Read an Excerpt From Sarah MacLean's 'Heartbreaker'

The latest entry in MacLean's 'Hell's Belles' universe is a delightfully feminist twist on Regency-era romance romps.

Sarah MacLean
(Image credit: Future / Eric Mortensen)

There were any number of words London might use to describe Adelaide Frampton.

North of the river, in Hyde Park and on Bond Street and in Mayfair ballrooms, when people did spoke of the bespectacled distant cousin to the Duchess of Trevescan, which was rare, they used words like plain. If pressed, they might add tall. Or perhaps ordinary. Certainly spinster was not out of the realm of possibility for the 26-year-old woman who had absolutely no hope of prospects, what with her flame red hair always tucked tightly beneath a pristine cap and the way she wore her collars high and out of fashion, her frocks drab, and her face common, without rouge or kohl.

Barely seen, rarely heard, neither titled nor rich, never droll, lacking in charm or extraordinary skill. Uninteresting. Unassuming. Unremarkable and therefore unnoticeable, allowed into Mayfair thanks only to a faraway bloodline.

South of the river, however, in warehouses and laundries and workhouses, in the rookeries and streets where Adelaide had been raised not Adelaide Frampton but Adelaide Trumbull, she was legend. Little girls across Lambeth would tuck into their beds at night, hungry for hope and the promise of a future, and their mothers and aunts and older sisters would whisper the stories of Addie Trumbull, the greatest nipper the South Bank had ever seen—fingers so fast she'd never once been caught—and a future so bright that she'd fought in the war that had merged The Bulls and The Boys, ensuring her father was king of both before she'd left for a future beyond the coal clouds and the mud puddles and filth of Lambeth.

Addie Trumbull, the story went, had left a princess and become a queen.

Remarkable how legends grew without proof, even in places where the soil was salted and the fields lay fallow. Especially in those places.

It did not matter that Addie had never returned. Someone's cousin's friend's sister worked as a maid in the new queen's court, and had seen Addie there. She was married to a good, rich man, and slept on goose down and wore silk frocks and ate off golden plates.

Sleep well, little ones; if you are good and learn early to cut purses and move fast, you, too, might have a future like Addie Trumbull.

Legend. Myth. Luminary.


But like all gossip from north of the river, and all stories from south of it, the truth was a little of both and a lot of neither. And because of that, Adelaide remained a mystery in both places, which suited her quite well, as unnoticeable and unimaginable endowed her equally with the only quality she cared to have—invisibility.

And so, here is the truth. Adelaide Frampton was the
greatest thief London never saw.

Her invisibility was on full display on that particular October afternoon in 1839 when, as the autumn sun crept low across the sky, she entered the warehouse that acted as the official headquarters of London's largest gang of muscle for hire, Alfred Trumbull's Bully Boys. The crew had been renamed in the wake of their violent merger on her failed wedding day with a portmanteau devised by her father—a man who knew well how an inexpensive gift could bring bad men to a cause.

It had been five years since Adelaide had seen the inside of the warehouse—five years since she'd left Lambeth and begun a new life across the river—but she remembered the place as though no time had passed at all. It remained full to the brim with the gang's stolen goods—booze and jewels, silks and sterling, and a collection of firearms that should have blown them all up by now, considering the group's notorious lack of sense.

Wearing a high-collared, trim fitting navy coat over a dark shirt and drab skirts, Adelaide made her way through the building. The clothes, along with the unadorned grey cap that hid her hair, were designed for ease of movement during just this kind of activity, ensuring that when she tucked into shadows or ducked behind crates of contraband, she disappeared.

Three separate patrols stayed her passage to the top floor, where her father's office sat empty. Alfie Trumbull took "tea" every afternoon at four o'clock at the Wild Pheasant—a bordello he owned in the shadow of Lambeth Palace. The location of the place, mere yards from where the Archbishop of Canterbury laid his head, was no doubt part of its charm for Alfie, who had always thought himself the highest of beings.

The first patrol had required her to make a quick stop behind the stairs on the ground floor, the second sent her into hiding at the back corner of the warehouse, and the third had nearly caught her as she slipped inside her father's office, sliding between several large barrels of whiskey to wait them out.

Five years, and while the world was changing with wild speed beyond those walls, absolutely nothing was different inside Alfie's dominion. Same patrol schedule. Same hiding places. Same conversations—a bout that had sent a boy to the surgeon the night before but won them a decent amount of blunt.

Adelaide waited for them to lumber off, grateful that her father continued to value brawn over brains when it came to his watchmen. Once they were gone, Adelaide moved to Alfie's workspace and sat, stilling in surprise.

Not everything was the same. Her father had bought himself a desk. One with drawers and locks and a bright shine that Adelaide imagined gave him pride every time he sat behind it.

He wouldn't be happy when he realized his locks were no match for a thief.

Quickly, Adelaide extracted a snuffbox from the deep inside pocket of her coat and pulled a long gold chain from beneath the collar of her shirt. At the end of the chain hung a narrow brass tube, the tip of which she removed before opening the box to reveal the heads of a dozen brass keys. In seconds, she selected the proper one and attached it to the pendant.

Turning her newly created key in the desk lock, she reveled in the clean thunk of the steel tumblers within and began her search. She did not find what she was looking for in the first two drawers, nor was it in the deep, locked drawer at the bottom of the heavy desk. Except . . .

She extracted three heavy ledgers from the drawer, deep and well balanced on casters—her father had spared no expense—and set them on the desk, calculating their height before pushing back in the chair and considering the exterior of the drawer itself. A little smile played across her lips. Alfie Trumbull didn't trust his boys after all.

Sliding her fingers over the wood inside, Adelaide found the hidden catch in seconds and threw it to reveal a secret compartment beneath the drawer's false bottom.

“There you are,” she whispered, triumph flaring as she lifted a tiny black book, small enough to fit in a gentleman's pocket. She opened it, confirming that it was what she sought: the locations of the eleven caches of munitions The Bully Boys had hidden throughout the city, along with the names of the Boys assigned to each, the schedules of the changings of the guard, and the provenance of each of the weapons within, each meticulously accounted by Alfie Trumbull himself.

Slipping the book into her own pocket, Adelaide moved to restore the drawer to rights before pausing, her gaze falling to the other item in the hidden compartment.

A block of ordinary wood.

With a little frown, she reached for it, lifting the six-inch cube. A lifetime of thieving had taught Adelaide that ordinary things were rarely that—especially when her father kept them in false-bottomed drawers—and so, she did what she often did when something piqued her curiosity.

She took it.

The light was fading fast inside the building, so she worked quickly. Replacing the bottom of the drawer, she returned the ledger books, dismantled her skeleton key, and stood, tucking her snuffbox away and settling the wooden cube into the crook of her arm.

“That doesn't belong to you.”

Her heart leapt into her throat as she looked to the doorway, her free hand already sliding inside her skirts to the false pocket at her thigh, headed for the blade she kept there. She preferred to remain invisible and not leave a mess on missions, but she wasn't above taking out this bruiser if she had to.

He was the opposite of invisible, tall and lean, standing in the shadows just inside the office door, peaked cap pulled low over his brow, doing absolutely nothing to hide the sharp lines of his handsome face—a long, straight nose and an angled jaw that appeared to have been honed by the best of bladesmiths.

This was not one of her father's bruisers.

Even if she hadn't been able to hear it in his proper voice, or see it in the way he held himself, as though it had never occurred to him that he did not belong in a place—even a dark warehouse owned by a hardened criminal . . . even if he didn't look as though he'd spent his youth learning to fence instead of fight . . . it was the nose that gave it away.

He'd never once spent a night hungry. Never once had to brawl for his safety or his supper. Never once had to steal, because he had obviously been born into all he had.

The man was money.

Excerpted from the book HEARTBREAKER: A Hell's Belles Novel by Sarah MacLean. Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Trabucchi. From Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

A life-long romance reader, Sarah MacLean is the New York Times bestselling author of romances translated into more than 25 languages, a romance columnist and the co-host of the weekly romance novel podcast, "Fated Mates." A graduate of Smith College & Harvard University, she lives in New York City.