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Queen Bee
Author: Amalie Howard

Part I
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Everyone sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are, and those few do not dare to oppose themselves to the opinion of the many.
—Niccolò Machiavelli
London, March 1817
Wincing at the ache in my ribs—I could have sworn I’d heard one of them creak—I sucked in a shallow breath, my fingers white-knuckling the chair as Sally, my lady’s maid and friend, pulled the laces of my stays. Traditional long stays weren’t ever truly laced tight, just enough to underscore the lines of the gown, but I could barely breathe as the stiffly woven twill fabric pinched my upper torso. The pressure in my chest was most likely due to nerves.
I was about to take down the reigning queen and king of this year’s social season, which meant the evening had to be perfect…everything had to be perfect. First impressions were a valuable tool, and a person usually had only one chance at them.
“A bit looser, Sally,” I said through my teeth.
She met my gaze in the mirror, her green eyes calm. “Breathe in, count to five, and then release.”
Listening to her sage counsel, I inhaled and exhaled. Panic prickled beneath my skin, but with each gentle tug, I felt it start to ease. Stays were a lady’s battle armor—after all, I was going to war, the glittering ballrooms of London my battlefield.
Tonight wasn’t about finding a match from the marriage mart. Tonight was about claiming what was mine—position, influence, power. Those things had been taken from me without my consent…things that were my right as the daughter of a peer.
A splendid come-out. A glittering social season. An impressive suitor.
All stolen.
And I intended to take them back.
It was my very first season…my ticket into the ton, the crème de la crème of British high society. From February to midsummer, the elite left their grand country estates and flocked to town for countless balls, dinner parties, and entertainments while parliament was in session. Arguably it was the best time to launch a son or daughter of marriageable age into society and make an excellent match.
Nostalgia gripped me. It would have been nice to come out under the name my parents had given me, but that chance was lost forever now.
My nemesis had taken that from me, too.
The basic tenet of revenge was simple. Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, had the right of it: If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. In other words, crush or be crushed. Revenge was much like chess—a game of positioning and strategy. A game of patience. A game of power.
A game I intended to win.
Poppy Landers was going down.
Breathe. You’ve got this.
Reaching for equanimity, I focused on my plan to take down the queen and checkmate the king. As with any round of chess, the first move would set the tone for an entire game.
The season’s opening ball at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, the so-called seventh heaven of the fashionable world, would be vital to my success. Receiving an invitation voucher to Almack’s was a rite of passage, and one I intended to savor. Luckily for me, my companion and chaperone, Lady Birdie, was dear friends with Lady Sefton, one of the esteemed patronesses of the institution, and once Lady Sefton had confirmed that I was suitably wellborn and in possession of an obscene fortune that would make the eligible gentlemen sit up and take notice, my voucher had been approved.
I sucked in another quick breath as Sally and the other maids lifted over my head the delicate ivory gown that was adorned with fine chikankari embroidery of lotus flowers and vines. For jewelry, I wore my late mama’s nine-strand pearl necklace, which fell in luminous tiers. When she’d been alive, she always used to say that nine was an auspicious number, and that the pearl gemstone ruled by Chandra, the power of the moon, would imbue fearlessness and emotional balance.
I needed both in spades tonight.
The maids cooed and made clucking noises of admiration when the buttons were hooked and my gloves and slippers were fastened into place.
Even Lady Birdie, who was sitting in the corner on a chaise, sniffed, her eyes going glossy. “Goodness, I’ve never seen a prettier girl.”
“Thank you, my lady,” I said. “However, I am sure there will be many lovely young women in attendance tonight.”
“You will outshine them all, my dear, I’m sure of it.”
When Sally and the girls were finished, I walked over to the mirror and stared at my reflection. Every raven-black lock of glossy, freshly dyed hair was in place, coiled around the crown of my head and wound into intricate loops. My brown skin glowed, thanks to my mother’s skin care regimen of sandalwood paste, almond oil, turmeric powder, and rose water. Hazel eyes sparkled from beneath a heavy fringe of thick eyelashes, and my lips were soft and plump.
The image was a far cry from the plain, acne-prone child I used to be.
This girl was older, beautiful, and unnervingly confident.
They won’t see you coming.
“You are a vision,” Sally whispered from behind as she handed me a matching satin reticule that was to be attached to my wrist.
“Come along, dear,” Lady Birdie said, as impatient as ever, her eyes narrowing on the clock. “Or we shall be late. You know how the patronesses are with their rules. They’re rather ridiculous, I must admit, but I shouldn’t want us to be locked out if we aren’t there by eleven. Lady Sefton and Lady Jersey are not so bad, but the other ladies are ghastly. Don’t tell them I said that.”
“Of course not, Lady Birdie.” I stifled my giggle at her peeved expression and followed her downstairs. On occasion, she reminded me of my mother. Before her illness, my mother had been a force of nature, bright-eyed, kind, and always wearing her heart on her sleeve.
You used to be like that, too.
I shoved that voice away—being sweet and naïve had won me no favors.