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A Shore Thing

Paperback
$19.00 US
0"W x 0"H x 0"D   | 10 oz | 24 per carton
On sale Jun 18, 2024 | 368 Pages | 978-0-593-54972-8
A delightfully queer Victorian love story, featuring a boldly brash trans hero, the beguiling botanist who captures his heart, and a buoyant bicycle race by the British seaside — from the author of The Duke Undone.

Former painter and unreformed rake Kit Griffith is forging a new life in Cornwall, choosing freedom over an identity that didn't fit. He knew that leaving his Sisterhood of women artists might mean forfeiting artistic community forever. He didn’t realize he would lose his ability to paint altogether. Luckily, he has other talents. Why not devote himself to selling bicycles and trysting with the holidaymakers?

Enter Muriel Pendrake, the feisty New-York-bound botanist who has come to St. Ives to commission Kit for illustrations of British seaweeds. Kit shouldn’t accept Muriel’s offer, but he must enlist her help to prove to an all-male cycling club that women can ride as well as men. And she won't agree unless he gives her what she wants. Maybe that's exactly the challenge he needs.

As Kit and Muriel spend their days cycling together, their desire begins to burn with the heat of the summer sun. But are they pedaling toward something impossible? The past is bound to catch up to them, and at the season’s end, their paths will diverge. With only their hearts as guides, Kit and Muriel must decide if they’re willing to race into the unknown for the adventure of a lifetime.
"With sparkling wit and a captivating love story, A Shore Thing is a delightful escape to the Cornish seaside with characters I rooted for and desperately wanted to befriend. Lowell is at the top of her game with this gorgeous queer historical romance.”
Mae Marvel, author of Everyone I Kissed Since You Got Famous

“Lowell confronts Victorian attitudes around sex, gender, and love head on, resulting in some daker moments, but the tender, supportive, and joyful dynamic that emerges between Kit and Muriel keeps things heartfelt and hopeful. It’s not just that their love story offsets the sadder moments; the sadder moments make their love story all the more beautiful. This is a triumph.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for the novels of Joanna Lowell

“I loved The Duke Undone and so will my readers!”
—Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author of My Last Duchess

“Lushly dark, riddled with secrets, and seductive….Lowell’s writing oozes a sense of place. [The] sense of authenticity never falters, making this the most Victorian of romance novels.”
Entertainment Weekly

“A beautiful blend of seductive suspense and heart-tugging romance that I could not put down. Romance fans should make room for this author on their keeper shelves!”
—Lyssa Kay Adams, USA Today bestselling author of Crazy, Stupid Bromance
 
"Compelling and exquisitely crafted, The Runaway Duchess is a beautiful romance that enchants from the very first page. Lowell's wit, sumptuous imagery, and vivid, endearing characters combine to make this a swooningly gorgeous read. Highly recommended."
—India Holton, Author of The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

“Joanna Lowell's skillful storytelling and dazzling characters create one of the most exciting new voices in historical romance today.”
—Julia London, New York Times bestselling author of A Princess by Christmas
 
"A charming romance with an atypical heroine and a to-die-for (and hot!) hero in this unique tale of a duke and a struggling artist in Victorian London.”
—Jennifer Ashley, New York Times bestselling author of The Stolen Mackenzie Bride

“I really loved this book—in fact, I couldn't put it down. It's a fabulous feast of a story that plunges you into the Victorian era with all its levels and complications — into the art world and among aristocrats and slum-dwellers. There's tension, adventure, derring-do, a fight against corruption on several levels, a rich cast of characters and a hero and heroine to admire and cheer for. All in all, a rich and heartwarming historical romance. Highly recommended.”
—Anne Gracie, National bestselling author of The Rake's Daughter

“Lowell’s finely wrought characters don’t have it easy when it comes to navigating restrictive Victorian society, but even their most outrageous actions ring true. Readers will be swept away by this entrancing, intelligent romance.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“It’s a lush, sensual and outstanding romance that makes the heart ache in the very best way.”
BookPage (Starred Review)

"Impeccably researched, Lowell's latest emphasizes justice. This love story tackles weighty issues but remains suspenseful and spellbinding."
Library Journal (Starred Review)

“A delight…readers are rewarded with multidimensional characters and an unusual and engrossing love story."
Booklist

"Lowell’s prose is vivid and evocative, and issues such as class inequity, women’s rights, and alcohol addiction complement the intense on-page evolution of the love story...those looking for a happy-ever-after for complex and passionate characters will be very satisfied here. A new voice in historical romance that will keep readers riveted."
Kirkus
© Mir Yarfitz
Joanna Lowell lives among the fig trees in North Carolina, where she teaches in the English department at Wake Forest University. When she's not writing historical romance, she writes collections and novels as Joanna Ruocco. Those books include Dan, Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith, The Week, and Field Glass, co-authored with Joanna Howard. View titles by Joanna Lowell
1

1888

St. Ives, Cornwall

"Seaweed wasn't my first choice either."

Muriel said it with an air of apology, wobbling slightly on the uneven rock, and cast a regretful glance into the gleaming pool of water. Seaweed wasn't her first choice, most definitely not the botanical topic about which she'd prefer to lecture upon arrival in New York. But marine plants were strikingly beautiful, undulating ruby fronds and green silk frills and tiny tufts of lilac. She could watch them float for hours.

Apparently not without a full-scale mutiny on the part of her oldest friend. James had assumed the desperate look of a man about to do something unspeakably rash. Despite his wideawake hat, his face showed signs of sunburn and his eyes were glazed.

"We'll head back to the hotel," she said. "We can climb up to the cliff path and take the long way round. It's shadier."

"The long way round." James spoke in a disbelieving whisper. "My lips are dry, or I'd laugh."

He lifted his arm, and, with it, the gutta-percha-lined basket filled to the brim with her specimens. She'd been overenthusiastic. Muriel could admit that now. This was their first day in St. Ives, after all. She might have foregone collecting and idled away the morning. She and James could have sat in those wicker beehive chairs on the hotel terrace and played cribbage and caught up more thoroughly on everything they'd missed in each other's lives over the last three years. Instead, she'd all but dragged him out of bed and onto the shore for a gruelingly prolonged march in unforgiving footwear. She'd gotten him soaked, leading him into the waves, so she could hook promising algae with a stick. And then she'd led him farther and farther away from the other holidaymakers, and lost track of time, hovering over the tide pools, while he crisped in the noonday sun, holding her basket.

"Seawater." His voice sounded stronger and more ominous. "Do you know the poem? Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

"Sounds familiar." She gave him a bright smile. He knew she wasn't much for poetry.

"Familiar?" His lips weren't too dry for a rather exaggerated frown. "Try apropos."

She kept smiling. She had meant to pack a few provisions, but he'd come down so late to the dining room, and the tide had already ebbed, and her haste made her forgetful. Seaweed spoiled so quickly.

"Here." She handed him another jar, seawater, yes, and a rosy little Callithamnion. He tucked the jar into the basket, where it clinked against the others-a reproachful clink.

"James," she attempted. "I wish I'd brought tea and biscuits. Particularly because I'm the reason we missed luncheon." Contrite, she reached for the India rubber bag at her waist. "I collected an edible species. If you're quite famished, you could-"

"Good Lord." He did laugh. "You promised me a seaside holiday. And here I am, half-expired on the least hospitable stretch of shore for miles, and you're suggesting I revive myself with a mouthful of kelp."

"Not kelp. Irish moss. It's very good, as a jelly."

"I believe it's chiefly used as a mattress stuffing."

"Shall I pile some in the shade of the cliff, then?" She sniffed. "You can lie down and take your rest."

He looked at her darkly. "How many times am I going to let you trick me into this kind of situation?"

"I don't know." She felt a little burst of relief. She'd worried for a moment that she really had pushed him too hard, but, while his sunburn was real, she could tell now that his outrage was, as usual, largely an act.

"I suspect we'll go on like this," she added, "until you stop secretly loving it." She closed up her bag-Irish moss was absolutely punishing raw and worse unrinsed-and crossed her arms, arching her brows at him.

"Blast," he said, but without pathos. He enjoyed complaining in her company, perhaps because he was called upon to display unflappable calm and stern decision in everyone else's. Perhaps because they'd played together as children and never outgrew their formative dynamic.

"We don't have to go the long way round," she conceded, turning to look in the direction from whence they came. The waters of the bay were impossibly blue, edged with golden sands. Striped tents dotted the main beach, and the narrow, crowded houses of St. Ives rose above.

She turned back to James, who was knuckling sweat from his brow, expression resigned. "I simply thought it might be better," she explained. "More exercise, less sun. Isn't it the sun you find objectionable?"

"The sun objects to me." James sighed. "We had a falling-out of sorts. Haven't seen much of each other."

Muriel's gaze sharpened as she studied him. James had always been lean, with a thin, strong-boned face, all nose and cheekbones. His features fit him now. He was handsomer at six and thirty than he had been at sixteen. The new silver streak in his dark hair struck her as the epitome of dashing. But he'd grown gaunt and pallid, and his broad shoulders stooped.

"You and the sun are going to reconcile." She nodded firmly. "That's why I invited you."

"Like hell it is." James tilted back his head, surveying the steep slope up to the headland, the tumbled slates and scrubby vegetation. "You wanted an assistant."

"Yes, well, I could have asked someone else." A few of her botanical friends had even offered to make the trip. Any one of them could have provided more substantial assistance when it came to the collection and classification of British seaweeds. But she'd lived so many years abroad, traveling in Asia on commissions from plant nurseries and Kew Gardens, that those friends existed for her most fully on paper, as passionate but impersonal correspondents, their letters filled with taxonomies, enclosing seeds rather than sentiments.

James was still the person she knew best, the person who mattered most to her. She'd wanted an assistant, but she'd also wanted to feel, for these weeks, as though she were home. Home wasn't Hampshire, not anymore, but it wasn't Hong Kong either. It wasn't any place. It was this, if it was anything-squabbling with James, a stone in her boot, and a sudden lump in her throat.

"I'm happy we're here," she said. "You're happy we're here too."

"Humph." He grunted but didn't deny it. How could he? Some aspect of his London life was whittling him down, visibly.

James was a brain surgeon. Perhaps it was the long shifts in the operating theater? Horrors encountered during experimental investigations into neural tissue? Patients lost? Competition with colleagues?

Questions she'd held herself back from asking formed suddenly on her tongue. Before she'd settled on the right one, he creased his forehead and brushed past her.

"Upsy-daisy," he muttered, and started for the slope, picking his way slowly. Within moments, she'd outpaced him and was charting their course, showing admirable self-restraint as she passed an unusual sedge.

"Do you know there's no hospital in St. Ives?" James called up from below. "Mr. Trevaskis told me."

"That's why you were up until dawn?" she called back. "You cornered the hotel manager and interviewed him regarding the local medical facilities?"

"Lack of facilities. There's a general practitioner, but that's hardly sufficient. Down by the harbor, people live cramped as the pilchards in their barrels. Visitors have no idea. And then there are the mining accidents up on the cliffs."

The way became steeper, and she had to concentrate, proceeding upward via a series of ledges.

She was panting slightly as she responded. "You have enough people to worry about in London. This is a holiday. No operating on the fishermen."

"Your trunk is stuffed with microscopes, chisels, and pickle jars. And you're sniping at me because I brought my surgical bag. The hypocrisy."

"The lies. You brought your surgical bag! You swore you wouldn't."

"You swore you wouldn't devote thirty-six hours a day to botany."

"I'm not." She huffed hard enough to blow a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Obviously. That would be impossible."

"You would if you could, which is my point. Muriel." His tone made her stop short and face him.

"This doesn't feel like a holiday," he said. "If you're botanizing, I'm operating. Fair's fair."

She crossed her arms. "You do manage to aggravate me thirty-six hours of the day. Somehow that is possible."

"Botanize all you want." He looked suddenly sincere. "But promise me you will engage in one impulsive, thrilling, holiday-worthy activity before we leave St. Ives."

She opened her mouth.

"That doesn't involve plants," he added.

She scowled at him and began to climb again, increasing her pace.

"I see where this is going." She threw the words over her shoulder. "And you're not convincing me."

"Mr. Trevaskis is a bachelor. Rather handsome, wouldn't you say?"

"He's all yours."

"You are the soul of generosity."

She heard a rock clatter down the slope as James started after her.

"Luckily, bachelors are abundant," he continued. "The beach is crawling with them."

"I'm not here to collect bachelors."

"Pity."

A nearby gull, soaring up on the breeze, shrieked in emphasis, and Muriel gave it a dirty look.

"At this point, I'm most likely to do something impulsive to you." She twisted to direct her comment down to James. "And you won't enjoy it."

"At this point, I'm most likely to operate on myself as well." James sighed. "After I tumble down this bloody cliff."

She twisted back around. "We're almost to the top. I can see a few easels." She was wearing her collecting outfit, an indecorously short serge dress, the hem hitting well above the ankle, but even so, she had to hike her skirts for this last effort.

"Easels!" James's shout sounded less breathless than she might have expected. But then, he was a natural athlete, however weakened his state. "You claimed this route was better because we'd have more shade. But in fact, you're hoping to find your artistic prodigy, your transcendent genius, the indispensable collaborator upon whom your stratagem depends."

She made a face. James was right. She did harbor the foolish, overeager hope that she'd stumble upon the artist she'd come to St. Ives to commission. There was no need to stumble upon him-or her, as the case might be. Mr. Bamfylde would supply the relevant information when they met for tea on Monday, and she'd act upon it promptly.

But neither was there need for James to mock her with her own tipsy descriptions-he had nefarious taste in sherry-so she ignored him, aided by the convenient excuse of a stitch in her side. Then she was cresting the slope, catching her breath, the green sweeping out in front of her, the grassy patchwork of farmland divided by hedges. A picnicking couple was strolling along the path. The gentleman shot her a startled look that veered swiftly into disapproval.

"How do you do?" She took her hand from her side and waved.

The gentleman thinned his lips and dipped his chin, a minimal motion, due to scantness of enthusiasm, and also, scantness of chin.

"George." The lady peered around him. "Tell me that shocking-looking woman didn't just pop up over the side of the cliff."

"It appears she did." George spoke out of the side of his mouth, but his voice carried as clearly as the lady's. "Keep walking, Margaret."

I don't bite, offered Muriel, but only in her head, because truly, what was the point? She eyed George's basket, which contained a sweating bottle and several wrapped parcels, sandwiches or strawberry tarts. Begging a glass of wine for James was out of the question.

The couple walked on. There were three artists in the near vicinity, easels facing the bay. Not one turned his head to glance in Muriel's direction.

Monday. It wasn't so long to wait.

Nonetheless, she drifted toward the nearest artist, tall and bearded, kneeling before his easel, head jerking as he shifted focus between the scenery and his canvas.

Even more foolish-this notion that she'd recognize her transcendent genius by the work itself. She'd seen but one example! But as she peeked at the bearded man's picture, she dismissed him instantly as a possible candidate.

The picture was competent, surely, but bland. It left her entirely unmoved.

Whereas she'd shivered at the sight of the genius's watercolor, a strange heat building behind her eyes, despite the unprepossessing quality of the encounter. She'd been in Pimlico visiting a colleague, sipping a cup of Miss Bamfylde's botanically complex but unpalatable tisane, when she'd spied the watercolor hanging crookedly on the soot-streaked plaster wall, surrounded by newspaper clippings.

It was unsigned, small, a study of a columbine, the pink flower nearly translucent, glowing with the light that fed its cells. Somehow the genius had combined unstinting morphological accuracy with the ineffable mystery of being.

As art, as science-she'd never seen its equal.

She'd known instantly that the person who'd painted it was the one, the guarantor of her lecture's success.

The bearded man coughed-not at her-but she gave a guilty start and retreated.

And that's when she saw it.

She blinked, momentarily uncertain, wondering if she'd made too little of her own thirst, if mild dehydration could produce such a vision.

But no. She was staring at a columbine. It grew on the other side of the path, close to a low stone wall. Among its green leaflets, a single blossom nodded in the breeze, pale blue petals, deep blue sepals and spurs.

Columbines were plentiful in Cornwall. But they flowered in the spring, never in August.

Her heart flipped in her chest.

Nature was indifferent. Violent thunderstorms had nothing to do with the fury of the gods, just as a flower blooming out of time and place didn't mean that fate smiled upon her.

But this unseasonable bloom-she felt its import like a bolt from the heavens.

Her lecture would be a triumph.

She'd make a home in Manhattan, a real home, at last.

And live happily ever after.

Laughable, and yet she stepped toward the columbine, stepped into the path, and a bell began to ring.

For an instant, the chimes confused her, merging with the giddy music singing in her blood. By the time she realized a bicycle was bearing down upon her, it was too late. She stood rooted to the spot. Luckily, the rider's reflexes were quicker. He turned his handlebars sharply, and crashed, not into her, but into the wall. The bicycle stopped, but he continued on, his body an arc against the sky, before he dropped out of view.

About

A delightfully queer Victorian love story, featuring a boldly brash trans hero, the beguiling botanist who captures his heart, and a buoyant bicycle race by the British seaside — from the author of The Duke Undone.

Former painter and unreformed rake Kit Griffith is forging a new life in Cornwall, choosing freedom over an identity that didn't fit. He knew that leaving his Sisterhood of women artists might mean forfeiting artistic community forever. He didn’t realize he would lose his ability to paint altogether. Luckily, he has other talents. Why not devote himself to selling bicycles and trysting with the holidaymakers?

Enter Muriel Pendrake, the feisty New-York-bound botanist who has come to St. Ives to commission Kit for illustrations of British seaweeds. Kit shouldn’t accept Muriel’s offer, but he must enlist her help to prove to an all-male cycling club that women can ride as well as men. And she won't agree unless he gives her what she wants. Maybe that's exactly the challenge he needs.

As Kit and Muriel spend their days cycling together, their desire begins to burn with the heat of the summer sun. But are they pedaling toward something impossible? The past is bound to catch up to them, and at the season’s end, their paths will diverge. With only their hearts as guides, Kit and Muriel must decide if they’re willing to race into the unknown for the adventure of a lifetime.

Praise

"With sparkling wit and a captivating love story, A Shore Thing is a delightful escape to the Cornish seaside with characters I rooted for and desperately wanted to befriend. Lowell is at the top of her game with this gorgeous queer historical romance.”
Mae Marvel, author of Everyone I Kissed Since You Got Famous

“Lowell confronts Victorian attitudes around sex, gender, and love head on, resulting in some daker moments, but the tender, supportive, and joyful dynamic that emerges between Kit and Muriel keeps things heartfelt and hopeful. It’s not just that their love story offsets the sadder moments; the sadder moments make their love story all the more beautiful. This is a triumph.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for the novels of Joanna Lowell

“I loved The Duke Undone and so will my readers!”
—Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author of My Last Duchess

“Lushly dark, riddled with secrets, and seductive….Lowell’s writing oozes a sense of place. [The] sense of authenticity never falters, making this the most Victorian of romance novels.”
Entertainment Weekly

“A beautiful blend of seductive suspense and heart-tugging romance that I could not put down. Romance fans should make room for this author on their keeper shelves!”
—Lyssa Kay Adams, USA Today bestselling author of Crazy, Stupid Bromance
 
"Compelling and exquisitely crafted, The Runaway Duchess is a beautiful romance that enchants from the very first page. Lowell's wit, sumptuous imagery, and vivid, endearing characters combine to make this a swooningly gorgeous read. Highly recommended."
—India Holton, Author of The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

“Joanna Lowell's skillful storytelling and dazzling characters create one of the most exciting new voices in historical romance today.”
—Julia London, New York Times bestselling author of A Princess by Christmas
 
"A charming romance with an atypical heroine and a to-die-for (and hot!) hero in this unique tale of a duke and a struggling artist in Victorian London.”
—Jennifer Ashley, New York Times bestselling author of The Stolen Mackenzie Bride

“I really loved this book—in fact, I couldn't put it down. It's a fabulous feast of a story that plunges you into the Victorian era with all its levels and complications — into the art world and among aristocrats and slum-dwellers. There's tension, adventure, derring-do, a fight against corruption on several levels, a rich cast of characters and a hero and heroine to admire and cheer for. All in all, a rich and heartwarming historical romance. Highly recommended.”
—Anne Gracie, National bestselling author of The Rake's Daughter

“Lowell’s finely wrought characters don’t have it easy when it comes to navigating restrictive Victorian society, but even their most outrageous actions ring true. Readers will be swept away by this entrancing, intelligent romance.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“It’s a lush, sensual and outstanding romance that makes the heart ache in the very best way.”
BookPage (Starred Review)

"Impeccably researched, Lowell's latest emphasizes justice. This love story tackles weighty issues but remains suspenseful and spellbinding."
Library Journal (Starred Review)

“A delight…readers are rewarded with multidimensional characters and an unusual and engrossing love story."
Booklist

"Lowell’s prose is vivid and evocative, and issues such as class inequity, women’s rights, and alcohol addiction complement the intense on-page evolution of the love story...those looking for a happy-ever-after for complex and passionate characters will be very satisfied here. A new voice in historical romance that will keep readers riveted."
Kirkus

Author

© Mir Yarfitz
Joanna Lowell lives among the fig trees in North Carolina, where she teaches in the English department at Wake Forest University. When she's not writing historical romance, she writes collections and novels as Joanna Ruocco. Those books include Dan, Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith, The Week, and Field Glass, co-authored with Joanna Howard. View titles by Joanna Lowell

Excerpt

1

1888

St. Ives, Cornwall

"Seaweed wasn't my first choice either."

Muriel said it with an air of apology, wobbling slightly on the uneven rock, and cast a regretful glance into the gleaming pool of water. Seaweed wasn't her first choice, most definitely not the botanical topic about which she'd prefer to lecture upon arrival in New York. But marine plants were strikingly beautiful, undulating ruby fronds and green silk frills and tiny tufts of lilac. She could watch them float for hours.

Apparently not without a full-scale mutiny on the part of her oldest friend. James had assumed the desperate look of a man about to do something unspeakably rash. Despite his wideawake hat, his face showed signs of sunburn and his eyes were glazed.

"We'll head back to the hotel," she said. "We can climb up to the cliff path and take the long way round. It's shadier."

"The long way round." James spoke in a disbelieving whisper. "My lips are dry, or I'd laugh."

He lifted his arm, and, with it, the gutta-percha-lined basket filled to the brim with her specimens. She'd been overenthusiastic. Muriel could admit that now. This was their first day in St. Ives, after all. She might have foregone collecting and idled away the morning. She and James could have sat in those wicker beehive chairs on the hotel terrace and played cribbage and caught up more thoroughly on everything they'd missed in each other's lives over the last three years. Instead, she'd all but dragged him out of bed and onto the shore for a gruelingly prolonged march in unforgiving footwear. She'd gotten him soaked, leading him into the waves, so she could hook promising algae with a stick. And then she'd led him farther and farther away from the other holidaymakers, and lost track of time, hovering over the tide pools, while he crisped in the noonday sun, holding her basket.

"Seawater." His voice sounded stronger and more ominous. "Do you know the poem? Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

"Sounds familiar." She gave him a bright smile. He knew she wasn't much for poetry.

"Familiar?" His lips weren't too dry for a rather exaggerated frown. "Try apropos."

She kept smiling. She had meant to pack a few provisions, but he'd come down so late to the dining room, and the tide had already ebbed, and her haste made her forgetful. Seaweed spoiled so quickly.

"Here." She handed him another jar, seawater, yes, and a rosy little Callithamnion. He tucked the jar into the basket, where it clinked against the others-a reproachful clink.

"James," she attempted. "I wish I'd brought tea and biscuits. Particularly because I'm the reason we missed luncheon." Contrite, she reached for the India rubber bag at her waist. "I collected an edible species. If you're quite famished, you could-"

"Good Lord." He did laugh. "You promised me a seaside holiday. And here I am, half-expired on the least hospitable stretch of shore for miles, and you're suggesting I revive myself with a mouthful of kelp."

"Not kelp. Irish moss. It's very good, as a jelly."

"I believe it's chiefly used as a mattress stuffing."

"Shall I pile some in the shade of the cliff, then?" She sniffed. "You can lie down and take your rest."

He looked at her darkly. "How many times am I going to let you trick me into this kind of situation?"

"I don't know." She felt a little burst of relief. She'd worried for a moment that she really had pushed him too hard, but, while his sunburn was real, she could tell now that his outrage was, as usual, largely an act.

"I suspect we'll go on like this," she added, "until you stop secretly loving it." She closed up her bag-Irish moss was absolutely punishing raw and worse unrinsed-and crossed her arms, arching her brows at him.

"Blast," he said, but without pathos. He enjoyed complaining in her company, perhaps because he was called upon to display unflappable calm and stern decision in everyone else's. Perhaps because they'd played together as children and never outgrew their formative dynamic.

"We don't have to go the long way round," she conceded, turning to look in the direction from whence they came. The waters of the bay were impossibly blue, edged with golden sands. Striped tents dotted the main beach, and the narrow, crowded houses of St. Ives rose above.

She turned back to James, who was knuckling sweat from his brow, expression resigned. "I simply thought it might be better," she explained. "More exercise, less sun. Isn't it the sun you find objectionable?"

"The sun objects to me." James sighed. "We had a falling-out of sorts. Haven't seen much of each other."

Muriel's gaze sharpened as she studied him. James had always been lean, with a thin, strong-boned face, all nose and cheekbones. His features fit him now. He was handsomer at six and thirty than he had been at sixteen. The new silver streak in his dark hair struck her as the epitome of dashing. But he'd grown gaunt and pallid, and his broad shoulders stooped.

"You and the sun are going to reconcile." She nodded firmly. "That's why I invited you."

"Like hell it is." James tilted back his head, surveying the steep slope up to the headland, the tumbled slates and scrubby vegetation. "You wanted an assistant."

"Yes, well, I could have asked someone else." A few of her botanical friends had even offered to make the trip. Any one of them could have provided more substantial assistance when it came to the collection and classification of British seaweeds. But she'd lived so many years abroad, traveling in Asia on commissions from plant nurseries and Kew Gardens, that those friends existed for her most fully on paper, as passionate but impersonal correspondents, their letters filled with taxonomies, enclosing seeds rather than sentiments.

James was still the person she knew best, the person who mattered most to her. She'd wanted an assistant, but she'd also wanted to feel, for these weeks, as though she were home. Home wasn't Hampshire, not anymore, but it wasn't Hong Kong either. It wasn't any place. It was this, if it was anything-squabbling with James, a stone in her boot, and a sudden lump in her throat.

"I'm happy we're here," she said. "You're happy we're here too."

"Humph." He grunted but didn't deny it. How could he? Some aspect of his London life was whittling him down, visibly.

James was a brain surgeon. Perhaps it was the long shifts in the operating theater? Horrors encountered during experimental investigations into neural tissue? Patients lost? Competition with colleagues?

Questions she'd held herself back from asking formed suddenly on her tongue. Before she'd settled on the right one, he creased his forehead and brushed past her.

"Upsy-daisy," he muttered, and started for the slope, picking his way slowly. Within moments, she'd outpaced him and was charting their course, showing admirable self-restraint as she passed an unusual sedge.

"Do you know there's no hospital in St. Ives?" James called up from below. "Mr. Trevaskis told me."

"That's why you were up until dawn?" she called back. "You cornered the hotel manager and interviewed him regarding the local medical facilities?"

"Lack of facilities. There's a general practitioner, but that's hardly sufficient. Down by the harbor, people live cramped as the pilchards in their barrels. Visitors have no idea. And then there are the mining accidents up on the cliffs."

The way became steeper, and she had to concentrate, proceeding upward via a series of ledges.

She was panting slightly as she responded. "You have enough people to worry about in London. This is a holiday. No operating on the fishermen."

"Your trunk is stuffed with microscopes, chisels, and pickle jars. And you're sniping at me because I brought my surgical bag. The hypocrisy."

"The lies. You brought your surgical bag! You swore you wouldn't."

"You swore you wouldn't devote thirty-six hours a day to botany."

"I'm not." She huffed hard enough to blow a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Obviously. That would be impossible."

"You would if you could, which is my point. Muriel." His tone made her stop short and face him.

"This doesn't feel like a holiday," he said. "If you're botanizing, I'm operating. Fair's fair."

She crossed her arms. "You do manage to aggravate me thirty-six hours of the day. Somehow that is possible."

"Botanize all you want." He looked suddenly sincere. "But promise me you will engage in one impulsive, thrilling, holiday-worthy activity before we leave St. Ives."

She opened her mouth.

"That doesn't involve plants," he added.

She scowled at him and began to climb again, increasing her pace.

"I see where this is going." She threw the words over her shoulder. "And you're not convincing me."

"Mr. Trevaskis is a bachelor. Rather handsome, wouldn't you say?"

"He's all yours."

"You are the soul of generosity."

She heard a rock clatter down the slope as James started after her.

"Luckily, bachelors are abundant," he continued. "The beach is crawling with them."

"I'm not here to collect bachelors."

"Pity."

A nearby gull, soaring up on the breeze, shrieked in emphasis, and Muriel gave it a dirty look.

"At this point, I'm most likely to do something impulsive to you." She twisted to direct her comment down to James. "And you won't enjoy it."

"At this point, I'm most likely to operate on myself as well." James sighed. "After I tumble down this bloody cliff."

She twisted back around. "We're almost to the top. I can see a few easels." She was wearing her collecting outfit, an indecorously short serge dress, the hem hitting well above the ankle, but even so, she had to hike her skirts for this last effort.

"Easels!" James's shout sounded less breathless than she might have expected. But then, he was a natural athlete, however weakened his state. "You claimed this route was better because we'd have more shade. But in fact, you're hoping to find your artistic prodigy, your transcendent genius, the indispensable collaborator upon whom your stratagem depends."

She made a face. James was right. She did harbor the foolish, overeager hope that she'd stumble upon the artist she'd come to St. Ives to commission. There was no need to stumble upon him-or her, as the case might be. Mr. Bamfylde would supply the relevant information when they met for tea on Monday, and she'd act upon it promptly.

But neither was there need for James to mock her with her own tipsy descriptions-he had nefarious taste in sherry-so she ignored him, aided by the convenient excuse of a stitch in her side. Then she was cresting the slope, catching her breath, the green sweeping out in front of her, the grassy patchwork of farmland divided by hedges. A picnicking couple was strolling along the path. The gentleman shot her a startled look that veered swiftly into disapproval.

"How do you do?" She took her hand from her side and waved.

The gentleman thinned his lips and dipped his chin, a minimal motion, due to scantness of enthusiasm, and also, scantness of chin.

"George." The lady peered around him. "Tell me that shocking-looking woman didn't just pop up over the side of the cliff."

"It appears she did." George spoke out of the side of his mouth, but his voice carried as clearly as the lady's. "Keep walking, Margaret."

I don't bite, offered Muriel, but only in her head, because truly, what was the point? She eyed George's basket, which contained a sweating bottle and several wrapped parcels, sandwiches or strawberry tarts. Begging a glass of wine for James was out of the question.

The couple walked on. There were three artists in the near vicinity, easels facing the bay. Not one turned his head to glance in Muriel's direction.

Monday. It wasn't so long to wait.

Nonetheless, she drifted toward the nearest artist, tall and bearded, kneeling before his easel, head jerking as he shifted focus between the scenery and his canvas.

Even more foolish-this notion that she'd recognize her transcendent genius by the work itself. She'd seen but one example! But as she peeked at the bearded man's picture, she dismissed him instantly as a possible candidate.

The picture was competent, surely, but bland. It left her entirely unmoved.

Whereas she'd shivered at the sight of the genius's watercolor, a strange heat building behind her eyes, despite the unprepossessing quality of the encounter. She'd been in Pimlico visiting a colleague, sipping a cup of Miss Bamfylde's botanically complex but unpalatable tisane, when she'd spied the watercolor hanging crookedly on the soot-streaked plaster wall, surrounded by newspaper clippings.

It was unsigned, small, a study of a columbine, the pink flower nearly translucent, glowing with the light that fed its cells. Somehow the genius had combined unstinting morphological accuracy with the ineffable mystery of being.

As art, as science-she'd never seen its equal.

She'd known instantly that the person who'd painted it was the one, the guarantor of her lecture's success.

The bearded man coughed-not at her-but she gave a guilty start and retreated.

And that's when she saw it.

She blinked, momentarily uncertain, wondering if she'd made too little of her own thirst, if mild dehydration could produce such a vision.

But no. She was staring at a columbine. It grew on the other side of the path, close to a low stone wall. Among its green leaflets, a single blossom nodded in the breeze, pale blue petals, deep blue sepals and spurs.

Columbines were plentiful in Cornwall. But they flowered in the spring, never in August.

Her heart flipped in her chest.

Nature was indifferent. Violent thunderstorms had nothing to do with the fury of the gods, just as a flower blooming out of time and place didn't mean that fate smiled upon her.

But this unseasonable bloom-she felt its import like a bolt from the heavens.

Her lecture would be a triumph.

She'd make a home in Manhattan, a real home, at last.

And live happily ever after.

Laughable, and yet she stepped toward the columbine, stepped into the path, and a bell began to ring.

For an instant, the chimes confused her, merging with the giddy music singing in her blood. By the time she realized a bicycle was bearing down upon her, it was too late. She stood rooted to the spot. Luckily, the rider's reflexes were quicker. He turned his handlebars sharply, and crashed, not into her, but into the wall. The bicycle stopped, but he continued on, his body an arc against the sky, before he dropped out of view.