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  • A Forbidden Bid for a Lady’s Heart

Prologue

“A fire?”

 

Emilia’s face went white, and she sat down very quickly. Her mind worked furiously as she tried to process what the constables had just told her. She could scarcely believe what she had heard and struggled to comprehend it. That shipment had been meant to leave the very next day, and now their finances would be in a tangle. If the Orchid had been wrecked at sea, she might have understood it better, but a storage container going up in flames was rarely an accident. She said this last part out loud, and the constables exchanged a glance.

 

“There might be something to that,” said Gurnsey, the larger of the two. “I assure you that we will do everything we can to right this wrong.”

 

Emilia smiled weakly. “I am sure you will,” she said.

 

“I really must ask to see the head of the household,” said Gurnsey.

 

“I am sorry, but he is not available at the moment,” said Emilia. “I am afraid this situation will distress him greatly, so I will be attending to it from now on.”

 

Gurnsey and Jones conferred quietly. Then Gurnsey nodded. “All right,” he said, “we do not have to see Lord Hornsby at this time. However, we must ask that you come with us to assess the damage and to sign for the insurance.”

 

Emilia sighed. She would certainly have trouble with her clients.

 

“All right,” she said. She was about to get her things when she remembered that she had a ball to attend. Her cousin Nicholas’s daughter was one year old today, and the ball was to be in her honor. Frankly, Emilia had not been excited by the prospect. She loved her cousin and his family, but she had started to dread going out in society because of all the rumors that followed her.

 

It had been this way ever since her mother’s death the year before, when Emilia had taken over her father’s work at the docks. In those days, Emilia’s hopes and dreams of a prosperous life were still strong. Now, without her mother, the future seemed bleak and uncertain. After Lady Hornsby’s death, Lord Hornsby had retreated into his manor like a tortoise into its shell.

 

Emilia had not been to a ball since her mother’s death, and she wanted to go. “I will be there shortly,” she told the constables. She put on a brave face as she led them to the front door. But as soon as she had seen the constables out, the smile dropped from her face, and she sagged with exhaustion.

 

Her work was hard enough already; her success had been tenuous even before she learned that someone was trying to sabotage her.

 

Picking the pins out of her hair, Emilia hurried back to her room. She paused briefly at her father’s door but decided that he was too fragile for the news. Emilia worried about her father, but she could not help feeling the tiniest bit of exasperation, for her father had left her all her mother’s responsibilities. Emilia had always respected her mother for holding her own against the rough and tumble men of the docks, but she had not realized exactly how much work was required to meet with the merchants who rented out Hornsby & Co’s cargo storage. If she were not worn down by grief, perhaps she could manage it better, if not with ease.

 

And now, just when things had started to get easier, this happened.

 

She still had a party to get ready for, and now she had to run an errand before going. She had not been to a party since before her mother died, but she knew that everyone would stare at her if she arrived with her hair mussed and her dress wrongly fastened.

 

Perhaps they will stare at me no matter what, Emilia thought glumly. That was the problem with being a recluse. When Emilia ventured into polite society, she was scrutinized so much more than someone who attended all the balls and events.

 

Once again, the idea of skipping the ball floated through Emilia’s mind, but she did not want to miss her little niece’s first birthday party. She needed to find something, anything, to wear. With a grand motion, she threw open her wardrobe and examined its meager offerings.

 

A certain dress caught her eye, and she took it down, laying it out on the bed. It was white satin and very beautiful. It had been her mother’s. Emilia packed up the dress, completing her ensemble with a matching hat adorned with satin flowers and silk netting.

 

“Will you not be wanting me to help you dress, miss?”

 

Emilia turned and smiled weakly at her maid, Tess. “I can’t get dressed yet. I have to go to the docks.” She relayed everything the men had told her.

 

“I’ll come with you then,” Tess said, and Emilia shook her head.

 

“I couldn’t ask that of you, Tess. The docks are no place for a lady.”

 

You’re going, and you’re much more of a lady than I am!” Tess said firmly. Emilia relented.

 

She gave herself one last look in the mirror, rearranged her soft golden curls, and went out to her carriage. Though it was a terrible habit, she bit her knuckle the entire journey. They reached the south side of London very quickly. Strangely, the closer she got to the docks, the more relaxed she became. Unlike most high society members, Emilia was more comfortable in the rowdy chaos of the docks than the controlled chaos of a ball.

 

* * *

 

Emilia breathed in, inhaling the scents of salt and fish. Outside the carriage window, giant merchant ships and smaller skiffs bobbed in the dark water. Men were everywhere—unloading the ships, reloading them, bartering, and arguing. They wore all sorts of slapdash clothing, mostly dirty and covered with grease. Some of the men went barefoot, their feet toughened by years without shoes.

 

“Shall we be getting Mr. Turnip?” Mr. Turnip was Tess’s pet name for Emilia’s family lawyer, Mr. Turns.

 

“John!” Emilia called to her driver. “Stop at Mr. Turns’, please.” She turned to Tess. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

 

“Probably get into all sorts of scrapes,” said Tess, tossing one of her dark braids over her shoulder.

 

As it turned out, Mr. Turns had already heard about the trouble and was about to go down to the storage unit himself. Emilia saw him standing outside, and they greeted each other.

 

“Shall we face the hordes together?” said Mr. Turns.

 

“The hordes?” said Emilia, feeling queasy. “What do you mean?”

 

Mr. Turns anxiously scratched at his sparse whiskers. “The merchants who purchased space in your storage will not be happy.”

 

“Surely they will know that it is not Miss Emilia’s fault!” exclaimed Tess.

 

They did not. A cluster of angry men stood by the storage unit, each one with a storm cloud hanging over his head. Emilia groaned and closed her eyes. She knew it would be a while before she reached the ball.

Chapter 1

With a terrible headache and her mind still whirling from all the information she had acquired and the heated arguments the merchants had dragged her into, Emilia arrived at her cousin’s gates sooner than she would have liked. She joined a long queue of carriages pulling up the drive. It seemed that most of the ton had attended the ball. It was hardly surprising. Her cousin Nicholas was the Duke of Richmond, which meant rather large parties.

 

How is it that I am so confident at the docks and such a quivering mess here? Emilia wondered.

 

By the time Emilia arrived at Nicholas’s manor, her blonde curls were flat, and her face was flushed. She felt queasy as she made her way up the walk and had to take a few deep breaths before braving the porch steps. At the last moment, she retrieved the locket with her mother’s picture in it from her gown and kissed it. Then, leaving her coat with the maid, she crept into the ballroom.

 

Nicholas and Margaret had remodeled their estate recently, and the inside looked beautiful. Emilia admired the crystal chandeliers and shining wood floors, peering meekly at the arched ceiling and the green glass windows. She looked at everything but the guests themselves, who had intimidated Emilia even before she had become the center of so much gossip.

 

Emilia wandered throughout the crowd for a few minutes, politely exchanging greetings here and there with people that she knew. She dreaded being trapped in an unwanted conversation, knowing that she would quickly run out of things to say. While Emilia kept a cool head when it came to business, she often became flustered in social situations. She could not help it. She had been that way ever since she was a child. It was terribly annoying, but if Emilia could have changed her temperament to loving the company of others, she would have.

 

“Cousin!” cried a voice, and Emilia turned to see Nicholas, his dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. When Nicholas smiled and opened his arms, Emilia’s knees nearly went weak with relief at the familiar sight.

 

“Nicholas,” Emilia said, walking into his embrace. “How lovely to see you.”

 

“Thank you for coming,” said Nicholas, stepping back and taking in Emilia’s appearance. He frowned, and Emilia’s stomach flipped.

 

“What is it?” she said. “Is something wrong? Is my hair undone? My dress torn?” She brushed at her clothes and hair as she spoke, worried that she had missed something in her rush to get ready.

 

“No, nothing like that,” said Nicholas. “You look tired, that’s all.”

 

“Oh.” Emilia let out a breath. “Yes, I suppose that is because I am terribly tired. But now is not the time to talk of that. We are here to celebrate! Where is the baby? I have been longing to see the little darling.”

 

“The child is over here with her mother,” Nicholas said, leading Emilia to where Margaret was holding court in a red-cushioned chair, green skirts spilling over the seat.

 

“Emilia!” said Margaret, smiling brightly. “You came.” Emilia began to apologize for being late, but Margaret cut her off. “Don’t be silly, Emilia. We all know that you are busy.”

 

“Busy,” Emilia repeated, thinking that the word did not even begin to describe her situation. Changing the subject, Emilia bent towards the baby. Swaddled in pink blankets, the child slept peacefully.

 

“Look at how dear Clara looks when she sleeps!”

 

“I see,” said Emilia. “She has such darling little dimples! And what long lashes!”

 

“Even if I were not her mother, I think I should find her the most beautiful child in existence,” said Margaret.

 

“She is an angel,” Emilia agreed. “May I?” She gently gathered her niece into her arms and kissed her soft forehead. This close, the baby’s breath snuffled in Emilia’s ear. She smelled sweetly of baby powder. Her warmth filled Emilia with soft, happy feelings, and she was smiling when she passed the baby back to Margaret.

 

Emilia’s good mood didn’t last. Nicholas and Margaret were naturally busy with other guests, and Emilia was left sipping a glass of port in the corner. She could feel everyone staring at her, but when she looked up, their eyes fluttered away like startled birds. Whispers spring up wherever I go, Emilia thought, a tad melodramatically. I shall never be free of them.

 

“The poor dear!” a woman whispered nearby. “One-and-twenty and no prospects.”

 

“The poor motherless darling,” another woman answered. Emilia flushed scarlet when she realized that they were talking about her. Carefully not looking in the direction of the voices, Emilia started for the front hall. Unfortunately, she was not really paying attention to where she was going, and she walked straight into a man’s chest as she left the ballroom.

 

“Oh!” Emilia said, jumping back. The port sloshed in its glass. “I am so sorry.”

 

“Emilia?” said the man, and Emilia glanced up at his face.

 

“Percy!” she exclaimed. “Lord Easton.” There was no one she would rather see more. Percy Easton, the Earl of Berkshire, was a handsome man with short blond hair and the sort of gray eyes that brought to mind a stormy sea. He was generally cheerful, but his face brightened even more as he looked at Emilia.

 

“My lady,” Percy said, remembering his manners with a nod.

 

“My lord,” Emilia replied, trying not to smile too widely as she curtsied. She had known Percy for almost two years now, but she had not seen anyone in the past months since her mother’s death. It was good to see an old friend.

 

“Are you all right?” said Percy. “It looked as though you were fleeing from something.” He made a show of looking over Emilia’s shoulders, and she giggled.

 

“Not fleeing anyone in particular,” she said, sighing. “Just…” To her utter mortification, her eyes filled with hot tears. Percy’s expression morphed into consternation, and he led her to a bench in the entrance hall. While still filled with guests, it was less crowded than the ballroom, and Emilia could finally hear herself think.

 

“Now,” said Percy when they were seated. “What is the matter?”

 

“It is nothing,” Emilia said automatically, but Percy did not look convinced.

 

“Are you quite sure it is nothing?” he said. “You look distressed.”

 

“Do I?” said Emilia, trying to laugh. It didn’t work. Emilia flushed and looked down at her hands. “I heard someone say something about me, that’s all.”

 

“Spreading rumors?” said Percy.

 

“Just the usual gossip,” said Emilia.

 

“I am sorry,” Percy said, briefly placing his hand on her shoulder. “I know what it is like to have rumors follow you. My aunt did try to poison someone.”

 

The last few years went through Emilia’s mind like a whirlwind. In order to secure her own fortune, Percy’s aunt had attempted to murder her husband, Lord Edmund Hurley, who was Margaret’s father. She had wanted Percy to marry Margaret and had done her best to put them together, though Percy had known nothing of her plot at the time. In the end, everything had turned out well. Margaret’s father had recovered, Percy’s aunt was sent to the colonies, and Margaret wed Emilia’s cousin, Nicholas. For some reason, Emilia could not help but feel happy that Margaret had chosen Nicholas and not Percy.

 

“Are people very awful about it?” said Emilia. “They don’t blame you, do they? They must know it was not your fault!”

 

“Most do,” said Percy. “But not all of them, I am afraid.”

 

Emilia’s eyes widened. “You mean there are people who blame you? How horrid!”

 

“Not blame me, exactly,” said Percy. “It is more that my name has been tainted. No one is quite sure what to think of me now.”

 

“People should be judged for themselves and not their names,” Emilia said hotly.

 

Percy smiled gently. “I feel much the same way,” he said. “Luckily, as time passes, it gets better. A little.”

 

Emilia winced. “Has the talk not died down over the year?”

 

“It has, thank the Lord,” said Percy. “But every now and then, some no-good reporter will jam his stick in the mud and write yet another piece on the ‘mad murderess’.”

 

“That is terrible,” said Emilia, forgetting about her own problems as she learned of Percy’s. “Is there nothing you can do to stop them?”

 

“I am afraid not,” said Percy. “But at least I have learned who my true friends are.”

 

“True friends are the ones who stick by you no matter what,” said Emilia.

 

“Exactly,” said Percy. “Some people stuck by me and others did not, and at least now I know which is which.”

 

“I miss my friends,” Emilia said without thinking. She saw that she would have to explain and added, “I have so much to do these days. I used to talk with friends every day, but now I am so lonely.” She ducked her head in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be burdening you with my problems.”

 

“They are scarcely a burden,” said Percy. “Please do not think that, Emilia.” His voice was so sincere that Emilia’s face turned a little pink.

 

“Thank you, Lord Easton.”

 

They glanced at each other, smiled, and looked away. Emilia found herself staring at the wainscoting, which was gilded very prettily. She felt a little shaky, though she had no idea why. Being around Percy was making her feel strange, but not in a bad way.

 

Emilia rubbed her wet eyes and tried to smile. “Thank you for making me feel less alone,” she said, but her voice broke and more tears flowed. Percy leaned toward her, his gray eyes gentle.

 

“Is that all?” he said. “Or is there something else?”

 

It all rushed out. Emilia told Percy about her mother’s death, her father’s retreat into himself, her attempts to run the company by herself, and the fire. She even told him how the merchants had claimed that the fire had happened because a woman was in charge. It felt good to unburden herself, but by the time she was done, Percy looked horrified.

 

“That is terrible!” he said. “I cannot believe how those merchants treated you. I should like to have a word with them.”

 

“Please don’t,” Emilia said, laughing a little. “I think that would only make things worse.”

 

“We would not want that,” Percy said seriously. “But something must be done about them.”

 

Emilia shook her head. “Fighting them will not help. No, I will simply have to find out who has set fire to my storage.”

 

“Is that all?” Percy said dryly.

 

“That is all,” affirmed Emilia. “I know I can do it.”

 

“And I believe in you,” said Percy, squeezing Emilia’s hand.

 

“That is strangely good to hear,” said Emilia. “If you believe in me, I think I could do anything.” She was joking, but the words sounded strangely serious. Emilia felt embarrassed.

 

“Then it is a good thing that I do believe in you,” Percy said kindly. “I hope that you will do me the favor in return of believing in me.”

 

Emilia assured him that she did, and they shook on their belief in each other.

 

“Now nothing will ever go wrong again,” said Emilia, laughing.

 

“Perhaps,” said Percy, looking pleased that he had made her laugh. “But you know, Emilia, I am serious about us helping each other. I’m looking to buy stock in a shipping company. Given your experience, perhaps you could help me with that?” He took her hand when he spoke and looked deep into Emilia’s eyes.

 

Emilia agreed, blushing. “We should meet to discuss it,” she said, hoping that she was not being too forward.

 

“We should,” said Percy. “How does three days from now sound?”

 

“Perfect,” said Emilia.

 

They spoke a little longer, neither of them wishing to leave the other, but at last they parted. Incredibly, Emilia found herself in good spirits for the rest of the evening. Emilia wondered at how Percy had calmed her amidst the chaos that was her life. For the first time in two months, Emilia felt safe.

Chapter 2

Percy Easton woke to blinding sunlight slicing across his face. He stumbled out of his bed with a hand pressed to his eyes and yanked the curtains shut, something he had neglected to do the night before. Too enchanted by a certain young woman to pay attention to anything else, thought Percy, as he yawned and rubbed his aching eyes.

 

In three days, Percy would see her again, and the thought lightened his heart, which had been heavily burdened of late. After his scheming aunt had tried to murder her husband for his money, Percy had been shunned by society.

 

No, perhaps shunned wasn’t the right word. London ran on gossip, and everyone wanted to know the latest news. In this case, there were few sources better than Percy. People talked to him and invited him to dinners and balls, but everywhere he went, he could hear the whispers behind his back. The speculating had no end.

 

Some thought that Percy had helped his aunt in the attempted murder. Others thought that Percy had orchestrated the whole thing. A large number knew Percy to be innocent, but rumors were vicious, as Percy well knew. And then there was Emilia, who was talked about almost as much as he was. There was no more salient focus of gossip than an unmarried woman.

 

His thoughts drifted back to her. He had almost forgotten how beautiful Emilia was. At the party, her golden curls had wreathed her delicate face like a halo, and her blue eyes had sparkled like sea glass. Her voice had been equal to her beauty. It had been a long time since he had had such a pleasant time talking with somebody else.

 

Still in his dressing gown, Percy made his way to the dining room and ordered bacon and eggs to be brought to him. He waited with his cheek propped on a fist. Another interminably long day loomed before him. Most of his friends treated him differently now, and so there was hardly anyone that he wanted to see.

 

Sighing, Percy rifled through the morning paper, which had been left out for him. A year ago, Percy couldn’t glance at a newspaper without reading something about his aunt, Augusta Easton, or himself. Now things had mostly died down on that front, but every now and then some intrepid reporter dragged the Easton name back through the mud. Today, at least, Percy could not find anything about himself. There was, however, a piece about a fire down at the docks, and Percy winced sympathetically. He hoped Emilia had not seen it.

 

“Living wildly, are we?” said a familiar, dry voice. “Bacon and eggs, I see.” A towering, wraith-like man with washed-out hair and piercing hazel eyes, Isaac Farley often seemed to Percy like a character out of a book. With his usual gliding gait, Percy’s best friend and lawyer came around the table and sat across from him.

 

“Good morning, Isaac,” Percy said, throwing down the newspaper and taking in his friend. “Is that a new suit?”

 

“Yes,” Isaac said pleasantly. “I went to the tailor. You should try it sometime.”

 

Percy looked down at his dressing gown. “What’s wrong with this?”

 

“Only that you have been lounging about your house—”

 

“I have not been lounging!”

 

“—and I haven’t seen you wear real clothes for a month—”

 

“I wore real clothes just yesterday!” Percy said. “I went to Lord and Lady Hurley’s ball. Their daughter’s birthday.”

 

Isaac tapped his bony fingers on the tabletop. “And did you talk to anyone there?”

 

“Yes,” said Percy. “Several people. In fact…” He trailed off, not sure if he wanted to share his encounter with Emilia. Somehow, it seemed too private. But Isaac was waiting, and so Percy recounted the events of the previous night.

 

“Our little Percy has made a friend!” said Isaac.

 

Percy felt his ears heating, and he busied himself with his breakfast. “I didn’t make a friend,” he said through a mouthful of eggs. “We already knew each other.”

 

The expression on Percy’s face must have been obvious, for Isaac said, “I have the feeling that you like this particular lady more than an ordinary friend.”

 

“I don’t,” Percy said automatically, a reflex against the teasing he expected from his friend. He reconsidered and added, “Perhaps. I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about her, Isaac.”

 

Isaac looked delighted. “Then you do have feelings for her,” he said. “Maybe now you’ll stop moping about like an old man and go out into the world.”

 

“Maybe,” said Percy. “Which reminds me, Emilia and I are meeting to discuss my investments at her office three days hence.”

 

“It’s tricky mixing business and love,” said Isaac. But at Percy’s glare, he said, “I’ll be there.”

 

“Good,” said Percy. “You know your legal advice is invaluable to me. Toast?”

 

“Of course,” said Isaac, who set about buttering his toast with relish. He had grown up in poverty and still ate as if his next meal were not guaranteed.

 

“How is Louise?” said Percy. Louise Linville, a baroness from France, was Isaac’s wife.

 

“The doctor says her pregnancy is going well, thank God,” said Isaac. “Though I have never seen Louise so displeased. The other day, she burst into tears because she couldn’t fit her feet into her old slippers. I hate to see her so upset.”

 

Isaac, who usually betrayed little of his inner emotions, sounded truly unhappy. Percy knew that Isaac loved Louise. Love had not always gone so well for Isaac. When he was young, an older woman fell in love with him and helped him gain the education necessary for being a lawyer. When she died in a house fire, Percy thought Isaac would never be happy again. But Louise had done wonders.

 

“She will feel better soon,” Percy said confidently. “As soon as the baby is born.”

 

Isaac gave Percy a wry look. “And you know all about childbirth, I suppose?”

 

I was once a baby,” said Percy. “Is that not qualification enough?”

 

Isaac threw back his head and roared. To someone not accustomed to Isaac’s laugh, this would certainly be startling, as his calm demeanor in no way prepared one for a booming laugh such as his. To Isaac, a chuckle was the same thing as a belly laugh. Percy suspected that Isaac, who was overly analytical and logical and not very caught up in emotions, wasn’t sure which laugh to use for which occasion, and therefore kept only one in his repertoire.

 

“You seem to be in a good mood, despite Louise,” said Percy.

 

“Because we are going to have a good day,” said Isaac. “You’ll run along and get dressed, and then we’ll go to the club.”

 

Percy stiffened. Though he still paid dues, he hadn’t been to his gentlemen’s club in months. Every time he went, the other men looked at him as if he was an oddity.

 

“I know you don’t want to,” Isaac said before Percy could respond. “But as your lawyer, I must tell you that your business transactions lag when you don’t speak to anyone. You know how many deals are struck at the club.”

 

Percy sighed and pushed his chair back from the table. The truth was that Isaac was right, and Percy knew it.

 

“I’ll be back down in five minutes,” he said.

 

Isaac grinned and crunched down on his toast.

 

* * *

 

Percy’s club was an old one, founded nearly one hundred years ago, and populated by London’s best and brightest. In the past, Percy had spent hours at the club, taking his meals, discussing politics and art, and simply relaxing. Those days seemed to be long in the past, despite Isaac’s efforts to reintegrate Percy into society.

 

They took their lunch in the dining room, and Percy spent the first few minutes looking around uneasily. But when no one approached or spent too long looking at him, he calmed. For nearly half an hour, he enjoyed himself. Unfortunately, it seemed that the world did not want Percy Easton to be happy, for Edgar Lodestone, one of the reporters who had gleefully written about Percy’s aunt, sat down without asking and lit his cigar. Isaac gave Percy a look that probably meant Be polite. You don’t want to make an enemy out of a reporter.

 

Isaac’s look was right. Despite his dread, Percy pasted a smile on his face. “It’s wonderful to see you, Edgar.”

 

“You, too, Lord Easton,” said Edgar in his nasal drawl. “I must admit that I thought you left the club entirely.”

 

“No,” Percy said, still clinging to his false smile. “Other affairs have kept me away, I’m afraid.”

 

“Affairs?” Edgar repeated doubtfully.

 

“Affairs,” affirmed Isaac.

 

Edgar turned his watery blue eyes on Isaac. “I’m sorry. I don’t believe I have made your acquaintance, Mr. …?”

 

“Farley,” said Isaac. “Isaac Farley.”

 

“You’ve met on multiple occasions,” Percy said pointedly. Isaac gave Percy another look. Don’t antagonize.

 

“Perhaps, perhaps,” said Edgar. “A journalist’s brain, you know. So much stuff in here that half of it comes tumbling out.”

 

“I thought reporters were known for remembering things,” Percy said, as mildly as he could.

 

Edgar grinned, revealing a mouth of yellowed teeth. “I remember enough of what I hear. For one thing, a little birdie told me that you were spotted with Lady Emilia Hornsby yesterday.”

 

Percy clenched his teeth. He hated the idea of Edgar turning his pen on Emilia. “Yes,” he said at last. “We spoke.”

 

“Her cousin is the one who married Margaret Hurley, is he not?” said Edgar. “The woman whose father…” He trailed off meaningfully.

 

“That is correct,” Percy said reluctantly.

 

Edgar persisted. “You are friends with the family?”

 

“Yes,” said Percy, “I am.” He stared down Edgar, who didn’t seem the least bit impressed. Is this how it is going to be forever? Percy wondered bleakly. Journalists constantly breathing down my neck?

 

Luckily, Isaac chose this moment to cut in. “We had best be going, Percy, to meet our appointment.”

 

Edgar’s eyes sharpened. “Appointment?” he said. “Where?” Isaac and Percy, rising from their seats, didn’t respond.

 

“We should have just come here from the beginning,” said Percy, when he and Isaac settled in a private room. “Much better.” Though he spoke lightly, his heart was heavy.

 

“It is good to show your face in public,” Isaac insisted. “It shows that you have nothing to hide.”

 

Percy dragged a hand across his face. “Perhaps,” he said, but he remained unconvinced. If he were not meeting Emilia in three days, he would be in a very bleak mood indeed.

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Isaac.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like that,” said Isaac. “As if you would rather be anywhere but here.”

 

“But that’s not true,” Percy protested. “There are so many places I would rather not be. Siberia, for example. Or in jail.”

 

“You’re impossible,” muttered Isaac. “Entirely impossible.”

 

“Sorry,” said Percy. “I’m doing my best not to be, you know.”

 

“I wish I believed that,” said Isaac. The two men glared at each other. Percy even crossed his arms.

 

“Why must you torture me in this manner? Can’t you just leave me alone?”

 

“No,” said Isaac. “If I did that, you would never leave your house.”

 

“And what is wrong with that?” said Percy. “There is quite enough to keep me occupied at home.”

 

“There is no Emilia Hornsby there.”

 

Percy’s ears heated up, and he busied himself with a section of the paper. Isaac continued to speak.

 

“You must be lonely, living as you do.”

 

“How strange you should think so,” Percy said testily.

 

“Not strange at all,” said Isaac. “I am just telling you what I see. Which is loneliness.”

 

“Thanks so much,” said Percy. Irritatingly, he now could not stop thinking of Emilia Hornsby. Am I too excited for a mere business meeting? he wondered. He decided at last that he was not. After all, Emilia was a friend, and he had a right to look forward to talking to her.

 

He only wished that Isaac would stop teasing him. Though perhaps, deep down, he was grateful for his friend. After all, if it were not for Isaac, he really would spend too much time at home.

Chapter 3

Emilia loved her father. Truly, she did. Robert Hornsby, the Earl of Worldbrook, was a kind, gentle-hearted man. But his behavior of late vexed Emilia no end. Most of the time, he remained at home. Luckily, he and Emilia kept their offices in their own house, and sometimes, he sat as he did today, staring blankly out of the window, as Tess attempted to tidy the room. Once neatly kept, Lord Hornsby’s office fell into disarray after his wife’s death. Prior to that, he had always been an orderly man, but now he left his things lying about as if it took too much energy to move them. He seemed to be retreating further inside himself more every day.

 

Because of her father’s sudden inability to work, Emilia had taken the entire business on her shoulders. She managed well for the most part. But now a situation had arisen which needed her father’s attention, and he refused to listen.

 

“Father,” Emilia said, for the third time.

 

“Hmm?” said Lord Hornsby.

 

“We have a problem,” said Emilia, as firmly as she could. “One of our storage units has gone up in flames, and I don’t think it was an accident.”

 

Lord Hornsby blinked slowly as if coming out of a trance. “A problem?” he repeated. “An accident?”

 

Not an accident,” said Emilia. “I don’t know what to do.” At these words, a sob escaped Emilia.

 

Lord Hornsby put his pipe down on the desk and looked at her with consternation. “Are you all right, Emilia?”

 

Emilia took a shuddering breath and managed to choke back the rest of her tears. “I would be, if someone weren’t lighting our property on fire.”

 

“Then you should be in a good mood,” said Lord Hornsby, “because no one is doing anything of the sort.”

 

Emilia waited for her frustration to lessen before she said, “Did you not hear me, Father? I told you that one of our ships went up in flames.”

 

“And there’s no reason that anyone could have done that on purpose,” said Lord Hornsby. “Who would try to sabotage us?”

 

“At least five companies that I can think of,” said Emilia.

 

Lord Hornsby shook his head. “I’m sorry, Emilia, but I don’t see a problem.” He brought his pipe back to his mouth and inhaled without lighting it. Emilia watched as he did this three times before catching on.

 

It was horrible to see her father like this. He was one of the best men that Emilia knew, and she wanted him to be happy. Even more importantly, she knew her that mother would be terribly sad if she knew how her husband was faring.

 

“Father,” Emilia said gently. “Perhaps you should go for a walk. Clear your head.”

 

Lord Hornsby looked at her with heavy eyes. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps I might.” But Emilia knew that he would not. It had taken everything he had to come into the office today, and she doubted he would do it again for quite some time. At home, he never went for walks, preferring to shut himself up in his bedroom. At night, when everything was quiet, Emilia could hear him move around, his steps heavy and plodding.

 

However, it appeared that Lord Hornsby would not help, and Emilia rose from her chair with a heavy heart. “I love you, Father,” she said gently.

 

“I love you too, darling,” said Lord Hornsby, and for a moment his face was clear, like the father Emilia used to know. But then the expression slipped away, and the sadness rushed back into his face. Trying not to cry, Emilia left the room. For a moment, she stood in the hallway, taking deep breaths to keep the tears at bay.

 

Besides the fire—which was trouble enough! —Hornsby & Co was not doing well. Emilia was a clever, hard-working woman, but she had had a company thrust upon her, a company that she had not expected to ever have to run. There were so many things that she did not know, and problems were piling on top of other problems.

 

Although Emilia felt fatigued, she went to her office instead of her bedroom. She passed Tess in the hallway. Tess was wiping the fog off a window, and she smiled when she saw Emilia. “Good morning, my lady.”

 

“Good morning,” said Emilia, going into her office. It was a small room at the front of the house with a view of the drive. In it was a large writing desk, several chairs, and a sofa.

 

It was chilly in the room once she entered, and Emilia knelt at the grate and started the fire herself. It took too long to catch, and Emilia’s fingers grew numb. When the fire finally started, she let out a long breath in relief. She let herself sit in front of its warmth for a minute or so before rising. Shivering, Emilia paced up and down her office as she waited for the heat to permeate the room. Her heels clicked on the wooden floor. Besides being an excellent means of warming herself, pacing also helped Emilia think.

 

As she walked, Emilia’s mind churned out solution after solution to her predicaments. Most of the time, she was able to think of at least three reasons why the solution would not work and had to start over. Emilia had always had a certain genius for numbers, and sums built in her head.

 

A knock came at Emilia’s office door. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and she hoped it was not an angry merchant coming to give her a piece of his mind.

 

Tess opened the door and came in. “There is someone here to see you, my lady.”

 

Emilia sighed and rubbed at her nose. “Did he give a name?”

 

Tess shook her head. “Shall I ask?”

 

“No, you might as well bring him in,” said Emilia.

 

Tess left for a moment and came back with a man who had dark curls and murky gray eyes. His nose, long and slender like a poodle’s, was stuck in the air.

 

“May I come in?” he said in a silky voice, his eyes running up and down Emilia’s body in a way that made her feel terribly ill at ease.

 

Trying not to show her discomfort, Emilia raised her brows. “I am sorry, but we are not receiving visitors today.”

 

“My apologies for the time, Lady Hornsby.” The man swept his hat off his head, revealing thin black hair. He bowed. “Roger Spencer, Earl of Roadchester, and a friend.”

 

Something about this man raised Emilia’s hackles. “Well, this is our first meeting,” she said flatly. “So, I cannot see how you are a friend, my lord.”

 

Roger laughed as if she had said something funny and brushed past her into her office as though she wasn’t there. “It is remarkable to see a woman do business. Quite adorable, actually.”

 

For a moment, Emilia could not speak upon hearing his provoking manners. Rage choked her. But Emilia could not afford to start shouting. That was the last thing her reputation needed.

 

At last she said stiffly, “Would you be so kind as to tell me why you are here?”

 

Roger was pacing the perimeter of Emilia’s office, taking it in. His bony fingers swept along the furniture and bookshelves as if he owned the place.

 

Emilia cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. “I believe I asked you what you are doing here.”

 

“You are very impatient,” Roger said, as if he were making a clever observation. “I have scarcely just got here. I don’t suppose I could have a drink?”

 

“I’m sorry, but I do not have anything to spare you at the moment,” said Emilia, not feeling very sorry at all. She had a bad feeling about Roger, whose gaunt face seemed more like a mask than a true visage. Though Tess was with her, tending to the fire, Emilia felt oddly alone and wished Percy could be there.

 

Roger sat down in Emilia’s chair as if it were his office and not hers and stretched his long legs out in front of him. Emilia considered asking him to move but decided it would probably be too much trouble. He seemed like an obstinate sort of man, and Emilia had no interest in getting dragged into a long argument about seating arrangements. Besides, Emilia preferred to stay standing, as it was the only way that she could look down on Roger instead of up at him.     

 

“So, sir?” said Emilia, her arms crossed. “Are you going to tell me why you are here? I am getting tired of repeating myself.”

 

Roger leaned an elbow on a stack of papers and smiled in a manner he probably thought was charming but was actually quite alarming. “I am here to propose a business prospect.”

 

“I’m not doing business with anyone at the moment,” said Emilia, the lie slipping smoothly from her mouth.

 

“I think you will want to hear about this,” said Roger, a smirk playing over his lips.

 

“I thank you,” said Emilia, “but I assure you that no offer that you can make will sway me.”

 

Roger raised a brow. “I can be very persuasive,” he said, his voice ridiculously confident.

 

“And I am very determined,” said Emilia. “At the moment, I am determined not to do any more business. Now you must excuse me. I have work to do.”

 

Roger continued as if Emilia had not spoken. “I am a plantation owner, you see. I need to organize a large shipment of cargo—”

 

“I am sorry. We have no more room in our storages,” said Emilia.

 

Roger leaned a bony elbow on her desk and rested his chin in his palm. “Are you sure?” he said placidly.

 

“I am sure,” Emilia said. She looked at him pointedly until he rose from the chair. He walked slowly towards the door, so slowly that Emilia knew that he was doing it on purpose just to vex her. If she were not so well-bred, she would stick her tongue out at Roger’s back.

 

Almost at the door, Roger turned and looked at her again. He opened his mouth to speak, but Emilia cut him off at the pass.

 

“Have a good day,” said Emilia and gestured at the still open door.

 

With one last lingering look, Roger left. Emilia shut the door behind him in relief and collapsed into the chair meant for customers. The chair that Roger should have used but had not. But Emilia did not want to sit in the seat that he had just vacated, even though it was her own. The idea felt distasteful to her. She felt an urge to be as far away from Roger as possible.

 

“What a strange man,” remarked Tess as she tidied.

 

“Yes,” said Emilia. “Very strange. I didn’t much like him.”

 

“Me neither,” Tess said adamantly. “I got a bad feeling from him.”

 

“I did, too,” Emilia admitted. “And he arrived without any warning at all. I might have been in a meeting—”

 

At this, she remembered that Percy would be there in just a few hours. She jumped up, suddenly reinvigorated, and took a looking glass from her desk. She had it there for when she had to go somewhere straight from the docks, as she had with Nicholas’s and Margaret’s party.

 

Her hair, she realized, was once again in a sorry state. It seemed to be just as tired as she was. She ran her fingers through her curls, arranging them as best she could. Tess came over to help with her hair, but there was nothing she could do about the hollowness beneath Emilia’s eyes. At least Percy would be sympathetic. Emilia knew that life was not easy for him either just then, and hoped that he was at least doing better than she was.

 

Things would be all right, she reflected, if only I could stop the world for a week and have time to figure everything out.

 

 She put away her mirror and bent over the papers on her desk. Unable to sit still, she organized them with a nervous energy. She looked around her office to see if anything else was out of place. A landscape hanging on the wall was crooked, and she rushed to put it to rights. Unfortunately, she did little more than make it swing from side to side without evening it out in the slightest. At last, she simply plucked the painting from the wall and hid it behind her desk.

 

She knew she was being silly. After all, Percy was her friend. He would not judge her for any state of disarray. But she liked Percy’s company, and she wanted him to think well of her. She smiled and put a hand to her mouth. There was something about him that made her feel happy, almost weightless. Just the thought of his arrival made her heart lift.

Chapter 4

Driven by a strange impatience to see Emilia, Percy left his house too early. Emilia’s offices were in her London house, and as Percy knew the route quite well, he decided to walk. It was good weather, sunny, with a soft breeze blowing, and Percy found himself whistling cheerfully. When he neared Emilia’s house, a chorus of voices aroused his attention. Hurrying, Percy turned the corner onto the street which housed Emilia’s office. He couldn’t see anything of the building, however, for a group of men were clustered outside the door, shouting.

 

Some of the men were finely dressed, clearly upper-class merchants, but some of the others were much rougher looking, with stained clothes and shaggy hair. The crowd shifted, and Percy caught a glimpse of Emilia on the doorstep, her golden hair glinting in the sun.

 

 “Hey!” cried Percy, racing up to the men. “How dare you treat a woman like this?”

 

One of the men spat at Percy’s feet. “My property’s damaged and it’s ‘er fault,” he said, revealing stained and crooked teeth. One of the more put-together men sniffed dramatically.

 

“The absolute negligence is terrible,” this man said. “Horribly terrible!”

 

Percy waded through the men, shoving them aside and ordering them to go and not come back. In response, the men grew even rowdier. Percy feared it would come to blows.

 

At this moment, Isaac Farley came into view, papers clasped beneath one arm. As Percy’s lawyer, Isaac attended all of Percy’s business meetings. When he saw Percy’s predicament, he raised his brows in surprise. He said something that was probably incredibly sarcastic, but Percy could not hear him over the cacophony of the crowd.

 

Isaac could be counted on in a pinch, and he helped Oliver disperse the men. Emilia looked shaken, her face pale and her eyes wide. “Thank you,” she said breathlessly. “They have been such pests of late.”

 

“Come on,” Percy said gently as he led her inside. “Let’s get you sitting down.”

 

Emilia waved him off. “I’ll be all right,” she said. The color was already coming back to her face, and she looked surer of herself. She also looked exhausted, and Percy wondered exactly how much sleep she had been getting. Certainly not enough.

 

She led him and Isaac down a carpeted hallway to a heavy oak door, which she unlocked with a key hanging from her neck. Percy noticed that she also had a golden, heart-shaped locket on a chain. It looked to be something special, and he wondered what its importance was to her. Perhaps one day he would ask her.

 

Emilia’s office looked like a storm had blown through it. Percy took in the stacks of paper, the open ledgers, the quills trailing ink.

 

“I know,” Emilia said, rubbing her face. “I am so sorry for the mess. I just—” She cut herself off with a shake of her head. “It’s been hard.”

 

Percy’s heart ached to see Emilia so downtrodden. But a moment later, she seemed to pull herself together. “All right,” she said brightly, clearing a patch of desk and sitting in her seat. Percy and Isaac both took seats on the couch.

 

“My lawyer will be along shortly,” she said. “I don’t know what’s kept him.” She shook her head and smoothed her hair, which had started to drop pins. Percy picked one up from the floor and gallantly presented her with it.

 

“Oh!” Emilia said, her cheeks turning a lovely shade of pink. “Thank you.” Their fingers touched when Percy gave her the pin, and both yanked back their hands as if they had been scalded. Percy’s eyes dropped to the floor; his face suddenly hot. Emilia smiled shyly at him and slid the pin back into her hair.

 

Percy realized that he was still standing in front of Emilia’s desk and awkwardly returned to his seat. Isaac gave him a knowing look that made Percy bristle.

 

The door opened, and a short man with a curly mustache came in. He was followed by a young woman who wore her dark brown hair in a braid.

 

“Mr. Turns here to see you, miss,” said the woman.

 

Emilia rose and made introductions. The woman was her maid Tess, and Mr. Turns was, of course, her lawyer.

 

“Now we can start,” she said cheerfully. But before they could, the door was yanked open, banging against the wall, and yet another person came into the office. Percy disliked him immediately for his rude manners. Besides this, he was a cold looking man. There was something distinctly ominous about him.

 

“I knew it,” the man said with a triumphant crow. “You clearly are accepting new business associations, Lady Hornsby.”

 

“Lord Spencer!” exclaimed Emilia. “I thought I had made myself clear!”

 

Immediately sensing Emilia’s unease in the man’s presence, Percy stood up and put himself between the man and Emilia’s desk. “This is a private meeting,” he said. “I think you should leave.”

 

The man continued. “I can help you,” he insisted. “I know exactly the thing you need.”

 

“Did you not hear me?” said Percy. He took a step forward, and the man looked down on him over his ridiculously long and slender nose. He looked furious.

 

“Who are you?” he said, his voice a slimy drawl.

 

“Lord Easton is my friend,” said Emilia, coming around her desk to stand next to him. “You, on the other hand, are a stranger, sir.”

 

The man advanced menacingly, and Percy held up his hand. “Sir, I believe we can resolve this in a civil manner. I do not wish to use force,” said Percy, “but I will if I have to.” It was obvious that Percy would win a fight between them. The man seemed to know it too.

 

“I will be back,” he promised. “And you will see the wisdom of my ways.” And with that, he stalked out and slammed the door behind him.

 

Isaac was the one to break the silence. “Who was that?” he said, distaste evident in his voice.

 

Emilia shook her head. “He came in earlier today. Roger Spencer, the Earl of Roadchester. He seems to think that he knows better than I do about my own company!” She sounded angry, and Percy did not blame her in the least.

 

“I wish I could have done more,” he said, but Emilia shook her head and rubbed her palms on her skirt. With her pale face and wide eyes, she looked terribly shaken.

 

“I am sorry,” she said. “I don’t think I can have this meeting now.” She bit her lip unhappily.

 

“I understand completely,” Percy said. He clasped a hand on her shoulder as he would with any friend and felt a shock of electricity go through him. He dropped his hand and smiled awkwardly. “Shall we arrange for another meeting soon?”

 

Emilia nodded. “Soon,” she promised.

 

A shiver went through Percy at seeing Emilia so upset, and he wanted to sweep her into his arms. But perhaps he had already overstepped by speaking out against Roger? Percy did not want to make matters worse by proceeding with the meeting.

 

Percy lingered on the threshold after Isaac had left and watched Emilia start to pick up bits of paper. He almost went back in to help her, but he forced himself to leave.

 

When he went out through the main door, he almost wished that there might be more irate merchants to distract him from his woes. Luckily, there weren’t any. Percy hoped that they had gotten the message. He did not want Emilia to have to deal with them any longer, but something told him that she would, the poor woman.

 

In the carriage, Isaac took Percy to task. “You didn’t tell me there would be an angry mob outside her office. You nearly lost me my head.”

 

“I am sure,” Percy said. “Our lives were probably in grave danger.”

 

“I am serious,” Isaac said. “The last thing you need is another scandal. ‘Percy Easton spotted in a brawl at the docks.’ Can you imagine the amount of damage control I would have to do?”

 

Percy admitted that would probably be a problem. “To be fair,” he said, “I had no idea there would be a mob, either.”

 

“Lady Hornsby did not warn you, then?” said Isaac.

 

Percy bristled. “It is not her fault.”

 

Isaac looked amused. “I never said it was.” He looked at Percy thoughtfully, and Percy shifted uncomfortably.

 

“What? What is it?”

 

“You are very protective of Lady Hornsby is all,” Isaac said mildly.

 

“She is being unfairly maligned,” said Percy. “I have to do everything I can to help her.”

 

“Of course,” said Isaac.

 

Percy looked at his friend suspiciously. “What are you implying, Isaac?”

 

Isaac held up his hands. “Nothing,” he said. Then, after a moment, he added, “She is a very accomplished woman.”

 

“She is,” said Percy. His thoughts drifted inevitably towards Emilia. Anger flared within him as he thought about all the men who were mistreating her—the crowd outside her office, but also the horrible man who had stormed inside during their meeting.

 

“Have you ever met Lord Spencer?” said Percy.

 

“Vaguely,” said Isaac. “Shadows and rumors, mostly. Not very good things, I’m afraid.”

 

“I’m shocked,” Percy said dryly. He shook his head. “Poor Emilia.”

 

“She seems very capable,” said Isaac. “I think she can manage herself.”

 

“Perhaps,” said Percy. “But a little support never hurt anyone.”

 

Isaac leaned toward him, his elbows propped on his knees. “Listen, Percy. I feel for Lady Hornsby. I have no objection whatsoever to you helping her. But you cannot get involved in anything that would further damage your reputation.”

 

“I know,” Percy said irritably. “Of course, I know! But there is something about her that I cannot shake. I think about her every day. I will do everything that I can to help her be happy.” He stopped, knowing that he had gotten carried away. His ears burned.

 

Isaac took pity on Percy and changed the subject. Unfortunately, he changed it to the last thing Percy wanted to talk about. “I saw Edgar Lodestone today.”

 

Percy’s heart sank. “What did he say?” he said glumly. “He probably wanted to know what I had for breakfast.”

 

“If only he did,” said Isaac. “It has been a year since Augusta was arrested, and he is going to write a column about it. He wants you to make a statement.”

 

“Of course, he does,” said Percy. He gritted his teeth and looked out of the window at the gray London streets. It was getting late, and a chill sank into the carriage. “Will people ever forget?”

 

“Yes,” Isaac said firmly. “In fact, they have mostly forgotten already. Do you remember how it used to be?”

 

Percy did. The week after his aunt’s arrest he had been unable to leave the house without everyone blatantly staring at him. Invitations for dinners and balls poured in at a furious rate, but Percy knew that none of them wanted him there for his company. They just wanted fuel for their gossip.

 

“Take my advice, Isaac, and never be related to an attempted murderer.”

 

Isaac chuckled. “That is where you went wrong,” he agreed.

 

Percy sighed. “At least Emilia does not think that I had anything to do with it. And she does not oppress me with questions like most people do. In fact, she always knows what to say.”

 

“It is worrisome, though,” said Isaac. “This business with the cargos and fires.” Percy had told Isaac about the fire shortly after Emilia had told him. “It might be best if you take a step back from the situation.”

 

“No!” exclaimed Percy. “I know it is worrisome, but I can’t not help her. You do see that, do you not?”

 

“I told you I did,” said Isaac. “Percy, I don’t want to stifle your life. But you pay me to give you honest advice.”

 

Percy looked away from his friend. It was clear in his mind what he had to do, and nothing would stand between him and Emilia this time.

Chapter 5

After the meeting’s disastrous end, Emilia sat at her desk and put her head in her hands. Her face burned and her eyes smarted with tears. She felt disappointed and depressed, both because of Roger and the agents, but she was also worried about Percy. She had ushered him out so rudely that she would not begrudge him if he felt poorly treated.

 

But Emilia had not known what else to do. Her life was in utter turmoil. Emilia wished her mother were there, so that she could ask her for advice. Somehow, it seemed everything would be better if only she had her mother beside her.

 

Tess sat next to Emilia and comfortingly stroked her back between her shoulders. “You’re crying,” she said.

 

Emilia touched her face and found it wet with tears. “I suppose I am,” she said. “I never used to cry.”

 

“You have never had the weight of a whole company on your shoulders,” Tess said soothingly. “I imagine that would make anyone cry. In fact, you should probably cry more often than you do.”

 

“What shall I do?” Emilia wondered aloud as she searched for her handkerchief. “Percy must think I am terribly rude.”

 

“I guarantee that Lord Percy thinks nothing of the kind,” said Tess. “He saw that brute, just as we did.” Tess shuddered dramatically. “What a horrible man.” She found Emilia’s handkerchief on the desk and handed it to her.

 

“Yes,” agreed Emilia, taking the scrap of linen, and dabbing at her face. “I think Roger Spencer is the most horrible man I have ever met.”

 

“There is absolutely no possibility of Lord Percy blaming you,” said Tess. “If anything, he blames Roger Spencer. Do you remember how Percy stood up for you back there?”

 

“And then I rudely tossed him out!” wailed Emilia. “How could I?”

 

“You were upset,” said Tess.

 

Emilia shook her head as she wrung her handkerchief in her hands. “That is no excuse. I should have offered him tea or something.”

 

Tess sighed. “You are too hard on yourself.”

 

“If the company were not slipping out of my grasp, I might be less hard on myself,” said Emilia. “As it is, I am clearly doing many things wrong.”

 

“Why do you think that?” said Tess. “Nothing has been your fault. How could you have prevented the fire or Roger Spencer?”

 

“I don’t know,” said Emilia. “I should have thought of a way.”

 

“Besides,” Tess said, “I don’t think Percy could ever dislike you.”

 

“No?” said Emilia.

 

Tess shook her head. “No. Did you see the way he looks at you?”

 

“He does not look at me in any particular way,” Emilia protested, but Tess smirked.

 

“He was very protective of you when that Spencer man came in.”

 

“Anyone would be,” said Emilia.

 

“If you say so, my lady,” said Tess.

 

Emilia absentmindedly picked up her quill and dipped it in the ink before dragging the tip across her blotting paper. She drew a few spirals and a little flower before she realized what she was doing and threw down her quill. “I need to do something,” Emilia said, “about the storage, about Percy, about Father.”

 

“I have an idea,” said Tess. “Why don’t you write him a letter?” She opened the drawer with Emilia’s stationary and took out a sheet of paper, which she slid underneath Emilia’s hovering quill.

 

Emilia bit her lip as she looked down at the blank page. “I suppose I could invite him to tea this evening?”

 

“You should,” Tess encouraged. “I think you will feel better after everything is cleared up.”

 

“You’re right,” Emilia agreed. She thought a bit before she started writing. She wanted to pick the right words, afraid that the wrong ones would scare Percy off. She didn’t see exactly why Percy would be scared off by a letter, but circumstances made her anxious about everything.

 

“Just write,” urged Tess. “You are overthinking it.”

 

“I know,” said Emilia, laughing at herself. “It’s just an invitation to tea.” She put her quill to the paper and didn’t stop writing until the missive was finished. She copied it to a clean sheet, folded it, and put it in an envelope. “Will you make sure this gets to him, Tess?”

 

“Of course.” Tess picked it up and carried it out of the room.

 

With a sigh, Emilia rested her head on her desk, pressing her cheek to the cool wood. Her eyes drifted closed. Her mind loosened its grip on the world and began to wander. She could see Percy in her mind’s eye, his short blond hair, his gray eyes. He was laughing; the sound echoed in her ears. And just like that, she was asleep.

 

A bang jolted her awake. She gasped, clinging to the table as if to a lifeboat. Her mind struggled to catch up.

 

The bang came again, and this time Emilia recognized it for what it was—a knock at the door. Embarrassed, she rubbed the side of her face, which was sore from pressing against the wood. She pushed back her chair and made her way to the door. She opened it and nearly got a fist in her face.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Constable Gurnsey, hastily dropping his hand. “I didn’t know you were going to open the door.”

 

“It’s quite all right,” said Emilia, though she was a little shaken by the close call. “Please, come in.”

 

Worryingly, both Gurnsey and Jones looked grim and solemn. Emilia offered them a seat, but they shook their heads.

 

“I’m afraid we have some bad news for you, Lady Hornsby,” said Constable Gurnsey.

 

Emilia’s hands flew to her mouth. “Don’t tell me more of my storage has burned!”

 

“No, no,” Gurnsey assured her. “Jones and I have made a discovery.”

 

“A discovery?” said Emilia, not liking his sober tone. “What sort of discovery?”

 

Gurnsey gestured to Jones, who flipped open his little notebook and read, “Handkerchief, white, half-burned recovered from the scene of the crime. Further investigation confirmed it to be covered in gunpowder.”

 

“He means we sniffed it,” Gurnsey said.

 

Emilia stared at them. “So, it really was an attack?”

 

“I am afraid so,” said Gurnsey. “Someone has targeted your property.”

 

Emilia felt a little faint. “Thank you for letting me know,” she said. “What … what should I do now?”

 

Gurnsey shrugged. “Keep a watchful eye,” he suggested. “I doubt that you yourself are in any danger, but make sure that your cargo is more secure in the future.”

 

“But it was secure,” said Emilia, though now that she thought about it, perhaps she had not done as good a job as her father would have. Frustration rushed through her. “Do you have any leads?”

 

“We’re working on it,” said Gurnsey.

 

“Is there anything that I can do?” said Emilia. “Hire extra security?”

 

“Any steps you can take,” Gurnsey said gravely.

 

Emilia nodded. “Thank you,” she said.

 

Constable Gurnsey bowed his head. “Have a good day, Lady Hornsby.”

 

“You too,” she said numbly. When the door closed behind them, she threw herself onto the couch and stared at the ceiling. She allowed herself one minute of silent contemplation before getting up and going down the hall to her father’s office. He was, of course, in his chair staring out of the window. He did not even notice Emilia come in.

 

She stood in front of his desk, waiting to see how long it would take for her presence to register. The longer it took, the more danger Emilia was of bursting into tears. Before she could do so, she cleared her throat and said, “Father.” As usual, it took a few more repetitions of the word for her father to come to. When he did, he gave a sigh so powerful that it rustled his whiskers.

 

“Emilia,” he said tiredly. “Is something wrong?”

 

“Yes,” Emilia said, sitting down in the seat across from her father’s. “Do you remember the fire that I told you about?”

 

Her father looked at her with empty eyes. “The fire?”

 

Emilia suppressed her exasperation and nodded. “The one that destroyed nearly half our storage. I told you about it earlier. Do you remember?”

 

Lord Hornsby nodded slowly. “Yes, I do remember,” he said. “Nothing to worry about, my child. Nothing to worry about. These things happen, you know.”

 

“No,” said Emilia, shaking her head. “They do not just happen. The constables have just come to see me.” She waited, but Lord Hornsby did not respond. “They found a half-burnt handkerchief at the scene, covered in gunpowder. They believe someone deliberately tried to sabotage us.”

 

“Nonsense,” Lord Hornsby said. “Who would try to sabotage us? What a ridiculous idea. Things like this happen all the time.” He chuckled as if the situation were funny. Emilia could tell that she was losing his attention.

 

“The constables told me that we should tighten our security,” said Emilia. “Well, I suppose I was the one who asked, but they said we should do what we can.”

 

“Extra security?” said Lord Hornsby.

 

“Yes,” said Emilia, leaning forward and putting her hands on her father’s desk. “I know that it sounds like a hard expense, but we will lose more if the culprit returns to set the rest on fire.”

 

Lord Hornsby struck his flint and lit his pipe. The sweet-smelling smoke curled into the room. Emilia associated the smell with childhood when she would sit at her father’s knee. She wished desperately to go back to that time, when her mother was still alive, and everything was good. But time goes in only one direction, and Emilia knew that it was no use wishing for things that she could not have.

 

“Please, Father,” she begged. “I do not know how to solve this without you.”

 

“But there is nothing to solve,” her father insisted. “Accidents happen.”

 

“But this was not an accident!”

 

“I am tired,” Lord Hornsby said. “I would like to be left alone, please.”

 

Emilia’s heart broke when she heard how small her father’s voice was. He was in no state to solve this, she realized. She would have to do it herself.

 

“All right,” she said, as she stood. “I understand.” She kissed her father on the cheek. “I will see you later, Father.”

 

Lord Hornsby nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Later.”

 

Emilia went back to her own office and sat down in her chair.

 

All I have done today is run back and forth between Father’s office and my own, she thought wryly. I am taking more exercise than I ever have in my life. She smiled, but it did not last long.

 

She opened her locket and looked at her mother’s picture. “What would you do, Mother?” Emilia said out loud. “Please tell me what you would do.” She waited, as if somehow her mother would be able to reach beyond the grave to answer her. No response came, of course, and Emilia finally closed the locket and dropped it back against her chest.

 

Taking her ledger, Emilia sorted through the sums, trying to find the money for extra security. It would be too tight, she realized. There was no possibility of affording it. Emilia leaned her head on the back of her chair and scrubbed her hands over her eyes. She was grateful for the constables, but she doubted that they would be able to find the culprit. The docks were such a crowded and confusing place. Deals were made all the time. If someone were responsible for the fire, Emilia doubted that they did the dirty work themselves.

 

Or I am simply overthinking again? she chided herself. She flipped shut the ledger and stood, stretching out her arms. Her back cracked in a very unladylike manner, and Emilia sighed in relief. As much time as she had spent running back and forth between her office and her father’s, she had also spent too much time sitting at her desk, and it was putting her in a terrible mood.

 

Emilia decided that if Percy accepted her invitation to tea, she would feel much better.

 

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