The Lily of Ludgate Hill

The Lily of Ludgate Hill

by Mimi Matthews
The Lily of Ludgate Hill

The Lily of Ludgate Hill

by Mimi Matthews

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Overview

A BookBub Best Romance of Winter 2024!

Fortune favors the bold--but is a confirmed spinster daring enough to loosen the reins and accept a favor from the wicked gentleman who haunts her dreams?

Lady Anne Deveril doesn't spook easily. A woman of lofty social standing known for her glacial beauty and starchy opinions, she's the unofficial leader of her small group of equestriennes. Since her mother's devastating plunge into mourning six years ago, Anne voluntarily renounced any fanciful notions of love and marriage. And yet, when fate puts Anne back into the entirely too enticing path of Mr. Felix Hartford, she's tempted to run...right into his arms.

No one understands why Lady Anne withdrew into the shadows of society, Hart least of all. The youthful torch he once held for her has long since cooled. Or so he keeps telling himself. But now Anne needs a favor to help a friend. Hart will play along with her little ruse--on the condition that Anne attend a holiday house party at his grandfather's country estate. No more mourning clothes. No more barriers. Only the two of them, unrequited feelings at last laid bare.

Finally free to gallop out on her own, Anne makes the tantalizing discovery that beneath the roguish exterior of her not-so-white knight is a man with hidden depths, scorching passions--and a tender heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593337196
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/16/2024
Series: Belles of London , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 16,582
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

Read an Excerpt

One

London, England

June 1862

Lady Anne Deveril flattered herself that she had many outstanding qualities. Chief among them was her willingness to do anything for a friend. And Julia Wychwood was her best friend in the whole world. She had been thus ever since the pair of them had endured a first season together; two unwilling wallflowers-one in unrelieved black and one in overflounced blue-left to languish, unadmired, at the back of every fashionable ball, society musicale, and amateur theatrical on offer.

One disappointing season had followed another in rapid succession. Three altogether. It had only served to strengthen the bond Anne and Julia shared. No longer wallflowers, they were comrades-in-arms. Fellow horsewomen. Sisters.

Yes, for Julia, Anne would do anything, even face the devil himself.

Tucking her folded copy of the Spiritualist Herald more firmly under her arm, she marched up the freshly swept stone steps of the Earl of March's stately town house in Arlington Street and firmly applied the brass knocker to the painted door.

Lord March was no devil, but he was currently housing one.

The door was promptly opened by a young footman.

"Good morning," Anne said briskly. "Be so good as to inform his lordship that Lady Anne Deveril is here to see him."

The footman didn't question her identity. Indeed, he appeared to recognize her. And why not? She was herself an earl's daughter, and one of some notoriety thanks to the conduct of her famously eccentric mother. A widowed countess couldn't garb herself entirely in black for years on end, traipsing about the city to consort with crystal gazers and mediums, without drawing some degree of attention to herself. Anne had long accepted that she must bear some guilt by association.

"Yes, my lady." The footman stepped back for her to enter. "If you would care to wait in the library, I shall see if his lordship is at home."

Of course he was at home; in his greenhouse, no doubt. Anne had little intention of actually seeing the man. She nevertheless permitted the footman to show her into the earl's spacious library while he trotted off to find his elderly master.

The twin fragrances of pipe smoke and parchment met her nose. Lemon polish, too, though there was no sign that the maids had done any recent tidying up. The library was a place of spectacular clutter.

Bookcases lined three of the walls; leather-bound volumes on botany, agriculture, and natural history were pulled out at all angles as if an absent-minded researcher had wandered from shelf to shelf withdrawing tomes at random only to change his mind midway through extracting them.

The fourth wall was entirely covered in framed sketches of flowers and greenery. Some images were produced in pencil and others in delicately rendered watercolor. They were-along with the teetering stacks of botanical journals and drooping maps that spilled over the sides of the earl's carved mahogany desk-evidence of his prevailing passion.

Lord March's love of exotic plants was legendary. He'd spent much of his life traveling the globe, from the wilds of America to the highest peaks of the Himalayas, bringing back rare seeds to nurture into bloom.

A distracted fellow at the best of times, but a kind one, too, as far as Anne recalled. It had been a long time since she'd darkened his doorstep. A lifetime, it felt like.

She tugged restlessly at her black kid-leather gloves as she paced the worn carpet in front of the library's cavernous marble fireplace. She'd never excelled at waiting for unpleasantness to arrive.

Fortunately, she didn't have to wait long.

"Hello, old thing." A familiar deep voice sounded from the library door.

Anne spun around, her traitorous heart giving an involuntary leap in her breast.

Mr. Felix Hartford stood in the entryway, one shoulder propped against the doorframe. Lord only knew how long he'd been observing her.

She stiffened. After all these years, he still had the power to discompose her. Drat him. But she wouldn't permit her emotions to be thrown into chaos by his attractive face and figure. What cared she for his commanding height? His square-chiseled jaw? For the devilish glint in his sky-blue eyes?

And devil he was. The very one she'd come here to see.

"Hartford," she said. Her chin ticked up a notch in challenge. It was a reflex. There was no occasion on which they'd met during the course of the past several years that they hadn't engaged in verbal battle.

This time, however, he made no attempt to engage her.

He was dressed in plaid trousers and a loose-fitting black sack coat worn open to reveal the dark waistcoat beneath. A casual ensemble, made more so by the state of him. His clothes were vaguely rumpled, and so was his seal-brown hair. It fell over his brow, desperately in need of an application of pomade.

There was an air of arrested preoccupation about him, as if he'd just returned from somewhere or was on his way to somewhere. As if he hadn't realized she was in the library and had come upon her quite by chance.

An unnatural silence stretched between them, void of their typical barb-filled banter.

Greetings dispensed with, Anne found herself at an unaccountable loss. More surprising still, so did Hartford.

He remained frozen on the threshold, his usually humorous expression turned to stone on his handsome face.

At length, he managed a smile. "I knew one day you'd walk through my door again. It only took you"-withdrawing his pocket watch from his waistcoat, he cast it a brief glance, brows lifting as if in astonishment at the time-"seven years to do it."

She huffed. "It hasn't been seven years."

"Six and half, then."

Six years and five months, more like.

It had been early December of 1855, during the Earl of March's holiday party. She'd been just shy of seventeen; young and naive and not formally out yet. Hartford had kissed her under a sprig of mistletoe in the gaslit servants' hallway outside the kitchens.

And he'd proposed to her.

But Anne refused to think of the past. Never mind that, living in London, reminders of it were daily shoved under her nose. "You're not going to be difficult, are you?" she asked.

"That depends." He strolled into the room. "To what do I owe your visit?"

"Presumptuous, as always," she said. "For all you know, I'm here to see your grandfather."

Hartford was the only child of the Earl of March's second son-the late (and much lamented) moralist Everett Hartford. Anne well remembered the man. He'd been as straitlaced and starchy as a vicar. Rather ironic, really, given his son's reputation for recklessness and irreverence.

"My grandfather is in his greenhouse," Hartford said, "elbow deep in chicken manure. If it's him you've come to speak with, you're in for a long wait."

She suppressed a grimace. There was no need for him to be crass. "Really, Hartford."

"Really, my lady." He advanced into the room slowly, his genial expression doing little to mask the fact that he was a great towering male bearing down on her. "Why have you come?"

Anne held her ground. She wasn't afraid of him. "I've come to ask a favor of you."

His mouth curled up at one corner. "Better and better." He gestured to a stuffed settee upholstered in Gobelins tapestry. "Pray sit down."

She nimbly sidestepped him to sink down on the cushioned seat. The skirts of her black carriage gown brushed his leg as she passed, silk bombazine sliding against fine wool in an audible caress of expensive fabric.

Her pulse thrummed in her throat.

She daren't look at him, instead focusing on the business at hand with renewed vigor. Withdrawing her copy of the Spiritualist Herald from beneath her arm, she smoothed the wrinkled pages out onto her lap.

He remained standing by the fireplace. "What do you have there?"

"First things first." She forced her gaze to meet his. "You've doubtless heard of Captain Blunt's abduction of Miss Wychwood?"

His brow creased. "Abduction? That's quite a charge."

"Do you dispute it?"

"I haven't enough of the facts to do so. Still-"

"Allow me to enlighten you." She sat rigidly on the settee, the dire facts of her friend's unfortunate situation putting steel in her spine. "Captain Blunt, an ex-soldier of dubious fame, has spirited away a vulnerable heiress and married her against the advice of her friends and her family, possibly against her own will. If that's not a crime-"

"He's a war hero," Hartford said, as if that excused everything.

"He's a villain," Anne countered. "He stole her from her sickbed. Did you know that? Quite literally carried her away from her parents' house in Belgrave Square and conveyed her to his haunted estate in the wilds of Yorkshire, just like some rogue in a penny novel."

"Miss Wychwood's circumstances were far from ideal. And I'm a little acquainted with Blunt. Granted, he's somewhat rough around the edges, but she had no objection to him, not on the few occasions I saw them together. Given that, your conclusions are hasty at best."

"I don't require you to validate them. Miss Wychwood is my friend, not yours. It's my duty to see that she's all right. I won't rest until I can assure myself of the fact."

A shadow of irritation ghosted over his usually humorous countenance.

Anne had observed the expression before. "You don't approve of my friends."

"As ever, you presume to read my mind."

"I'm not reading your mind. I'm reading your face. And anyway, it doesn't matter. I don't care what you think of my friends."

Hartford's jaw tightened imperceptibly. "Shall I tell you what I think?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "You use your friends as a shield."

She scoffed. "I most certainly don't."

"You travel with them in a pack-a pack that grows with every passing season."

She opened her mouth to object, but Hartford plowed on, unconcerned with her protestations.

"First there was only Miss Wychwood," he said. "Then there was Miss Hobhouse. And now Miss Maltravers." His smile turned wry. "The Four Horsewomen."

"Yes, yes, it's quite diverting, I'm sure." To someone with a pea brain, she added silently.

Four Horsewomen indeed.

Though Anne supposed it was preferable to the tired epithet he'd previously used. Until Miss Maltravers had arrived in London, Hartford had been calling Anne and her friends the three Furies.

"Not diverting," he said. "Merely interesting. I wonder why you need their protection."

Her chin went up another notch. "I'm here, aren't I? Unescorted. Unprotected."

She hadn't had much choice in the matter.

Julia was somewhere in Yorkshire, a prisoner of the evil Captain Blunt. Evelyn Maltravers was in Sussex awaiting the arrival of her beau, Mr. Malik. And Stella Hobhouse-dear Stella!-was presently cloistered with her dour clergyman brother in George's Street. Newly returned from accompanying him to an ecumenical conference in Exeter, she'd been tasked with transcribing his mountain of notes.

Not that Stella would have understood Anne's reasons for calling at the Earl of March's residence. When it came to Felix Hartford, Anne preferred to hold her secrets close. Nothing good could come of sharing them, not even with her dearest friends.

"Unwise of you," Hartford said. "You should have at least brought a maid."

"To visit an aged family friend? Your grandfather is no threat to my reputation. That's why I asked for him."

"In hopes that I'd show up eventually?"

"You always do where I'm concerned." The words were tantamount to an accusation. Anne's stomach trembled a little to say them aloud.

His smile faded. "What do you want of me, my lady?"

"What I want," she said, "is for you to write something very particular in the next column you publish in the Spiritualist Herald."

He stilled. A look of uncommon alertness flickered at the back of his eyes. "I don't have a column in the Spiritualist Herald."

"Nonsense," she said. "Of course you do. You have columns in several publications. The Spiritualist Herald, the Weekly Heliosphere, Glendale's Botanical Bi-Monthly. I could go on."

"You're mistaken."

"I'm not. You're Mr. Drinkwater, aren't you? And Mr. Bilgewater, and Mr. Tidewater. You know, you really should diversify your pseudonyms-and your turn of phrase. It's recognizable to anyone who knows you."

His gaze sharpened, holding hers with an air of unmistakable challenge. "And you know me, do you?"

"Regrettably," she said, "I do."


It took a great deal to shake Hart’s good-humored equanimity. He prided himself on his ability to see the absurd in every situation. No matter if it hurt him. No matter if it broke his heart.

But today was no ordinary day.

He'd been up since before dawn broke, attending to yet another remnant of his late father's distasteful legacy. An unknown legacy as far as society was aware. Hart wished he might have been spared the knowledge of it as well.

There had been no chance of that.

His own mother had unloaded the burden onto his shoulders, confessing every sordid detail from her deathbed nine years ago. Hart had been only twenty at the time, poorly equipped to face the reality his mother's dying words had wrought.

Lack of readiness hadn't alleviated his responsibilities.

His father had left him scant money or property. Only a small sum in the three percents and a remote, ramshackle estate in Somersetshire that cost more in repairs than it ever generated in income. But what Everett Hartford's legacy lacked in material concerns it had more than made up for in hidden scandal.

Hart had begun to view his father's secret life as the many-headed Hydra of mythology. Nothing was ever fully resolved. Just when he'd lopped off one of the sea serpent's poisonous heads, two more grew in its place. He was tired of it and, after this morning's events, quite tempted to wash his hands of the business once and for all.

And now this.

Her.

Lady Anne Deveril was the last person he wanted to see at the moment. And, rather paradoxically, the person his heart most yearned to speak with.

But not about his family's past.

And not about her family's, either. It was a past her mother seemed to cling to with increasing determination. Anne clung to it, too, in her way, a willing victim to Lady Arundell's obsession with the dead.

As usual, she was clad in lusterless black bombazine. An aggravating sight, though her mourning gown was one of impeccable cut. It molded to her delicate frame, the tightly fitted bodice, with its long row of dainty jet buttons, emphasizing her narrow waist and the lush curve of her bosom. Full skirts swelled over her hips in a voluminous sweep of fabric that made the most sensuous sound, rustling over her layers of petticoats and crinoline, when she moved.

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