"Don't touch that book!"
Thrusting his index finger out like a rapier, Sinclair, the head librarian of Storyton Hall, waved identical twins Hemingway and Fitzgerald Steward over to the far side of the reading table.
"Why not?" one of the brothers asked in surprise.
"You told us to be curious about what's between every cover in every library," the other brother added.
Sinclair pointed at their dirt-encrusted hands. "What else have I taught you about the proper treatment of books?"
"To make sure our hands are clean before touching a book," Hem said.
"I was going to say that." Fitz frowned, but quickly brightened again. "You also said never fold the corner of a page to mark our place. Civilized people use bookmarks."
Sinclair's stern expression morphed into a smile. "Correct on both counts. Scrub those hands until I can see pink skin and I'll tell you about this book. It holds a secret."
The twins cast matching glances of doubt at the modest leather volume before exiting the library at a speed their mother, Jane Steward, would have referred to as their "power-lurch" pace.
"At least they're not running," she said to Sinclair.
Jane had silently watched the exchange between the head librarian and her sons from the comfort of an oversized wing chair. She never interrupted Sinclair when he was instructing the twins. "It's a daily battle to keep them from knocking into little old ladies, especially when all three parties have their noses buried in books."
"I could think of far worse transgressions," was Sinclair's reply as he placed a wooden book cradle on the large reading table. He then laid two pair of white gloves, a selection of foam wedges, and a book weight next to the cradle.
At the sight of the gloves, Jane arched a brow and whispered, "I thought those were reserved for handling books in the secret library. And for initial contact only. Didn't you say that gloves can be more dangerous than bare fingers because one can't properly feel the pages and might accidentally rip them?"
"I did," Sinclair agreed amiably. "However, your sons and I have a markedly different definition of clean. I love those boys like they were my own flesh and blood, but their stained and jagged fingernails will not come into contact with this book."
Jane couldn't argue against this precaution. The twins had just started a new school year, and after three months of reading, swimming, archery, fishing, martial arts, falconry lessons, picnics, barbecues, and bike rides into the village, they were finding the adjustment difficult. Today, for example, was a Friday afternoon leading into a long Labor Day weekend, and the twins had been home for less than ten minutes. In that short amount of time, they acted like they'd just been released from prison.
Cleanliness had never been high on their priority list, and Jane was constantly reminding her sons to wash themselves and tidy their room. Now, with their earlier bedtimes, homework, and having to wear clothes that weren't riddled with holes or covered with stains, the twins were rebelling by blatantly ignoring their personal hygiene, and today was no exception. Even the handmade soap crafted by Tammie Kota, Jane's future spa manager, couldn't inspire the boys to do more than pass their grimy hands under running water before drying them on what was inevitably a freshly laundered white towel.
When Fitz and Hem returned to the library from the men's restroom in the lobby, Sinclair offered each of them a pair of gloves.
"Are we pretending to be Mickey Mouse?" Hem asked.
Fitz stared at his gloves. "Or girls?"
The twins exchanged horrified glances.
Sinclair deigned to reply. He gazed placidly at the boys until they donned their gloves.
"Now then, I told you that this book contains a secret. I'm going to teach you how to handle a very old book so that we can examine the secret together. When we're done, I'm going to package the book, along with the other eleven volumes in the series, for shipment. The set will be sold at auction. Your mother hopes that it'll fetch enough money to pay for part of the spa construction."
Fitz's eyes widened. He turned to Jane. "Didn't you say that it'll cost thousands and thousands of dollars?"
Jane nodded. "Remember when I showed you the plans? I explained that a spa like ours has to be fancy. We're going to have treatment rooms, a relaxation space, and a boutique selling all-natural botanical products. These rooms are expensive to build, especially when you include water features and custom —"
"And people are going to get wrapped in seaweed," Fitz interrupted.
"Like sushi!" Hem chimed in giddily.
Sinclair cleared his throat and all three Stewards snapped to attention. It didn't matter that Jane was the manager of Storyton Hall Resort and technically, Sinclair's boss. Her position as manager carried little weight in the Henry James Library. The library was Sinclair's domain. In this cavernous room, with its reading tables, soft chairs, oil paintings, globes, mammoth fireplaces, and shelves upon shelves of books, only one person was in charge.
"The proper way to examine a rare book is to place it in a cradle like this," Sinclair explained to the twins. He gently transferred the book, which was about the length of his hand, to the cradle.
"What are those pieces of foam for?" Hem asked, reaching for one.
"I'm delighted you asked, Master Hemingway," Sinclair said. "Observe. When I open the cover, I meet with resistance when I get to ... here. An angle of approximately one hundred and twenty degrees."
Closing the book, he looked at his pupils. "Would you like to try?"
Both boys did. Very carefully, they took turns opening the cover.
"I think I hear a little crack," Fitz said. "Like it's telling me to stop."
Looking pleased, Sinclair gestured at the foam blocks. "You have correctly interpreted the book's needs. Would you like the honor of placing this foam on the cradle and opening the cover again?"
His face shining, Fitz shot his brother a triumphant glance before doing as Sinclair directed.
Ignoring Fitz, Hem pointed at Sinclair's hand. "Why aren't you wearing gloves?"
"Excellent question. The answer is that it's best to turn the pages with clean hands. Completely clean hands. Now. Allow me to show you the first copperplate, which is opposite the title page."
The boys flanked Sinclair and bent over the book in anticipation. Sinclair revealed the illustration, which depicted a ship in wild seas, a wooden barrel being tossed by a rogue wave, and a formidable fish.
The boys released a stream of questions.
"Is there a storm?"
"What's in the barrel?"
"How can the fish be on top of the water?"
"Who's Jonathan Swift?"
Sinclair focused on the last question. "Among other things, Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels."
The twins were advanced readers for their tender age, which was no surprise considering they'd grown up surrounded by books and book enthusiasts. And while they'd yet to conquer Gulliver's Travels, they had seen an animated film adaption of Swift's famous tale.
"How old is this?" Fitz asked in a reverent tone.
Sinclair gingerly turned pages until he came to a copperplate of a map. "One of the reasons this book is so rare is that it's part of a series published between 1703 and 1740."
"Whoa, that's old!" Hem exclaimed, after a brief pause in which he seemed to be performing calculations in his head.
"Indeed," Sinclair said. "Most owners lost some of the books in their series. Or books were damaged. It is very unusual for the entire set to be together like this. And in such excellent shape. Look at the Moroccan calfskin binding of this volume. It's in sublime condition."
Fitz, who'd seen countless examples of leather-bound books, was indifferent as to its appearance. "What's the secret?"
"Ah, the secret is actually part of the book. It's literally been glued into the binding between the end paper and the back cover." Sinclair turned to the place in question and unfolded a sheaf of paper.
The twins stared at it in confusion.
"It's hard to read," Hem complained. "The writing is so curly. Is it cursive?"
"Wait. Is this about people getting married?" Fitz's voice was laced with indignation. The twins disliked any subject pertaining to romance. They were at "that phase" of their development, as Mrs. Pimpernel, the head housekeeper, tended to say. Mrs. Hubbard, the head cook, simply referred to it as a "three-year-long case of the cooties."
Sinclair chuckled. "I'm sorry to disappoint, but yes. This is a certificate of marriage between Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson. See? Here's his signature. And hers. This third signature belongs to a man who witnessed what must have been a very small, very secret ceremony. His name is Alexander Pope. He's another famous author."
Because the boys were starting to fidget, Jane decided to add her two cents. "People have always wondered if Mr. Swift married Ms. Johnson. It's been one of history's mysteries." She grinned at her unintentional rhyme. "Mr. Swift definitely acted like he loved Ms. Johnson. He even made sure he was buried next to her. But until now, no one could prove that they were married."
Fitz was still unimpressed. "Last year, our teacher taught us about a man who went to jail for printing fake money. Can't people make fake letters too?"
"Absolutely," Jane said. "But this is the real deal. A close relative of Jonathan Swift gave these books to your great-grandfather after Mr. Swift's death. Mr. Swift's family didn't want anyone to know that he'd secretly married. For whatever reason, they believed Esther was the reason Jonathan wrote some ... well, some strange things."
"I like strange things," Hem said.
Fitz looked at him. "Me too. People think wizards are strange. That's why wizards call nonmagical people Muggles."
It was obvious to Sinclair that the twins weren't exactly captivated by the book in the cradle, so after thanking them for their attention, he told them they were free to carry on with whatever they'd been doing before they'd wandered into the library.
"Where should we put these?" Fitz asked, pulling off his gloves.
Sinclair smiled. "Why don't you keep them? All great wizards own at least one pair of gloves, don't they? For handling toxic plants and such."
After mulling this over, Fitz said, "I guess so" and tucked the gloves in his pocket.
Jane threw him a stern look. He added a hasty "thank you," which was echoed by Hem.
The clock on Sinclair's desk chimed and the boys spun on their heels. They cried "teatime!" and bolted for the door.
Jane opened her mouth to chastise her sons for running indoors, but she wasn't fast enough. They were halfway to the kitchens before she could utter a syllable.
"I can't really blame them," she said to Sinclair as he began to wrap the Jonathan Swift book in tissue paper. "Even though the official Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Walt Whitman Spa isn't until tomorrow night, Mrs. Hubbard has been cooking as if she was serving royalty since Monday."
"Our guests have certainly been delighted by the tea offerings this week," Sinclair said. Having cocooned the book in tissue paper followed by an additional layer of white kraft paper, he was now securing the valuable volume in bubble wrap.
"Undoubtedly due to all the chocolate-themed treats," Jane said. "Apparently, the arrival of the earthmover and the mountain of dirt it created has inspired Mrs. Hubbard to bake platters of treats containing one or all of the following ingredients: chocolate cookie crumbs, chocolate shavings, chocolate chips, or nuts. I guess the nuts were meant to represent rocks."
Sinclair paused in his work. "Reminds me of a certain Halloween party from three years ago. The twins created a ghastly cake featuring chocolate pudding, crushed chocolate wafers, gummy worms, and red icing."
Jane laughed. "It didn't taste as bad as it looked."
Sinclair sniffed. "I wouldn't know. I don't eat food served in a litter box."
As if summoned by the mention of an object used by millions of his fellow felines, Muffet Cat plodded into the Henry James Library.
The rotund tuxedo made a beeline for a reading chair facing the window. A sunbeam lit the cushion, and though Jane couldn't blame the cat for wanting to doze in such a cozy spot, she had to prevent him from claiming it. Storyton Hall was currently hosting a very persnickety guest who'd blow her top should she encounter Muffet Cat a second time.
Mrs. Eleanor Whartle and Muffet Cat had first met in the lobby moments after Mrs. Whartle had disembarked from one of Storyton Hall's vintage Rolls Royce sedans. Upon entering the luxurious main lobby, the powdered and perfumed octogenarian had been greeted by Butterworth, the butler. As was his tradition, Butterworth offered Mrs. Whartle a glass of champagne. However, Mrs. Whartle had the distinction of being the only guest in Storyton Hall's history to help herself to two flutes of bubbly from Butterworth's silver tray.
"I just buried my husband of thirty-eight years," she'd declared, as if she'd dug the grave herself. "After putting up with that odious man for as long as I did, I deserve his champagne too."
Butterworth had inclined his head and stoically replied, "Yes, madam."
Mrs. Whartle had drained the first glass and was raising the second glass to her mouth when Muffet Cat appeared from beneath a nearby sofa. Blinking groggily, he brushed Mrs. Whartle's calf with the length of his furry body.
This was atypical behavior for Muffet Cat. An aloof feline at best, he avoided mingling with guests unless they were dining alfresco. In that case, he made it clear that he'd like to sample choice tidbits from their plates. If a generous guest complied, the ungrateful feline would gulp down whatever morsels he'd been given and scamper off, surprising the guest with his agility, for Muffet Cat was approaching eighteen pounds.
Muffet Cat ignored most of the staff. He tolerated Jane and the boys. There was only one person he truly loved, and that person was Jane's great-aunt Octavia. Aunt Octavia was the equivalent of the dowager queen of Storyton Hall. In lieu of fur-trimmed robes, she wore voluminous housedresses in bold colors and wild designs and carried a bejeweled walking stick. Aunt Octavia's footwear was also unique. Following her diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, she'd taken to wearing orthopedic Mary Janes that produced a unique squeaking sound when the rubber soles met the lobby's polished marble floor tiles.
Mrs. Whartle's orthopedic shoes were identical to Aunt Octavia's, so it was no wonder that Muffet Cat mistook her for his favorite human. Not only that, but both women had a similar build. To Muffet Cat, Mrs. Whartle's calf looked just like Aunt Octavia's. Therefore, he assumed that if he rubbed said calf, he'd receive a treat.
Instead of pulling a piece of dried chicken or salmon from her pocket, Mrs. Whartle had screamed and hurled her champagne flute at Muffet Cat.
The coddled feline fled up the main staircase in a streak of black and white fur. When he reached the landing, he paused to cast a menacing glare down at the creature who'd splattered his coat with a foul-smelling liquid.
The broken champagne flute had been cleaned up within seconds, and Butterworth had apologized to Mrs. Whartle for the distress Muffet Cat's abrupt appearance had caused. However, it took several complimentary cocktails to finally appease her. Anyone within shouting distance of the Ian Fleming Lounge could hear Mrs. Whartle's tale of the wild animal in the lobby that had mercilessly attacked an old lady.
When Jane had phoned her room that evening in an attempt to repair the damage, Mrs. Whartle had made it very plain that she expected Muffet Cat to be banished from the house and grounds until the conclusion of her visit.
"I'll have her banished!" Great-Aunt Octavia had bellowed the following morning when Jane repeated the conversation she'd had with their flustered guest.
Great-Uncle Aloysius had pushed his fishing hat higher on his brow and murmured soothingly, "There, there, dear. Not everyone shares your affection for Muffet Cat."
"If that woman knew what a traumatic kittenhood that poor animal endured, she might not be so cold-hearted," Aunt Octavia had said. "I'm going to invite her to tea and tell her the moving tale of how Muffet Cat came to join our family."
Mrs. Whartle had thoroughly enjoyed the lavish tea, especially since it hadn't cost her a penny, but she'd yawned widely and often during Aunt Octavia's theatrical narrative of the stormy night when Muffet Cat had appeared on the doorstep, half drowned and no bigger than a man's fist. Mrs. Whartle didn't even crack a smile when Aunt Octavia explained that he'd been named Muffet Cat because everyone assumed that he was a she until the vet made his gender clear.