Not a Mourning Person

I

The Book of Love

London

May, 1884

Rachael had no intention of dressing like a tiresome, old crone simply because she was in mourning. To be honest, she had mourned the loss of her situation for the first few months, but since then she hadn’t been able to bring herself to feel the slightest bit glum. She’d never mourned the man himself. He’d gotten what he deserved. It was nearing two years since he had died, and she was quite ready to be done with the entire thing.

If her late husband had had the sense to die in public, she would be almost out of blacks by now. But, no. He’d been unceremoniously dumped in the Thames, never to be seen again.

Things would have been simpler if she’d been able to tell the police exactly who had rid the world of the odious man and how. She would never breathe a word of that story. Her friends had the decency to entrust Rachael with the truth, and she wouldn’t repay them with disloyalty.

In the end, she had struggled through months of paperwork before Fasching was declared dead. Thank God for good lawyers—and possibly fabricated evidence—or she might still be waiting.

Rachael made a circuit of the ballroom, nodding to acquaintances, giving the assembled crowd a good, long look at her newest dress. Her feet moved in time to the floating melody of a waltz, though she wouldn’t dance tonight. She had come to see and be seen. The sensational widow appearing in society for the first time in months. An exhibition of beauty and fashion, bathed in the warm glow of top-quality potion lamps.

She found herself an unoccupied corner and lounged against a spindly-legged side table, flaunting her bare arms, an expression of disinterest masking her thoughts. She didn’t need to look to know eyes had followed her. Her dress was scandalous. It was black, naturally, but in a fine silk that shimmered in the light and fell to the floor in an elegant drape. Its plunging neckline showed her ample bosom to great advantage, while the stiff whalebone frame kept everything in place and emphasized her narrow waist. It also rendered the tiny jeweled straps superfluous.

Rachael adored everything about the dress, and knew she looked stunning. She did not, however, look respectable. The whispers had already begun. Excellent. People were certain to talk about her the next day. Tonight, though, few dared approach her.

“Rachael! Lovely to see you.”

Her head swiveled toward the familiar voice. Well. She hadn’t expected to see him, of all people.

“Mr. Ainsworth.” She gave him a perfunctory nod, belied by her genuine smile.

Henry strode directly to her, blue eyes twinkling with mischief, drawing too close for propriety, as their friendly game dictated. He even had the temerity to pull up the strap that had slipped off her shoulder. “You don’t happen to know where I might procure a decent cup of tea, do you?” he whispered seductively in her ear.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Rachael replied aloud.

“Very much so.” He gave her a roguish smile.

“Upon whom are you spying tonight?” she inquired, using their proximity to speak privately.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

His usual response.

“You must be working. You and Elle don’t attend high society parties. Where is your charming mistress, by the way? I can’t imagine you would go out without her.”

“My wife is in the kitchen, checking that the food isn’t poisoned.”

“Oh, have you married her, then?”

He gave her a hard look. No, of course he hadn’t. They seemed to enjoy flouting convention. Rachael could respect that.

“You suspect tainted food this evening?” she asked. She had thought such repugnant scenarios were behind her, since her husband had died.

“Not at all. Elle is taking precautions. We don’t wish our children to grow up without a father.”

Rachael’s brows rose. “Children? Gad, Henry, have you gotten her with child again? You breed like rabbits. I can’t understand it.”

“Elle spent most of her life missing her beloved family. If she wants to build one of her own, I’m not going to deny her that.”

“Ha! You are simply eager to surround yourself with a horde of willful females.”

His grin transformed his face from ordinary to handsome, and Rachael was struck with a pang of regret. She ought to have married him eight years ago.

“Willful females are my favorite sort,” Henry chuckled. “Which is no doubt why we are friends. And now, I’m afraid I shall have to take my leave of you. If I linger too long, everyone will begin to wonder who the devil I am. But I will say, before I go, that your dress is smashing, and you must tell Elle who made it for you. I want to see her in something similar.”

His cheeks went pink, and his grin turned bashful. Probably embarrassed by his own lurid imagination. Ridiculous man.

Rachael offered him her hand, and he bowed and kissed it.

“Good evening to you, Mrs. Fasching.”

He vanished into the crowd, and she took up her pose once again, though now she scanned the room, watching and thinking. His formal departure irked her. Every time someone spoke her married name, her ears burned and her muscles clenched. She could never fully be rid of the loathsome man until she shed that name.

Unfortunately, her father had involved himself in the same criminal scheme as her husband. His disgrace meant she couldn’t use her maiden name, either. She was stuck until she remarried. Perhaps it was time she did just that.

Her eyes sought Henry, thinking again about what might have been.

No, she chided herself. We are best suited as friends.

They would have been tolerably happy, she was certain, but not violently so. Tolerably was no longer good enough. She’d seen too much these past years. She knew, now, the depths love could reach, the things it could drive a person to. She wouldn’t settle for ordinary affection, or a mere infatuation. She wanted mad, passionate love, of the sort that inspired all the worst poetry, and some of the best.

There was the small matter of how she would attain such passion when her own heart was hard as iron, but Rachael pushed the thought aside. Hard hearts went hand-in-hand with stubborn temperaments. She would put her willful disposition to good use.

Rachael abandoned her table and strode into the center of the room with all the confidence and hauteur of royalty. She was decided. She would find herself the man with the deepest, most passionate heart in all of London and woo him until he fell at her feet in adoration.

Unfortunately, no such men were in attendance tonight.

After an hour of meaningless flirtations, Rachael insinuated herself into a conversation with several women who were discussing the current fads in poetry. Isobel, her cousin and confidant, was a great devotee of the poetic arts. Rachael had tagged along to lectures and readings during the months they had lived together, and had been pleasantly surprised to find she enjoyed it.

“I have my own copy at last,” sighed a pink-clad young thing who had been introduced as Miss Meredith Helmsley. The girl clutched a slim volume to her chest. “Have you read it, Mrs. Fasching? It is shocking, but, oh, so delightful.”

“You refer to the book of supposed Anglo-Saxon love poems? I have not, though I hear it is all the rage.”

“And rightly so! I cannot believe you haven’t read it. I very near swooned the first time I did.”

“I’m not one for swooning, Miss Helmsley. I’m more easily swayed by scholarly reviews than general clamor, and the consensus among the scientific-minded is that the book is no more than an elaborate hoax.”

“It can’t be. The passion in these words runs so wild, it can only be the product of an ancient, untamed warrior.” She shoved the book at Rachael. “Here, you must read it for yourself. I will return, but first I am due to have a dance with Lord… um… oh, someone or other. The handsome one they say seduced Lady Ellerby’s parlormaid. Ta!”

“Well.”

Rachael glanced down at the book, running her fingers over the gilded lettering. Love in the Age of the Warrior: An Anonymous Translation into Modern English of Newly Discovered Romantic Anglo-Saxon Verse. Ridiculous. She flipped it open and scanned the first few pages.

The conversation continued, but Rachael couldn’t have said what they were discussing. Her world dwindled to the verses in her hand. They were mesmerizing, seductive, and profoundly, breathtakingly emotional. Rachael’s skin grew hot, and her palms began to sweat.

Miss Helmsley was wrong. These words weren’t the product of an ancient barbarian. They were something infinitely better.

*****

The bell above the door jingled as Rachael stepped inside her favorite potions shop. She waved at Marie, the petite French spitfire behind the counter, and hurried to the back room, rapping firmly on the closed door. Elle answered promptly.

“Special request?” she wondered.

“Something of the sort. Is your husband here? I stopped by your house, but was told he is out.”

“He is mapping some new serum sources just outside town. I assume he will be back in time for tea.”

“Might I ask a favor of the two of you?”

Elle gave a crooked smile. “You may always ask. We might not comply.”

Rachael scowled at the sass. For a former barmaid, the woman certainly thought highly of herself.

“It’s in regards to this.” Rachael held out her new book.

Elle’s brows raised at the loopy script that spelled out the title. “I’ve heard of this,” she stated. “I thought it was a hoax.”

“I don’t doubt that. Do you think your Henry can prove it?”

She shrugged. “He likes a challenge.”

“Good. Find me the man who wrote it.”

II

In Want of a Wife

June, 1884

Avery counted at least fifteen things he would rather be doing at the moment. It was an unpleasantly high number, given he was doing his damnedest to keep his mind on the ball. He wouldn’t be here had he a choice in the matter. He had important work to do. But his blasted Aunt Eugenie…

He trod on his dancing partner’s foot, and she let out a yelp. She was a pretty thing, with plenty of money, and from a good family. If she had smacked him with her fan, as his carelessness deserved, he may have offered for her. As it was, she didn’t even demand an apology, and he was left to mumble something insincere.

When the music ended, he excused himself with the smallest bow courtesy would allow. His partner rushed off to join a gaggle of other young ladies, who pressed their heads together and chattered, probably about his ill breeding. He wouldn’t bother himself to consider any of the rest of them.

Damn the old biddy anyway.

Desperate for a break from dancing, Avery scanned the room for any gentlemen he might speak to without experiencing crushing boredom. He hated small talk. It was one of the many things he shunted into the category of “waste of time.”

What he really wanted just now was a stiff drink. His eyes drifted toward the refreshments table, surrounded by smiling faces and piled with glasses of champagne and punch. He jerked his head away with a muffled growl. Looking at the libations would only intensify his torture.

He surveyed the room, considering his chances of ducking out for a few minutes. Even a man of his known eccentricity wouldn’t be so uncouth as to take a swig from his personal flask in front of everyone, but perhaps he could escape to the library for a moment’s peace.

“Cantrell! I hadn’t expected to find you here.”

Avery turned toward the voice. “Sizemore.” He gave the other man a nod. They had been acquaintances for a dozen years now, with too little in common to breach the walls of friendship. One of many such relationships in Avery’s life.

“I thought you detested parties and only cared for work.”

“I’m in the market for a wife. Therefore…” He gestured at the party around them. “I hope to accomplish the whole thing as quickly and with as little pain as possible.”

Sizemore gave a snort. “I was under the impression that marriage is only the beginning of an entire lifetime of pain.”

“Hopefully not. I don’t intend to marry an annoying woman.”

In truth, Avery didn’t wish to marry at all. He’d been putting it off for years, thinking he’d get around to it someday. His goal had been to undo the curse before he had any children. Then Aunt Eugenie had up and died.

“A rich woman, though, eh?” Sizemore chuckled. “Going to fancy up the estate and move out to the country?”

“I doubt it,” Avery muttered. To be honest, he wanted nothing to do with the crumbling estate, neglected first by his father, and then by himself. “In this day and age, I don’t see why a man even needs to own land out in the country. I’m content with my London townhouse, and my investment income is sufficient to maintain a gentlemanly lifestyle.”

“Why marry, then?”

“It was my aunt’s dying wish.”

Or, rather, her will had stipulated that her money would pass to him upon his marriage.  Avery had planned for his inheritance to fund the restoration of the estate, after which he would sell it for a fair price. He could contest the will in the courts, and probably win, being her only kin, but the hassle and the legal fees were off-putting. A quick marriage seemed a simpler solution, and he did need a wife eventually.

Sizemore snickered. “Good luck,” he said, then hustled off to request a dance with a vapid-looking girl in a horrid, pink, frilly dress. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.

Avery’s preference was for a woman closer to his own age, which would push his search into the realm of spinsters and widows. There weren’t many of either to be found here, and those he had met were plain and—far worse—frightfully dull. With a sigh, he squared his shoulders and steeled himself to rejoin the ranks of the dancers.

“Professor Avery Cantrell?”

The sultry voice gave him pause, and he turned slowly. “Yes?”

The woman standing before him wore a dress of black velvet, with a neck cut so low she was in danger of spilling out. He wouldn’t complain if it happened. Her wry smile told him she was neither surprised nor displeased he had taken some time before looking up at her face. A silk top hat sat upon her coiffure, tilted at a rakish angle. He thought the masculine adjective suited her, given her boldness. A tiny scrap of a veil hung from the brim—a ridiculous nod to widowhood that he found amusing nonetheless.

He wondered briefly if she might be a courtesan and what the price might be for her services. He wouldn’t be averse to a romp.

She thrust her hand at him, holding it so they might shake hands rather than giving him the opportunity to bow.

“Rachael Fasching,” she introduced herself. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

He shook her hand. He had heard of her, despite his tendency to shun social events and gossip. She was the widow of an American who had up and died in some enigmatic fashion. She had a great deal of money and was not afraid to show it—or herself—off. Even at the University talk was circulating about a dress she had worn to an event weeks before. “Half-bare,” someone had described her.

Avery had no notion how she knew who he was or why she had approached him, so he said the first thing that came to mind. “Would you care for a dance, Mrs. Fasching?”

“Yes, I would, thank you.”

They took to the floor and joined the other couples. She moved with grace, her steps keeping perfect time with the music. Avery found her to be an interesting enough partner that he displayed his own dancing skill to its full advantage for the first time that evening. Together they glided across the floor in perfect natural unison.

No longer flustered by her audacious dress, Avery took the opportunity to consider her further. She was beautiful—unblemished skin, bright eyes, a shapely nose, and full red lips he would love to taste. Still, something deeper tugged at him. She had a deliberate way of surveying the room and of looking into his face. A keen curiosity. She was searching, thinking. He wanted to know what ideas rattled around in her head.

“So,” she said, leaving him waiting for some time before she continued on. “I understand you are a historian.”

“I am. It’s not so much a profession as a calling. I don’t need the income from my lectures. It is, rather, a passion of mine I enjoy sharing.”

She looked amused by his automatic defense of his gentlemanly status. Hadn’t her late husband been in trade? Damn. Avery expected she found him pretentious.

“You study the old Anglo-Saxon days, in particular?”

“Yes.”

“That sounds fascinating. Do you dig up graves, looking for bronze swords and ancient ships?”

“The swords from the period are of iron, and my colleague, Professor Purcell, runs the majority of the excavations. My specialty is research, analysis of document fragments, and translations of important texts. I assemble what disparate clues we have and piece them together to give us insight into the lives and minds of our ancestors.”

Pretentious again. Cantrell, you bloody fool.

“Of course.” She nodded, her perfect lips pinched in thought. “You, then, must have an opinion on this new book of love poems?”

The mention of his failed scheme induced a burst of rage. “It’s a bl—” He nearly forgot himself and cursed in front of her. “A hoax,” he finished. “It’s ridiculous, melodramatic nonsense.”

She met his scowl with an unflappable smile. “I found the verses quite moving, irrespective of their authenticity.”

“They are rubbish,” he growled. “I wish it had never been published.”

“Well.” He half expected her to stop dancing and put her hands on her hips. “We are all entitled to our own opinions.”

Avery reined in his temper. “Very true. I disapprove, however, of some anonymous scoundrel playing on feminine sensibilities to sell books.”

A part of him was proud of just how eager the ladies were to read his poems. Those feelings were most often quashed beneath the frustration that all his hard work had been for nothing. The book had generated plenty of talk, but no increase in donations or funding from the University.

Mrs. Fasching surveyed him from beneath narrowed brows. She had long, thick eyelashes that shaded her golden-brown eyes. “I should like to think that any sincere verse could be appreciated by both genders.”

Avery winced. There was nothing sincere about the dratted book. He’d written it by imagining the sorts of things a hopelessly besotted fellow might say to his lady love. He’d never been besotted in his life. He couldn’t afford that sort of distraction.

“I imagine that is true,” he said, by way of reconciliation. Anything to change the subject.

“I’m glad we are agreed. Have you any favorite verse, Mr. Cantrell?”

Nunc est bibendum,” he grumbled.

She laughed. “Horace. The Cleopatra ode. A suitable choice for a scholar. And I quite agree, ‘Now is the time for drinking.’ Shall we abandon this dance in favor of some refreshment?”

Avery nearly replied in the affirmative. She was a student of the classics? Who was this woman? She possessed the body of Calypso and the mind of Odysseus.

“Ah… No, thank you,” he managed. “I’m afraid I’m actually not drinking tonight.”

“But you do drink at other times, clearly. What’s special about tonight?”

“It’s a fasting day in the old Anglo-Saxon tradition. Saint Aethelwulf.”

One dark eyebrow twitched. “You don’t say. Well, I must tell you that it’s quite ill-considered of him to have his day of temperance during our party.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” He gave her a deep bow. “It has been a pleasure, Mrs. Fasching. You are a superior dancer and a compelling conversationalist. I hope you enjoy your refreshments and the remainder of your evening.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cantrell. I, too, have enjoyed our time together. It has been most illuminating.”

With that peculiar comment, she whisked herself away with the bearing of a queen, and soon disappeared into a gaggle of admirers.

“It has, indeed, been illuminating,” Avery commented to himself. He gave a despondent shake of his head. Forget parties. He would put out a matrimonial advert. His list of requirements was short.

Dull scholar seeks wife. Only beautiful, sharp-witted, enigmatic widows need apply.

Not a Mourning Person (Potions and Passions, #2)