Olivia Monday, an impoverished widow, has taken a position as "secretary" to an eccentric, scandalous rake - a divorced man with a brood of eight children and at least two gun-shot wounds. For one year, against the advice of her remaining family members, she agrees to live in his remote Cornish castle and put pen to paper on his behalf.
Despite everything she's heard about him, she's unafraid. Olivia welcomes the distraction this unusual post will provide— as well as the large fee— because the alternative of relying on relatives to put a roof over her head is intolerable.
True Deverell has decided it's time to set the record straight. He means to dictate his memoirs to this little widow who, according to the instructions he sent to his solicitor, should merely be plain and have a neat hand. Those are his only requirements. He doesn't want any distractions, has endured his fill of scandal and intends now to leave the "True Story" on paper so that perhaps, one day, people will forgive his mistakes.
But when Mrs. Olivia Monday arrives on his doorstep in her leaky boots and crumpled bonnet, True realizes that perhaps his story isn't over yet.
The Offices of Chalke, Westcott & Chalke.
Three O'clock in the afternoon, Tuesday, March 12, 1832
"Get out of my blasted way," the menacing, deeply disgruntled voice rumbled above her. "What are you doing, woman?"
On her knees before him, head down, Olivia Westcott scrambled for the spilled papers that cascaded around his boots when the man bumped into her.
"Some ruse to pick my pockets, eh?" he growled. "Where's your slick-fingered accomplice, or did you think to fleece me by yourself?"
"Good God, must you wretched creatures lie in wait everywhere I turn?"
It was fortunate for this stranger that while assisting in her father's office, Olivia had promised to be on her best behavior. She didn't want to be sent home to embroider yet another ugly fire screen or paint watery, depressing landscapes. So, rather than answer as she would in a Utopia of justice and equality, she bit her tongue, held her temper and said, "Sir, pardon me, but you're standing on the papers."
Great Aunt Jane, always her most indomitable critic, would have been impressed.
Still the towering monolith did not move. His contempt bore down upon her. "Bloody women! Always underfoot."
With one knuckle she nudged her spectacles back up her nose and raised her improved gaze only as far as his knees, where the tip of a riding crop tapped smartly against his mud-splattered breeches. "I wouldn't be underfoot sir, if you hadn't bowled into me."
"You shot out of nowhere. If I didn't have my wits about me, I could have trampled you into the floorboards."
The last sheet was stuck under his heel. "Please move your foot, sir. No! The other one.""I suppose you were wandering with your head in the clouds, daydreaming. Relying upon other folk to pay attention."
"I can assure you I was not. Sir! Your foot!" Anyone would think he deliberately delayed getting off her paper.
"Butter-fingers, is that not the expression?"
"Better that than Butter-brained." It slipped out on a sly breath before she could restrain herself.
"Tsk, tsk, you know what they say about women with sharp tongues."
"No. Do tell. I am all agog to hear it." Oh dear, now more words came out that shouldn't, linked like scarves pulled from a conjurer's mouth. "And clearly you want to enlighten me."
He replied coolly, "One day they find themselves surrounded by castrated men."
"A tragedy, to be sure. For the men."
At last she pulled the trampled paper free, although it was now decorated with a large, dirty shoe print. Before she could get up off her knees, the man lost his patience and, as if she was nothing more than a puddle in the street, he stepped over her.
"Look where you're going in future, young woman."
She recovered from the indignity just in time to witness his head contact briskly— and most satisfyingly— with the low lintel of the doorway.
"Did the doorframe come out of nowhere too?" she inquired politely.
He stopped with his back to her. "You think that was amusing."
"Well, it does have a certain piquancy, sir." Mimicking his previous tone of condescension, she added, "You know what they say about men who live in glasshouses."
"Yes. They pay a very high window tax." He half turned his head, but not far enough to reveal more than a little cheek and some dark side-whiskers above the tall collar of his greatcoat. No longer quite so terse and angry, his voice warmed with a hint of self-deprecating humor. "And, as I have found, they ought to keep their clothes on unless they have a fancy to exhibit for their neighbors."
He didn't turn to see her blush. In the next moment he was gone and the walls around her seemed to exhale a collective sigh of wanton languor.
"Are you alright, my dear?" Her father had come to find his papers.
"Was that a client of yours?" she asked with as much nonchalance as she could muster.
"That was... a gentleman currently embroiled in a divorce being handled by Mr. Chalke," he replied gravely, taking the documents from her. "Best stay out of his path, Olivia."
"Why?" Her heart was beating too fast, too hard.
"Must you always question, my dear? Now where is the tea?"
She had forgotten it. Vowing to remedy the oversight at once, Olivia waited with her hands meekly behind her back, until her father had retreated inside his office. Then she hurried to the window.
There he was— Mr. Incivility—already down the stairs and emerging into the street. He put on his hat, nodded briskly to the boy who held his horse and tossed the lad some coins. Olivia willed him to look up, so she might see his face, but he didn't.
Glancing at the clock on the mantle, she noted it was just after three. It was a habit of hers to mark the exact time at certain important moments in her life. She stored them all in her brain like ledgers on a dusty shelf. Her stepbrother thought that very odd and mocked her for it, as he did about most things.
But what made this moment so important that it deserved commemoration?
As soon as her father mentioned the man's purpose there she realized who he was. Divorce was rare, almost unheard of, and those few who attempted it became infamous. Anyone who read a newspaper knew his name. Consequently, Olivia also knew why her father advised her to stay out of his path. A properly raised young woman of good family should avoid the company of that gentleman. In fact, many people refused to call him a gentleman at all. No one seemed to know where he came from, although there was a general consensus as to where he'd end up.
"Self-made, indeed," she'd once heard Great Aunt Jane exclaim in a huff. "Gentlemen are not made. They are born."
Olivia considered that a rather snobbish view, especially coming from a lady who was only a few steps away from debtor's prison for most of her adult life and relied upon the charity of relatives to keep a roof over her head.
She thought back to a conversation several years ago when that same lady, having remarked upon Olivia's misfortune in losing her mother at such a young age— as if it was a tragedy somehow due to the little girl's own carelessness—went on to criticize her complexion, her lack of social graces and her posture.
"Straighten your spine, girl! You will develop a most unbecoming slouch if my nephew doesn't put you in a backboard immediately. Who will you ever find to marry, child, if you don't improve your posture, take up some feminine pursuits and learn to hold a sensible conversation? What gentleman of any worth would look at such a sulky, sullen, willful creature with a fascination for wicked pranks? You won't be fit for polite society."
This lecture came about because Olivia had sculpted a piece of parsnip to look like a finger, coated the end of it in raspberry jam, and then placed it on the pianoforte keys, to be discovered when the instrument was opened.
"You are a horrid, unseemly child with a dark and devious imagination, Olivia Westcott. I cannot think what will become of you."
To which she replied, "I shall marry Mr. True Deverell, shan't I? People say he's not fit for polite society either. But he's rich as Croesus and I hear he knows his way under a woman's petticoats."
This bold declaration had shocked everyone present into silence. These things — and men—weren't meant for drawing room conversation in mixed company, and the adults were probably wondering where she'd even heard his name. But Olivia was not the sort of girl who listened quietly and contentedly to sweet fairy tales. "Once upon a time" made her want to spit nails. Once upon what time? When? What on earth did that even mean, for pity's sake? How could anyone take such a feeble, flimsy narrative seriously?
No indeed, Olivia preferred darkly gothic yarns and bloodthirsty horror stories not meant for the ears of little girls. Should that mean eavesdropping at keyholes to get her entertainment, so be it. Even if she didn't fully understand what she heard.
In any case, on that long-ago occasion, the mention of his name had got her sent up to bed immediately, saving her from a very dull evening. As she ascended the stairs, she overheard the adults discussing her.
"One must make allowances for the poor child, growing up motherless."
"Allowances? Where would we be if we made allowances for bad behavior? Another sliding of standards! No, no, that girl was impertinent long before she lost her mother, who was herself a stubborn creature with a distressingly romantic view of life and her head in the clouds. What my nephew saw in her I'll never know. A difficult woman."
Was she? Olivia had known her living mother for eight years and, at the time of this conversation, been without her for two, yet already shards of memory were breaking away and leaving her, like pieces of a shattered mirror that glittered brightly as they spun into darkness. She tried holding on to the broken glass even when it hurt her small hands and made her cry, but tears were something she had to hide from her father, who never wept himself and had no patience for those who did. He was, of course, cut from the same cloth as Great Aunt Jane, who placed extreme importance on the immovability of one's upper lip, which should remain as constant as one's temper and the heat of one's blood. A passionate display of any kind was anathema in their family. Surrounded by these strong, rather formidable characters, Olivia struggled to follow their example and keep her real thoughts and feelings to herself. Especially those she secretly nurtured about dangerous men.
By the age of eighteen she thought she had those feelings fairly well under control. Fairly.
Peering down through the window again, she watched Mr. Incivility ride away down the busy thoroughfare. The brim of that tall hat still hid his face, but her gaze followed him until her breath clouded the view.
So there he went. The notorious True Deverell. He who must not be mentioned.
She really couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
A storm in a teacup.
Oops, the tea! Where was her mind today?
Why, where else should a young woman's mind be? On the man her ten year-old self once proclaimed she was going to marry, of course. Whether the poor fellow liked it or not.
With an unladylike snort of laughter at her own foolishness, she turned away from the window.
"A man like that uses women for only one thing," her stepbrother had exclaimed once, when he looked over her shoulder to catch her reading a lascivious piece about Deverell in the newspaper. "But the scoundrel would never look twice at you, Livy, so you are quite safe."
And that, she mused, was precisely where men like True Deverell went wrong, because they didn't see her coming and then they tripped over her. Poor mutton-head, wouldn't know a decent woman if he bumped into her. A fact of which she now had evidence.
True Deverell. Even his name sounded as if it ought to be whispered. It slipped off the tongue like a silky sheet from a bare thigh.
"Olivia," her father called from his office, "The tea, if you please! Or must I send for it from China?"
It was lucky she could blame her pink face on steam from the teakettle.