Is the story of Lady Harry Hamilton, who falls in love with Shugborough Hall owned by dark and dangerous Thomas Anson, the Earl of Lichfield.
Here is an excerpt. I’ll skip over the prologue where the pair meet when she is a child, and give you the first chapter.
Hampden House, London.
“Oh, Bugger and Balls! Sometimes I wish we were back in Ireland.” Lady Harriet Hamilton removed the second hat she had tried on and flung it across the room. “Living in London is far too repressive. I have no freedom to do anything.”
Her sister Lady Beatrix laughed. “It hasn’t curtailed your swearing.”
Harry joined in her laughter. “Nor my wagering, or flirting, or roaming about the city unescorted.” She looked in the mirror and wrinkled her nose. “It’s these bloody fashions set by the queen. They are hideous!”
“You’re nineteen, going on twenty, so you can’t possibly go bareheaded.”
“Well, I abso-bloody-lutely refuse to wear a bonnet. They make me look like Old Mother Hubbard.“ She was totally unaware that her long dark hair and pale green eyes gave her a rare and striking beauty.
The Duchess of Abercorn swept into her daughters’ bedchamber. “Aren’t you ready yet? I usually insist on being fashionably late, but today that’s out of the question. Victoria and Albert are officiating at this grand opening of the second Crystal Palace, and we cannot insult the queen by walking in late.” The Duke of Abercorn was Prince Albert’s Groom of the Stole, and for the last eight years also had been his friend and confidant. “This official opening, which marks the beginning of the Season, has already been delayed a month because the male statues were considered too shocking for the queen’s sensibilities.” She gave a sardonic laugh. “Since Victoria has had eight children, I’m sure she’s more than familiar with male parts.”
“It is utter desecration to ruin beautiful statues by chopping off their genitals and replacing them with fig leaves,” Harry said with disgust.
“Oh, the fig leaves were subsequently considered too offensive, so now they’ve draped all the statues with cloth.”
Harriet and Beatrix rolled their eyes.
“Do you think Prince Teddy will be there?” Jane, who was seventeen, asked with apprehension.
“Of course he’ll be there. He’s the heir to the throne and his doting parents think the sun shines out his arse,” her mother replied. “What’s he done now?”
“When we were at Windsor last week, he touched my breast,” Jane declared.
“But he’s only thirteen,” Harry said.
“What the devil does age have to do with it?” her mother asked. “He’s a male, and already randy by the looks of him. Don’t be alone with him, darling, or he’ll have your drawers off.”
“Royalty has its privileges,” Harry quipped.
“Too bad he isn’t a bit older,” Beatrix said with a wink. “If you play your cards right, you could end up a princess.”
Jane blushed. “You are a devil, Trixy!”
“All three of you are devils. What’s the hold up here?” their mother demanded.
“Harry refuses to wear a bonnet,” Trixy complained.
“Well, I should think so,” the duchess declared, plucking the decoration from one of the discarded hats. “Pin this bunch of cherries into your hair. Always remember, we don’t follow fashion, we set it.” She touched the crimson ostrich feathers on her own hat to prove her point.
When the fashionably gowned quartet emerged onto Green Street, they found sixteen-year-old James waiting by the phaeton. He opened the carriage door for the ladies. “I’m sitting on the box with Riley. Your crinolines leave no room for me.”
“Just don’t let your new top hat blow away,” his mother warned.
James shut the door. “I wish you had let me take the train. It lets you off at the main gate to the palace grounds.”
“The railway was built to accommodate the masses. There will be such a crush of hoi polloi today, you wouldn’t be able to breathe,” the duchess declared with a shudder.
“I’ll ride the train with you later in the week, James,” Harry offered. “I rather like the hoi polloi.”
James climbed up beside their driver. He turned, winked at his sister, grinned at his mother, removed his hat, and held it in his lap for safekeeping.
“You have a tender heart, Harry. I put it down to the time your father was the Lord Lieutenant of County Donegal and the ruinous rains came. One end of Ireland to the other became a vast wasteland of putrefying vegetation. I took you with me on my mercy visits to the poor, and you’ve championed the down-trodden ever since.”
“I’m following in Uncle Johnny’s footsteps.” Lord John Russell, the Duchess of Abercorn’s half-brother, had served a six-year term as England’s Prime Minister until two years ago.
“Our family has decidedly bad timing. Johnny had been in the House of Commons thirty-three years before he became Prime Minister. Ireland hadn’t had a chance to recover from the tragic potato famine when he took office.”
“But he was still able to do lots of good things,” Harry reminded her mother. “Not only did he abolish the Corn Laws, he was able to limit the working hours for women.”
“Oh let’s not talk politics, Harry. The Season officially opens today and it’s supposed to be a celebration,” Trixy declared.
“Every other year, the Season opens in May. That’s another delay we can blame on Her Gracious Majesty,” Harry said with disgust.
“Speaking of celebrations, I don’t understand why I can’t make my debut with Harry and Trixy. Think of the expense it will save if we all have our Season together.”
“Since when did you start caring about expenses, Jane?” her mother asked dryly. “A coming out ball tells society that the young ladies making their debut are ready for marriage. Since Harriet and Beatrix are only a year apart, they are having their Season together.”
“But I’m seventeen. I don’t want to be left out,” Jane pleaded.
“You’re hardly out of the school room. It would be scandalous of me to throw you onto the marriage market. Just be happy that I will allow you to attend their ball.”
Harry poked Trixy in the ribs with her elbow. “D’you hear that? We are to be thrown on the marriage market. Sold to the highest bidder, I warrant.”
“Sounds like an exciting adventure to me,” Trixy teased. “A guinea says I get more proposals than you.”
“Marriage proposals, or the other kind?” Harry asked.
“Don’t jest. You’ll get plenty of both,” their mother warned.
“You shock my sensibilities. Society’s morals have changed since the decadent Regency era, when you came of age, Mother. Gentlemen today treat ladies as if they were saints. They want their females to be pure and innocent, and will do everything in their power to protect them from being tainted by the wicked world.” Harry gave a mock sigh. “Queen Victoria has taken all the fun out of everything.”
“Rubbish! Gentlemen may pay lip service to pure and innocent, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath the facade of respectability, lust and
licentiousness lurk. The male of the species will take advantage of any opportunity.”
Harry winked at her sisters. “Is that what Father did?”
Lady Lu smiled her secret smile. “None of you would have been born if he hadn’t. The last thing I wanted was a child.”
Harry’s eyes widened in surprise. “How did he persuade you?”
“He promised that if I gave in to his passionate advances, he would give me a girl.” Her wry gaze swept over her daughters. “If I’d known he would give me three daughters in a row, I might have resisted.”
The Hamilton sisters laughed. Their mother had always said outrageous things and she encouraged them to follow in her footsteps.
When they arrived at Crystal Palace Park, there was already a crush of carriages. Riley drove the phaeton as close to the front entrance as he could manage, and the Hamilton family alighted and made their way inside to await Her Royal Highness, Queen Victoria and Albert, her prince consort.
They made their way past the series of ornamental fountains and ascended the dais built especially for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Within minutes, the royal family came into view with its retinue of attendants.
Harry’s glance was drawn to her father who walked directly behind Albert. Not only was Abercorn taller, but he was far handsomer in her opinion, since the prince consort’s hair had receded alarmingly. She watched her parents exchange an intimate glance. They are still in love with each other. That’s the kind of marriage I want.
As Queen Victoria delivered her speech, extolling the Crystal Palace as a showplace for the industrial, military, and economic superiority of Great Britain, Harry’s mind wandered back to the summers at Barons Court, their Irish estate. Vivid memories of her father rowing her mother across the fairy-tale lakes, or taking her up before him on one of his Arabians filled her head. He’s still wooing her after twenty years of marriage. Harry sighed. How utterly romantic!
Her thoughts were brought back to the present when she saw young Prince Teddy edging close to her sister Jane. Harry murmured to her brother, “Teddy can’t keep his hands off Jane. When you get him alone, thump him on the nose.”
He whispered back, “I may be reckless, but I’m not raving mad. Teddy will be king one day. It pays to have friends in high places.” He glanced at fourteen-year-old Princess Vicky. “It must run in the family. The Princess Royal can’t keep her hands off my private parts.”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Harry exclaimed in utter shock.
“We declare the second Great Exhibition open to the public.” Victoria cut the ribbon and the throng cheered, “God Save Our Gracious Majesty!”
The fountain water jets suddenly rose up over a hundred feet in the air. The spectacle caused the crowd to step back, and only the privileged spectators on the front row were anointed by the spray.
Harry lost no time making her getaway. But as she left the dais, she paused before Prince Teddy and smiled sweetly. “I dreamed about you last night, Your Highness. You touched Jane’s breast, and I shoved you on your arse!”
It took him a moment to gauge her meaning; then he threw back his head and laughed with glee. “That’s why I didn’t touch yours, Harry.”
She shook her fist at him and hurried off, eager to see the fantastical displays that had been brought from around the world. An entire wing of the glass building had been divided into courts depicting the history of art and architecture from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance. Harry drank it all in, moving slowly so she could appreciate the fine details. She stopped to look at a display of extinct animals from around the world. She stared at some ugly green creatures made of plaster.
A deep voice from behind her said, “They are called dinosaurs. Do you like them?”
Harry turned around to see who addressed her. The gentleman was tall and extremely dark. There was something vaguely familiar about him that stirred her memory, and suddenly she was swept back to Shugborough, the mansion that had stolen her heart more than a decade ago. She could even smell the jasmine and honeysuckle. “I would call them monstrosities,” she drawled. “I much prefer centaurs.”
Their eyes met, and held. “So, you know who I am.”
“And you, obviously, are aware of my identity.”
Green eyes stared into pewter, as the male and female took each other’s measure. Harry saw a man in his late twenties. Though handsome, his features were stern and unsmiling. He carried himself with a great deal of unbending pride, and had an animal magnetism that was fatally attractive.
“I think it unwise to wander about alone in this crowd. May I escort you back to your family, my lady?”
“You arrogant devil!” She laughed in his face. “I would be offended if you weren’t so ridiculous. I do not conform to the rigid rules of propriety, my lord!”
He looked pointedly at the cherries adorning her hair. “It is evident that your upbringing has been remiss. Your father should have taken you across his knee.”
“And tanned my arse? If I remember correctly, that’s what you threatened to do the last time we met.”
It was clear the young beauty was mocking him. She had been outspoken as a child; now she was downright brazen. Thomas Anson was tempted to take her by the shoulders and shake the insolence from her. He clenched his fists to keep his hands from violating her.
Anson possessed a supreme air of authority that rubbed Harry the wrong way. She threw him a contemptuous smile and turned away. Before she had taken a dozen steps, she came face-to-face with D’Arcy Lambton, the young Earl of Durham. He was the grandson of Lord Earl Grey, and a close family friend.
“Hello, Harriet. You look ravishing today.”
“D’Arcy.” She gave him her hand and he took it to his lips.
“Did you know they have a circus set up in the center transept?” He pointed in the opposite direction. “Oh, there’s my friend Thomas. Come, let me introduce you to him.” He led her toward Anson, and greeted him warmly. “Allow me to present Lady Harriet Hamilton…This is my good friend Thomas, Lord Anson.”
The corners of Harry’s mouth lifted with amusement as she offered Anson her hand.
He took it stiffly, and bent his mouth to her fingers.
“You’re supposed to kiss it, not bite it,” she warned with a gurgle of laughter.
“You know each other?” D’Arcy asked with surprise.
“Thomas and I have been acquainted for years. We once conspired to steal some paintings together.”
D’Arcy laughed. “I warrant they were valuable. Thomas is an authority on art.”
Anson glared at her with disapproval. “You are incorrigible,” he muttered.
“Flattery, begod!” Harry teased.
“Harriet and I are going to take a look at the circus. Why don’t you join us?”
“Oh, yes, please do,” she urged. “I hear they have a tightrope walker.”
Anson accepted immediately. Since he knew her invitation was insincere, it gave him perverse satisfaction.
Harry, flanked by the two handsome lords– one fair, the other extremely dark– made her way through the crowd to the center transept. Trumpets blared, followed by a drum roll, and as everyone raised their eyes they saw a man ascending a narrow metal ladder. He didn’t stop until he reached a dizzying height; then he took a firm grip on a long, thin pole and stepped out onto a high wire that was almost invisible. The crowd below gave a collective gasp.
“His name is Blondin. If he walks the tightrope successfully, it will make him famous,” Thomas predicted.
“A guinea says he doesn’t make it all the way across!”
D’Arcy coughed uncomfortably. “Thomas doesn’t make wagers. He is opposed to any kind of gambling on principle.”
Harry felt her cheeks flush. She knew shehad made a faux pas. Instead of apologizing, she said recklessly, “Surely when a male wagers, it shows courage.”
Thomas’s features hardened. ”And when a female wagers, it shows vulgarity. As a matter of fact, I find this entire display rather vulgar.”
“If you are referring to Blondin’s tights, I think they display his manhood magnificently.”
It was D’Arcy’s turn to flush.
Harry gritted her teeth. There was something about the dark devil that made her behave outrageously. She saw Anson’s eyes narrow. The look of censure he gave her was threatening. If we were alone he’d shake me until my teeth rattled.
Harry slipped her arm into D’Arcy’s, using him as a shield. “Did you receive your invitation to our ball? The guest list was extremely selective, but since you are an earl, we made an exception in your case,” she teased.
“You and Lady Beatrix are making your debut together. I assume you’ll be spending the Season in London and won’t be going to Barons Court until later in the year?”D’Arcy asked.
Harry sighed. “You assume correctly, more is the pity. I miss Ireland.”
“What is it that you miss?” Anson asked pointedly.
“I miss the people. They have an irreverent sense of humor. They are not straight-laced like the English, who worship at the altar of respectability.”
“To the Irish, drinking and gambling are virtues,” Anson said dryly.
“Indeed they are. I am grateful that they taught me to do both.”
His dark eyes were filled with censure. “You revel in audacity.”
“You have guessed my secret, my lord. Since I discerned your secret years ago, I warrant we are even.”
A cry of alarm from the crowd drew all eyes upward, where Blondin swayed precariously, before he regained his balance.
“Oh Lord, I can’t bear to watch. If he falls, it will make me ill. It’s outrageous that a man is forced to do such things for money.”
Anson’s grim expression softened. “You’ve just revealed another secret…you are tenderhearted.”
“Yes, I do take pity on those less fortunate.” Her green eyes glittered with mischief.
“So you may consider yourself invited to my debut ball.”
“I admit to being guilty of showing my disapproval, Lady Harriet, but surely such cruel punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “You do have a sense of humor after all!”