Start Reading Now: The Curiosity Keeper by Sarah E. Ladd
Provided by Thomas Nelson
Excerpt from The Curiosity Keeper by Sarah Ladd
Iverness Curiosity Shop, London, England, 1812
Camille Iverness met the big man’s gaze.
She would not be bullied or manipulated. Not in her own shop.
Camille recognized the expression in the man’s eye. He did not want to speak with her, a mere woman. Not when the owner of the shop was James Iverness.
But James Iverness—her father—was not present.
She jutted her chin out in a show of confidence, refusing to even blink as he pinned her with a steely stare.
“As I already told you, Mr. Turner, I have no money to give you,” she repeated, louder this time. “Any dealings you made with my father you will need to take up with him. I’ve no knowledge of the transaction you described. You had best return at another time.”
“I’ve seen you here, day in, day out.” his voice rose in both volume and gruffness. “How do you expect me to believe you know nothing about it?” The wooden planks beneath his feet groaned as he shifted his considerable weight, making little attempt to mask his effort to look around her into the store’s back room. “Is he in there? So help me, if he is and—”
“Sir, no one besides myself is present, with the exception of my father’s dog.”
It was in moments like this that she wished she were taller, for even as she stood on the platform behind the counter, the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. “If you would like, I will wake the animal, but if you have seen me here often, as you claim, then no doubt you have also seen Tevy and know he does not take kindly to strangers. You decide. Shall I go fetch him?”
Mr. Turner’s gaze snapped back to her. No doubt he knew of the dog. Everyone on Blinkett Street knew about James Iverness’s dog.
His whiskered lip twitched.
A warm sense of satisfaction spread through her, for finally she had said something to sway the determined man.
Mr. Turner’s face deepened to crimson, and he pointed a thick finger in Camille’s direction, his voice matching the intensity of his eyes. “Tell your father I’ve a mind to speak with him. And tell him I want my money and won’t take kindly to his antics. Next time I am here I will not be so willing to leave.”
He muttered beneath his breath and stomped from the store, slamming the door behind him with such force that the glass canisters on the near shelf trembled.
A shudder rushed through her as she watched him lumber away, and she did not let her posture relax until the back flap of his gray coat passed the window and was out of sight. How she despised such interactions. As of late, Papa seemed to be angering more patrons than he obliged, and he always managed to be conveniently absent when they came to confront him.
She needed to speak with Papa, and soon. Awkward conversations like the one with Mr. Turner needed to stop.
Camille tucked a long, wayward lock of hair behind her ear and drew a deep breath. Once again her father’s dog had come to her rescue, and he was not even in the room.
“Come, Tevy,” she called. In a matter of moments the massive brown animal was through the door and at her side, tail wagging enthusiastically.
“Pay heed!” she laughed as he nudged her hand, forcing her to pet him. “That tail of yours is likely to knock every vase off that shelf if you’re not careful, and then Papa will blame—”
The door to the shop pushed open, jingling the bell hung just above it. She drew a sharp breath, preparing to deal with yet another customer, but it was her father who appeared in the doorway.
He was a short man, not much taller than she herself, but that was where their physical similarities ended. His green eyes made up in intensity what he lacked in stature. His hair, which in her youth had been the color of sand, was now the color of stone, and years spent on a ship’s deck had left his complexion ruddy. His threadbare frock coat, dingy neckcloth, and whiskered cheeks made him appear more like a vagabond than a shopkeeper, and despite his privileged upbringing, he often acted and spoke like an inhabitant of the docks where he did much of his trading.
“Good day, Papa.”
He ignored her welcome and bent to scratch Tevy’s ears. After pulling out a bit of dried meat and handing it to the dog, he reached back into his coat. “This came for you.”
He stretched out his hand, rough and worn. Between his thick fingers he pinched a letter.
Camille stared at it for several moments, shocked. Clearly she could make out her name—in her mother’s handwriting. The edge of the paper was torn. She could not recall the last letter she had received from Mama.
He thrust the letter toward her. “Don’t just stand there gawking, girl. Take it.”
Camille fumbled with the missive to keep it from falling to the planked floor below, but for once, she found herself unable to find words. Unprepared—and unwilling—to deal with the onset of emotions incited by the letter, she blinked back moisture and shoved it into the front pocket of her work apron.
“Are you not going to read it?” her father nodded toward her apron.
Of course he expected her to read it, for he himself devoured every one of his wife’s scarce communications the moment they arrived. Though they both felt her absence keenly, they reacted to it very differently—and they never, ever discussed it. Over time, Camille had made the topic off-limits in her own mind, and a letter crafted by the very person who was the source of the pain was unwelcome.
“I’ll read it later. There is far too much to do at the moment.” She sniffed and gestured toward the curtain that separated the shop from the back room. “There was a crate delivered to you by cart in the alley, but it was too heavy for me to lift.”
She was a little surprised at the quickness with which her father let the topic of the letter drop. “Why did you not have the men delivering it bring it in?”
“I tried, but they refused—said it was not their duty. They left it in the courtyard out back.”
“When are you going to learn that such things are your responsibility? You should have persuaded them to bring it in.” her father shifted through the papers on the counter, not pausing to look up. “Had you been a boy, this would not be an issue.”
Camille folded her arms across her chest. “Well, I was not born a boy, and there is precious little I can do about that. So if you will fetch the delivery in for me, I shall tend to it. Or it can spend the night hours where it sits. But the sky looks like it holds rain, so whatever is inside that box will just sit there and soak.”
After much grumbling, Papa disappeared through the back and returned dragging a large, awkward crate. Camille helped him bring it close to the counter, then pried the lid off and reached for one of the linen-wrapped items inside. Laying it on the counter, she carefully pulled back the fabric and revealed a canvas. Strokes of emerald and moss depicted a countryside set below a brilliant sapphire sky. She flipped through the next canvas, then the next. All boasted lush pastoral landscapes.
She clicked her tongue as she assessed the cargo. “They are all paintings. Why did you buy these?”
“I didn’t buy them,” he muttered. “I traded for them.”
“That is the same thing, Father. Paintings do not sell well. You know that. They will sit on the shelves for months, I fear. And we haven’t the space as it is.”
“When will you learn not to question my ways? Sometimes such deals must be made to clinch future arrangements. You mind the counter and leave the dealings to me.”
She ignored him and lifted another canvas out of the crate. “Speaking of dealings, Mr. Turner was just in looking for you.”
At this he raised his head. “Did he make a purchase?”
“No, quite the opposite. He said you owe him money.”
“You didn’t give him any, did you?”
“Of course not.”
Her father returned to his stack of papers. “Turner is a fool.”
“Do you owe him money?” She leaned her hip against the counter. When her father did not respond, she continued. “If you insist upon doing these business dealings on the side, that is fine, but you must understand that you have put me in some very awkward situations. Mr. Turner was quite angry.”
Her father disappeared through the doorway, signaling he was finished with the conversation. She sighed and lifted another canvas, assessing the delicate brushstrokes with a practiced eye. A lovely piece, expertly done. In another shop it might fetch a pretty penny. But not here. Their patrons wanted the unusual, the wildly exotic—unique treasures from far beyond England’s shore, not calm renditions of their own British countryside.
But Camille’s practical side could not quiet the beating of her heart as she took in the tranquil meadow and vivid flora depicted by the artist’s strokes. Memories of her time in such a setting rushed her. She remembered running through the waving grasses, wading in the trickling streams, breathing air so fresh and clean it practically sparkled.
So long ago . . .
When she was small, Camille and her mother had lived on her paternal grandfather’s country estate. At that time her father had been endlessly absent, either away on business or incessantly traveling the world to quench his thirst for the rare and mysterious. But after her grandfather’s death, the lavish estate had been sold. Her father, the sole heir, had invested the proceeds into this shop. And life as Camille knew it had changed forever.
She longed to flee from the dirty confines of Blinkett Street and return to the countryside, to once more breathe fresh air and to bask in the golden sunshine that bathed the meadows. But Grandfather was dead, and Mama was far away, and Papa begrudged even her necessary outings to the greengrocer and the butcher.
She sighed as the door’s bell signaled another customer.
Camille had not left London since she first came to the city eleven years earlier.
She was beginning to wonder if she would ever leave London again.