Home > Bombshell (Hell's Belles # 1)

Bombshell (Hell's Belles # 1)
Author: Sarah MacLean

 


Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

October 1836

When the stilt-walker approached, Sesily Talbot realized someone was toying with her.

She should have noticed immediately, when she’d stepped off the boat and through the river gates of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, when the dancer dressed as an enormous peacock, brilliantly colored tailfeathers spread wide as a Marylebone rowhouse, caught her on her way off the beaten path and pulled her, instead, to the dancing grounds.

“Not this path, lady,” the beautiful bird had whispered before tugging her into a wild, spinning reel. Sesily had never been one to refuse a dance, and she’d happily followed her new, feathered friend.

When the jig left her breathless and heated despite the cool October night, she’d peeled away from the entertainment and headed for somewhere quieter. Somewhere to hold her solitude. Keep her secrets.

Sesily hadn’t made it more than a minute into the darkness when the fire-eater found her, blocking the path that twisted and turned beneath a web of tightropes high above, luring revelers further into the salacious extravagance of the gardens.

Red paper lanterns glowed with delicious temptation behind the performer who blocked Sesily’s way, her face painted white like a clown’s, bright blue eyes twinkling as she drew close to her torch and set the inky black night aflame.

Sesily knew her role and didn’t hesitate to ooh and ahh, letting the fire-eater take her hand with a deep curtsy and a charming, “Not this path, lady.” She led Sesily back to the light, away from the route she’d sought.

Sesily should have noticed then, that she was a pawn.

No, not a pawn. A queen. But played, nonetheless.

She didn’t notice. And later, she would wonder at her ignorance in the moment—rare for her twenty-eight years. Rare for someone who reveled in knowing the score. Rare for someone who had made a life’s work of winning the room, spinning the spinners.

Instead, Sesily Talbot spent the next hour being spun herself.

Lured by a fortune-teller.

Entertained by a pair of mimes.

Amused by a bawdy puppet show.

And every time she tried to find a new path, one that led deeper into the gardens, away from the formal performance and toward the kind of entertainment that made for gossip and scandal and something to keep her mind from the emptiness in her chest, she was intercepted—ever waylaid from more reckless adventures.

Adventures more suited to her reputation: Sesily Talbot, walking scandal, buxom beauty, untethered heiress, and queen of recklessness, whom most of London called Sexily when they thought she wasn’t listening (as though it was a bad thing).

At twenty-eight years, Sesily was the second oldest and only unmarried daughter of wealthy, baseborn Jack Talbot, a coal miner who’d pulled himself up through the soot to win a title from the Prince Regent in a game of cards. As if that weren’t enough, the newly minted Earl of Wight set about wreaking common havoc on the aristocracy, his flamboyant wife and five dangerous daughters in tow. Daughters who’d scandalized society right up until they’d made enviable society matches: Seraphina, Sesily, Seleste, Seline, and Sophie—the Soiled S’s, named for the coal dust they’d been born into, now reigning over London as a duchess, a marchioness, a countess, and the wife of the wealthiest horse breeder in Britain.

And then there was Sesily, who’d spent a decade flouting tradition and title and rules and—the most dangerous of the daughters. Because she had no interest in the games the aristocracy played. She did not concern herself with fabricated opponents who glared at her from the opposite ends of ballrooms. She did not have the same goals as the rest of society.

Reckless Sesily.

She did not relegate herself to the shelf of spinster-hood, nor to the outer edges of Mayfair, where the aged and ruined lived out their days.

Wild Sesily.

Instead, she remained rich and titled and merry, with seemingly no interest in the opinions of those around her. Unwilling to be tamed by mother, sister, companion, or community.

Scandalous Sesily.

Censure did not take. Nor contempt. Nor disapproval. Which left the aristocracy no choice but to accept her.

Bored Sesily.

Not bored. Not that night. Boredom might have brought her to Vauxhall, but not alone. She’d have come with a friend. With a dozen of them. She’d have come for raucous entertainment and a whisper of trouble, but nothing like what she wanted that evening. Nothing like what clawed at her, making her want to seek out the worst kind of trouble. Tempt it. Scream at it.

Frustrated Sesily. Angry Sesily.

Embarrassed Sesily.

In the worst possible way. By a man. A tall, broad, green-eyed, irritating man in shirtsleeves and waistcoat and maybe a silly American-style hat that didn’t at all suit in Mayfair but was distractingly good at revealing the angle of an altogether too-square jaw. Far too square. Unrefined in the extreme.

The only man she’d ever wanted and couldn’t win.

So much for Sexily.

But she absolutely refused to suffer her disappointments in public. That was the kind of thing other people did, not Sesily.

Sesily Talbot picked herself up, painted her face, and went to Vauxhall.

Of course, if she weren’t so busy suffering that particular evening’s disappointment in private, she would have noticed that she was being watched, and maneuvered, and guided long before the stilt-walker stepped out of the shadows of the tall trees lining the path that led to the rear section of Vauxhall. The Dark Walk.

In the decade that Sesily had attended Vauxhall, the majority of visits had involved slipping the notice of parent, chaperone, sister, or friend and darting down the ever-darkening path to the place where events moved from performed to private. Away from fireworks and circus acts and hot air balloons to something more improper. Something that might be considered sordid.

In all those years, she’d never once seen a performer this far along the path. This deep into the darkness.

Certainly not as the clock neared midnight on the last week of the Vauxhall season, when the lateness of the hour did nothing to lessen the number of people in the gardens, and performers should be occupied with entertaining throngs of revelers marveling at the sheer, lush temptation of the place.

And yet, there’d been a dancer, and a fire-eater, and now there was a stilt-walker, with her enormous wig and her extreme maquillage and her delighted smile and, “Not this path, lady!”

And that’s when Sesily knew.

She pulled up short, tilting to look up at the performer high above her, somehow, impossibly, dressed in massive, magnificent skirts—skirts that would threaten to fell a perfectly ordinary woman on her own two feet. “Not any path tonight, though, is it?”

A big laugh, made bigger as it rained down upon Sesily in the darkness, carried on the cool autumn breeze and punctuated by the bright fireworks that had begun in another part of the gardens, summoning the masses to marvel at them.

Sesily was not interested in the sky. “Or is there a different path for me tonight?”

The laugh became a knowing smile, and the stilt-walker turned away. There was no question that Sesily would follow, suddenly imagining herself an arrow loosed from a bow, away from the target she’d chosen, and instead, aimed for somewhere else. Something else.

And though anger and frustration and that thing she would not ever admit to feeling still burned hot in her breast, Sesily could not help her own smile.

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