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Authors: Judith James

The King's Courtesan

BOOK: The King's Courtesan
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Praise for works by

JUDITH JAMES

“Fueled by sizzling sensuality and sharp wit, James’

refreshingly different historical deftly re-creates the glittering, colorful court of Charles I while also delivering an unforgettable love story.”


Booklist,
starred review, on
Libertine’s Kiss

“James’ unusual love story is one of emotional impact….

Readers wil find this poignant love story enthral ing and unforgettable.”


RT Book Reviews
on
Libertine’s Kiss

“Judith James fearlessly bursts through the ceiling of the historical romance genre and soars to astounding heights.

Her writing is intriguing, daring, exquisitely dark, and emotional y riveting.”


USA TODAY
bestsel ing author Julianne MacLean

“Sarah and Gabriel’s heart-wrenching struggle to keep their love alive…wil real y keep readers entranced throughout

this epic read.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Broken Wing
Also available from

Judith James

and HQN Books

Libertine’s Kiss

The King’s Courtesan

JUDITH J AMES

Acknowledgments

My thanks go to my editor, Ann Leslie Tuttle, for bringing calm during the storm (literal y) and for bending over backward to give me the time so I could do what needed to be done. I would have been lost without her.

Thanks also to Bob, for helping me navigate the peaks and val eys, and for thinking to take and send a special picture.

That was so thoughtful and sweet.

And to my wonderful friends Anne, Bev, Cheryl and Nick, thanks for your patience and support when I disappear into my cave to write for months on end.

Last but not least, to al those wonderful readers. Your support and good wishes make it al worthwhile.

This book is for my mom, who faces life’s chal enges with courage, grace and humor no matter

how tough it gets, and stil takes the time to go on helicopter rides. And for my dad, who lives life to the ful est, enjoying every moment of the ride.

When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

The King’s Courtesan

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

EPILOGUE
AFTERWORD
PROLOGUE

London, 1651

THE DAY H OPE M ATHEWS’S
life changed forever dawned crisp and clear. She awoke, clutching her kitten, lying on a cot in a corner garret of a steep-gabled four-story building. Her home, a substantial structure comprised of three linked houses, al of them leaning drunkenly over the street below, was at the center of a zigzag web of side streets and al eys, some barely wide enough for two pedestrians to pass. It was late autumn. The metal ic bite of winter was in the air and frost patterned the rooftops, making the city beyond her windows shimmer like some alabaster-and-diamond fairy land. She imagined she was a princess, trapped high in a tower, waiting for a handsome rescuer to charge the battlements and take her away.

The bel s started ringing wel before dawn, invading the gloomy quiet general y reserved for bakers starting their day and link boys ending theirs. The sleepy city was stirring, and there was already a bustle in the streets below.

stirring, and there was already a bustle in the streets below.

The Lord Protector and his army had been sighted. Fresh from victories in Ireland and Scotland, the young Charles Stuart driven from England’s shores, they were returning home. Despite the Protector’s edicts against gambling, roistering and drink, soldiers did as they had always done.

As the good people of London, deprived of any spectacle since the beheading of their former king, set out early to secure a place along the route to watch the coming parade, every shopkeeper, wine maker, tavern worker and whore were making preparations for what promised to be a very lucrative day.

Drury Lane, on the eastern edge of Covent Garden, was one of the most colorful areas in London even in these drab times. Brightly painted sign boards hung from every house and business. Her own home was marked by a proud fighting cock, strutting past a golden-haired siren with wide blue eyes and crimson lips. Her mother boasted to one and al that the Merry Strumpet was listed in
The Wandering
Whore,
and as its proprietor, she was noted therein as one of London’s best known bawds. It was one of the establishments counting on profits this day, and Hope knew she needed to escape immediately or be trapped running errands, raking cinders and cleaning floors, missing the spectacle entirely.

She slipped down the stairs and ducked through an al ey, joining a laughing band of urchins who greeted her as one of their own. The sun had risen, the throng was thickening and they weaved in and out of jostling crowds, nimbly dodging carts and angry merchants as they stuffed their pockets with filched fruit and biscuits. She lost her companions as she approached the city center, their loose-knit brotherhood disbanding as each sought a perch from which to watch the show.

The steady drumming in the distance was getting louder by the minute and she jumped up and down, trying to see past the people in front of her. Spying a low-hung balcony, she forced her way through a river of people and pul ed herself up, kicking and squirming, wrapping her arms around a beam. Ignoring the protests of its already cramped inhabitants, she positioned herself so she had a bird’s-eye view of the street below.

First came a vast army of grim-faced pikemen in their shining breastplates, pot helmets and buff leather coats, marching in rigid formation, their weapons bristling as the air rang with the tramping of booted feet. Then came Cromwel himself at the head of the Ironsides, his famous company of horse, but there was none of the pageantry and color, the smiles and waves and dashing displays of a royalist parade. They passed by, row upon row, a faceless army with nothing to distinguish one from another, and the cheers that greeted them were dutiful rather than spontaneous. It was clearly a display of might and power.

Veiled threat and stark reminder more than celebration, but any kind of public gathering was scarce in the city these days and any spectacle was preferable to none at al .

She was beginning to wonder if the adventure had been worth the bother when a prancing black horse caught her attention. It frothed and fretted, tossing its head and stepping sideways, breaking an otherwise perfect formation, yet its rider did not seem inclined to curb it.

Unlike his fel ows, who looked straight ahead, he seemed to scan the crowd with interest. Tal and broad-shouldered, he managed the beast with ease. He wore no uniform and looked more like a cavalier than a Puritan. He must be an officer, and a wel born one at that. Her heart thudded with girlish excitement. From a distance he appeared to be young and handsome, and much like the gal ant rescuer she imagined in her daydreams. It was hard to get a good look at him, though, with his wide-brimmed hat pul ed low, obscuring his features.

Interest piqued, she leaned out further, trying to get a better look, when a sudden scuffle behind her knocked her off balance and sent her tumbling to the street below. She lurched to her feet a moment before a shod hoof would have crushed her fingers, only to back into the hindquarters of a startled horse. When it shied away from her, its rider cursing, she slipped and almost fel again. Surrounded on al sides she dodged and darted, wooden shoes slipping on the muddy cobbles, trying to remain upright as she was buffeted from beast to beast. As her panic grew someone snarled and cuffed her and one man kicked her between the shoulders, growling for her to get out of the way. People were trampled to death in London every day and if she fel again—

A strong hand gripped the back of her dress and swung her up and into the air as easily as if she were a smal child.

Her rescuer deposited her in his lap, holding her tight with one arm, apparently heedless of his fine clothes and her muddy form.

“Apologies, my lady, for the rough handling and the loss of your shoes, but you seemed in imminent danger of being trampled.”

It was him! The man she’d watched but moments before.

The man from her daydreams. He was real. He had come to her rescue. She had never been at a loss for words before, but now, when she desperately wanted to say something witty, charming, memorable, she was tongue-tied. “I…I…I…”

“There now, lass. Take a deep breath and don’t worry.

You’ve had a scare and need some time to gather your wits.”

She almost moaned in frustration. He thought her a witless fool!

“You’re shivering. Sit close now, and share my warmth.” She
was
cold and she had nearly died. She sank against him, her arms wrapped tight around his waist, enjoying the feeling of comfort and safety, the strength she felt in his arms and chest, and the sound of another heart beating, just inches from her own. As he tucked his cloak around her she heard cheering from the crowd. She’d had no idea anyone was aware of her plight or cared if they were. Now she beamed and waved to them and they roared their approval.

Her companion chuckled. “I think we have brought some entertainment to an otherwise dul morning. I’m afraid you’l have to ride it out with me the rest of the way. There’s no place to put you down safely until we reach the palace gates. Wil that suit?”

She nodded, shy for the first time in her life.

“Excel ent! You’re safe now, lass. And you’ve the best seat in the house. Relax and enjoy the view.” She felt like a princess in his arms, and as unlikely as it might seem, she decided he was her prince. Why else had he passed her way this day? Why had she noticed him right away? How was it she had fal en just as he was passing and what made him save her when no one else had even tried? It didn’t matter if she found nothing to say this moment, for fate had brought him to her and he was destined to be hers.

Even so, she stil wasn’t sure what he looked like. His hat was pul ed low, keeping his face in shadow. She could tel he was young. She could tel he was handsome from his strong chin, firm mouth and white smile, but she couldn’t see his eyes.

When they reached the courtyard outside the palace gates, he used his horse as a bulwark against the crowd, making a little island in a corner by the wal . He dismounted first, then lifted her from the saddle as if she were light as air. He grinned and wiped a speck of dirt from her nose. Her face blazed with embarrassment, but his smile was kind and amused. “You’re hard to see, lass, under al of this.” He rubbed a dab of mud from her cheek with one finger. “But if you’re half as lovely as those eyes, you must be a vision.” He took her hand and bowed, as though she were a great lady, then slipped half a crown in her palm. “To replace your shoes, my lady.”

“Thank you, my lord. For saving my life.” They were the only words she could find. Her heart was pounding so loud it was a wonder he didn’t hear it.

“No lord I, lass. Just a humble soldier who stumbled upon a pixie on the way home. To catch one must mean luck of some kind. Stay safe, girl, and wish me wel .” She watched as he rode away. She didn’t know his eyes, she didn’t know his name, but she knew he was hers and she’d see him again. She caught one last glimpse of him as he passed through the castle gates. As if sensing her gaze upon him, he looked back at her and waved.

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