Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

The Lily of Ludgate Hill Excerpt

Book 3: Belles of London

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.

He felt it as much as heard it, tickling his senses and thrumming in his blood.

Thank heaven she’d agreed to sit.

A seated Lady Anne was far easier to deal with than an Anne in motion. And she was almost always in motion, whether striding about in her mother’s wake or galloping down Rotten Row in company with her bluestocking friends. Mounted Amazons, all—and just as formidable.

He chose his next words with care. “Whatever it is you think you know—”

“What I know,” she said in the lemon-tart tones of a British schoolmistress, “is that you never met a frivolity you didn’t like. These columns you write are another of your childish diversions, clearly. I’m not here to judge.”

“No?”

“I’m here to make use of you.” She tapped one kid-gloved finger on the cover of the printed journal on her lap. “All you need do is say something of a spiritualist nature about this house of Blunt’s in Yorkshire.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“And what am I to say?” He paused, adding, “If I am this Drinkwater fellow you claim.”

She was, unsurprisingly, prepared with an answer. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Blunt’s estate is already rumored to be haunted. You need merely expound on the fact with an emphasis on immediacy. You might say, ‘The veil between worlds is closing soon’ and that ‘all practitioners of a serious bent should journey north to take advantage of it.’ I’ll do the rest.”

His mouth quirked briefly. She was so assured of her plan. So all-fired determined. It was one of the things he used to admire most about her, this unwavering confidence she had in herself. “Have it all worked out, do you?”

“Naturally.” She moved to rise. “All that’s required is for you to do your part. I’ll do the rest.”

“Manage your mother?” His amusement at the situation flickered out as quickly as it had arisen, extinguished by half a decade of bitterness. “Forgive me if I take leave to doubt your capabilities on that score.”

She fixed him with a withering look as she stood, brown eyes sparkling with flecks of gold, like strong spirits ignited by fire.

It brought to mind the game of snapdragon they’d played six and a half years ago, here in this very house, at a Christmas party hosted by his grandfather before he and Hart had left on their 1856 expedition to India. Brandy-soaked raisins and nuts had been set aflame on a silver plate. The young people in attendance had taken turns snatching the sweet treats from the fire.

Anne had been fearless, of course. Heedless of being burned.

And she had been burned.

Hartford had caught hold of her scorched fingers a split second after the flames had singed them. He’d drawn her away from the game, taking her down to the kitchens so that Cook could soothe Anne’s burns with cold butter from the larder.

It was as they were leaving the kitchens that it had happened.

The two of them, alone in the servants’ hallway, the light from a gas wall sconce shimmering in the threads of Anne’s fair hair. Like spun gold it had been, swept back in a glittering net. He’d felt the silken strands with his fingers as he’d tipped her face to kiss her under the mistletoe. Her voluptuous mouth had trembled beneath his. He’d trembled, too.

“I’ve been wanting to do that all night,” he’d said, rather unsteadily.

There was no use pretending. They both remembered it. And not only that kiss, but everything that had come after it.

Would that he could forget!

“You may say what you like,” she said, “so long as you do what I ask of you.”

He leaned back against the mantelpiece, folding his arms. “Why should I exert myself?”

Why?” she echoed, her temper visibly rising. “For novelty, if for no other reason. Lord knows you’ve done nothing honorable or responsible in your life.”

His temper briefly flared to match hers, the harsh scrape of suppressed resentment deepening his voice. “You know nothing of my responsibilities.”

“I know that you live only to find amusement for yourself. Is it too much to hope that you might, for once, do something useful? Something that might help another person besides yourself?”

“Help you, you mean.”

“It’s not helping me. It’s helping Miss Wychwood. Whatever you may think of me, she’s done nothing to earn your hatred. She’s a sweet and gentle soul who might even now be in the utmost peril. If you—”

“I don’t hate you,” he said gruffly.

She broke off. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said that I don’t hate you. I’ve never hated you.”

“Well . . .” A rare expression of vulnerability stole over her face. She masked it instantly, bending her head as she smoothed her gloves. “In that case, you won’t mind doing what I ask.”

“Would that it were so simple.”

“It’s not difficult, surely. I can write the column myself if necessary. All you need do is see that it’s published as soon as possible.”

“Writing it isn’t the difficult part.”

She gave him a suspicious look. “Then what?”

“I told you. I’m reluctant to exert myself.”

“Hartford—”

“I see little incentive to do so.” He managed a thin smile. “As you so rightly pointed out, I’m a selfish ne’er-do-well who thinks only of myself.”

“I didn’t—”

“Now,” he said, “if there was something in it for me . . .”

The last vestige of Anne’s self-restraint crumbled in spectacular fashion. Her countenance hardened to marble, and her hands dropped to clench at her sides, crumpling the pages of the Spiritualist Herald in her fist. She bore down on him like one of the mythical Furies he’d so often accused her of being. “Why, you arrogant, blackmailing rogue!”

His heartbeat quickened as she approached. Anne in a rage was a thrilling sight to behold. “It’s not blackmail,” he said. “It’s an exchange. Something you want for something I want.”

“And just what do you want?”

The idea struck him all at once—a lightning flash of genius. Or possibly madness. Tomorrow he’d likely regret the raw honesty of his words, but in this moment they seemed right. They felt right.

“I want you,” he said.

She stopped mid-stride. Her mouth fell open. “Me?

“You,” he said. “And not like this. Not here in London, dressed in black, like some wraith at a funeral feast. I want you in Hampshire. And I want you in color. Red, preferably.”

She looked appalled by the suggestion. “I am not wearing red. Besides, what on earth is in Hampshire?” Understanding darkened her gaze. “You can’t mean Sutton Park?”

Sutton Park was the seat of the earldom of March. Hartford descendants had been living there for centuries. Grandfather hadn’t been the best custodian of the place during his tenure as earl. He preferred traveling the globe to languishing in the English countryside looking after his estates. Still, the great house occasionally served a purpose.

“Grandfather’s hosting a house party for the holidays. Gentlemen naturalists, mostly. A few tradesmen, too, I believe. Perfumers and the like. He plans to give them some of his newest strain of roses.”

Her eyes locked with his. “You’re talking about a Christmas party.”

Another Christmas party, she might have said.

“So what if I am?” he asked. “Is Miss Wychwood not worth the sacrifice?”

“My friends are worth anything,” she retorted.

“Then you know what you must do.”

Anne glowered. Folding her arms, she paced the length of the room, skirts twitching as she walked. She looked rather magnificent.

“There’ll be other ladies there,” he offered helpfully. “I expect my aunt will have a whole contingent of eligible young misses to throw at my head. Perhaps you can help me choose one?”

She shot him a sour glance.

“It’s high time I married. A fellow wouldn’t want to end his days gathering dust on the shelf.”

He was pushing his luck, and he knew it. Nettling her past all bearing. It had become a habit in his dealings with Anne. Anything to get a reaction from her. To rouse her from this infuriating role she’d chosen for herself as a mute, obedient, unquestioning shadow to her overbearing mother.

An angry Anne was preferable to one that was fading to nothing before his eyes. Slipping further away with every passing season.

Though why he should care anymore, he didn’t know.

“You could bring your horse,” he offered. “Spend the whole week riding if you like.”

“My mother would never permit me to go away for so long without her chaperonage.”

“Then bring her with you, by all means.”

Her brows lowered in a scowl. “So long as I don’t wear black?”

He shrugged. “A small price to pay.”

Her skirts swished about her legs as she paced back to the fireplace. “December is a long way away. A great deal could happen between now and then.”

“It could,” he conceded. “Regardless, if I do as you ask—if I write this drivel to persuade your mother to travel to Yorkshire—I’d expect you to hold up your side of the agreement, no matter what the intervening months might bring.”

Anne came to a halt in front of him, her elegant features set with a sudden resolve. It was the look of a lady willing to endure the bitterest of medicines in order to effect a cure. “Very well,” she said at last. “You have yourself a bargain.”

Excerpted from The Lily of Ludgate Hill by Mimi Matthews. Copyright © 2024 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group. All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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