romances had been bright and beautiful tales of sword fighting pirates or knights who braved everything under the sun to find their lady loves. This last had been light on the adventure. It told a tale of a sad young man on a country estate who coveted the hand of his neighbor’s daughter. He had rushed into a burning house to save her, to give a little thrill of danger, but the whole story had a melancholy feel to it, and Meredith wondered if Jones himself had recently lost someone dear to him.

“Meredith?” Her father’s voice floated in through the door, and she jumped up quickly from her chair. She placed On the Wings of Angels on the pile of books she had read, which was considerably smaller than the pile she had set aside to read later and smoothed her dress just before he entered the room.

“It’s almost time to open the store … Have you been back here reading again?”

Meredith felt her face heat up and knew there was no hiding it from her father. He shook his head with a small smile, then said, “It was that new Jones book, wasn’t it? How did he do this time?”

“It was…” Meredith paused, searching for the right words. One who read so many books ought to have an arsenal of words at her disposal for describing such things, but her mind was still lost somewhere around page two hundred.

She tapped a finger against her lips and let some of the more poignant quotes tumble over in her mind, then replied, “He was sad. That is to say that the romance was very good, as it always is, but there was very little of the spark he has in his other works. It was still so lovely when the hero finally captures the love of his lady.”

Meredith clasped her hands in front of her and stared off into the distance.

“My daughter the dreamer,” he said affectionately, “but don’t forget to live, too.”

“I won’t, Papa.” Meredith smiled and stepped past him into the space between the counter and the back wall of the bookstore. She pulled the ring of keys from the peg under the counter and walked toward the front doors, where there was already a line of prospective customers clustered outside.

They clamored and shooed one another back as she approached the windowed doors with a smile and turned the key in the lock. She pushed them open, and before she could even brace one of them to stay open, a stream of people rushed into the store behind her.

“They have it, the new one—”

“Did you say the Jones book—?”

“Where did you say—?”

The crowd began twittering amongst themselves, some discussing Jones’s new book, others merely inquiring as to other works they recommended to one another.

By the time the last of them trickled into the store, there was lively conversation going on, people flipping through the pages of books to get to know them before committing to taking them home.

It was a glorious thing, to see people sharing the written word with one another. Meredith would never write herself, but she had the greatest respect for those who did. There were artists who turned light and color into beautiful paintings, and others who freed graceful statues from the confines of a block of marble. Meredith preferred the artists who took a vision of what they saw in their mind’s eye and, through little more than paper and ink, conveyed the same beauty into the mind of another.

“Pardon me, miss?” one of the customers caught Meredith’s attention and she pulled herself back from her reverie.

“Yes, how may I help you today?”

“I’m looking for a novel with a bit of danger to it. What do you recommend?”

The woman inquiring was small and plump, shorter than Meredith, and outfitted in fine green silk.

She will want something a little refined, I think.

“When you say ‘danger,’ Madam, do you mean sword fights on the high seas or duels with sabers at dawn?”

She seemed to consider for a long moment, then replied, “Duels with sabers at dawn.”

Just as I expected.

“If you’ll come over this way, I think I have just the thing for you.” Meredith rounded the shelves to where they kept one of Jones’s earlier works, called “The Earl of Estenton.”

“And what is this one about?” the woman asked, affixing a pair of pince-nez to the bridge of her nose, and peering at the first few pages.

“It’s a love story, wherein a young scion of a noble family was stolen away in the middle of the night to be married off against her will and her true love from a rival house comes to challenge for her honor and her hand in marriage.”

“Oh, that sounds dreadful! I’ll take it!” The woman said in a tone that made Meredith think that perhaps she meant “delightful” instead. Or perhaps it was just the relish of someone who enjoyed reading about terrible situations resolving well.

Meredith carried the book over to the counter and asked, “May I interest you in another book by the same author, in case you find you would like to try reading something with sword fighting on the high seas?”

“Hmm … oh, go on then,” the woman said, making a show of arguing with herself. Meredith set “The Earl of Estenton” on a shelf behind the counter for reserved books and led the woman over to one of Jones’s books with a red cover.

“This one is called The Gentleman Pirate, and it’s about a man who asks for a lady’s hand, but her father decrees he must make a name for himself first, so he sets out on a ship which is set upon by pirates and … well, I can’t very well ruin the rest of it for you. He has such a way with words.”

“You seem to think highly of him. I can’t wait to read them!”

“You will have to come back once you do so that we can discuss them. Ah, but I could talk about Jones’s works for hours. Luckily, I work in a bookstore, so I frequently get to do just that!”

They laughed together then, and Meredith accepted her payment, depositing it in the cashbox and noting the sale in the ledger.

“Have a wonderful day, Madam!” Meredith called with a wave as the woman left the store with her purchase. She sighed happily. Another customer helped, and two more of Jones’s books in the hands of readers. She did not notice her father coming out of the back room until his voice sounded at her shoulder.

“You could begin to hold readings, you know. It would help you sell more of those books you’re always going on about.”

“Yes, Papa,” Meredith replied. It was far from the first time her father suggested that she read from Jones’s books to the bookstore crowds. But this time, she did not feel the knot in her stomach that usually accompanied the notion of reading aloud to a crowd. Her blood did not rise in anticipatory embarrassment.

She had always been shy by nature, finding better company in books than in people, but it seemed that perhaps her desire to share Jones’s work with others may have finally overcome her timidity.

“Yes, Papa, I think I will,” she said and straightened her back. Her own confidence surprised her, and it seemed to surprise her father as well who looked at her for a long moment.

“I’m glad to hear it. I will put a sign up to advertise the readings. When would you like to start?”

“Today, let’s hold it in the afternoon to pull people in during what the lull after luncheon would ordinarily be.”

Her father kissed her forehead and smiled. “My beautiful girl, I’m sure everyone will love it.”

In less than five minutes, the news, in her father’s elegant if slightly shaky hand, was posted on both wide-flung doors of the bookstore.

“Today, two o’clock in the afternoon at The Quill, a reading of the works of Ethan Neville Jones, performed by Meredith Lovett.”

He wrote up the same message on smaller scraps of paper and handed them out to the newsboys to distribute and spread the word beyond those who passed by the bookstore. As the clock ticked toward the afternoon, Meredith felt a growing anticipation in the pit of her stomach, but she found the anxious feeling brought her more delight than dread, and she found herself looking forward to two o’clock.

Chapter 2
Elijah Stevens let his fingers follow the music in its course as they ran over the keys of the piano. Bright arpeggios danced at an allegro pace, racing along faster than the elevated beating of his heart, and he let himself get lost in the music.

His soul soared at the feel of the notes as they poured forth with a grace he could only imagine trying to put to paper. His art was for words, not sounds, but he loved the piano and the solace it brought him.

He had not been doing a particularly good job of his art as of late.

When he sat down to pick up a pen, all of a sudden his thoughts went muddy, and putting every word after the one before it felt like a chore. Ideas he had been excited about days or weeks before proved not to be the juicy grapes he thought them to be and instead were shriveled raisins, the whole vine a diseased and withered thing.

Note, where I can, use raisins as a metaphor for something.

He made himself hundreds of those little notes. The ones that he ended up using were the ones he polished over time. The rest he occasionally found scribbled on a torn corner of paper, recognizing the words in his own writing, but having forgotten making the note. Once, he found a whole sheet of otherwise clean paper with only two words written on it. “Calla lilies” it read, small, and in the upper left corner, indented as though he were about to start a paragraph.

He had no recollection of ever being the slightest bit interested in calla lilies, but there it was in black ink.

The last strains of music drifted from the piano after he finished the song, a ghost of a refrain, and the weight settled onto his heart again. He had been avoiding his writing desk all day. For something he loved, he could really hate writing sometimes. Elijah knew there were days like that, where everything he wrote seemed cursed. He tried to remember when the words flowed from him easily, when he could slip on the mind of his character as easily as a player donned a costume.

He crossed to his shelf and drew forth his third book, The Gentleman Pirate, and opened it to a page he had marked with the calling card of a woman he used to fancy. She was married to someone else now, and the card had long since given up the perfume it had had when she presented it. In his dark mood, it seemed a symbol of the love he wrote about that had yet to capture his own heart.

Elijah sat on the piano bench and flipped through the chapter. He knew it, of course, but there was a distance to it. He had written The Gentleman Pirate when he was twenty years old, and if it were not his most sophomoric work, it was rougher than he would like to admit. He was happy with who he was as a writer when he wrote it, and this was the best chapter of the book—the hero is stranded hundreds of miles from his love, and he must defeat the first mate who is staging a mutiny, or else he will never make it home and she will never know what became of him.

He found himself moved by his own words, which was a rare enough thing on the good days, but when he finished, there was still a wall between him and his characters. He was too much inside his own head to be able to write about others appropriately.

So then, I suppose I shall have to go and be around people for a little while.

The notion was not as displeasing to him as it usually was. But his best friend Jonathan was traveling, and he could not think of where else to go that he could easily find the company of people who would put up with his tendency to stare off into nothingness as his brain tried to pluck the right words from the ether and string them together in some semblance of art.

Then a thought thrilled through him.

Father is tied up with business, and my very own Evil Stepmother is away. I have half a mind to go and see London.

Between Elijah’s love of music and books, his father thought he was entirely too impressionable to handle London, and thus, Elijah had never been there despite it being only an hour or so away by carriage. Before he could think it through and give himself a chance to reconsider, he replaced the calling card at the beginning of the chapter, replaced the book on his shelf, and made his way downstairs to carry out the half-formed plan.

“Draw up the carriage. I would like to go to London,” he said in what he hoped was a polite but authoritative voice.

“My lord,” the servant replied with trepidation, “the master of the house…”

“When my father is not here, who is the master of the house?” He cut off the servant in the middle of his sentence, which was something he ordinarily would not do, but having recently read of the bravery of one of his heroes, arrogance was strong in his blood. The servant seemed to hesitate in a moment of discomfort, then said, “You are, my lord.”

“Thank you. Now, I would like to go to London, please.”

“I’ll see a carriage prepared for you, my lord.”

The nauseated look on the servant’s face did not subside as he turned away, and Elijah felt his heart leap. It was partly the promise of adventure and partly the thrill of defying his father. He had tried for many years to be a good son, but the knowledge that he would never be what Jacob Stevens wanted him to be had given Elijah a certain amount of joy in subverting him instead.

On the ride to London, he let himself stare out of the carriage window and set his mind adrift. Rather than trying to form words for what he saw, he took in the impressions of the things instead, fixing the hues of the grass, flowers, and sky in his mind.

He spent several long minutes looking at the puffs of clouds and how they layered over one another, subtly shading the landscape below, and how they changed their shape as the wind stretched them.

He closed his eyes and focused on the carriage itself, the bump and clatter of wheels, the clop of horses’ hooves, and the feel of the seat beneath him.

Before he knew it, he was in London.

He knew London was the hub of everything important, but he had not reckoned on it being so…

He opened his awareness as he had in the carriage and let the atmosphere of the city wash over him. He observed with some surprise the bustle and clamor of it all. People passing one another on the street in such a hurry to their next destination that they could not even spare the time to greet one another.

The way his father spoke of London, Elijah expected everyone to be dirty, dressed in rough spun clothing, and everything covered in a layer of soot. Well, there was quite a lot of industrial smoke in the air, but the people looked as sophisticated and well-dressed as he did. Indeed, the cut of their coats was just slightly different, and he felt like they would all spot him as being from the countryside.

But just as they took no notice of one another in their bustle, the denizens of London ignored him as well.

He set off on foot with no earthly idea of where he was going as he had never even seen a map of London, and he knew, vaguely, that a filthy river ran through it. Indeed, the smell of town was something he had not expected. Of all the senses he engaged and paid heed to for the purposes of inspiration, he did his best to ignore the input from his nose.

The coachman, who had rather a better knowledge of London than he did, followed at a discreet distance. This allowed Elijah to explore freely without unwittingly wandering into bad neighborhoods or getting himself hopelessly lost.

Signs hung above shops on iron brackets, and the sight of one that resembled an open book caught his eye. “The Quill” was written on it in bold letters, well-worn from a long time hanging over the doors, which were flung wide.

From within wafted a gentle and unmistakable aroma.

Leather, grass, and vanilla combined to form the scent of books.

In a city where there was virtually everything for sale, and understanding that his books reached the hands of his readers somehow, he had never quite connected the two ideas to form the notion that there must be stores that sold his books.

The shop itself was about the size of the library at home, shelf after shelf of books with covers of cloth and leather and wood. Tables were piled high with many copies of the same book in a special display. A feeling of peace stole through him, almost like when he played the piano and lost himself in the music. He looked around the veritable wonderland of literature, and with a start, he realized that the table stacked with green volumes had the gilded words ‘On the Wings of Angels – Ethan Neville Jones’ on their spines.

It had only taken rearranging an approximation of the letters from ‘Elijah Nicholas Stevens’ to spare his father the embarrassment of having a son who wrote novels. It was not so shameful a thing, Elijah thought, to devote himself to the written arts. Shakespeare himself had written great tragic romances. There was nothing wrong with wanting two lovers to find a happy ending together.

“And when Winston turned aside the blade which sought his heart, he returned the favor and struck true…”

The words were in a delicate feminine voice, and they caught his ear like the sound of one’s own name in a crowded room. He made his way in that direction to catch more of what was being said.

A petite girl with strawberry-blonde hair drawn back from her face held a slim volume in one hand and gestured with the other as she gave life to the words, the gathered crowd still and rapt by her performance. She paused for effect and glanced around at the assembled listeners, her eyes falling on Elijah’s and her lips trembling for just a moment.

“… And thus, the mutinous mate did perish, the spark in his eyes extinguished as he passed from the world. Winston cleaned his blade and turned to face the crew, now his crew, and shouted, ‘We sail for England!’ returned in a rousing refrain. He eyed the horizon and offered a silent prayer that his lady love had not forgotten him, for he was coming home to her.”

Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright as she snapped the covers closed with a flick of her fingers and offered a cheeky smile. As though a spell had been broken, the crowd began to move again with groans of disappointment that she had finished her reading. They began clamoring for more.

“Now, now, you’ll have to read it through if you want to find out how Winston fares.”

“I’ll take a copy!”

“I’ll take two! I know someone who simply must read it!”

Elijah became a stone diverting the course of a river as the press of people parted around him on their way to the counter. The girl who read his book with such passion and energy smiled as she exchanged copies of his book for coins. He stood frozen, unable to say anything.

They all seemed to like his work. What would they say if they knew he was right there beside them? Would they ask him to sign their copies? Did he want them to ask?

It was the prerogative of a writer to want his words to touch the masses and have people recommend his works to their family, their friends, and their neighbors. It was also the prerogative of a writer to be terrified of all those same things because it meant that he had taken a bit of himself and sent it out into the world with the possibility that it would be stamped on and spit upon like a street urchin filching a purse.

He felt he had grown considerably since he penned “The Gentleman Pirate,” but the girl had read it with such conviction that he wondered if it was really that good or if she had brought magic into it through her performance.

The number of people who wanted to purchase his book dispersed with their copies in hand, and soon enough there would be very few of them left as a buffer between him and the shopkeeper. She met his eyes again and he felt a flutter in his stomach, the likes of which he had written about but never felt.

He lost his composure and quickly donned his hat, stepping out into the street before he could make a fool of himself. The coachman loitered outside, and Elijah asked, “Take me home now, if you please.”

He tipped his hat wordlessly to Elijah, and they set off back the way they came, with Elijah not daring to glance behind him.

Chapter 3
It was not as bad as Meredith had thought it would be, reading aloud before other people.

Not until he had walked in.

The stranger had fixed her with such a look of fascination; it was almost unseemly. Indeed, Meredith knew that if he had not been so handsome, she would have found his attention off-putting.

It was a look of deep admiration, the kind she imagined the heroes gave the heroines in Jones’s novels, and it was flattering and intimidating all at once. Her hands had started to shake, and in the long moment their eyes had met, she had lost her place on the page. Stammering and saying the words from memory, there was a heart-stopping span of time when she could not find the place to pick back up.

No one seemed to notice, though, and they remained fixated on the reading. She felt a little guilty for reading them the best part of the book and giving away the result of the crucial sword fight, but it was the best way to draw them in. And, she reasoned, it was a love story. It would be a rather poor one if the hero died before he could make it back. So, in the backs of their minds, the readers would know all along that he survived, and they could still enjoy the rest of the story.

The crowd’s eagerness to get their hands on Jones’s work both delighted and surprised her. She had not expected the reading to be so successful.

Perhaps I should make this a monthly occurrence. Once I get through all of Jones’s books, I can start in on some of my other favorites.

Meredith had a special love for sharing the gift of the written word with others. Truly it was a blessing that humans could create such art that could transport someone into another world.

She realized she had drifted away for a moment, when a customer inquired when she would be reading more of the book. “Off chasing butterflies” was what her father called it when Meredith found herself pleasantly lost in one of those other worlds. It was used as both a term of endearment and one of exasperation.

“Well, you see that passage is very near the end of The Gentleman Pirate, but I suppose if I were to set up regular readings, I could go through another of Jones’s works. In fact, I was thinking of starting to do them monthly.”

“Monthly! Oh no, dear, you must do them more often than that,” a woman in the crowd insisted, and others around her nodded their approval of the notion.

“How about tomorrow?”

“Or the next day?”

The suggestions rose in a tide then, and some of Meredith’s old anxiety at the thought of being in front of a crowd came back. It was like the overlapping voices grew teeth and claws, ripping at her.

“All right,” she put up her hands to forestall more protest, “the day after tomorrow.”

She distributed copies of The Gentleman Pirate to those who wanted one, and as she worked the till, she looked up to find the gaze of the mysterious stranger upon her again. She smiled at his attention, making up her mind to go and speak with him as soon as the customers were served. Fortune favors the bold, after all.

But no sooner had she thought the words, he quickly put his hat on and left the shop. Her heart dropped into her stomach, and she knew her face must have fallen with it when a graying woman near her right elbow asked in a dignified, matronly voice, “Is everything all right, dear?”

“Yes, I am quite fine, I assure you. Did you want a copy as well?”

“No, I’ve already read The Gentleman Pirate, and I quite liked it. Though I must say that it sounded better in your voice than it did in the voices I imagined for the characters inside my head.”

Meredith blushed at the bit of flattery and said, “Thank you.”

“I would, however, like his newest one. Have you read it already?”

“Of course!” Meredith said brightly with a hint of a conspiratorial smile.

“And…?” the woman asked.

Meredith could not conceal her disappointment as she said, “It’s a bit of a departure from his other works, I’m afraid. The writing itself has never been better, but it all takes place in the same location. There isn’t any adventuring in it.”

“Ah well, I suppose you run out of exotic locales sooner or later. Nothing wrong with the home country though, eh?”

“Nothing wrong at all, Madam,” Meredith replied as she dropped the coins in the till and slid the drawer shut. “I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.”

“I’m certain I will, dear!” she said as she made for the door. The line dwindled, and the patrons, their books purchased, trailed out of the bookstore. The lull that came afterward was a welcome break for Meredith’s taxed nerves. It was far more interaction than she usually had during a day, and she needed to be away from people, at least for a little while.

She stepped through the doorway into the back room to find her father pressing the pages of a volume so that he could stitch the binding.

“How did the reading go?”

“Sales of The Gentleman Pirate haven’t been this good in two years. But I need you to be the face of the bookstore for an hour or so. I’ll finish up this binding for you.”

“Oh no, you won’t. This is a first edition of Candide.”

“Don’t you trust me yet? I’ll be running this store someday, you know.”

David did not look up, but his brows pinched together, and his lips tightened. He finished the small step of what he was doing and then raised his eyes to meet hers.

“I had hoped you would find a husband this year, Meredith.”

“Are you that eager to be rid of me, Papa?”

“No, no.” He walked around the worktable and folded her in an embrace. “It is the prerogative of fathers everywhere to understand that they have to marry their girls off, and yet want to keep them jealously close to home forever. I want to see you cared for, Meredith, by a good and proper gentleman.”

“Well, Papa, if one comes around, be sure to let me know. In the meantime, I will continue to act as if I will be managing the affairs here, long term.”

“Which means you’ll have to get used to being the face of it too,” her father replied.

“I will hire someone to help me. I can’t do it all by myself.”

“You say that now, but remember, the only one you can ever trust to do something the way you want it done is you.” He gently prodded her shoulder. “You can’t even trust your own kin.”

Meredith elbowed him in the ribs, and they both dissolved into laughter.

“I promise I won’t ruin the first edition of Candide. But I really do need someone else to take over front-of-house. I need to chase butterflies for a while and find myself again amongst the clouds.”

David Lovett looked at his daughter for a long moment, then laughed.

“All right, my heart, I’ll take over the business of selling books. You take over the business of keeping them in good repair.”

“I humbly accept this solemn charge,” she replied and clapped a fist to her chest in mock salute. They laughed together again, and he placed a kiss on her forehead.

For the brief respite she had in the back room, Meredith threw herself into the business of ensuring Candide was perfect by the time it left her care. She heard her father bantering with customers, slinging casual insults and praise in equal measure that baited patrons of the store into buying more books than they set out to acquire, and she envied his way with conversation.

For her whole life, Meredith watched her father’s brash camaraderie and her mother’s blushing demurs, and she was a product of both—unsure where to take the hard bet and then win them over through sheer charm; and when to withdraw, but pull someone with her into a space all their own.

The only safety was within her own skull. But even then, she found herself influenced by the novels; she could tie her moods back to the timbre of the books she had recently read. There was a bit of lament for the mysterious stranger she had not had the pleasure of meeting that day. He had looked so brazenly at her; it was almost unseemly but thrilling in its own way. She chided herself for the attitude and thought he would not be the sort of kind and proper gentleman her father would want her to find. The whole crowd had given her their attention, but he had given her his focus.

Focus.

She told herself firmly, determined not to fail her father in one of the first tasks with which he entrusted her.

Chapter 4
On the ride back from London, Elijah was no longer staring aimlessly at the clouds, but dwelling on the woman he had met—no, saw—at the bookstore. He had not actually met her … not yet.

But she loved his books. And somehow, that was even worse.

It was a terrible thing, as a writer, to have something of yourself in the world. A living monument to say “Yes, this is how my mind works” available for anyone and everyone to peruse at will. The fact that he wrote under a penname was the epitome of flagrancy and denial wrapped into one.

But that girl! The way that she breathed life into The Gentleman Pirate captured even his heart, and he had agonized for weeks over how best to write that duel. He had invited Johnathan and another friend to his estate so that he might see the way that they fenced for practice with rapiers. He had learned the words they used for their actions so that he might know the very precise language necessary for such things before he turned it into terms the layperson would understand.

Research was such a cornerstone of writing that few people appreciated to the fullest extent.

By the time they arrived back at Williamsford Abbey, Elijah was thoroughly lost in his own thoughts, and he was rather startled by the rocking of the carriage when the horses came to a stop.

“Will you take dinner with your father this evening?” The steward asked as he opened the door to the manor.

“Yes, I will,” Elijah said, without fully considering the impact of his words because he was still a half-step inside that nebulous space of creation which defies reason.

“Wait,” he interrupted himself, “will the Duchess be in attendance?”

“Of course, my lord. Does that change your answer?”

“No,” he groused.

But it makes me unhappy about it.

“Shall I convey your answer to Lord and Lady Pembrooke?”

“Yes, they will want to know sooner rather than later,” Elijah replied and made his way up to his rooms to prepare for dinner. As prone as he was to be lost in his own mind, he also found himself lost in thought of the lady shopkeeper who so expertly gave voice to his works.

The faintest traces of the early afternoon sun, which caught her hair just so, illuminated the faint red tones against the flaxen strands, and the exquisite bloom of blood in her cheeks when they exchanged glances across the room both caused him to pause in his preparations.

He shook his head as if that would knock free the thoughts like errant cobwebs from a curio, and finished dressing for dinner.

The great dining hall of Williamsford Abbey was always arranged with a full set of china. Eighteen full place settings perpetually washed, dried, and laid when there were only ever three, or perhaps five, in attendance. The rest of the time, the presence of the gilt-edged plates was only for show.

Elijah had a bad habit of forgetting meals. He came by it honestly. Having never lost his youthful proclivity for keeping late hours, he often slept past breakfast into the late morning, but he would also refuse luncheon when offered, if he were in the middle of a fit of inspiration. Realizing he had forgone both breakfast and luncheon that day, he consumed the soup course with far more gusto than was appropriate, and then sat quietly, waiting for his elders to begin conversation, yet there was none.

Not until the main course of an exotic dish—beef with a huckleberry reduction sauce—was served, did Jacob and Victoria begin to speak to him directly. His father opened with an unfair shot.

“So, do you still insist with that drivel you’re peddling?”

As his father’s first—and only—son, Elijah received in trust a portion of the profits elicited as part of his father’s domain as the Marquess of Pembrooke until he inherited the Duchy upon Jacob’s passing.

It was an unhappy thought.

Not simply at his father’s passing but having another parcel of land for which he must understand the intricate political climes to administer appropriately. Unfortunately, Elijah found that to be a terribly dull affair.

“It isn’t drivel, Father, it’s—”

“Whatever you’re about to say, I’m certain it will only infuriate me,” Jacob Stevens said, and he stabbed a red piece of meat which dripped purple sauce on its way to his mouth.

Of all the things Elijah found distasteful, irritating, and unpalatable, being interrupted was highest on the list. A pen could not interject. A piece of paper could not supersede him. But his father, a duke—an accident of conquest and birth—could override him in a moment.

“I only wanted to say that I’d like to visit London. I will need to visit someday in the course of administering the family holdings. Would it not be a good idea for me to grow accustomed to it?”

Something must have given away his motives, for Jacob said, “Where is your head, boy?”

“Anywhere but where it ought to be, hmm?” his father’s wife, Victoria, replied scathingly.

Amelia Stevens was Elijah’s mother, dead those nine years. Victoria Stevens was “his father’s wife” until he had a half-sibling by her, and even then, she would only ever be his stepmother. She constantly interfered with his creative process, trying to get him out of the house.

No. Thank you.

Though the soup whetted his appetite and he felt the hunger like a void, he pushed himself back from the table and said, “Excuse me, Father, I’m afraid I’ve taken rather ill.”

Then he turned and left the dining hall without a further word to Victoria. He heard the tones of her voice as she said something to his father, but it was too quiet for him to parse the syllables. It was something disparaging, of that he was certain.

Elijah retired to his chamber where he worked out his nervous energy on the piano before he tried to begin writing again. The heavy notes of Beethoven were perhaps not the best thing to put him in the mood for writing about love, but it did reflect his sullen attitude after trying to dine with Jacob and Victoria.

He let his thoughts drift back to the bookstore and the hazel-eyed shop girl, and he felt the hint of a smile playing around his lips. She would be his next leading lady, or at least, a heroine would wear her face. Perhaps if he got to know her better, he could borrow a few of her mannerisms too.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but he would never, ever lift a whole person and try to make them into a character. Habits and features provided a basis from which to build the rest from his imagination. He crossed to his writing desk and picked up his pen.

Elijah examined his fingernails, perpetually discolored by ink, for a few long minutes. He made sure he had a stack of good clean paper, plenty of ink, and something to drink. After a visit to the water closet, he sat down and cracked each of his knuckles in turn, followed by his neck. He looked within himself and found at last that calm space he had been seeking and began to write.

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