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The Early Years (1980), The Royal Suitor (1981) and Condemned (1981) by Linda-Dawn Reeve

November 20, 2019

“I adored my mother and I suppose because I was the youngest and because she had never really been well since my birth, I was closest to her.” Thus begins Linda-Dawn Reeve’s substantial trilogy — a little over six hundred pages — in which we’re introduced to an Anne who at first seems to be so typical of mid-twentieth century Annes that she could have been created from the distilled essences of thirty other fictional versions of her. The youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, she loses her mother at a young age (five) and is soon given a stepmother who, despite her fears, turns out to be kind and loving to her husband’s children. Young Anne is especially in need of affection, for despite her boldness she suffers from being teased about her minuscule sixth finger and the wen on her neck. She has a childish affection for Thomas Wyatt, who is much more serious in his intentions towards her, and her brother George is half in love with Thomas’s sister Margaret. When Anne is seven, her father manages to get her a place among Princess Mary’s attendants as she leaves to marry Louis XII, and after Louis’s death Anne attends the new Queen Claude and incidentally spends a lot of time with Claude’s sister-in-law Marguerite, learning to be witty and graceful and also that women can be as good anybody.

So far, so typical. But when Anne is brought back to England at the age of fifteen, the direction changes sharply — not the direction of the story, which of course can only be changed so much, but the direction of her development. Very shortly after her return, she meets the King at Hever, where he’s come to visit her sister Mary. The King is greatly taken by her and begins doing everything in his power to seduce her, although she rebuffs him and he apparently loses interest. And from that moment, Anne seems to be touched with a frost. The fifteen-year-old who is enjoying falling in love and charming people continues to be just that, even as she grows older and endures the winning and then losing of Henry Percy to Wolsey’s political plans and his father’s ambitions, and her subsequent rustication. In the traditional manner, she vows revenge on Wolsey, but it never seems to cross her mind not to believe in the sincerity of everyone else around her, to say nothing of her endearingly childish certainty that she should be able to manipulate any social situation into going the way she wants it to. And, most unusually of all, she ends up falling genuinely, obsessively in love with Henry VIII.

The themes of love and obedience are established early on, when a very young Anne learns to her horror that she is to have a stepmother. She cries to Lady Wyatt, thinking that a stepmother will be cruel and abusive, and is corrected in this fashion.

”Why heavens, child, Sir Henry informs me that His Grace the King has picked out this lady for your Pappa. Would the King, who is so very wise, choose a woman who would beat little children?”

I stopped crying and peered into her kind face. “George says that no one is as wise as King Henry!”

“Then George is a very sensible little boy,” she said with a smile. “It is an honour that the King, who is such a busy man, should find the time to worry about Sir Thomas Boleyn and his three children. The King has decided that George, Mary and yourself have been without a mother for long enough and so he has decided that your Pappa should marry the lady in question. A wise choice indeed!”

“Could Pappa have refused if he had wanted to?” I asked.

“Refuse the King!” Tom stared in surprise as if it was a thing unheard of. “No one can refuse the King’s command! To do so is regarded as treason!”

“What’s treason?” I asked, never having heard the word before.

“Treason is refusing to obey the will of the King!” Lady Wyatt instructed me.

“Yes,” went on Tom, “And if you are found guilty of treason they cut off your head!” He ran a swift narrow finger across the base of his throat.

I shuddered and clung closely to Lady Wyatt. “I don’t want anyone to cut off my Pappa’s head,” I said quietly, “Even if I do not love him very much!”

The passage is indicative of how Anne will be portrayed throughout the trilogy: an intelligent child who despite a quick start fails to cease being a child, a girl who loves and reveres the king in spite of herself, and who does not want anyone’s head to be cut off.

Anne’s jump-start into adulthood takes place in 1514 when her father sends her to France alongside Princess Mary as she makes her way towards becoming Louis XII’s third wife. The seven-year-old Anne is semi-seriously proposed to by her playmate, eleven-year-old Thomas Wyatt — “Promise to marry me when you return from France and you shall have it,” he says while offering Anne an apple — and she turns him down she does so in language that would be advanced for a seven-year-old of any era. “My father will never agree to our marriage, Tom. But if I have a choice I will mention that I have a fancy for you! … I do not know when I shall return to England and in any case you may be married already by that time.” The sight of the young Princess Mary marrying the decidedly not young and extremely repellent Louis XII helps the young Anne form a resolution: never to marry someone she doesn’t love.

Her return from France after eight years of education there sees her being briefly flirted with by Henry VIII before she meets and instantly falls for Henry Percy (he saves her from falling scenery during the masque of the Chateau Vert). Alas, their love is shortly thwarted by Wolsey and by Percy’s furious father, who comes to sweep him away while a somewhat sympathetic but still firm Queen Catherine informs Anne that it’s time for her to head back to Kent, to be summoned back to court when needed. Anne returns home to brood and think about revenge.

From then on,her life is a series of lurches in one direction or another, often guided by someone else’s wishes, and never thought out further than one step ahead, if that much. Anne loses Percy, and is sent back to Hever, vowing never to love again — but when the King visits her two years later, she thinks she might be able to turn this situation to her advantage to get revenge on Wolsey. In this she’s absolutely correct; Henry, charmed by her flirtatiousness, brings her back to court clearly thinking it’s only a matter of time until she becomes his mistress, while Anne rejoices in the chance to start whispering sweet nothings about Wolsey’s misdeeds into Henry’s ear.

Ambition rose within me, surging to my brain like heady wine, and drugging my senses. Anne Boleyn — the King’s favourite!

“He will be as clay in my hands to mold as I will!” I told myself with a smile, “And in time when I am more sure of him I will use my power over him to destroy the man whom I hate most! In return for my companionship the King must give me Wolsey! Wolsey is the price I ask and I will accept nothing less! The King must choose — Wolsey or Anne Boleyn — for he cannot have both!”

It only becomes apparent later that she genuinely believes that once Wolsey is overthrown, she can simply bow out of Henry’s orbit and resume her old life. She comes to enjoy Henry even as she dislikes some of the things he does (“I like the man but not the king” she tells her stepmother) and while she’s not afraid to criticize him to his face he’s always so supernaturally patient it’s hard to feel that she’s ever in much danger. It’s only later, when he decides that Anne will be his second wife after he’s started taking steps to divorce the unsatisfactorily sonless Catherine that his temper really starts showing, and by then Anne has been slowly proceeding from “liking the man but not the king” to coming to like both of them due to reasons we’re never really able to see, since he spends most of that time frustrating Anne immensely due to his tendency to either flatter the prejudices of his audience (when he tells the merchants of London that he would gladly take Catherine for his wife again if he believed their marriage to be valid, he genuinely doesn’t get why Anne is upset by this) or go into screaming rages against anyone who thwarts him — occasionally the victim is Anne, but, thanks somewhat to her efforts, it’s increasingly Wolsey.

In keeping with the book’s tendency to exonerate Anne of ever actually carrying through with any particularly damaging action, Wolsey’s fall is not so much brought about by her as brought about by divorce-related events out of her control, with Anne giving the occasional nudge. When Henry becomes envious of Hampton Court and suggests that Wolsey should make it a gift to his king, Anne sees Wolsey’s expression — “I knew he suspected me of asking Henry for Hampton Court but no such thought had ever been in my head and for one fleeting second I almost pitied the man that had risen so high should now be sinking so quickly.”

As Wolsey departs the stage, Anne feels that it’s a hollow triumph; she still doesn’t have Henry Percy back and never will. Despite her looking at Percy’s last letter and whispering “I regret nothing and would do it all again tomorrow,” it’s hard to get the sense that she means it. Far too late she has realized that being engaged to the king means that it’s going to be somewhat difficult to avoid marrying him, and despite George’s gracious offer to help her leave court and break the engagement if she likes (“I would support you even if it cost me my head”) she conveniently realizes that she likes Henry enough not to *technically* be breaking her old vow not to marry where she doesn’t love.

”I once admitted to Lady B that I came dangerously near to liking the man very much. I think I must have known even then that our destinies were interwoven. Henry is always very much the man with me and on the odd occasions when he does show himself the King he is indulgent and kind, perhaps self-opinionated but then who has more cause than he? The King and the man are one for me and I am not ashamed or afraid to admit that I am really very fond of him.”

“I am very glad of that,” [George] said, smiling down at me. “I would not want you to dislike your husband.”

This modified rapture is upgraded to a full-on declaration of love when Anne once again meets with Henry Percy, who’s come to court to deny that he was ever precontracted to her and rebut the rumors that are swirling. In what is perhaps not the most cautious course of action for two people who are both denying that they were ever engaged, Anne manages to have a private conversation with Percy in which she sees that his health has been broken, and that “he was a stranger.” He is, at least, kindly, well-intentioned stranger (he tells her to “learn to live” and that he can see in her eyes that she loves the king now so it’s all right to just admit it) and his farewell — “It has been delightful seeing you again” is possibly the most defeated-sounding moment in a book which includes numerous actual beheadings.

Anne and the king marry, and while Elizabeth’s birth doesn’t dampen Henry’s affections for more than a few minutes and she promptly becomes pregnant again within three months, he does start wandering back to his old ways, flirting (and more) with Madge Shelton, whom Anne — taking the advice of Jane Boleyn, as much as she suspects Jane’s motives — finally decides to “banish” by sending her to the court of Marguerite de Valois. Since every girl would give her eyeteeth for a fashionable French education, Madge can hardly say no, but Henry is less than pleased by Anne’s subterfuge and it’s during a fight over this subject that Anne feels the first pangs of premature labor. The baby is a boy, and born dead.

The twelve months that followed the death of the boy who was to have been England’s long-awaited heir and Henry’s pride and joy spelt out to me only too clearly my fall from favour and the fact that Henry had ceased to love me …. Losing his son was a thing he could not lightly forgive and now we scarcely talked together without it ending in a quarrel and we never supped alone in the privacy of our apartments as we used to do.

1535 is a miserable year for both Henry, presiding over the execution of one traitor after another, and for Anne, who can’t get pregnant as Henry won’t come near her. Only towards the end of the year does George coax her into dressing up and flirting with Henry as she used to, and while it doesn’t come across as anything especially outstanding to the reader, Henry must be more starved for attention than he’ll admit, as he calls off a meeting with Cromwell to drag Anne into the bedchamber. Another pregnancy results, and Anne is so happy that she doesn’t notice just how much attention Henry is paying to yet another maid — the “mousy” Jane Seymour, whom Anne briefly knew as a child attendant in France.

Jane will make her influence felt, however, and does so in a genuinely shocking way when news arrives that Catherine of Aragon has died and thereby solved a number of potential political problems. As Anne is attended by her personal maid, Annie Gainsford, Jane stops in for a moment just to pass on a message. “Oh Your Grace, I have just chanced across the King in the passage and he bade me tell you that the mourning colour is to be yellow.”

Despite Annie Gainsford’s doubts, and Anne’s own thwarted wish to consult with Margaret Wyatt (Jane craftily tells her that Margaret has a cold and can’t be seen) Anne shrugs and finally decides that the yellow must be meant to avoid looking excessively hypocritical, and decks herself out in all the topaz and gold she can find. It makes for quite an entrance, but not the one she’s expecting.

Upon entering the Great Hall that evening my appearance created quite a stir, but not in the way I had anticipated. I sensed at once that something was very wrong and looking about the room, saw to my great surprise that everyone was wearing dark and sombre colors so that my own gaudy gown seemed to be brazenly illuminated.

The King was already there and he looked up as I walked across the floor. The room had fallen silent and I saw the looks of horror and heard the stifled gasps as I passed.

“Bright yellow!” I heard someone exclaim, “The Queen looks like Jezebel and openly defies the King’s instructions!”

When Henry can finally bring himself to say anything, it’s to bellow “Yellow, Madame! Yellow!” and refuse to listen to word of Anne’s attempted explanations, especially the parts which implicate his beloved Jane. And as a result, his beloved Jane, along with Cromwell, gets right to work after Anne tragically miscarries her last pregnancy, hinting to Henry that Anne is involved with other men. Very soon after Henry is sitting beside Anne at the May Day tournament, watching her carefully while murmuring, “I find it hard to believe what I have heard, even though there has been little but anger between us of late.” What he’s heard becomes clear when Anne, cheering on the riders, drops her handkerchief to Henry Norris. It’s not clear if it’s an accident — she says simply that “the handkerchief fell” so we can’t be sure. As with Anne falling in love with the king, it’s unclear to what extent she knows what she’s doing. But the handkerchief has a much more sinister significance to Henry, who, Othello-like, thinks it’s all the evidence he needs and promptly leaves. The next day Anne is arrested, and quickly discovers that Norris, George, and various other courtiers who tried to keep her amused during the depressing months after her miscarriage have also been arrested on suspicion of having had affairs with her.

The trials of the five men, and of Anne herself, are succinctly dramatized and while they hold no surprises for anyone who knows the story they are well-written and clear and give Anne a rare opportunity to sound her actual age, as opposed to about half of it. It’s after she’s condemned and is talking to Margaret Wyatt that we discover how thoroughly entrapped her love Anne remains.

”I love him so much that life without him is cruel and torment! How I begin to long for death, Meg! How I long for it! … Knowing that I’m a fool and knowing that even as the sword touches my neck, my thoughts will be all of Henry and the great love I have for him. It is true, Meg, I cannot live without him; it will be easier to die! … And yet I believe that somehow he shall come to me again and love me as he once did. Whether it be in heaven or hell I know not, but I believe he will come to me. This much I swear, dear beloved Meg, that if I have to search through death’s dark passages of time a thousand years, I will seek him out, and thus finding him, he will love me again!”

Whether or not she succeeds in her ambition the story doesn’t tell us, but she does succeed in doing something almost as miraculous: the moment she’s beheaded, as she feels the sword cut through her neck and her women begin to cry, she screams three words: “Henry, my love!”

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Even though this Anne follows a relatively standard plotline at first — deciding she’ll manipulate the King to throw Wolsey down — it’s pretty much her sole foray into politics and done entirely to get revenge on him for thwarting her love affair. Otherwise. her sheer naivete is astonishing. Politics are a thing that happens in Henry’s world, not hers.

WHEN BORN? Mary was born in 1503, George in 1505 and Anne in either March or May of 1507 (both months are give, in different volumes).

THE EARLY LOVE She and Thomas Wyatt have youthful crushes on each other (very youthful in Anne’s case — she’s seven the last time she sees him single, and Wyatt is only four years older). By the time of her return (she’s summoned back to marry James Butler, whom we never meet and whom she dismisses as an “Irish popinjay”) Wyatt is unhappily married and remarks now and then, rather ungallantly, that he wishes his father would have let him marry Anne instead. Anne tweaks him about his “broken promise” occasionally but eventually admits to herself that doesn’t feel that way about him any longer. At about fifteen, she falls in love with Henry Percy, and is still mourning their separation two years later. Unusually, Percy reappears in the middle of the story, not just the end of it — already he’s very ill and essentially gives Anne permission to go and live her life by falling in love again. Since he’s giving her permission to fall in the love with the king it’s maybe not the best thing he could have said, but it does make him notable by being the only male character who gives more than second’s thought as to what Anne herself wants.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Madge Shelton appears as a light of love to the King while Anne is pregnant with Elizabeth — Anne is seldom shown is being very diplomatic but manages to do so in this instance when she solves the problem by sending Madge abroad to the court of Archduchess Margaret, as a “great favor.” Madge and Henry both complain vaguely, but she goes. Jane Seymour, pale and repellent, is introduced as a frightened child who also attends Mary to France, and is later brought to court as a favor to Henry after his visit to Wolf Hall. Child Jane doesn’t distinguish herself in any way, the adult Jane distinguishes herself by maliciously tricking Anne into appearing not to mourn for Catherine of Aragon.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Simonette the governess (here spelled Simmonette) cares for the three Boleyn children, and when Anne is a little older she has Anne Gainsford (here called Annie) as her personal maid. Mark Smeaton is also noted as being a “Gipsy lad” whose skill with music has earned him a place at court far higher than he would ever get; his devotion to Anne and his being a fish out of water both contribute to his doom.

THE PROPHECY The closest this story comes is when Anne finds the “book of prophecies” (which seems to be an almanac with hand-drawn pictures) with a picture of herself with her head cut off. Although her maid is horrified, Anne pretends not to be upset, calling it a “harmless bauble” and thinking that her sister-in-law Jane must be the one who planted it in her room. She doesn’t recall it later even when the picture of beheading becomes much more relevant.

IT’S A GIRL! “Oh God, he’s really angry with me,” is Anne’s first, very adolescent thought when she sees Henry’s mouth twist at the sight of Elizabeth. As it turns out, he handles the situation much better than that: “He bent over the precious bundle I held and wagged his finger in the tiny red face and when her mouth creased into what for all the world looked like a smile he cried out in delight, `See how she recognises her father!’” Later he assures Anne that he can’t be angry with her when she’s given him “such a fine daughter.” (This is, unfortunately, an attitude that will swiftly change after she has one stillborn son.)

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Anne has a pink “blemish” on her neck and “the beginning of a sixth nail” on her left hand, both of which cause great self-consciousness (she’s teased about them by other children and even her mother flinches when she sees them). George and Simonette are the only people who never mention them — when Anne comes crying to Simonette one day about her parents’ friends remarking on how unfortunate her deformities are, the latter says that her grace and intelligence will make it so that the nail doesn’t matter, “As for the mark on your neck, Anne, I think it not so very unsightly for it brings attention to that lovely long swan-neck that you have.”

In France, while attending Marguerite de Valois, Anne learns to turn her birthmarks to her advantage by becoming both a well-known wit and a cutting-edge clothing designer. “Because of my birth marks which made me feel inferior I felt I had to do everything I undertook better than anyone else …. Under Marguerite’s guidance I designed my own gowns and fashioned a new dress with long hanging sleeves. They became so fashionable with the other ladies that they became known as the `Boleyn sleeves’ throughout the court.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS George is a “pretty boy” as a child, whom Simonette calls “Adonis” as a result. As is often the case in twentieth-century novels, George and Anne resemble each physically — both with “blue-black” hair, and black eyes — while Mary, the less intelligent one with the weaker personality, is a conventionally pretty blonde — though the prettiness fades after Henry leaves her. “She was no longer as pretty as I remembered …. Her hair had lost its golden brightness and was now spangled with streaks of grey. It was dowdily dressed and hung lank and disorderly about her pale face. The lewd life she had led before her marriage showed plainly in her face.” Her advice to Anne that Henry always “destroys the things he loves” is not taken as seriously as it should be as Mary is so transparently weak. George is more intelligent and also much more unhappy, having been tied down in a marriage to a woman he can’t stand. George, as he often does, serves as Anne’s unofficial advisor — though unlike most such, he counsels a cautious Anne to go ahead and marry the king if she can, because even if she doesn’t love him she can both accomplish a great deal and torment her enemies if she’s a queen. Anne, who at this point is still unsure whether she actually loves the king, is more hesitant.

The divide between dark and fair coloring in these books is particularly striking — Mary, while not an enemy, is definitely the sibling Anne doesn’t favor, and she resents her for having mocked her deformities as a child and for giving in to her worst impulses as a young girl and then as an adult. Even worse is George’s wife Jane Parker, who is repeatedly described as tall, blonde, and narrow-eyed (she sounds rather like a Valkyrie on a bad day). Jane suspects, correctly, that George has no interest in or respect for her, and from the beginning she rages about Anne’s hold on him and makes nasty jokes about how they obviously wished they could have married each other. Weirdly, she never seems to have much interest in George’s actual mistress, Margaret Wyatt, even when at the end she discovers that George intends to pretend that he and Margaret Wyatt were precontracted, so he can leave Jane and marry Margaret. Margaret herself is another blonde, depicted as well-meaning and sincere, but also rather timid and dull. Jane Seymour, sly and up to no good, is of course a blonde, and her pale blue eyes are her most notable feature.

Thomas Boleyn is recognizable from a thousand other books — flinty-hearted, concerned only with advancing his interests and ready to give his children the rough side of his tongue the instant they let him down in any way. As this is a Strickland-derived book, Elizabeth Howard is shown as his first wife, and she barely appears before dying when Anne is five years old. His second wife is named Elizabeth and called “Lady B” by the children and her background is rather confused — when the marriage first takes place, the children are told that the king made the match between their father and his new wife, but later it develops that she’s one of twelve children of a not very well off squire and likes to cure her own hams. It’s hard to picture the king taking an interest in promoting this kind of match. The result of this inconsistency is that Lady B feels rather like a patchwork version of Anne’s stepmother, made of bits and pieces from other books. However, like all of them, she is unfailingly kind and a much more considerate parent than her husband.


WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Lots and lots of exclamation marks on the dialogue, probably meant to convey the idea of lively, sparkling conversation but which ends up making the characters sound like they’re shouting all the time and gets increasingly hard to read — though not as hard as Dear Heart, How Like You This? where after while I was cringing in anticipation of the next “verily.”

ERRATA Jane Seymour was never a child attendant in France and would not have met Anne when she was so young, nor was she newly brought from Wolf Hall to attend Anne in the autumn of 1535 — she had been at court for years and had attended two queens by the time Henry became interested in her. The Princess-turned-Lady Mary is, by contrast, portrayed as being present at court and even at Elizabeth’s birth (and very defiant she is about everything) when of course she was kept as far from court as possible, though she is accurately shown as being sent to attend on her baby half-sister some months later. Thomas Boleyn’s office has an engraved metal name plate on the door which, while I can’t say with complete certainty is anachronistic, does seem highly unlikely — it temporarily hurtles the reader into a modern office block and a mental image of a very modern girl visiting her father in his office amid printers and monitors. Thomas More’s death warrant is signed “shortly after Christmas” in 1535, delaying his death (which actually took place in July 1535) by six months at least.

WORTH A READ? It’s not exactly bad but it’s far, far too long for what it is — instead of going into detail on parts of Anne’s life which normally are elided, as a reader might hope, already well-known portions of her life are simply expanded. Instead of one or two scenes of Henry losing his temper because the divorce isn’t working out, we get half a dozen such scenes, Thomas Wyatt’s adult fixation on Anne is repeated over and over, and so forth. Anne herself never really develops after returning to England — the air is that of a fourteen year old girl, frozen in time, who keeps finding herself in deeper and deeper waters as she becomes more enmeshed in court intrigue but who never really learns from any of her experiences except in the simplest ways. While it is unusual in depicting Anne as truly loving Henry (even to the point where at the end she frantically wonders if their souls will ever meet again in a future life, and wanting it very much to be true) it’s hard to escape the feeling that this love is the result not so much a natural development of their relationship — Henry does very little that’s actively appealing — as a byproduct of the author’s need to keep Anne’ s motives perpetually pure. Ultimately, the story fails, as an Anne who is emotionally frozen as a young teenager and has less and less agency as she grows older is not an Anne in whom the reader can maintain interest over the course of three books. Only in her youth does she attempt to take an active part in her own life — thereafter she exists almost entirely to be buffeted about and made to look like a simpleton. This Anne is too small to fill the number of pages she’s been given, and the story suffers as a result.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Annalucia permalink

    Good to have you back!

    This caught my attention:

    “When Henry can finally bring himself to say anything, it’s to bellow “Yellow, Madame! Yellow!” and refuse to listen to word of Anne’s attempted explanations, especially the parts which implicate his beloved Jane.”

    This is the sort of thing that should never happen anywhere, except in the second act of a musical comedy – The Great Misunderstanding that could have been cleared up with half a dozen words. It’s one thing that irks me about the movie “Casablanca.” All those tear-filled eyes and silent stares, and all she has to do is blurt out “He’s my husband! I thought he was dead!”

    (Yeah, she does get around to that, eventually. About three-quarters of the way through the movie.)

    But I can see where “Anne as the perpetual injured innocent” would get dull after a while.

    • sonetka permalink

      Well, she does try to explain — he just flat-out says she’s lying because Jane would never do that. The biggest problem is how easy it is to con her into doing it in the first place. As for Casablanca, I don’t really have an explanation but hey, they all do look awfully sharp while they’re brooding away so in the end I don’t care that much :).

  2. Melanie permalink

    I’m arrears so excited to see your reviews go up, so this was a very pleasant surprise!

    The “yellow dress prank” is a new one. What a surprise to get such an actively malicious Jane, and in such a cheesy context.

    • Melanie permalink


    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! It was definitely a new take on the yellow dress, and while I don’t mind malicious Jane (it does make a good story) I wish she had had to work a little harder to pull off her coup! Anne falling for that particular stratagem would have been a stretch in a Hallmark movie, let alone an actual court.

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