Read Bite Me, Your Grace Online

Authors: Brooklyn Ann

Bite Me, Your Grace

Copyright © 2013 by Brooklyn Ann

Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design and illustration by Chris Cocozza/Artworks Illustration

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

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Dedicated to my mother, Karen Ann
6-11-62 ~ 2-14-09
You were the first person to believe in me.
Every day I strive to make you proud.
And to Damian.
Thank you for never giving up on me.

One

London 1821

“Ruined.” Angelica Winthrop tasted the word on her tongue and found it to be delicious. “
Ruined
,” she whispered once more and allowed a smile to creep to her lips despite her choking bitterness. “Placed on the shelf; rendered unmarriageable for the rest of one's days.”

Her smile faded and the stony lump in her throat returned as she looked at the remains of her favorite book in the fireplace. All that was left were a corner of the cover and a few charred pages that would crumble at a touch. This time her mother had gone too far. She'd come into Angelica's room, snatched the book from her grasp, taken one look at the title, and emitted a strangled gasp of outrage.

“I cannot have you reading such trash,” Margaret Winthrop had said when she threw
A
Vindication
of
the
Rights
of
Woman
by Mary Wollstonecraft into the fireplace.

“How can you call it trash?” Angelica had demanded, fighting back tears. “It's a logical treatise on the subject of our sex being capable of rational thought. As a woman, how can you not be aware of that?”

Margaret snorted indelicately. “The author bore an illegitimate child then married an
anarchist!
I'll not have that book in my house.” Her face was nearly as red as her curls. “It is bad enough that you are a veritable bluestocking. But if anyone knew you were a radical, your reputation would be blackened beyond redemption, with all hope of an advantageous marriage turned to refuse.”

The sight of the book being burned thrust like a rapier through Angelica's heart. Her mother might as well have ripped away her spirit and cast it into the flames.

“Maybe I want my reputation to be ruined, Mother,” Angelica had said, unable to hold back her ire… or her elation with the concept, once uttered. “Maybe I don't want to be a broodmare for some inane boor while he spends my dowry on his mistresses and… Ouch!” She gasped when her mother pinched her.

Lady Margaret hissed, “If we were not going to the Wentworth ball tonight I would slap you. A lady does not speak of such things.” Her eyes narrowed. “Now stop these hysterics immediately! I suggest you compose yourself while I fetch Liza to bring your gown and fix your hair.”

After her mother left, Angelica rubbed her burning eyes, meagerly proud that she had managed not to give her mother the satisfaction of tears. Needing reassurance on the state of the rest of her collection, she peeked under her bed. At least her copy of Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus
was safe. Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, was Angelica's personal hero. If Margaret had burned
Frankenstein
, Angelica would have screamed.

She frowned at the growing pile of books languishing in the dark recesses. A better hiding place for them was in order, but she didn't dare move them now.
This
is
completely
unfair!
Angelica quivered in outrage and despair. Literature was a precious gift. One shouldn't have to hide it from others. The written word should be revered and shared by all, no matter their sex or station in life. Her gaze strayed back to the fireplace, rage curling in her belly at the destruction of a precious book.

“I will do it,” Angelica vowed to the ashes. “I will ruin my reputation and gain my freedom.” Her voice quavered and she felt like she could taste the smoldering paper.

She turned from the scene of the crime and approached her writing desk, stopping for a moment to caress the polished mahogany surface, resisting the urge to open the secret compartment and look upon her other hidden and oppressed rebellion… the pages of her ghost stories.

Ever since she could pick up a quill, Angelica had loved to write. The falsehoods of fiction were much preferable to those of society. Her father encouraged her talent, but her mother, naturally, despised her writing
and
her father's support of a habit that she deigned “for the lower classes.”

“You inherited such common traits from
him
!” she complained constantly. “I swear I shall always regret marrying a mere mister instead of a title. Perhaps then I would not have had such an unnatural daughter.”

A confusing combination of anger and pity for her mother always struck Angelica at those words. When Margaret married a common banker, the Earl of Pendlebur had been infuriated. He had cut off his daughter's money and promised to withhold the funds until Angelica made a proper marriage.

Now Margaret was determined to arrange the match of the season between her daughter and some indolent lord. Whether she intended the marriage to mend fences with Grandfather or if it was only for the money, Angelica didn't know. Either way, the pressure for a titled husband, a wealthy one if possible, was upon her tenfold more than the average debutante. The concept was sickening. One's merit should be separate from one's parentage.

She lifted her chin melodramatically and quoted, “‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'” Shakespeare had a valid point. Of course, that was as far as she could identify with his heroine. After all, Juliet actually
wanted
to get married.

The concept of marriage and being a proper society matron was anathema to Angelica. She longed for adventures such as Mary Shelley had embarked on when she was Angelica's age. Her imagination spun as she read of the author's journeys across the continent, taking her from Paris to Italy, even to Switzerland. It was in the evocative setting of Lake Geneva, during an exhilarating thunderstorm, that Mary had penned her gothic masterpiece,
Frankenstein
.

Amidst the company of such masterful writers as Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Percy Shelley, Mary had been completely free to be herself and write what she wished. Angelica longed for such freedom. She knew her work would thrive if she were away from the stifling sphere of the
haut
ton
, the hypocritical pinnacle of England's nobility and their stringent idea of marriage.

She heaved a sigh and sagged against the wall. Even Mary Shelley had given in to convention when she married Percy. And apparently marriage had suffocated even her bold spirit. After
Frankenstein
, Mary had quit writing. Wedlock and motherhood seemed to make every woman as miserable as Angelica's mother.

A noise outside interrupted her reverie. Angelica rushed to the window and caught sight of a carriage stopping in front of the mansion across the street behind her house. Her heart leaped in excitement.
The
duke
was
back
in
London!
Now, here was good fodder for her stories. Along with his predecessors, the Duke of Burnrath had always been the biggest mystery in high society. He rarely deigned to mix with the beau monde, only attending White's or the occasional ball before departing once again to places unknown.

Though His Grace was ever an object of speculation, he preyed on Angelica's thoughts only half as often as his home, the true center of her fascination. The imposing Elizabethan manor had belonged to the dukes of Burnrath for more than a hundred years. She believed Burnrath House was haunted. Angelica was unable to count the times she had seen movement or heard noises coming from the place when it was supposed to be vacant. Delicious fantasies whispered through her mind as to what sorts of ghoulish specters lurked, or perhaps floated, in its dark recesses. Many of her stories were inspired by Burnrath House, but imagination could only carry her so far.

She gazed at the ancient mansion, shivering in her thin shift. The upper floors thrust up from the heavy evening fog, the ornately columned chimneys resembling dark sentinels. Angelica
knew
if she managed to get inside, she could create a masterpiece of gothic horror to match Mrs. Shelley's. Dedicated research was the source of all great stories, after all. Mentally, she added entry into Burnrath House to her goals.

Angelica caught a glimpse of a dark figure leaving the house and entering the carriage before footsteps on the stairs announced the approach of her mother and her lady's maid. It was a pity she couldn't call on His Grace. Even if it was permissible for an unmarried lady to do so, the duke didn't move in the same circles as her family. Yet another disappointment brought on by stuffy matters of propriety and rank. Her bedroom door opened and she darted from the window to sit primly on the bed.

“I cannot wait to see you in this exquisite creation!” Margaret sang as she carried a ball gown into the room. Liza, Angelica's lady's maid, followed behind with stays and petticoats. “The suitors will be lining up to dance with you.” All signs of anger from the argument had vanished as Margaret resumed her role of happy matchmaker.

Angelica sighed. If Mary Wollstonecraft had been her mother, she would be writing now instead of suffering this ordeal. The stays cut off her breath as Liza jerked the laces with a murmured apology. Angelica held up her arms for the endless layers of petticoats and, finally, the gown. One had to admit that the ensemble was exquisite. The pale blue satin shimmered, appearing to be anywhere between sapphire and the palest cornflower, depending on how the light hit the fabric. The dress was unadorned except for a trimming of darker blue lace at the oval bodice and along the hem.

“Since most debutantes will be wearing paler colors, I believe this will help you stand out, especially with the right coiffure.” Margaret's tone forbade argument.

When Liza had finished her hair, Angelica surveyed her reflection in the mirror. Her dark brown tresses were piled atop her head and threaded with pearls, while a few curls tumbled artfully down her back. Ebony eyes fringed with sooty lashes peered shyly from her heart-shaped face. Her full lips formed a slight smile. Why, she looked at least twenty years old!

Margaret nodded in approval. “You shall make a fetching picture indeed, my dear. I expect you to draw a line of titled young bucks within moments of our arrival.” Angelica grimaced as her mother pinched her cheeks to bring some color. “There, now I must see if your father rang for the carriage.”

The moment her mother left the room, Angelica frowned at the maid. “Why does she have to be so mercenary? I feel like a horse or a painting up for auction.”

Liza sighed. “Lady Margaret just cares for your future. She merely wants the best for you.”

Angelica snorted. “What future? She wants to sentence me to life in a cage more gilt than this one.” She leaped from the stool and paced the room like an angry feline. “That's all marriage is for a woman. Hell, it's all that
life
is for a woman. A prison! Well, I shall stand for this horrid slave-trade no longer! I shall—”

“You shall what?” Liza inquired, immune to the unladylike outburst.

“Never mind.” Angelica was tempted to inform her maid of her intention to ruin herself, but then considered the wisdom of doing so. Liza was like a friend to her, but she was still a servant, dependent on her parents' good opinion to retain her position and the roof over her head. If Angelica succeeded in ruining her reputation and Liza knew about the scheme, her poor maid would likely be thrown out into the street without a reference. Liza was an agreeable accomplice to many of Angelica's adventures, but it would be best if Angelica acted alone on this mission.

To evade her maid's suspicion, she charged over to her bed and pulled a black silk garter from beneath her mattress.

Liza sighed again as she watched Angelica hike up her skirts to slip on the scrap of fabric. “Yer still wearin' that bleedin' thing? You never even met that poet.”

“Of course I am still wearing it. John Keats has only been dead a week. A creator of great works should be mourned. Since Mother will not let me mourn him in public, I shall wear this garter until a decent period has passed, perhaps even the requisite six months.”

Liza nodded. “At least you found the sense to mourn the penniless sod in secret now.” She obviously considered her station to be above that of the poet. “I'll never forget the look on your mother's face when you tried to wear black plumes in your headdress for your presentation to the King last Tuesday. She nearly ran mad!”

Angelica raised a brow. “What else could I have done? She burned my black dress.”

“The hem was too high, and even if I'd let the bodice out to its limits, the dress wouldn't have fit,” Liza countered smoothly before she helped Angelica with her cape and shooed her out the door.

Papa greeted Angelica at the bottom of the stairs. “Could this enchanting creature truly be my little daughter?”

She grinned at her father and dropped into a low curtsy. It was not hard to believe that her mother had once lost her heart to him. Though Jacob Winthrop was forty years old, his ebony hair had not the slightest touch of gray and his gypsy eyes, which he had passed onto Angelica, were framed by only the faintest of wrinkles. Despite the fact that he was untitled, many ladies of the Quality blushed and simpered over him. How was it possible that Mother no longer loved him?

A touch of apprehension caught her at the sight of her father's beloved visage. Would her ruination hurt him? She knew her mother would be devastated, and was surprised at the guilt that arose at the thought, despite her anger at Margaret's betrayal. Surely Papa would understand. He'd never been one to care much for the opinions of others.

She lifted her chin and quoted, “‘
To
hold
a
pen
is
to
be
at
war
.'”

Jacob beamed. “Voltaire, correct?”

Angelica nodded. Even if Mary Shelley had forgotten that writing was war, she wouldn't. And war meant making sacrifices. She must remember that.

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