The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh

The Pursuits of Lord Kit Cavanaugh

An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Volume 2 in The Cavanaughs Series
Release date April 30, 2019
In E-book, print, and audio worldwide from MIRA Books
PRINT ISBN: 9780778369394
E-BOOK ISBN: 9781488088667

Bold and clever, The Cavanaughs are unlike any other family in early Victorian England. #1 New York Timesbestselling author Stephanie Laurens continues to explore the enthralling world of these dynamic siblings in the eagerly anticipated second volume in her captivating series.

A Gentleman of Means

One of the most eligible bachelors in London, Lord Christopher “Kit” Cavanaugh has discovered his true path and it doesn’t include the expected society marriage. Kit is all business and has chosen the bustling port of Bristol to launch his passion--Cavanaugh Yachts.

A Woman of Character

Miss Sylvia Buckleberry’s passion is her school for impoverished children. When a new business venture forces the school out of its building, she must act quickly. But confronting Kit Cavanaugh is a daunting task made even more difficult by their first and only previous meeting, when, believing she’d never see him again, she’d treated him dismissively. Still, Sylvia is determined to be persuasive.

An Unstoppable Duo

But it quickly becomes clear there are others who want the school--and Cavanaugh Yachts--closed. Working side by side, Kit and Sylvia fight to secure her school and to expose the blackguard trying to sabotage his business. Yet an even more dastardly villain lurks, one who threatens the future both discover they now hold dear.

“Laurens' subtle nods to forgiveness, community-building, and second chances lend extra character and warmth to a winning love story.” Kirkus Reviews

"Pride and Preduce, Stephanie Laurens-style!" Fresh Fiction

“The easy resolutions and warm-heartedness of her latest romance will leave Laurens’s legions of fans sighing and nicely sets up Stacie Cavanaugh’s story next.” The Historical Novel Society

September 18, 1843

On the Bath Road east of Bristol

“Steady, lads.” Lord Christopher Cavanaugh, known to most as Kit, drew his matched bays to a stamping halt on the rough grass of the roadside lookout. The high-bred horses shifted and snorted; having recently rested in an inn’s stable while Kit and his companions partook of luncheon, the pair were eager to run again.

But Kit wanted a moment to look ahead—at the roofs, towers, and spires, and the glinting silver-gray ribbon of rivers that made up the city of Bristol, displayed like a colorful patchwork in the shallow valley at the end of their road.

The day was cool but fine, with a fitful breeze meandering up the valley. Eyes narrowing, Kit surveyed the city he planned to make his home. Today would see his first true step into the future he was determined to craft and claim.

He’d been adrift all his life, with no rudder to guide him and no port to call his home. For the past decade—ever since he’d come on the town—he’d had no direction, no goal… No. Not true. His one aim—his single focused goal—had been to avoid the fate his mother, Lavinia, the late Dowager Marchioness of Raventhorne, had planned for him.

She’d been a schemer of near-unimaginable degree, intent on controlling and exploiting the lives of her four children for her own gain. In Kit’s case—as for his older and younger brothers—she’d expected to barter the position of their wives for wealth or, at the very least, valuable influence. Kit had reacted by painting himself as an indolent rake of the sort no sane parent would want anywhere near their daughter. His reputation in the ton had become a solid shield, one that had enabled him to walk society’s halls without fear of being trapped in order to help his younger sister, Stacie, avoid a similar fate.

Lavinia had been a demon in human guise. They—her four children—had been beyond shocked when they’d finally learned the full gamut of her evil schemes. She’d tried to kill her stepson, Ryder, Kit’s older half brother, whom Kit and his siblings adored, in order to replace Ryder, then the marquess, with her eldest son, Kit’s older brother Rand; only Ryder’s remarkable strength, physical and mental, and the support of his wife, Mary, then the marchioness, had allowed them both to survive. Subsequently captured, Lavinia had lost her life in a vain attempt to flee justice.

Even now, the thought of her and her doings chilled Kit’s heart.

His mother had died in the summer of 1837, bringing to an abrupt end a chapter in his and his siblings’ lives that they all had thought would never end. Nevertheless, it had taken years for the effects of her version of mothering to start to fade—for Rand, Kit, Stacie, and their youngest brother, Godfrey, to shed the invisible chains and adjust their now-instinctive, habitual reactions toward others as well as themselves.

Or, Kit temporized, at least shake loose enough of those chains to take up the challenge of shaping their own lives and make a start.

For Rand—arguably the most impacted by their mother’s schemes, but also the oldest of the four siblings and possessing a quiet inner strength similar to Ryder’s implacable will—that had meant becoming a leading light in investor circles, specializing in supporting promising inventions. Less than a month ago, Rand had taken what Kit saw as the final step in emerging from their shared past by marrying Felicia Throgmorton, the daughter of one of the inventors Rand had backed.

Kit had seen Rand and Felicia two days ago, when they’d driven over from their new house to visit with Ryder and Mary at Raventhorne Abbey, the family’s ancestral pile, where, since the wedding, Kit had been staying. Contentment had settled about Rand like a cloak, and a species of happiness had infused his eyes and his expression whenever he’d looked at Felicia, leaving Kit to surmise that Rand and Felicia were well on the way to finding the same sense of settled peace and relaxed joy in life that Ryder had found with Mary.

The atmosphere of happy family life that now pervaded the Abbey was something Kit had never experienced over the decades he’d called the Abbey home. He envied his nephews and niece—Ryder and Mary’s children—the warmth and unqualified acceptance in which they were growing up. The unstated yet all-embracing love and support of their parents.

Having watched Rand steadily making his own way—his own name—in society and beyond, Kit had decided it was time he did the same—that it was time he made a start on assembling the various elements of the life he wanted for his own.

He wanted to build ocean-going yachts. More—he aspired to be the pre-eminent force in the evolving field. In the same way that dealing with investments played to Rand’s strengths and interests, Kit felt that yacht-building would make the most of his longtime obsession with all things sailing and his ability to lead men and act as manager, facilitator, and negotiator.

He was good with his hands, and he was good with his head. He always had been.

When Rand had announced his engagement, Kit had been on his way to Bermuda, chasing down Wayland Cobworth. Wayland was an old friend of Kit’s from Eton days who shared his passion for superbly designed sailing vessels; coming from a significantly less wealthy family than the Cavanaughs, instead of going to university, Wayland had apprenticed to an expert draftsman and ship-designer and was now one of the up-and-coming designers of yachts.

Wayland knew the quality of Kit’s determination—that when he set his sights on achieving some goal, that goal would be achieved; convincing Wayland of Kit’s vision for Cavanaugh Yachts and of the desirability of Wayland’s potential position in the company hadn’t been all that hard.

Kit had had to take ship back to England almost immediately in order not to miss Rand’s wedding; he’d made it, but with only minutes to spare. Wayland had had to finish a design for the company he’d been working for before heading back to England, sailing directly to Bristol.

“It’s bigger than I’d thought,” Smiggs, Kit’s groom-cum-stableman, observed, breaking through Kit’s introspection.

Smiggs was perched behind Kit. Kit had co-opted Smiggs, several years older than he, from the Abbey stables when he’d first gone on the town. Smiggs had eagerly thrown in his lot with Kit, and subsequently, they’d shared many an adventure. Kit considered Smiggs a confidant of sorts and knew he could rely on the wiry man’s support in any situation.

“This is one of the few decent views of the city sprawl,” Kit said, “and last time, we didn’t stop to look.”

“Last time” being two weeks before, when he and Smiggs had driven over for a few days to allow Kit to make the necessary arrangements for taking up residence in the city. Among other things, he’d finalized the purchase of a decent-sized house in a good neighborhood and had discussed leasing a warehouse on the Floating Harbor with the Bristol Dock Company.

“So, Mr. Cobworth should have arrived a few days ago,” Smiggs said.

Kit nodded. “He wrote that his ship would dock on the sixteenth.” Kit grinned expectantly. “I imagine that, after having two days to reconnoiter, Wayland will be eager to forge on.”

“When’s your meeting with the Dock Company?” Smiggs asked.

Kit shifted to draw out his fob watch. “Not until half past three.” He checked the time, then tucked the watch back. “It’s just after two o’clock. We’d better get moving.”

“Will Mr. Cobworth be staying with us?”

Turning his head, Kit glanced at the younger man standing behind the rail alongside Smiggs and smiled. “No, Gordon.” Until recently, Gordon had been a footman at the Abbey, but Mary had allowed Kit to lure him away to fill the role of Kit’s majordomo. “Mr. Cobworth likes his own space, for which we should all be thankful—as he tends to lose himself in his work and often works very odd hours, he’s not a comfortable houseguest.”

“Oh.” Gordon’s eyes had widened. He was of similar age to Kit, but had led a much more sheltered life.

Reminded of the tasks he had to complete before he joined Wayland at the scheduled meeting—during which Kit hoped they would be able to sign the lease on the warehouse he intended to convert to their yacht-building workshop—he faced forward and lifted the reins. “We’ll drive straight to the solicitor’s office and pick up the house keys, then go and take possession.” Of the first house he’d ever owned. Releasing the brake, he continued, “I’ll leave you two to get settled and organized. The solicitor will have the direction of a household staff employment agency. Gordon—you’ll know the sort of people we need.”

“Yes, my lord,” Gordon promptly replied. “You may leave all that to me.”

Kit smiled at the eager pride in Gordon’s voice; he had no doubt Gordon would take to his duties with the keen fervor of one out to make his mark. Thinking further, Kit said, “I left a note at the shipping office to be given to Mr. Cobworth when he landed. I imagine he’ll be waiting impatiently outside the door of the Bristol Dock Company at half past three.” Champing at the bit to get on.

As were Kit’s horses. He steered them out of the lookout and back onto the road.

Then, smile deepening and with a sense of expectation—and, yes, eagerness—welling, Kit flicked the reins and set the bays trotting.

He might have lived for twenty-nine years, yet to his mind, today was the first day of his adult life.

* * *

Across a long, highly polished table, Kit, with Wayland beside him, faced five members of the board of the Bristol Dock Company.

“So”—the chairman, a Mr. Hemmings, exchanged a swift glance with his fellow directors before returning his gaze to Kit—“are we correct in thinking that you anticipate hiring local men to build your ships?”

Kit nodded. “To build and, ultimately, to service our yachts. Once we’ve established Cavanaugh Yachts as a going concern, we intend to look into sailmaking as well, either to invest in an established business or commence one of our own.”

He was unsurprised by the direction of the chairman’s probing; he’d done his homework and knew the Dock Company was under increasing pressure from the local council over the loss of jobs on the docks. With the advent of steamships and the changes in materials and practices building such vessels entailed, many men who had previously had steady employment in the shipyards were now out of work. Restless, unhappy, and at a loose end—prime targets for those sowing social discord.

“I understand,” Kit continued, “that we should be able to find workers with the expertise we require reasonably easily.”

“Oh, indeed—indeed,” huffed another of the directors. “Good to know that the old ways of sail aren’t going to completely disappear, what?”

Just two months earlier, Brunel, who had launched his first ocean-going iron ship, the SS Great Western, five years before, had launched his latest wonder, the SS Great Britain, the first propeller-driven, ocean-going iron ship—both ships built in the Bristol yards.

Steam power had changed the face of ship building, tossing many shipyard workers on the scrap heap.

Cavanaugh Yachts held out the prospect of giving some of those workers a new lease on working life.

Kit smiled. “Just so. And from my earlier visit, I gathered that, what with the difficulties the Floating Harbor poses to larger-draft ships and the consequent drift of shipyards and warehousing to Avonmouth, there are quite a few opportunities to secure space of the sort we need on the docks here.”

At that, the company men exchanged another meaning-laden glance, then Hemmings clasped his hands before him, leaned forward, and met Kit’s gaze. “As you say, my lord, we’ll be happy to see Cavanaugh Yachts take up residence on our docks.”

The company secretary, a Mr. Finch, a desiccated man in sober black, cleared his throat and looked down as he shuffled several papers. “We understand you’re interested in the warehouse off the Grove.”

Kit nodded. “That seemed the most suitable. We require ready access to the harbor, and in size and location, that seemed the best of the properties you showed me earlier.”

Wayland shifted; several inches taller than Kit, he was long and lanky and exuded the air of a man who possessed little patience for the minutiae of life. Wayland fixed the secretary with his dark gaze. “Do you have any other properties similar in size and location to that one?”

Finch blinked at Wayland, then looked down. “No—that’s really the only warehouse in that stretch that’s immediately available.”

As if suddenly reminded of something, the chairman glanced at Kit. “You propose to commence work soon?” An “I hope” hovered in the air.

Kit exchanged a swift look with Wayland, then replied, “If we can come to an agreement today, then we are prepared to start hiring immediately.”

“Ah…” Finch caught Hemming’s eye. “As to that…when I said the warehouse was immediatelyavailable, I was referring to the fact that it’s not formally leased. However, there’s a charity group that has been using the space free of charge—I expect they will need a few days to vacate.”

“How long?” Wayland’s tone suggested the point might influence his and Kit’s thinking.

“Oh—just a few days.” Hemmings sent the secretary a sharp look.

One of the other directors leaned forward to suggest, “Shall we say by the end of the week?”

The other company men, including Hemmings and Finch, nodded and, faintly anxious, looked at Kit.

Kit glanced at Wayland, hesitated for effect, then said, “I suppose we could use the next few days to hire workers and organize supplies.” In truth, a few days was no skin off their noses, but given they’d yet to discuss the details of the lease, keeping the directors off balance seemed wise.

Wayland replied with a somewhat sulky shrug.

Kit looked back at Hemmings and Finch. “Perhaps, gentlemen, we should get down to brass tacks.”

The directors were very ready to do so, but neither Kit nor Wayland was new to the art of negotiating deals. Both Ryder and Rand had taken ten percent stakes in Cavanaugh Yachts, and Kit used their names and backing to further strengthen his and Wayland’s hand. The discussion went back and forth, revisiting this point before agreeing on that.

Finally, the directors agreed to a price and conditions that Kit and Wayland were prepared to accept, including a stipulation they had pressed for—an indefinite option to purchase the warehouse outright after a period of two years.

While Wayland had a thirty percent stake in the company, Kit remained the majority owner. Consequently, when Finch prepared and presented the lease, it was Kit who signed first, then he passed the document and pen to Wayland while doing his best to conceal the elation that filled him.

They’d made their first major commitment and had secured the space they needed to forge on.

Wayland, also battling a grin, signed with a flourish, and the secretary and chairman quickly countersigned.

Finch duly presented Kit with their copy of the lease.

“Thank you.” Kit glanced at the document, then folded it. As he tucked it into his coat pocket, he looked at the directors and smiled. “Thank you, gentlemen. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

“I must insist that the pleasure is all ours, your lordship.” Hemmings rose and, beaming genially, waved toward a nearby sideboard. “Can I offer you a small libation to celebrate our deal?”

Kit and Wayland accepted glasses of brandy and stood and chatted about the city—extracting as much useful information as they could. After the other three directors made their excuses and left, Kit turned to Finch. “Although our tenancy doesn’t commence until the beginning of next week, Mr. Cobworth and I would like to take a quick look at the inside of the warehouse. While I’ve been inside before, Mr. Cobworth hasn’t, and to ensure we order the correct timbers for the initial fitting out, he needs to note the placement of the beams.”

“If we could gain access for half an hour today, that would be ideal,” Wayland put in.

Finch and Hemmings exchanged a long glance—long enough for Kit to wonder what unvoiced thoughts passed between them. Then, lips primming, Finch nodded. “If you can indulge us regarding the time—will five-thirty this evening suit?”

Kit looked at Wayland and arched his brows.

“It’ll be close to dark by then.” Wayland’s faint frown suggested he was thinking rapidly. “But I can pick up a few lanterns.” Expression clearing, he met Finch’s gaze. “Yes—that will do.”

“Excellent.” Hemmings clapped his palms together. “We’ll meet you outside the warehouse at five-thirty, then.”

Wondering why they couldn’t go now, Kit asked, “Is there any difficulty with us taking a look around the outside earlier? Now, for instance.”

Again, Hemmings’s and Finch’s gazes met, then Finch cleared his throat and explained, “We haven’t yet broken the news to the charity that’s been using the space, and we won’t be able to do so until tomorrow, when their manager is in their office. It would be…awkward if those at the warehouse were to learn of the situation prior to the manager being informed.”

“Ah—I see.” At least as far as them going to the warehouse now. Kit inclined his head to both men. “In that case, we’ll hie off to find some lanterns and will see you gentlemen outside the soon-to-be Cavanaugh Yachts workshop in…just over an hour.”

Finch’s and Hemmings’s faces lit with what Kit saw as pleasure tinged with relief. With a return to their celebratory mood, the pair farewelled Kit and Wayland, vowing to meet them shortly.

Kit was inwardly shaking his head as, with Wayland beside him, he stepped onto the pavement outside the Dock Company building.

For his part, Wayland was actually shaking his head.

Kit halted and eyed his friend. “What?”

Wayland shrugged. “Nervy lot.” He looked around. “I think the nearest hardware store is that way.” He pointed down the quay.

Sliding his hands into his pockets, Kit fell in beside Wayland as he led the way.

* * *

When, an hour later, Kit and Wayland rounded the end of Princes Street and walked onto the stretch of waterfront known as the Grove, it was to see Finch and Hemmings waiting farther along, outside the door of the third warehouse from the corner.

Evening had fallen and was edging toward night, and the slap of wavelets against the pilings was increasingly audible as other workaday noises faded. The row of warehouses fronted directly onto the Grove, with a narrow, cobbled lane separating their façades from the rough grass beneath the line of trees that gave the area its name. Beyond the trees, lamps were spaced along the river’s edge, but the warehouses lay far enough back that only faint light reached their doors.

Wayland huffed. “Just as well we got these lanterns.”

They’d bought four hurricane lanterns, reasoning that they would surely need them as the days grew shorter.

As they approached the warehouse, Kit nodded in greeting. “Hemmings. Finch.”

Hemmings smiled and half bowed.

“My lord. Mr. Cobworth.” Having already unlocked the padlock that secured the doors, Finch lifted the latch and drew one of the double doors back.

Kit caught the edge of the second door and hauled it wide.

Wayland walked inside, then halted and, through the dimness, looked around. After several seconds, he bent and set down the two lanterns he’d carried and crouched to light them.

Kit stopped a pace away. He put the two lanterns he’d carried beside Wayland’s two. When light flared and Wayland replaced the glass surround on the first lantern, then turned to light the next, Kit picked up the first lantern, raised it, and played the beam around the gloomy space.

Although his hands remained busy lighting the lanterns, Wayland looked up, too. After a moment, he said, “The floor’s good—nice and even and the planks are well-laid and the surface smooth. As for layout…offices to the right, along the side wall. Receptionist and foreman in one closer to the door, then the rest of that space is mine.”

By which Wayland meant that his design studio would take up the space behind the front office. Kit grunted in agreement; as Wayland gave his attention to the lanterns, Kit turned and swept the lantern’s beam over the other side of the warehouse.

The doors were off center, closer to the right, leaving the bulk of the warehouse to the left. The space was surprisingly uncluttered; there was no detritus—no ropes, broken struts, hessian, or any of the usual accumulated rubbish one tended to find in the corners of such buildings.

Wayland rose, a lantern in his hand; standing beside Kit, he directed the lantern upward, splashing light across the beams overhead. After a moment of studying them, Wayland murmured, “Good call choosing this place. Those are solid.” With the lantern, he traced one of the three main beams across to the wall, playing light over the upright support there, then he turned and examined the support on the other side. Then he flashed Kit a grin. “We’ll be able to set our pulleys up there and lift our hulls with no problem at all.”

“Excellent.” Kit peered deeper into the shadows to the left and spotted a row of raised desks lined up along the side wall. They looked like a conglomeration of clerk’s desks and draftsman’s desks with sloping tops. A goodly number of tall stools stood clustered at one end of the line.

“Presumably from the charity,” Wayland said. “The desks look to be in too-good condition to be discards.”

Surveying the desks, Kit murmured, “It must be some sort of charity for the indigent. I assume they’ll take them away.” Kit turned back to survey the area they’d elected to make into offices. “Where do you want to start measuring?”

Wayland waved. “Let’s start by the door.”

Wayland always carried an extendible metal measuring rod, along with notebook, pencil, and chalk. Between them, they marked and measured the dimensions of the offices, with Wayland noting everything down so he could draw up a plan and work out what timbers were required for the construction.

Once they’d finished measuring the offices, ignoring the pair at the door, who shifted restlessly as darkness encroached and a chill rose off the river, Kit helped Wayland make a series of measurements relating to the pulley gantry Wayland had in mind to allow them to work on multiple hulls at the same time with only one overhead hoist.

Finally, still busily jotting in his notebook, Wayland declared, “That’s all I need for now. I’ll draw up the plans and check in with you tomorrow. Once you sign off, I’ll get the timbers ordered. We’ll also need steel for the gantry.” He paused to glance around the shadowy space. “Depending on the caliber of the men we hire, it’ll take a few days to construct the offices and the gantry. By then, I’ll have the hull design ready, and we can move the men on to the frame for that.”

He met Kit’s eyes. “That’ll be a good start.”

Kit nodded. “An excellent start, even if we do have to wait until Monday to commence.”

Looking around one last time, Wayland muttered, “We’ll have to see what level of carpenters we can find.”

Kit waved toward the door; Hemmings and Finch were still waiting there. As he and Wayland crossed toward them, Kit called, “Thank you for arranging this, gentlemen.”

“Our pleasure, your lordship.” Rubbing his hands together, Hemmings stepped back as Kit and Wayland, having collected and doused the lanterns, emerged from the warehouse. “I take it all is satisfactory?”

“Entirely,” Kit returned with a reassuring smile.

Wayland handed his lanterns to Kit and helped Finch close the warehouse doors.

Kit watched Finch secure the latch with the padlock. Recalling the desks they’d seen and with Wayland’s words rolling around in his head, when Finch turned, Kit caught his eye. “Might some of the men attending the charity”—Kit tipped his head toward the warehouse—“be suitable for employment in our yacht-building enterprise?”

Finch blinked, then cut another of those weighted glances at Hemmings. After a second, Finch returned his gaze to Kit and shook his head. “That’s highly unlikely, my lord. But there’s an excellent labor exchange just around the corner on the quay.” Finch pointed in that direction. “For carpenters and the like, that’s where I’d ask—it’s the most likely place to find workmen of the sort I believe you’ll need.”

Keeping his expression relaxed and uninformative, Kit studied Finch for a heartbeat; something about the charity made Finch and Hemmings nervous, but Kit couldn’t imagine what it might be. “Thank you.” Kit inclined his head to Finch. “Either myself or Mr. Cobworth will call there tomorrow.”

He and Wayland parted from the two Dock Company men with handshakes, renewed thanks, and cordiality all around, then, on Hemmings’s recommendation, Kit and Wayland headed for the Dragon’s Head public house for dinner.

* * *

Sylvia Buckleberry sat at the small desk in her cramped office in the shadow of Christ Church and, head bent, carefully tallied her ledgers, penny by penny accounting for the expenditures of the previous month.

Outside the small window at her back, the morning was fine, the sky a soft autumnal blue with a gentle breeze skating fluffy white clouds across the heavens. The cooing of the doves that nested around the church tower provided a pleasant background drone, punctuated by the skittering of ravens on nearby roofs.

Sylvia did her best to blot out the distractions of the pleasant day. Arithmetic had never been her strong suit, but given she was spending the parish’s funds, she made sure the bills added up to the last halfpenny.

She’d almost reached the end of the last column when a sharp rap fell on her closed door. Suppressing a most unladylike hiss, she grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled a note of her total, then set aside her pencil and, closing the ledger, looked up and called, “Come in.”

The door opened, and three gentlemen filed in—or tried to; they had to leave the door open to have room enough to stand.

Sylvia’s heart sank as she recognized her callers. It had been over two years since she’d last seen the three together; all were figures in the local community and served on theBristol Dock Company’s board—Mr. Forsythe, the mayor, Mr. Hoskins, one of the aldermen, and, lastly, Mr. Finch, secretary to the board.

Oh, no.The sight of Finch, in particular, did not bode well.

She forced a bright smile to her lips and adopted an expression she hoped appeared guileless. “Mr. Forsythe, Mr. Hoskins, and Mr. Finch.” She inclined her head to each. “Good morning, gentlemen. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

The three exchanged glances, then the mayor shuffled forward to take the single small chair that sat before the desk. The chair creaked faintly as his weight settled upon it, then he leaned forward and earnestly said, “My dear Miss Buckleberry, I’m sure you recall the terms of our agreement regarding your school using the premises on the Grove.”

Sylvia recalled the stipulations attached to the use of the old warehouse very well. However, she simply stared blankly at the mayor while her mind scrambled…

Surely not. The dockyards were in decline. Who on earth would want the old warehouse?

When the mayor seemed as disinclined to speak as she, she ventured, “I’m not sure I understand…” Always better to have them think her a dim-witted female; she was more likely to gain concessions that way.

Mr. Hoskins cleared his throat, then offered, “Our allowing the school to use the warehouse was, if you recall, on the condition that no business required the space—that is, no business that would pay to lease the place and create jobs for the local men.”

Sylvia had transferred her gaze to Hoskins; his words sent a chill lancing through her.

Finch shifted impatiently. “The truth, Miss Buckleberry, is that a new business has taken a lease on the warehouse, commencing from the beginning of next week. The school will need to vacate the premises by week’s end.”

Trust Finch to put it bluntly; his words were the blow Sylvia had suspected was coming the instant she’d seen his face. He’d always been a reluctant supporter, but whether it was her he didn’t approve of or the notion behind the school, she’d never determined.

“As we’re all well aware,” the mayor hurried to say, “the city is facing some difficulty regarding ongoing work for our many ship workers and dockworkers. It’s not a crisis, per se, but…well, we can’t afford to turn any such business away.”

Sylvia blinked. “Surely there are other warehouses?”

“Not of the sort this company needs. Not on our docks,” Mr. Hoskins informed her. “And while we realize this must come as an unwelcome surprise, we’re sure you’ll agree that it’s critically important to accommodate the sort of businesses who can hire the men otherwise unemployed—men like the parents of your pupils.”

“Sad though I am to say it, Miss Buckleberry,” the mayor went on, “jobs for the fathers must take precedence over teaching the sons.”

Sylvia knew the situation in the city, especially on the docks. In the circumstances, she couldn’t argue.

“Besides,” Finch said, “as I understand it, the end purpose of teaching the boys is to enable them to get jobs, but if there are no jobs, then what is the point of schools such as yours?”

It was on the tip of her tongue to retort that the school wasn’t “hers,” yet it didn’t really matter; Finch was correct.

Reluctantly, she inclined her head, accepting if not exactly agreeing. She focused on the mayor. “You say we must be out of the warehouse by Friday. I’m left facing the question of where the school is to go.” She arched her brows and, with her gaze, included all three men. “Do you have any suggestions, gentlemen?”

Even Finch had the grace to look sheepish—or at least as sheepish as he could.

“Sadly, I don’t.” The mayor shifted on the chair, eliciting a protesting creak.

“If I hear of any possible location,” Mr. Hoskins said, “I will immediately let you know.”

“There is no other suitable property on the company’s books,” Finch stated.

The mayor hauled out his fob watch and looked at it. “Good gracious! Is that the time?” Tucking the watch back into his waistcoat pocket, he rose and essayed a commiserating smile. “The Dock Company regrets the impact on the school, my dear, but we cannot be other than pleased to welcome a new business to our docks.”

She was forced to murmur appropriate phrases as the men took their leave.

As the door closed behind them, she slumped back in her chair.

Of all the potential disasters…

After two years at the warehouse and given the draining of work from the docks, she’d assumed the school’s use of the premises was secure.

What am I going to do?

The sounds of a busy morning reached her through the thin glass at her back; horses crisply clopping down the streets, the sound of hurrying footsteps on the pavements, the occasional hailing of a hackney—people rushing about their business. Yet inside her office, her brain seemed to have slowed.

Finch hadn’t been entirely in error—the school was effectively hers. Her dream, her creation—her purpose in life.

After having shared a London Season with her distant cousin and close friend, Felicia Throgmorton, during which neither of them had taken, Sylvia and Felicia both had seen enough of ton life to be quite certain that their futures lay outside that gilded circle.

For Felicia, her “what else?” had been obvious; she’d had an inventor father and inventor brother to keep house for, to corral, steer, and anchor. Admittedly, Felicia had recently married—to a member of the nobility, no less—but she’d met Randolph Cavanaugh at her home, and as Sylvia understood it, neither had any great ambition to waltz in the ton; their interests lay elsewhere, namely in inventions and investing, and Sylvia had to admit that a life at Rand’s side would suit Felicia to the ground.

Sylvia, however, hadn’t been needed at home. Her widowed father, Reverend Buckleberry, held a comfortable living at Saltford, between Bristol and Bath, and had a highly efficient housekeeper to keep him in line and see to all his needs. Her father was a hearty, active soul, deeply engaged with his parish; he hadn’t needed Sylvia to stand by his side.

After returning from London, Sylvia had spent a wasted year at the vicarage, trying to find a purpose to devote herself to. No gentleman had ever tempted her to consider marriage, and somewhere along the way, she’d set aside all dreams of a home and family of her own. She felt perfectly certain that particular option was never going to come her way.

But with marriage off her table, she’d needed some other occupation—something to which to devote her mind, heart, and considerable organizational talents. But with no formal training in anything beyond the usual subjects deemed suitable for young ladies and no fervent obsession to guide her, she’d all but despaired of finding any project with which to occupy her days.

She’d been close to falling into a dejected funk when her father’s close friend the Bishop of Bath and Wells had called at Saltford to spend a few days discussing parish matters with her father, and she’d overheard the bishop bewailing the fact that, despite pressure from the upper levels of both church and state, in Bristol, as yet no progress had been made on establishing a school for the underclass—specifically, for boys whose fathers worked on the docks and in the associated shipyards.

That had been her call to arms—her epiphany when a light had shone from above and illuminated the right path forward.

With the bishop’s and her father’s support, she’d enlisted the aid of the Dean of Christ Church in Bristol—another of her father’s old friends—and, by sheer force of will and personality, had convinced the Christ Church Parish Council to back the establishment of such a school. The parish had agreed to fund the salary for two teachers and an assistant as well as paying for all sundry items such as books, chalks, and slates.

But the council’s one stipulation had been that they couldn’t afford to pay the rent for premises; they had made their offer of funds conditional on a suitable venue being donated free of charge.

Sylvia suspected the elders on the council had thought that stipulation would prove an insurmountable hurdle, but having noticed the empty warehouse facing the Grove and understanding that dockside business was ebbing from the city, she’d petitioned the Dock Company board to grant the school the right to use the warehouse free of charge.

Of course, first, she’d made a point of meeting each of the wives of the gentlemen on the board—at morning teas, at the city library, and at the salon of the city’s most-favored modiste. By dint of casting the school as a socially desirable charity—one the city should support in order to bolster its credentials as a civilized place—she’d enlisted the support of sufficient ladies so that when she’d gone before the board and made her case, she’d been fairly certain of success.

But now that she—the school—had lost the use of the warehouse, and the Dock Company didn’t have another building the school might use…

Without premises donated by some similar entity, the school would not survive.

The thought of the school closing curdled her stomach. She might have started the school as a way to occupy herself, but it had become the obsession she hadn’t previously had. Bad enough that she couldn’t imagine how she would fill her days without it, but now there was far more at stake than that; under her guidance, the teachers and pupils—all seventeen currently attending—had grown into a remarkably engaged group. The pupils attended because they wanted to—because they’d developed a thirst for knowledge and had taken to heart her oft-repeated litany that education was the pathway to their future.

The pupils were committed, the teachers even more so. University-trained, both were devoted educators, as was their less-qualified but equally dedicated assistant.

Sylvia had worked for two and more years to get the school to where it was, and it now delivered something vital for the pupils, the teachers, and, indeed, the city itself—just as she’d told the board members’ wives all those months ago.

She’d succeeded, and all had been running so smoothly…

She stared at the door, then set her chin. “I am not going to allow the school to close.”

That was the first decision—the one from which all else would stem.

“I need to find new premises that someone will donate—I did that once, and I can do it again.” It would be up to her to pull the school’s irons out of the fire. Although the school operated under the aegis of the Dean, from the start, their understanding had been that the school was hers to manage. It was her challenge; there was no one else to act as the school’s champion. That was her role—the role she’d fought for.

“Just as I’m going to fight through this.” Lips thinning, eyes narrowing, she considered her options. Staring at the door, she muttered, “So…what can I do?”

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