September 29, 1809
Solomon Hathaway was drunk. He was drunk, and he didn't want to go to a brothel. On the other hand, Mme Deveraux's front steps were cold and windy. "'The mouth of strange women is a deep pit: he that is abhorred of the Lord shall fall therein,'" he said, and clung to the wrought–iron railing.
Ashton and Braithwaite shared a disbelieving look. "Is the parson's son quoting Scripture again?" said Ashton.
"Don't—don't call me that."
"D'you prefer 'tailor's nephew'?" Braithwaite asked. Drink always made him cruel.
Ashton snickered. "Leave off. It's normal for a virgin to be nervous."
Solomon straightened. The motion made his head whirl. "I'm going back to the hotel."
Ashton grabbed his sleeve. "Oh, don't take it like that, Hathaway. Come along, this is the best house in London! This is why we came up to town on quarter day, isn't it? To spend our blunt on things we can't get in Cambridge?"
"Yes..." Solomon was already regretting it. He should have gone home and let Elijah lecture him on obscure French poetry instead. "I was going to buy a cal—calor—calorimeter."
"It measures heat. Lavoisier disproved the existence of phlogiston with it. No, wait—I'm getting my experiments confused—"
Braithwaite pushed open the door of the brothel. "He's just making up words now. I'm going in. If Hathaway wants to turn twenty–one without ever knowing the touch of a woman, let him." Heat gusted out in his wake, and after a moment his two friends followed him.
Inside, Solomon took a deep breath into his cold lungs—and choked on an attar–of–roses fog. Scalding tears sprang to his eyes, refracting the room into red and gilt and skin. A great deal of skin, multiplied by dozens of elegant mirrors. He averted his eyes, but not before a flash of petticoat revealed raised red welts on a smooth thigh.
A girl touched his arm, startling him. She was pale and dark and hit him like a fever, hot and cold at once. But even that chill grounded him, blocking out the heat of the salon. Were the fires kept too high, or had the brandy affected his senses? It would be an interesting experiment, the exact effects of alcohol on the blood—
"Come upstairs," she said.
Solomon blinked, focused his eyes on her again. She was looking at him, but her eyes were empty. Nothing there. No human connection at all. He swallowed, trying to keep the bile down. "I think I should go."
"You'll like it."
He followed her up a red–carpeted stair; she never once looked back, even when he stumbled. She wore a thin lavender percale, inexpertly embroidered with seed pearls. Its single muslin petticoat revealed every angle of her legs—or would have if he could have taken his eyes off the stairs long enough to see much above her ankles. They were neat ankles.
The gown was stylish and becoming, but second–rate, he decided as they went down a dimly lit corridor. The muslin was not quite of the best quality. It wasn't well–fitted either, but maybe she'd lost weight. She was very thin. His mother would want to feed her, give her bread with extra cheese and bowls of clotted cream the way she'd done to Solomon and Elijah when they were younger. "To put meat on their bones"—oh Lord, why was he thinking about his mother now?
She went through an open door into an unoccupied room. The fire lit an enormous bed with hangings the color of red lead. He pressed his hand against the door frame, trying to stop his head from spinning. "It's very warm downstairs." It was warmer here. Only the girl's cold face and the cool of the corridor against his back steadied him. There was a tiny round birthmark above her left eyebrow. He wanted to touch it.
"It's nearly October. Gentlemen don't like gooseflesh. Just take off your coat."
He nodded. "Of course." She met his eyes then. Hers were gray, gray and still empty. He was fairly sure she hated him. "We really needn't—"
There was a flash of scorn in her face. "Come in." She wrapped her pale fingers around his arm and pulled him into the room. Her breasts pressed against the front of his coat as she reached behind him to pull the door shut.
A tremor ran through him, a tremor that was all heat. This wasn't how he'd imagined his first time with a woman, but maybe—
She went backwards, and he followed—but the bed took up most of the room, and he didn't notice when she stopped moving. Suddenly he was pressed up hard against her, the busk of her stays jabbing into his stomach and her legs trapped between his own and the bed. They both grabbed at the bedpost for balance; his fingers meshed accidentally with hers and she kissed him. Her lips were warm and soft. She smelled like almonds and cheap perfume.
She leaned back. Dazed, he tried to follow, but she'd brought her arm up between them to pop the buttons at her shoulders. Her bodice fell away entirely, revealing bare shoulders and arms and the tops of her breasts swelling above her stays. There was a little round birthmark there, too.
The curtains were imperfectly drawn; a beam of moonlight fell starkly across her skin. That strip of moonlit flesh stood out like the mark of a whip. It shone with the faint bluish–white sheen of arsenic.
Everything came to a head—the brandy and the sickening stench of roses, her distaste and his nerves, and most of all his uneasy guilt at trafficking in human flesh. He was in hell, and she was a damned soul sent to tempt him. Solomon stumbled back, his gorge rising. Hardly knowing what he did, he tugged his purse out of his greatcoat pocket. His entire quarterly allowance was in it, one hundred and twenty–five pounds lovingly counted out that morning at his uncle's solicitor's, and he held it out like a beggar with his alms cup.
"Take it. Please, I'm sorry, take it." He'd regret it in the morning, he knew that, but at the moment there didn't seem to be much choice. Maybe if she took it, she'd forgive him. Forgive him for coming here, for whatever sins Ashton and Braithwaite were even now visiting upon some poor girl—and most of all, for wanting to push her back onto the bed and stare into her gray eyes and fuck her.
He groped behind him for the doorknob. It was difficult, because his hands were shaking.
She didn't take the money, only watched him with her unreadable eyes. He dropped it on the floor and fled the room, covering his mouth with one hand.
June 7, 1815
"There's a man to see you," Sophy said, sticking her head through Serena's office door. "He says he needs your help locating a missing object. What should I tell him?"
Serena, up to her eyeballs in ledgers, opened her mouth to say no. Right now it was hard enough looking after her own people. She didn't need to take on a stranger's problem.
On the other hand, he would probably pay her for her help. God knew she could use the money; the Ravenshaw Arms' profits were down by four percent from this time last year. Because of the damned war, no doubt. Everyone had flitted off to Belgium to gawk at the young men about to be brutally slaughtered by Napoleon. As always, one person's tragedy was someone else's entertainment.
Four percent wasn't too bad, but she couldn't help worrying. She'd already put off buying new bed–hangings for some of the rooms for months, out of a reluctance to deplete her small reserve. She didn't like to risk compromising the inn's wealthy, fashionable image, but it was better than letting some of the staff go.
Serena couldn't face that. She remembered what it was like to be penniless and on the street. "Show him in," she told Sophy.
Serena had found that it was a good idea to make visitors wait for her attention; it established that she was in charge, and gave them time to get nervous. So when the door opened again and the stranger came in, she finished her sum and double–checked it before looking up.
It was him.
She couldn't breathe. She couldn't believe she had almost sent him away. She'd been looking for him for years. The Hundred and Twenty–Five Pounds, she called him, and she remembered him as if it had been yesterday. Hair like ripe wheat, freckles in a pale face, dreamy hazel eyes, a flexible mouth, and that unexpectedly stubborn chin. He'd looked like an angel.
Either she'd embellished, or he'd grown up, or both. He didn't look like an angel now. He looked like a man, solid and broad and taller than she'd thought.
He looked tired, too, and worn. His hazel eyes were watchful now. It was idiotic how much it hurt her, that he hadn't stayed young and unbruised forever. But he's still beautiful, she thought. As if it made any difference what she thought.
It didn't, because on top of everything else he looked rich. Rich and stylish, in a well–cut coat and breeches, tasseled Hessians, an exquisitely tied cravat, and a fanciful crimson waistcoat, its enormous pocket flaps embroidered in orange and pale green. Everything brand–new and expensive, and cheerful in a way that jarred with his expression.
She'd known he was a gentleman, coming into Mme Deveraux's with his noble friends, but it still made her feel a little queasy. People like him didn't associate with whores like her.
"Good afternoon," he said. "I'm Solomon Hathaway." She hadn't remembered his voice at all beyond his educated accent; he'd barely spoken. Husky and a little rough around the edges, it wasn't what she'd expected. "And you must be Lady Serena."
She nodded, carefully keeping all expression from her face.
"I—" He took a deep breath. "I've been told you could help me. There's been a theft—a family heirloom—" He flushed a startling shade of red.
He couldn't even get the words out. No doubt he thought a man like him asking a woman like her for a favor went against the natural order of things. "Ashamed to ask for my help?"
He frowned. "Of course I'm ashamed," he said impatiently. "If Susannah weren't so superstitious, she'd just get married without the damned things. Sorry. The dashed things." He squinted at her. "Do I know you?"
He didn't recognize her. He was branded into her mind and he didn't recognize her?
He was getting married?
Who cared? She wasn't some daydreaming schoolgirl. She'd known the odds were slim that she'd ever see him again. She hadn't expected anything to come of it even if she did.
Yes, this was perfect. He didn't know who she was. She'd find his missing object and they would be even. She'd repay her debt, send him on his way, and be free of him.
"No, we've never met." She gave him a smooth smile. "Now tell me, why do you think I can help you?"
"My uncle Dewington says you know every rogue in London by his Christian name." There was a beat, and then he sighed, as if he'd just realized that was a strange thing to say but was resigned to it.
He'd heard part of her reputation, anyway. "His or her Christian name, yes," she said dryly. His uneasiness intrigued her. It seemed to be about a quarter self–consciousness and three–quarters not focusing on the conversation. What was he really thinking about?
It annoyed her that she wanted to know, and, annoyed, she gave in to the temptation of a little rudeness. Just to see if she could make him blush again. "Solomon Hathaway. And the Earl of Dewington's your uncle. Then—hmm. Your mother married beneath her, didn't she?"
He focused on the conversation then, his hazel eyes going green and piercing. "No one with Lord Dewington in her family could possibly marry beneath her," he snapped. Well, she agreed with him there.
Usually she liked to keep her desk between herself and visitors, but on impulse she came around and leaned back against the front edge. From up close, he looked even more tired, and thinner than she remembered. What had happened? Did it have anything to do with the help he wanted from her? "So, what is this heirloom you're looking to recover?"
He gazed out the window behind her. "It's the Stuart earrings. My grandfather's great–grandfather, John Hathaway, let Charles the Second spend a couple of nights in his printing house when the King was fleeing one of Cromwell's victories. Charles gave him the earrings as a reward. If you ask me, it's a blot on the family escutcheon—not that we have one. I'd prefer a 'death to tyrants!' sort of forebear. But last week the earrings were being sent up to Shropshire by special courier for the wedding, and a highwayman robbed the coach. Susannah won't get married without them."
Ah yes, Susannah. If he was engaged, why was he running on as if he'd barely spoken to anyone in who knew how long? The amount of words convinced her that she was right and he wasn't shy, only distracted or unhappy. Clearly Susannah wasn't taking proper care of him.
Not taking proper care of him? she mocked herself. Who are you and what have you done with Serena? Next you'll be making him calf's–foot jelly. "The earrings are valuable, I take it?"
He shrugged. "The workmanship is excellent. Two good–sized rubies set in gold filigree with four tiny diamonds—very grand for a Hathaway, but nothing out of the common way for a Ravenshaw."
Serena didn't wear jewelry. Possibly he was realizing that, because he glanced up at her hands and neckline and then launched back into speech without ever meeting her eyes.
"But that isn't it. It's the family superstition. The King told John that they would bring him good fortune. There's even a verse saying to give them to one's wife for luck. And sure enough, the woman John loved was widowed in a tragic oven accident and they were able to marry. Since then all the Hathaway brides have worn the earrings. By now, that means that if one doesn't wear them—"
"Bad luck, yes. But surely you, Solomon, are not so—unwise—as to be swayed by such things."
He looked at her then. "A pun on my name, how original." But he was smiling a little, which threw her off. "Susannah lacks the scientific temperament."
She couldn't help it: she leaned forward. "And yet you're marrying her."
He blinked. "What? Oh—Lord, no. Susannah's my sister. It's not my wedding."
Relief flooded her throat; she swallowed it and took refuge in sarcasm. "My apologies. Susannah is lucky to have such a scientific gentleman for a brother."
He stiffened. At first she thought he was taking exception to her tone, but then he said, sounding affronted, "I'm not a gentleman. I work for my living. My lady."
She raised her eyebrows, startled. "I apologize if I've accidentally dampened your pretensions to being a member of the lower orders." Of course, she worked for a living, and she had an aristocratic accent and dressed to the nines. But she was a special case. Wasn't she?
He looked down at his clothes, and went faintly pink. "Oh. I—I borrowed these clothes from the shop. My uncle Dewington hates it when I visit him looking like a tradesman." He gave her the edge of a crooked smile, as if waiting to see if she'd smile back. "You can't see it, but there's a hole in my stockings. Here." He circled a spot on his breeches just above the knee. His kid–gloved index finger rubbed against the buckskin, only inches above the row of buttons stretching the leather tight around his calves, and Serena felt her temperature rising. She didn't smile back. "And I gilded the watch–chain myself."
"You did?" The chain looked brand–new and perfect. Why would he know how to do that?
"I'm a chemist," he said proudly. "Well, I do some design and pitch in with the tailoring when Uncle Hathaway needs the help, but mostly I make all our dyes. We match any shade, and we're famed for the brilliancy of our colors."
And then the whole story came back to her. Hathaway's Fine Tailoring, the men's shop on Bond Street that was all the rage these days. It had been opened almost thirty years ago, before Serena was born, by a pair of brothers fresh up from the country. But one of the brothers, having more of a taste for religion than business, had soon left the shop to be ordained. During his studies, he'd supported himself as a Latin tutor—in the Earl of Dewington's household, among others. Lady Lydia had run off with him, and not been acknowledged by the family again until her father's death. Her brother, the present earl, had been generous enough to send her son to Cambridge, only to be neverendingly mortified when the boy chose to work at Hathaway's Fine Tailoring after all. And that was Solomon, apparently.
There was something else, though, something Dewington had told her about his nephew. What was it?
"So will you help me?" he asked.
It was such a tiny favor, tracking down a stolen piece of jewelry. Would it really even the scales? She didn't want to be in his debt anymore. Maybe you just want to keep him around, she suggested scornfully, and then told herself to shut up. "Certainly. I'd also like to order some cloth from you. Some of our beds need new hangings, and the wallpaper would have to be matched." She tilted her head. "Are you sure you can do it?"
He straightened. Ha! She'd thought that would get him. "Yes," he said curtly. "I could match the color of your eyes better than your current modiste, too."
She glanced down at her gray bombazine in surprise. "Could you?" Didn't it match? And—he'd noticed her eyes?
For the first time since he'd got there, he looked into her eyes for longer than a few seconds. Stared into them, and she couldn't look away. Couldn't help breathing faster.
He frowned, a tiny line between his brows. They arched so perfectly. She was drawn to him, and she didn't want to be. "Solomon?" she said coolly, or meant to. Her voice was rough and hot.
He might not have noticed. That deep, deep flush swept over him again, and she smiled involuntarily. "Now I understand why you dyed your waistcoat that enchanting shade of red."
"Wh—?" He cleared his throat. "What?" he asked, his husky voice dropping even further.
"It matches the tips of your ears to perfection."
He rolled his eyes, but he smiled sheepishly back.
Christ, she was flirting with him. She had to get him out of here before she completely lost her dignity. "As charming as this interview has been, I'm sure you have business to attend to. Have supper with me tonight, and we'll discuss the details of your little robbery."
"Then you'll help me?"
He looked relieved. "We can pay you, of course—"
There. Now she didn't feel like flirting. "No," she interrupted. You will never pay me for anything, ever again. She swallowed the feeling of claustrophobia. Maybe if she paid back this one great debt, she would feel free for once in her life. "Let Sophy show you to your room. You'll be staying here. Gratis."
His jaw dropped. "I couldn't dream of it! This is much too elegant an establishment for me—I have rooms—"
"I daresay you do—in Cheapside," she said, naming a neighborhood in the City filled with warehouses, butchers' shops, and tradesmen's lodgings.
He glared at her. "I'm not ashamed of my address."
He was so prickly. She tried not to smile again. "As worthy and respectable as Cheapside no doubt is, it's some little distance from me, and I want you on hand to consult with."
"I don't see why that's necessary."
It wasn't necessary. In fact, it was probably a terrible idea. Too late. "You want my help, don't you? Susannah and her betrothed are waiting..."
"You won't help me unless I stay here?" He sounded as if he didn't know whether to be annoyed, or just puzzled.
"Believe me, you won't be arguing with me once you've had supper. My chef is the best in the business." You just think he hasn't been eating enough. You're acting like somebody's mother. She crossed her arms. "That's my offer. Take it or leave it."
He spread his hands in a frustrated, resigned gesture. "If I'm going to stay here, I'll have to bring all my equipment from my rooms," he warned her.
"Then do so at once." She rang the bell on the wall behind her desk. When she was done with him, he'd be so far in her debt he'd never get out. She just had to do it before he realized who she was and headed for the hills.
"Ms. Lerner is a gifted author[...]If you’re looking for a fine,
affecting, historical romance, I highly recommend A Lily among
Thorns." B —Dabney Grinnan, All About Romance. Read the full
"Subtle wit, wry humor, and some downright hilarious exchanges lighten
the darker, more realistic elements of this totally engrossing
page-turner that features a pair of most unlikely protagonists, an
abundance of nicely developed secondary characters, a well-handled
secondary love story, and dashes of deception, mystery, and danger.
Readers will be intrigued and happily engaged until the very end."
—Kristin Ramsdell, LibraryJournal.com. Read the full review
"Solomon Hathaway is a prince among men. A prince among heroes! He cooks, he sews, he makes hot chocolate, he knows his way around a vial of hydrochloric acid, he has impeccable fashion sense, he's sweet and lovely and all that is good. He is wonderful." A+ —AnimeJune at Gossamer Obsessions. Read full review here.
"It’s all zany and fun and it moves at an incredible pace…but here’s
what is my very, very favorite thing of all about the book: Solomon
and Serena really, really like each other.[...]I love that they’re
each as smart as each other, and they each call each other out on
their evasions and half-truths. I love how much they admire each other
for exactly what’s most important – and oh, how I love that they make
each other laugh![...]I read this book with a feeling of real delight,
and the moment I finished, I thought: I want another one!"
—Stephanie Samphire at Eating Chocolate, Reading Romance. Read the
full review here.
"This book lived up to its promise from the first page to the last. Charming and intriguing, I never tired of it.[...]Like Penny and Nev, Serena and Solomon are . . . well, they're good. And by good I don't mean they're above reproach or without their fair share of flaws. But they are people I would want to know and keep in my life." —Angiegirl. Read the full review
"[D]elicious layers of intrigue and complexity[...]Overall a lovely
and intriguing story." B+ —Mandi, Smexybooks.com. Read the full
"The story develops beautifully and subtly[...]This is a great book."
8/10 —Ana, The Book Smugglers.
Read full review
(WARNING: major spoilers.)
"I dare you not to fall in love with these characters yourself; just try." 4 out of 5 stars. —Keertana at Ivy Book Bindings. Read full review here.