by Marina Reznor
A BRISK DECEMBER wind blew the door shut behind Hugo Auchincloss as he stepped into the rare books shop on Hampstead Heath, ducking to avoid the low stone doorway mantle. Gladia, the shop’s owner, waved a cheery hello and rushed to finish a sale before turning her attention to him.
Hugo Auchincloss was not her most famous customer, nor in all likelihood the richest, but he was her only Premier League football player. And after forty years in the business, she liked to have something to lord over the other booksellers on the Heath.
Hugo began browsing the narrow stacks while he waited, enjoying the familiar aroma of old leather, parchment, and the long-ago tobacco smoke that clung to the books. The loaded shelves stretched to the shop’s ceiling, and he could have happily spent the entire day there. History and geography were his favorite subjects, just as they had been at Eton, yet he appreciated a variety of writing, especially works authored in French, in which he was fluent.
His personal library was filled with many purchases from this shop, as well as half of his grandfather’s expansive library from Wrothesley, the Auchincloss family estate in Bedfordshire. Five years ago, their mother had declared the house too much for one person and closed it, splitting the contents of the library between Hugo and his younger
brother, Ian. Which was the reason for his visit to Gladia’s this afternoon.
A handsome 1803 first edition of Vivant Denon’s Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt caught Hugo’s eye, and he began to peruse it.
“Hello, love,” Gladia bustled over. “Good to see you.”
Hugo bent and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for calling me, Gladia, I appreciate it. Which one is he trying to pawn now?”
“The Orchard and Fruit Garden by Charles McIntosh, 1847. One of the first books on horticulture written for the backyard gardener, rare and valuable. But this copy’s been
marked up and in rough shape, so it went cheaper at the auction Thursday.”
Hugo frowned. “Where is it?”
Back at the register, Gladia took the tattered book from a drawer and placed it on the counter. Bloody Ian. It was indeed from their grandfather’s library and was one of the old man’s favorites. It had sat on his desk for decades, and if Hugo was going to run Wrothesley the way his father and grandfather had, he needed to keep everything the same, to the letter. And that meant keeping the library together.
He nodded curtly and reached for his wallet. “How much?”
Gladia sighed and regarded him over the top of her spectacles. “Eighty pounds, but sorry, Hugo, there’s a rub. My grandson, Roderick, was minding the store on Saturday when a pretty girl came in and fell in love with the book. He was smitten and ignored the ‘Hold’ note, and let her put twenty pounds down on it with the rest due this week.”
Hugo shrugged, indifferent. “There you are,” he counted out the notes. “Plus an extra ten to the girl for her trouble.”
Gladia nodded and deposited the money in the register.
“How is your brother?”
“I mean since the accident last month. When he totaled your Jag.”
“That wasn’t Ian behind the wheel. It was me.”
“Fess up, Hugo. Everyone knows it was Ian. Drunker than a skunk as usual he was, called you to hush it up. Very noble of you to take the blame.”
Hugo regarded her stonily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gladia. It was me behind the wheel. It was raining, and I lost control.”
“You, lose control? That’ll be the day,” Gladia scoffed.
Hugo scowled. Of course Gladia was correct. He had taken Ian, younger than himself by seven years, to visit their mother at her converted gatehouse on the Wrothesley estate. As Hugo napped on the sofa after dinner, Ian borrowed his meticulously refurbished 1968 Jaguar and drove into the village, got drunk, and crashed it into a tree a mile from home.
By some miracle, Ian had emerged from the wreck relatively unscathed and called his brother immediately. Hugo ran the entire distance from the house to the scene of the accident, his heart pumping as sirens wailed in the distance. Taking the keys, he arranged the scene so it appeared that he was the driver instead of Ian, and when the police arrived, they found Hugo talking on his mobile phone with his best friend and agent, Tom Bellville-Howe.
With excruciating thoroughness, the police examined every inch of the accident scene, deeply suspicious of Hugo’s story that he had been driving his inebriated brother home when he lost control of the car on a sharp turn. Ian sat in silence as ordered, nodding in terrified agreement only when absolutely necessary and leaving the talking to Hugo.
A medic tended to a small cut across Ian’s forehead, and Hugo was able to produce some nasty scrapes and bruises of his own from the match against Bolton the day before. Still, the questioning dragged on for what seemed like hours.
Eventually the police were forced to concede that it had been raining, the road was full of twists and turns, and there were no witnesses to contradict their story. Undaunted, they
pressed charges of reckless driving against Hugo, and four weeks later the courtroom was packed with press and curious onlookers for the arraignment.
Standing solemn and erect in the dock, impeccably dressed in a dark grey bespoke suit, starched white linen shirt, and silk necktie, Hugo had pleaded guilty to the charge.
“Luckily there was no alcohol involved or you would be facing serious jail time,” the wizened judge remarked. “But I’m sure you know this.”
“Your driving was erratic and dangerous, and posed a serious threat to everyone.”
“Yes, sir.” Hugo stared back implacably, his eyes an icy grey, his firm jaw set. “I deeply regret my actions and am prepared to take full responsibility for them.”
“In that case, I am sentencing you to one year of probation and eight weeks’ community service, to be performed at the Haddonfield School in Hampstead, commencing no later than January of the coming year. You will be required to submit to random drug and sobriety
checks, and the school will be filing regular reports on your attendance and contributions.”
“What am I to do there, sir?”
“Put that excellent Eton education to some bloody use for once,” the old man barked, earning a laugh from the crowd. “You’re too clever by half, and I’m sure they’ll find something for you to do. Now approach the bench.”
Hugo stepped around the railing and stood before the judge, who glared down at him. “You know this has broken your mother’s heart,” the man whispered. “For God’s sake, Hugo, put a lid on that bloody brother of yours. How he escaped with his life, I have no clue.”
Cameras flashed as Hugo exited the courtroom, swung behind the wheel of the brand-new black Jaguar XJ Coupe, and sped away in a spray of gravel.
All requests for comment had been directed to the public relations department of Bellville-Howe and Associates, where they were completely ignored.
The clanging bell over the shop door announced a new customer, and Gladia looked up, a smile on her lips.
“Well, Hugo, today is your lucky day. Here’s the girl who wanted your book.”
Hugo glanced over his shoulder and saw her in the doorway, her lithe form silhouetted from behind by radiant sunshine. In a rush, everything came into sharp focus: the fresh outdoor scent that accompanied her into the musty shop, the bright blue of her parka, and the sound of the traffic from outside. And, damned if it wasn’t true—the world stopped spinning for a fraction of a second so the ethereal image could be etched indelibly in his mind.
Shutting the door behind her, the young woman paused to pull a knit hat off her head, releasing a tumble of hair. It cascaded down her back and around her face, the exact color
of the wheat at Wrothesley just before harvesting. Glancing around the shop, she spotted Gladia and smiled, then joined them at the counter.
She stood next to him at barely shoulder-height, and when he looked down, he could see her flawless skin, cheeks pink from the cold, and a fine nose liberally sprinkled with freckles. But it was her blue eyes that held him entranced. They twinkled with life and excitement, and he felt a pleasurable tension begin to fill his body.
Good Lord, no wonder Roderick was besotted. She was enchanting.
“Hello, I was in Saturday and put twenty pounds down on the McIntosh book,” the girl said, evidently delighted to see the book on the counter. “I’ve got the rest of the money right here, my parents sent it as my early Christmas present.”
Her accent was odd—British, but with a dose of flat American vowels mixed in. Hugo knew he was staring but was unable to take his eyes off her. In her excitement over the book, she didn’t seem to notice.
Gladia grimaced. “Yes, miss, Roderick told me. Unfortunately, this gentleman is also interested in the book.”
She turned to him in surprise. “Oh, hello. Do you collect horticulture books as well?”
Merciful heaven, dimples.
“N-no,” Hugo stammered, his usual cool demeanor evaporating. Words leapt to his lips, ignoring proper order and refusing to form coherent thoughts in their rush to impress her with his intelligence and charm. “Perhaps. No. Books, I . . . I have some. Yes.”
She waited to see if he was going to add any more to the muddled conversation. “Yes, you like horticulture books?”
Hugo swallowed, his mouth dry, and tried again. “There are certain . . . what I mean to say is, on the subject of horticulture . . .” He faltered and came to a full stop when he saw the girl pressing her lips together to keep from laughing.
Damn, this was no good, he was behaving like a simpleton. Forcing himself to stop staring at her lips, he turned his attention to the book on the counter before them. With a Herculean effort, he pronounced, “I need this one.”
“This one?” She glanced at the tattered copy of The Orchard.
“Yes. I’ve just bought it.”
The girl flinched as if she’d been slapped. “But you can’t have this one. I’ve put money down on it. And I’ve got the other sixty pounds.” Digging in her coat pocket, she withdrew a worn wallet and laid the banknotes on the counter.
“I just paid for it, the full amount,” Hugo tried to explain, inwardly cursing as he saw her rising panic.
“I’ll give you more!” she appealed to Gladia, fumbling again through the billfold. “Here, I can give you another five! That’s eighty-five pounds.”
“I’ve already purchased it,” Hugo repeated.
“But you don’t want this one,” the girl countered, opening the book to the mottled flyleaf. “Look, it’s not even an 1839 first edition. The vignette title is 1847—it’s a reissue, almost worthless.”
“I need this one. And I’ll make it one hundred.”
“You can’t do that! Here, here’s my last twenty-pound note. That makes it one hundred and five pounds.”
“Two hundred,” Hugo countered, steeling himself to ignore her shaking hands, gripping the now empty wallet. As pretty as the girl was, the book was his
.“That’s not fair!” With unveiled contempt, her eyes coursed over him, noting his handmade Italian shoes, tailored suit, and cashmere overcoat before settling on his hands. “You’re an armchair gardener, aren’t you?”
It was obviously the worst invective she could hurl. In desperation, Hugo glanced around the counter and grabbed the nearest book that had a pretty flower on the cover. “Look, how about I buy you this instead?”
“Orchids? What would I do with a book on orchids?” She looked in appeal to Gladia, who shrugged and took a twenty-pound note from the register, placing it on the counter next to a notice that read: “Patrons are welcome to put money down on a book but it will be sold to the first person paying the full asking price.”
The Orchard lay before them, homely and ragged. She turned a few pages, gently smoothing her gloved hand over them. “It’s not even in very good condition,” she said, doing a heroic job of choking back the tears flooding her eyes. “Look, someone’s written in the margins.”
“I know. Why would you want a book like that?”
“The notes are the best part.”
With shaky deliberation, she tucked the bank notes back in her wallet and gave the book one last, loving look. “It’s a very special book,” she told him with hard-fought dignity. “Congratulations. I hope you enjoy it.”
And with that, she was gone.