Authors: Dee Ellis
The morning had been quiet. Autumn had reluctantly given way to winter. The temperature had plummeted a few days before and not risen above single digits. It wasn’t snowing but it felt like it. The sky was the colour of a discarded tin saucepan, and a piercing wind buffeted anybody unlucky enough to be on the streets.
Inside Buckingham’s Antiquarian Books, Sandrine Chalmeaux, was warm and cosy. A Brahms sonata was playing softly in the background, Jacqueline du Pre’s melodious cello shaping Sandrine’s mood as it always did. There was something about the mournful tones of the instrument that she found irresistibly sensual, on occasion even erotic. The bass seemed to penetrate her body, deep into her bones. She responded on a level she wasn’t even quite aware of and it lifted her mood perceptibly.
The bookshop was a haven of tranquility against the harshness of the world outside. Nobody had been in since opening and it didn’t seem as if the usual lunchtime browsers would eventuate.
Sandrine didn’t mind too much. She much preferred her own company to making small-talk with customers. She’d spent the first few hours processing orders that had arrived overnight and she’d take the packages to the post office on the way home in the afternoon. The smell of the books pleased and comforted her.
She occasionally looked up from her desk by the front window and had an angled view of the lower half of the pedestrians outside. The shop was in the basement of a solid, centuries-old church building. The walls were thick granite and the ceiling vaulted in a traditional Gothic style. The packed bookcases and carpeting made it extremely quiet and, if she didn’t check the street, she would normally be completely oblivious to the weather conditions outside, summer or winter.
The Buckingham on the sign referred to Marcus Buckingham, who had been operating out of these premises for almost fifty years. These days, he very rarely visited the store, preferring instead to indulge his passion in tracking down rare books for his special clients. For the last few weeks, he had been in Europe, attending a number of auctions as well as assisting in cataloguing the estate of a long-time customer and noted collector. Sandrine had spoken to him by telephone a couple of days before; she was delighted that his normally taciturn manner had been replaced by a barely disguised enthusiasm.
Although he’d been careful not to mention details, he mentioned he’d be returning with quite a few special items. This was quite in character; Marcus’ travels would often result in suitcases brimming with treasures and she was intrigued as to what he had unearthed.
A few afternoons a week, Sandrine was joined by Marcella, a small elderly woman who had worked for Marcus for twenty years. Although Sandrine had only been employed since gaining her doctorate in art history the previous year, there was an unspoken understanding between the two women; Marcella had been waiting for just the right person to pass her responsibilities to before retiring. In Sandrine, Marcus and Marcella recognised a kindred spirit, someone who not only loved old books but had acquired a good working knowledge of the antiquarian book trade. She was excellent with the clients, understanding and exceedingly patient, even with the more eccentric ones, and there were more than a few of those.
This day, however, Sandrine would be in the shop by herself until closing and, even if there were no customers, there was much to do. She viewed it almost as a distraction then when, close to midday, a slim dark-haired man opened the front door, a gust of cold air lowering the temperature an uncomfortable few degrees.
“Sorry to bring in such bad weather,” he said almost cheerfully, unbuttoning a dark trench coat. Underneath, he wore black trousers, an open-neck business shirt of thick charcoal and black stripes and a single-breasted heavy tweed sports coat. His black hair was unfashionably long, brushing his collar. It had been blown around by the wind and he ran his fingers through it absent-mindedly.
There was something familiar about him and it took a few moments before she was reminded of a young Pierce Brosnan, long before the actor had become James Bond. He’d been in a television show she couldn’t quite remember the name of; although it wasn’t something she would have normally watched, she was sure the name would come to her eventually.
He was certainly good looking and Sandrine took an almost instant dislike to him. There was nothing logical about this but she’d long held the view that attractive people, men or women, had many more opportunities open to them than others purely by virtue of their physical appearance. They always seemed more self-possessed, with a manner that demanded attention. She’d seen it in college, with the cliques of sleek, beautiful young girls who moved in rarified circles and the handsome male students, often on sports scholarships, who squired them.
Sandrine’s impression was that he was a little too polished to be a book collector. He looked more like an actor or dancer, someone aware of his body and the effect it had on those around him. She concluded he was merely sheltering from the approaching storm. Despite her misgivings, there was something about him that piqued her curiosity.
He IS very good looking.
The thought popped so suddenly into her head that her breath caught in surprise.
“Anything I can help you with?” she asked, with as much off-handedness as she could muster.
Dammit, stop staring at him. He’ll think you’re creepy
, she told herself angrily.
“Not really. Just passing by and thought I’d have a look. Been meaning to do this for a long time.” He turned, scanning the shelves with a faint frown. They were arranged by category and he set off deeper into the shop with a relaxed stride. She watched him disappear out of sight with the slightest tinge of disappointment.
She went back to browsing an on-line catalogue for a London auction house. There was an upcoming item she thought suitable for one of her clients, a collector of modern first editions. It was a 1922 copy of Shakespeare’s
Measure For Measure
. In itself, it wasn’t notable. However, there was a previous owner’s inscription on the flyleaf. It was signed, simply, E. A. Blair and this is what quickened her interest. For Blair was better known under his pen name, George Orwell, and examples of his signature were rare.
The date of the publication intrigued her as well, for in 1922 Orwell had travelled to Burma to serve with the Indian Imperial Police and spent the next five years there before returning to England weakened by the after-effects of dengue fever. There was nothing in the condition report that suggested the book had spent any time in the tropics; the humidity would surely have made an impact on the paper. Despite no indications when Orwell would have owned the book, Sandrine intended bidding on it. At the right price, it would be a worthy find.
“Excuse me,” the deep, resonant voice said at her elbow. She turned, startled. He was standing virtually at the edge of her desk, though angled slightly behind her and a fraction outside her peripheral vision.
Damn, how did he get there?
“Sorry,” he continued, a wide easy smile creasing his features. “Just wanted to know where the art history section is?”
Sandrine was slightly annoyed at being interrupted, and flustered that she had so easily been surprised.
“Just this way,” she said brusquely, leading him further back into the store. “Most of the shelves, here…” she indicated, “…and over here.”
He was tall, probably close to six feet, and towered over her. He thanked her and bent on one knee to examine the books on a lower shelf. Sandrine watched him closely, noting his large hands and slim, sensitive fingers.
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?”
“Not really,” he said without looking up. “I never know what I’m looking for until I find it.” He stood and smiled. “I suppose I just love books. Especially old books. There’s something about the smell of them, the feel, the heft of a solid book. I’ll never get used to e-books. It just doesn’t seem right, somehow.”
Sandrine lent back against a bookcase. She agreed entirely. From her earliest years, she’d been fascinated by books. Her aunt, the woman who had raised her after the death of her parents, had thousands of books that filled several rooms of their home. No matter how big the collection grew, she was always bringing home more. And she knew the location of every one.
“I know how you feel.” Sandrine was warming to this stranger. Although he was just too ridiculously good looking, he gave the impression of being down-to-earth.
And anybody who loves books is OK by me
, she thought.
“What do your tastes run to?” he asked evenly. “No, wait, let me guess.” As he looked at her, he tilted his head slightly to one side as if this would focus his concentration more intensely. His gaze was a little disquieting and she was surprised to find it affected her on an emotional level. His eyes, she noticed, were brown, although of a shade that could easily turn to green, the lashes luxuriously long, his skin smooth and ever so slightly tanned. He’d spent time in the sun quite recently, she guessed, and it occurred to her then that she was sizing him up just as much as he was her.
“I don’t think modern fiction interests you. You’re undoubtedly quite dismissive of chick-lit. I’d hazard a guess at Shakespeare and the Elizabethan playwrights, maybe with a bit of Dickens thrown in.”
There was a slight pause. He was waiting for a response. Du Pre was executing a difficult passage, sounding both passionate and melancholy at the same time; it was one of Sandrine’s favourites but her attention had shifted suddenly and she was aware of the underlying stillness in the room and the stranger’s proximity. He’d definitely struck a nerve; her aunt had loved Dickens and could match most life lessons with a quote from
“I spent my childhood reading and re-reading Dickens but these days I prefer the Romantics.”
“English?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen specifically.”
“Ah,” he said, as if that explained so much. “Anyway, thanks for showing me these. I might take a while.”
She was being dismissed, although in a subtle way.
“If there’s anything else you need, I’ll be at the front.” She went back to her desk and the auction catalogue. It felt like ages before he returned, laden down with books. As she rang up the transaction, she glanced at his credit card.
She nodded. “Sandrine,” she said by way of introduction. “Quite a haul here, Jack. Did you find everything you need?”
“For the moment. If I didn’t have an appointment soon, I’d probably spend the afternoon here. That reminds me. Can I leave the books and pick them up afterwards? It’ll save me carting them around town.”
“Sure. The least I can do for a new customer. We close at 5pm.”
“Great,” he said, sliding into his trenchcoat and carefully buttoning it up to the collar. “I’ll be back by then.”
Just as he moved towards the door, it flew open, startling both of them. A woman wearing an elaborately cut overcoat reminiscent of the 1940s and a woollen cap framing a severe black bob, burdened with shopping bags and an unfurled umbrella, shook the rain off herself.
“Jeez, it’s ridiculous out there. You’d think in this weather, everybody would just stay at home and out of my way.”
Jack stared at her, his surprise registering a slight half-smile. Sandrine laughed self-consciously.
The woman looked up, suddenly aware she had an audience.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Sandrine, I didn’t know you had customers.”