Emily received some strange looks and frowns from the people she passed as she walked across the graveled drive toward the front entrance of Westbury Hall. She could appreciate their confusion. It was closing time for the stately home and the last of the visitors were being politely ushered out of the building, yet she was heading inside. What’s more, she’d been invited. She had a job to do.
An elderly lady stood in the porch smiling and nodding as she held the door open for those departing. Most of them seemed in no hurry to leave, stopping to make comments to the woman, thanking her for a lovely visit and so on. Emily waited patiently, allowing the patrons to leave before attempting to get in. When the staff member—most likely a volunteer, Emily thought—caught sight of her, she gave her a polite nod of acknowledgment.
Finally, the last of Westbury Hall’s visitors moved out, leaving Emily free to enter. Climbing the single stone step to the threshold of the front porch, she took the hand that had already been offered to her.
Shaking Emily’s hand with a surprising firmness, the woman said, “You must be Miss Stone.” Her smart appearance and the intelligence in her eyes indicated that despite her advancing age, she was far from past it. “I’m Mrs. Thompson, house supervisor.”
“I am,” replied Emily, dropping her hand back to her side, “but please, call me Emily. It’s lovely to meet you. So, house supervisor? Do you live on site?” Not a volunteer, then, but a paid member of staff.
Indicating Emily should step inside the entrance hall, Mrs. Thompson proceeded to close and lock the porch and front doors of the house, securing them in.
“I do,” the older woman said, turning back to face Emily, “I have rooms in a separate building just off the back of this one. So you needn’t worry about me disturbing you.”
“Oh no,” said Emily, worried she’d inadvertently rubbed Mrs. Thompson up the wrong way, “I didn’t mean that. I was just curious, that’s all. You’re more than welcome to see me at work, although I’m afraid you won’t see anything terribly exciting.”
The older woman smiled now, the warmth reaching her eyes. Emily almost sagged with relief. She’d yet to see the extent of the work she had to do, but she’d been told it was no easy task, so she could be here for some time. The last thing she needed was to upset any of the staff.
“Oh, you’d be surprised, my dear. This is a fascinating old place. Of course, all these old houses have history, but Westbury Hall’s is particularly rich.”
Emily grinned. The woman’s enthusiasm was infectious. “Well then,” she replied, “I can’t wait to learn more about it. I hope you’ll feed me some historical tidbits throughout the time I’m here?”
Mrs. Thompson’s expression turned enigmatic. Then, startling Emily somewhat, she turned smartly on her heel and walked deeper into the house. “Come, my dear, I won’t hold you up any longer. I’ll show you to the library, where you’ll soon start uncovering Westbury’s illustrious history for yourself.”
Walking quickly to keep up with the deceptively sprightly Mrs. Thompson, Emily looked at her surroundings as she dashed past them. She hoped she’d be able to enjoy the property in a more leisurely manner at some point, but for now she was actually glad of the old woman’s haste. It was time to see her new project.
As they reached the library, at the end of a long, creaky-floorboarded corridor, Mrs. Thompson grasped the doorknobs and flung the double doors open. The move was somewhat theatrical, and Emily had to bite her bottom lip in order to suppress a smile. As she followed the house supervisor into the room, however, she quickly forgot her mirth and her mouth dropped open in wonder.
Forgetting the old woman’s presence entirely, Emily moved into the centre of the room and looked around her. As she slowly turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees, gazing upon the beautiful room, Emily felt like a small child at Christmas.
The place was incredible. As a book conservator, naturally Emily’s work carried her all over the UK—and sometimes beyond—into hundreds of libraries, but in the last five years or so that she’d been doing the job, she’d never seen anything quite like this.
Mrs. Thompson cleared her throat loudly, yanking Emily out of her reverie. “I can see you’re rather taken with the place already.” Without giving her a chance to reply, she continued, “I’ll be retiring to my rooms soon. Can I get you anything before I go, to set you up for the evening?”
Emily floundered for a minute, her fascination with her surroundings and eagerness to explore having thoroughly commandeered her brain. “Um…yes please. Could I get a pot of tea? I have drinks and some food with me, but a hot drink would be wonderful.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Thompson replied, moving toward the door. “I’ll leave you to get acquainted with your new workplace.”
And she was gone.
Work. Yes, of course. Emily had almost forgotten why she was here. She hadn’t even touched a book and yet somehow this room had gotten under her skin. Looking around her once more, Emily decided not to be too hard on herself. After all, this was a book lover’s ultimate dream library.
It had high ceilings, making the already huge room seem bigger. Other than the area allotted for the marble fireplace, and two large bay windows at either end of the room, every inch of wall space was taken up by books. Hundreds and hundreds of books.
Now Emily knew what the administrators back at the office had meant when they’d said this would be no easy task. She walked around the edge of the room, examining the great oak bookshelves and the precious tomes housed within them. Up to about waist height, the shelves were more like cabinets, protruding farther into the room and fixed with wire-fronted doors designed to protect the contents. This resulted in there being a shelf running around the perimeter of the room, interrupted only by the door, windows and fireplace. In true stately home style, the space was cluttered with various items, including old framed photographs, ornaments and a particularly attractive clock.
Having done a full circuit of the room, Emily turned her attention to the rest of the vast space. The nooks at each end, with their large windows, were perfect for reading. Emily guessed this was intentional in the design of the place, and the previous owners had certainly taken advantage of that fact, placing comfortable-looking sofas in each one. Had she not been there to work, Emily would have loved to curl up in one of them and read a good book. Depending on how old the sofas were, of course. She didn’t want to end up in a pile of debris on the floor.
Toward one end of the room, with its back to the nook farthest from the door, was a beautiful desk. It was large and solidly built, and Emily quickly surmised that this was the only suitable surface in the room on which she could work. She’d have to get permission from Mrs. Thompson, of course, but she was sure it would be okay. Working at this big, impressive desk would be much nicer than the usual fold up tables she usually got lumbered with. Though, truth be told, when Emily became engrossed in what she was doing, she could be in the middle of an earthquake and she wouldn’t notice, so her work surface wasn’t really all that important. She’d manage with whatever she was given.
Just then, Mrs. Thompson returned with a tea tray in her hands. She broke into a smile when she saw Emily standing by the desk and walked toward her.
“Should I clear a space, Mrs. Thompson?” Emily asked. “I mean, is it okay to move some of these things to make room…and I was hoping I’d be able to work here, too.”
“Of course, my dear. I know you’ll be careful. You wouldn’t very well be doing the job you do if you weren’t, would you?”
Emily beamed at the old woman, then set about gently removing things from the desk. This included the usual sheaves of paper, letter tray and inkwell, as well as an ornate clock, some small statues and an old photograph of the hall. She cleared a space on one of the shelves at the edge of the room and placed everything there. She’d just have to remember to put everything back before she left, ready for when the house re-opened to visitors in the morning.
She moved as quickly as she could, aware that Mrs. Thompson was still standing holding the tray. Once the desk was clear, the other woman made to put the tray down, but Emily stopped her. “Just a second. Let me just put my coverings down. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Dashing across the room to where she’d dumped her bags by the door, Emily grabbed them and moved them to the floor by the desk. Within seconds she’d pulled out a surface cover and protected the desk.
Mrs. Thompson put the tray down. “You are a perfectionist, child. My very favorite kind of person.”
Then, winking at Emily, she made to take her leave. “The night guard, George, works from six until six, so he’ll be here to let you out whenever you’re finished for the day. Night.” She glanced at her watch. “He’s probably here now, actually. He knows you’re coming, so no need to worry about him pouncing on you. Knowing him, he’ll pop in just to say hello, but he won’t bother you for long. He’ll be off on his rounds, keeping his eye out for the many criminals and cat burglars we get lurking in our grounds.”
Seeing Emily’s dumbfounded look, Mrs. Thompson chuckled. The resulting expression on her face made her look like the sweet old lady Emily was sure she was once you got to know her. “I’m just pulling your leg, my dear. Not about George, of course, but about the cat burglars. We don’t get any trouble around here. The security is just a precaution. Anyway, I’ll leave you to get on. If you should need anything urgently, please come and find me. I’m in the cottage on the other side of the kitchen gardens.”
Walking to the door, she turned just inside the frame. “Good night. If I do not see you before, I shall see you when you arrive tomorrow evening.”
“Good night, Mrs. Thompson. And thank you.”
But the old lady was gone, leaving Emily alone in the library once more. She set about pouring herself a cup of tea and by the time she’d added the milk and sugar, Emily had a frustrating thought. She hadn’t asked about the ladder. Her usual way of working was from top to bottom, left to right. But to get anywhere near the top, Emily was going to need a ladder. Even the tallest person would not be able to reach those high shelves without help. They were right up by the ceiling, for heaven’s sake!
Kicking herself, Emily made to chase after the house supervisor. But as she drew closer to the library doors, a figure stepped through them. Emily almost screamed when she saw the figure dressed all in black—thinking back to Mrs. Thompson’s talk of cat burglars—then her brain clicked into gear. Of course. This must be George.
He wasn’t quite what she’d expected, however. Emily had envisioned a gray or white haired old fellow with a comb-over and a flashlight. In actual fact, George looked as though he wasn’t much older than her, and his full head of hair was a rich chocolate brown that matched his eyes. Judging by his physique, Emily suspected he could also drop any potential burglars without so much as breaking a sweat. Yum.
Dragging her gaze back to his face, Emily smiled and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Emily. You must be George.”
He grasped her small hand in his large, strong one and Emily had to force herself not to look down. She had a real thing about hands. Fingers, in particular. For all her bookish appearance and her literally bookish job, Emily had quite the libido and the fertile imagination to go with it. So she was determined not to add fuel to that particular fire by examining his hands and wondering how they’d look and feel on—and in—her body. It had been a while since she’d had sex, unfortunately, so it wouldn’t take much to get her going.
“That’s me,” George replied, smiling back at her. He had a dimple in one cheek which Emily thought was both adorable and sexy at the same time. He released her hand. “So you’re our book girl, are you? How are you getting on?”
“Well,” said Emily, a slight blush coming to her cheeks. Whether it was because of his question, and her answer to it, or the fact she found him ridiculously attractive, she wasn’t sure. “I’m not. I haven’t been here long, and Mrs. Thompson only just left. Then not long after she’d gone, I realized I hadn’t asked where the ladder was. I was just about to go after her when you turned up. I don’t suppose you can help?”
“My lady,” he said, giving a mock bow, “you are in luck. Come with me.”
Expecting George to leave the room, Emily was surprised when he walked farther into the library and toward the fireplace. Once there, he turned and beckoned to her.
She went and stood beside him, and watched as he firmly pressed his hand to a slim wooden panel which ran from floor to ceiling. Emily heard a click, and a gap appeared between one side of the panel and the wall. Slipping his fingers—this time Emily couldn’t help but look at them—into the space, George pulled open what was clearly a hidden door.
Peering excitedly into the area that had been revealed, Emily was disappointed when she realized that far from the door being the entrance to a secret passage—she blamed all the Enid Blyton stories she’d read as a child—it was simply a storage space. And inside it stood a ladder.
When George caught sight of her disappointed expression, he let out a hearty laugh. “Expecting something more exciting, were you? Sorry. But I did get you your ladder. Now, where do you want it?”
Steadfastly ignoring the potential double entendre in his last sentence, Emily fought the smirk trying to emerge and turned to face the opposite wall. Then she pointed to the area farthest left, in the corner next to the bay window.
“Would you mind putting it there please George? Then I can make a start.”
“No problem. Watch yourself.”
The ladder was a standalone affair with wheels, so in fact Emily could have easily managed to position it herself. But George had offered to help. And besides, she kind of enjoyed watching the way his body moved as he carefully pulled the ladder out from its brilliant hiding place and maneuvered it across the room. He wore black trousers and a black long-sleeved top, so sadly she couldn’t see any muscles flexing and bulging, but he was still very nice to look at, and she did just that. Her gaze lingered on his firm-looking backside, and she wondered what it would feel like beneath her hands as they…
Emily pulled herself together quickly as George finished positioning the ladder and turned to face her. A slight glint in his eye made Emily think perhaps he’d realized she’d been looking at his arse, but he didn’t say anything.
“That all right there for you then?”
Stepping sideways so she could see around George’s considerable bulk, Emily checked the position of the ladder. Silly really, she thought, if it wasn’t right she was perfectly capable of moving it herself. Still, the guy was just being nice.
“Fine. Thanks so much George. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. You want anything else, you just ask.” He moved toward the door now, seemingly reluctant to leave. Emily couldn’t blame him. She suspected his job was awfully dull, just mooching round an old house at night, protecting it from thieves that would never come. He was probably grateful to have someone to talk to, for a change. Mind you, he must have an office somewhere. Perhaps he sat in there and read a book or watched TV.
“Will do,” she said, “I’ll speak to you later.” Much as she thought George was hot, Emily wanted him gone. She’d done hardly anything yet, bar sorting out her workspace and her ladder. At this rate she was going to be leaving at the same time as George did tomorrow morning. The office would not be pleased if they thought she was dawdling.
Plus, she sternly reminded herself, it would not be a good thing to get down and dirty with someone she was kind of working with. Okay, it would be great for her body—her study of George had given her the impression he knew how to please a woman—but it wouldn’t be good on a professional basis, especially if the office or someone else at Westbury Hall found out. No. She’d keep things professional. She could always get in touch with him when she’d finished this job.
In the time it had taken for these thoughts to run through Emily’s head, George had murmured a farewell, and she’d wandered over to the desk. She sat down heavily in the chair and sighed, wondering why she was kidding herself. She wouldn’t be contacting George after she’d finished at Westbury Hall, because when she did, her next assignment would take her off to another library at the other end of the country. She very rarely had consecutive jobs which were geographically close together—unfortunately it just didn’t work like that.
Emily did the British thing and poured herself a cup of tea to make herself feel better. She’d just drink it, then she’d crack on with what she was supposed to be doing. She had a huge task ahead of her and if she didn’t buck up, people would start to wonder what on earth she was up to.
Not long later, Emily drained her cup, put it back on the tray and stood up. She stretched satisfyingly, then bent to retrieve her tools from her bag. Placing them all on the desk just so, she pulled on some latex gloves, then moved purposefully toward the ladder. As she climbed it, she tested each step for stability as she went. She was sure it was perfectly fit for purpose, but she had no idea when it had last been used, and these old houses were renowned for woodworm. She wasn’t about to take any risks.
The ladder held firm, however, and soon Emily was on the very top step, assessing how many books she could safely bring down at a time. When she worked, she did so methodically—a practice necessary for making sure all the books were put back exactly where they’d come from. Basically, she’d work shelf by shelf; empty, clean books, clean shelf, refill shelf. And so she set about doing just that.
It took several trips up and down the ladder just to get the first shelf cleared, but Emily didn’t mind. She was already entering the zone. However, she was startled out of it on her last descent of the ladder before starting to clean the books. As she reached the bottom, carefully carrying her bundle of books, somehow she knocked one of the framed photographs on the shelf over. Luckily it just fell over backwards, flapping onto the wood and doing no damage other than to Emily’s nerves. Depositing her pile of books on the desk, Emily rushed back to put the photograph back in its rightful position.
Picking it up, she looked at it. Turning it over in her hands, Emily satisfied herself that the photograph was no worse off for its tiny ordeal. Then she studied the image itself. It was a black and white portrait of a young man, whom she guessed was in his late twenties. Judging by the clothes he wore, she suspected the photograph had been taken in the late 1940s. There was nothing remarkable about the photo, except for his expression. She knew smiling in photos wasn’t as commonplace then as it was today, but still. The guy looked incredibly somber, and there was a melancholy in his eyes that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. If Emily’s estimate of the date the picture was taken was correct, though, it was entirely possible that he’d lost loved ones—and friends, as he could well have been enlisted—during the Second World War. For that, she could completely forgive him his seriousness.
Emily stroked a thumb across the glass, just where his face was. It was an unconscious move, but when she’d done it, Emily wondered if deep down she was hoping to make him feel better. There went her imagination again. She shook her head at her own oddness and put the photograph down gently before moving back to the desk to get on with her epic task. Glancing around the room as she sat down, Emily suppressed a sigh. It was lucky she liked her job. This library contained an awful lot of books.