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“I adored this book. Funny, fresh, and everything I want in a historical romance.”
Self-effacing, overworked bookkeeper Elie Benezet doesn’t have time to be in love. Too bad he already is—with his favorite client, Augustus Brine. The Royal Navy sailing master is kind, handsome, and breathtakingly competent. He’s also engaged to his childhood sweetheart. And now that his prize money is coming in after years of delay, he can afford to marry her…once Elie submits the final prize paperwork.
When Augustus comes home, determined to marry by the end of his brief leave, Elie does his best to set his broken heart aside and make it happen. But he’s interrupted by one thing after another: other clients, the high holidays, his family’s relentless efforts to marry him off. Augustus isn’t helping by renting a room down the hall, shaving shirtless with his door open, and inviting Elie to the public baths. If Elie didn’t know better, he’d think Augustus didn’t want to get married.
To cap it all off, Augustus’s fiancée arrives in town, senses that Elie has a secret, and promptly accuses him of embezzling. Has Elie’s doom been sealed…or is there still time to change his fate?
Friday, 24 September 1813 / 29 Elul 5573
Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset
Traditional wardroom toast: “A willing foe and sea-room.”
Eleazar Benezet looked at the mess on his desk with a sinking heart.
The box for incoming documents overflowed, papers stirring practically with each breath he took. A receipt drifted to the floor with a spiteful rustle. There were spikes on his desk for precisely this purpose. Was it asking too much that people use them?
The box for outgoing correspondence was empty. Everything to do, and nothing yet done. This wasn’t how he’d planned to begin the new year.
It was no one’s fault, Elie reminded himself firmly. His childhood friend Jael hadn’t planned to begin the new year dealing with a house-fire, untimely widowhood, and baseless rumors that she’d murdered her husband, either.
…Probably the rumors were baseless. Probably she hadn’t planned to.
Probably when he cleaned at Pesach, he’d find a stray bill behind a piece of furniture, now in arrears and accruing interest at twenty percent.
Still, he’d agreed to spend those three weeks in Rye Bay just before the Michaelmas quarter day, putting Jael’s affairs in order. He’dknown he would come back to paper drifting about his office like flakes of ash on the breeze. He was already wearing his oldest, ugliest, most comfortable clothes on purpose so he could crawl about peering under the furniture and getting dust up his nose. Whining about it was a waste of precious time. It was already seven a.m., and he had to be at the synagogue by sunset, which would be at…
He checked his luach, and remembered that he still hadn’t bought a fresh one for 5574. This one stopped short today, its end-papers filled to the edge with jotted notes waiting to be copied over into next year’s calendar.
Still, it told him that today’s sunset would be at 5:57 p.m.—but that was in London. In Portsmouth (thank Heaven for small blessings!), the sun lingered an extra five minutes. He’d walk back to his aunt’s house at five, to scrub off the dust and shave before the evening service.
He’d start by skimming and sorting all the papers he could see, in case something urgent was buried alive at the bottom of the box. Elie seemed to take on new responsibilities at Benezet & Sons every year, in addition to his perennial work for the firm as a navy agent, managing the affairs of absent sailors by power of attorney.
Elie was proud that so many people trusted him (not least his uncle Simeon, senior partner of Benezet & Sons). But on mornings like this, it also made him a little nervous.
He set the alarm on his watch for five. That was only ten hours of agonizing dullness. It could be worse.
No “I’ll just scribble a quick reply, it’ll only take five minutes,” he reminded himself as he broke the seal on the first letter. It never did take five minutes, and—
Enclosed receipts cascaded onto his blotter.
Elie managed to shove them onto a spike without losing any, but his brief flare of triumph faded when he saw what they were: copying fees on the prize case for the Vliegende Draeck, a Dutch merchantman captured by HMS Cocksure in 1809 and tied up in the courts ever since.
“More like Vliegende Drek,” Elie muttered. Maybe it couldn’t be worse.
He reset his watch alarm for four-thirty. There. He could manage nine and a half hours of agonizing dullness. Dull agony. Whichever.
You can take an hour for luncheon, he cajoled himself. No dunking ship’s biscuit in tea at your desk today. He reset the alarm for noon. There, only eight and a half hours of dull agony! Go on. Do your work.
He sat in his chair, not doing his work.
This is your own fault, he told himself, much less kindly. If you’d started the final Vliegende Draeck accounts as soon as the shipowners’ last appeal was denied a month ago, maybe by now you’d only have four or five hours of agony left.
He should never have taken the contract to prepare the accounts in the first place—only he knew Dutch and he was already familiar with the case, and he would have had to explain to Uncle Simeon why he wanted to snub Captain Willing’s prize agent by turning down a simple bookkeeping job.
Setting his private reasons aside, a month’s delay in completing final prize accounts was nothing. The ship and its contents had long since been broken up and sold, the money safe in the Bank of England. The first general distribution wouldn’t be until the Cocksure returned home from foreign service in the spring, and none of its officers or men who’d since transferred to other postings were in port. Most were currently blockading Flushing on HMS Steadfast, commanded by Captain Willing’s former first lieutenant.
Including Elie’s favorite client, Augustus Brine, formerly sailing master of the Cocksure and now master of the Steadfast. Who incidentally planned to finally marry his childhood sweetheart when his prize money came in.
Prize money was distributed in extremely uneven fashion. One eighth went nearly whole to the captain, the next eighth was shared by the wardroom (the other commissioned officers, plus a few senior warrant officers like the master), and so on—ever smaller shares until the last eighth was divided up among all the common seamen, often hundreds of men. Augie Brine would receive twelve hundred pounds from the Vliegende Draeck. Hardly a fortune, but more than enough to set up a household.
Elie wasn’t delaying on purpose…exactly. He’d been on the point of beginning when he’d been called away by Jael’s disaster.
Probably on the point of beginning.
Not that being married would put Augie Brine any further out of Elie’s reach than he already was. Really, it would be better if Brine were married. The final appeal, denied at last.
Maybe then Brine would spend his shore leave with his wife, instead of boarding with Elie’s aunt and forgetting to close his door in the morning while he shaved without his shirt on.
Elie sighed and unlocked his secretary, retrieving the bundle of Vliegende Draeck papers from their pigeonhole and opening it on his desk. He unfolded the first document.
…Mr. Brine, my sailing-master, showed great coolness and decision…
…this brought us perilously near the shore, but Mr. Brine, having taken soundings in a boat the previous night, assured me that…
…a sudden squall from the S.S.W. was nearly our undoing, but Mr. Brine’s prompt setting of the mizzen and fore staysail…
Elie gently refolded Captain Willing’s log extracts and let his forehead thunk onto his folded arms. “Mr. Brine was exceedingly handsome throughout the whole of the engagement,” he muttered. “The wind being southerly, his hair was blown about his face to great advantage. It is much to my men’s credit that they did not permit this circumstance to distract them from their labors.”
He would give himself one minute, and then he would begin. Sixty seconds…fifty-nine…fifty-eight…
Elie’s watch alarm woke him at noon. He groaned. So much for taking an hour for his luncheon.
Cheer up, he told himself dryly. Only five hours of agony left today. But he looked at the box for outgoing correspondence, still bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s larder—
Ugh, and of course there was a spider in it. He scooped it up in his handkerchief, and leaned out the window to shake it out.
“Hallo, Elie! Surrendering the counting-house to the French, are you?”
Elie stuffed his white handkerchief back in his pocket and made a rude gesture at his cousin Samuel. “There was a spider on my desk.”
“Well, it’s saved me climbing the stairs. Did you hear Steadfast anchored late last night? The Navy pay clerk went out this morning to pay them off. Our wherry’s leaving from the Point in half an hour.”
Elie started. “What?” He barely caught his hat before it fell into the street.
Samuel filled his barrel chest with air and cupped his hands to his mouth. “THE STEADFAST ANCHORED LAST NIGHT—”
“But the Steadfast is in the North Sea!”
“She was recalled a fortnight ago.” Samuel peered up at him. “I left a note on your desk. A letter came from Augie Brine, too.”
Elie cursed viciously and silently. “…I haven’t quite finished sorting my correspondence.”
“How could I forget what a busy and important man you are? Well, get your busy and important arse to the Point if you want to make the boat. We’ve got to be back by sunset.”
Elie ducked back inside and, with impressive self-command, did not slam the window. Half an hour wasn’t much time, but he pawed through the overflowing box for Brine’s letter anyway. Papers sloshed over the side. There was no help for it; he’d have to look later.
Elie combed his hair, ran his tongue over his teeth, and shoved a memorandum book into his pocket with his used-up calendar. Why hadn’t he bought a new one yet?
At least his pack was already well stocked with new shirts, stockings, blankets, buttons, needles and thread, pens and paper, pocketknives, precision watches, and so on, which Elie replaced from the Benezet & Sons warehouse downstairs as he sold them. Now he had only to slide in the requisite client ledgers, his coin purse, and copies of the new uniform regulations and The Naval Chronicle. Was there time to stop at the baker’s before boarding the wherry? Clients were always in a better mood if you fed them.
Elie checked his watch. He could make it if he hurried. Putting on his overcoat and pack, he ran down the stairs—
—Only to race back up them a moment later to retrieve a heavy, distinctively curved box from the depths of the secretary, nestling it into his pack beneath a stack of beribboned straw hats.
Over the years, Elie had got used to climbing a ladder onto a rocking ship, but today it was nerve-wracking again. A Marine had shot a trader just a couple of weeks ago, because—well, it wasn’t entirely clear why. Because his wherry hadn’t been queuing properly, supposedly, although the Marine had also addressed the wherry’s passengers as “Jew-looking buggers.”
(Poor Mr. Veall, as far as Elie knew, was neither a Jew nor a bugger. Elie couldn’t say the same for himself, which did nothing to soothe his nerves.)
Only navy agents like Elie could sell to sailors on credit, but anyone and everyone could sell to a sailor who’d just received several months’ accumulated wages in cash. And since most of the men weren’t allowed shore leave for fear they’d desert—especially in home ports—anyone and everyone brought their wares to the ship. A man-of-war on payday was an orgy, gin shop, gaming den, and open-air market rolled into one.
The orgy was more or less encouraged, but as the Navy already gave their men enough liquor to float another, smaller navy, they discouraged the gin; hence the need for queuing and inspection and the occasional bullet.
Mr. Veall was recovering, thank Heaven. But Mr. Abrahams hadn’t, a few years before—the mildest-mannered fellow you could ever hope to meet, and the judge had only fined the Marine six shillings and eightpence for his murder.
Regulations were supposed to have been tightened, after that. Marine sentinels were supposed to only have blank cartridges, and their Armorers were supposed to inspect their cartouche boxes regularly to ensure it. And yet.
Still, no use thinking about what he couldn’t see above the brim of his hat. At least the Steadfast was a frigate, with barely two decks above the waterline, and at the moment none of her sailors were humorously pelting him with anything. This too would pass.
Sure enough, just as he began to feel he’d be climbing forever, he tumbled onto the deck. “Open your pack,” snapped the waiting Marine.
He’d known it was coming, but his heart stuttered anyway. He set the pack on the deck, but his fingers, stiff from the cold wherry ride, fumbled at the buckle. The impatient Marine jerked it away to open it himself, stretching the drawstring as wide as it could go.
“Easy!” Elie reached out. “There are—”
A second Marine leveled his bayonet.
Elie cringed back. “…delicate things in there,” he finished under his breath.
The first Marine tipped the pack towards himself to peer inside. “Like rum bottles, you mean?”
“As you were, private,” snapped a familiar voice with unfamiliar cold brutality.
The bayonet swung upright at once, and Elie wobbled. A supportive hand landed just below his shoulder blades. “Steady on,” the voice said cheerfully. “You’ll get your sea legs in a moment.”
Elie’s sea legs weren’t the problem. Honestly, the bayonet might not be either.
“And go easy with my agent’s pack, Mr. Polly,” Brine rapped out.
“Sir!” The Marine came sharply to attention, releasing the pack—which promptly toppled over. Raspberries rolled across the deck.
Elie closed his eyes briefly. “Those were for you.” Fat and fresh and perfect—or they had been when he’d bought them on impulse from the fruit-stand on the Point. He fished out the half-empty pottle and moved to kneel on the deck.
Brine’s hand shifted to his arm, pulling him up. Gently, he pried the straw cone from Elie’s cold fingers and handed it to the Marine. “Mr. Polly spilled them, and Mr. Polly will retrieve them.”
The Marine obeyed, darting Elie a resentful look.
Elie’s skin crawled. He ignored it, heaving his pack upright to check the rest of its contents. One or two straw hats would need mending, and the crown challah he’d bought to serve his other clients was dented, but the sturdy wooden box looked unscathed. The gift inside felt spoiled anyway. Nothing ever went how he imagined it.
But what had he imagined, anyway? What was the point in buying fine ripe raspberries for someone else’s betrothed?
“Don’t worry,” Brine said. “I make very sure they follow the regulations respecting blank cartridges.”
Elie would prefer not to be hit with a blank cartridge, either.
The hand swung him around to face a well-worn blue and white uniform. “Won’t you shake my hand, Mr. Eleazar? It’s good to see you.”
Elie took a deep breath. His lungs did their best, anyway. Wishing desperately that he’d put on a better suit this morning, he raised his head.