Sometimes there’s a thin line between assessing the competition and consorting with the enemy…
Thanks to an imprudent wager made by his younger brother, Edward Astley has to win a classical translation contest being hosted by Oxford University. This means he’ll have to beat the latest star on the literary scene, the anonymous translator whose rendition of On the Sublime is taking Britain by storm. He’s supposed to be studying, but all he can seem to think about is Elissa St. Cyr, the redheaded daughter of his former tutor, who’s every bit as brainy as she is delectable.
Elissa has problems of her own. With her father’s health failing, she’ll soon need to support her mother and sisters through her translation work. And that means she needs to win the Oxford contest, so she can secure the one thing she has never had the opportunity to earn: an academic credential.
To make matters worse, she managed to get stuck in the middle of a pond during a thunderstorm, and the person who happened along to rescue her, witnessing her in the most humiliating moment of her remarkably humiliating life, was her ultimate beau idéal, the brilliant Edward Astley. Now Elissa keeps bumping into Edward everywhere she goes. Which would normally be wonderful …
… except she’s worried he’s going to figure out that she is the anonymous translator everyone is talking about.
Available November 18, 2022 at retailers everywhere!
Edward Astley had failed.
That was the thought that echoed through his head in time with his horse’s hoofbeats as he cantered toward home. He didn’t hold out much hope that he would make it before the storm gathering above him broke.
Perfect. He wouldn’t just be a failure; he would be a failure who was soaked to the bone.
The task that had brought him to the village of Bourton-on-the-Water was a question, and the person he’d hoped might be able to answer it was his former tutor, Julian St. Cyr. Learning the answer to this particular question would go some ways toward forestalling the disaster that was bearing down upon him.
But Mr. St. Cyr hadn’t had the information he sought, and now Edward had no idea what to do. He only had two weeks to figure this out, and if he couldn’t…
If he couldn’t, his brother, Harrington, would be the one to pay the price, exposed to their father’s wrath and society’s scorn. And although, in truth, this whole ridiculous situation was Harrington’s fault, Edward would never allow that to occur. There was nothing he would not do for his brother. Nothing. Edward would lay down in a muddy ditch and die for Harrington without a second’s hesitation.
The thought sounded strangely appealing compared to what he was about to do instead.
The path wound through a grove of cherry trees. They were in full bloom, and it was a shame about the storm, because the soft pink blossoms would’ve been lovely against a cloudless sky. But the sky was roiling charcoal, and there wasn’t a speck of blue to be seen.
Other than… wait. Edward squinted through the trees.
There was definitely something blue deep in the grove. Blue and… copper, if his eyes weren’t deceiving him. It was probably nothing, and he needed to hurry on. But the hairs on the back of his neck were suddenly standing on end, and he found himself reining his horse in. As he steered his mount through the cherry trees, a pond came into view.
That was when he saw her.
A single ray of light penetrated the gathering clouds, illuminating the girl in the rowboat like the subject of a Rembrandt. The Naiad would be the title of the painting, for with the cascade of red curls tumbling down her back, she truly looked like a water nymph surveying her demesne.
She glanced up at him, and the breath left Edward’s body, because dear Lord, this was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. In addition to her siren’s mane, she had a heart-shaped face, coral-pink lips that managed to be petite and full at the same time, and the sort of delicate curves he preferred above all others.
Wait. It was difficult to think when his senses were being bombarded with so much female gorgeousness, but somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, the thought emerged that he could see a bit more of those curves than he should. He realized with a start that her dress was soaking wet, her shoulders were quivering, and those lush, full lips were a bit… blue.
He shook himself. How disgraceful to sit there gawking at the poor girl while she was freezing to death! He guided his horse to the edge of the pond to offer his assistance.
But the words died on his lips as it hit him—this wasn’t just any gorgeous woman.
He knew this girl. It had been ten years since last he saw her, ten years since he had sat caddy-corner to her in her father’s classroom, but he was sure of it.
“Miss Elissa?” he asked in shock.
Elissa St. Cyr had done it this time.
She was hardly a stranger to calamity; one might say it was her stock in trade. Nor was this the first time reading out of doors had been the cause of her downfall. There had been the time when she was ten and had thought she could finish the last few pages of Xenophon’s Anabasis during the short walk to church. She had wandered straight into Mrs. Naesmith’s blackberry bramble, and it had taken a quarter of an hour to disentangle herself. She could still recall the way the preacher fell silent and everyone turned to stare as she slunk into church with her dress torn and her arms covered in scratches.
There had been another incident when she was twelve. It must have been a Wednesday, because Wednesday was the day the village shop received a box of books from the big circulating library at Cheltenham to supplement the two shelves they kept behind the counter for lending. Elissa never missed a Wednesday and, besides, she had to return the book she had out, Francis Fawkes’s translation of Argonautica. She had been reading a favorite passage one last time as she walked along.
That was when she tripped over the pig (because of course there happened to be a pig just wandering by) and fell flat on her face in the middle of the road.
She was unharmed, but the incident was unfortunate in that it was witnessed by William Ricketts, one of her father’s students. More specifically, William Ricketts was the worst of her many tormentors inside the classroom. The Unfortunate Pig Incident had given him years’ worth of fodder.
Then there was the Bicklebury Bog Debacle.
Elissa still did not like to think about the Bicklebury Bog Debacle. She’d had to wait for Farmer Broadwater to fetch his plough horse to pull her out, by which time a crowd had gathered to point and laugh.
That had been when she finally swore off reading and walking, but she still loved to read outdoors. There was nothing like a picturesque spot to stir the imagination. Farmer Broadwater, her rescuer all those years ago, didn’t mind if she borrowed his rowboat, and when she was reading something set on the water, she liked to lie in it. The gentle bobbing gave her the feeling of being aboard a ship, right there amongst the ancient heroes.
She always kept the boat tied to the dock. She had never dreamed that anything could go wrong.
Today had been the first day of the year that had truly felt like spring, and she just had to get outside. She grabbed Plutarch’s Life of Theseus from the library and set out after luncheon. As always, she became lost in the tale, and must have read for the better part of three hours.
She sat up when she saw the clouds rolling in. She ran a hand over her opposite arm and was startled to find gooseflesh; she had been so caught up in the story, she only now noticed that the temperature had dropped by ten degrees.
That was when she saw what had happened.
At some point, the rowboat had come untied from the dock and had drifted into the center of the pond. A quick search revealed that there wasn’t an oar in the boat, but no matter—the pond was small enough. Surely she could use her hand to paddle back to shore.
It was when she failed to make any progress that she noticed the rope had become entangled in one of the underwater trees that had been left in place when they flooded the hollow. Try as she might, Elissa was unable to work the rope free. And although she picked at it until her fingers bled, she couldn’t loosen the knot.
By this time, the weather was really starting to turn, and she shouted as loudly as she could for Farmer Broadwater, whose house was just over the rise. This was to no avail, and that was when she began to grow fearful. A storm was coming, a bad one, and she was about to be stuck on the water with absolutely no protection.
The only option she could come up with was to wade to shore. Although she couldn’t swim, the pond was small, and most of it wasn’t very deep. Perhaps she could touch bottom.
Trembling, she lowered herself into the water, and was quickly disabused of that hope. The outside of the boat was slimy with moss, and she immediately lost her grip. Her chest seized with panic as her head went under, but she managed to grab a tree limb with a flailing arm and pull her head back out of the water. It was a struggle to get back into the slippery boat, especially after her hair became snarled in the tree, and she tried and failed so many times it began to feel like she would never make it out of the frigid water. By the time she finally collapsed into the bottom of the boat, her hair had unraveled from its pins, and her whole body was shaking with fatigue and terror.
That had been perhaps an hour ago, an hour in which the temperature had continued to plummet. The thin, blue muslin gown that had seemed perfect for a sunny spring afternoon was grossly inadequate for the current conditions, and between her sodden state and the way her thoughts were becoming muddled, she was fairly certain she was growing hypothermic.
She had mumbled every prayer she could dredge from her frozen brain. Elissa had always prided herself on being self-reliant. She may have her head stuck in the clouds, but she had never been the type to sit around and wait for someone to come to her rescue. Life had taught her there was no such thing as a prince on a white horse.
But if ever she had needed someone to be her hero, it was right now.
And then she heard it—the cadence of hoofbeats on the nearby path. She tried to cry out, but her frozen throat could only manage a sad, little croak.
The hoofbeats slowed, and she could see something moving through the trees.
It proved to be a man.
A man on a white horse.
And—oh, God, surely this could not be happening…
Although Elissa knew she needed help and had, in fact, just spent the better part of two hours praying fervently for someone, anyone, to happen along, she could not believe her terrible luck.
Because if there was anyone on the face of this earth she did not want to witness her in this, the most humiliating moment of her remarkably humiliating life, it was Edward Astley.
It had been ten years since last she saw him. He had been seventeen, as she recalled (as she recalled—as if she did not recall it all perfectly!) At an age when most boys had been spotty-faced and awkward, Edward Astley was already breathtakingly handsome, showing every indication that he would become this outstanding specimen of the male species, whom, according to the newspapers, the tittering ladies of London had dubbed “Prince Charming.”
Certainly, he deserved it. He looked much the same as she remembered, save for being taller, squarer-jawed, and broader-shouldered. He looked the part of the ideal country lord. He was riding a gorgeous, white Irish Hunter and was impeccably turned out in buff breeches and glossy top boots, with a cream waistcoat and flawlessly white linen. His coat was the color considered most suitable for the country, a pale brown shade called drab. On anyone else, it would have looked, well, drab, but on Edward Astley, the dull color only served to make his thick, glossy, dark-brown hair look richer. And as for his eyes…
They called them the Astley eyes. She’d heard that his mother had them, as did four of his six siblings. They were huge, and as blue as… Elissa didn’t even know how to finish that sentence, because she had never seen anything as blue as Edward Astley’s eyes. Even from fifteen yards away, she could make out their color.
Those eyes were currently staring at her in shock. Oh, but this was mortifying!
Get a hold of yourself, Elissa. It wasn’t that bad. He didn’t seem to recognize her.
Gracious, after all these years, he probably didn’t even remember her!
Er—so much for that hope. She cleared her rusty throat. “Lord Fauconbridge,” she replied, using his title (because as the eldest son of the Earl of Cheltenham, he was known by the courtesy title Viscount Fauconbridge). She sifted through her brain for the appropriate manner in which to converse with a viscount whilst floating on a pond whilst wearing a translucent dress. “How—er—lovely to see you again.”
“Yes, what an unexpected plea—” A sharp rumble from the sky cut him off. “Forgive me, Miss Elissa, but are you perhaps in need of some assistance?”
“Indeed I am.” She gestured to the front of the boat. “The rope has become entangled in this tree, and I cannot free it. I fear I am stuck. I—I cannot swim, you see.”
He swung down off his horse. “I see,” he said, draping the reins over a branch.
“If you would be so kind, Farmer Broadwater’s house is just over that rise,” she said, gesturing. “He can fetch the neighbor’s boat.”
“Ah,” he said, brightening, “there is another boat. Where is it? I am sure that, given the circumstances, its owner would not object to my commandeering it.”
Elissa flushed. “I wouldn’t want you to go to such trouble.”
“It is no trouble at all.”
She swallowed. “It is a mile, maybe a mile and a half, down the road.”
“A mile and a half—” He broke off, looking affronted, and began peeling off his coat.
“Wha—what are you doing?”
“You cannot wait that long,” he said firmly. He hung his coat from another branch and began tugging at one of his boots.
Oh, dear God, he meant to come in after her! “Please, my lord,” she sputtered, “I would never expect for you to—”
“You should,” he said, grunting as the boot slid free. “Only a blackguard would leave you there with a storm coming.”
He had never seemed to understand that she wasn’t the kind of girl who received such solicitude. “I’m not worth the trouble,” she said ruefully.
He looked startled that she would even suggest such a thing. “Of course you are.”
She sighed. This was why Edward Astley would always be her beau idéal. Not because he was devastatingly handsome (which he was), or because he was rich, or because he was heir to an earldom. Not even because he was so smart, although she had always found that even more appealing than his good looks. After leaving her father’s tutelage, he had gone on to win just about every award the University of Cambridge gave out, including its most prestigious, Senior Wrangler, which was given to the best student in mathematics. He had also been named second Classical Medalist, having completed the near-impossible feat of being a top student in both mathematics and classics.
But more than any of those things, the reason Edward Astley had always made Elissa a bit weak about the knees was because he had always been so kind to her.
By the time Elissa had been old enough to join her father’s classroom, Edward had been at Eton. But during school breaks, he would ride over twice a week to take some additional lessons. The days when he was there had been completely different. Her father’s other students seemed to be universally of the opinion that it was unnatural for a girl to study Greek and Latin. Mostly, they would ignore her, but there were a few, led by William Ricketts, who seemed affronted by her mere existence, and were constantly making remarks just skirting the inappropriate, trying to get a rise out of her.
But Edward would not brook any boorish behavior in her presence. As soon as William Ricketts started in on her, he would clear his throat, say, “Come, Ricketts,” and nod toward Elissa with a genial smile. He always assumed the best about everyone, assumed that Ricketts was a good sort who had momentarily forgotten that a lady was present (Elissa could have disabused him of that notion).
It hadn’t been anything extraordinary, just little things like the way he would smile and say, ‘Good morning, Miss Elissa,’ when she walked into the classroom. He often made an interested observation after she read her translation aloud (an event that was usually followed by the sound of crickets, at best). Once she had broken the nib of her pen, and he had immediately handed her his spare.
She knew very well that he didn’t like her, at least, not in the same way she liked him, nor did she expect him to. But he had treated her like his fellow student at a point in her life when everyone else had treated her like an oddity. It was a small thing, but one that meant a tremendous amount to her.
From the bank of the pond, he cleared his throat, recalling her to the situation at hand. “And it is obvious that you are rather cold.”
Oh dear—he had caught her woolgathering. “I cannot deny it,” she said, hugging her arms around her chest.
He divested himself of his second boot and waded into the pond. Once he was waist-deep, he leaned forward and began slicing through the water with smooth, precise strokes.
He made three attempts to disentangle the rope, twice diving under the water and not resurfacing for what seemed like too long. After the last attempt he ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead (gracious, she had never seen a man with such thick hair in her life!) “You’re right,” he said. “It is well and truly tangled. I fear there’s nothing for it. We’ll have to swim. Please do not worry. I am confident in my ability to convey you safely to shore.”
She had no concerns on that front; she had seen how efficiently he’d cut through the water. The only question was the mechanics of how this was to be accomplished. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, her voice trembling with sincerity. “Um, how should I, er—”
“Let’s see. I can pull down on the side of the boat. Can you—”
“Yes, let me just—”
Her dress snagged on the lip of the boat as she slid into the water. She felt a rush of cold air all the way up to her thighs as her skirts were pulled up. Oh, dear—well, she was into the water so quickly, he probably hadn’t seen any higher than her knees. At least, that was what she was going to tell herself. She was gripping the side of the boat with both hands, in the water up to her collarbone, when he wrapped a warm, firm arm around her waist, pulling her body flush against his.
Even in the icy chill of the pond, he was warm beneath his thin linen shirt, and she instinctively curled into him, a groan of pleasure escaping from her throat. She had never been this close to a man. Never. Her breasts pressed into the firm planes of his chest, her stomach lay flush with his, and their legs tangled intimately beneath the water. His head was so near to hers she could feel his breath on her lips when he murmured, “All right?”
“All right,” she confirmed, her voice a squeak, and he was leaning back to push away from the boat when she remembered. “Oh—wait—I almost forgot my book!”
“Your… book?” he asked, his brow creasing.
She reached over the side of the rowboat, feeling around. “You know how my father is about his library. I’ll never hear the end of it if I leave one of his books out in a rainstorm… Here it is,” she said, pulling it from the boat.
His face broke into a broad grin as he took in the title. “You read Plutarch in a rowboat?”
“I—er—yes.” She cleared her throat. “Of course, much of it is set on the ship of Theseus, and the rocking of the rowboat makes you feel like you’re on the water, and… and…”
She trailed off, ducking her head. Had she thought being caught in the middle of a pond in a sodden dress was embarrassing? It appeared she had stumbled upon something even worse.
But a soft smile stole across Edward’s face, a real smile, without even a trace of mockery. “That strikes me as the ideal place to read it.”
The sky gave another rumble, and he glanced heavenwards, serious again. “I’ll need a hand to swim. Can you hold the book up out of the water? Perhaps we can manage it if you wrap your other arm around my neck.”
The only advantage of being half frozen was that it prevented her cheeks from bursting into flames as she hooked her arm up around his shoulders. Now her entire body was pressed against his, and a shudder rippled through her.
“We must get you out of this cold water,” he said, misinterpreting the reason for her trembling. He shifted so he was floating on his back, pulling her on top of him, wrapping one arm around her back and resting his hand gently on her waist. “Is that all right?”
Was that all right? She was lying on top of Edward Astley with naught but a few layers of wet muslin to separate them. She might feel mortified now, but she had a feeling this would go down as the best moment of her whole entire life.
She nodded her assent, and he let go of the boat. He floated along on his back, making slow, smooth strokes with his free arm, propelling them steadily toward the shore.
Mere seconds later, he put his feet down. “Here we are.” He grasped her about the waist again and helped her rise to standing.
“And we even managed to keep Plutarch dry. More or less,” she laughed, holding the book between two fingers in an effort to keep it from being soaked by her wet hands.
He grinned. “Excellent.” He released her waist and offered his arm. “Now, let’s get you back home before—”
She started to sway as soon as he withdrew his hands. She hadn’t realized she was quite so cold, but it was clear her legs wouldn’t hold her. He snatched her up about the waist, pulling her body flush against his.
Plutarch was not so fortunate. The book slipped from her tenuous grasp and plunged into the pond.
“Oh, no!” she cried. “Father is going to kill me.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, somehow managing to hold her upright while bending down to fish the book out of the water. “That was my fault.”
“It absolutely was not.” She gave a bleak chuckle. “Disaster is my signature. It has a way of following me wherever I go.”
“Are you all right now?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said, taking a step forward. “I just—”
Her knees promptly buckled. Edward was on her in an instant, living up to his nickname as he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to shore.
He seated her on a log and immediately draped his coat around her shoulders.
“Oh!” Elissa raised her hands in protest. “But… will you not be cold, my lord?”
“I insist,” he said as he pulled the flaps closed around her. “You’ve been soaked through in this chill air for too long already.” He scooped up his boots and found a spot a little ways down the log upon which to sit.
As soon as he turned to his boots, Elissa buried her nose in the collar of his coat. Bergamot. It was the same shaving tonic he had started to use when he’d been around sixteen years old. She could remember catching a hint of that musky citrus scent as she rounded the corner toward the classroom, and the thrill of anticipation that would go through her, because she would know before she even saw him that he was in attendance that day.
All semblance of rational thought fled as Edward scooped her up again and carried her to his horse. He lifted her up onto the saddle easily, then adjusted the stirrup so she could insert her foot. She was seated sideways, even though it was not a sidesaddle.
“I won’t go faster than a walk,” he said. “Do you think you can manage?”
“Of course,” she replied, grabbing the pommel for purchase.
She really thought she could, but after only a few steps, she began to sway, and came close to tumbling off.
He immediately drew his gelding to a halt. “Miss Elissa?” he asked, his expression sincere.
She felt mortified. “I’m so terribly sorry. I—I guess I’m colder than I realized.”
“It’s no trouble.” He studied her for a beat. “I apologize—this is not going to be entirely proper. But I can’t think how else to get you home before this storm breaks.”
He led his horse slowly back to the log, keeping a hand hovering near her leg in case she started to sway. He climbed up behind her, then lifted her up and settled her on his lap. He wrapped one arm securely about her waist, holding her firmly against him, and took the reins in the other.
“Is this all right?” he asked tentatively.
All right? Of course Edward Astley sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her away on his white charger was not “all right.”
It was her every schoolgirl fantasy come true, is what it was.
But she could hardly tell him that, so what she said was, “It’s all right.”
“Come,” he said, “let’s get you home.”
Edward had never imagined a context in which he might think to himself, Thank God I’m wearing these soaking wet, ice-cold trousers.
But considering he had the delectable Elissa St. Cyr in his lap, those trousers were the only thing preventing him from dishonoring himself.
The first thing he had done after getting her out of the pond was to wrap her in his coat. He had done this out of genuine concern for her health, but it also had the positive effect of covering her siren’s body, deliciously displayed in that whisper-thin, clinging dress.
Not that he wasn’t still picturing what she looked like beneath his coat, to say nothing of the moment she slipped into the pond and her dress had been pulled up to her thighs. Images of delicate ankles, finely turned calves, and petal-soft skin were going to be seared on his brain for all eternity. But the coat helped.
A minuscule amount.
God, when he had told her she looked “rather cold,” he had somehow managed to look her square in the eye instead of staring longingly at her nipples.
He hadn’t been that proud of himself in quite some time.
His horse picked his way through the copse of cherry trees to the path, and Edward pointed him back toward Bourton-on-the-Water. He studied the sky. “I think we can make it before the storm breaks.”
“Thank you,” she said, peering up at him shyly. There was a rather large clump of pondweed tangled in her hair. Several clumps, truth be told. He wondered whether he should mention it and decided against it. He suspected this was the type of thing a lady might find embarrassing.
Even slightly blue and covered in pondweed, she managed to look alluring. She’d wrapped her arms around his neck for balance, giving him an unimpeded view of her eyes. They were pale green with just a hint of blue. Her eyelashes were a shade darker than her hair, and the contrast with those sea glass green eyes was mesmerizing…
She cleared her throat, and he realized he had been staring. “May I ask what brought you out this way?” she said.
“I paid a visit to your father,” he said, grateful for the distraction of some conversation. “There was something I needed to ask him.”
“Oh? What was that?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent edition of Longinus’s On the Sublime, the one by the anonymous translator that has caused such a sensation.”
“The publisher is sponsoring a contest, pitting their mystery translator against all comers. It is to be held at Oxford three weeks hence.”
This was about as much information as Edward had about the contest. The organizers were keeping the exact format a secret, as they wanted to determine the contestants’ extemporaneous abilities, rather than what they could compose a month in advance. But Edward was a Cambridge man and had spent four years vying for various Browne Medals and Member’s Prizes. He knew how these things generally went. You were allowed a lexicon and a dictionary. You would be given a Greek work to translate into English, or an English poem to translate into Latin. Or perhaps the judges would select a theme, and the contestants would compose an original work on that theme. It could be in Latin or Greek, and in either poetry or prose. Or you would be asked to compose a Latin ode in the style of Horace, or a Greek epigram in imitation of those in the Anthologia. The exact format wouldn’t be revealed until the morning of the contest, but it was usually something along those lines.
“I heard about the contest as well,” Elissa said, biting her lip as she peered up at him. “Will you, uh, will you be entering?”
“I will,” Edward confirmed.
Given a choice between eating a bucketful of broken glass and entering this contest, he would have gotten out a spoon and tucked in. He hadn’t touched a volume of Greek verse since taking his degree from Cambridge five years ago. His university experience had been grueling in the extreme. It was fine for his friends to spend four years carousing, but, having shown promise in the classics from an early age, Edward’s family had high expectations for his university career.
And so he had spent most evenings shut in his room, translating Latin and Greek until he nodded off at his desk. And… it wasn’t that he had nothing to show for his efforts. He had a half-dozen Browne Medals and Member’s Prizes shoved in the back of his desk drawer. But there was only one accolade that really mattered: the Chancellor’s Classical Medal. He could still recall the day he had learned of the award’s existence. He’d been six years old and had memorized the opening of the Aeneid in Latin. His tutor, Mr. Brownlee, had brought him before his father, and after Edward had recited the lines, Mr. Brownlee had excitedly informed the earl that he had never seen such talent at such an early age, and that Edward “might win the Chancellor’s Classical Medal someday.”
Edward’s father had nodded proudly. “That would really be something.” Six-year-old Edward had never heard of the Chancellor’s Classical Medal before, but from that moment, he’d been determined to win it. And the more he studied, the more it became a refrain. He’d heard some version of how he was a legitimate candidate for the Chancellor’s Classical medal from every one of his teachers and tutors.
But he hadn’t won the Chancellor’s Classical Medal. After damn near killing himself, Edward had lost the only award he really cared about to the son of a baker from Merseyside named Robert Slocombe.
The fact that he had unexpectedly been named Senior Wrangler, the title given to the top student in mathematics and universally considered to be the higher honor, had done nothing to quiet the voices in his head with their endless refrain: failure, failure, failure.
So, entering this contest… This was not something he did. Not anymore. The thought of attempting a Latin or Greek translation literally made his throat seize, his pulse fly, his—
“And what was it,” Elissa asked, recalling him to the conversation, “that you wanted to discuss with my father?”
How embarrassing to have been caught not attending to the conversation. “I heard a rumor suggesting the translator might be local to Gloucestershire.”
“You heard what?” Her voice rose half an octave in pitch on the last word. “How—how surprising. What was the rumor?”
“The sister of one of our maids works at the Plough Inn in Cheltenham. One day last week, the mail coachman came in with a parcel that had been dropped in the mud. It was addressed to the Prince of Wales. He asked her to re-wrap it before the mud soaked through. When she peeled off the soiled paper, she found the new translation inside, with a note from the author saying he had been honored to receive the prince’s request for an autographed copy.”
“Oh, my gracious! Could she, uh, could she make out the signature?”
“She didn’t even see it. The note was folded so that only the first few lines were visible, and she could hardly go snooping through the prince’s correspondence with the coachman looking on. But if the package came through Cheltenham, then the author must be from around these parts. That was what I wanted to discuss with your father. I thought it might be one of his former students.”
“Oh. I see. And did he have any guesses regarding the identity of the translator?”
Edward applied the gentlest pressure to the reins, slowing his horse a touch. Given the way Elissa was clinging to his neck, she must be feeling unstable. “He did not.”
“Not even an inkling?” she asked.
“No, he said he hadn’t the slightest clue.”
“Oh.” She looked down for a beat, then swallowed before peering up at him again. “May I ask your opinion regarding the translation?”
“It is excellent,” he said at once. “If you are yet to read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
“Oh, yes. One reads so many translations that are without feeling. You could argue that the words are right, but they somehow fail to capture the spirit of the work. This was the exact opposite. Whoever did this has a true understanding of Longinus. And more than that…”
He paused, trying to find the right words. “It’s difficult to describe, but it was written with such enthusiasm, such genuine love of the work, it was contagious. It reminded me of everything I used to love”—catching his slip, he cleared his throat— “that is to say, everything I love about classical verse.”
That was the problem, all right. Whoever had performed this translation was brilliant. He was more than just a competent technician; the man was a poet in his own right. Hell, this mystery translator had even managed to capture a hint of the original Greek meter, an almost-impossible task given that Greek lacked the stress-accents that gave English its cadence.
Edward had never mastered the trick of that. But no matter how rusty and out of practice he might be, he was going to have to find a way to beat this man, whoever he was, because his little brother had gotten drunk and wagered Augustus Avery fifteen thousand pounds that Edward was going to win that bloody contest.
There was no getting out of it; it was in the betting book at White’s and everything: Mr. Harrington Astley bets Mr. Augustus Avery fifteen thousand pounds that his brother’s poem will be the one read aloud by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University at the upcoming contest on the first of April.
The money wasn’t even the worst of it, although it was extremely bad (fifteen thousand pounds—what had Harrington been thinking?) The worst of it was the misery in Harrington’s eyes when he begged Edward to enter. “Father won’t just cut me off if he finds out,” Harrington had said. “He’ll ship me off to India, like he’s threatened. He already thinks I’m such a wastrel. A waste of good linen, that’s me.”
Edward had objected immediately. Honestly, how Harrington could fail to understand that he was everyone’s favorite was beyond him. Harrington had the quickest wit of any man Edward knew, and an effervescent personality. Everyone’s mood improved the instant Harrington walked into a room.
Edward may have been the smart brother, but Harrington was the loveable one.
He could still recall the precise moment he had come to understand that.
It had been a hell of a lesson to learn at the age of eight.
But Harrington was convinced their father thought he was worthless, and none of Edward’s arguments had swayed him.
Although Edward suspected Harrington was right about his father packing him off to India if he made another mistake. Edward had been there when the earl made that threat, and his impression was that their father meant every word.
It was imperative that Harrington not go to India. Englishmen were ill-suited to its tropical climate; Edward had done some research and had been alarmed to discover that more than half of all Englishmen who sailed for India perished within five years. And to make matters worse, Harrington had always been prone to asthmatic attacks.
Edward had a terrible foreboding that if Harrington was forced to go to India, he would never see his brother again. And that meant that the earl must not find out about Harrington’s imprudent wager.
And the only way Edward could prevent that was to win the bloody contest.
He sighed. No matter how much he loathed the prospect of resuming his career as a classicist, there was one thing that was even worse, and that was letting his little brother down. If there was any chance that he could save Harrington from their father’s wrath, Edward was going to do his damnedest.
From her perch on his lap, Elissa cleared her throat and dabbed at her cheek with the sleeve of his coat. She had the biggest smile on her face. What had they been discussing? Oh yes, the translation. “It sounds wonderful,” she said.
“It is.” He laughed bitterly. “But listen to me—lavishing praise upon my enemy.”
Her eyes flew to his. “Your—your enemy?”
“Of course,” he said, guiding his horse to the left as they came to a fork. “I have to beat this mystery translator in the contest, after all.”
She gave a nervous chuckle. “But surely that makes this person your competitor. Not your enemy.”
“My enemy,” he insisted. “I mean to win this contest. Had it been the mystery translator I came across floating in that pond, I would’ve been sorely tempted to leave him there.”
She flinched. “I’m only jesting,” he hastened to say, but her sudden movement was enough to upset the lump of pondweed on her head.
The first thing that happened was for a slimy tendril of pondweed to snake its way down the side of her head. Elissa frowned and began patting her hair uncertainly.
Her searching hand startled a huge, black water beetle, which must have been lurking inside the clump of pondweed this whole time. It scurried straight across her forehead.
“Yeep!” she screamed, clawing at her face. “What is it? Get it off me!”
Edward pulled his gelding, who had begun dancing nervously, to a halt. “Bucephalus, stand!” he commanded.
Elissa screamed as the beetle scampered down her nose. Edward tried to grab it, but it escaped into her hair, causing her to arch her back in horror. She clocked him in the nose with her elbow as she raked her fingers through her hair.
“Everything’s all right,” he grunted, struggling to find it amongst her thick curls while avoiding her flailing arms. “It’s just a… a water beetle.”
The beetle suddenly emerged from her hair, tearing across her cheek. Elissa screeched and swatted desperately at her face, finally launching it into a nearby bush.
She was breathing hard, as if she’d just fought off a wild boar rather than a tiny beetle. “There was a bug. A giant bug.”
“Indeed, that was the largest specimen I’ve ever seen.”
She cut her eyes to him sharply, and he came to understand that this had not been the correct thing to say. “But it’s gone now,” he added.
“It was in my hair,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut with horror.
“Strictly speaking, it wasn’t in your hair. It came out of that lump of pondweed on top of your head.”
Her eyes whipped up to his. “What lump of pondweed?”
“Er—” In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better not to mention the pondweed. “Would you like for me to, uh—”
She cleared her throat, staring off into a copse of trees. “If you would be so kind. I should hate to find out if the largest water beetle you have ever seen has any brothers or sisters.”
She shuddered as he tossed a huge clump to the ground. “Thank heavens that’s over,” she said fervently.
“There’s just a bit more over here,” he said, sifting behind her ear.
“There is, is there?”
“And back here,” he grunted, struggling to dislodge a particularly stubborn tendril.
“Take all the time you need,” she muttered.
Four clumps later, he declared victory. “I believe that is all of it.”
“Thank you,” she said in a clipped voice, not meeting his eye.
Edward nudged Bucephalus forward and cast about for a topic that might restore her composure. “Your father mentioned that you have continued your studies.”
“I have,” she said, staring at the ground.
“May I ask what you’ve been working on?”
She gave a bleak laugh. “Why, just this afternoon, I have conceived an idea for an original ode.”
“Ah, what is to be the subject?”
She muttered something quickly in Greek, almost under her breath.
Almost. But not quite.
“What?” Edward cried, reining Bucephalus to a halt.
Elissa froze, then slowly swung her gaze up to meet his. Her eyes were wide, her mouth ajar, her face a portrait of dawning horror. “Oh, dear,” she whispered.
Oh, dear, indeed.
Because unless he was very much mistaken, her forthcoming ode was to be entitled Prince Charming and the Sea Hag of Broadwater Bottom.
Why had she said that out loud?
Elissa partly blamed the cold, which had numbed her brain every bit as much as her arms and legs. Then there was the sudden and disorientating turn her afternoon had taken.
One minute, she had been riding along in the arms of Prince Charming himself, when, of all possible topics, he began speaking about On the Sublime.
Edward was right about one thing—the mystery translator was from the area, and far closer than he realized.
She was, in fact, sitting on his lap.
She had been a bit terrified to ask what he thought of her work. There was no one whose talent she admired more than Edward Astley’s. No one. His translation of Prometheus Unbound, the one he had completed in his final year at Cambridge, was exquisite in every particular. Her copy was dog-eared, she had read it so many times, and she probably had more of it memorized than not. She was startled to realize there was no one whose good opinion mattered to her more, not even her father’s.
She had given up trying to earn her father’s good opinion years ago.
But then he had begun praising her, and it had felt so validating. To be sure, the critical acclaim, the fact that her book was in its third printing just two months after publication, and the request from the Prince of Wales for a signed copy had all been wonderful.
But she rather had the feeling that if all the world had loved it save for Edward Astley, those other accolades would have tasted not of wine, but of vinegar.
She had been on the cusp of telling him it was her. The only person who knew, other than the publishers she had queried, was her sister Cassandra. And she knew that telling her deepest, darkest secret to a man whom she had not seen in ten years, a man she scarcely knew, would be foolhardy.
But this afternoon had a whiff of fate about it, and she had felt the words rising to her lips, against her better judgment.
That was when he had said it—my enemy. That had startled her into silence.
And then it turned out that the largest water beetle Edward Astley had ever seen had been living in her hair, to say nothing of the fact that she had been riding along all this time, thinking this the most romantic moment of her life, while, unbeknownst to her, she had seven pounds of pondweed on top of her head.
This turn of events would have been disorienting for any girl, and so her momentary lapse was perhaps understandable.
No less humiliating, however.
She peered up into his face, which was frozen with shock. God, but this was awkward. Should she say something? Were they going to sit here forever on his horse, just— Abruptly, the corners of his eyes crinkled, while those of his mouth turned up, and the next thing Elissa knew, Edward had thrown his head back and was laughing uncontrollably.
This was apparently an unusual turn of events, because his horse cocked his ears back and skittered to the side. Elissa had released her grip on Edward’s neck while they were sitting still, and was forced to grab him again to maintain her balance. He responded by wrapping an arm around her waist, pulling her against him. His chest shook with uncontainable mirth, and her face wound up buried in his neck.
After a minute, Edward managed to compose himself enough to say, “Steady, Bucephalus.” His horse calmed immediately, and he loosened his grip on her. She looked up to find him grinning broadly.
Dimples was the only thought Elissa’s frozen brain was capable of forming. Edward Astley was handsome enough without trying, with his thick dark hair and otherworldly blue eyes. But to have him smiling at her, at close range, with those dimples?
It was literally stunning.
He should be made to wear a placard around his neck: Staring directly into the dimples poses a great risk to a woman’s sanity.
Elissa shook herself. “Quit laughing at me!”
“I’m not laughing at you, I’m—” He promptly disproved this statement by dissolving into another gale of laughter.
“Laughing at me,” Elissa muttered.
“If you could have seen your face,” he said, struggling to regain control of himself.
“I suppose I am laughing at you, but not for the reasons you think. I’m laughing at your wit. And your adorably horrified expression.”
Adorably? What on earth was that supposed to mean?
She felt a few scattered raindrops on her face. He stuck out a hand, noticing them as well. He nudged Bucephalus forward. “I look forward to reading your ode, Miss Elissa, although I regret to inform you that your title will not do.”
“Is that so?”
“It is. Firstly, the word you want is not harpyia. Clearly the term you are looking for is seirḗn.”
“Remind me of the passage in which Homer described the bugs living in the sirens’ hair.”
He ignored her. “And then there’s this business about Prince Charming—”
“Prince Charming is apropos. We do get the papers out here, even if they’re a week late. I know very well it is your nickname.”
“An entirely unfounded nickname, I assure you.”
“You just rescued a damsel in distress. You even ride a white horse!” she said. Some strange and entirely improper impulse had her poking him in the ribs as she said this.
He gave a ticklish flinch but was smiling at her. “There’s no such thing as a white horse. Horses that appear white are considered to be grey.”
“A white horse,” she insisted, “whom you have named Bucephalus.” Bucephalus being, of course, the famed steed of no less a prince than Alexander the Great.
Edward groaned, giving her a look that was equal parts grin and glower. “I did not name him Bucephalus. He was a gift from my brother-in-law, Lord Thetford, who runs a breeding establishment. He thought it a lark to see me riding around on a white horse named Bucephalus—”
“Because you are Prince Charming, and everyone knows it. Quod erat demonstrandum.”
“I do not concede,” he said, flashing his dimples at her again.
She clutched her heart and recited, “‘The oracle decreed that he should be lord of the world, whom Bucephalus would suffer to sit upon his back.’”
His smile was soft and held a touch of wonder. “I am trying to give you a stern look, as it is positively unsporting of you to tease me. But I find I cannot glower at anyone who quotes Quintus Curtius Rufus from memory.”
Emboldened, Elissa pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “‘O, Alexander, seek out a kingdom suitable to the greatness of thy heart, for Macedonia is too small for thee!’”
“Now that is a bridge too far. You leave me with no choice but to retaliate with Homer. ‘First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them.’”
Elissa dropped her arm and gaped at him. “Enchant! Which did you find the more enchanting, the pondweed, or the beetle?”
They had reached her house. Edward reined in Bucephalus but made no move to dismount. He was smiling at her, and if she did not know it was all a disorder of her frozen brain, she would have said he was doing so tenderly. “Mostly the part where you made me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a very long time. Elissa—”
Elissa? Had he just called her Elissa?
There was a bang as the front door burst open. “Elissa! Oh, thank heavens!”
She turned to see her sister Cassandra running across the yard. “I’ve been worried sick,” Cassandra said in a rush. “I checked all your favorite haunts—the meadow, the willow tree, the bend in the river. I was just on my way to Broadwater Bottom—”
“That’s where I was,” Elissa said. “The boat drifted away from the dock and the rope got tangled in a tree. I was very fortunate that Lord Fauconbridge came to my rescue.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Cassandra said, pressing a hand to her heart.
Elissa made to climb down, but Edward squeezed her waist. “Let me help you,” he whispered. He lifted her just enough to slide back, setting her gently on the saddle, then he swung down. Elissa expected him to lower her to the ground, but instead he slid her off the saddle and straight into his arms.
Their sole groom (who also served as footman, gardener, and butler, as it were, as they only had one manservant and two maids-of-all-work) rushed over to take charge of Bucephalus. Edward began striding toward the front door with Elissa in his arms, speaking with Cassandra as she trotted alongside him. “She has taken a terrible chill. You’ll note the bluish cast of her lips, and she was unable to stand a short time ago. It is urgent that we get her warmed up.”
Cassandra nodded in agreement. “We’ll take her up to my room—it’s the smallest and easiest to heat. Amelia,” she called to one of their maids, “stoke the fire in my room, please. We’ll need hot water and—”
“There you are.” Elissa cringed into Edward’s shoulder at the sound of her mother’s voice. “How on earth did you become so bedraggled?”
Elissa swallowed. Had she thought Edward discovering her at the pond was humiliating? It appeared that the real humiliation had yet to begin.
“I had a bit of a mishap on Farmer Broadwater’s pond—” she began.
Her mother cut her off with a snort. “It’s always ‘a bit of a mishap’ with you. I see that this time you have inconvenienced Lord Fauconbridge. I cannot apologize enough for my daughter, my lord.”
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Edward said, setting Elissa gently upon a bench in the entryway.
“Oh, look at your beautiful boots!” her mother cried. “And you’re soaked to the skin.”
“I am fine—” Edward began.
“Amelia,” her mother said, snagging the maid as she came back down the stairs, “heat some water. Lord Fauconbridge will require a hot bath.”
“Thank you, but that will not be necessary. It is your daughter who—”
“Lord Fauconbridge?” Her father had wandered into the foyer to see what the fuss was about. “What brings you back here?”
“I happened upon Miss Elissa at the pond,” Edward said, gesturing to Elissa on the bench.
Her father did not seem to have noticed that both she and Edward were drenched in pond water, that her hair had tumbled from its knot, or that she was wearing Edward’s coat.
He did, however, notice the sodden volume in her lap.
“Is that my copy of Theseus? What have you done to it?” he demanded.
“It was an accident—” she began.
“Careless girl!” he said, snatching up the book. “I don’t know why I even let you use my library.”
“I am sorry, Father. I will replace it.”
“Replace it! With what, I should like to know?”
Of course, he didn’t know that Elissa was the author of the literary world’s latest sensation, nor that just yesterday she had received another bank draft from her publisher, this one for one hundred and twenty-five pounds.
But this was not the moment to tell him.
So what she said was, “I’ve some pin money saved up—”
“We can discuss that later,” her mother said, gesturing to Edward. “Look at poor Lord Fauconbridge, drawn into her mess. Amelia,” she called toward the kitchens, “where is the water for his lordship’s bath?”
“Truly, I am fine,” Edward said. “I am most concerned about your daughter, however—”
“She got herself into this mess,” her mother said. “She’ll just have to wait.”
“Please, Mama,” Cassandra said, taking her mother’s arm. “Look at her lips. They’re blue! We’ve got to get Elissa warmed up.”
“Indeed,” Edward said. “I fear she is not yet capable of walking up the stairs, but if you will direct me toward your room, Miss Cassandra—”
“She is Mrs. Gorten now,” her mother interjected. “The only one of the four girls we managed to marry off, and she came right back to us a widow.”
“Mrs. Gorten, my apologies,” Edward said smoothly. “If you would be so kind as to—”
“And is it any wonder we haven’t been able to marry this one off?” Warming to one of her favorite themes, her mother did not seem to notice that she had interrupted a future earl, and several times at that. Elissa ducked her head as her mother began ticking points off on her fingers. “She can’t sew. She can barely dance. She wouldn’t know the current fashion if it came up to her in the street and trod upon her foot. Not that it matters, when she goes around looking like a drowned rat and smelling like pond scum.”
Elissa squeezed her eyes shut as her mother droned on. And to think, she didn’t even know about the water beetle!
Truth be told, her mother had the right of it. Elissa knew full well she would never marry, but not for the reasons her mother cited. Although none of those things were points in her favor, the sin that was truly unpardonable was that she was so bookish.
She might be able to find a man who would overlook the fact that she was a clumsy dancer. But no man could abide a woman who was smarter than him.
And so Elissa had abandoned dreams of romance and marriage years ago. But she didn’t need to marry to secure her future, and that of her mother and sisters. She had another plan.
Her translation work.
It seemed her mother had not yet finished. “And if she’s not boring a man to tears by droning on about some Greek poet who’s been dead for two thousand years, then she’s staring off into space, ignoring him.”
“Mother,” Cassandra said sharply, but her mother did not seem to hear.
With each passing moment, each additional humiliation, Elissa felt herself shrinking smaller and smaller upon the bench. The worst thing was knowing that her mother had the right of it. She did lack the feminine graces and had a rare talent for catastrophe to boot.
But did her mother really have to catalogue her failings before the one man whose good opinion she valued?
She chanced a glance up at Edward. He wasn’t frowning, precisely, but he had squared off his jaw. Twice he tried to interject, but her mother allowed him no opening.
Finally his eyes took on a flinty look, and he spoke over her mother. “Mrs. St. Cyr, I beg your pardon.” Elissa’s eyes widened, because this was a voice she had never heard Edward use before. It was impeccably polite, as he always was.
It was also a tone that brooked no argument. A tone that very much said I am the future Earl of Cheltenham, you are going to do as I say, and you are going to do so right now.
“There seems to be some confusion. Miss Elissa has experienced an unfortunate mishap through absolutely no fault of her own. She has been wet and cold for far too long, and I fear she is hypothermic. She requires a hot bath and a warm fire. Immediately.”
“But my lord,” her mother interrupted, “what about you?
The look Edward gave her mother had just a hint of sharpness to it, though his tone remained cordial. “I am perfectly well and I require nothing. Thank you, Mrs. St. Cyr. Now, I will carry Miss Elissa up the stairs. Mrs. Gorten, would you be so kind as to direct me?”
“Right this way, my lord,” Cassandra said as Edward scooped Elissa up.
Cassandra led them to her own room and drew the chair from her writing desk close to the blazing fire. Edward set her gently upon it. The maids had already set a copper tub close to the hearth. Although Elissa remained well-covered in his coat, she felt her cheeks flush at the implication—that in a few minutes, she would be naked in that tub before the fire.
Edward seemed to share her sense of awkwardness. “I will take my leave so you can, er—” He cleared his throat. “Be well, Miss Elissa.”
She caught his hand as he started to turn. “Thank you, my lord. For everything.” She could hear her own voice shaking with sincerity.
There was a gentleness to his voice as he answered. “You are most welcome.”
And then he was gone.
Cassandra was already clucking over her, peeling off her wet clothes layer by layer. “Oh Elissa, are you sure you’re well?”
“I’ll be all right,” Elissa reassured her sister.
And she would be, physically, at least.
But on the inside, she suspected she would never be quite the same.
The Sea Siren of Broadwater Bottom will be available November 18, 2022. Pre-order your copy today!
Excerpt from The Sea Siren of Broadwater Bottom Copyright © Courtney McCaskill, 2022. All rights reserved. The moral rights of the author have been asserted. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.