Jonathan Gilchrist never wanted to inherit Kettering Hall. A second son, he was content to work as the village apothecary. But when his brother’s death made him heir just as his father’s foolish decisions put the estate at risk, only the sale of a priceless possession—a ruby called the Bevoy—can save the family from ruin. But the gem has disappeared. And all trails lead to Iverness Curiosity Shop—and the beautiful shop girl who may be the answer to his many questions.
Camille Iverness can take care of herself. She’s done so since the day her mother abandoned the family and left Camille to run their shabby curiosity shop. But when a violent betrayal leaves her injured with no place to hide, Camille must allow a mysterious stranger to come to her aid.
Caught at the intersection of blessings and curses, greed and deceit, these two determined souls must unite to protect what they hold dear. But when a passion that shines far brighter than any gem is ignited, they will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for their future, love, and happiness.
Praise for The Curiosity Keeper:
“A delightful read, rich with period details. Ladd crafts a couple the reader roots for from the very beginning and a plot that keeps the reader guessing until the end.” —Sarah M. Eden, bestselling author of For Elise
- The first book in the Treasures of Surrey Regency romance series (books do not need to be read in order)
- Book One: The Curiosity Keeper
- Book Two: Dawn at Emberwilde
- Book Three: A Stranger at Fellsworth
- Book length: 89,000 words
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
- Chaste, kissing-only Regency romance
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The Curiosity Keeper
A Treasures Of Surrey Novel
By Sarah E. Ladd
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Sarah E. Ladd
All rights reserved.
Iverness Curiosity Shop, London, England, 1812
Camille Iverness met the big man's gaze.
She would not be bullied or manipulated. Not in her own shop.
Camille recognized the expression in the man's eye. He did not want to speak with her, a mere woman. Not when the owner of the shop was James Iverness.
But James Iverness—her father—was not present.
She jutted her chin out in a show of confidence, refusing to even blink as he pinned her with a steely stare.
"As I already told you, Mr. Turner, I have no money to give you," she repeated, louder this time. "Any dealings you made with my father you will need to take up with him. I've no knowledge of the transaction you described. You had best return at another time."
"I've seen you here, day in, day out." His voice rose in both volume and gruffness. "How do you expect me to believe you know nothing about it?" The wooden planks beneath his feet groaned as he shifted his considerable weight, making little attempt to mask his effort to look around her into the store's back room. "Is he in there? So help me, if he is and—"
"Sir, no one besides myself is present, with the exception of my father's dog."
It was in moments like this that she wished she were taller, for even as she stood on the platform behind the counter, the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. "If you would like, I will wake the animal, but if you have seen me here often, as you claim, then no doubt you have also seen Tevy and know he does not take kindly to strangers. You decide. Shall I go fetch him?"
Mr. Turner's gaze snapped back to her. No doubt he knew of the dog. Everyone on Blinkett Street knew about James Iverness's dog.
His whiskered lip twitched.
A warm sense of satisfaction spread through her, for finally she had said something to sway the determined man.
Mr. Turner's face deepened to crimson, and he pointed a thick finger in Camille's direction, his voice matching the intensity of his eyes. "Tell your father I've a mind to speak with him. And tell him I want my money and won't take kindly to his antics. Next time I am here I will not be so willing to leave."
He muttered beneath his breath and stomped from the store, slamming the door behind him with such force that the glass canisters on the near shelf trembled.
A shudder rushed through her as she watched him lumber away, and she did not let her posture relax until the back flap of his gray coat passed the window and was out of sight. How she despised such interactions. As of late, Papa seemed to be angering more patrons than he obliged, and he always managed to be conveniently absent when they came to confront him.
She needed to speak with Papa, and soon. Awkward conversations like the one with Mr. Turner needed to stop.
Camille tucked a long, wayward lock of hair behind her ear and drew a deep breath. Once again her father's dog had come to her rescue, and he was not even in the room.
"Come, Tevy," she called. In a matter of moments the massive brown animal was through the door and at her side, tail wagging enthusiastically.
"Pay heed!" she laughed as he nudged her hand, forcing her to pet him. "That tail of yours is likely to knock every vase off that shelf if you're not careful, and then Papa will blame—"
The door to the shop pushed open, jingling the bell hung just above it. She drew a sharp breath, preparing to deal with yet another customer, but it was her father who appeared in the doorway.
He was a short man, not much taller than she herself, but that was where their physical similarities ended. His green eyes made up in intensity what he lacked in stature. His hair, which in her youth had been the color of sand, was now the color of stone, and years spent on a ship's deck had left his complexion ruddy. His threadbare frock coat, dingy neckcloth, and whiskered cheeks made him appear more like a vagabond than a shopkeeper, and despite his privileged upbringing, he often acted and spoke like an inhabitant of the docks where he did much of his trading.
"Good day, Papa."
He ignored her welcome and bent to scratch Tevy's ears. After pulling out a bit of dried meat and handing it to the dog, he reached back into his coat. "This came for you."
He stretched out his hand, rough and worn. Between his thick fingers he pinched a letter.
Camille stared at it for several moments, shocked. Clearly she could make out her name—in her mother's handwriting. The edge of the paper was torn. She could not recall the last letter she had received from Mama.
He thrust the letter toward her. "Don't just stand there gawking, girl. Take it."
Camille fumbled with the missive to keep it from falling to the planked floor below, but for once, she found herself unable to find words. Unprepared—and unwilling—to deal with the onset of emotions incited by the letter, she blinked back moisture and shoved it into the front pocket of her work apron.
"Are you not going to read it?" Her father nodded toward her apron.
Of course he expected her to read it, for he himself devoured every one of his wife's scarce communications the moment they arrived. Though they both felt her absence keenly, they reacted to it very differently—and they never, ever discussed it. Over time, Camille had made the topic off-limits in her own mind, and a letter crafted by the very person who was the source of the pain was unwelcome.
"I'll read it later. There is far too much to do at the moment." She sniffed and gestured toward the curtain that separated the shop from the back room. "There was a crate delivered to you by cart in the alley, but it was too heavy for me to lift."
She was a little surprised at the quickness with which her father let the topic of the letter drop. "Why did you not have the men delivering it bring it in?"
"I tried, but they refused—said it was not their duty. They left it in the courtyard out back."
"When are you going to learn that such things are your responsibility? You should have persuaded them to bring it in." Her father shifted through the papers on the counter, not pausing to look up. "Had you been a boy, this would not be an issue."
Camille folded her arms across her chest. "Well, I was not born a boy, and there is precious little I can do about that. So if you will fetch the delivery in for me, I shall tend to it. Or it can spend the night hours where it sits. But the sky looks like it holds rain, so whatever is inside that box will just sit there and soak."
After much grumbling, Papa disappeared through the back and returned dragging a large, awkward crate. Camille helped him bring it close to the counter, then pried the lid off and reached for one of the linen-wrapped items inside. Laying it on the counter, she carefully pulled back the fabric and revealed a canvas. Strokes of emerald and moss depicted a countryside set below a brilliant sapphire sky. She flipped through the next canvas, then the next. All boasted lush pastoral landscapes.
She clicked her tongue as she assessed the cargo. "They are all paintings. Why did you buy these?"
"I didn't buy them," he muttered. "I traded for them."
"That is the same thing, Father. Paintings do not sell well. You know that. They will sit on the shelves for months, I fear. And we haven't the space as it is."
"When will you learn not to question my ways? Sometimes such deals must be made to clinch future arrangements. You mind the counter and leave the dealings to me."
She ignored him and lifted another canvas out of the crate. "Speaking of dealings, Mr. Turner was just in looking for you."
At this he raised his head. "Did he make a purchase?"
"No, quite the opposite. He said you owe him money."
"You didn't give him any, did you?"
"Of course not."
Her father returned to his stack of papers. "Turner is a fool."
"Do you owe him money?" She leaned her hip against the counter. When her father did not respond, she continued. "If you insist upon doing these business dealings on the side, that is fine, but you must understand that you have put me in some very awkward situations. Mr. Turner was quite angry."
Her father disappeared through the doorway, signaling he was finished with the conversation. She sighed and lifted another canvas, assessing the delicate brushstrokes with a practiced eye. A lovely piece, expertly done. In another shop it might fetch a pretty penny. But not here. Their patrons wanted the unusual, the wildly exotic—unique treasures from far beyond England's shore, not calm renditions of their own British countryside.
But Camille's practical side could not quiet the beating of her heart as she took in the tranquil meadow and vivid flora depicted by the artist's strokes. Memories of her time in such a setting rushed her. She remembered running through the waving grasses, wading in the trickling streams, breathing air so fresh and clean it practically sparkled.
So long ago ...
When she was small, Camille and her mother had lived on her paternal grandfather's country estate. At that time her father had been endlessly absent, either away on business or incessantly traveling the world to quench his thirst for the rare and mysterious. But after her grandfather's death, the lavish estate had been sold. Her father, the sole heir, had invested the proceeds into this shop. And life as Camille knew it had changed forever.
She longed to flee from the dirty confines of Blinkett Street and return to the countryside, to once more breathe fresh air and to bask in the golden sunshine that bathed the meadows. But Grandfather was dead, and Mama was far away, and Papa begrudged even her necessary outings to the greengrocer and the butcher.
She sighed as the door's bell signaled another customer.
Camille had not left London since she first came to the city eleven years earlier.
She was beginning to wonder if she would ever leave London again.CHAPTER 2
Fellsworth, Surrey, England, 1812
Mr. Edward Langsby, superintendent at Fellsworth School, tapped with his knuckles on the sickroom door, which stood slightly ajar. "Mr. Gilchrist, you have a visitor."
Jonathan Gilchrist looked up from the bedside of his young patient. Despite the fever, the boy was sleeping soundly. Jonathan pressed a hand to the child's forehead before turning back to the superintendent. "Who is calling?"
"A footman from Kettering Hall. He claims it is urgent."
Jonathan drew a deep breath and adjusted his waistcoat. A footman from Kettering Hall. Again. "Did he say what brought him here?"
"No. Just that he needed to speak with you directly."
Jonathan looked toward the uncovered window. Rain pounded against the paned glass, and a howling wind rattled it in its casings. What could have so upset his father that he would send one of his footmen out at such a late hour and in such inclement weather?
Jonathan turned to Mr. Langsby. The older man was in a haphazard state of dress, and his disheveled hair and the circles beneath his eyes suggested that he had been roused from slumber.
"I will go down and see what he needs. It is a shame he had to wake you, but I am finished here. There is a powder on the table there. See that it is mixed with warm water and that he drinks it twice daily. I would prefer it if one of the teachers sat with him through the night, just in case there are any changes."
The superintendent nodded in agreement. "I shall ask Mr. Vingate to sit up with him."
"Thank you. And do not hesitate to contact me should he worsen. From the sound of it, I shall be at Kettering Hall this night instead of the cottage, so if you require my services I would start there."
Jonathan followed the superintendent down the narrow staircase separating the sick room from the rest of the building and through the kitchen to the front foyer. There stood a young footman, soaked from head to toe. "What is it, Thaddeus?"
The footman cleared his throat and blinked the water from his eyes. "Mr. Gilchrist says you are needed at Kettering Hall. There's been a robbery."
"A robbery?" Jonathan repeated, not certain if he had heard the young man correctly.
He had grown quite accustomed to being woken from sleep in the midnight hours. Sickness was hardly confined to daylight. At least once a week a patient would pound on his door seeking assistance with the onset of illness or a fever spike. And his father had few qualms about sending for him at any hour.
But never had he been summoned with news of a robbery. "Are you certain?"
Jonathan rubbed his hand across his face.
"Your father is certain." The young man wiped the rain from his face with his sleeve. "He says someone has broken into his study."
Jonathan refused to become alarmed at yet another of his father's assumptions. "If it is indeed a robbery, perhaps you should ride for the constable. His services would be of more use to Father than mine at this moment."
"It was suggested, and Mr. Gilchrist says there is nothing a constable can do." The footman swiped his soaking hair from his forehead. "He said you need to be there."
Jonathan drew a sharp breath. There was little room for doubt in his mind that his father had indeed requested—no, ordered—his presence. The man was no stranger to overreacting and had been sending for him more and more since the death of Jonathan's older brother, Thomas, two years prior. As of late Jonathan was being summoned for tasks that could easily be handled by one of the servants. The last thing he wanted to do was to venture out in the rain, only to learn that his father had misplaced a trinket. Again.
A clap of thunder shook the school. Jonathan reached for his caped greatcoat, hanging on a hook next to the door, and leaned to the left to peer out the flanking window. Streams of raindrops streaked the wavy glass and veiled his view of the black night.
"I-I brought a mount for you," the footman stammered. "Thought it would be faster than walking."
Jonathan looked past the youth out the door. Sure enough, two horses stood pitifully hunched against the rain.
He pushed his arm through the coat's sleeve. "Tell me more about what has happened."
Thaddeus stepped next to Jonathan, water still dripping from his coat and plopping to the stone floor below. "Just before midnight there was a crash from the north of the house. Sounded like breaking glass. I heard the noise myself. When I got there Mr. Gilchrist was in his study, and he would not allow anyone in except for his valet. He was angry, shouting and such. He just kept saying, 'It's gone.'"
Jonathan frowned. "What is gone?"
Jonathan groaned and reached for his hat—the wide-brimmed one he often used in weather—and stepped out into the night.
The rain hit Jonathan's face like icy pellets as he rode, and the late-spring wind pierced the wet fabric of his clothes. Fortunately, the ride to Kettering Hall was a short one—down the main lane through the village of Fellsworth and over the Leaflet Bridge. The road ran alongside Kettering's south orchard and then past a walled rose garden. At present all was masked in darkness, but he had made the journey so frequently that he did not doubt he could make it blindfolded.
Normally this time of night Kettering Hall would be as still and quiet as the grasslands and meadows that surrounded it. But not tonight. As always the ancient redbrick structure stood steadfast in the weather, a black silhouette against the midnight sky. But yellow candles now blinked from the windows. A dog barked, low and sharp, from somewhere in the east. Male voices battled to be heard against the wind and rain slamming to the ground below.
As his horse pranced to a stop in front of Kettering Hall's entrance, Jonathan slid to the ground. He handed the reins to another footman, who stood waiting, and climbed the steps toward the open front door.
The main hall was alive with servants dressed in nightclothes and robes. Candlelight cast odd shadows on their sleepy faces. How strange it was to see them in this stage of undress instead of the clean, stark uniforms they usually wore.
Such confused disorganization was uncommon at Kettering Hall. The atmosphere reminded him of another somber night, four years prior, when he had been summoned to his mother's deathbed. The servants had been awake and in nightclothes then as well, but instead of usual silence, the air had been full of soft crying and hushed voices.
He removed his hat and handed it to Abbott, the butler.
"I'm glad to see you, sir."
Abbott's familiar hoarse whisper was a welcome sound. He had known the man ever since he was a boy, and of all the staff at Kettering Hall, he placed the most trust in the aging butler.
Jonathan pulled his arm from the sleeve of his coat. "What has happened?"
Abbott took the coat. "According to your father, there has been a robbery in the study. But you know how he is. He will not allow anyone else—"
"Jonathan!" Ian Gilchrist's unmistakable voice rose above the hall's activity. "Is he here?"
Abbott cut his eyes toward Jonathan before responding. "Yes, sir, he has just arrived."
The study door, which remained locked most of the time, truly was a gateway to the mysterious unknown. Within those walls his father kept the bulk of his "collection"—an assemblage of all things strange and unusual, ancient and fanciful, gathered from every corner of the globe.
Jonathan's hand hovered over the handle. His father bellowed his name again, demanding that he enter. Yet Jonathan hesitated, for he was rarely invited into this room. But apparently tonight was different. Something had happened—an event significant enough to warrant an invitation into the inner sanctum. He found himself half dreading the impending conversation and half curious about what could have riled his father to such a state.
Excerpted from The Curiosity Keeper by Sarah E. Ladd. Copyright © 2015 Sarah E. Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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