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Unmasking Miss Appleby
On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.
Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.
As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…
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“The best historical romance I have read all year.”
~ Rachel @ Heroes and Heartbreakers
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*Desert Isle Keeper*
“Emotionally satisfying, quirky and sensual. Securely tucked onto my keeper shelf.”
~ Caz @ All About Romance
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“I loved this imaginative, intelligently written and delightful romance.
MY VERDICT: A charming romance with a touch of magic and an intriguing mystery. Highly recommended and I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.”
~ Carol @ Rakes And Rascals
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Finalist in the Romance Writers of New Zealand Koru Award for Romance Novel of the Year
October 10th, 1805
MARCUS LANGFORD, NINTH earl of Cosgrove, strode down the steps of Westminster Palace. Clouds streamed across the face of the moon.
“Excellent speech, sir,” his secretary, Lionel, said.
Marcus didn’t reply. His mind wasn’t on the address he’d made to the Upper House, it was on the sniggers he’d heard as the debating chamber emptied, the whispers that followed him down the corridor. Cuckold Cosgrove.
A black tide of rage swept through him. “We’ll walk back,” he said abruptly, and lengthened his stride. The icy wind gusted, making the torches flare in their brackets, almost snatching his hat from his head, filling his mouth with the stink of the Thames.
Lionel tucked the satchel of papers more firmly under one arm and trotted to keep up. “Did you see Hyde’s face, sir? He was so angry, he went purple. I thought he’d have apoplexy, right there in the chamber!”
“I wish he would.” St. James’s Park loomed dark on their left. “We’ll cut through here.”
The clatter of carriage wheels faded behind them. The fetid smell of the Thames receded, overlain by the scents of dank soil and dead leaves. Gravel crunched beneath their boots.
“You’re correct, sir,” Lionel said, puffing faintly alongside him. “It’s the best course. Abolition of the trade, not of slavery itself. Slavery will disappear as a natural consequence.”
Marcus grunted. He spread his hands wide, clenched them. He needed an outlet for his anger. A bout with Jackson or—
“Did you hear that?” Lionel swung back the way they’d come. “Sir . . . I think someone’s following us.”
Marcus half-turned. He saw leafless branches whipping in the wind, saw shadow and moonlight patterning the ground. “There’s no one―”
His ears caught the faint crunch of gravel.
There. Not half a dozen yards distant, in the deepest shadows: three men, mufflers hiding their faces.
His pulse kicked, and sped up.
“Run, sir!” Lionel cried.
Marcus ignored him. He stepped forward, hands clenched, teeth bared in a snarl. This was exactly what he needed. A fight.
The footpads abandoned their stealth and rushed from the shadows.
Marcus threw a punch at the leading man, connected solidly, and followed with a left hook that brought the footpad to the ground.
A second man aimed a sloppy blow at him. Marcus grabbed his attacker’s wrist and twisted, tossing him over his hip. A perfect cross buttock throw. Pity Jackson didn’t see that.
“Sir!” Lionel cried, his voice high with panic. “Run!”
Marcus swung again, striking the third man in the mouth. Lips split beneath his knuckles. The satisfaction of drawing blood made him laugh, a harsh sound that echoed in the night.
The first footpad scrambled to his feet. Marcus sank his fist into the man’s belly. The footpad collapsed with a whoosh of gin-scented breath.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the second footpad lurch upright. Lionel hit him over the head with the satchel.
Marcus ripped off his torn gloves and gulped a breath, gulped a laugh. He’d rarely felt so alive—the cold air in his throat, the sting of broken skin on his knuckles, the savage exhilaration in his blood.
He whirled to face the third footpad. The man ducked his punch and grabbed him in a bear hug that smelled of sour sweat and ale. They grappled for a moment, muscles straining. The footpad slammed his forehead against Marcus’s.
The night dissolved into stars—then snapped back into focus: the moon, the scurrying clouds, the skeleton shapes of the trees. A knee jabbed into Marcus’s stomach. “Cuckold Cosgrove,” the footpad growled.
Marcus tore free of the man’s grip, stumbling back, almost winded. He knows who I am?
The footpad struck at him with both fists.
Marcus brushed aside the first blow and caught the second on his brow, threw an uppercut that snapped the man’s head back, grabbed the footpad and buried his knee in the man’s groin.
The footpad doubled over with a choked cry. He collapsed when Marcus shoved him away. Two yards away, the first footpad was on hands and knees, retching.
Marcus gulped a breath of icy air. He tasted blood on his tongue, felt it trickle down his brow and cheek. His exhilaration hardened into anger. The footpads knew his name; this wasn’t a random attack.
From behind came the crack of bone breaking and a cut-off cry of agony.
He spun around.
Lionel lay sprawled on the gravel path. The last footpad stood over him. Sheets of paper spilled from the satchel, scurrying across the ground, spinning in the wind like large white moths.
Marcus uttered a roar. He charged at the footpad, knocked him down. “You son of a whore!” He grabbed the man’s hair and smashed his fist into the upturned face, battering him until he sagged senseless.
Marcus shoved the footpad aside. “Lionel?” He fell to his knees alongside his secretary. The anger snuffed out. In its place was a deep, sucking fear. “Are you hurt?” Blood trickled into his eyes. He blinked it back and shook his head, spraying droplets. “Lionel! Answer me!”
October 13th, 1805
Westcote Hall, Essex
CHARLOTTE APPLEBY LAID down her needle and flexed her fingers. The handkerchief was almost finished: her uncle’s initials intertwined, and beneath them a tiny red hand, the symbol of a baronet. As if it helps Uncle Neville blow his nose better to know he’s a baronet. She snorted under her breath.
The back of her neck prickled, as if someone had moved noiselessly to stand behind her.
Charlotte turned her head sharply.
No one stood behind her. The corner of the parlor was empty.
Charlotte rubbed her nape, where the skin still prickled faintly. A draft, that’s all it was. She flicked a glance at her aunt and cousin, seated beside the fireplace.
Lady Westcote thumbed through the Lady’s Monthly Museum, barely glancing at the pages, her lips pursed. Anthea was bent over the dish of sugar plums, choosing the plumpest.
Charlotte rethreaded her needle and started on the border around her uncle’s monogram.
Lady Westcote tossed the magazine aside. “Charity.”
Charlotte lifted her head. “Yes, Aunt?”
“Fetch my shawl. The Cashmere with the pink border.”
Charlotte obediently laid down her sewing. She let herself out of the parlor and climbed the sweeping oak staircase. Calm, she told herself. Calm. But her resentment was sharp today—she almost tasted it on her tongue, as bitter as bile—and the tight knot of anger in her chest only seemed to grow larger with each step she took.
She knew why: Today was her birthday. Her twenty-fifth. And instead of everything I dreamed of, I have life at Westcote Hall.
Charlotte pushed her spectacles firmly up her nose. What she had was better than many others had—a roof over her head, food in her stomach. She was lucky.
Lady Westcote’s maid, Litton, was laying out evening clothes in her aunt’s dressing room—a gown of puce silk, a turban crowned with curling ostrich plumes, satin slippers. Beneath the cloying scent of Lady Westcote’s perfume was the sour under-tone of her perspiration.
“My aunt would like her Cashmere shawl, Litton. The one with the pink border.”
Litton nodded and turned to the clothes press.
For a moment they were both framed in the cheval mirror: Litton dressed in a gown of kerseymere that was in the latest fashion; herself in one of Anthea’s cast-offs, taken in at the waist and let down at the hem. Alongside the maid, she looked shabby, her wrists protruding from cuffs that were slightly too short.
I look more like a servant than Litton does.
“Here you are, Miss Charity.”
Charlotte took the proffered shawl. “Thank you.”
She let herself out of the dressing room. I could run away and become a lady’s maid. At least she’d be paid for her drudgery. And no one would call her Charity.
Charlotte tried to imagine what it would be like. Appleby, this petticoat is ripped. Darn it. Appleby, my hair needs to be curled again. Make sure you do a better job this time. Fetch my tooth powder, Appleby—and be quick about it!
She pulled a face. No, Litton’s job wasn’t to be envied.
Charlotte went back downstairs, her hand gliding over the cool, oak balustrade. As she stepped onto the half-landing, the hairs on back of her neck stood upright.
She jerked a glance behind her. The staircase rose in empty, curving flights.
Charlotte rubbed her neck. Idiot. She walked briskly down the last half-flight, pushed her spectacles up her nose again, and opened the door to the parlor. “Your shawl, Aunt.”
Lady Westcote took the shawl without a word of thanks.
Charlotte gritted her teeth. I am grateful to my aunt and uncle for giving me a home, she told herself. Grateful. She took her seat in the corner of the parlor and bent her head over Uncle Neville’s handkerchief, trying to find a calm place in her mind.
“Only five months until I make my debut.” Anthea clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, I can’t wait, Mama!”
Charlotte halted mid-stitch. She lifted her head and stared across the parlor at her aunt. And what of my debut? What of the promise you made my father on his deathbed?
“I shall do better than Eliza,” Anthea declared. “I shall catch a husband in my first Season.”
“Your sister did extremely well.” Lady Westcote arranged her shawl around her shoulders. “Tunbridge is a wealthy man. And well-connected.”
Charlotte snorted silently. And as stout as a pig that’s been fattened for the Christmas spit.
Anthea pouted. Her gaze slid to Charlotte. “Even if it does take me two Seasons, at least I shan’t be an old maid.”
Charlotte pretended the barb hadn’t struck home. She curved her mouth into a smile—cheerful, unruffled.
Anthea tossed her ringlets and looked away.
Charlotte returned her attention to the handkerchief. She tried to concentrate on her sewing, tried to make each stitch as small and even as possible, but her cousin’s voice kept intruding. “For my come-out ball, I want spider-gauze sewn all over with pearls, and a white satin gown underneath. And white satin dancing slippers tied with ribbons.”
Resentful anger mounted in Charlotte’s chest. It was a dangerous, reckless emotion. It made her want to throw down her sewing. It made her want to tell her aunt and cousin exactly what she thought of them. Made her want to storm out of the parlor and slam the door.
Made her want to risk being turned out of Westcote Hall.
Charlotte stabbed the needle into the handkerchief. Gratitude. She had a roof over her head. Clothes on her back. Food in her belly. Those were all things the Westcotes gave her. All things she was grateful for.
“Charity, pour me another cup of tea.”
The pressure in her chest increased. My name is Charlotte. “Of course, Cousin.”
Anthea curled a ringlet around one plump finger. “I shall catch myself a duke. You will all have to call me Your Grace.”
Charlotte walked to the tea service. She picked up the teapot and poured. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself throw the pot across the room, saw it shatter against the silk-covered wall, spraying tea and shards of porcelain.
“Your Grace,” Anthea repeated, with a self-satisfied giggle.
Charlotte glanced at the door, wishing she was on the other side of it. A few hours of silence, of privacy—
If you want that, you know what you have to do.
Charlotte took a deep breath. She placed the teacup and saucer on the table alongside Anthea. “Your tea, Cousin,” she said, and flicked the cup with a finger as she stepped back.
The cup fell over in its saucer with a delicate clang. The porcelain handle broke off. Tea flooded the saucer, spilling onto the tabletop, trickling to the floor.
“Look what you’ve done!” Anthea cried, pulling her skirts out of the way.
Lady Westcote surged to her feet with all the majesty of a walrus. “You clumsy creature!”
Charlotte turned to face her aunt. She felt marvelously calm. Send me to my room for the rest of the day. Please, Aunt.
“Broken!” Lady Westcote’s face suffused with color. She advanced, one hand upraised. “One of my best Staffordshire teacups!”
The slap almost dislodged Charlotte’s spectacles.
“Go to your room! I don’t want to see you until tomorrow.”
Thank you. Charlotte straightened her spectacles. Heat rushed to her cheek, but beneath the heat was a cool, serene calmness.
“And don’t think you can ask one of the servants for food!” Lady Westcote cried shrilly. “You can starve until tomorrow morning! Do you hear me?”
“I do, Aunt.” Charlotte curtsied and let herself out of the parlor.
She closed the door with a quiet snick and stood for a moment in the corridor. She felt light, as if she’d grown wings and was hovering a foot off the ground. A whole evening to myself. No aunt and uncle. No cousin.
Relief filled her lungs and spread across her face as a smile.
A whole evening alone.
HER BEDCHAMBER WAS next to the schoolroom, a small room that had once been the governess’s. Charlotte closed the door and let the silence sink into her skin. The rug was threadbare and the furniture had seen better days, but this room was hers. No one else came here.
She touched her cheek, feeling the heat, the stinging residue of pain. It had been worth breaking the teacup for this: silence and solitude.
Across the room, her reflection stared at her from the mirror. Brown hair, brown eyes, a face that was neither pretty nor plain.
Charlotte grimaced at herself. Happy birthday.
She curled up on the bed, hugging a blanket around her, enjoying the silence. Daylight drained from the sky. When the room was dark, Charlotte lit a candle and closed the shutters. The clock on the narrow mantelpiece told her it was dinnertime.
Hunger stirred in her belly. Charlotte ignored it.
She took the candle next door to the schoolroom. Here, she’d tutored the Westcote boys until their entry to Rugby. Here, she’d taught Eliza and Anthea until their seventeenth birthdays. No words had been spoken in the schoolroom for months, no fires lit in the grate. The air was inert. Cold had soaked into the floorboards, into the walls.
At the back of the schoolroom was the old pianoforte.
Charlotte pulled out the stool and sat, resting her fingers on the keys, feeling their smooth coolness.
She visualized the score, heard the music in her ears, and played the first notes. Quiet. Beautiful. The last of her resentment and anger evaporated. Joy flowered inside her like a rose unfurling its petals. The world receded. Westcote Hall was gone. Her aunt and uncle and cousin were gone.
The hairs stood up on the back of her neck.
Charlotte jerked around, lifting her hands from the keys. The schoolroom was empty except for shadows, and so was the doorway.
The echoes of music died away. She held her breath and heard only silence. No creaking floorboards, no furtive footsteps.
Stop this foolishness! Charlotte placed her fingers firmly on the piano keys and filled the room with sound. A jaunty, cheerful tune that begged to be danced to—
Charlotte jerked around on the stool. The piano strings vibrated with a discordant hum.
A housemaid stood in the doorway. “Mrs. Heslop said to give you this. Venison pie. And a newspaper that were in Sir’s fireplace.”
“Oh, Lizzie.” Foolish tears rushed to her eyes. Charlotte blinked them back and stood. Her footsteps echoed hollowly on the floorboards. “Please thank Mrs. Heslop from me.” The newspaper was charred at the edges, the linen-wrapped pie warm and fragrant.
Back in her bedroom, she slipped off her shoes, climbed up on the bed, and unfolded the newspaper. A warm glow of happiness spread through her. What a perfect evening: the precious solitude, the music, the kindness of the housekeeper.
Charlotte ate hungrily, read hungrily. A rich and varied world existed beyond the walls of Westcote Hall and the newspaper brought it vividly to life: the war with France, political debates and criminal trials, the doings of the Prince Regent and the ton, concerts and exhibitions and theatrical performances.
When she’d finished the pie, Charlotte gave a deep sigh of contentment. This was the best birthday she’d had since her father had died.
The thought was sobering. She frowned down at the columns of closely typeset print. Her eyes fastened on an advertisement.
Wanted by a Gentleman’s Family in the county of Hertfordshire, a GOVERNESS competent to instruct two young girls in Music, Geography, and English. A thorough knowledge of the French language is required.
Charlotte reread the advertisement. She could do that.
Her gaze skipped down the page. Wanted immediately, a single YOUNG MAN to act as a Gentleman’s secretary. A strict Character required. Good wages will be given.
She could do that, too. Hadn’t she been her father’s secretary until his death? And a secretary would earn more than a governess.
But she wasn’t a man.
Charlotte pulled a face and read further.
A position exists for a JUNIOR SCHOOL-MISTRESS well-qualified to teach English, French, and Latin grammatically. Applications to Mrs. Bolton, of Mrs. Bolton’s Ladies’ Boarding School, near Basingstoke. Testimonials of Character will be required.
Charlotte read the advertisement again. If she worked at a school, she’d have colleagues, other teachers she could become friends with.
Charlotte raised her head and stared across the bedchamber, not seeing the stiff wooden chair in the corner. I should like a friend. Someone she could talk with, share confidences with, laugh with.
But who was to say that she’d find a friend at Mrs. Bolton’s Boarding School?
And did she really want to be a junior school-mistress?
It couldn’t possibly be any worse than life at Westcote Hall and quite likely much better—at the very least, she’d be paid for her labor—and yet . . .
She recognized the uneasy, twisting sensation beneath her breastbone: fear.
The Westcotes were her only family. They might treat her little better than a servant, but they gave her a home, gave her safety and security. If she left, there’d be no coming back; her uncle had made that quite clear.
Charlotte frowned at the wooden chair in the corner. What was more important?
If I leave, will I regret it? Or will I regret it more if I stay? Without foresight, there was no way of knowing—
The wooden chair was no longer empty. A woman sat there.
A scream choked in Charlotte’s throat. She jerked backwards on the bed. The hairs on the back of her neck, on her scalp, stood upright.
The woman snapped her fingers. A fire flared alight in the fireplace, flames filling the narrow grate and roaring up the chimney. Four blazing beeswax candles appeared on the mantelpiece.
“That’s better.” The woman folded her pale hands on her lap. She was dressed in a gown that had been fashionable hundreds of years ago, blood-red velvet trimmed with gold. A high white lace ruff framed her throat and head. Her face was as pale as wax, her eyes as black as obsidian, not reflecting the candlelight, but swallowing it. “Charlotte Christina Albinia Appleby?”
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