Christy Carlyle on Writing a Book Lover’s Romance
Books have been a preoccupation since I was a kid. My grandfather collected books, and Grandma taught me to read long before I started kindergarten. Books were my favorite birthday gifts, and going to the library always seemed like a bit of an adventure. Maybe it had something to do with being an only child. Reading kept me entertained and gave me a place to let my imagination soar.
Our collection of books tends to grow as we do, reflecting our changing tastes, perhaps evolving into a stash of “keepers” as we cull some and acquire others. My books have followed me through countless moves, even overseas and back, and they multiply every year. When I moved two years ago, one of the moving guys actually grumbled, “I hope you enjoy your books!” as he carried the umpteenth book box up into my second floor apartment.
As a reader, I like encountering characters who love to read as much as I do. I’m also intrigued by any story with a writer hero or heroine. When a character is portrayed as a book lover, I feel an instant connection, relating to them more easily and rooting for them more readily.
When the idea for my first Avon Impulse historical romance, One Scandalous Kiss, popped into my head, I knew my heroine, Jessamin Wright, would be a book lover. She ended up being a book seller too, with a failing bookshop inherited from her father. I wanted her to be someone whose life had been affected by the power of books. She believes in women’s rights, so Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is near and dear to her heart, but during the story she reveals that Charles Dickens is her favorite author. Jess even asks Lucius, the hero, to name his favorite book. His choice gives her insight into his heart and mind.
As a reader, do you enjoy encountering characters who love to read as much as you do?
London, September 1890
She’d never imagined wealth would be so uncomfortable. Nearly every aspect of the Marquess of Clayborne’s Belgrave Square drawing room made Jessamin Wright uneasy. There were no books stacked in piles, no candles whose wax had run down their sides in haphazard sculptures, and not a spot of ash dusting the hearth—nothing inviting about the room at all. How could any lived-in space be so clean? The slippery damask settee felt stiff and unyielding beneath her body. Nothing about it urged you to sit and stop awhile. Even art was lacking from the walls, except for a series of watercolors of what must have been a terribly boring fox hunt. A fire burned low in the grate and offered a bit of warmth against the autumn chill, but the cool beiges and tepid pinks of the wallpaper and furnishings made Jess feel slightly queasy, as if blood had been drained from her body as thoroughly as color had been drawn out of every surface in the room. Even the wood was light colored or painted white and lacquered to a high sheen. It was all wrong. No room should be so spotless. As she and Alice had yet to meet their host, she began to doubt that anyone lived here at all. Then again, she’d never before set foot inside a fine London townhouse. Perhaps they were all this stark and unpleasant.
Jess didn’t have to look down to know the room’s pristine neatness contrasted sharply with her scuffed boots, soot-dusted cloak, and unfashionable work clothes. She found it impossible to settle herself in such elegant surroundings. Sitting, then standing, then sitting again, she rearranged her limbs and scratched her neck in a most unladylike manner. Finally finding a spot on the settee that suited her, she stripped off her twice-mended gloves but kept her hands clasped, careful not to touch anything for fear she might leave a mark.
Her cluttered thoughts offered as little comfort as the room. She fretted about leaving the bookshop managed solely by her assistant, Jack. He was a longtime employee and utterly trustworthy, but he’d never been fond of dealing with customers. He simply loved books—acquiring them, reading them, repairing them—and that was something she understood. He hadn’t stayed on after Father’s death for her, but out of loyalty to Lionel Wright. She understood that too. One of Father’s gifts had been the ability to inspire a bone deep sense of obligation in others. Since Jess had taken on the shop, other employees had been hard to come by—few men wished to take their wages and direction from a woman.
Slipping Father’s old watch from its place in her skirt pocket, Jess’s mind sifted through what she had yet to accomplish before resting her head for the day. It was a long list and —Ah, that too—now included an article she’d almost forgotten to write for the Women’s Union journal.
“I hope Lady Katherine hasn’t forgotten us. To be honest, I won’t be sad to see the last of this room. It’s all rather cold, even with the fire. Makes you afraid to touch anything or even breathe.”
Alice McGregor had an uncanny talent for reading one’s mind and could always be counted on for blunt and insightful commentary. Of all Jessamin’s friends at the Women’s Union, Alice was the most practical and plain-speaking. Delicacy was overrated as far as Alice was concerned. She said what everyone else was thinking but knew it impolite to mention.
“No, it’s not terribly inviting, is it?”
If Jess could decorate such a room, the colors would be bold and full of life. Red would do very nicely. And she’d decorate the walls with art so vivid you’d believe you could smell the pot of basil in a Holman Hunt painting or hear the swish of silk and satin as one of Mr. Tissot’s beauties crossed the room. She closed her eyes and imagined crimson walls covered with art in rich, vibrant colors.
“Miss Wright, have I caught you napping?” Lady Katherine Adderly’s giggle was like the clash of two crystal glasses meeting in a toast. Sharp and clear, it instantly snapped Jessamin out of her fantasies.
As she swept in, a maid followed close on her heels with a tea tray. Lady Katherine smelled of flowers, but far too many, the scent cloying and sickly sweet.
“Forgive me, my lady.” It was easier for Jessamin to apologize for drowsing than acknowledge how she loathed the decor.
Jess and Alice exchanged raised-brow glances as their hostess handed each of them a fine porcelain teacup and began the process of pouring tea and offering them confections from plates laden with biscuits and tiny pastries. It was an elaborate ritual, much more fuss about tea than Jess had ever made in life. But the rich tang of jasmine in the brew was delicious and she was grateful for the distraction of the warm refreshment, even as she sensed the persistent tick of Father’s watch against her skirt pocket. She had to get back to the shop and hoped their meeting with the marquess’s daugther wouldn’t take long.
“I’m pleased to make this donation to the Women’s Union. You know how I enjoy the lively meetings.”
Lady Katherine had attended only three of the group’s weekly meetings over the course of four months, but she’d been eager to make a financial contribution and Alice, as the union’s treasurer and co-founder, was all too happy to accept. Jess wasn’t certain why Alice had asked her to come along to collect the money, but as editor of the group’s printed journal and author of many of the speeches given at gatherings, she supposed she was a visible member of the organization.
“We are most grateful for the funds, my lady.” As always Alice spoke with sincerity, gratitude clear in her tone.
“Oh, please call me Kitty.”
Alice took a sip of tea, attempting to hold the cup with all the dignity Kitty seemed to manage effortlessly.
“I understand there’s another worthy cause to which I may also contribute.”
“I’m sure there are many in London,” Jess offered, thinking of a dozen ways she might spend charitable funds, not to mention the money needed to salvage the indebted bookshop her father had left her.
“I was referring to you, Miss Wright.”
Jessamin shot Alice a look, wondering just what her scrupulously honest friend had revealed to Lady Katherine.
“I understand you have a bookshop and lending library here in town.”
“Yes, my lady,” Jess bit off, unable to keep the irritation from her voice. Alice shouldn’t have mentioned her situation to anyone. Kitty might be feeling benevolent, but the amount needed to clear the shop’s debt was more than any wealthy aristocrat’s daughter would wish to spend, no matter how generous they were feeling.
“Would one hundred pounds be useful to you?”
A shiver tickled Jessamin’s spine as she contemplated the amount, a sum she couldn’t earn at the shop in months, perhaps not even in a year. It wasn’t nearly enough to clear the entire debt, but it would bring her payments with the bank current.
Jessamin studied Kitty’s feline smile and tried to unravel the mystery of the young woman’s wish to help her. She knew Kitty was wealthy, the daughter of a marquess, and perhaps a bit bored, but she’d never even conversed with her before today. Kitty was mentioned off and on in the scandal sheets Jess admitted to no one she indulged in reading, but she was hardly known as an outstanding philanthropist.
Charity tasted sour, yet how could she refuse the sum?
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” had been one of Father’s favorite lines from Hamlet. But it was an adage he’d failed to uphold. His gambling had turned him into the worst sort of borrower, taking loans from friends and money from the bookshop he’d worked so hard to build up. For Jess’s part, she’d become a lender soon after her father’s death, finally instituting the lending library she’d been envisioning for years. It seemed neither of them had heeded the Shakespearian admonition at all.
Kitty watched Jess closely and appeared to notice the moment she’d almost made up her mind to accept the money.
“I am so pleased you’ll allow me to help you, Jessamin. And in return, I’m certain you won’t mind assisting me with one tiny request.”
Alice frowned and set her teacup on the table between them, edging forward on the settee as if she meant to get up and leave. “I’m not sure that’s quite right.”
“What is the favor, Lady Katherine? Please, let’s speak plainly with one another.” It didn’t surprise Jess in the least that Kitty expected something in return. No one offered such a sum without expecting something in return.
“Kitty, please. Do call me Kitty. It’s a simple favor, really. As simple as a kiss.”
Jess choked. “Pardon?” she squeaked, when she’d finally managed to swallow her mouthful of tea and could breathe again.
“Just a kiss, Jessamin. Surely you don’t object to kissing.” Kitty’s teasing tone belied the glint of steel in her gaze. “You’re a modern, free-thinking woman, after all. You believe in the suffrage and equality for our sex. You should feel quite free to kiss any man you like.”
Kissing men had nothing to do with Jess’s interest in social reform or gaining a voice for women in the political sphere. If Kitty thought it did, she hadn’t been to nearly enough meetings.
“You want me to kiss a man?” Jess spoke the words as if it was an extraordinary feat. And it was. She’d never kissed a man. Not really. A childish, graceless kiss on the cheek from Tom Jenkins when she was twelve years old hardly counted.
“This seems a rather strange favor, Kitty.” Alice’s precise tone cut through the quiet of the room.
Kitty’s tinkling laughter rang out. “Yes, I suppose it does. But it’s merely a harmless bit of revenge.”
“Revenge.” Jess waited. There had to be more.
“Oh, all right. If you must know, the dreadful man snubbed me.” Kitty plumped her bow-shaped mouth in a pout.
Was she the shallowest heiress in Belgravia? The thought that Kitty wished to seek revenge because a man did not prefer her company was ridiculous. Her beauty and wealth could secure her any suitor she set her cap at. In fact, the question of why the man rejected her was as intriguing as her desire for Jess to kiss him.
“Why did he snub you?”
“Why, indeed!” Kitty straightened up in her chair and slid her fingers into honey blond hair, tucking her already neatly pinned coiffure more firmly into place. “Perhaps because he is an odious man. If he wasn’t a viscount, soon to be an earl, and so irredeemably handsome, I wouldn’t have bothered with him. Never mind Papa’s mad notion I marry Lord Grim. Freddie is much more fun, even if he doesn’t have a farthing to his name.” Kitty turned the full force of her bright green gaze on Jess. “You’ll do it then?”
“I’m still not sure I understand.”
Kitty’s tone became pedantic, as if she was speaking to a child who needed to be set aright.
“My dear, it couldn’t be simpler. Viscount Grimsby snubbed me at a soiree last week and I would like your help to put him in his place. He’s a dour man, as cold as marble. Some call him Lord Grim. And so he is. Grim and heartless. He needs a little comeuppance.” As an afterthought, she added, “He’s against the vote for women, of course.”
As if that made the whole ridiculous scheme noble. As if kissing him would change his mind about women’s suffrage.
“And where does kissing come into play?” It all sounded wrong to Jess, like the discordant notes of an untuned piano playing over and over in her mind, but Kitty waved away her concern dismissively.
“It won’t be a real kiss, my dear. Not the kind that matters. Just a kiss that knocks him off his pedestal a bit. It will cause him a trifle of social bother. Stir up some tittle tattle.”
For a moment Kitty’s expression altered, the corners of her mouth turning down as if she’d fallen into troubled contemplation. Jess wondered if she was already regretting her petty scheme? Then she lifted her head, a satisfied cat-at-the-cream grin lifting her cheeks.
“The next time I see the man at a ball, perhaps he’ll manage a bit of humility. And since no one else will wish to stand up with him, I suspect he’ll be more than happy to dance with me.”
None of Kitty’s words put Jess’s mind at ease. She’d never heard of Lord Grimsby but from Kitty’s description, kissing the man certainly didn’t sound appealing.
“I happen to know he’ll be at an art gallery in Mayfair this evening.”
“And?” Jess was growing impatient. Who had time for games when she had a business to run?
“There will be a gathering at the gallery. Mrs. Ornish is a great fan of art and has sponsored one of the artists whose works will be featured. I do wonder why he always goes to Mrs. Ornish’s events. Could he have his eye on Meredith, do you think?”
Of course, Jess had no idea who Mrs. Ornish or Meredith was. She might share their love of art, but they were the kind of women with wealth enough to offer an artist patronage. Jess couldn’t even afford to buy a painting. Her walls were decorated with cut-out prints culled from books and newspapers.
“Kitty, please just tell me. What must I do?”
Kitty’s crooked her mouth alluringly. Jess supposed she used the simpering expression to charm everyone. Everyone except Lord Grimsby, apparently.
“I want you to show up at the gallery event and stride up to Lord Grim. Yes, you’ll just walk up and plant a kiss square on that cruel, unsmiling mouth of his.”
“I really don’t think—“Alice’s voice had taken on the same pitch and volume she used to quiet the women’s group meetings.
Jess knew what she was going to say and cut her off. “Wait. Let me consider a moment.”
Jess closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She had to do it. She needed the one hundred pounds Kitty offered. There was no denying what the woman proposed was scandalous, not to mention farcical and childish. But Jess had no reputation to protect. As Kitty said, she saw herself as a free-thinking woman, unhampered by society’s strictures and eager for changing women’s roles. She had no idea how kissing a complete stranger would strike a blow for woman’s rights, but she knew her desperation for funds made her beholden to Kitty’s whims.
“Come, Jessamin.” Kitty’s sing song voice was cajoling. “I dare you.”
Because Jess’s speeches encouraged action over words, perhaps Kitty saw her as brave and daring. But if she was brave, it was because Father died and took all of her options with him. She’d lost everything—her home, a modestly comfortable lifestyle, freedom to study and spend her days more or less as she wished—and put all her energy into maintaining his business, even after discovering the massive debt he’d accumulated. She was beginning to make inroads toward repaying the debt and Kitty’s funds would be another step toward financial success for Wright and Sons Booksellers.
“Fine. I’ll do it.”
Kitty gasped with delight and clapped her hands together.
Alice shot her a look as if Jess had taken leave of whatever sense she’d been given.
Jess couldn’t match Kitty’s enthusiasm nor acknowledge Alice’s concern. She was too busy fighting off the sense of dread that settled in the pit of her stomach at the prospect of what she’d agreed to do.
“Where is this gallery and what time will he be there?”