· HQN Books
After surviving Waterloo, Captain Jack Carrington returns home to take up his family duties and find himself a wife. Until he encounters Lady Belle, the most beautiful and celebrated courtesan in all of London.
TOP PICK! "With its intelligent, compelling characters, this is a very well-written, emotional and intensely charged read.”
“Incredible! I will keep this book on my shelf and read it again.”
“Reading THE COURTESAN reminded me why Julia Justiss is on my auto-buy list. Justiss writes emotionally intense characters who have real conflicts and obstacles to overcome…If you like Tortured Heroines and Nice Guy Heroes, this a book for you!”
"C’mon, Jack! You used to be game for any lark!"
Jack Carrington, captain in the 1st Foot Guards, peered over a stack of half-unpacked linen at the young dandy accosting him from his doorway. "I’m happy to see you, too, Aubrey, and while I appreciate the flattering enthusiasm for my company which led you to hunt me down before breakfast, I’m not interested in going anywhere. As you know, I didn’t reach London until late last night, and as you can see, I’ve yet to settle into my rooms. Can this excursion not wait?"
Receiving the rebuff with no noticeable dimming of his enthusiasm, Aubrey Ludlowe crossed the room and, pushing aside Jack’s portmanteau, poured himself some ale from the flagon on the desk. "Can’t wait. Besides, why unpack? Leave it for your man."
"I sent my batman to rejoin his family as soon as we landed and haven’t yet had time to find a replacement."
Aubrey waved his hand. "Let your new man attend to it after you hire him. The lesson begins shortly, and if we do not arrive soon, all the best seats will be taken."
Surprised, Jack swallowed his ale in a gulp. "You want to drag me away at barely past dawn to watch a lesson? Since when did you develop such enthusiasm for education? Not while we were at Oxford, to be sure!"
Aubrey set his mug down with a thump, his expression affronted. "’Tisn’t a matter of some rubbishy book-learning! Nay, ‘tis more important than that. Indeed, ‘tis the most important thing going on now in London, what with the Season not yet begun. Every gentleman of note will be present. Stands to reason there must be a decision soon, and good friend that I am, I don’t wish you to miss having a chance."
Jack stared at Aubrey. "A lesson is the most important event now taking place in London?" he asked, trying to sift the most intelligible bits from his friend’s speech. A sudden thought occurred and he leaned forward to sniff the air. "Are you sheets-to-the-wind, Aubrey?"
His friend chuckled, seemingly much less offended to be accused of being drunk at seven in the morning than at the suggestion he’d taken up scholarship. "Nay, though I don’t mind a little nip first thing, to revive the spirits. A sirloin wouldn’t come amiss either, but we haven’t time." Aubrey snatched the folded shirt from Jack’s hands and tossed it on the bed. "Wear regimentals, since you’re half-dressed in them already, but we leave now. The fencing master closes the doors promptly at seven-thirty."
"You’re haranguing me to go to—a fencing lesson?" A sudden vision filled Jack’s head—smoke, screams, the rattle of musketry and clang of blades, himself with saber slashing. Shaking it off, he said grimly, "No, thank you, Aubrey. My fencing skills are quite proficient enough. Pray God, I shall never need to hone them again."
His friend sobered. "Amen to that. Heard Waterloo was a dreadful slaughter. But I’m proposing a different sort of contest—and one you definitely will want to see. Trust me, old fellow! Have I ever led you awry?"
Recalling a long line of dubious exploits stretching from childhood to university, Jack smiled. "Frequently."
Grinning back, Aubrey protested, "Well, not this time. If you decide I was wrong, you may afterward exact whatever retribution you like, but I’m sure you will be thoroughly grateful I insisted you come along. ‘Tis nearly a—a life-altering experience! Or," he added with a heavy sigh, "so it has proved for many of us. But no more—you must see for yourself. You’ll thank me, I promise you!"
"Oh, very well," Jack capitulated, his curiosity by now thoroughly piqued. Abandoning the shirts, he shrugged on his uniform jacket. "In compensation for making me leave my kit in such disorder, you may buy me breakfast."
"Immediately after the match," Aubrey promised. "Only hurry! I’ve a hackney waiting."
With the speed of long practice, Jack looped the fasteners as he followed Aubrey into the hall.
"Why are you at Albany anyway?" Aubrey asked as he hustled Jack down the stairs. "Dorrie’s making her come-out, isn’t she? Why not stay at the family manse?"
"Mama and Dorothy won’t be coming to London for another month. You know old Quisford won’t stir from Carrington Grove until the family leaves, nor would he trust an underling to properly open the house here. When I mentioned I intended to put up at Grillon’s until they arrive, a fellow officer whose regiment hasn’t yet been ordered home from Paris offered me his rooms at Albany."
"You’ll stay in London until the family comes?" Aubrey asked as they boarded the waiting hackney.
"I’ll remain just long enough to sell out, purchase new garments and consult our solicitors. Then I’m off to breathe country air and let Mama and Dorrie fuss over me."
"If they can spare you the time," Aubrey replied, signaling the driver to start. "When Mama fired off my sister, ‘twas such a frenzy of preparations you’d think they were mustering an army. You’ll return with them for the Season, of course?"
"Yes, after I get the spring planting sorted out with Jackson. I promised Dorrie I’d escort her to parties, introduce her to any army chums who happen to be in town and see that only eligible gentleman are encouraged to call. Which leaves you out," he added with a grin.
"As if she’d look at me anyway, when we’ve known each other since we were in leading strings," Aubrey retorted. "Besides, I’ve no desire yet to become a tenant-for-life."
"Since as Dorrie’s equerry I shall be obliged to go about in society, I plan keep my eyes open. Perhaps I’ll discover a little charmer who persuades me to settle down."
When Aubrey chortled in disbelief, Jack continued, "No, I’m serious. There’s something about finding oneself intact, after riding through a hail of musketry and artillery shot, that makes one contemplate one’s own mortality. Perhaps it’s time I do my duty to marry."
Aubrey stared at him. "I believe you mean it. Thank Heaven I’m a younger son! No duties of procreation for me—not of the legitimate variety anyway," he amended.
"So what illegitimate activity are we pursuing this morning? Must be of some great moment, to get you up at such an hour. Or have you merely not been to bed yet?"
"Got a few hours’ sleep," Aubrey replied. "Man needs his wits about him for this endeavor."
"Which is precisely—what?" Jack pressed.
"You’ll see for yourself soon enough."
And with that Jack had to be content. During the rest of the drive, Aubrey refused to be coaxed, tricked or bullied into revealing anything further. Mystified and a bit annoyed, Jack was more than happy when his friend had the carriage stop at a modest townhouse in Soho Square.
They followed several other gentleman up the stairs to the main floor where Aubrey, after tossing coins into a box beside the door, led him into what appeared to be a converted ballroom. The area by the door was thronged with groups of chatting gentlemen; beyond them was arranged an assortment of chairs, all occupied.
"Blast, I knew we’d tarried too long," Aubrey grumbled. "Now we shall have to stand."
After scanning the crowd, Aubrey elbowed a path to a space against the left wall. "This will have to do. Ah, they’re beginning. Is that not magnificent?"
In the sudden hush, Jack heard the clang of steel on steel. Turning his attention to the floor, he noted facing them an older man clad in breeches and shirt sleeves. His opponent, posing en garde with his back to them, appeared to be a mere stripling, but before Jack could glean any further impression, the young man went on the attack.
Although the older gentleman, clearly the instructor, was taller and heavier, the young student seemed nearly his match. The flashing blades struck sparks as the boy thrust and counter-thrust, offsetting the master’s advantage in size and experience with superior agility and audacious, risky changes of direction that allowed him to steadily drive the man back.
His distaste for combat forgotten, Jack’s attention riveted on the interplay of blade with blade. When, after checking an advance intended to throw him off-balance, the boy countered with a thrust so swift and unexpected Jack barely saw the weapon move, he joined the gallery in a roar of approval as the master’s sword went flying.
"Brilliant!" he said to Aubrey while the student trotted to retrieve the errant foil. "How long has he—"
As the boy untied his mask and turned to face them, the rest of Jack’s sentence went unuttered. Walking toward them, the master’s sword in hand, was not a young lad, but a girl.
A woman, rather, Jack amended, noting with appreciation the curves suggested beneath the loose-fitting linen shirt and breeches. Though with those rounded hips, that delicious curve of bottom, how could he have believed for a moment the student was a boy?
And her face—Jack literally caught his breath as his gaze rose to what must rank as one of the Almighty’s supremest acts of creation. Its shape a perfect oval, the skin luminescent as a China pearl, her countenance was animated by large eyes of deep gentian blue set under arched brows. Though the full, petal-pink lips were unsmiling, the newly-minted-gold hair pulled severely back and tucked into a knotted queue, she was without question the most beautiful woman he’d ever beheld.
Aubrey’s low chuckle pulled him from his rapt contemplation. "Did I not tell you?"
Realizing from the amusement on his friend’s face that his mouth must be hanging open, Jack shut it with a snap. "Who is she?"
"Lady Belle—or at least, that’s what the ton calls her, after her long-time protector, Lord Bellingham."
"No, a courtesan—and since Bellingham’s death a month ago, the most sought-after woman in London. Every unattached gentleman in the city has been pressing her to consider his offer, though Lord Rupert—" Aubrey gestured to a tall, thin man in black, his expression as somber as his garb—"has the blunt to outbid all comers. Rumor says he once offered Bellingham two thousand guineas to relinquish his claims to Belle—and doubled the offer to the lady privately, though she never left Bellingham, so it might be all a hum. Thought you might want to enter the running."
"At a starting bid of four thousand guineas?" Jack laughed. "I haven’t that sort of blunt! She’s ravishing indeed, but—alas," he said, surprised to feel a genuine pang of regret, "I could never afford her."
"If ‘tis true that she’s turned down Rupert on several occasions, she might be angling for more than just money. You’re a well-favored gent, war hero and all. Might have a chance with her. And if successful, you would upon occasion allow your best friend to worship at her feet."
Something in Aubrey’s tone made Jack transfer his gaze from Belle back to his friend. "You have a tendre there?"
Aubrey sighed. "She’d never look twice at me—an undistinguished younger son of modest appearance and fortune. But wait—the most amusing part is beginning. Once Wroxham discovered she was taking lessons—wearing breeches—the news raced through the ton and a crowd began gathering to watch. Hoping to discourage it, I suppose, she told Armaldi to charge admission, but that only seemed to bolster attendance."
"If she makes enough from that, she’ll not need a new protector."
"Oh, she don’t keep it—gives it to Armaldi, to reimburse him for his trouble in having such a crowd foisted upon him, she told Montclare. But Ansley—young cub who’s been dangling after her since last season, protested that her admirers deserved a boon for their devotion. He induced her to agree that after the lesson, she’ll meet one challenger. Any who manage to best her win a kiss."
Indeed, as Aubrey spoke, Jack noticed several young men talking with the fencing master, their voices raised as they evidently pressed rival claims to that honor.
While the dispute continued, Lady Belle stood unmoving, the tip of her foil resting on the floor. Jack felt his gaze pulled inexorably back to her—indeed, he expected she would immediately command the attention of all the men and most of the women in any room she occupied.
After subjecting her to a searching second inspection, he found his initial awe magnified. Truly, in appearance she seemed perfection, as if the most skilled of Greek sculptors had crafted the very image of a goddess and then breathed life into it. Though the scandalous man’s attire she wore fitted her loosely, there was no mistaking the amplitude of the curves tantalizingly concealed beneath that excess of cloth.
Jack found himself imagining her garbed in classical draperies, her slender arms and toes bare, the fine linen of the chemise outlining, rather than concealing, the shape of her breasts and thighs. Desire tightened his body, rose in a flush of heat to clog his throat.
Idiot, he chastised, making himself look away. The last thing he needed was to fall under the spell of this courtesan, who probably made demands as limitless as her beauty and possessed a heart as warm as the marble from which that Grecian sculptor would have crafted her.
"She doesn’t appear to be worried," he said, his tone sharper than he’d intended. "Has anyone ever bested her?"
"Not yet," Aubrey admitted. "But doesn’t stop men from fighting for a chance to try. Now, they’re beginning.
At that moment, the fencing master pointed an imperious thumb at one of men. Muttering their disappointment, the other contenders quit the floor.
The fencers took their places. In a few moments, with considerably more ease—and decidedly more disdain—than she’d displayed against her instructor, Lady Belle disarmed the challenger and knocked him to the floor.
She looked up from her vanquished opponent, her face expressionless, her intense blue eyes scanning the crowd. By chance, her gaze crossed Jack’s. Connected. Held.
The force of it sent a vibration through Jack, raised the tiny hairs at the back of his neck. For a long moment they simply stared at each other, until abruptly, Lady Belle jerked her gaze away.
Ignoring the babble of masculine voices calling out to her, she stepped around her humbled opponent, bowed to the fencing master, and strode from the room.
Suppressing a shiver, Belle forced herself to walk with calm, even strides to the door. A bold fellow, that tall, thin, dark-haired officer whose scarlet regimentals had drawn her eye—and whose gaze had commanded hers, as if by right. She didn’t recognize him, which meant he must be newly come to London.
Probably another bored hanger-on, amusing himself by watching the latest show. Botheration, how she wished those useless fribbles would leave her in peace!
She’d already refused Lord Rupert half a dozen times and turned down a score of other offers in extremely blunt terms. How could she make it any plainer that she had no intention of accepting carte blanche from any of them?
Not now that she was free. Free! Even after a month, the realization still sent her spirits soaring. After six long, painful, humiliating years, the shreds of what remained of her life now belonged solely to her. Even if she had no clear idea as of yet what she meant to do with it. Except, she thought, smiling with grim satisfaction as she recalled her challenger face-down on the floor, train herself so that she was never again at any man’s mercy.
Mae was waiting to help her change. "Good lesson?"
"Yes," she told her companion as she stripped off her men’s garments. "Armaldi made some suggestions about adjusting my stance that improved my thrust nicely."
"Must have made quick work of your challenger," Mae replied, handing Belle her gown. "Who was it this time?"
"Wexford. The man fences like a turnip. Wooden wrists, poor form, no grasp of strategy. Fortunately for the security of England, he was never in the Army."
That comment called up the image of the dark-eyed captain and something stirred in her chest. No, she told herself, pushing the vision away, she was not curious.
"Oh, I nearly forgot," Mae said, pulling a sealed note from her reticule. "A boy brought this for you."
While Mae fastened the buttons down her back, Belle scanned the missive. "It’s from Smithers, my solicitor, requesting that I call at my earliest convenience." She frowned, wondering what had prompted the unusual summons. "I suppose I can stop on my way home."
"Whatever do you think he wants, Belle?" Mae asked, a bit anxiously. "He handles your finances, don’t he? I hope—I hope there’s nothing amiss."
"You needn’t worry. I reviewed the accounts with him just last month, and the investments are performing well."
"You’re so clever, I expect you’re right. Funds and investments!" The older lady shook her head. "In my day, we dealt in jewels, gowns and carriages. Are you sure it wouldn’t be safer to accept another offer? So many you’ve had this month! And some of the gentlemen quite charming."
Having already responded to this question on numerous occasions, Belle had to struggle to keep a sharp edge out of her voice. "For years I’ve saved every penny and had Smithers place the funds in the most reliable of investments. We shall not run out of blunt, and the house and its furnishings are deeded to me outright. I don’t need another protector."
"I know you weren’t too happy with Lord B, but surely you could find one more to your liking. You can’t really mean to live without a man."
Her patience wearing thin, Belle snapped back, "Why do you continue urging me to take lover? You should know how unreliable are their vows of devotion!"
"Oh, in my youth, ‘twas me what was fickle, leaving one for another when I had a better offer. But toward the last—" Mae sighed. "You mustn’t fault Darlington for his lack of constancy. I was getting older, and ‘tis the way of the world for men to prefer a younger woman."
A world I need no longer inhabit, Belle thought defiantly. But contrite now over her loss of temper, she said, "Pray forgive me for chiding you! ‘Twas truly Darlington’s loss, for he could have found no one to replace you with so sweet a temper or generous a heart."
Mae smiled at Belle, her eyes misty. "You’re a dear child, and I don’t know what I should have done, had you not taken me in when he cast me off. I wasn’t as wise as you over the years, and after I’d sold all my jewels—"
"You were the only woman who treated me kindly, that first year Bellingham brought me to town, when I thought I should die of loneliness." And shame, she added silently. "And have ever been a true friend. Besides, who advised me to make the best of my lot and accept all the gifts Bellingham showered on me, stashing them away for later use? We owe our wealth today to that wise counsel."
"Well, ‘tis good of you to say so," Mae replied, "but I wouldn’t know a fund from a trust, and that’s a fact."
"Enough of that! Would you like to stop for ices while I visit the lawyer? I should count it a great favor if you would take the carriage at the front and go to Gunter’s while I slip out the back. As soon as I saw the crush in the ballroom today I asked Meadows to summon me a hackney. I’d rather not have a crowd following me."
A great lover of sweets, Mae brightened at the suggestion. "Are you sure you’d not like to meet me there? We could stop by the lawyer’s after."
"No, for wherever my carriage goes now, the most annoying throng gathers. Besides, looking as fetching as you do in that new gown, I image some admirers will stop to flirt with you. Darlington will burn with remorse."
"Red always did become me, and if I do say so who shouldn’t, I’ve kept my figure. The most magnificent breasts in London, they used to say, and you’re still quite handsome, aren’t you, my pretties?" she crooned, patting her ample bosom, the powdered top of which bulged above the low bodice of her scarlet dress. "Seeing how Frederic threw me over for that chit out of the opera—the most grasping, cold-hearted little strumpet you could imagine—I like to believe he did come to regret his choice."
Belle gave her companion a hug. "I’m certain of it! Now, off with you and create my diversion."
"You, my dear, have taken on the appearance of a-a veritable Quaker!" Mae said frankly, looking Belle up and down as she put on her pelisse. "Not that you ain’t still a beauty, whatever you wear. But with your looks, to garb yourself in a plain gray gown with nary a ribbon, cut so high there’s not a bit of flesh showing!" Mae shook her head, obviously finding Belle’s behavior incomprehensible.
Belle shrugged. "I can dress to please myself now."
Mae looked at Belle thoughtfully. "Will you please yourself? I don’t mean to vex you by saying it again, and you may call me a foolish old romantic, which I’m sure I am, but I cannot see how you mean to exist without a man in your life, and you so young! It’s—it’s not natural."
Belle walked to the door, her smile brittle. "You’ve not been listening to my detractors. Have you not heard that I’m the most unnatural woman in England?"
Copyright © 2005 Julia Justiss
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