Today romance author Sarah MacLean launches her latest historical romance series: Hell’s Belles, centered on a tight-knit group of early Victorian-era women who creatively bend (or break) the rules in the service of dealing with problems, like bad husbands and bad bosses. The first installment, Bombshell, follows the scandalous, wealthy, and stubbornly unmarried Sesily Talbot, who uses her shocking notoriety as a cover for their work. Her match is the strapping American Caleb Calhoun, her sister’s business partner, who has been quietly longing for years when he accidentally stumbles upon her work (almost literally). Sesily and her comrades move seamlessly between ballrooms and Covent Garden bars; this excerpt introduces the latter, after our foursome have just absolutely ruined an unwanted suitor at the request of a young woman.
There weren’t many locations in London where a known scandal could drink and socialize unnoticed, but The Place, tucked deep in Covent Garden and accessible only to those who knew the tangled web of streets between Bedford Street and St. Martin’s Lane, was one of them.
Which made the pub Sesily’s favorite haunt. Yes, there were several casinos that received women (one that was women-exclusive), a handful of pubs where women were protected (including the one owned by her sister), and 72 Shelton Street—a ladies’ club that threw some of London’s best parties and specialized in women’s pleasure of all kinds. While discretion was guaranteed at every one of those places, however, those who frequented them were often there to be seen. In the rare instance that they weren’t looking to be recognized, no one could escape it—and recognition made things complicated.
Doubly so when you might be overheard discussing the destruction of society’s worst.
The Place wasn’t for being seen. It was for living. For drinking and dancing and laughing and being welcomed without hesitation.
The kind of place that felt like home to someone who spent her days under the stern censure of society. The kind of place that would tell society precisely what it could do with its censure . . . if only society could find it. Which it couldn’t.
The perfect haunt for four women who made it their work to bend the rules society and the world insisted they follow, and who did all in support of anyone who wished to do the same.
No one at the place cared that Sesily was a scandal, or that Adelaide was a wallflower, or that Imogen was odd, or that the duchess lived her life as though she’d never been married in the first place. And because of that, the foursome made it their haunt.
“I heard from Miss Fenwick this morning,” the Duchess of Trevescan said as Sesily slid into the chair next to her at the table in a back rear corner of the large central room of the pub—one of the only spots in The Place that wasn’t aglow with lamplight refracted through brightly colored glass and filled with a riot of laughter and good-natured shouts and raucous music that would soon tempt half those assembled to dancing.
“Happy with our work, I hope?” Sesily said, blowing quick kisses across the table to Imogen and Adelaide. She smiled up at the barman who appeared at her elbow. “Good evening, Geoffrey.”
“Whiskey tonight, luv?” He winked and Sesily imagined for a moment that she might find him handsome in another place, at another time.
Four nights ago. A year ago. Two.
She nodded. “I’m a crashing bore, I know.”
“Impossible,” he replied, and was off to fetch her drink. Adelaide blinked from behind her enormous spectacles. “How is it that we waited three quarters of an hour to be noticed, and you arrive at the height of the evening and receive attention in mere seconds?”
“My ineffable charm,” Sesily said with a grin as she reached across the table and snatched a roasted carrot from Adelaide’s plate.
“That, and half of London wants to swiv you,” Imogen pointed out.
“Only half?” Sesily retorted, removing her cloak. “You wound me.”
“With that dress, perhaps more than half.”
Sesily looked down at the wine red silk, brand new and cut low and tight enough to display ample breasts. When she stood, it would flatter every swell and curve. As well it should. It had cost a small fortune.
“You’re damned right more than half,” she quipped. She looked excellent.
Imogen snorted, Adelaide shook her head with a laugh and returned her attention to her gossip rag, and the duchess drank her champagne as though she were at court, which Sesily imagined she was. In the two years Sesily had worked alongside her, the duchess had used her wide-reaching influence to solve scores of what she referred to simply as problems—many for the women in this room.
Brutal husbands with heavy hands, fathers and brothers who treated daughters and sisters like chattel, business owners who mistreated their employees, brothel owners who didn’t respect their girls’ work, men who didn’t take kindly to the word no.
Memory flashed—a long ago meeting at Trevescan House, when the duchess had invited Sesily to join her.
Proposing a new kind of partnership. One for which Sesily was uniquely qualified. The reckless scandal, who was never taken seriously, and so could move about in full view of the wide world.
Sesily could still feel the way her heart had pounded at the offer—to be part of something bigger than herself.
To trod a new path that had led her here. To this table, three days after she’d given Tilly Fenwick freedom from a marriage that would have destroyed her . . . or worse.
“What did Miss Fenwick have to say?”
The duchess smiled and tipped her glass in Sesily’s direction. “Well, it began with effusive thanks.”
Pride burst in Sesily’s breast. “The betrothal?”
“It seems Mr. Fenwick has decided that there is little value in having a daughter who is a countess if everyone will call her Countess Rotter behind her back.”
“To her face, at this point,” Sesily said. Society might not be able to remove the title from Totting, but they could eliminate its value for a generation or two.
“And so poor Tilly lives to be married off another day,” Adelaide said from behind her newspaper.
“Well, now that Tilly Fenwick has such a committed group of benefactors . . . her father may be required to think twice next time.”
“Lucky girl,” Sesily offered, casually.
It was the truth. While many of the motley, raucous crowd at The Place marveled at the duchess’s immense power and how she did her best to use it for good, far fewer recognized that she’d aligned herself with a far-reaching network of some of the most fearsome women in London . . . including the trio who joined her that night.
Virtually no one knew that, and those who did would never tell.
The quartet had come together in circumstances born of serendipity and necessity. The duchess had been looking for brilliant women who had little to fear from society, and she’d found them in Imogen, who came with an expertise in things both extremely useful and extremely dangerous; Adelaide, whose meek exterior made her a superior thief; and Sesily—scandalous Sesily—who had shocked society so many times that few even noticed when she disappeared from a ballroom, scoundrel in tow.
Hadn’t she done just that three nights earlier? Left the ballroom, no one the wiser, under cover of scandal— invisible in it?
Not invisible to everyone.
Caleb had seen her.
She drank, willing the thoughts away. Now wasn’t the time for the man and his ridiculous broad shoulders and his unreasonably handsome face and the way he kissed her like he’d been waiting his whole life to do it.
He clearly hadn’t, or he wouldn’t have made a habit of leaving the country every time he saw her. She cleared her throat and returned to more important matters. “If you ask me, Lord Rotter received an absolute gift. He could have had it far worse. Frankly, I’d have preferred him to have it far worse.”
“I offered to take care of the problem,” Imogen said. “You all told me, categorically, that he had to awaken.”
The duchess gave a little snort of amusement. “He did have to awaken.”
When Imogen did not reply, Adelaide lowered her paper. “You understand that, don’t you, Imogen?” In the silence that followed, Adelaide prompted, “Don’t you, Imogen?”
“Yes of course,” Imogen said, finally, cantankerous.
Imogen crossed her arms in silent defiance as the barman returned with Sesily’s whiskey. She waited until he disappeared, flushed with pleasure at Sesily’s grateful smile, and then added, “I’m merely saying that if he hadn’t awakened—”
“If he hadn’t awakened,” Sesily interjected, taking half a potato from Adelaide, “we’d have had a dead body to contend with.”
“It’s not as though we don’t have ways of dealing with those,” Imogen said.
Excerpted from the book BOMBSHELL: A Hell’s Belles Novel by Sarah MacLean. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Trabucchi. From Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.