When She Was Wicked

( 19 )

Overview

SOME RULES SIMPLY BEG TO BE BROKEN

A dressmaker in London's busiest shop, Miss Anabelle Honeycote overhears the ton's steamiest secrets-and (occasionally) uses them to her advantage. It isn't something she's proud of, but the reluctant blackmailer needs the money to care for her gravely ill mother. To make up for her misdeeds, Anabelle keeps...

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When She Was Wicked

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Overview

SOME RULES SIMPLY BEG TO BE BROKEN

A dressmaker in London's busiest shop, Miss Anabelle Honeycote overhears the ton's steamiest secrets-and (occasionally) uses them to her advantage. It isn't something she's proud of, but the reluctant blackmailer needs the money to care for her gravely ill mother. To make up for her misdeeds, Anabelle keeps to a firm set of rules:

Never request payment from someone who cannot afford it.

Never reveal the secrets of a paying client.

Never enter into any form of social interaction with a client.

Her list keeps her (somewhat) honest-until she encounters Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford.

Not only does Owen nip Anabelle's extortion plans in the bud, the devilishly handsome Duke soon has the sexy seamstress dreaming of more than silks and satins. With Owen Anabelle enjoys pleasures she never imagined. . . until a scandal from the past resurfaces. Now her rules could mean his family's ruin. Owen's searing kisses carry the promise of passion, but how will he react when Anabelle's most devastating secret is finally revealed?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Seamstress Annabelle Honeycote has a secret. In fact, she has several, and she keeps them to herself for a small fee, following a strict code of “Nevers” to keep her blackmail schemes in check. When she targets handsome Owen Sherbourne, the duke of Huntford, her plans fail spectacularly. Owen is captivated by the beguiling extortionist, and rather than turn her over to authorities, he insists she create new wardrobes for his two sisters, feisty Olivia and mute Rose. As the days pass, Annabelle becomes closer to the sisters and falls deeply in love with Owen. Soon, the secrets she promised to keep may have to be revealed to save the new family she’s come to adore. Sensual and solid, this debut is a story demanding to be read. The characters are believable and relatable, and Barton smartly blends issues of morality and Regency-era social class with passion and excitement. (Feb.)
RT Book Reviews
"4 stars! Delightfully smart, fun, fast-paced and just different enough for readers to take note of Barton's charming voice, this novel is filled with wry humor and compassion intrigues readers. The intrepid heroine, arrogant hero, memorable secondary characters and the colorful depiction of the era add to the reading enjoyment"
harlequinjunkie.com
"Stunning and heart melting...When She Was Wicked is a beautifully written regency Romance that I fell deeply in love with! Anne Barton has succeeded in writing the perfect debut. This is a must read that you do not want to miss!"
Vicky Dreiling
"Break out the bubbly for Anne Barton's delightful debut!"
Tiffany Clare
"When She Was Wicked is a delightful debut! Anne Barton's cast of characters is charming and witty. Owen is the type of hero that readers fall in love with from the very first introduction, and Anabelle is ingenious and resourcefully cunning--a girl after my own heart."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455513321
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 1/29/2013
  • Series: A Honeycote Novel Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 617,385
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Barton began swiping romance novels off her mom's bookshelf as a teenager, so when she had the chance to spend a semester in London-home to her favorite heroes-she packed her bags and promptly fell in love with the city, its history, and its pubs. She dreamed of writing romance, but somehow ended up a software analyst instead.

Fortunately, a few years and a few careers later, Anne found her way back to writing the stories she loves and in 2011 won the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart® for Regency Historical Romance. She lives in Maryland with her husband (who, sadly, is not a peer of the realm-but a great guy nonetheless) and her three children, who try valiantly not to roll their eyes whenever she quotes Jane Austen. Her weaknesses include reality TV, cute-but-impractical shoes, and caffeinated beverages of all kinds.

Learn more at:
www.annebarton.com
Twitter, @_AnneBarton
Facebook.com/annebartonauthor

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Read an Excerpt

When She Was Wicked


By Anne Barton

Forever

Copyright © 2013 Anne Barton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781455513321

Chapter One

Alteration: (1) A change made to a garment in order to improve the fit or style. (2) A change in plans, often necessitated by misfortune, as when one is unexpectedly apprehended during the commission of a crime.

London, 1815

Extortion” was an ugly word. It put one in mind of a villain who fleeced the pockets and slandered the names of hapless victims.

What Miss Anabelle Honeycote did to support her family was most certainly not that.

Perhaps her actions met the crudest definition of the word, but she preferred “accepting coin in exchange for the solemn promise to safeguard secrets.” Much less nefarious, and a girl had to sleep at night.

The primary location in which Anabelle harvested secrets was not a seedy alley or gaming hell, but a small reputable dress shop situated on Bond Street where she worked as a seamstress. Mama would be appalled if she knew about the money-making scheme, but, truth be told, Anabelle would have extorted money from the Archbishop himself to pay for Dr. Conwell’s visits. He was Mama’s only glimmer of hope—and he wasn’t cheap.

Someone in their household had to be practical. That someone was Anabelle.

She wiped her sleeve across her damp brow and swept aside the muslin curtain that led to the workroom in the back of Mrs. Smallwood’s dress shop. Bolts of fabric stacked neatly upon shelves lining one long wall created a colorful patchwork that never failed to tickle Anabelle’s imagination. While some material would become serviceable underclothes for a spinster aunt, some might be destined for the train of a duchess’s gown, lovely enough to grace the Queen’s Presentation Chamber. Anabelle liked thinking such a leap in social standing—from modest workroom to St. James’s Palace—was possible. Not that she had grand ambitions, but being pinned to her current station in life like a butterfly to an entomologist’s collection rankled.

She glided past a large table laden with dress parts set out like the interlocking pieces of a puzzle. The disembodied sleeves, collars, and skirt panels lay lifeless, waiting for her to transform them into something vibrant—something more than the sum of its parts. After all, anyone could make a functional dress. The challenge was to create a garment that felt magical—the fabric texture, the gown’s lines, and the embellishments blending in perfect harmony.

Though occasionally, she mused—plucking a simple yet elegant white silk ball gown from the rack of her current projects—a dress required less rather than more. The creation she held, Miss Starling’s newest ball gown, was a fine example. Anabelle twirled it in front of her, checking for loose threads and lint. Satisfied, she walked briskly through the workroom and into the shop’s sitting area with the gown draped over her arm. When she held it up for Miss Starling to see, the young woman’s face lit with pleasure.

“Why, Miss… Honeycut, is it?”

“Honeycote.”

Miss Starling gave a smile that didn’t reach her deep blue eyes. “How talented you are. This gown is magnificent. I must try it on.”

Anabelle nodded demurely and led the beautiful woman toward the dressing room located at the end of the shop away from the front door. Miss Starling’s mother hopped up from the chair where she’d been sipping tea and toddled behind, calling out over her daughter’s shoulder, “Is that the dress for the Hopewell ball? Gads. It looks awfully plain, darling. Money is no object. Have the girl add a few bows or some trim, for goodness’ sake.”

Anabelle opened her mouth to object but caught herself. If her clients wanted frippery, who was she to deny their wish? Mrs. Smallwood had taught her the importance of pleasing her clients, no matter how garish the outcome. At least she knew her employer valued her skill and dedication.

The problem was that even though Anabelle toiled at the shop day after day, she earned a meager ten shillings a week. If she only needed to pay for her own food and lodging at a boardinghouse, her salary would be enough. But Mama was too ill to move from the small rooms they let, and her medicine was dear.

It had been three months since Anabelle had last written an anonymous note demanding money in exchange for her silence. On that occasion, Lady Bonneville had paid thirty pounds to prevent the details of her torrid affair with her handsome butler—who was half her age—from appearing on the pages of London’s most widely circulated gossip rag.

The outspoken viscountess was one of her favorite customers, and Anabelle disliked having to threaten the woman; however, the money she’d paid had seen Anabelle’s family through the spring months. Mama’s cough even seemed a little less violent after she inhaled the medicated vapor Dr. Conwell prescribed. But their money had run out, and a stack of bills sat upon the table in their tiny parlor.

Yes, it was time to act again. Papa, God rest his soul, had been a gentleman, and her parents had raised her properly. Though her scheme was legally and morally wrong, she wasn’t entirely without scruples. She adhered to a code of conduct, embodied by her List of Nevers. She’d written the list before issuing her first demand note nearly three years ago:

  1. Never request payment from someone who cannot afford it.

  2. Never request an exorbitant amount—only what is necessary.

  3. Never request payment from the same person on more than one occasion.

  4. Never reveal the secrets of a paying customer.

And finally, most importantly:

  1. Never enter into any form of social interaction with a former customer.

This last rule was prudent in order to avoid detection but was also designed to prevent her from having to engage in hypocrisy, which she found unpalatable in the extreme.

Just running through the List in her mind calmed her. As usual, she’d listen intently this morning for any gossip that might be useful.

The most fertile ground in the shop was the dressing room, which was really just a large section of the shop’s front room partitioned off by folding screens draped with fabric, providing clients ample privacy. The centerpiece of the dressing area was a round dais which had been cleverly painted to resemble a cake with pink icing. Anabelle’s mouth always watered at the sight of the wretched thing, and since she’d had nothing more than a piece of toast for breakfast, today was no exception. A large, rectangular ottoman in one corner provided a perch for mothers, sisters, friends, companions, and the like. Miss Starling’s mother made a beeline for it, and Anabelle helped the younger woman remove her fashionable walking gown and wriggle into the new dress.

The small puffs of sleeves barely skimmed the debutante’s shoulders, showing the lovely line of her neck to advantage, just as Anabelle had hoped. Some adjustments to the hem were necessary, but she could manage them in an hour or so. Miss Starling stepped onto the platform and smoothed the skirt down her waist and over her hips.

The rapturous expression on Mrs. Starling’s face told Anabelle she’d changed her mind about the need for embellishments. The matron slapped a gloved hand to her chest and gave a little cry. “Huntford will find you irresistible.”

Miss Starling huffed as though vexed by the utter obviousness of the statement.

Anabelle’s face heated at the mention of the Duke of Huntford. He’d been in the shop once, last year, with his mistress. His dark hair, heavy-lidded green eyes, and athletic physique had flustered the unflappable Mrs. Smallwood, causing her to make an error when tallying his bill.

He was the sort of man who could make a girl forget to carry her tens.

“The duke will be mine before the end of the Season, Mama.”

Anabelle knelt behind Miss Starling, reached for her basket, and began pinning up the hem. As she glanced at her client’s reflection in the dressing room mirror, she avoided her own, knowing her appearance wouldn’t hold up well in comparison.

Miss Starling’s blonde locks had been coaxed into a fetching Grecian knot at the nape of her neck, and her eyes sparkled with satisfaction. The white gown was beautiful enough for Aphrodite.

Anabelle pushed her spectacles, which were forever sliding down her nose, back into position. Kneeling in the shadow of the Season’s incomparable beauty, Anabelle was all but invisible—highly depressing, but for the best.

Mrs. Starling was nodding vigorously. “When we passed Huntford earlier, he couldn’t take his eyes off of you. There is not a miss on the marriage mart who rivals your beauty or grace, two virtues sorely lacking in his household, I might add. It was very charitable of you to befriend his sisters—and clever, too. An excellent excuse to visit and show him what a fine influence you’d be as a sister-in-law.” Mrs. Starling fanned herself and rambled on. “The sisters are quite homely, are they not? Gads, the one with the freakishly enormous forehead—”

“Lady Olivia,” Miss Starling offered helpfully.

“—bounded out of the bookstore like a disobedient puppy. And the younger girl with the wild, orange hair—”

“Lady Rose.”

“—is so meek I don’t believe I’ve ever heard her string two words together. Don’t ask that one about the weather unless you’ve a pair of forceps to pull a reply out of her. What a shame! Especially since the duke is the model of graciousness and propriety.”

The last comment made Anabelle stab her index finger with a pin. The devilishly attractive duke a paragon of good behavior? She’d seen the lacy undergarments he’d purchased for his mistress. They weren’t the sort of things one wore beneath church clothes.

Anabelle sat back on her heels to better gauge the evenness of the silk flounced hem. It was perfect. Since the conversation was growing interesting, however, she clucked her tongue and fiddled with the flounce a bit more.

Miss Starling smiled smugly. “Huntford needs a wife who will help him ease his awkward sisters into polite society, and he shouldn’t dither. When I went riding with Lady Olivia last week, she all but confided that she’s developed a tendre for the duke’s stable master.”

“No!” Mrs. Starling sucked in a breath, and her ample bosom rose to within inches of her chin. “What did she say?”

Miss Starling pressed her lips together as though she meant to barricade the secret. Anabelle tried to make herself smaller, more insignificant, if that were possible. Finally, Miss Starling’s words whooshed out. “Well, Olivia said she’d met with him on several occasions… unchaperoned.”

“The devil you say!”

“And she said she finds him quite handsome—”

“But, but… he’s a servant.” Mrs. Starling’s face was screwed up like she’d sucked a lemon wedge.

And Olivia said she thought it a terrible shame that the sister of a duke shouldn’t be able to marry someone like him.”

The matron’s mouth opened and closed like a trout’s before she actually spoke. “That is beyond scandalous.”

Scandalous, indeed. And just what Anabelle needed. She sent up a silent prayer of gratitude, even though the irony of thanking God for providing fodder for her extortion scheme was not entirely lost on her.

The duke was an excellent candidate. He had plenty in his coffers and probably spent more in one night at the gaming tables than Anabelle had spent on rent all of last year. She wouldn’t demand more than she needed to pay Mama’s medical bills and their basic living expenses for a couple of months, of course. Considering how damaging the information about Lady Olivia could be, the duke really was getting an excellent bargain. Better that he learn about the indiscretion now, before Miss Starling managed to disseminate it to every county.

Keeping her face impassive, Anabelle stood and loosened the discreet laces at the side of the ball gown. After Miss Starling stepped out of it, Anabelle gathered it in her arms, taking extra care with the delicate sleeves. As she helped her client slip back into her walking dress, she asked, “Will there be anything else today, ma’am?”

“Hmm? No, that’s all. I’ll just linger for a moment and freshen up. I’ll need the gown by tomorrow.”

Anabelle inclined her head. “It will be delivered this afternoon.” She was whisking the gown into the workroom, thinking how fortunate it was that the shop was not very busy that morning, when a bell on the front door jangled, signaling the arrival of a customer.

Three, actually.

Mrs. Smallwood’s shrill voice carried throughout the shop. “Good morning, Your Grace! What a pleasure to see you and your lovely sisters.”

Anabelle’s fingers went numb, just like the time Papa had caught her in his study taking an experimental puff on his pipe. There was no way the duke could know what she planned. Swallowing hard, she tried to remember what she’d been doing before he arrived. It suddenly seemed important that she appear very busy, even though she was out of sight.

The duke’s voice, smooth and rich, seeped under her skin. She couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the deep tone warmed her, so much so, she felt the need to fan herself with her apron. Perhaps Mrs. Smallwood would realize she was working on a pressing project and spare her from having to—

“Miss Honeycote!”

Or, perhaps not.

With the same eagerness that one might walk the plank, Anabelle hung the ball gown on a vacant hook and pushed her spectacles up her nose before returning to the front room. It seemed to have shrunk now that the Duke of Huntford occupied it.

Before, the two elegant wingback chairs and piecrust table had seemed to be the correct scale; now, they looked like children’s furniture. The duke’s broad shoulders blocked much of the morning light that streamed through the shop’s window, casting a shadow that reached all the way from his Hessians to Anabelle’s half boots. His thick head of black hair and green eyes made him appear more gypsy than aristocrat, and he had the wiry strength of a boxer. He wore buckskin breeches and an expertly tailored moss-green jacket, which she could fully appreciate, as a seamstress and a woman.

Belatedly, she remembered to curtsey.

Mrs. Smallwood shot Anabelle a curious look. “Lady Olivia and Lady Rose each require a new dress. I assured His Grace that you would work with them to design gowns that are tasteful and befitting their station.”

“Of course.” The sister whom Anabelle deduced must be Olivia had wandered to the far side of the shop and was fingering samples of fabric and lace. She appeared to be a couple of years younger than Anabelle, perhaps nineteen. Rose was obviously the younger sister; she played with the button on the wrist of her glove, eyes downcast.

The duke’s intense gaze, however, was fixed on Anabelle. For three long seconds, he seemed to scrutinize her wretched brown dress, ill-fitting spectacles, and oversized cap. If the dubious expression on his ruggedly handsome face was any indication, he found the whole ensemble rather lacking. She raised her chin a notch.

Even Mrs. Smallwood must have sensed the duke’s displeasure. “Er, Miss Honeycote is extremely skilled with a needle, Your Grace. She has a particular talent for creating gowns that complement our clients’ best features. Why, Miss Starling was delighted with her latest creation. Your sisters will be pleased with the results, I assure you.”

The duke was silent for the space of several heartbeats, during which Anabelle was sure he was cataloguing the deficiencies in her physical appearance. Or perhaps he was merely debating whether a mousy seamstress without a French accent was qualified to design his sisters’ gowns.

“Miss Honeycote, was it?”

He was more astute than the average duke. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“The gowns must be modest.”

As if she would design something indecent. “I understand,” she said. “Are there any other requirements?”

More silence. More glaring. “Pretty.”

“Pretty?”

He frowned and adjusted his cravat as though he couldn’t quite believe he’d uttered the word. “Pretty,” he repeated, “to suit my sisters.”

Rose lifted her head to look at him, her skepticism obvious. In response, the duke wrapped his arm around her frail shoulders and smiled at her with a combination of pride, protectiveness, and love. It was powerful enough to coax a smile out of Rose, and in that instant, Anabelle could see Rose was pretty. Stunning, even.

The whole exchange left Anabelle slightly breathless. Devotion to one’s family was something she understood—and respected. The duke’s interest in his sisters went beyond duty, and that bit of knowledge made him seem more… human.

Oh, she still planned to extort money from him; there was no help for that. But now, she found herself anxious to design dresses that would delight the young ladies and simultaneously prove her skill to their brother. Perhaps, in some small way, it would make up for her bad behavior.

Miss Starling swept out of the dressing room, her mother in tow. Every head in the room swiveled toward the debutante, her beauty as irresistible as gravity. Olivia dropped a length of ribbon and rushed across the shop to join her sister. Rose moved closer to the duke.

“Good morning, once again, Your Grace,” Miss Starling said, all tooth-aching sweetness. “How delighted I am to see my dear friends Lady Olivia and Lady Rose twice in the same day. And how fortunate that I am here to offer my assistance with their gown selections. Gentlemen don’t realize the numerous pitfalls one must avoid when choosing a ball gown, do they, ladies?”

Olivia replied with an equal measure of drama. “Alas, they do not.”

“Never fear. I have plenty of experience in this sort of thing and am happy to lend my expertise… that is, if you have no objection, Your Grace.” Miss Starling unleashed a dazzling smile on the duke.

His intelligent eyes flicked to Anabelle, ever so briefly, and the subtle acknowledgement made her shiver deliciously. Then he returned his attention to Miss Starling. “That is generous of you.”

Preening like a peacock in the Queen’s garden, Miss Starling said, “You may rely on me, Huntford. A fashionable gown can do wonders for a woman’s appearance. You won’t even recognize your sisters in their new finery. Why don’t you leave us to our own devices for an hour or so?”

The duke searched his sisters’ faces. “Olivia? Rose?” Olivia nodded happily, but Rose cowered into his shoulder. He gave her a stiff pat on the back and looked imploringly at Miss Starling, who had managed to find a small mirror on the counter and was scowling at the reflection of a loose tendril above her ear. No help from that quarter was forthcoming, and Rose’s cheek was still glued to his jacket. The more he tried to gently pry her off him, the tighter she clung. He turned to Anabelle and held out his palms in a silent plea.

Startled, she quickly considered how best to put the young woman at ease and cleared her throat. “If you’d like, Lady Rose, I could start by showing you a few sketches and gowns. You may show me what you like or don’t like about each. Once I have a feel for your tastes, I shall design something that suits you perfectly.” Noting Rose’s shy yet graceful manner, Anabelle hazarded a guess. “Something elegant and simple?”

Rose slowly peeled herself off of her brother, who looked relieved beyond words.

“Why don’t you and your sister make yourselves comfortable?” Anabelle waved them into the chairs beside her and winked. “I promise to make this as painless as possible.”

The duke leaned forward and gave Rose an affectionate squeeze. “Very well.” Anabelle endeavored not to stare at his shoulders and arms as they flexed beneath his jacket.

Miss Starling snapped her out of her reverie. “We’ll need to see bolts of French pink muslin, green silk, blue satin, and peach sarsenet, as well as swansdown and scalloped lace.” Anabelle had started for the back room, rather hoping all the items were not intended for the same dress, when Miss Starling added, “And bring us a fresh pot of tea, Miss Honeycut.”

“Honeycote.” In a shop teeming with women, there was no mistaking the duke’s commanding voice.

Anabelle halted. She imagined that Miss Starling’s glorious peacock tail had lost a feather or two.

“I beg your pardon?” the debutante asked.

“Her name,” said the duke. “It’s Miss Honeycote.”

With that, he jammed his hat on his head, turned on his heel, and quit the shop.

A few hours later, Anabelle tiptoed into the foyer of the townhouse where she lived and gently shut the front door behind her. Their landlady’s quarters were beyond the door to the right, which, fortunately, was closed. The tantalizing aroma of baking bread wafted from the shared kitchen to her left, but Anabelle didn’t linger. She quickly started up the long narrow staircase leading to the small suite of rooms that she, Daphne, and Mama rented, treading lightly on the second step, which had an unfortunate tendency to creak. She’d made it halfway up the staircase when Mrs. Bowman’s door sprang open.

“Miss Honeycote!” Their landlady was a kindly, stoop-shouldered widow with gray hair so thin her scalp peeked through. She craned her neck around the doorway and smiled. “Ah, I’m glad to see you have an afternoon off. How is your mother?”

Anabelle slowly turned and descended the stairs, full of dread. “About the same, I’m afraid.” But then, persons with consumption did not usually improve. She swallowed past the knot in her throat. “Breathless all the time, and a fever in the evenings, but Daphne and I are hopeful that the medicine Dr. Conwell prescribed will help.”

Mrs. Bowman nodded soberly, waved for Anabelle to follow her, and shuffled to the kitchen. “Take some bread and stew for her—and for you and your sister, too.” Her gaze flicked to Anabelle’s waist, and she frowned. “You won’t be able to properly care for your mother if you don’t eat.”

“You’re very kind, Mrs. Bowman. Thank you.”

The elderly woman sighed heavily. “I’m fond of you and your sister and mother… but luv, your rent was due three days ago.”

Anabelle had known this was coming, but heat crept up her neck anyway. Her landlady needed the money as desperately as they did. “I’m sorry I don’t have it just yet.” She’d stopped during the walk home and spent her last shilling on paper for the demand note she planned to write to the Duke of Huntford. “I can pay you…” She quickly worked through the plan in her head. “… on Saturday evening after I return from the shop.”

Mrs. Bowman patted Anabelle’s shoulder in the same reassuring way Mama once had, before illness had plunged her into her frightening torpor. “You’ll pay me when you can.” She pressed her thin lips together and handed Anabelle a pot and a loaf of bread wrapped in a cloth.

The smells of garlic, gravy, and yeast made her suddenly light-headed, as though her body had just now remembered that it had missed a few meals. “Someday I shall repay you for all you’ve done for us.”

The old woman smiled, but disbelief clouded her eyes. “Give your mother and sister my best,” she said and retreated into her rooms.

Anabelle shook off her melancholy and ascended the stairs, buoyed at the thought of presenting Mama and Daphne with a tasty dinner. Even Mama, who’d mostly picked at her food of late, wouldn’t be able to resist the hearty stew.

She pushed open the door but didn’t call out, in case Mama was sleeping. After unloading the items she carried onto the table beneath the room’s only window, she looked around the small parlor. As usual, Daphne had tidied and arranged things to make the room look as cheerful as possible. She’d folded the blanket on the settee where she and Anabelle took turns sleeping. One of them always stayed with Mama in her bedroom at night. Her sister had fluffed the cushions on the ancient armchair and placed a colorful scrap of cloth on a side table, upon which sat a miniature portrait of their parents. Daphne must have pulled it out of Mama’s old trunk; Anabelle hadn’t seen it in years. The food forgotten, she drifted to the picture and picked it up.

Mama’s eyes were bright, and pink tinged her cheeks; Papa stood behind her, his love for his new bride palpable. Papa, the youngest son of a viscount, had sacrificed everything to be with her: wealth, family, and social status. As far as Anabelle knew, he’d never regretted it. Until he’d been dying. He’d reached out to his parents then and begged them to provide for his wife and daughters.

They’d never responded to his plea.

And Anabelle would never forgive them.

“You’re home! How was the shop?” Daphne glided into the parlor, her bright smile at odds with the smudges beneath her eyes. She wore a yellow dress that reminded Anabelle of the buttercups that grew behind their old cottage.

She hastily returned the portrait to the table. “Wonderful. How’s Mama?”

“Uncomfortable for much of the day, but she’s resting now.” Daphne inhaled deeply. “What’s that delicious smell?”

“Mrs. Bowman sent up dinner. You should eat up and then go enjoy a walk in the park. Get some fresh air.”

“A walk would be lovely, and I do need to make a trip to the apothecary.”

Anabelle worried her bottom lip. “Daph, there’s no money.”

“I know. I believe I can get Mr. Vanders to extend me credit.”

Daphne probably could. Her cheerful disposition could melt the hardest of hearts. If she weren’t chained to the apartment, caring for Mama, she’d have a slew of suitors. She retrieved a couple of chipped bowls and some spoons from the shelf above the table and peeked under the lid of the pot. “Oh,” she said, closing her eyes as she breathed in, “this is heavenly. Come sit and eat.”

Anabelle held up a hand. “I couldn’t possibly. Mrs. Smallwood stuffed me with sandwiches and cakes before I left the shop today.”

Daphne arched a blonde brow. “There’s plenty here, Belle.”

“Maybe after Mama eats.” Anabelle retrieved the paper she’d purchased, pulled out a chair, and sat next to her sister. “I’m going to write a letter this evening.” There was no need to explain what sort of letter. “I’ll deliver it shortly after dark.”

Her sister set down her spoon and placed a hand over Anabelle’s. “I wish you’d let me help you.”

“You’re doing more than enough, caring for Mama. I only mentioned it so you’d know I need to go out tonight. We’ll have a little money soon.”

Later that night, after Daphne had returned with a vial of medication as promised, Anabelle kissed her mother, said good night to her sister, and retired to the parlor.

She slipped behind the folding screen in the corner that served as their dressing area and removed her spectacles, slippers, dress, shift, corset, and stockings. From the bottom corner of her old trunk, she pulled a long strip of linen that had been wadded into a ball. After locating an end, she tucked it under her arm, placed the strip over her bare breasts, and wound the linen around and around, securing it so tightly that she could only manage the shallowest of breaths, through her nose. She tucked the loose end of the strip underneath, against her skin, and skimmed her palms over her flattened breasts. Satisfied, she pulled out the other items she’d need: a shirt, breeches, a waistcoat, and a jacket.

She donned each garment, relieved to find that the breeches weren’t quite as snug across the hips as they’d been the last time. Finally, she pinned her hair up higher on her head, stuffed it under a boy’s cap, and pulled the brim down low. It had been a few months since she’d worn the disguise, so she practiced walking in the breeches—long strides, square shoulders, swinging arms. The rough wool brushed her thighs and cupped her bottom intimately, but the breeches were quite comfortable once she became accustomed to them.

Her heart pounded and her breathing quickened, not unpleasantly, as she tucked the letter she’d written to the Duke of Huntford—left-handed to disguise her handwriting—into the pocket of her shabby jacket. A few subtle inquiries had yielded his address, which was, predictably, in fashionable Mayfair, several blocks away.

A woman couldn’t walk the streets of London alone at night, but a lad could. Her mission was dangerous but simple: deliver the note to the duke’s butler and slip away before anyone could question her. She should be quaking in her secondhand boys’ boots, but a decidedly wicked side of her craved this excitement, relished the chance for adventure.

She sent up a quick prayer asking for both safety and forgiveness, then skulked down the stairs and out into the misty night.

Chapter Two

Pardon, Your Grace.”

Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford, glanced up from the ledger he’d been scrutinizing for the past two hours. Something in his books was off, and he’d correct it if it took him all night. Which it likely would. His butler stood in the doorway of the study, his bushy white brows drawn together like two damned caterpillars mating. If caterpillars even did. Good God. “What is it, Dennison?”

The butler presented a silver salver with an annoying flourish. “This letter was just delivered for you. The messenger said it was urgent.”

“Who’s it from?”

“I don’t know, Sir.”

“Well then,” Owen said, summoning patience, “I suggest you remedy that.”

The butler’s jowls swayed as he shook his head. “I can’t. The messenger ran off after he handed me the letter.”

Owen set his pen in the center of the ledger and rubbed his eyelids to erase the numbers burned onto the backs of them. “A mysterious messenger.” He poked the inside of his cheek with his tongue. Let the sarcasm fester for a while. “I thought you knew everyone, Dennison. Every bloody footman, maid, and butler for miles around. Here, I’ll take it.” He waved the butler in and held out his palm.

Dennison inched his way to the desk as if he were entering Medusa’s cave. Everyone knew what had happened there, and although three years had passed since Owen’s father’s suicide, the staff still drew straws to see who had to dust the bookshelves. Owen didn’t blame them.

He took the letter and placed it on the corner of his desk. The butler made a quick getaway. Determined to return to work, Owen picked up his pen and scanned the columns of numbers to find his place. Urgent, indeed. Probably another damned ball invitation. He looked at it out of the corner of his eye. Ordinary parchment, a puddle of green wax, a seal he didn’t recognize.

Infinitely more interesting than a page of numbers.

Cursing, he grabbed the letter, slipped his finger under the seal, and unfolded it.

My Lord Duke of Huntford,

There is no way to pleasantly state this, so I shall be blunt. I have learned that your sister, Lady Olivia Sherbourne, is romantically involved with a servant in your household. They have met, unchaperoned, on more than one occasion. In addition, she has some rather unconventional views regarding relationships between servants and members of the aristocracy.

I regret to inform you of this news, as I’m sure you find it exceedingly troubling. I further regret to inform you that this information will be made public in the next issue of The London Tattler unless you precisely follow the instructions given below.

First, you must wrap 40 gold sovereign coins in a handkerchief and secure it with a string.

Second, tomorrow night, after dusk, have a servant take the coins to the stone footbridge that spans the north end of the Serpent River in Hyde Park. He must place the coins just under the east side of the bridge on the flat rock next to the riverbank.

Third, neither you nor your servant may lie in wait or attempt to discover my identity. If I detect anyone in the vicinity of the bridge, I will not attempt to retrieve the coins but will instead deliver a letter containing news of your sister’s activities directly to The Tattler’s offices.

Rest assured, however, that if you do as I’ve instructed, I will never reveal your sister’s secret, nor will I trouble you in the future. I give you my word on this.

Sincerely yours,

A Necessarily Resourceful Citizen

Rage, pure and hot, coursed through Owen’s veins and settled in his temples, pounding steadily. He skimmed the contents of the letter once more, searching for evidence that it was an idiotic prank. Though bizarre, it seemed authentic.

A threat to his sister. Nothing could infuriate him more. However, his curiosity had been piqued.

What, pray tell, had Olivia been doing?

He shoved his chair back, rounded his desk, and strode past the bell pull out into the hallway. “Dennison!”

The butler scampered around the corner and attempted a dignified bow.

Owen glared at him. Dennison was a dandy, in his own way. Some of the maids tittered around him. What if—Owen could not even finish the thought. The butler was thrice Olivia’s age and nearly a head shorter.

Owen sneered at the man for good measure. “Tell Lady Olivia to meet me in the drawing room. At once.”

The butler blinked and was off.

With brittle control, Owen folded the letter and placed it inside his jacket pocket. He marched down the corridor and considered plowing his fist into the plaster wall, but thought better of it. At times, his newly acquired restraint was damned inconvenient.

In the three years since he’d become the duke, he’d faced challenges: enormous debt, corruption among his staff, understandably disgruntled tenants, and social and political obligations that had been ignored for decades. He’d conquered each problem the same way: with a logical plan, hard work, and the sheer determination to right things. He would deal with this letter—this misguided attempt to extort money by ruining his sister—the same way.

And the miscreant responsible would rue the day he’d set pen to paper.

Owen stalked into the drawing room, but its elegant furnishings and refined wall coverings did nothing to quell the savagery inside him. He paced in front of the windows so ferociously that the velvet drapes recoiled. Questions bombarded his mind, but he couldn’t begin to answer them until he spoke to Olivia.

“Good evening.” Olivia flitted toward him, the picture of innocence in a white dressing gown that covered her from neck to toes. Rose, who entered the room on Olivia’s heels, was similarly dressed. Both girls had braided their hair and looked utterly incapable of a wayward thought, much less the shocking behavior described in the extortion note. His heart squeezed at the sight of them.

They were much younger than he, and ever since they’d been born, he’d adored them. Olivia was headstrong, honest, and impulsive, a baby bird eager to test her wings, oblivious to hawks who’d devour her without remorse. Rose was quiet and keen. Well, she hadn’t always been quiet, but she was now. Deep as the woods and wise as the hills. And unless they changed, neither of his sisters had a chance in hell of being embraced by the ton.

“What are you doing here, Rose?” he said sharply. “I need to speak to Olivia.” Rose’s face fell.

“Goodness, Owen,” exclaimed Olivia. “You needn’t be such a beast. We were in my room reading poetry. When you summoned me, it seemed the perfect opportunity for a cozy family visit. You’re usually so busy.” She plunked herself on the sofa, tucked her feet beneath her, and patted the cushion beside her. “Come sit, Rose darling.”

Owen ran a hand over his chin and glowered at Olivia. No one else would dream of speaking to him so flippantly, but he’d made allowances for his sisters ever since their parents had deserted them. He was a poor excuse for a guardian, but he was doing the best he could. He wished to God his best were better. “I have a grave matter to discuss with you. It doesn’t concern Rose.”

Olivia’s brown eyes grew round. “Grave? What’s wrong, Owen? If there’s a problem, I think it best that we face it together. As a trio.”

He pondered this. Although it galled him to admit it, Olivia might be right. At seventeen, Rose was no longer a child, and smarter than most of his acquaintances. He missed their talks.

“Fine.” He closed the door and sat in the chair across from them. “Someone has informed me that you”—he nodded at Olivia—“are romantically involved with a member of our staff.”

Rose fumbled with the book on her lap, but he would not be distracted. He studied Olivia’s face intently. There was no flash of guilt, as he’d expected—just distress and mild confusion.

At length she asked, “Who told you this?”

“I can’t say.” He wouldn’t distress them with the truth; he was distressed enough for all three of them.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t.”

“I see.” Her face alight, she leaned forward. “Whom, precisely, am I rumored to be… involved with?”

“A servant. I wasn’t given a name.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were flattered.”

“Being the subject of gossip is quite an improvement over being ignored. But I can honestly say I have no idea what could have sparked such talk.” She tilted her head to one side as though a thought had just occurred to her. “I did give Newton a pair of gloves last Christmas—his old ones were in tatters. Perhaps someone misconstrued the gesture?”

“Newton? Our half-deaf footman?”

“Yes,” said Olivia. “It must be him.”

Owen stood and raked a hand through his hair. “No, no. We’re missing something.” He remembered another detail from the letter. “What are your views on relationships between servants and members of the aristocracy?”

Olivia exchanged a quick, panicked look with Rose. So. There was something to the accusations after all.

“I think,” Olivia said carefully, “that as long as both parties observe social strictures, a friendship is possible.”

“A friendship?” How naïve she was. “Olivia, a servant is not your social equal. That kind of friendship jeopardizes your reputation.”

She shrugged as though her reputation was a trifling thing, something that could be sent out for repairs if the need arose.

Owen placed his hands on his hips. “Tell me who he is.”

Olivia again looked to Rose; the latter gave a slight but firm shake of her head. “Why do you want to know?”

“So I can sack him.”

Olivia clapped a hand to her mouth. Rose’s chin puckered like a strawberry.

“Tell me his name.”

With too much vehemence, Olivia said, “I have no idea whom you’re talking about. And I must say, I’m surprised that you’d give credence to idle gossip.”

“Olivia.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong, and you won’t badger me into thinking otherwise.”

“I’m trying to protect you, and the two of you are shutting me out.” Owen lowered his voice from thundercloud to gray mist. “What happened to our trio?”

Olivia stood and placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “It’s intact, my dear brother. But it’s a fragile thing. You need to respect us, trust us.”

“I do.” He did respect them. Trust was harder. “I try.”

“The world is very black and white to you, isn’t it? Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Master and servant. But it’s really much more complicated than that.” Olivia turned to Rose and extended a hand. “Come. It’s late, and I don’t want to have puffy eyes at Lady Hopewell’s ball tomorrow evening.” She smiled wistfully at Owen. “Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

Rose stood and gave him a brief, fervent hug before following Olivia out of the room, leaving him alone.

Damn. The gossip obviously held a kernel of truth, and yet, he had no more information than before. Olivia had appeared so dumbfounded by the accusation that he doubted she was guilty. But what was that nonsense she’d spouted about black and white? It was times like these that he almost wished he had a wife—someone who could help him understand his sisters and love them as fiercely as he did.

Exhausted, he sank onto the sofa and withdrew the extortion note from his pocket. He tried his best to analyze it objectively.

Forty pounds was a paltry sum for a man of his wealth. Why hadn’t the degenerate demanded more? How had he heard the gossip concerning Olivia, and was he bluffing about going to The Tattler?

No answers would be forthcoming tonight. Tomorrow, however, was another matter.

Owen trudged back to his study and picked up his pen from the center of his ledger. Just before dawn, he found the culprit: a nine that resembled a bloody zero.

He corrected the error and, two minutes later, was slumped over his desk, snoring blissfully.

The time between delivering the note and retrieving the coins was always the most excruciating.

Anabelle had fretted all day Friday. She’d demanded money from four wealthy aristocrats before the duke, but he was altogether different. More austere, menacing… and sinfully attractive. Sleep had eluded her that night; no matter—it was a comfort she didn’t deserve. She needed to leave the townhouse two hours early that Saturday morning so she could walk through the park, pick up the coins before the sun rose, and get to the dress shop on time.

Now that it was time to go, she was relieved to have something to do. Action was infinitely preferable to waiting.

Although the weather was mild, Anabelle draped a dark shawl over her head and shoulders. A few industrious souls populated the sidewalks of Oxford Street, but they were too concerned with their own errands to notice her. Shops and businesses were still closed up tightly; only the bakery showed signs of life. She passed Bond Street, where she normally turned to go to the dress shop, and her skin prickled. No longer could she delude herself into thinking she was simply on her way to work and not about to commit a heinous crime.

As she approached the pebbled footpath that wound through the north side of Hyde Park, her pulse skittered. The bridge she’d chosen as the drop-off location was on the opposite side of the river from Rotten Row, so she didn’t have to contend with raucous gentlemen out for a drunken ride. This end of the park was almost deserted.

A haggard woman with a cane hobbled toward her on the path. Anabelle’s heart pounded so hard she was certain the woman would be able to hear it, but she merely passed with a smile and a nod.

She had just managed to catch her breath when the bridge came into view. She paused to scan the entire area. The reeds along the banks of the river were too sparse to hide anyone, and the trees were spaced too far apart for anyone to be lurking there. The dim light of the pre-dawn hour made it impossible to be certain that she was alone, but at least it extended some protection to her as well. She attuned her ears to the sounds of the park: the rustling of squirrels, the caw of birds, the gentle lapping of the river, but otherwise, silence.

Her mouth dry as the pebbles beneath her feet, she followed the path up the slight incline to the bridge. After one last sweeping glance behind her, she stepped across the grass that sloped down to the riverbank. Staying close to the stones that formed the base of the bridge, she reached blindly into the damp air underneath. She wanted nothing more than to feel the weight of the coins, slip them in her bag, and flee to the safety—and the blessed drudgery—of the dress shop.

At last, she located the flat rock, its surface cool and rough to the touch. Farther underneath the bridge she stretched, until she brushed against something lumpy and heavy. She grabbed at it and heard the beautiful, unmistakable clinking of gold against gold.

Thank God.

She crouched and opened her satchel so that she could slide the coin-filled handkerchief directly into it. But as she reached for the bundle again, a hand closed around her arm.

Anabelle cried out in surprise and tried to yank away, but her captor squeezed her wrist so tightly that her skin burned.

She couldn’t budge.

Despair, cold and raw, seeped into her bones. How could she have let this happen? She’d failed Mama and Daphne. She’d probably hang, or perhaps be deported to America.

Her life was over.

The man yanked her closer, so forcefully that her spectacles toppled off her nose.

She was face to face with him under the bridge. In that instant, even in the shadows, she knew.

She’d been caught, red-handed, by the Duke of Huntford.

Chapter Three

Bias: (1) A diagonal line across the grain of the fabric. (2) An inclination, such as the irrational dislike of a servant’s cap, which prevents impartial judgment.

Stop squirming.” Owen pressed the girl’s wrists together and grasped them with one hand. With the other he shoved the bag of coins into his pocket. He stood bent over at the waist in deference to the mossy stones a few inches above his head. “Step back, out from under the bridge. I feel like a damned troll.”

The girl ignored his command and crouched, shaking like a frightened rabbit.

Which made him think maybe he was a troll. Or an ogre of some sort.

Owen heaved a sigh. “I wasn’t expecting a girl.”

She sniffled. “Sorry to disappoint.” Her voice was more mature than he’d anticipated.

“It is disappointing, you know. I spent all night cramped under here so I could give the man who threatened my sister a solid blow to the nose.”

She cowered, and he felt another stab of guilt. Ridiculous. She’d attempted to extort money from him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

Instead of answering, she leaned back, planted a foot on one of his thighs, and used all her weight to try and pull her wrists free. She struggled, kicked, thrashed.

An impressive show of resistance for someone her size, but Owen had no difficulty holding on to her. He let her wriggle ’til she’d spent all her energy and was gasping for breath.

Before long, she fell to the ground in a heap, choking on a sob.

Perfect. Exasperated, he scooped her up in his arms, took a step and—

Crunch.

He froze mid-stride.

“Oh, no. My spectacles.”

Cursing, he let her feet swing to the ground, but kept a tight hold on her waist. Then, he leaned over and groped around in the brush ’til he felt the mangled wire rims. “I’ve got them.” What was left of them, anyway. He stuffed them in his pocket.

Finally, he managed to pull her out from under the bridge. They staggered onto the grassy riverbank, slick with dew. The sky had lightened from dark gray to silver, and the trees on the horizon were silhouetted by the rising sun. With the exception of a few ducks that waddled on the other side of the river, he and the woman were alone.

And Owen had absolutely no idea what to do with her.

Who was she, and how did she know about his sister’s activities? Her plain, dark-colored dress and floppy white cap suggested she was a servant. A thought occurred to him. “Are you working with someone else?”

“No!” she cried. It was the first time she’d looked directly at him, and fear flashed in her eyes.

“I see. So this… scheme was entirely your own?”

“Yes.” She raised her chin, and the proud gesture looked oddly familiar. He’d seen her somewhere before—he was sure of it.

“And how long is your list of victims?”

“Pardon?”

“I assume you’ve done this before.”

She flushed. “Never.” Right.

“My butler said a lad delivered the demand note.” He let his gaze drift over her as though he were making a frank assessment of her build—which he was. She seemed to be of average height, but she was thin. Too thin. “I assume that was you?”

She swallowed before answering. “It was.”

Interesting. With his free hand, he rubbed his lower back, which ached like the devil. “If I released you, would you promise not to run away?”

She nodded.

“I’ll need to hear your promise.”

“You have my word,” she ground out.

“Excellent.” He let go of her wrists. She took a step back but did not bolt. Which was fortunate, as it spared him a morning run through Hyde Park. “Your extortion scheme was completely fool-brained. But your letter suggests that you possess at least a modicum of intelligence. That being the case, I’m sure you realize that you’ve left me no choice. I must turn you over to the authorities and make them aware of your illegal activities.”

She flinched as though she’d been hit. “But Your Grace,” she pleaded, “you do have a choice. You could show me mercy—let me go. If you did, I’d swear never to bother you or your family again.”

He refrained from snorting. Barely. “Maybe not. But you’d prey upon another hapless victim.” She opened her mouth to deny it, but he cut her off. “I can’t allow that to happen. You’ve committed a crime, Miss…?” The stubborn chit didn’t supply her name. “There are consequences.”

“True,” she said softly. “There are also consequences of inaction.”

What, in God’s name, was that supposed to mean? Perhaps she wasn’t altogether sane. The sooner he rid himself of her, the better. But he was curious about a few things. “Before I take you to Bow Street, I’ll need some answers.”

She swayed on her feet.

Christ. “When was the last time you had something to eat?”

She fisted her hands, and there it was again—the flash of pride. “I don’t see where that’s any of your concern.”

He couldn’t have her swooning on him. “There’s a bench beneath the trees on the other side of the bridge. We’ll finish our conversation there.”

“Conversation or interrogation?”

“Call it what you will. Come.” He took her elbow, keeping a firm hold as they walked across the footbridge toward a grove of trees. She sat on the bench and gripped the edge of the seat. The light was better here, and he was now certain that he knew this woman. Thick lashes veiled her wary, gray eyes. Her hair was of an indeterminate color—light brown, he’d guess—but it was pulled back tightly, revealing a smooth forehead and hollowed cheeks. The way she pressed her lips together suggested that the answers he sought would not tumble forth. But he had to try.

“Who are you? How did you know about Olivia?”

She stared at the ducks that had waded into the river for a morning swim but said nothing.

“I am very protective of my sisters,” he said.

She glanced at him and nodded. He detected something akin to approval.

“Naturally,” he said, “I’d like to ensure that the rumor you threatened to reveal is squashed. You could undo some of the damage you’ve caused if you were forthcoming now.”

A frown marred her face, and he could tell her mind was scrambling, probably concocting an elaborate lie.

Finally, she spoke. “If I tell you who I am and how I learned the news about your sister, will you let me return to my family?”

“Do you have a husband? Children?” The possibility hadn’t occurred to him.

She arched a brow. “Do we have a deal?”

“No.” He raked a hand through his hair. “It would be irresponsible of me to let you go.”

“And I suppose you’ve never done anything irresponsible,” she said glumly.

If she only knew. “Not lately.”

“You know,” she said, “sometimes there’s good cause for bending the rules.”

She didn’t speak like a servant. And she was much too philosophical for this godforsaken hour of the morning. “Nonsense. That’s a lie people tell themselves to ease their guilt. I suppose you’re going to say you had a good reason for extorting money from me.”

“My mother’s very ill.”

He shifted on the bench. As reasons went, it was good. Of course, he had no way of knowing if it was true. “I’m sorry.”

“The forty pounds would have paid for the doctor’s visits, her medicine, and our rent. At least for a few months.”

The bundle of coins weighed heavily in his pocket. To him, forty pounds was just a new jacket and a pair of boots. But it was the principle of the thing. She’d threatened to ruin his sister. “Why was it left to you to raise the money? Do you have a father or siblings?”

“My father is dead.” Her voice cracked on the final word. “My sister and I take care of our mother.”

“Surely you had other options. Besides extortion.”

She snorted. “I could have tucked up my skirts and hung about Covent Garden.”

“I meant you could have sought gainful employment.”

“I have a respectable job. At least, I did until today. But my salary didn’t begin to cover the cost of Mama’s care.”

Owen wasn’t sure why he believed this woman when she had every reason to lie. All he knew was that the whole exchange had left him feeling depressed. And confused.

“I assume you possess a skill for something other than writing demand notes.”

“Yes,” she said.

“But if I were to release you”—she looked up at him, gray eyes full of hope—“you’d still be in dire need of money. You might turn to extortion again.”

“I would do whatever I needed to do to take care of my family,” she said unapologetically.

And there it was—the familiar, haughty look. A ray of sunshine, pure as the morning, penetrated the canopy of trees and illuminated her face. And in that moment, he was almost certain of her identity. Upon meeting her, the proud tilt of her chin had struck him as completely incongruous with her drab clothes and ill-fitting spectacles. Given her demeanor and appearance, the seamstress’s name had, at first, seemed ironic. Upon further inspection, however, he’d noticed that beneath the godawful cap she wore, there were golden streaks in her hair. They started at her temples and traveled obediently to the bun at the back of her head. And then he’d thought her name suited her after all.

“Oh, here.” He pulled the spectacles from his pocket and handed them to her.

One lens was cracked, and the wire was badly bent. She attempted, unsuccessfully, to twist them into their proper shape before putting them on.

The oversized spectacles perched on her sloping nose, in combination with her ridiculous cap, confirmed his suspicion.

“I admire your devotion to your family, Miss Honeycote.”

She gasped.

He leaned forward until only a breath separated them. “And I believe I have a proposition for you.”

The duke’s smug smile raised the hairs on the back of Anabelle’s neck.

Although her left lens was cracked, she could see him clearly through the right. His bloodshot eyes suggested he’d had even less sleep than she, and his burgundy jacket with contrasting velvet trim looked like… well, it looked like he’d spent the night curled up under a bridge. Even so, he was handsome as sin.

She’d never spoken so frankly with a man before. Heavens, she’d even alluded to prostitution. But she was in the frightening—and yet oddly liberating—position of having absolutely nothing to lose.

“What, precisely, do you propose?” She managed a calm, matter-of-fact tone. As though she were not utterly and completely at his mercy.

“You say you need money to support your family.”

“I do.” She prickled at the suggestion that she would lie about such a thing.

“And you work at Mrs. Smallwood’s dress shop.”

She thought longingly of the projects waiting for her in the cozy back room. “Yes. Mrs. Smallwood will expect me when the shop opens this morning. She’ll be worried when I don’t arrive for work on time.”

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “You are in the process of designing gowns for my sisters.”

“True.” She’d been in the process of a great many things. What was he getting at?

“The day I came into the dress shop, I had reservations about you. I mentioned them to Miss Starling, and do you know what she said?”

“I’m sure I don’t.” But she was sure the duke had hung on every word that the debutante uttered.

“She said you’re the secret to Mrs. Smallwood’s success, that there’s not another dressmaker in London with half your talent. She said that the most discerning and beautiful women of the ton demand you make their gowns.”

Anabelle shrugged. It didn’t surprise her that Miss Starling would refer to herself as discerning and beautiful.

“I assume the dress shop is where you heard the gossip about Olivia.”

Heat crept up her neck, and she nodded.

“And will you swear to me that you’ve never extorted money before?”

“I’ve already told you—”

“Do you swear, Miss Honeycote? It is important that I have all the facts. That I know the truth.” His green eyes were skeptical. And hopeful.

Anabelle hated lying—it made her physicially sick. But if she told the duke about her prior victims, he’d demand to know who they were, and she could never, ever reveal that information. She’d created her List of Nevers for a reason. It protected her clients and, more importantly, her family.

“I swear.”

“Well then, here’s my offer. If you’d like to avoid being brought before the magistrate… you may come and work for me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “In what capacity?”

“As a dressmaker, of course.”

Oh. Of course. “You’d want me to work at your residence?”

“Yes, my townhouse is in St. James’s Square, as you’re well aware. I believe you’ve met my butler.”

She felt her flush deepen. But the duke was offering her an alternative to prison, deportation, or… worse. She wouldn’t have to say good-bye to Mama and Daphne. Perhaps she could even keep her job at the dress shop.

A glimmer of hope burned in her chest. “It wouldn’t take me long to complete your sisters’ ball gowns. I’d gladly make them in exchange for my freedom.”

He laughed, a sharp, hollow sound. “The ball gowns are only a start. I want you to create complete wardrobes for each of them. They’ve only recently come out of mourning for my father, and Olivia tells me that all of her older things are out of fashion. Rose had just turned fifteen when he… died. She owns few gowns that are suitable for a young woman.”

“But two entirely new wardrobes would take me months to complete.”

“You’d rather spend those months in Newgate?”

“Of course not.” She squared her shoulders. “I’m accustomed to hard work. I’ll arrive at dawn each morning and work ’til nightfall.”

“No.”

No? “I don’t understand.”

“I can’t unleash an extortionist on the unsuspecting citizens of London. You’ll live under my roof. Where I can keep an eye on you.”

Oh no. “Your Grace,” she begged, “my mother and sister need me. I can’t leave them for days on end.”

He dragged a hand through his dark, closely cropped hair. “Your sister can tend to your mother. If I am able to confirm your story, I will pay your mother’s medical bills and your family’s rent while you work for me.”

Anabelle gulped and her eyes burned. The thought of living away from Mama and Daph devastated her, and yet, it was a generous offer.

“You may send a message to your family,” the duke continued. “Tell them what you will. I’ll inform Mrs. Smallwood of the special assignment I have for you, and if, after you’ve completed your duties, I’m convinced that you’re reformed, I think I could persuade her to give you back your position.”

Anabelle sniffled. “Could I say good-bye to my mother and sister?”



Continues...

Excerpted from When She Was Wicked by Anne Barton Copyright © 2013 by Anne Barton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 22, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    WHEN SHE WAS WICKED by Anne Baxter is an delightful historical r

    WHEN SHE WAS WICKED by Anne Baxter is an delightful historical romance. #1 A Honeycote Novel series. A lowly seamstress meets,and a Duke.Can love blossom as a blackmailer falls in love? Filled with secrets,flaws,romance,fate and love. An amazing story of England's social class,family,the fight to keep one's family happy and healthy. With engaging,realistic characters who will tug at your heart strings and an interesting intriguing plot. You will not regret picking up "When She Was WIcked". As Miss Anabelle Honeycote and Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford,come to terms with their feelings,their family and their love. A must read! A wicked read from beginning to end. Fairy tales can come true! Received for an honest review from the publisher and Net Galley.
    RATING: 4.5
    HEAT RATING: MILD
    REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More/My Book Addiction Reviews

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2013

    At nearly 400 pages and over an inch thick When She was Wicked i

    At nearly 400 pages and over an inch thick When She was Wicked is a big book and still when I got to the last page a "no! It can't be over yet" zipped through my thoughts. Barton's debut novel was a huge hit for me and was filled with characters I easily fell in love with and knew I would miss as soon as I finished reading their story.


    I loved the whole feel of the book. The interactions between between Annabelle and Owen, with his friends, between Owen and his sisters and the friendship Annabelle formed with them over time. They were all just wonderful to watch. These people have been through so much heartache in recent years but they have good hearts and still know what's important in life. Their family. And they'll do anything and everything they have to to keep the people they love happy and healthy. How could you not love that?


    The relationship between Owen and Annabelle was pretty entertaining. They're supposed to be at odds with each other, seeing she tried to blackmail him and he's pretty much holding her life in his hands because of it but the two can't seem to help their attraction and honestly I felt myself urging them on. I loved both of them and their odd arrangement of her living with his family while she created complete wardrobes for his sisters.


    [Just adding in really quick but this is one book I wish had pictures! OMG the descriptions of the gowns Annabelle created were simply amazing and I'd love to see what inspired them.]


    Even with the blackmail scheme Annabelle was a lovely heroine. She's hard working, caring, sweet and no push over. I loved that she was a little fiery every now and again and didn't go along with everything Owen demanded. And Owen. He can play the part of the cold, in charge Duke but this man is such a softie when it comes to his sisters and those he cares about that he'll melt ya on the spot. They really were a good pairing for each other. This one wasn't too steamy. There are...relations. But they're pretty tame compared to most of the books I read and most mainstream romances. It's still nice and sigh worthy but nothing too graphic.


    If you like sweet books that just leave you with a smile on your face this is one to try. I can't wait to spend more time with this group of people as the series develops.  Anne Barton has definitely made my watch list and I'll be snapping her next book up the second it's published.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2013

    Enjoyed this book!

    I really enjoyed reading this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2013

    Loved it!

    Loved it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2013

    What Fun!

    A brand new author with a fresh story to share Anne Barton's winning characters and brisk storytelling left me wanting more I will be adding her to my authors to watch list so i wil be sure to get the next installment in her debut series Witty, romantic and engaging Give this series a try if you like historical romances

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    I loved this book and can't wait for her next book to come out.

    I loved this book and can't wait for her next book to come out.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2013

    Boring

    Boring

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Guest Reviewer/Kimberly & posted at Under the Co

    Reviewed by Guest Reviewer/Kimberly & posted at Under the Covers Book Blog

    “Wonderful story with interesting characters” ~Under the Covers

    Miss Anabelle Honeycote needs to supplement her meager income as a seamstress in a dress shop. Her mother has been stricken with an illness and the pittance Anabelle receives does not cover the medicine and care. Her position as the seamstress puts her in a very advantageous place to hear lots of juicy gossip about the aristocracy in London, and if some of this gossip got out, it could ruin some reputations. In order to help her family, Anabelle has taken up blackmailing some of the objects of the gossip. Things were going moderately well in that department until she is caught by Owen Sherbourne, the Duke of Huntford, who basically gives Miss Honeycote an ultimatum, jail or working for him. The proposition of designing and sewing wardrobes for his beloved sisters is just too hard to pass up, especially when the Duke throws in that he will take care of Miss Honeycote’s mother and sister.

    The handsome Duke has Anabelle move into his home while she fulfills her end of the bargain, and in the meantime becomes enchanted by the oblivious to her allure seamstress. Alas, Anabelle’s station in life is just too far below the Duke, as he knows he must marry someone who on his own level, but he he just can’t keep his hands to himself and begins a whirlwind secret affair with the seamstress. Even after he discovers that Anabelle is the granddaughter of a Viscount, he still in denial that a relationship could be possible.

    Anabelle has no illusions, even with the temptation of Owen. She knows that once her job is done, she will fade into the background of anonymity. For the first time in her life, she has friends of sorts, as Owen’s lovely sisters, Olivia and Rose immediately take to Anabelle. The sisters have not had an easy time of it as their mother ran away, causing a scandal, and their distraught father does away with his own life. These incidents leave Rose a mute and Owen wracking his brain at how to help her. In the weeks that Anabelle lives with the Sherbourne family, the affects they have on each other are astonishing, especially in the transformation of the working class Anabelle, into the beautiful companion of Rose and Olivia.

    This touching story is a revelation that love can overcome all differences once one’s eyes are open. I become more and more attracted to the stories where the females are strong and can stand on their own, instead of the simpering lady, backed into a corner. This first book in the Honeycote series by Anne Barton is a wonderful story with interesting characters. I look forward to the next in the series and definitely recommend WHEN SHE WAS WICKED to all.

    *ARC provided by publisher

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2013

    Great book

    I really enjoyed this book and I am looking forward to the next in the series.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 18, 2013

    Easy read, moves along at a perfect pace and you won't want to put it down.

    WHEN SHE WAS WICKED by Anne Baxter is a great read! You get involved with the characters instantly and as the hero (Owen) evolves, you find you really care about his happiness too. All the characters of the hero's family and the heroine--you care about and want to know what's next. I did catch some phrases and words that are definitely from "today's world" not 1800's but except for those speed bumps in reading--it's really great! I can hardly wait for the next installment. This was an excellent book and I warn you--you WILL CARE TOO!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2013

    Excellent

    This story was exciting and well-written. It is a fun and interesting read. I enjoyed it very much.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2013

    I...

    I lovet this novel, as I am shure you did to.I love all supernatural stuff, am 14 yeats old, and my favorite food is pizza .I also recigmend athe tigers curse series.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 7, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by: Crystal N Book provided by: NetGalley Review origin

    Reviewed by: Crystal N
    Book provided by: NetGalley
    Review originally posted at Romancing the Book




    This book was a great read. I started reading it and got into it. It’s the book that you can’t put down. I never realized how long the book was until after I read it and went back to see how many pages it had.




    If I was in the situation that Annabelle is in I could see myself doing the same thing that she does. She isn’t doing it to be mean, she does it for her family. When it comes to family you will do whatever you have to, to make sure that they have what they need to survive. She never thought about the consequences. Well not until she meets Owen.




    Owen is the man that you would want to take things over. He loves his two sisters and has a soft spot for all of his handful of aunts. When he gets a note threatening his sister and her reputation he decides to take matters into his own hands.




    Nothing goes as planned between Owen and Annabelle. That is what makes it such a wonderful story. You can tell that they have something going on between them but they can never be together. I love how the author brings out her characters. How she brings out their personalities.




    The story line was great and something that you could see happening in real life. You get to see the love that they both have for their families and what they both will do to protect and help them. It shows you that love doesn’t care what social status you are. You can fall in love with anyone and you can’t control it.




    I loved reading this book and can’t wait until the next book comes out and see what other adventure I will get to experience. Who will next fall in love and how long it takes for them to realize it and quit fighting it.




    If you love historical books then I will tell you that you really need to try this book.

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    Posted February 14, 2013

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    Posted September 30, 2013

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    Posted September 25, 2013

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    Posted February 4, 2013

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    Posted March 2, 2013

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    Posted January 31, 2013

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