Miss. Annabelle Honeycote has made her living as a seamstress, creating a reputation for her employer’s shop as one of the finest in London. As the clientele of the shop has become more prestigious, Annabelle has also been privy to the closed-door gossip of the ton. As she struggles to support her ill mother and younger sister, Annabelle makes the choice to use that information as a means to supplement her income by extorting the subjects of the rumors. When a choice piece of gossip about the sister of the Duke of Huntford falls into her lap, Annabelle cannot resist trying her scheme one more time to pay off her mounting debts.
What she doesn’t count on is the resourcefulness of her target, Owen Sherbourne. Lying in wait, he catches her in the act of collecting the hush money, and initially threatens to turn her over to the authorities. But, quickly Owen’s feelings for the would-be extortionist change from anger to a curiosity about her and her circumstances. He offers her a bargain for her freedom; come to his home and create an entire wardrobe for his sisters or face justice for her actions. Thus begins the dance between Annabelle and Owen, with both greatly attracted to one another but knowing there is little future for them.
Annabelle was definitely the kind of heroine that is easy to route for, with a strongly developed personality that carried through to the end of the story. She has convinced herself that by following her self-imposed guidelines for extortion she isn’t really doing a bad thing, but only what is necessary for her family to survive. Her heart is always leading the way in her decisions, sometimes to her detriment when people less scrupulous then her can take advantage. There was a strong bond between Annabelle and her sister Daphne that transferred to how she came to love and protect the two Sherbourne sisters. Unfortunately for a few moments I really had to question Annabelle’s intelligence, but that came more from how the plot unfolded itself rather than a specific moment where she was too stupid to live.
I’m not sure that the same time and effort was made to create a compelling hero for the book. Owen read as very two-dimensional to me; there was just nothing within the book that really made him stand out other than his devotion to his sisters’ happiness. His actions towards Annabelle after he discovers her extortion plot against his family were almost too tame for what she had planned to do. Not that I ever wanted Owen to turn into an A-hole and focus his ire on Annabelle in a negative way, but how quickly he just accepts her into his household, trusts her with his impressionable sisters, and begins falling for her is almost ridiculous. There are glimpses that the author wanted Owen to be charming, affable, with a fierce temper when he and his are threatened. But those moments were quickly overshadowed by Annabelle’s own emotional journey. By the end of the book, I began to see him as slightly weak; easily manipulated and somewhat blind about the consequences to all of the actions taken within the story.
I will say that I appreciated that the author very rarely used the “M” word in how Owen and Annabelle came together. With the great divide in their social circles, I would have expected Owen to play the Mistress card as soon as he knew he was attracted to Annabelle. In fact, I kept steeling myself for that scene to play out in the story after the intimacies between them kept growing, from kissing to heavy petting and beyond. But both characters rarely allow themselves to think about that kind of arrangement and just allow for their feelings to grow organically. I liked that both characters are honest with themselves about the challenges that would come up if a Duke were to marry a seamstress. I think Annabelle does eventually lose herself in the fantasy, leading to a bit of heartbreak in the final scenes, but since she has never really lost her heart before that kind of dreaming is natural.
I enjoyed reading When She Was Wicked. I liked watching the friendship develop between Annabelle and the Sherbourne sisters. I did like the romance between Owen and Annabelle even if the chemistry was never at the smoldering level but more of a cool but loving regard. The pace of the story wasn’t the strongest; however for a debut book I believe Ms. Barton hit all of the right points to tell her story. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for her next book.
~Reviewed by Sara
Book: When She Was Wicked
Author: Anne Barton
First in the Honeycote series