All About Romance calls Wicked Becomes You “the book to beat for best historical romance this year... Sexy, inventive, and riveting, it’s a book that’s hard to put down and a joy to read.” Romantic Times Magazine declares Wicked a Top Pick for readers in May: “So much fun...charming and deliciously sensual from beginning to end.” Gwen’s reluctant hero, Alex Ramsey, also wins RT’s much-coveted KISS Award! And from Library Journal: “Witty, often hilarious, sensuous, and breathlessly paced, Duran's engaging, mystery-enhanced escapade sweeps its charmingly matched protagonists across the continent, in and out of danger, and eventually into each other's arms.”
One foot into the lobby, Alex came to a stop. Mrs. Beecham had assured them that Gwen was flattened by grief, but here she was picking her way down the stairs, an oversized valise clutched to her chest. More to the point, she had an envelope between her teeth.
The sight arrested him. It seemed historic. He could probably sell tickets to it. Proper Gwen Maudsley, carrying a letter in her mouth for convenience’s sake.
In fact, now that she’d embraced creativity, he could think of several other uses he might suggest for her lips.
It was a hot, predictable thought, useless and thoroughly irritating. So many willing, complex women existed in the world. Gwen, on the other hand, was determined to be agreeable. A more boring goal, he could not imagine. It said nothing good of him that he found himself watching her all the same.
So turn away, he thought. She had paused mid-step, and now was contorting her shoulder, screwing it up toward her mouth, to catch the edge of the letter. This leverage, she used to readjust her toothy grip. Awkward move, quite unlike her. How long since he’d seen her so close? Last June? Yes -- in the garden at Heaton Dale. The breeze had carried away her shawl, and the late afternoon light falling through the oak leaves had strewn a delicate filigree of gold across her smooth, pale shoulders—
Well, yes, she’d always been pale, hadn’t she? Many girls were, nothing special there. Her current pallor probably owed to shock. Difficult morning she’d had, being jilted in front of five hundred people; if she realized that someone now witnessed her indecorum, the mortification would probably serve her the death blow. He stepped backward, out of view from the lobby.
A panicked squeak reached his ears.
He leaned back into the foyer in time to spot her bobbling. She caught her balance, barely, but that valise was almost too large for her to see over. Another round of toothy acrobatics, and she was going to fall on her head before she made it to the landing.
Muttering a curse beneath his breath, he approached the staircase. “May I help?”
“Oh!” The valise plummeted to Gwen’s feet. The envelope pursued a more leisurely descent, floating down to the first step, glancing off its edge, then sliding down several more. It was addressed, but he could not make out the name.
“Alex!” Gwen’s large brown eyes rose from the envelope, which was nearer now to him than her; as she gave him a wide smile, he had the curious impression that she meant to distract him from this knowledge. “How do you do this afternoon? So glad to see you back in town!”
This good cheer seemed a bit unlikely, even from her. “I’m tolerably well,” he answered slowly. Her eyes looked a bit bloodshot. Someone needed to rub the color back into her cheeks, but not him. Some titled xenophobe would do it. He cleared his throat. “And how are you?”
She set a slipper atop the valise and lifted her chin. The posture put him in mind of explorers staking their sovereign’s flag in new ground. “I’m splendid,” she declared.
A smile pulled at his mouth. Really, somebody needed to cast a trophy for her. In Recognition of Her Tireless Dedication to Utterly Groundless Good Cheer. “I’m impressed,” he said. Only five hours ago, she’d been swaying at the altar, watching ashen-faced as her fiance bolted like a rat from the light. “I expected you’d have a headache at the least.”
Her auburn brows knitted. “Oh.” Only now did she appear to recall a cause for distress. “Well, not splendid, I suppose. Of course not. How silly would that be! But I am better, thank you. I napped, you see, and sleep is so restorative!” Her words came more and more quickly now. “But how good of you to call. I do appreciate your concern. I’m much better. And your sisters, of course.” Her lashes fluttered. “Ah—their concern, I mean. I appreciate it. I hope they’re well?”
Beyond the price of a ticket. For Gwen Maudsley to bungle such a basic social courtesy seemed no less likely to him than the failure of a prima ballerina to lift her leg above her waist. But she’d bungled it, all right. She’d butchered it. “They’re quite well,” he replied, straight-faced by an effort. Because it suddenly seemed wise to ask, he added, “What’s in the luggage?”
“Oh, the—the valise? Just some…” She brushed a hand over her brow. Her chignon was slumping toward imminent collapse. Another first. He had never seen her hair in any state other than viciously domesticated. “Sweaters,” she said brightly. She gave a light, atrociously fake laugh. “Sweaters for Lady Milton’s orphanage. She asked me to deliver them today.”
He held his tongue, hoping that a brief silence might highlight for her the patent absurdity of that claim. But her expression did not waver; she regarded him quite earnestly. Or was it defiantly? No, he could not square that sentiment with what he knew of her. “Deliver them,” he repeated. “Today.”
He gave her a disbelieving smile. “Before or after your wedding? Did she specify?”
“I know, I should have dispatched a footman with them, but…” She gave a helpless shrug. “The orphans, you know.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t know any, unless you and I count.”
“Orphaned children.” Then, apparently reading into his expression a sympathy he did not feel—for he doubted that these particular orphans existed—she added, “I know, it’s quite horrible, isn’t it? I’ve been knitting sweaters for all those poor tots. Every single one.”
“How virtuous,” he said dryly.
She did not appear to have heard him. “And now they’re finished, finally, so I thought to drop them by and have the joy of watching the sweaters be…donned.” From behind her ear, a red tress sprang to freedom, tickling her chin.
Portentous, that lock of hair. He found himself riveted by it. Its message seemed clear: he was witnessing the total collapse, mental and physical, of London’s golden girl. If it sent all her hair tumbling, he would not even oppose it.
He released the image on a long breath. Now she was making his brain misfire. If she collapsed, he’d have a much harder time finding a man willing to marry her. Lunatics lacked cachet.
Her hand rose to tuck the curl away. “Terribly tragic,” she said absently. “Little boys and girls, with no…” She glanced toward her valise and frowned.
“Sweaters,” he said helpfully. Generally she was a much better liar than this, persuasively complimenting any number of people for virtues they did not possess. Were it otherwise, she would never have been so popular with her set.
“Sweaters, yes!” With another bright smile for him, and a covert glance for the letter, she bent to retrieve the valise. Judging by how easily she lifted it, it might even contain children’s sweaters. In which case, he was going to conclude that she’d lost her mind.
As she straightened, the smile flickered briefly, then strengthened again. “But how kind of you to drop by,” she said. “After that dreadful scene, no less. I hope you weren’t too discomfited. I expect we will see each other again before you go abroad?”
That was a very clumsy attempt at dismissal. Yielding to alarm, he took two steps up the stairs. Her pupils looked to be normal, so she hadn’t been administered a sedative. “Did you take a knock to the head today?”
She blinked. “No, of course not. Why do you ask?”
He tipped his head. “Would you call this behavior typical of you, then?”
She shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable with the question. “Everyone is in the drawing room, you know.” Her eyes stole again to the letter, which now sat by his foot.
“Yes, I just came from there. Won’t you join us?” Certainly he couldn’t let her run off in this…state. Whatever it was. He supposed it did not speak well of him that he found it rather fascinating. Gwen Maudsley, come undone. He’d always had a fascination with how things came apart—clocks, telephones, the whatnot. But until now, he’d drawn the line at the dismantling of people. “Surely the orphans can wait an hour?”
She opened her mouth. He lifted a brow. She sighed and took a quick peek beyond him, then said in a lowered voice, “I will speak frankly, then. I don’t wish to attend the campaign session.”
“Campaign session.” He was beginning to feel like a parrot.
“Yes, you know, the Campaign to Save Gwen from Eternal Humiliation, Again.” She produced a wry smile. This one proved less stable than her cheerful mien; it slipped quickly away. “But you mustn’t let me keep you from it. I expect you will be quite useful to them. They already used up their best ideas the last time.”
She descended a step. He laid a hand on either banister, blocking her path. “And what of your attendance? Should you not be rather interested in the outcome?”
She eyed his hands. “Not really. I have decided my path.”
“Oh? How intriguing. Where does it lead?”
She gave him a blank look. “To the orphanage.”
Right. He bent down to pick up the letter.
A gasp came from above him. “That’s mine!” she cried.
“I’ll just hand it up—”
A large, soft weight smacked into his head, throwing him off his balance. He staggered sideways, letter in hand; missed a step, cursed, and took a great leap clear of the stairs.
Safely on his feet, he straightened and looked up. She stood wide-eyed, her hands cupped over her mouth, her brown eyes huge. The valise now lay several steps below her, having split open to disgorge a great mess of…yarn.
His brain balked. “You didn’t—did you throw that at me?” No. It was inconceivable.
About as inconceivable as a valise that fell horizontally.
Her hands dropped to fist at her waist. “I want my letter!”
He laughed in astonishment. “You did throw it. Why, Miss Maudsley. You naughty girl.”
“The law of gravity disagrees with you.”
She sniffed. “Do not bring science into this.”
“Right, very bad of me,” he said. “I always forget to leave it at the door with my hat. All right, then, tell me this: did you forget to actually knit the sweaters?” He nodded toward the valise. “Or were you planning to have the orphans do it for you?”
“Never,” she said heatedly. Another red lock collapsed, this one unfurling all the way to her waist. “I will buy sweaters for those orphans.”
“Of course,” he murmured. Her hair was such an unusual color. The shade of a fine pinot noir, he thought, when struck by the sun.
“I will buy a hundred sweaters,” she said. “A thousand! But I shan’t knit them, and I shan’t pretend I did!”
In fact, she’d pretended it only a minute ago, but now did not seem the opportune time to remind her. “Right,” he said. “Well done. And why should you?”
The question was rhetorical, but she took it seriously. “Lady Milton and Lady Anne want me to do it. They’re both hypocrites, you know. They care nothing for those orphans. Lady Milton isn’t even joining the excursion—why go to Ramsgate when one can holiday in Nice!” She crossed her arms and rolled her shoulders, as though to physically shed such thoughts of duplicity. “Hypocrites,” she repeated. “But I care for the orphans.”
Oh ho, a quarrel. No doubt it involved a great lot of silk-clad women with diamonds in their ears, arguing about who cared more for poor little Oliver—pausing only to allow the footman to refresh their champagne. “Naturally, you care.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You don’t believe me? Perhaps I’ll open my own orphanage. And I will feed them something more than gruel, you may count on it!”
The shrill note in her voice dimmed his amusement. All right, the lack of tears and screams had thrown him off, but clearly she was hysterical. On consideration, it seemed typical that Gwen would permit herself to exhibit only the mildest, most pleasant symptoms of the malady. “Beef every night,” he agreed. “Why not? You’ve certainly got the funds for it.”
A line appeared between her brows. “Don’t humor me.”
“Did I ever?” The idea surprised him. “If so, it was only by accident. No need to pile on to that effort.”
She hesitated, then gave him a smile. “That’s true. You’ve never gone out of your way to be nice.”
He smiled back at her; for all that she was babbling nonsense, hysteria looked charming on her. “Open the orphanage,” he said. “You can do anything you like. Your options were not limited by today’s events.”
“Oh?” She came marching down the steps, hand extended. “Then I will ask you to return my property.”
He glanced at the envelope. The Right Honble. The Viscount Pennington. “Oh, good God. What—”
She lunged for it, and he caught her wrist. Her pulse thrummed like the drum in some wild jungle dance. Hot skin, soft beneath his thumb. “That’s mine,” she said. He hadn’t imagined her brown eyes could be put to a glare, but they looked nothing doe-like to him now. She gave a futile yank against his grip. “Let go of me!”
“Writing to Pennington,” he said. The sound of his own words focused him. He opened his fingers, shedding the feel of her. “What in God’s name is this? The man just betrayed you in front of half the town!”
Her jaw squared. “It’s none of your concern.”
He did not recall the irksome discovery of a backbone being one of hysteria’s symptoms. “I made a promise to your brother,” he reminded her. Alas, alas, for deathbed promises. “I’m afraid it’s very much my concern.”
Mention of Richard seemed to throw her. She hesitated. “All right, then. It’s a list of reasons I hate him.”
“I’ll have the truth,” he said flatly.
“That is the truth!” Her finger caught up a loose strand of hair, twining it around her knuckle. Biting her lip and peering up at him, she looked like a very good approximation of a barroom flirt.
A more annoying development he could not imagine. He relied on her to look prim and untouchable. “Leave your hair alone,” he snapped.
Her hand dropped. She gave him a marveling look. “You’re quite beastly, you know.”
“You’re only now realizing this? I would have assumed the gossips might inform you. Failing them, my sisters.”
“Yes, but…” Her eyes narrowed. “Alex,” she said. “The twins tell me all the time how much you loathe when your brother tries to bully you. Why should you do the same to me? Let me have my letter.”
He laughed, surprised by this devious turn. “Oh, that’s well done, Gwen. Yes, it’s true, of all the roles I might play, the bully is not my favorite. But when you’re determined to play the idiot—”
“I am not playing the idiot!” She grabbed again for the letter.
He stepped backward, holding the envelope above her reach. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Pennington’s run off. He’s not here to receive your notes.”
The news visibly stunned her. Mouth agape, she retreated a pace toward the stairs. “Run off?” she whispered.
“Train to Dover, bound for the Continent. I’m sorry,” he added. “He’s a piece of filth.”
“But he has my ring!”
He felt a brief flicker of amazement: she had purchased the wedding bands? Had the viscount done nothing for this match? Why had she been content to sell herself so cheaply?
And then, looking at her face, a new possibility occurred to him. “Your brother’s ring.”
Christ. Alex remembered all too clearly her face, four years ago, as he had placed that ring in her palm. He sighed. “I’ll get it back, then.”
She shook her head. She seemed to be looking through him at some disastrous scene, miles distant. “But if he’s taken it abroad with him—”
“His first stop will be Paris, no doubt, and I’m bound for there tomorrow.” And then, because she was still staring in that broken, addled way that put him disturbingly in mind of a vacant-eyed doll, he added, “Don’t fret, sweetheart. You’ll have it back soon enough. And for the man himself, consider yourself well rid of him. In fact…”
But he trailed off, because she did not, in fact, look in need of comfort. Suddenly the expression slanting her mouth seemed almost…calculating.
“All right,” she said slowly. “You want to read the letter? I’ll read it to you myself, if you like. But only if you promise to do a favor in return.”
His instincts stirred, bidding caution.
How ridiculous. Hell, maybe hysteria was catching. Gwen was as harmless as a rabbit. “Ask away,” he said and started to break the seal.
“Not here!” She threw a quick glance around. Now she looked almost feverish—bright spots of color on her pale cheeks, and an odd glitter in her eyes. “Discretion, Alex! The library will do.”
The strange smile she gave him before turning on her heel made his instincts rise up again, clanging.
Misfiring, misfiring. Rabbit, he told himself, and fell in step behind her for the library.
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This story had sixteen false beginnings. No, seriously -- for the purpose of this section of the website, I went through my “Cutting Room Floor” folder and counted seven different prologues and nine different versions of Scene One, Chapter One. Some of them, I still really like! Here’s the start to one of those Chapter Ones.
The door to the library opened. “Gwen?” Caroline stepped inside and looked left and right, her tiara flashing in the lamplight. “Darling, are you in here?”
Gwen held her breath and hunched as low to the carpet as possible. So much for years of backboards and etiquette lessons and elocution tutors: once again, when it came to the sticking point, she failed. Three dozen of London’s social luminaries gathered below to celebrate her impending marriage. Meanwhile, she crouched behind a potted fern in Lord Weston’s library. She might as well be twelve again, hiding from that governess who had slapped her palm with a ruler whenever she slumped or said “tha” instead of you.
“Did you find her?” This new voice, full of worry, belonged to Belinda. The Ramsey siblings had taken great pains in planning this soiree. Gwen hoped they would forgive her insanity. She simply could not emerge from this fern right now.
“No,” Caroline replied. “Do you think she took ill? I can’t imagine where—”
The door thumped shut again.
The soft nap of the Persian carpet tickled her chin. It smelled of the tea leaves the maids sprinkled to capture dust before cleanings. Meanwhile, the grandfather clock ticked steadily onward. The music from the gallery rose through the floorboards, a distant murmur, like the sound of somebody else’s dream.
She closed her eyes as longing punched through her. She did not want to be here. She wanted to go home.
But how absurd! Wanting to go home was more ridiculous, even, than her flight from the gallery. Where was home? Heaton Dale? That house echoed with emptiness, now—half the furniture sleeping beneath dustsheets, the shuttered windows like the staring eyes of mourners by the grave. Mama and Papa and Richard were dead. She would have no home again until she had a husband.
So. In two days’ time, she would have a husband. In the meantime, curling up on the floor like a frightened turtle seemed…ignominious.
On a great sigh, she sat up. Something floated down to the carpet.
Oh, no. It was a peacock feather.
Her hands flew to her hair. She was shedding!
The peacock feather blurred beneath the first prick of tears. How ridiculous of her! This was her second attempt at marriage; by now, she knew the exact nature of her worth. Why, then, had she run out of the gallery? Her fiancé had not spoken ill of her. Indeed, Thomas had said nothing at all. She had walked up behind him in time to catch Mr. Wilson’s remark: Three million pounds, though. A pity they can’t divvy her up and auction her by the pound.
All Thomas had done was laugh.
Why had she fled? Mr. Wilson had been telling a joke; Thomas was polite, and laughter had been the polite response. It was common knowledge that he needed her fortune, but perhaps not so widely known that he had fallen in love with her, too. She could not expect him to speak of such intimate matters with Mr. Wilson. Yes, how silly of her to have taken offense.
She drew her knees up to her chest. Her gown rustled in protest. Mr. Worth had designed this dress especially for her. “A work of art,” Aunt Elma had pronounced it, and now she was crushing it.
The knowledge gave her a queer satisfaction. You cannot divvy me up, Mr. Wilson. Rude little man. But I may ruin as many gowns as I like.
Perhaps it was better to ruin this one after the party was over.
She forced herself onto her feet and toward the door. She would need to come up with some excuse for her disappearance.
She had felt momentarily ill? But, no, that might imply nerves.
She had spotted a rip in her hem? But then Caroline might ask to see the work that Michaels had done to fix it. Caro was constantly looking for reasons to complain about the incompetence of her own lady’s maid.
Her thoughts abruptly blanked. The hallway outside the library was not deserted; a man stood facing away from her, slouched like a hoodlum in an alley, one shoulder propped against the wall. He was conversing with someone whom Gwen could not see. But chestnut hair brushed the top of his collar.
Either a bohemian had crept into the house, or Alexander Ramsey had returned from abroad.
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Some particularly entertaining primary and secondary sources consulted while writing Wicked Becomes You
Belle Epoque: Paris in the Nineties, by Raymond Rudorff. A nice overview of the contemporary political and social scene.
Galignani’s Paris Guide for 1891. Galignani’s Messenger, the newspaper Gwen browses at the cafe, was a staple at expat tables, and it really did print weekly lists informing readers about the arrivals and departures of notable foreigners. Galignani also published this annual guide to the city, and maintained a circulating library for English-language readers.
“Characteristic Parisian Cafes,” by Theodore Child, and “The Show-places of Paris at Night,” by Richard Harding Davis. These are two fantastic articles published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (in 1889 and 1894, respectively).
Fair Italy, the Riviera and Monte Carlo: Comprising a Tour through North and South Italy. Published in 1884, this fantastic travelogue was written by William Cope Devereux, a man with a fantastic eye for detail.
“Fighting with Four Fists.” In the early 1890s, this article about savate did the rounds through various magazines on several continents. Just when I’d decided that The Idler published it first, in 1893, I found mention of it in the New Zealand National Archives -- in an 1892 issue of the Nelson Evening Mail! Its original appearance is a mystery, then, but there’s certainly a reason that it proved so popular -- it’s illustrated and extremely detailed. Those curious about what savate looks like can find the article on Google Books in Volume 3 of McClure’s Magazine, 1894.
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