The Lady and Her Quill by Ruth A. Casie

Chapter Four

“Let me take those inside for you.” The man stood there, his expression openly expectant, as if he knew her. She looked him up and down. He did seem… familiar.

“Have we been introduced, sir?” Alicia asked as he piled her books on top of the ones he carried and opened the door for her.

“I’m Justin—”

“You have my books.”

He glanced at what he carried in his arms as if surprised her books were in his hands.

“I do.” He gave way and she entered and spotted a stack of her books on a table.

“Please, put mine with the others.” She gestured toward the table. “I’ve come to speak with Mrs. Miller.”

The nagging in the back of her mind refused to quiet. She didn’t forget a face and his was so distinct, interesting, and… handsome.

“She’s not available at the moment.” His eyes gleamed with friendly amusement. She was certain she had met him, but where? They moved to the desk at the side of the room.

“Ah, here is her husband. Perhaps he will assist you.”

“Captain, the books please.” Mr. Miller held out his hand.

Alicia swung around and faced the man. A captain? A flush ran up her neck and colored her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry. You carried my books. When you helped me I…” Stiff, mortified, and rendered momentarily mute, Alicia fought to free her tongue. “Naturally, I thought you worked here at the library.”

“Naturally,” the captain said, with a devilish look in his eyes.

Did he raise his eyebrow? He thoroughly enjoyed her embarrassment.

“I would have drawn the same conclusion if our positions were reversed.” He turned to Mr. Miller. “If you will do the honors.”

“By all means. Lady Alicia Hartley, I would like to introduce Captain Justin Caulfield recently of Cameron Highlanders and—”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Alicia,” Justin interrupted.

Her shock slid into suspicion as the memory of strong hands on her shoulders sent a shiver through her. Her pulse quickened at the disturbing thought of who he was.

“Caulfield? I…” She didn’t know what to say and worse, what to think.

“This is the second time we’ve bumped into each other.” He tried to control a smile but had little success. “The last time was at my uncle’s office.”

He leaned close so no one else would hear him but her. “It seems you have a habit of falling into my arms.”

Heat radiated from her cheeks. He was flirting with her and the shine in his gaze told her he was enjoying catching her unaware. She rose to the challenge and leaned toward him.

“In London and now here in Sommer-by-the-Sea.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Lavender and citrus. Lovely.”

She wasn’t through. With a tilt of her head and a sly, playful glance, she touched his arm ever so lightly.

He glanced at once at her hand and back into her eyes. His face went blank with confusion. She wanted to hold the image of that expression.

“I wonder, Captain, who is following whom.” Her voice was a whisper.

She reveled in the moment as the shock of her response registered. His soft intake of breath was her undoing. Captain Caulfield graced her with a smile so devastating she thought her heart would stop.

“Touché, Lady Alicia. Going forward I will keep in mind that you have a keen way of retaliating in kind.”

Scandalous, but she wasn’t the least bit sorry. She was intrigued. Sparring with the captain was almost as good as exchanging words with Effie. No, better. He was pleasant to look at with his longish black hair and silvery gray eyes. She took a deep breath. Lavender and citrus. The lavender should have been soothing, but she knew from now on she would associate the fragrance with the captain being close.

Yes. He was so much better to look at. She could almost taste—

The shameful idea was wicked and reckless. She would have to reprimand herself, but not at the moment.

“Did you have a pleasant journey from London?” he asked.

She pulled her mind away from her errant thoughts and back to reality.

“Yes,” she lied. She hated sailing. Although this time she did keep her dinner down. “Did you come all this way simply to deliver my books?”

He paused before he answered.

“My uncle knew I was going to Sommer-by-the-Sea to visit Lord Barrington and asked that I deliver the books. Are you acquainted with His Lordship?”

“Yes. He is a friend of my brother-in-law. They shared a room at Eton. How are you acquainted with Barrington?”

“We served together in Spain,” he said.

She almost missed the slight change in his demeanor. His pained expression had her so riddled with guilt that she redirected the line of conversation.

“Do you travel to Sommer-by-the-Sea often? My brother-in-law and Barrington are frequently together with other former military friends.” She paused to give him a small smile. “I’m sure I would recall if you were among them.”

His posture relaxed and the sparkle returned to his gaze. “This is only my second visit to the village.” His direct gaze, focused on her and no one else, held her as close and intimately as if she were in his arms.

Her eyes widened and her heart raced from her chest to her throat, making her breathless.

“Will you be staying long?” For a moment, she was afraid he would say no. Their verbal exchanges were invigorating. She didn’t want them to stop.

“I’ll be spending the next several weeks with Barrington. The last time we saw each other, you were quite upset with Uncle Isaac. I hope that’s been resolved.”

Her heart sank at the mention of business. It did put things in their proper perspective. Captain Caulfield was here to see friends and at the library simply to deliver her books. A chance meeting at best. A wave of regret surprised her.

“That remains to be seen.” She put a smile on her face and touched her pendant. Her mind quieted. Perhaps she could use this as an opportunity to discuss her grievances.

“Do you write mysteries because you sound—mysterious?” His warm smile and relaxed attitude put her at ease. He wasn’t in any rush to end their conversation. He encouraged her to continue. They had only just met, but it was as if they’d known each other a long time.

“Not at all. I write about people who face difficult issues, their journey to resolve them, and how it changes their lives. Some people are not always in accord with the writer.”

“I have to agree with you. It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t understand your characters.”

They stood silently for a few moments. Perhaps he was put off speaking about writing with an author, although she thought not. The captain was made of stronger stuff. She wasn’t surprised when Mr. Miller mentioned he was a military officer. The vocation fit him. His presence commanded attention and trust.

In his great coat and pure white cravat, much like any other man in the library, he nevertheless stood out from others. Beneath his hat his dark, almost black hair was short and romantically wild. His longish sideburns framed a handsome face. His gray eyes held, no commanded, one’s attention. His stature and striking good looks were a dangerous combination.

“Your characters, Captain?”

“Yes. Like you, I’m an author. My stories are about my experiences in the service.”

She nodded, feigning interest. Several of Elkington’s friends had penned their stories and, may the lord forgive her, she suffered through reading their work looking for something complimentary to say. The men wrote from their heart, but their books would be of little interest to anyone other than the author and possibly his loved ones.

“You have no interest in military stories.”

She tilted her head toward him. Was her veneer so easy to detect?

“I have read the accounts of service men. They tell what happened without any reaction. In more cases than I want to admit, it sounds like a list of actions without any thinking or emotions.”

“Yes. I’ve read stories like that. I find myself yawning as I read them. However, in most cases I understand what the author is trying to say. The value is in the men letting out their stories. They use their minds to bring back the event, their hands and fingers to write them down so it is not forgotten, and in the end, they give their soul relief.”

It was her turn to be surprised. There was no question about his caring. She stared past the handsome trappings and found a man of depth and passion. A man she wanted to learn more about.

“The gruesomeness of what the men went through must have been difficult to write. How was I so unfeeling not to see their pain? I read it as fiction and not as a means of dispelling their demons.” With all her heart she felt for these men. She touched the captain’s sleeve. “I hope they were successful and found the peace they sought.”

He put his hand over hers and patted it gently. He said nothing for a few heartbeats. His silent gratitude was enough.

“My characters tackle different issues. I write about women fighting in a society where they are expected to run a house and bear children and are unjustly punished for their intelligence and breaking society’s rules, no matter how minor. Many a woman rots away from lack of direction, affection, and never finds the true meaning of her life. My stories are for those women.

“My stories are about women who use whatever is needed to find solutions, take action, protect those they love.”

“That is a challenge,” he nodded, encouraging her to go on, “your own war of sorts.” His full attention didn’t waver.

Yes. Her heroines did fight their own battles. The intelligence of his observation and the intensity of his attention encouraged her to go on.

“My heroine bends the rules, but she is not the difficult character to write.”

“That leaves your hero. What do you find most challenging about writing characters of the opposite sex?” he asked.

Startled by his question, she lifted her head and stared at him. Had he read the Gazette’s review?

“I ask because I’ve been accused of not doing justice to my female characters.” His tone held a note of regret.

If his question startled her, his open honest reason humbled her.

“You pose an interesting question. It isn’t easy writing a character who isn’t…you.”

The clock on the mantel struck the hour.

The captain looked at the timepiece. When he turned to her, he didn’t appear pleased.

“I’ve enjoyed our talk and I’d like to continue our discussion at length. I regret I must leave. I’m expected at Lord Barrington’s.”

“We must meet. I would hate to leave your question unanswered.” Was that too forward?

“As would I.” His low mellow voice sent a delightful shiver up her spine.

“Have you seen much of Sommer-by-the-Sea?”

He shook his head.

“If you like, I’ll take you for a tour.”

“What a delightful solution. Are you available tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yes. I am. Why don’t we meet here?” If he was startled that she didn’t suggest meeting her at home, he didn’t show it.

“Until tomorrow.” He touched the brim of his hat, and with a swirl of his great coat he headed for the door. He glanced over his shoulder at her before he opened it, gave her a nod, and was gone.

The tinkling of the silver bell broke her out of the spell he had cast.

“The captain is gone,” one of the clerks said as she finished adding books to the table and stood back. “I have The Lost Dowry and In My Brother’s Shadow all ready.”

Alicia inspected the table and looked at the books in horror.

In My Brother’s…” She turned to the clerk. “Why on earth are those books with mine?”

“With both authors here, Mr. Miller couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have them read for our patrons.” The woman adjusted the books, enabling patrons who entered to find them.

“No. Of course not,” she whispered under her breath.

“Mr. Miller asked that I tell you he has had to change the schedule. The reading is moved to Tuesday. He hopes that isn’t inconvenient.”

For a moment she saw a way to avoid the uncomfortable situation. As fast as the idea surfaced, she dashed it. J. C. Melrose wasn’t going to make her cower.

“Not at all. Tuesday is fine.”

The clerk nodded and left her by the table which was just as well.

Why was she upset? The event was a reading. All she had to do was read a scene, answer a few questions, and sign bookplates. That won’t be so difficult. She rubbed her pendant and let out a calming breath.

Alicia looked at the sturdy leather cover of the Melrose book. Was the hero, Captain Mallory worthy of her Clarissa? Effie thought so.

Read his story and make your own decision.

Effie and Mr. Lindsay may be right. She should understand her enemy. Alicia picked up the Melrose book and read the first few pages. She closed the cover, her heart pounding. She found a comfortable chair near the hearth and spent the next few hours devouring the book.

The fighting was explicit. Some scenes shocked her, but she read on. Other scenes made her smile, even laugh. There were scenes that brought her to tears. She kept reading, unable to put the book down.

Daylight dwindled. The clerk lit the lanterns. She never read a book twice, but this one was more than a story. This book was inspiration. She went to the desk and purchased it.

How was anyone able to breathe such life into a hero and make him jump off the page? Several times she found herself looking toward the door waiting for Captain Mallory to enter the library and seek her out. By the end of the second chapter, she more than cared about him, she wanted to fight at his side.

“Lady Alicia,” Mrs. Miller approached her. “I didn’t want to bother you while you were reading. I’m sorry I wasn’t available when you arrived.”

“Your husband took good care of me.”

“You’ve read In My Brother’s Shadow. I enjoyed it. Did you?”

Alicia covered her uneasiness with what she hoped was a pleasant smile. Anxieties about her book ran rampant in her mind. Perhaps she should claim she was unavailable on Tuesday. Once the reading was over and everyone had heard both authors’ selections, they would know Lady Alicia Hartley was not an author, but an imposter, and a poor one at that.

“Charles told me In My Brother’s Shadow is precise in capturing the personal struggles. The descriptions brought him back to the battlefield. The reading should be exciting.”

“Yes, I enjoyed the story from the first word until the last.”

“Now, your Clarissa. She is everything I want to be, independent, clever, and yet works within most of the limits set by society. I’m looking forward to your reading, as are many of our patrons. I’m never disappointed with your stories. Are you aware of the change in our schedule?”

“Yes. The reading is on Tuesday. Mrs. Miller, thank you for the invitation. Until then.”

“Don’t forget our annual Harvest Salon on Tuesday evening.”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Alicia thanked her and left the shop. On her way home she couldn’t help wondering how J. C. Melrose included so much emotion on every page. She was curious to find out the secret to such writing. Perhaps then she’d have the answer to the captain’s question.

Whatdo I find most difficult about writing characters of the opposite sex?