A Ravishing Beauty in Disguise (Preview)


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Chapter One

Harriet Arnold was only just 12 years old on the night of her cousins’ family’s dinner party, one they held nearly every year at the height of summer. Salads glowed in enormous glass bowls before her; maids scuttled in and out to refill the wine glasses and ensure any accidental crumbs were wiped away from the antique tablecloth. Laughter rang out like a song through the enormous window, overlooking the moor. In every way, the dinner felt entrenched in nostalgia already, as though this was a time they would glance back at fondly, murmuring, “I can hardly believe things used to be so simple.”

Harriet’s light brown hair flowed down the back of her chair as she tilted her head back, her ears heavy with the lacklustre conversation of the grown-ups around her. At just 12, she felt caught between her childhood and her very near future, when she would be expected to live an adult life—acknowledge the boring and severely unfair world around her—and even contribute the words she heard echoed from her parents’ lips. “That’s just the way things are.”

But just now, she caught the eye of one of her cousins, Marcus. Marcus was only 13, three years younger than his older sister, Zelda, who was seated beside him. Her hair was sleek, blonde, shiny in the light that beamed in from the windows. She sat with the primness of a lady. Harriet attempted to match her, but then returned her gaze to Marcus. He shot his head towards the door, with an alluring, “Shouldn’t we go outside?” He said it just soft enough not to be acknowledged.

Harriet’s heart pumped wildly. She wanted nothing more than to strip herself from the rickety chair beneath her and scamper out to the garden. She felt her mother’s eyes occasionally upon her, seemingly daring her to make a misstep. “I’ll be terribly proud of you if you sit like a lady all throughout dinner, Harriet,” her mother, Lady Marie Arnold, had told her that morning. “Won’t your cousin Zelda be impressed?”

But just now, Harriet heard the cluck of a tongue beside her. Her eyes flashed towards her younger cousin, Renata, with messy blonde curls to contrast her sister’s sleek strands. Renata kicked the legs of her chair. It seemed to Harriet that she hadn’t yet touched the food on her plate. It was clear that this experiment—for the 11, 12, and 13-year-olds to join the adults at the table and proceed with appropriate conversation, was failing.

Again, Marcus tugged his head towards the door, seemingly demanding her decision.

Just then, the alluring, gritty voice of one of the strangers at the table forced Harriet’s eyes away from Marcus.

“I don’t suppose you’ve given much thought to the nature of poverty,” the very-near man, Lord William Abernale, announced to Harriet’s uncle, who had been in the midst of saying something rather dull about taxation.

At this, Harriet’s ears perked up. William Abernale was the son of Harriet’s uncle’s friend, and thus was a guest of the house and family. It was a remarkable thing that he dared to argue with Lord Hendrick Arnold. Just now, Harriet’s own father lent William a dark look, something that to Harriet, seemed to demand, “Just who on earth do you think you are?”

“How old are you, son?” Hendrick asked, tearing a piece of bread across his platter. Crumbs flew.

“I’m eighteen, sir. I’ll be attending university this fall. I plan to study law,” William offered.

“He’s a bit idealistic,” William’s father announced, giving his friend Hendrick a knowing look. “Perhaps we were once like that.”

“It’s difficult to think back so far,” Harriet’s father, the Duke, Lord Adam Arnold, scoffed. “But I suppose we all had different ideas back then.”

“Before the truth of raising our own families shadowed everything else,” Hendrick said.

“That’s precisely so,” William’s father returned.

William’s cheeks flashed pink. Harriet had never seen anyone attempt to stand up to the adults before, although William, himself, was more or less an adult at this point. Just now, she marvelled at his looks: his dark brown curls, his deep brown eyes. Despite being only eighteen, he was already marvellously muscular, as though he’d spent the previous summer months performing physical tasks, rather than hunched over a book.

Harriet’s chest swelled a bit. She focused on the soft dark hairs above William’s upper lip, wondering at the ache within her. She felt a sort of internal need for—something unnameable. Something she couldn’t understand. She yearned to sweep her fingers through William’s dark locks, to inhale his scent, emanating just behind his ears.

These were not thoughts Harriet was accustomed to.

But now, Zelda—just about a year younger than William—slipped a hand across his upper bicep. Harriet felt chilled with jealousy.

“Don’t listen to them, William,” Zelda whispered, just loud enough for Harriet to hear. Already, the adults had proceeded on with their retelling of the past. This was a near-constant pastime for them, as though they’d locked out their ability to create new tales.

William’s big brown eyes glowed towards Zelda. Zelda’s hand fluttered away from his bicep. Still, neither noticed the rest of the room, as though they were completely entranced with the other. Harriet’s stomach clenched.

“Come ON, Harriet,” Marcus finally grumbled, leading Harriet to leap to her feet. The words had scared her, forced her to recall where she was.

“What is it, darling?” her mother demanded, her voice a harsh whisper—tucked just beneath the booming voices of the other men.

“Can we go outside and enjoy this beautiful day?” Harriet asked, hating the fear that lingered within her voice.

Her mother cast her eyes towards Renata, who nodded her head. Marcus leapt from his chair.

“Oh, you cousins. It’s impossible to control you, isn’t it?” Harriet’s mother sighed.

This was how Harriet, Marcus, William’s younger sister, Evelyn, Renata, Zelda, and William himself came to arrive in the garden on this blissful, blue-sky day in August. Harriet and Marcus began to organise a little game of war, one that Zelda immediately called “barbaric.” Of course, Harriet’s cheeks burned at this judgement, as she wished, in many respects, to be the sort of lady Zelda respected. William stood beside her, his hands shoved in his pockets. Harriet wondered how long it had been since William had allowed himself to play with the other children. Those days were long-gone.

In the midst of the “war,” which was ultimately fought with Marcus, Evelyn, Harriet, and Renata, Harriet watched as Marcus cheated, finding a secret tunnel in the garden and scaring Evelyn from behind. Harriet’s heart burned with the injustice of it.

“You live here, Marcus! It’s not as though the rest of us could possibly know all your tricks!”

“That isn’t my fault.” Marcus shrugged. “It’s the same with any war. If it’s fought on your territory, then you have the upper hand.”

“I’m not so sure that’s true,” William remarked from the sideline.

Harriet stepped forward, her eyebrows lowering. “It should be equal, Marcus.”

Marcus thrust his sword-stick against the ground and crossed his arms over his chest. “This is stupid. I don’t want to play anymore.”

“You don’t want to play anymore just because you don’t think you can win without the upper hand?” Harriet demanded.

“That’s not it,” Marcus affirmed. “I’m just not having any fun anymore.”

“Good grief.” Renata sighed. She, too, tossed her stick on the ground. “I don’t want to play, either. This is boring. War is boring.”

The 11-year-old Renata seemed to make more sense than any of them. William suggested that they all take out the horses from the stables and go for a brief ride across the moors. At this, Zelda shrieked with pleasure, nearly tossing herself against William. Again, Harriet felt herself ache with jealousy. She dragged her feet after the rest of the crew, watching as William and Zelda’s hands occasionally touched—their fingers seeming to flirt with one another, even as their eyes didn’t find the other’s.

Once at the stables, all the children mounted their horses and began to trot across the moors. The sun was a heavy orb in the sky, penetrating Harriet’s eyes. She squinted at the horizon line, shifted her body forward, and began to race alongside Marcus, demanding the speed to increase. Marcus huffed beside her, seemingly aghast that she wanted to push it so hard. Behind them, the others had begun to speed as well, with Zelda crying out, “Why so fast, Harriet?!”

But Harriet was like this. She liked to speed, to feel the wind through her hair and across her cheeks, to feel as though if she ran faster and stronger and wilder, she never had to return back to the humdrum life of adulthood, which she knew awaited just beyond her 13th year. Even William declaring that he was going to university had frightened her. Soon, they would all have to make decisions that would structure the rest of their lives, decisions that decided the sort of character they had in the world. She didn’t want such things. She didn’t want to sit around the dinner table, discussing taxation. It felt like a trap.

In the midst of her manic thoughts, she heard a shriek from far behind. Marcus stalled and bucked back, letting out a wild, “Oh no!”

Harriet forced herself to slow. The horse’s feet stumbled beneath her, nearly toppling her over. She reared around and blinked at the view. About 500 feet back, Zelda had fallen from her horse. The horse itself had scampered away, leaving her in a crumpled heap on the grass. Already, William had hopped from his own horse and knelt beside her. The view was one of a hero tending to his maiden. Harriet dropped her heels into the side of her horse and ambled towards them, her heart bolting in her throat.

When she arrived at the scene, she could hear the low, animal-like groan escaping from Zelda’s throat. Renata rushed to her side, watching with enormous eyes as William rolled Zelda onto her back.

“Zelda! Zelda, can you answer me?” he called. “Zelda, is anything broken?”

The question had an immediate answer. Zelda’s arm hung limply at her side, looking crooked and mangled. Harriet didn’t look away like the others did. She gazed at the strange view of this mangled limb, knowing, in some black part of her mind, that this was partially her fault. She always pushed too hard. She always wanted the biggest emotion possible out of everything.

“Let’s get you inside,” William murmured.

Zelda lent out a meek, “Will you help me?”

Without words, William slipped his hands beneath her shoulders and her knees, guiding her against him. He stood slowly, adjusting her frame as he went, then took a slight step back towards his horse. Renata reached for the horse’s reins and steadied him, whilst William draped Zelda over the side. He kept his firm hand across her back, stabilising her.

“Let’s go slow,” he murmured. “Slow and steady.” His eyes flashed back towards Harriet and Marcus, who he viewed with a strange, almost sinister light in his eyes. “Go back to the estate now and hail the doctor,” he told them. “Ride as fast as you can.”

Harriet and Marcus mounted their horses and did as they were told, stretching out across the moor and back to the estate. With each pound of the horse’s hooves beneath her, Harriet was reminded that her selfish actions had led to this moment. If only she’d slowed down; if only she’d remembered the softness of Zelda, the need to be delicate.

In the back of her mind, she resolved never to act with such selfishness again. Even in the midst of the next hours, as she and Marcus explained the circumstances to the parents and watched the uproar, the doctor’s arrival, the quick action—she reprimanded herself internally. No one could ever punish her the way she currently punished herself. And when William and Zelda finally arrived back, she felt she deserved nothing of William’s attention. It seemed that Zelda and William were about to embark on the kind of romance she could only dream of—a kind that was written in the stars, reserved for the sort of delicate and beautiful personalities, like Zelda. Harriet was simply too unbreakable. She was simply too rugged. She was simply too free.

Chapter Two

Harriet was 23 years old. The fact of this number rang through her frequently, reminding her that her family-appointed mission to find a husband, to settle down, was largely a failed one thus far. She blinked at herself in the foggy mirror over her water basin, marvelling at the long, wild brown locks, the green eyes that seemed to have a life of their own. “She’s a bit too much, isn’t she?” she’d heard one of her potential suitors, Lord Everett, whisper to another man. “Beautiful, sure. But I don’t want such volatile opinions at my dinner table every night for the rest of my life. I think any man would be crazy to …”

Now, she shook her head, making her curls quake. It was nearly time for tea, meaning she had to hang up reading of her philosophical texts for the afternoon and return to the humdrum conversation her mother offered. It wasn’t her mother’s fault, Harriet knew. Rather, the woman hadn’t been forced to think outside the bounds of her own existence, well, ever, and thus she found it difficult to dive into any sort of conversation that made Harriet’s brain sizzle with excitement. She promised herself she could take a ride after tea, to reinvigorate the inner caverns of her mind. Surely, that would help.

Harriet reached for her jewellery box and sprung it open. Inside glowed the old locket, passed down from her grandmother after her death. Harriet swept the locket over her chest and pressed at it, wishing with all her might she could pry it open to see the photos within. As it stood, no one had been able to open the locket since her grandmother’s death. It was assumed that within the locket were photos of her grandmother and grandfather, in their prime. But no one was sure.

Now, Harriet brought the golden strings around the back of her neck, drew the latch back, and tried to hook the parts together. But in the midst of the process, she heard a cling—then felt a jagged piece of gold flick down her back. Her eyes grew into saucers.

She’d broken it.

Harriet swept the necklace back around and blinked at the space where the latch had once hung. Now, it was just a jagged, claw-like piece, without its latch. She shivered, feeling as though she’d tainted a piece of her own personal history.

When Harriet found her mother in the tea room, she held the locket tightly in her right hand. She sat softly at the edge of her chair, peering across the little table at her mother. Her mother’s long lashes swept up. In the previous years, Lady Marie Arnold had aged considerably, casting grey locks down her ears. Wrinkles cut themselves around her eyes. She pursed her lips for a moment and then said, “I can tell something’s wrong, Harriet. Are you going to tell me, or are you going to make me guess?”

Harriet was the Arnolds’ only child. They generally doted on her, thought her to be a most remarkable child, one deserving of all the love and freedmen in the world. Yet of course, when she made minor mistakes, this meant that their reaction was all the worse, as they expected her to be continually perfect. Harriet stretched out her palm to reveal the broken locket, allowing her shoulders to sag.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mother,” she murmured. “I really am.”

Lady Arnold was terribly sensitive about the items her mother had left behind. She, herself, had only a few bracelets, rings, and necklaces from the woman, ones she rarely wore, as she wanted to ensure they kept.

“What did you do?” Her mother sighed, ticking her tongue against the top of her mouth.

Harriet muddled her words. “It was an accident.”

“I should think you wouldn’t do something like this on purpose,” her mother said wearily.

“What should we do?” Harriet whispered.

Just then, Lord Arnold appeared in the doorway of the tea room. He beamed at them, his face heavy with beard and his eyes just as bright green as Harriet’s. He’d been away for several days on business, yet his face reflected back youth and vitality, despite the travel.

“Darlings!” he said. He pounded a fist against the side of the door. “I’ve travelled long and far and wide to see you.”

For a moment, Harriet allowed herself to tear from the current necklace-debacle reality. She jumped from her chair and rushed for her father, wrapping him in an enormous hug. She felt momentarily like a much younger girl, rather than the woman who’d enraged her mother—and hadn’t yet found a husband to call her own.

“What’s gotten into your mother, then?” her father asked, his voice conspiratorial. He spoke loud enough for Lady Arnold to hear.

“Oh,” Harriet sighed. “It’s really just—“

“Your daughter has broken her grandmother’s necklace,” her mother said, using a sharp tongue. “I can’t imagine how she was so clumsy with something that means so much …”

“Now, now,” Lord Arnold tried. “Let me see.”

Harriet’s father analysed the necklace for only a moment before scoffing and saying, “Mother, this is but a tiny repair. Why don’t we go to Bond Street immediately and get it fixed? Truth be told, I’ve missed London quite a bit in my days away, and a walk outside the house would do us all a bit of good.”

Harriet was grateful for her father’s occasional bouts of optimism. They were difficult to predict, yet always felt like a fresh wind on a hot day or a bit of sun in the winter.

Harriet raced to her bedroom to find her spring coat. She whirled it over her shoulders, hearing the echoes of her parents’ voices downstairs. Still, it seemed her mother was in a sort of tizzy regarding the locket. Yet she knew the moment they arrived in Bond Street, she would grow lost in the grandeur of vintage jewellery, new leather purses, grand gowns, and conversation and gossip with other passers-by.

Soon, the three Arnolds ambled up the steps of the carriage. April sunlight filtered through the occasional spits of rain. Harriet’s mother continued to clench the locket in her hand, but her face had loosened a bit, and she’d even allowed a small smile towards Harriet. Harriet breathed a sigh of relief. She sensed it was all due to the fact of her father’s arrival back from his trip to Bristol—but she would take her wins when she could.

Bond Street on that particular April afternoon was awash with activity. Women Harriet recognised from society frequently met there to walk and gossip, pausing at the various jewellery stalls and casting eyes towards the available bachelors, who tipped their hats. The whole thing felt like an animal game, one Harriet often found herself participating in. Her cousins Renata and Zelda had frequently demanded why she hadn’t decided to settle down with one of her potential suitors. “You’re terribly beautiful, you know,” Zelda had said once, in that bored tone of hers. “I don’t know why you put such terror on your life. You could be happy.”

“I don’t believe the end-all hope of my life is to settle down with just any husband,” Harriet had returned. Although, admittedly, she was growing a bit frightened of her own obstinate decisions to uphold her inner values. Why was she so different than her parents, her cousins? Why couldn’t she just agree on happiness, whenever and wherever it came from?

Harriet walked a bit behind her parents, who seemed to dote on one another in a manner suited for much younger couples. Her father laced his hand around her mother’s lower back, tucking her close against him. Her mother giggled softly, whispering something into his ear. Harriet beamed, stitching her hands across her belly. How did she get so lucky, her parents still in love with one another? Ordinarily, she found herself with friends’ parents—or even her aunt and uncle—who looked at one another as though they were looking at blank and barren walls. The Duke, Lord Adam Arnold, had found in Lady Marie Arnold a supreme soul mate, a woman who would uphold him over everything. “Till death do we part,” didn’t even fully cover it.

“Here we are.” Lady Arnold sighed, drawing toward the jewellery stand.

Harriet ambled up to the long, wooden table, watching as her mother splayed the golden chain across the velvet. Her mother eyed the jewellery maker with her harsh blue ones, saying, “It really is quite a tragedy. This belonged to my mother. It’s older even than that—passed down from her grandmother before her.”

“It’s just the latch, My Lady,” the jeweler said. He scratched the inside of his nostrils and drew the chain skyward, analysing it. “This shouldn’t be a difficult fix at all.”

“Oh? My daughter, she’s so careless …” Lady Arnold continued.

“Darling, don’t worry him with the story,” Lord Arnold said. He glanced towards Harriet and winked. “Besides, it’s clear that that thing was going to break regardless. It’s not like Harriet did anything wrong. All she wanted to do was wear it. Didn’t you, honey?”

Harriet nodded.

“I’ll have it fixed within the hour,” the jeweler said, his voice lazy, his words long.

“Splendid,” Lord Arnold said. “We’ll have a look around and return shortly.”

Harriet whirled back from the jewellery stand, feeling the eyes of her parents on her back. She took a step in the direction of the leather-maker, knowing that her mother would be pleased to peruse the purses and wallets. Her father placed his hand upon her shoulder, perhaps as an assurance that everything would be all right.

“It really is lovely to be out here in the afternoon,” her mother said as they walked, ambling alongside people they’d met, people they were to one day meet. Skirts shuddered around them in various colours of pink and yellow and blue, a sign of the spring. Harriet was entirely grateful they’d left the estate, if only to break from the fight that her mother might have picked with her otherwise. Although they generally got along, it was becoming increasingly clear that her mother was worried about her only child—wondering if she’d ever break out of the bounds of the estate and make her own family.

Harriet spread her finger across the stitching of a leather bag at the table, listening as her mother asked various questions regarding the make and quality of a few items. Her mother turned a rueful eye towards several of the designs, muttering, “This really isn’t the sort of thing I’m accustomed to …” in a way that was meant to show the leather-maker her disapproval. Of course, both Harriet and her father knew that this was a game she kept up, to ensure that she felt superior to everyone around her. Harriet and her father exchanged glances, unbeknownst to her mother, then smiled. Harriet’s inner-belly glowed with happiness. Perhaps it was because she knew she wouldn’t have many more days like this with her parents. She couldn’t be sure.

At the following stall, her mother pored over various lotions and creams, several that purported themselves as “anti-ageing.” Her father was inclined to spout that she “didn’t need such things,” to which her mother sighed and said, “That’s sweet, darling.” Harriet herself didn’t care much for such things as of yet, and cast her eyes away from the table, behind the stalls.

A tired beggar woman sat perched on the steps of a church. She clutched her knees and shifted back and forth. The only things she owned in the world were aligned next to her: a bag filled with items from the street, and a little leather purse, in which, Harriet assumed, she kept the only money she had in the world.

Harriet analysed the woman’s face for perhaps too long. The woman was in her late 30s, her cheeks drawn over large hollows that showed her exhaustion. She shook a bit, her shoulders jiggling back and forth. Her eyes were hazy and blue, seemingly looking at another dimension, one that Harriet and her parents couldn’t see. Harriet wondered how many people had walked past the woman that day, only to ignore her and immediately forget her existence.

As she stood, a man of similar station to Harriet herself approached the beggar woman. He was muscular, his shoulders thick, his top hat shining beneath the soft glow of the sun. With a strange, frenetic motion, he reared his foot back and slammed it against one of her bags, casting the items across the steps of the church. Then, he ambled forward and began to collect the items, stacking them in his arms.

The beggar woman bungled to her feet and stretched her hands over her chest. She let out a strange, animal noise, one that showed her intense fear. The man stuck his tongue out at her and wagged it before reaching for her leather wallet and slipping that on top of the pile. Harriet couldn’t quite make out what he said yet felt the energy emanating off of him lined with evil.

Suddenly, Harriet rushed towards them. She felt guided by an unseen force. She raised her knees skyward, thrust her arms back and forth, racing. But just before she cut out from the market completely, she felt a hand on her shoulder. It pulled her back with a ferocity she couldn’t explain. She nearly tumbled to her knees, yet caught herself at the last moment. Then, she blinked back into the eyes of her father.

“You’re going to let him get away!” she cried, feeling that the sound of her voice was entirely childlike. “You can’t possibly—”

But her father had none of his ordinary kindness. He shook his head with volatility and helped her to her feet. Harriet drew her eyes back to the scene of the crime, watching as the man ambled away from the beggar woman with everything valuable she might have owned. Just now, the beggar woman stretched herself out on the steps of the church, curving her face into her hands. Tears made her slim body shake.

“You don’t understand, Father! Maybe you didn’t see. That man! He just stole from the woman …”

“It’s not that I didn’t see it, Harriet,” her father said, his voice low. “It’s only that I know better than to chase after things I can’t change.”

Harriet nearly spit with anger. She whirled back towards her father, tears filling her eyes. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’re too young to understand,” her father returned.

“I’m 23 years old,” Harriet said.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t be too young, then. Perhaps too idealistic,” her father said. Again, he tugged on her elbow. “It’s time for us to go.”

Harriet turned towards her mother, thinking that surely, if anyone would understand, it would be her. But her mother diverted her eyes, returned her fingers to the leather bag before her. Harriet felt the chaotic market spinning without rhyme or reason, as though time ticked away without her.

“Come along, Harriet,” her mother said, her voice coming from somewhere far within her throat. “I need your opinion about this bag. Do you think it would be suitable for overnight occasions?”

“Mother, I really don’t think …” Harriet began, flustered. Breath burst in and out of her lungs. “I really don’t think we should be discussing the validity of a bag when …”

Her mother’s blue eyes flashed towards her. She clucked her tongue. “Darling, you’ve been on this planet for 23 years. Shouldn’t this discussion be for a much younger girl?”

Harriet baulked. She slipped her hands across the flatness of her stomach, a chill overtaking her shoulders. Her father ambled back toward the jeweller, sweeping his hand around her mother’s back. They cut through the crowd, leaving Harriet behind. Again, she blinked towards the beggar woman, wondering at the wretched darkness in the world. What could that man possibly do with the items he’d stolen? Had he no conscience? And how could her parents just allow it to go on like this?

Harriet didn’t speak over the next thirty minutes. She watched as her mother collected the repaired locket and paid the jeweller, watched as she slipped it into a small cinched leather purse and slipped it into her bag. It seemed clear to Harriet that she wouldn’t be receiving the locket back any time soon; she’d lost privileges.

The Arnolds boarded the carriage once more, with Lady Arnold muttering something about hoping dinner had already been thought about back at home. Lord Arnold gave Harriet a little smile, seemingly trying to bridge beyond her inner torment. But Harriet turned her eyes towards the window, watching as the carriage moved away from Bond Street and scuttled across the cobblestones. Soon, they would be home—but where would the old beggar woman be? Shivering on the streets, without a penny to her name. How could Harriet possibly deal with such a thing?

Chapter Three

“You should have seen his face,” Lord Arnold said, slipping his spoon into his mashed potatoes and drumming it into goopy gravy. “When I demanded the deal. It was as though he’d expected he could walk all over me. As though me—a Duke, no less—would simply grin and take whatever offer he gave.”

“That’s simply not your nature, darling,” Lady Arnold returned. She seemed captivated with him, her eyes swallowing his entire image. She’d hardly touched her meal, and leaned toward her husband, her hands slotted beneath her chin.

Harriet sat at the far end of the table, her arms latched across her chest. She scowled at her parents, seeing this display entirely braggadocios and outside the bounds of reason, given what they’d just experienced. Her plate was entirely untouched, her fork still shining against the napkin. Her mother noticed this, now, and cut Harriet a dry look.

“Harriet. You know, not eating your dinner isn’t going to help all the hungry people in the world,” she said.

Harriet’s heart bludgeoned itself against her ribcage. She willed herself to think of an appropriate response, one that would put her mother in her place. But she sensed that her mother was correct, if only in this.

“All that will happen to the food, once you’ve not eaten it,” her mother continued, her voice lowering, “is that it will be scraped out into the garden to help us grow even more food for ourselves. It will be a waste until the next harvest. What good would that do for a beggar?”

“There’s no reason I can’t take it out to the streets even now …” Harriet tried.

“At this time of night?” her mother asked, tittering. She turned her head towards Lord Arnold, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “This daughter of yours. She has all sorts of ideas, doesn’t she? I blame you for it.”

Harriet’s cheeks felt warm. She stretched her fork through her potatoes, watching as the butter oozed through the cracks.

“It’s only just that I can’t understand why life is so cruel to people like that,” Harriet said, speaking mostly to her plate. “I don’t understand how we can sit here so easily and have so much, while the rest of the world grows hungrier and hungrier.”

There was silence at the dinner table. Harriet sensed she’d sliced through any comfortable conversation they might have had, and had certainly ended her father’s bragging-moments—all regarding his apparently very prosperous deals while away. At 23, of course, Harriet did feel a bit ridiculous, causing so much ruckus. She felt like a toddler, throwing her hands to and fro.

“Harriet. It really is admirable that you think in such a manner,” her father finally said. He sipped his wine, letting it stain the bottom of his teeth.

“It’s only admirable if I actually find a way to do something about it,” Harriet returned.

But it was as though she hadn’t said a thing. Her father continued without recognition.

“There is a great deal I’ve had to see in this life,” her father continued. “As Duke and as a businessman in my own right, I’ve encountered countless people who are lesser-off, who will never rise through the ranks from their poverty. Indeed, I have seen things that I would never say aloud to you, my darling daughter, as I only wish to protect you. In fact, it will be my dying wish to protect you from much of the world’s evil.”

“I don’t wish to be protected!” Harriet tried. Her throat felt squeezed. “I wish only to …”

“I’ve seen beggars, just like the one we saw this afternoon,” her father continued. “I’ve seen corpses, strewn across the streets of London in the early morning. I’ve seen people dying of hunger, of thirst.”

Harriet dipped lower in her chair. This list seemed only to highlight her point: that they needed to do something, anything. She allowed her fork to knock against the plate once more. Her stomach churned with panic.

“But on the other side of that,” her father continued, “we aren’t the evil people in the world that leads to this havoc.”

Harriet’s eyebrows stitched together over her nose. “What do you mean, we aren’t the ones?”

“Don’t busy her head with such things …” her mother tried.

“No. Please. Tell me,” Harriet said, her voice growing louder.

“It’s only the sorts of people I frequently deal with,” her father continued. “Let’s just say that many of the men with serious property and wealth in this city didn’t necessarily get it through completely honest means.”

Harriet crept forward in her chair, staring at her father as though he had two heads. “You’re saying that the people you frequently correspond with are—are exactly this brand of evil?”

“I don’t know if it’s—perhaps evil was too strong a word,” her father tried, ambling backwards. “I don’t mean to say that they know any better. They’ve been presented with a life that seems a bit more like a game than anything else. You can imagine that this life isn’t necessarily a game for, say, the beggar woman outside the church.”

“No. Absolutely not,” Harriet blurted.

“But to them, this beggar woman is simply a pawn in a greater story,” her father continued.

“And what are we?” Harriet demanded.

“That’s the thing, darling,” her mother continued. “We are much better players in this game. We’re completely lucky in this regard. People don’t steal from us because we’re far too good at the game to allow them to. But in return, we have to allow them to continue as they are. It’s simply the nature of—”

“That’s so ridiculous.” Harriet sighed. She forced herself to inhale, exhale, to remind herself that her parents weren’t the sorts of evil villains they currently seemed to be, based only on this conversation. In fact, they were still her two most favourite people in the world, the creatures she turned to for late-afternoon laughter and early-morning banter. She wanted nothing less than to obstruct their relationship. Yet her stomach tightened with panic.

“We’re lucky, Harriet,” her mother said, turning kind eyes towards her. “It’s really all we can say in this world.”

There was silence once more. It seemed to blanket over everything, causing her parents’ amnesia. Within moments, her mother strode forth into a conversation about society and courting—declaring that she’d seen several “quite beautiful” women at Bond Street that afternoon, but that none could compete with Harriet.

“You know the men think there’s something terribly exciting about you,” her mother said, pressing her lips together. “Something free and wild. Different than the other girls …”

“I think they’re delusional.” Harriet sighed.

Her mother let out a light chuckle. “There it is. That fire.”

“I heard that Lord Fitzgerald will be returning from his business travels soon,” her father said. “Perhaps you should ask to be introduced at the next ball …”

“Lord Fitzgerald? Isn’t he nearly 40 years old?” Harriet asked. “Father, I can’t imagine marrying someone with such—“

“Fine, fine, Harriet,” her father replied, fingertips resting on his furrowed brow, “it’s not as though …”

“But what about Lord Timothy Jeffries?” her mother said, arching her brow. “I seem to remember the pair of you dancing quite frequently last season. The look in your eyes when you looked at him! Perhaps …”

“Honestly, whatever look in my eyes I had for Timothy was surely some sort of wish to flee,” Harriet said. “He was a lacklustre conversation partner and an even worse dancer.”

“Well, this pickiness,” her mother said. “It really is unbecoming. How do you think you’ll find any sort of suitor like that?”

“It’s not as though I think my entire worth in this world is wrapped up in who I plan to marry, Mother,” Harriet said.

Her mother and father exchanged a look, one that caused Harriet’s shoulders to curve forward.

“We’ve had quite a beautiful life together, Harriet,” her father tried. “Are you telling us that what you’ve seen here, in the home in which you grew up, isn’t enough for you?”

Harriet felt she’d backed herself into a corner. She stirred through her potatoes, willing herself to change the subject. But her head swam with panic, continually returning to the image of the beggar woman, hungry and strewn out on the streets. How could she possibly divert her attention to the concept of romance when the world ached with such unfairness, such evil?

“I really don’t think I feel well,” Harriet said tiredly. “Do you mind if I wrap up this food and have it tomorrow?”

“Don’t be silly, darling,” her mother said. She turned her head towards the doorway, where the head maid, Stephanie, lurked. “Stephanie, could you please have Harriet’s plate taken away? She’ll be retiring for the evening.”

Stephanie ambled forward, muttering a soft, “Of course, My Lady,” before lifting the plate from the table and hurrying back towards the kitchen.

Harriet drew herself from the chair and swept her hands across her skirts. She was surprised to find her palms sweaty. Her father and mother’s eyes remained upon her until she disappeared into the hallway. She felt she was walking like a ghost, nearly invisible, her footsteps too soft to be heard against the hardwood. When she reached her bedroom, she collected herself in a ball on her bed and shook back and forth. She felt the darkness of nightmares wrapping themselves around her brain, drawing her into their depths. She hadn’t a thing to do but go along with it, feast in the horrors of whatever her mind delivered. What a wretched thing, to realise just how privileged she was, only to learn that there was nothing to be done.

“A Ravishing Beauty in Disguise” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Lady Harriet Arnold lives a privileged life but poverty in London keeps her awake at night. One day, under the devil’s nose, she has a revelation; her true purpose is to take what the rich don’t deserve and gift it to the poor. But when it comes to love, it’s not that easy to stay in disguise. How can she resist her incredibly handsome friend who has returned to London after all these years? Will she choose him over her scheme to take down the rich and greedy?

Lord William Abernale has returned home after studying law for years. Even though everyone believes that upon his arrival, he will reconnect with Zelda, the girl he loved before he left, his heart says otherwise. The truth is that all this time away, he never forgot about her ravishing cousin, Harriet, with her spitfire personality and breath-taking beauty. And now that he has found her again, the fire inside him grows stronger and bigger. Will he convince her to give him a chance?

With rumours of a big thief in London spread, Harriet and William will try to deny their growing passion…but not for long! When an unexpected discovery will change their stance for each other, they will also find themselves in great peril. In the most dangerous situation they will ever be implicated in, they are the only ones who can save each other. Will they defy everything in order to succeed?

“A Ravishing Beauty in Disguise” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

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