We are so excited to bring you the gorgeous cover of The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews!
About The Siren of Sussex:
Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.
Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.
Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.
But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?
Ahmad climbed the creaking stairs to the set of bachelor rooms he rented above the tea dealer’s shop in King William Street. Far from the fashionable traffic of Mayfair, it was an undistinguished address in a neighborhood rife with warehouses and commercial enterprise. A place a man could lose himself among the bustling shoppers and the shouts of overzealous hawkers.
His door was located at the end of a narrow corridor. A soft strip of light glowed from beneath it. He heaved a weary sigh. He’d hoped to have a bit of privacy this evening to work on the dress he was making for Viscountess Heatherton.
It was the first of what promised to be many commissions for the season. A chance to see his creations displayed, not by the courtesans of Rotten Row, but by a high-ranking member of fashionable London society.
“Is that you, Ahmad?” Mira’s faint voice rang out.
“Who else?” Unlocking the door with his key, he entered the sitting room to find his cousin occupied at the round wooden table in the corner. She was hand stitching a length of point appliqué lace onto the bertha of Lady Heatherton’s unfinished ice-blue muslin evening dress. He scowled at her. “What are you doing here?”
Mira glanced up from her sewing. At four and twenty, she was six years his junior. Like him, her hair was black, but where his eyes were dark, hers were a stunning shade of olive green. A testament to her mixed Pathan and English ancestry.
Her mother, Mumtaz, had been Ahmad’s aunt, an Indian lady residing on the outskirts of Delhi. After the death of his own mother, Mumtaz had taken Ahmad in, treating him as her own. A good, kind woman, she’d succumbed to a sweating sickness in the summer of ‘46. On her deathbed, she’d made Mira’s natural father—a British soldier—promise to take Mira back to England with him. Ahmad had accompanied them, vowing to watch over his cousin.
And he had watched over her.
Her father had died of drink not long after they’d arrived in London, leaving Mira alone and penniless on the streets of the East End. Her survival had been completely dependent on Ahmad. He’d done the best he could for her, but he’d been only fifteen, still just a child himself.
Together, he and Mira had experienced some of the worst the metropolis had to offer. But their luck had changed of late, and much of that owing to the kindness of Mira’s employers, solicitor Tom Finchley and his wife, Jenny. Mira acted as companion to Mrs. Finchley. Ahmad had worked for the Finchleys too, until last year, when he’d finally been in a position to strike out on his own.
“Mrs. Finchley had no need of me today,” Mira said. “I was perfectly free to call on you this afternoon.”
“You’ve been here that long?”
“Since five o’clock.”
Of course she had. The fire was lit, coals glowing cheerfully in the hearth. She’d tidied the room as well. Plumped the pillows on the threadbare sofa and straightened his heaps of books and half-finished sketches.
She held up the bodice of the lace-edged evening dress. “I’ve nearly finished this part of the trim.”
Ahmad moved to the table to examine her work. “Very good.”
She gave him a smug smile. “I thought so.”
He chucked her under the chin. Over their long years together, he’d taught her nearly everything he knew about dressmaking.
In the beginning, it had been precious little.
He’d been apprenticed to a tailor in India, not a dressmaker. Working in the Chandni Chowk Bazaar in Delhi, he’d learned how to cut and stitch European-style shirts, coats, and trousers with efficiency and precision. But it wasn’t the garments of British gentlemen that had inspired him. It was the gowns of the British ladies. The elegance of a fitted bodice, and the sensual sweep of a voluminous skirt.
Mira resumed her needlework. “And why not? Would you prefer spending your evening alone?” Her eyes briefly met his. “You were planning to be alone, weren’t you?”
“None of your business, behan.” He removed his coat as he crossed the room, tossing it over the back of a chair. He stretched his arms wide. Sewing took a toll on a man’s neck and back. And he’d been sewing too much lately, trying to fit in his orders for evening gowns along with those for riding habits.
It was all part of the plan. A necessary sacrifice that would bring him one step closer to opening his own dress shop.
He stifled a yawn.
“Were you at the tailor’s all day today?” Mira asked.
“Most of it. Doyle had two orders for suits he needed finishing.”
“And you had to complete them, did you?” Her disapproval was evident. “He believes you work for him.”
Ahmad didn’t. Not officially. He and the elderly tailor merely had an informal agreement, one they’d been adhering to since the autumn.
After Heppenstall’s death, Doyle had been reluctant to continue on his own. He’d been equally reluctant to have an Indian for a partner.
With Finchley’s help, a compromise had been made.
Ahmad would work from the shop, lending his skill to gentlemen’s tailoring. In return, Doyle had agreed that, in one year’s time, he would retire, and—in doing so—permit Ahmad to buy out his lease.
Six months had already passed since they’d made their bargain. Which meant that, in six months more, Doyle and Heppenstall’s would he his. Ahmad already had the capital. All that was wanted was the clientele.
“And the rest of the day?” Mira asked.
“I spent the morning in Grosvenor Square, doing a fitting,” he said.
“For Lady Heatherton?” Mira frowned. “I don’t like her.”
“You don’t have to like her.”
Viscountess Heatherton had indicated that she might consider becoming his patroness. She’d already ordered three evening gowns from him to start the season. And once the ladies of the ton saw his work, they’d be clamoring for dresses of their own.
“The way she looks at you,” Mira said. “As if she wants to eat you.”
He grimaced. “The less said about that the better.”
Mira ignored him. “I suppose she asked you to measure her again.”
She had, actually. And in her boudoir, too. As always, he’d ignored her flirtatious remarks and the familiar way she’d touched him. What choice did he have? At this stage, he needed a patroness. One who would show off his designs to the best effect, and to the best people.
Mira clucked her tongue. “Between her and your soiled doves, it’s no wonder you’re so tired all of the time.”
“My soiled doves,” he scoffed.
“Aren’t they? Those creatures who wear your riding habits?”
He loosened his cravat. “What do you know of them?”
“I read the papers. I see what people are saying about that Miss Walters person. They call her ‘Incognita’ or ‘Anonyma’ but everyone knows who they mean.”
“I expect they do,” he said dryly.
Catherine Walters was the most famous courtesan in England. A skilled equestrienne, she’d taken society by storm, as much on the bridle path as in the ballroom. Her slim figure, enhanced by the dashing riding habits she wore, had made her a sight worth seeing by anyone frequenting Hyde Park. Every day, during the fashionable hour, people gathered along Rotten Row just to watch her pass.
After seeing one of his habits on Mrs. Finchley last season, Miss Walters had approached Ahmad with an order of her own. She’d commissioned one riding habit to start, and then another five upon completion of the first. It had been something of a sartorial coup. The best sort of advertising, considering the crowds she drew. Almost worth the cost he’d expended in time and materials.
Indeed, since Miss Walters had first worn one of his designs, two additional courtesans had ordered their riding habits from him as well. The Pretty Horsebreakers, the newspapers called them. Their style and skill were emulated by women from every strata of society.
“You may set your mind at ease,” he said. “Miss Walters is selling up. She’ll soon be leaving London.”
Mira’s brows lifted. “She’s found a new protector?”
“I believe so. With any luck, he’ll settle her bill before he spirits her away.”
“Don’t say she hasn’t paid you yet?”
“Not for this season’s order.” In truth, Miss Walters had only just settled her bill for last year’s habits. Like most fashionable ladies, she saw no issue with letting her accounts go unpaid for months at a time.
“How much does she owe?” Mira asked.
“A substantial sum.”
“One hundred pounds.” Ahmad felt a bit queasy to admit it. It was no small amount, especially to a man in his position. When Miss Walters hadn’t paid, he’d been obliged to dip into his savings to cover expenses. The very money slated to open his dress shop.
“One hundred pounds?” Mira’s face clouded with outrage. She received only thirty pounds a year in her position as lady’s companion, and that was considered a generous wage. “I knew you shouldn’t have accepted an order from her. She has a reputation for leaving creditors in her wake. I read only yesterday that—”
“Does Mrs. Finchley know about your penchant for reading the scandal sheets?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
He squeezed her shoulder as he walked past her chair on the way to the cabinet where he kept his liquor. “Have you eaten?”
She nodded. “Have you?”
“Not yet.” He withdrew a bottle of brandy and a single glass. “A drink,” he said. “And then I’ll see you into a hackney. I have an early day tomorrow.”
“Lady Heatherton again?”
He shook his head. “A new client, potentially.” Sitting down at the table, he told Mira about the peculiar young woman who had come into Doyle and Heppenstall’s today.
“Another soiled dove?” Mira asked when he’d finished.
“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. “She spoke and acted like a lady, but…”
“She didn’t have a maid with her. And she didn’t have a carriage waiting. I suspect she must have walked to the shop from the omnibus stop.”
“Was she very beautiful?”
He stared into his glass of brandy. “Possibly.”
It had been difficult to tell. What charms Miss Maltravers possessed—if any—had been well hidden.
Still, he’d caught glimpses of potential.
Her eyes, behind the lenses of her spectacles, had been a velvet-soft hazel, wide and doe-like, framed by impossibly long black lashes. And the hair curling from beneath her dowdy flat-brimmed hat had appeared a lustrous brown, threaded with strands of red and gold that glittered in the gaslight. Auburn hair. A great, thick mass of it, twisted into a singularly unflattering knot at her nape.
As for her figure, it had seemed well proportioned beneath the shroud of her loose-fitting caraco and skirt. She stood at least five and a half feet tall, a respectable height for a lady, with hints of a generous bosom.
All the rest, at this stage, was so much guesswork. He wouldn’t know for certain until he’d seen her with her clothes off.
The prospect sent a rare flush of heat creeping up his neck.
Mira’s eyes twinkled. “You couldn’t tell? You must have thought her pretty enough to have agreed to make a habit for her.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything. I’m merely curious.”
He shrugged. “She has possibilities.”
“She’s probably nothing more than one of those ladies who attempt to copy the courtesans’ style.”
Ahmad supposed that she might be. There were enough of them about these days. Even so, thus far, none of those young ladies had yet had the ingenuity to visit Doyle and Heppenstall’s.
Miss Maltravers had recognized that his designs were something out of the common way. Magic, she’d called them. He’d been ridiculously flattered.
“Or perhaps,” Mira said, “she’s looking to go into business for herself?”
“As a courtesan?” He thought it unlikely. And yet…
And yet the mere touch of her gloved hand had sent a startling shock of arousal through him. His breath had jammed up in his chest, and his blood had swiftly heated to a simmer.
He’d wondered, in that moment, what manner of strange creature she was, this frumpy female who had the power to beguile a man as surely as a siren.
To beguile him.
He’d spent his formative years working as a bully boy at Mrs. Pritchard’s gentlemen’s establishment in Whitechapel. It had been the first job he’d found in England, the only one that had allowed him to keep Mira with him. There, he’d been surrounded by attractive women—outright professionals at their trade—and none of them had ever affected him as deeply as Miss Maltravers had. Certainly not by the mere touch of their hand.
If this was a sample of her erotic skill, she’d soon be as much in demand as Catherine Walters herself.
The prospect left a sour taste in his mouth. He downed another swallow of brandy.
“What else?” Mira asked.
He flashed her a questioning look over the rim of his glass.
“If not a lady or a courtesan, then what is she?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I mean to find out.”
About the Author:
USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances, including Fair as a Star, a Library Journal Best Romance of 2020, and The Work of Art, winner of the 2020 HOLT Medallion. Mimi’s novels have received starred reviews in Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine.