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Annabelle Honeycote is a dressmaker and a blackmailer. It's not something that she enjoys doing, but it's become more and more necessary because her salary as a dressmaker isn't enough to pay the rent and pay for her mother's medicine. In order to assuage her guilt, Annabelle abides by some rules, and she never demands more than what she needs.
Perhaps her actions met the crudest definition of the word, but she preferred "accepting coin in exchange for the solemn promise to safeguard secrets."
- p. 4
I was very intrigued by the idea of a heroine behaving in a less-than-honorable way and had looked forward to reading about her exploits, but that didn't seem to be the purpose of this story. What unfolds is how our heroine avoids, then faces up to the repercussions of her actions. When she sends a blackmail letter to the Duke of Huntford, she thought it would be a done deal, but she never counted on Owen Sherbourne discovering her identity.
What happens next surprises Annabelle -- Owen hires her to create a wardrobe for both his sisters, offering her a generous salary and a room in his house. It's an unusual arrangement, and one could question the duke's motivations for propositioning Annabelle, but the author takes care to hint that Owen had found Annabelle fascinating from their first meeting at the dress shop. It's also an opportunity for Annabelle to face one of her victims -- and feel remorse for her present (and past) misdeeds. The author really plays up the idea of "cruel kindness" -- how Owen's sisters' kindness and openness to Annabelle is a double-edged sword. It's painful for Annabelle to accept the goodness and kindness from her new-found friends when she knows how she had such terrible (and malicious) intent towards them in the beginning. Sooner or later, our heroine knows she must confess her sins if she is to have an honest and authentic friendship with Owen's sisters, but she'd rather put it off for as long as she can manage.
Her throat tightened. If her scheme was exposed, she'd lose two cherished friends in one fell swoop.
Which made me wonder about our heroine's moral compass, and our hero's fascination of her: part of me worried that Owen's attraction to Annabelle is out of novelty and curiosity. Annabelle and Owen do have very good conversations and Anne Barton shows how Annabelle is the perfect companion for Owen, who consults her about his sisters and about the household. Is there love between the two? I'm not so convinced of this -- there's a lot of rubbing each other the wrong way (especially with Annabelle and her hideous cap) and a lot of rubbing each other the right way (the thoughtful conversations), but I honestly just didn't see sparks.
...Thoughts of Owen had occupied her all evening. She knew she was foolish to daydream about him, but she gave herself license. Dreaming was less dangerous than doing, and the day had been to magical to stick it in the back of a drawer like a pair of torn stockings and forget about it.
- p. 202
The obvious conflict in the story is class difference, which the author tackles in the relationship between Owen and Annabelle, and also between Rose, Owen's younger sister, and Charles, the estate manager -- but the author ends the story by solving the mystery of Rose's muteness, and their mother's disappearance. It's an abrupt shift of focus, but it does allow Annabelle to put her blackmailing past to good use, when she uses all of her previously collected information to figure out what happened to Rose all those years ago. I honestly didn't like how the latest conflict was used to justify and excuse Annabelle's actions in the past -- granted, they were not that terrible to begin with -- but, I had, honestly, hoped for more from our heroine.
This is a debut novel with a promising premise, and a promising set of characters, but it just didn't work out for me.
When She Was Wicked is the first book in Anne Barton's Honeycote series, and her debut novel. To find out more about Anne Barton and her books, click below: