Table of Contents
Named a Book Sense Notable Book by the American Booksellers Association
“There are . . . many reasons to recommend this book, from its myriad believable characters [to its] polished and fluent prose . . . glorious detail…a true escape into the past.”
The Historical Novels Review
(Editor’s Choice Pick)
“All the trappings of supermarket tabloids: intrigue, treachery, deceit, and sexual scandals.” —
“Susan Holloway Scott has brought to life the racy world of post-Restoration England in her richly researched and beautifully written
.” —Karen Harper, author of
The First Princess of Wales
“No dry dust of history here, but a vivid portrait of an intriguing woman with all her flaws and strengths. Rich in period detail, the novel also has all the ingredients necessary for a compelling read: conflict, suspense, intrigue, and the romance between Sarah and John Churchill, one of history’s great love stories.” —Susan Carroll, author of
“Compelling. It grips the reader from the very first sentence and never lets go. Scott does a wonderful job of bringing Lady Sarah and her world to life.” —Jeanne Kalogridis, author of
I, Mona Lisa
“As wickedly entertaining as Sarah Churchill herself. . . . Scott brings Sarah blazingly alive in all her sharp-edged beauty and determination. Not to be missed!” —Mary Jo Putney, author of
The Marriage Spell
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First published by New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, July 2007
Copyright © Susan Holloway Scott, 2007
Readers Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Scott, Susan Holloway.
Royal harlot: a novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles II/Susan Holloway Scott.
eISBN : 978-1-4406-2028-7
1. Cleveland, Barbara Villiers Palmer, Duchess of, 1641-1709—Fiction. 2. Charles II,
King of England, 1630-1685—Fiction. 3. Mistresses—Great Britain—Fiction. 4. Great
Britain—Kings and rulers—Paramours—Fiction. I. Title.
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I was, I think, a gambler born.
I don’t mean a few pennies at whist or ombre, a piddling hand of pasteboard cards. I speak of grander games, where the stakes are power, titles, great fortunes, even the heart of the King of England. Mark you, I’m no coward. I wouldn’t have survived so long if I were. I know how to take my risks, and my vengeance, too, on those who dare to cross me. But how I did parlay my beauty and wit to rise so high:
was the game I chose, the game that became my life.
A gambler, yes. Yet as I sat in the hired carriage not far from the beach and the sea, I was not half so sure of my courage. I was only nineteen then, and I’d never yet strayed from England. The moonless sky was black and wet as pitch, the sea below it clipped with white-caps. The little sloop that was to take me across to Holland bobbed and tugged at her moorings, her crew scrambling about her narrow deck with their heads bent against the wind and spray as they made their last preparations to sail. It seemed a woeful vessel to trust with my life, as well as with the hopes of so many others.
“There’s the signal, Barbara.” Beside me in the carriage, my husband, Roger, pointed at the lantern held aloft by a sailor. “You must go to them now.”
“I know.” I retied the ribbons of my hood beneath my chin, not because they’d come loose, but to give my anxious fingers some occupation. My maidservant Wilson had already climbed down from the carriage, and was waiting for me in the rain outside. “Though I wish the sailors could wait until dawn.”
“Oh, yes, so all the Commonwealth’s navy can be sure to come and bid you a happy farewell.” He sighed with exasperation. “You knew this wouldn’t be a pleasure boat when you agreed to go, Barbara. It’s too late now for you to change your mind.”
“I’ve not changed my mind, Roger,” I said, wishing he’d show a bit of concern for my welfare. “I only hoped the weather were less fierce, that is all.”
“It’s better this way.” His pale face was serious in the carriage’s half-light. “I’ve told you before that if you’re caught, no one will come to your rescue, especially if you’ve no time to destroy the letters. You’re far safer on a night such as this.”
I nodded, smoothing my hand along the front of my bodice with a flutter of excitement. I
courting danger, no mistake. Hidden between my whalebone stays and my smock were letters of great importance to the Royalist cause, letters of support and promises of money for King Charles in exile. Sewn into my quilted petticoats were gold coins, too, destined for the royal pockets. Not once in my short life had there been a king upon the empty English throne. As Lord Protector, Cromwell, aided by his sour-faced followers, had seen to that with a long and hateful civil war, and had hidden away all the country’s natural merriment beneath a gray pall of restrictive laws and false piety.
But now Cromwell was dead, and the government he’d created was falling in crumbling disarray. There were more and more of us around the country working for the restoration of the monarchy. Roger was thick in the middle of the plotting and planning, and well trusted by the Royalist leaders, which was why, as his wife, I’d been chosen as a courier. Yet the old laws were still in place, and if I were captured and the papers I carried discovered, I’d be damned as a spy and sent to the Tower until I was tried for treason. If convicted, I’d be executed, for there was little mercy to be found among the parliamentary judges for Royalists.
“You’re the only one of us who could go, Barbara,” Roger continued. “There’s no one else who could be spared from our work in London.”
“You mean there was no one else who was willing to sail to Flanders and risk the smallpox.” I’d had the disease the year before, one of the rare folk to survive, and with my face left clear and unpocked, too. I could travel with impunity into any outbreak, such as the one now ravaging the city of Brussels.
“Your immunity is a consideration, of course,” Roger admitted. “But that’s only part of the reason you are being sent, Barbara. I shouldn’t have to remind you of how important His Majesty’s return is to my family’s fortunes. I’ve personally given over a thousand pounds I could ill afford to support the king.”
I’d grown vastly tired of hearing of this famous contribution, trotted out whenever Roger wished to puff his own importance. “You wish such praise for your precious thousand pounds, while you think nothing that I’m to risk my life for the same cause. A pretty balance, that.”
His voice turned sharp, the way it often did when he criticized me. “You’ve been quite willing to enjoy the benefits of being Mistress Palmer. It’s high time you returned the favor to my father and me, and prove for once you can be an obedient wife.”
I looked away at the spray-dappled glass, refusing to let him open this old quarrel again. We’d so many of them between us for less than a year of marriage, most centered on what he perceived to be my excessive frivolity. Yet I was no better nor worse than the others among our Royalist friends. With so much unhappiness in our war-ravaged pasts and only uncertainty to our futures, we all took our pleasure wherever we found it, and gave no more thought when it was done. Roger had known when we wed that he hadn’t been my first lover, any more than I had been his, and if he continued this harshness with me, I vowed he wouldn’t be my last, either. Was it any wonder that I now lamented the grievous mistake I’d made, letting my mother push me from her house into such a marriage?