Authors: Andrea Pickens
A Lady of Letters
by Andrea Pickens
Words of Passion
The strictures of Polite Society regarding female behavior are far too confining for Augusta Hadley. An articulate and intelligent lady, she avoids censure by secretly writing political essays under the pen name of "Firebrand." But despite all her outward efforts to behave like a proper lady, she manages set off sparks with her outspoken opinions—especially with the Earl of Sheffield.
Bored with life as a rake, Sheffield has taken an interest in politics and social reform. Inspired by the words of "Firebrand," he begins a correspondence with the mysterious writer, never dreaming that his new mentor is not a "he" but a "she." It's only when they agree to work together to right a terrible injustice that the truth comes out—igniting new passions, which may burn them to a crisp if a cunning enemy has his way.
Andrea Pickens created her first book at the age of five—a neatly penciled story lavishly illustrated with crayon drawings of horses and bound with staples, lovingly preserved by her mother. She has since moved on from Westerns to writing about Regency England, a time and place that has captured her imagination ever since she opened the covers of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."
Pickens has a BA and an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and now works as the Creative Director of a lifestyle sporting magazine, a job which lets her combine her love of the printed word with her love of art. She is very fortunate in that her work allows her to travel to interesting destinations around the world—however, her favorite spot is London, where the funky antique markets and used book stores offer a wealth of inspiration for her stories.
"Tis with great interest that I read your latest essay, sir. The ideas expressed are intriguing, to say the least, though I fear that they will hardly elicit any applause among the audience you wish to influence. In my experience, there are precious few people willing to admit callousness and self-interest, however cleverly couched your chidings are. Nevertheless, your command of the written word, coupled with an originality of thought and razor wit, have won over at least one humble admirer to your singular intellect. I must admit it has been years since anything has moved me to pick up a pen, but your words have sparked a few questions that perhaps you might have time to clarify for me. Might I be bold enough to ask whether you might consent to an occasion private correspondence? The passage of your work which has caused me to reflect on the nuances of its meaning begins with....
It was some time later that the Earl of Sheffield laid aside the sheets of paper and removed his gold-rimmed spectacles. With a rueful grimace he tucked them away in his desk drawer, thinking how utterly nonplussed his friends would be to see the Iron Adonis with such a foreign object in the grasp of his long fingers, rather than a bottle of brandy or a deck of cards—or the latest luscious opera dancer. No doubt even more shocking would be the fact that for the last several hours his thoughts had been preoccupied by matters considerably more complex than the upcoming sales at Tattersall's or the odds on whether Trowbridge would offer for the Wainwright chit before week's end.
His hand raked through his dark locks and another quick spasm tugged at the molded contours of his lips as he considered the truth of such a realization. Lord, had he really become such a shallow fribble as that? Oh, it was not that others saw him in such a light. On the contrary. In fact, he was quite aware that most of the ton regarded him with a respect that bordered on awe. No one dared question his opinions, lest they fall victim to his acerbic wit and end up skewered on his rapier sharp tongue. Just as no one risked raising his ire, not with the prowess he displayed with his pistol at Manton's and his fists at Jackson's. That the scoundrel Montfort, a Captain Sharpe at cards who had ruined several green cubs, had provoked a duel and been sent to a deservedly early demise only seemed to have added to his stature.
He gave a resigned shake of his head. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed rather absurd. Young sprigs strove to emulate his sardonic stare as well as the knot of his cravat, while more ladies than he cared to count vied for his attention. His own circle of acquaintances was no less adoring, for despite his penchant for occasional fits of temper or practical jokes that went too far, he was admired as a generous host, bruising sportsman and loyal friend. Even the highest sticklers curried his favor, excusing his rather rakish reputation because, along with his wealth and title, he was accorded to be a gentleman of impeccable manners and taste.
But of late, he found that his own judgement of himself was far less flattering.
With a heavy sigh he rose and went to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff brandy. Though he returned to his chair, a certain restlessness of spirit had his eyes wandering from the blazing fire in the hearth to the rows of leatherbound books lining the heavy oak shelves. He had used to enjoy cracking their spines, he mused. There was a time the ideas and insights had sparked a flame in his breast nearly as bright and lively as the ones he watched now. How had he let it die out?
Had he merely been lazy? he asked. After a moment, his mouth compressed in a thin line. No—self-indulgent was more apt. The boisterous gaiety of shared spirits, the sweet softness of a willing lady, the frisson of excitement at the turn of a card. All had turned his attention from serious matters that required more effort.
It had come so easily, the ability to excel at the sorts of things his friends held in such high regard—gambling, riding, shooting, cutting a swath through the ladies. He had been seduced by their admiration, drunk with the notion of his own consequence. His fingers came up to rub at his temples. Lord, he had to admit he had made some foolish choices in his youth. And now he was paying for them, for he found his life was becoming an interminable bore. It was flat, smooth, without any unexpected edge to cut his ennui. Another Season was fast approaching, along with his thirty second birthday and what did it offer? The idea of yet another round of carousing with his friends, or racing his curricle to Bath on a wager or even a visit to his latest mistress left him feeling nothing but a disquieting coldness in the pit of his stomach.
Sheffield fingered his pen as his gaze fell to the finished letter on his blotter. An amused chuckle stole forth. Firebrand was how the anonymous writer signed his essay. It was an apt moniker, indeed, given the heated words. He hoped that his missive, to be delivered to the man's publisher in the morning, would reach the mysterious author and be given the favor of a reply. Perhaps it wasn't too late to rekindle an interest in something deeper than a glass of brandy.
On impulse, he reached out and scribbled a final signature. He had been debating whether to reveal his own identity, but was loath to have "Firebrand" judge him by reputation alone. As he regarded the name staring up from the paper it seemed much more fitting to sign his missive this way.
He hoped the fellow would appreciate the humorous touch.
Lady Augusta Hadley choked down a burble of laughter.
She quickly folded the paper and stuffed it into her desk as her younger sister flew into the little room she used as her study. "Do slow down, Marianne. Mama would no doubt swoon over such an unladylike entrance," she admonished, though her smile took any of the sting out of her words.
"Oh, I am heartily sick of being all that is proper," answered the young lady, dropping onto the comfortable wing chair with a flounce that sent her elegant gown into a welter of wrinkles.
"Heresy from the Goddess of Greenfield," murmured Augusta.
Marianne stuck out her tongue. "If you, of all people, dare repeat that sickening sobriquet out loud I shall plant you a facer!" She tucked her dainty feet up under her skirts and let her chin fall on her arms. "Really, I do wish we could steal out for a gallop through the fields. All these morning calls with Mama are tedious to the extreme."
Augusta's brow arched upward. "I thought you were enjoying yourself."
"Well, I am," admitted Marianne. "I do like the balls and routs and such, but I am never allowed a moment to myself. You on the other hand—"
"I, on the other hand, am firmly on the shelf. Mama has finally shown signs of giving up trying to threaten, beg or force me into some semblance of proper behavior. Her attention is now firmly focused on you—and with good reason." She surveyed her sister's blonde curls, cherubic features and diminutive figure. Even the most critical eye would be hard pressed find fault with the girl. Cornflower blue eyes radiated a winsome innocence, while lips as plump as cherries—Good lord, she admonished herself, she was in danger of waxing as ridiculous as the besotted young viscount who had dubbed Marianne the Goddess of Greenfield in a fit of rapture after his first dance. Still, there was no denying that the girl was a Diamond of the First Water, with any number of eligible suitors already dangling on her sleeve although the Season had hardly begun. "You have, as Mama would say, taken rather well.
Marianne scrunched up those perfect lips. "If you made even the slightest effort to attract attention, you should leave me in the dust, Gus. I wish I had your height and those glorious cheekbones. Instead I am short and have a plumpness to my face that reminds me of a squirrel. And I wish I had your brains—"
Augusta grimaced. "Never let Mama hear you say such a thing. I am enough of a trial as it is. Two such daughters would send her into permanent decline. Besides, you are hardly a ninny, my dear. You simply know when to keep your mouth shut, which is something I have never managed to learn."
"Or care about."
"Well, I suppose that might have something to do with it."
Both of them laughed.
"Seriously, Gus," continued her sister after a bit. "Why is it you are so set against making yourself agreeable to the many gentlemen who would show an interest, if you gave them half a chance?"
"You know very well why," she muttered. "You are content with the idea of a husband and children and a household to run, but it would not suit for me."
"Surely there are men who would appreciate your keen intellect, and not seek to keep you from expressing your views."
"Hah! If you think any man would countenance my opinions, especially if he knew that—" She swallowed hard. "I mean, you may know that I am capable of stringing two coherent thoughts together, but the fact is, in public, I stutter and natter like a veritable peagoose, which, combined with my gangly height and angular features, is hardly likely to set any gentleman's heart to flutter." She made a show of rearranging the papers on her cluttered desk. "Truly, Marianne, I am well content as I am. Don't you, too, start asking me to change."