A prim and proper lady thief must save her aunt from a crazed pirate and his dangerously charming henchman…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from in The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels, a fantastical historical romance from author India Holton—available June 15th from Berkley Press.
Cecilia Bassingwaite is the ideal Victorian lady. She’s also a thief. Like the other members of the Wisteria Society crime sorority, she flies around England drinking tea, blackmailing friends, and acquiring treasure by interesting means. Sure, she has a dark and traumatic past and an overbearing aunt, but all things considered, it’s a pleasant existence. Until the men show up.
Ned Lightbourne is a sometimes assassin who is smitten with Cecilia from the moment they meet. Unfortunately, that happens to be while he’s under direct orders to kill her. His employer, Captain Morvath, who possesses a gothic abbey bristling with cannons and an unbridled hate for the world, intends to rid England of all its presumptuous women, starting with the Wisteria Society. Ned has plans of his own. But both men have made one grave mistake. Never underestimate a woman.
When Morvath imperils the Wisteria Society, Cecilia is forced to team up with her handsome would-be assassin to save the women who raised her—hopefully proving, once and for all, that she’s as much of a scoundrel as the rest of them.
Despite the risk to ankles, lungs, and fair complexion, Cecilia was given leave to walk into town and visit the library.
She’d donned a long-sleeved, high-collared dress, boots, gloves, and wide-brimmed hat, thereby leaving no part of her exposed to the evils of sunlight. Then, having selected a book to read along the way, she’d raised her parasol, promised her aunt she would be on the alert for bad air, and at last set out across the waste.
Nothing more dire than honeysuckle and cowpats troubled her, and she made it quite intact to the edge of the field. Pausing, she looked back at the house.
It was a somber edifice, pale and narrow, with three stories and two modestly haunted attics: the sort of building that would sigh mournfully into its handkerchief before proceeding to scold you for fifteen minutes for holding your teacup incorrectly. A building after Miss Darlington’s own heart, or perhaps vice versa; Cecilia had never been able to decide which.
The circular window in its gable, curtained with lace that had been spun by a convent of elderly Irish nuns made mad by the haunting pagan song of selkies, could dilate open for the deployment of cannons without affecting the window box of petunias set beneath.
From that window Cecilia now glimpsed a flash of light and knew it reflected off the telescope through which Miss Darlington was watching her progress. She waved a hand in reassurance. The house moved toward her slightly, as if wanting to wrap a scarf about her neck or make her don a coat, but then shifted back again and settled on its foundations with a shrug. Miss Darlington was apparently going to be brave.
Relieved, Cecilia turned away, entering a lane that meandered between brambleberry hedges toward Bath. Soon after, a bandit attempted her purse. She disabled him with an application of elbow then fist, which did not require her to pause in her stride, although she did skip a vital sentence in her book and had to reread the whole page to make sense of it. Then the bandit, collapsing in the dirt, moaned so wretchedly that she felt obliged to return and provide him with a handkerchief, after which she was able to continue on in peace.
The countryside offered more to her sensitive spirit than Mayfair had. She noticed a skylark springing from the earth, although it looked less like a “cloud of fire” the poet Shelley would have her anticipate and more like a flying clod of dirt. She breathed in the fragrance of sun-warmed dust with no thought of lung contamination. She even lifted her face to the gentle breeze. It was altogether so pleasant that by the time she reached the city she was prepared to call herself happy indeed.
And then she saw the pirate.
He loitered near the river, hatless once again and indecently dressed: he wore no tie, his waistcoat was secured with pewter buttons, and his trousers were far too tight. The way he had his sword belt slung low around his hips inexplicably disturbed Cecilia.
She had long been hoping to attract an assassination attempt. It was a significant development in her career. That it had been provisioned by Lady Armitage disappointed her only slightly, for there would always be the lingering suspicion that the real target was Miss Darlington; besides, she remembered the lady teaching her many years ago how to use a sextant (for both navigation and dismembering purposes) and always considered her a mentor, not a murderer. But at least Aunty Army had employed a pirate and not just some street thug—although Cecilia did consider tipping him a little money to buy himself a decent suit. She nodded across the street to him as she passed.
Suddenly, he was at her side. Cecilia sighed, lowering her book and looking at him sidelong beneath an arched eyebrow. She did not know how to more clearly convey her disdain, but he just grinned in response.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he said.
“I hope you are not intending to do me the discourtesy of assassinating me in the street, Signor de Luca,” she replied.
“Call me Ned.” He nudged her with an elbow as if they were old friends.
“I shall do no such thing. Your manners are dreadful and your cologne cheap. Go away.”
“I declare, for a woman of such delicacy, you have a remarkably firm tone, Miss Darlington.”
“And for an Italian you have a remarkably Etonian accent. Also, ‘Miss Darlington’ is my aunt.” He opened his mouth and she held up a hand to forestall any reply. “No, you may not be informed as to how to address me. You may leave.”
“Miss Bassingthwaite,” he said, “you are being unnecessarily mysterious. I have seen your birth notice; I know the name written there.” Noting that she grew even more pale than usual, he shrugged. “Do you think I would undertake (pardon me) to assassinate a stranger, Miss Cecilia M——who is generally known as Miss Darlington junior but prefers to be called her mother’s maiden name, Bassingthwaite, by her friends?”
“Of whom you are not one.”
She tipped her parasol slightly to better thwart the sun and not inconsequentially angle its hidden blade toward his heart. “When do you propose we become friends? Before or after you murder me?”
“Please, assassinate. After all, we’re not corsairs.”
“We are exactly that, Signor. Corsairs, robbers, pirates. I, however, am also a bibliophile, and you are impeding my visit to the library. So either assassinate me now and get it over with, or kindly step aside.”
“Do you have a ha’penny?”
“I should think if you’re killing someone it is on you to provide the coin for Charon.”
He laughed. “No, I meant for the bridge. There’s a toll.”
“Oh.” She stopped, frowning at the narrow, green-fenced bridge that lay across the Avon River ahead. “I did not realize.”
The young man put his hands in his coat pockets and smiled at her impishly. “You could always bludgeon the tollbooth attendant with your book and walk across for free, what with being a corsair and all.”
“Certainly not,” Cecilia replied, as if he had suggested she dunk a gingerbread biscuit into tea. Noticing his attention on the open pages of her book, she closed it and tucked it into her crocheted purse before he realized what she had been reading.
“I could pay for you,” he suggested.
Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him. “Pay my toll?”
“We can make it a loan if you prefer. You can repay me later with a coin or a kiss.”
“Over my dead body!” She knew she sounded like Lady Armitage, gasping with outrage, but it could not be helped.
“Well…” He grinned, shrugging.
Cecilia again shifted her parasol so that it leaned over her left shoulder, blocking the sight of him. This exposed her to the freckle-causing sunlight, but it was a risk she was willing to take. She almost strode away but recollected herself in time and continued at a sedate, ladylike pace toward the bridge.
“Come now, Miss Bassingthwaite, don’t be so harsh with me,” the aggravating man went on, strolling beside her. “After all, our souls are made of the same thing, yours and mine.”
She shifted the parasol once more so as to stare at him, aghast. “Are you paraphrasing Wuthering Heights?”
“Are you reading Wuthering Heights?” he retorted with a smirk.
She went on staring for a moment, then realized her face was flushed (no doubt from all the sun exposure) and turned away. “I am returning it to the library on behalf of my maid,” she said. “I merely had it open to ascertain the condition in which she’d left it, as she had an unfortunate education and therefore tends to dog-ear pages.”
“Liar,” he said genially. “I wonder what your aunt would say if she knew you were reading that novel?”
“She would ask me why I did not cut the throat of the man with whom I had this conversation.”
“You know, the attendant might let you across the bridge for free if you smile at him. Most men are susceptible to a pretty face. Are you able to smile, Miss Bassingthwaite?”
“Although in truth one such as yourself need not smile to charm a man. Take me, for example. I really ought to be stabbing you right now, but am too enchanted by your lovely—”
“Signor de Luca. If I let you pay my toll, will you leave me alone?”
She nodded, held out her hand for the coin, and waited.
“That is,” he said, “once I have seen you to the other side. Of the bridge, I mean,” he added, winking.
She closed her hand, drew it back, and continued walking. “You seriously think I would cross a bridge in the company of a man hired to kill me?”
“Madam,” he said in an aggrieved tone. “I merely wish to ensure your safety so that when I come into your bedroom—”
“For the purpose of smothering you with your pillow—that was all I meant. No need for such alarm. And please do call me Ned.”
“I will not.”
“Then Captain Lightbourne, at least. I’m only Italian in my paternal ancestry, and it’s fair to say that was most likely a fantasy of my mother’s.”
“Lightbourne? As in the Dreaded Captain Lightbourne of Leeds?”
“That’s right,” he said with pride.
“The same Captain Lightbourne whose house fell off a cliff?”
He scowled briefly. “It was pushed.”
“And that’s beside the point.”
“Which is, exactly—?”
“That I’d like to take you to morning tea, Miss Bassingthwaite. I happen to know a charming teahouse near the Parade Gardens.”
She glanced at him narrowly. “You refer of course to Sally Lunn’s.”
“Indeed.” His smile was so dazzling, she actually hesitated. What harm could there be in half an hour’s chatting over tea with a fellow buccaneer (unless he poisoned the tea, in which case there would be a great deal of it)? Miss Darlington would not approve, but perhaps Cecilia might represent it to her as an information-gathering session—or not represent it at all. She was an adult, after all, and could take tea with whomever she chose. What Miss Darlington did not know would not hurt her (again, unless he poisoned the tea).
Cecilia almost said yes. It lay like a sugared rose petal on her tongue, small yet delicious. She opened her mouth to speak it aloud.
But in that moment she realized they were halfway across the footbridge, with the river tossing glints like sharp blades beneath and the pirate watching her with an alarming stillness in his eyes. Her heart leaped, and she closed her mouth, swallowing what felt now like a thorn.
He must have tossed a coin to the tollbooth attendant when she was not looking. It worried her that she’d been so inattentive. And it proved he was a dangerous man to be around. Not that she needed proof further than the fact that he was intending to murder her, but the flaws of others could be more readily excused than her own. Cecilia did not like making mistakes. And she had made a bad one in almost relenting to this man.
“I beg your pardon, Captain Lightbourne, but I’m afraid I cannot be diverted from my schedule. Thank you for your consideration, however, and if you’ll just return my bracelet I’ll bid you good day.”
“What bracelet?” he asked, all innocence. Cecilia pursed her lips and held out her hand, and he grinned as he laid the loop of gold and pearl in her gloved palm.
“Thank you,” she said. “Please do pass on my compliments to Lady Armitage.”
She turned to depart, but he took a large step alongside, and it was clear he would stop her if necessary. So she paused and looked at him impatiently.
“My fountain pen, if you don’t mind,” he said.
Cecilia sighed. She tipped the pen out of her sleeve, handed it over.
For a moment he just looked at her, his smile still and his eyes intense, making the whole world seem to stop even while her heart fluttered as if he was thieving something from beneath it. Her blood began to race—
And then he blinked. “Thank you,” he said, bowing. “Tell your aunt I send my best wishes.”
“I shall,” Cecilia replied calmly, as if tiny bombs weren’t exploding inside her body. “Farewell, Captain Lightbourne.”
“See you next time, Miss Bassingthwaite.”
No you won’t, she thought as she left the footbridge and proceeded into the city center: I shall be nothing more overt than a silence, a shifting of the air perhaps gently scented with lilacs, when I come again into your presence. You will see only the knife I leave in your rib cage. Just who shall assassinate whom, Captain Charming Ned Flirting Lightbourne?
Smiling at this thought, she nodded to a passing woman, veered away from some children scampering with a puppy, and called briefly in to Sally Lunn’s for an iced bun before continuing on to the library.
Excerpted from The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels, copyright © 2021 by India Holton