The musky odour made her eyes water as she stumbled through the shelves.
Lines with archaisms and antiquations, the vast library of Harlington Hall was one of the most luxurious libraries in the country. People traveled all the way to the small village just to examine its glorious collection.
Some of the books lining its moth-ridden shelves were worth millions.
And those were the ones she was precisely after.
The tour of the estate had concluded over an hour ago, the wrinkly old codger leading the talks was too senile to even notice her slipping back inside through the drawing room balcony. It took a mere leap to ascend up the crumbling brickwork, alongside a light-footed landing amongst the antique vases and ancient oil paintings, portraying the ill-gotten late inhabitants of Harlington Hall.
And there were so many rooms, she had no need to hide. With the family away on holiday in Milan, and the old caretaker busily occupied shutting up the mansion, she could lounge about on the Edra chaise-longue, flipping through a family album whilst absentmindedly plucking at grapes.
She merely had to wait until the sun lowered in the sky, then she would begin her search.
A Cenozoic History of the Alluring Sea Cucumber, she read aloud from her list.
Yes, a book actively acknowledging the magical properties of the sea cucumber was worth five million pounds.
She had to have a minute to process this ridiculous notion, before she began searching for said book.
If I can bring this back, she thought absentmindedly, as she perused the tawny and mocha spines, then I’ll be able to give up this reckless behavior for good. No more night shifts in airless old manor houses and breaking into the quaint homes of old little Doris down the street.
And it felt like hours had passed. The library went on for what seemed like miles, and between the aged encyclopedias and overly-complicated religious analyses, not one volume referring to the all-consuming allure of the sea cucumber could be found.
She was so immediately absorbed, so frustrated, that she did not hear the delicate footsteps approach from the east wing, and the sound of a body resting upon the emerald divan.
‘You’re very dedicated, I’ll give you that.’
Dropping the copy of Subterranean plants of the Mediterranean, she turned around to discover a dashing young man, all in black, lounging around with his feet rested atop the writing desk.
And what would be in his hands, other than the first edition, pristine volume describing the history of a certain, alluring sea cucumber.
Once again, she had to take a minute to pause and take this scene in. There he was, perched upon the sofa, with not a care in the world, fingering through the very book she had been so desperately searching for all this time.
Now she had to get it away from him.
‘So you’ve been watching me’, she eventually replied, stepping off the library ladder and facing him.
‘You could say that’, he began, ‘I have a certain knack for noticing people of interest. And you were certainly up to something.’ He turned the page of his book.
Carefully controlling her brewing annoyance, she paced around the room, subtly examining the novel in his hands.
A navy, velvet cover, with golden lettering embossed along the top. In the centre, a sketching of a sea cucumber which, to a cucumber enthusiast, would probably be seen as beautiful.
This is the one, she thought. But how to distract him?
‘So’, she began, leaning over the divan, ensuring to reveal an enticing amount of bosom, ‘is this a frequent haunt of yours?’
He chuckled. ‘You could say that’, he said. ‘I do find this place remarkably enchanting.’
She giggled like a schoolgirl, leaning forward toward his plump lips. He smelt of cedar wood and fresh rain.
Even she was surprised when he let her kiss him. She was sure he would move away. But instead, those harsh lips were pressing into hers, raining kisses upon her face.
But it wasn’t decidedly unpleasant, in fact, it took her several seconds before she started to reach towards the now-forgotten book.
Then he abruptly pushed her away, standing up and stepping away.
‘Oh no you don’t’, he cooed, ‘this is mine.’
She lost her temper, she felt like a fool.
‘I was here first’, she argued, ‘hand it to me. Why do you even want it?’
His eyes shone azure, as he formed a mocking frown.
‘You insult me, dear lady. Perhaps you do not credit me to be a mere cucumber aficionado?’
She groaned in response. Her other jobs had never required this much self-control.
‘Shut up, just hand me my book.’
As she approached him, he abruptly sidestepped away, before prancing into the nearby dining room.
Following him inside, she discovered him and the book, sat at the mahogany table. Holding the porcelain teapot, he delicately inquired whether she would care for a cup of earl grey? He said he knew many a woman who did not feel themselves until they had consumed a delightful cup of earl grey.
And so this revelry continued throughout the house.
In contrast to her work in the library, which felt like it took hours, chasing this mysterious and irritating man round Harlington Hall had a certain enjoyable aspect to it. She could hardly believe it when she consulted the aged grandfather clock to discover it was three in the morning.
Having lost his dancing footsteps, she took a breather and found herself in the master bedroom.
I think a nap is in order, she thought, spreading out over the satin sheets. She was simply beyond the point of caring.
She was rudely awakened not long after, by a finger prodding her nose.
‘You’re not doing a very good job of getting this off me’, he said, lifting up the cursed anthology for her to see. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were deliberately being crap at getting it, just so you can continue playing with me.’
She turned away, covering her head with one of the many gossamer pillows.
His attractive appearance had caught her off guard. She was meant to be working, but instead she was besotted by this infuriatingly antagonistic character. And whenever she felt herself getting into the mood with him, he would bring up that dastardly book, and her mood would be entirely ruined by the remembrance that such a ludicrous thing existed.
‘Tell you what’, he said, lifting the pillow off her head. ‘You have two options. Want to hear them?’
He grinned, ‘since its clear you are so completely intoxicated by my very presence, you have a choice. You can either take the book right now, no questions asked, or you can stay here with me for the rest of the night. But then I get the book.’
She jumped bolt upright in the bed, flashing crimson with her hair on end.
‘W-what a stupid idea!’ she cried, ‘whatever gave you that ridiculous notion? You’re so annoying!’
His cutting eyes wouldn’t leave her sight, it made her restless and uncomfortable. She haphazardly reached to grab the book.
‘Oh no you don’t’ he said, placing it on the mantle of the fireplace. ‘You haven’t made your choice yet. So come on, choose.’
She awoke with sunlight streaming through the crack in the curtains. He’d opened them just enough to wake her before the caretaker would return the following morning.
She sat up, flushed as she noticed her bare flesh, and clothes strewn across the floor.
And in somebody else’s bed too, she thought, what an embarrassment.
Feeling something solid digging into her side, she found the book lying next to her, perfect, pristine, untouched.
And inside a very tender, very private letter.
Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Sherratt