“Are you sure we should doing this?” Gemma whispered as Bridget stepped through the bookseller’s door. The girl could be dreadfully taxing.
“Of course, sweet Gemma,” she coaxed as she tugged at her friend’s arm. “I have been here many times with my uncle. It is quite proper, I assure you.”
The doubt was apparent in Gemma’s sapphire eyes, but she allowed herself to be pulled into the dimly lit shop.
Bridget knew exactly what book she wanted, but it was in the gentleman’s section. A distraction was in order. She turned to her maid who had followed behind them.
“Tessa, won’t you wait outside the door to direct his lordship when he comes?” The maid stared at her blankly for a moment, no doubt thinking she had gone quite mad.
Of course, it was a lie. No man was coming behind them, but the ruse might work to keep the clerk from chasing her back to the ladies’ stacks. She began there, naturally, not wanting to draw attention too soon. Browsing through the mindless romance novels on the shelves was the perfect pretense.
Beside her Gemma relaxed visibly. Poor, sweet Gemma. She had likely never set foot inside a bookseller’s shop, let alone read through anything more stimulating than the works of Mrs. Burney.
Bridget glanced over her shoulder at the clerk. He was scrutinizing them sharply over his spectacles, as if expecting them at any moment to lunge for the gentlemen’s shelves. Small talk would be just the thing to desensitize the bookseller to the female presence.
“Gemma, it seems I haven’t seen you in an age. What have you been doing with yourself lately?” Bridget began, hoping to lull the man into a false sense of security.
“I have received a number of afternoon calls of late.” Gemma’s voice was noticeably quieter than Bridget’s had been.
“Oh? Any gentlemen I know?” The tone in her voice drew Bridget’s undivided attention, and she noticed Gemma fidgeting with the cuff of her glove. A mannerism she recognized as one of her dear friend’s tells.
“One in particular.” Gemma’s face colored with slight embarrassment.
Bridget was not one to enjoy such conversation usually, but her companion appeared to be concealing some news and perhaps desired Bridget to pry it out of her.
“Well, come then, Gemma. Don’t keep me in such suspense. Who is the gentleman?” she prodded.
“I’m not sure it’s proper to speak of such things in public,” Gemma whispered again, her voice hardly more than a breath.
Gemma had never behaved so tight-lipped before when it came to speaking of gentlemen. Her goal of marriage was no secret to Bridget. It made no sense now that Gemma would be suddenly shy to discuss such things. No one else was in the shop besides the two of them but the clerk.
“If you would rather discuss something else, we can return to this subject at a more proper time,” Bridget reassured her, returning her attention to the task at hand. From her vantage point at the edge of the ladies’ shelves, she could see her true objective. A fresh copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication was on the table directly behind the clerk.
“Do any of these strike your fancy, Gemma?”
Gemma’s eyes grew wide, and she shook her head. “Bridget, I don’t think we should be buying books in public,” she whimpered.
“Oh, Gemma! You are a precious thing!” Bridget laughed. “Where else should one buy books?”
“I don’t know. It just seems so…so…scandalous.” Her wide blue eyes darted around the room in obvious concern.
“Nonsense, Gemma! I told you, my uncle has brought me here many times.”
“But, Bridget,” she murmured. “Your uncle is a man.”
Could Gemma really be so fearful of impropriety?
“Ahem.” The clerk had sidled up beside them. “Are you ladies in need of assistance today?” The very tone in which he patronized them made Bridget’s skin crawl, and the seeds of indignation took root in her chest.
“I believe we’ve made our selections, sir.” Bridget grabbed two novels from the shelf and stepped around the man to the counter, slipping Wollstonecraft’s book beneath her other acquisitions with a stealthy hand.
He followed close behind, meeting her at the counter. “Will there be anything else, miss?”
“These will be all for today,” Bridget said with what she believed was her most confident smile. She hoped her tremulous hands wouldn’t betray her anxiety. He began to write a receipt for her purchases, as she worked to distract him from the titles by making small talk.
“It has been lovely weather of late, has it not?”
“Yes, lovely,” he answered, not lifting his gaze from his task. He made quick work of writing up the first two titles—mindless romance novels written for women. Bridget tried to break his concentration once more.
“I dare say—” she began, but he cut her off.
“My lady.” He lifted the coveted book and leveled his gaze at her. “I believe you have picked this up by mistake.” The clerk scrutinized her down his long pointed nose over the wire rim of his spectacles. Gemma squirmed beside her.
“I’m certain I picked it up on purpose, sir,” Bridget said. She had mastered a deadpan expression, which she used in situations just like this. If she appeared unflustered, it was usually the clerk who backed down first. So while her insides fluttered and twisted into knots, her outer countenance betrayed nothing of the inner turmoil. “I wish to purchase these three titles.”
But he did not back down. If anything, he grew more combative.
“This particular book is not suitable for young ladies of breeding.”
Lovely. He was one of those.
Bridget drew in a slow deliberate breath, shoring up her ire for the battle. He had no idea whom he was dealing with. But he would soon. And he would surely regret challenging her Irish temper with his repulsive male condescension.
“Listen to me, you wretched uncouth little man—” She lifted a finger to point in his face with not a care for proper etiquette. Gemma shrieked in sheer horror, taking a step backwards. But it was too late. Bridget could feel the fury engulfing her.
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