“The kind of book for which the word “rollicking” was invented.”—New York Times Book Review
A prim and proper lady thief must save her aunt from a crazed pirate and his dangerously charming henchman in this fantastical historical romance.
Cecilia Bassingwaite is the ideal Victorian lady. She's also a thief. Like the other members of the Wisteria Society crime sorority, she flies around England drinking tea, blackmailing friends, and acquiring treasure by interesting means. Sure, she has a dark and traumatic past and an overbearing aunt, but all things considered, it's a pleasant existence. Until the men show up.
Ned Lightbourne is a sometimes assassin who is smitten with Cecilia from the moment they meet. Unfortunately, that happens to be while he's under direct orders to kill her. His employer, Captain Morvath, who possesses a gothic abbey bristling with cannons and an unbridled hate for the world, intends to rid England of all its presumptuous women, starting with the Wisteria Society. Ned has plans of his own. But both men have made one grave mistake. Never underestimate a woman.
When Morvath imperils the Wisteria Society, Cecilia is forced to team up with her handsome would-be assassin to save the women who raised herhopefully proving, once and for all, that she's as much of a scoundrel as the rest of them.
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There was no possibility of walking to the library that day. Morning rain had blanched the air, and Miss Darlington feared that if Cecilia ventured out she would develop a cough and be dead within the week. Therefore Cecilia was at home, sitting with her aunt in a room ten degrees colder than the streets of London, and reading aloud The Song of Hiawatha by “that American rogue, Mr. Longfellow,” when the strange gentleman knocked at their door.
As the sound barged through the house, interrupting Cecilia’s recitation mid-rhyme, she looked inquiringly at her aunt. But Miss Darlington’s own gaze went to the mantel clock, which was ticking sedately toward a quarter to one. The old lady frowned.
“It is an abomination the way people these days knock at any wild, unseemly hour,” she said in much the same tone the prime minister had used in Parliament recently to decry the London rioters. “I do declare—!”
Cecilia waited, but Miss Darlington’s only declaration came in the form of sipping her tea pointedly, by which Cecilia understood that the abominable caller was to be ignored. She returned to Hiawatha and had just begun proceeding “toward the land of the Pearl-Feather” when the knocking came again with increased force, silencing her and causing Miss Darlington to set her teacup into its saucer with a clink. Tea splashed, and Cecilia hastily laid down the poetry book before things really got out of hand.
“I shall see who it is,” she said, smoothing her dress as she rose and touching the red-gold hair at her temples, although there was no crease in the muslin nor a single strand out of place in her coiffure.
“Do be careful, dear,” Miss Darlington admonished. “Anyone attempting to visit at this time of day is obviously some kind of hooligan.”
“Fear not, Aunty.” Cecilia took up a bone-handled letter opener from the small table beside her chair. “They will not trouble me.”
Miss Darlington harrumphed. “We are buying no subscriptions today,” she called out as Cecilia left the room.
In fact they had never bought subscriptions, so this was an unnecessary injunction, although typical of Miss Darlington, who persisted in seeing her ward as the reckless tomboy who had entered her care ten years before: prone to climbing trees, fashioning cloaks from tablecloths, and making unauthorized doorstep purchases whenever the fancy took her. But a decade’s proper education had wrought wonders, and now Cecilia walked the hall quite calmly, her French heels tapping against the polished marble floor, her intentions aimed in no way toward the taking of a subscription. She opened the door.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Good afternoon,” said the man on the step. “May I interest you in a brochure on the plight of the endangered North Atlantic auk?”
Cecilia blinked from his pleasant smile to the brochure he was holding out in a black-gloved hand. She noticed at once the scandalous lack of hat upon his blond hair and the embroidery trimming his black frock coat. He wore neither sideburns nor mustache, his boots were tall and buckled, and a silver hoop hung from one ear. She looked again at his smile, which quirked in response.
“No,” she said, and closed the door.
And bolted it.
Ned remained for a moment longer with the brochure extended as his brain waited for his body to catch up with events. He considered what he had seen of the woman who had stood so briefly in the shadows of the doorway, but he could not recall the exact color of the sash that waisted her soft white dress, nor whether it had been pearls or stars in her hair, nor even how deeply winter dreamed in her lovely eyes. He held only a general impression of “beauty so rare and face so fair”—and implacability so terrifying in such a young woman.
And then his body made pace, and he grinned.
Miss Darlington was pouring herself another cup of tea when Cecilia returned to the parlor. “Who was it?” she asked without looking up.
“A pirate, I believe,” Cecilia said as she sat and, taking the little book of poetry, began sliding a finger down a page to relocate the line at which she’d been interrupted.
Miss Darlington set the teapot down. With a delicate pair of tongs fashioned like a sea monster, she began loading sugar cubes into her cup. “What made you think that?”
Cecilia was quiet a moment as she recollected the man. He had been handsome in a rather dangerous way, despite the ridiculous coat. A light in his eyes had suggested he’d known his brochure would not fool her, but he’d entertained himself with the pose anyway. She predicted his hair would fall over his brow if a breeze went through it, and that the slight bulge in his trousers had been in case she was not happy to see him—a dagger, or perhaps a gun.
“Well?” her aunt prompted, and Cecilia blinked herself back into focus.
“He had a tattoo of an anchor on his wrist,” she said. “Part of it was visible from beneath his sleeve. But he did not offer me a secret handshake, nor invite himself in for tea, as anyone of decent piratic society would have done, so I took him for a rogue and shut him out.”
“A rogue pirate! At our door!” Miss Darlington made a small, disapproving noise behind pursed lips. “How reprehensible. Think of the germs he might have had. I wonder what he was after.”
Cecilia shrugged. Had Hiawatha confronted the magician yet? She could not remember. Her finger, three-quarters of the way down the page, moved up again. “The Scope diamond, perhaps,” she said. “Or Lady Askew’s necklace.”
Miss Darlington clanked a teaspoon around her cup in a manner that made Cecilia wince. “Imagine if you had been out as you planned, Cecilia dear. What would I have done, had he broken in?”
“Shot him?” Cecilia suggested.
Miss Darlington arched two vehemently plucked eyebrows toward the ringlets on her brow. “Good heavens, child, what do you take me for, a maniac? Think of the damage a ricocheting bullet would do in this room.”
“Stabbed him, then?”
“And get blood all over the rug? It’s a sixteenth-century Persian antique, you know, part of the royal collection. It took a great deal of effort to acquire.”
“Steal,” Cecilia murmured.
“Obtain by private means.”
“Well,” Cecilia said, abandoning a losing battle in favor of the original topic of conversation. “It was indeed fortunate I was here. ‘The level moon stared at him—’ ”
“The moon? Is it up already?” Miss Darlington glared at the wall as if she might see through its swarm of framed pictures, its wallpaper and wood, to the celestial orb beyond, and therefore convey her disgust at its diurnal shenanigans.
“No, it stared at Hiawatha,” Cecilia explained. “In the poem.”
“Oh. Carry on, then.”
“ ‘In his face stared pale and haggard—’ ”
“Repetitive fellow, isn’t he?”
“Poets do tend to—”
Miss Darlington waved a hand irritably. “I don’t mean the poet, girl. The pirate. Look, he’s now trying to climb in the window.”
Cecilia glanced up to see the man from the doorstep tugging on the wooden frame of the parlor window. Although his face was obscured by the lace curtain, she fancied she could see him muttering with exasperation. Sighing, she laid down the book once more, rose gracefully, and made her way through a clutter of furniture, statuettes, vases bearing long-stemmed roses from the garden (the neighbor’s garden, to be precise), and various priceless (which is to say purloined) goods, to part the curtain, unlatch the window, and slide it up.
“Yes?” she asked in the same tone she had used at the doorstep.
The man seemed rather startled by her appearance. His hair had fallen exactly as she had supposed it would, and his shadowed eyes held a more sober mood than before.
“If you ask again for my interest in the great North Atlantic auk,” Cecilia said, “I will be obliged to tell you the bird has in fact been extinct for almost fifty years.”
“I could have sworn this window opened to a bedroom,” he said, brushing his hair back to reveal a mild frown.
“We are not common rabble, to sleep on the ground floor. I don’t know your name, for you have not done us the courtesy of leaving a calling card, but I assume it would in any case be a nom de pirata. I am all too aware of your kind.”
“No doubt,” he replied, “since you are also my kind.”
Cecilia gasped. “How dare you, sir!”
“Do you deny that you and your aunt belong to the Wisteria Society and so are among the most notorious pirates in England?”
“I don’t deny it, but that is my exact point. We are far superior to your kind. Furthermore, these are not appropriate business hours. We are ten minutes away from taking luncheon, and you have inconvenienced us twice now. Please remove yourself from the premises.”
“I am prepared to use a greater force of persuasion if required.” She held up the bone-handled letter opener, and he laughed.
“Oh no, please don’t prick me,” he said mockingly.
Cecilia flicked a minuscule latch on the letter opener’s handle. In an instant, with a hiss of steel, the letter opener extended to the extremely effective length of a rapier.
The man stepped back. “I say, there’s no need for such violence. I only wanted to warn you that Lady Armitage has taken out a contract on your life.”
From across the room came Miss Darlington’s dry, brusque laugh. Cecilia herself merely smiled, and even then with only one side of her mouth.
“That is hardly cause for breaking and entering. Lady Armitage has been trying to kill my aunt for years now.”
“Not your aunt,” he said. “You.”
A delicate flush wafted briefly over Cecilia’s face. “I’m flattered. She has actually employed an assassin?”
“Yes,” the man said in a dire tone.
“And does this assassin have a name?”
“Eduardo de Luca.”
“Italian,” Cecilia said, disappointment withering each syllable.
“You need to be a bit older before you can attract a proper assassin, my dear,” Miss Darlington advised from the interior.
The man frowned. “Eduardo de Luca is a proper assassin.”
“Ha.” Miss Darlington sat back in her chair and crossed her ankles in an uncharacteristically dissolute fashion. “I venture to guess Signor de Luca has never yet killed any creature greater than a fly.”
“And why would you say that, madam?” the man demanded.
She looked down her nose at him, quite a feat considering she was some distance away. “A real assassin would hire a sensible tailor. And a barber. And would not attempt to murder someone five minutes before luncheon. Close the window, Cecilia, you’ll catch consumption from that icy draft.”
“Wait,” the man said, holding out a hand, but Cecilia closed the window, turned the latch, and drew together the heavy velvet drapes.
“Do you think Pleasance might be ready soon with our meal?” she asked as she moved across the room—not to her chair, but to the door leading into the hall.
“Sit down, Cecilia,” Miss Darlington ordered. “A lady does not pace in this restless manner.”
Cecilia did as she was bidden but upon taking up her book laid it down again without a glance. She brushed at a speck of dust on her sleeve.
“Fidgeting.” Miss Darlington snapped out the observation and Cecilia hastily placed both hands together on her lap.
“Maybe there will be chicken today,” she said. “Pleasance usually roasts a chicken on Tuesdays.”
“Indeed she does,” Miss Darlington agreed. “However, today is Thursday. Where are your wits, girl? Surely you are not in such hysterics over a mere contract of assassination?”
“No,” Cecilia said. But she bit her lip and dared a glance at Miss Darlington. The old lady looked back at her with a trace of sympathy so faint it might have existed only in Cecilia’s imagination, were Cecilia to have such a thing.
“The assassin won’t actually be Italian,” she assured her niece. “Armitage doesn’t have the blunt to employ a foreigner. It will be some jumped-up Johnny from the Tilbury Docks.”
This did not improve Cecilia’s spirits. She tugged unconsciously on the silver locket that hung from a black ribbon around her neck. Seeing this, Miss Darlington sighed with impatience. Her own locket of similar forlorn aspect rode the gray crinoline swathing her bosom, and she wished for a moment that she might speak once more with the woman whose portrait and lock of golden hair rested within. But then, Cilla would have even less patience for a sulking maiden.
“Lamb,” she said with an effort at gentleness. Cecilia blinked, her eyes darkening to a wistful orphan blue. Miss Darlington frowned. “If it’s Thursday,” she elaborated, “luncheon will be lamb, with mint sauce and boiled potatoes.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Cecilia said, pulling herself together. “Also peas.”
Miss Darlington nodded. It was a satisfactory end to the matter, and she could have left it there. After all, one does not want to encourage the younger generation too much, lest they lose sight of their proper place: under one’s thumb. She decided, however, to take pity on the girl, having herself once been as high-spirited. “Perhaps tomorrow the weather will be better fit for some perambulation,” she said. “You might go to the library, and afterward get a bun from Sally Lunn’s.”
“But isn’t that in Bath?”
“I thought a change of scenery might do us good. Mayfair is becoming altogether too rowdy. We shall fly the house down this afternoon. It will be a chance to give Pleasance a refresher course on the flight incantation’s last stanza. Her vowels are still too flat. Approaching the ground with one’s front door at a thirty-degree angle is rather more excitement than one likes for an afternoon. And yes, I can see from your expression you still think I shouldn’t have shared the incantation’s secret with her, but Pleasance can be trusted. Granted, she did fly that bookshop into the Serpentine when they told her they didn’t stock any Dickens novels, but that only shows a praiseworthy enthusiasm for literature. She’ll get us safely to Bath, and then you can take a nice stroll among the shops. Maybe you can buy some pretty lace ribbons or a new dagger before getting your iced bun.”
“Thank you, Aunty,” Cecilia answered, just as she was supposed to. In fact she would rather have gone to Oxford, or even just across the park to visit the Natural History Museum, but to suggest either would risk Miss Darlington reversing her decision altogether. So she simply smiled and obeyed. There followed a moment’s pleasant quiet.
“Although eat only half the bun, mind you,” Miss Darlington said as Cecilia took up Hiawatha and tried yet again to find her place among the reeds and water lilies. “We don’t want you falling ill with cholera.”
“That is a disease of contaminated water, Aunty.”
Miss Darlington sniffed, not liking to be corrected. “A baker uses water I’m sure to make his wares. One can never be too careful, dear.”
“Yes, Aunty. ‘The level moon stared at him, in his face stared pale and haggard, ’til—’ ”
The two women looked over at the window as it shattered. A grenade tumbled onto the carpet.
Cecilia expelled a sigh of tedium. She snapped the book shut, wended her way through the furnishings, pulled back the drapes, and deposited the grenade through the broken windowpane onto the terrace, where it exploded in a flash of burning light, brick shards, and fluttering lavender buds.
Cecilia turned to see Pleasance standing in the drawing room doorway, plucking a glass splinter from one of the dark curls that habitually escaped her white lace cap.
“Excuse the interruption, misses, but I have news,” she declared in the portentous tones of a young woman who spent too much time reading lurid Gothic fiction and consorting with the figments of her melodramatic imagination. “Luncheon is served.”
Miss Darlington pushed herself up from the chair. “Please arrange for a glazier to come as soon as possible, Pleasance. We shall have to use the Lilac Drawing Room this afternoon, although I prefer to keep it for entertaining guests. The risk from that broken window is simply too great to bear. My own dear cousin nearly died of pneumonia under similar circumstances, as you know.”
Cecilia murmured an agreement, although she recalled that Cousin Alathea’s illness, contracted while attempting to fly a cottage in a hurricane, had little real consequence other than the loss of a chimney (and five crew members)—Alathea continuing on in robust health to maraud the coastline for several more years before losing a skirmish with Lord Vesbry’s pet alligator while holidaying in the South of France.
Miss Darlington tapped a path across the room with her mahogany cane, but Cecilia paused, twitching the drapes slightly so as to peer through jagged glass and smoke at the garden. The assassin was leaning back against the iron railings of the house across the street. He noticed Cecilia and touched one finger to his temple in salutation. Cecilia frowned.
“Don’t dawdle, girl,” Miss Darlington chastised. Cecilia lowered the curtain, adjusting it slightly so it hung straight, and then followed her aunt toward the dining room and their Thursday lamb roast.