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The Secrets of a Courtesan - fb3_img_img_8d81b4e7-681b-5244-a3c5-8f021798dd4f.jpg

The Secrets of a Courtesan

Nicola Cornick

The Secrets of a Courtesan - fb3_img_img_183c066d-2cc9-5c39-b1ef-3dbd2b9f479c.jpg

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Prologue

April 1809

Letter from Lord Hawkesbury, Home Secretary, to Alasdair Rowarth, Duke of Welburn.

Rowarth,

I write to you in absolute confidence, requesting your assistance on a matter of national security. Mutual acquaintances tell me that you are an utterly sound fellow. I am sure this is the case because I knew your cousin at Eton. So, Rowarth, here is the situation. For some time now this department has been investigating the criminal activities of one Warren Sampson, a mill owner who has acquired land around the villages of Peacock’s Oak and Fortune’s Folly in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Sampson is suspected of encouraging civil unrest and sedition and it is imperative that we put and end to his influence. Imperative, I tell you. The man is a blackguard, an utter scoundrel. And now we may have found a way but it is a matter of considerable delicacy. It involves a certain Mrs. Eve Nightingale or, as you may remember her, Eva Night…

Pray, call on me at your earliest convenience so that I may acquaint you with your task.

Yours in haste,

Hawkesbury.

Chapter 1

Fortune’s Folly, Yorkshire–May 1809

Eve Nightingale had never believed that her past would catch up with her. She had run too far and hidden herself too well to be found. And then she saw Alasdair Rowarth, Duke of Welburn, in Fortune’s Folly Market Square one morning in spring and knew that everything that she had striven for was in danger.

Eve had been shopping, browsing amongst the market stalls, taking her time to chat to the sellers and enjoying the sunshine. The winter had been long and bitter with so much snow that for a time the village, so high in the Yorkshire dales and fells, had been cut off from the outside world. Now that spring had finally arrived it had brought an influx of visitors, for Fortune’s Folly was a spa of some note, not as famous as the local town of Harrogate, but with health-giving mineral waters that were said to be far less disgusting to drink. And on this May morning the square was full of townsfolk and visitors taking the air, gossiping and strolling, perusing the goods in the shop windows, the ladies’ parasols a forest of bright colors against the sun, the gentlemen elegant in jackets of blue and green superfine. There was a sense of brightness and hope in the air after such a long and gloomy winter.

Eve had just placed a quart of milk and a piece of creamy Wensleydale cheese in her marketing basket when she felt a strange prickle that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. It was the unmistakable sensation that she was being watched. She turned slowly and met the dark gaze of a gentleman who was standing on the opposite corner of the street.

It was his absolute stillness that attracted her attention first when everyone around him was moving. That, and the fact that he was looking directly at her with a gaze so focused and intent that she could not escape the force of their connection. His head was uncovered and in the spring sunshine his hair gleamed with the colors of fallen leaves, bronze and auburn and dark gold. His eyes looked watchful, conker brown beneath straight, dark brows. He was very tall with a hard, handsome face as unyielding as the local stone. It was given even more character by high, slanting cheekbones and a cleft chin that looked the essence of stubbornness.

Rowarth.

For a moment Eve was utterly unable to accept the evidence of her own eyes. Five years had passed; five very long, difficult, painful years, since she had seen the Duke of Welburn. When she had run from him, run from London, she had thought never to see him again. Yet here he was. He had found her. She, who had never wanted to be found.

For a moment it felt as though her heart had actually stopped before it slammed through her body again and began to race. He held her eyes with a fierce intensity that captured and trapped her. For a moment Eve felt stunned, imprisoned by his gaze. He had already started to move toward her and in that moment of blind panic and fear, all she knew was that she could not face him. Not now, not yet, perhaps never. Her feelings for him were still too raw even after five years. She had to run again.

But it was too late. Her shaking fingers slipped on the handle of the basket and it fell from her grasp, spilling the ham and cheese across the cobbles and sending the milk cascading into the gutter. An enterprising crow swooped down and snatched the ham away. Eve made a grab for the basket, her hands trembling as she tried to gather everything together again.

“Allow me.”

Suddenly Rowarth was beside her, his hand on her elbow as he helped her to her feet, his touch searing her through the material of her sleeve. He picked up the slightly squashed cheese and handed it politely to her. Their fingers touched. Eve felt heat ripple through her awakening feelings she had thought long dead. Rowarth was summoning the dairyman and the butcher with authoritative gestures now to replace the items she had lost. Money changed hands. Eve heard the clink of coin and the men’s mumbled thanks. She felt hot and dizzy, the sun beating down on her bonnet and dazzling her eyes. She tried to steady her breathing. There was not the remotest chance of escaping a confrontation with Rowarth now. He still held her, lightly but with a touch that made her entire body thrum with awareness.

“Eve.”

She looked up and met his eyes and again felt the shock like a physical blow.

“Rowarth.” She was proud that her voice was so steady. “What an unexpected…surprise.”

His lips curved into a smile that was sinfully wicked but not remotely reassuring. “Is there any other sort?” he murmured.

“There are nice surprises,” Eve said.

“And then there is meeting me again.” His smile deepened. “Which I imagine falls into a different category given the alacrity with which you ran away from me.”

Pain twisted in Eve, bitter and sharp, not even slightly blunted with the passing of time. Yes, she had run from him. She had had no other choice in the world. And now, five years later, the mere sight of him could still affect her so profoundly that she felt faint and light-headed, her emotions stretched as taut as a wire.

But Rowarth’s measured tones had nothing but coldness in them for her now. Whatever feelings she still had for him, so deeply held that she had never quite been able to banish them, were not shared. Mistresses came and went, after all. He had been everything to her and there had never been anyone else for her since, but she could hardly expect it to be the same for him.

The crowds had melted away, leaving them alone. People were still staring, though from a discreet distance. Women were staring. But then, Eve thought, women had always stared at Alasdair Rowarth. Women had always wanted him. He was handsome, he was rich and he was a duke. What more could one ask for?

“You must let me escort you home,” Rowarth said. He was steering her across the market square and down Fortune Alley, one of the twisty little lanes that led away from the main thoroughfare. Already they had left the bustle of the main streets far behind.

“There is absolutely no need, I thank you,” Eve said. “I am sure that you have more pressing business.” It was impossible, she thought, that Rowarth had come to Fortune’s Folly to seek her out. A part of her longed for it to be true; when she had first seen him she had hoped for one heart-soaring moment that he had come looking for her because he still cared for her. Yet even in that moment she had known deep down that it was a foolish thought. The cynic in her, little Eve Nightingale, who had grown up on the streets of London and struggled to survive, knew enough of life to see that as the fairy tale it was. Besides, if by some miracle Rowarth had sought her out, that could only bring more lies and more heartbreak. There was no going back.

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