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Authors: Nicola Cornick

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #British & Irish, #Historical, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Regency, #Contemporary Fiction, #Historical Romance

Unmasked

BOOK: Unmasked
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Nicola Cornick

is an international bestselling author and a
RITA
®
Award finalist, and her novels have
received acclaim the world over

 

“A rising star of the Regency arena.”


Publishers Weekly

 

“Nicola Cornick’s historical romances bring the sensual and elegant world of the Regency to vivid life.”

—Anna Campbell, author of
Untouched

 

“Ms. Cornick has a brilliant talent for bringing her characters to life, and embracing the reader into her stories.”


RomanceJunkies

 
Praise for Nicola’s previous HQN titles
 

“A powerful story, rich, witty and sensual—a divinely delicious treat.”

—Marilyn Rondeau, Reviewers International Organization, on
Deceived

 

“Cornick masterfully blends misconceptions, vengeance, powerful emotions and the realization of great love into a touching story.”


Romantic Times BOOKreviews,
4½ stars, on
Deceived

 

“Cornick expertly spices her latest Regency historical with danger, while the sizzle she cooks up between her sinfully sexy hero and delightfully resourceful heroine is simply spectacular.”

—John Charles,
Booklist,
on
Lord of Scandal

 
Also available from
Nicola Cornick
and HQN books
 

Deceived

Christmas Keepsakes

“The Season for Suitors”

Lord of Scandal

 

Don’t miss the further adventures
of the infamous gutsy Glory Girls and
their equally feisty new friends in the
scandal-ripe village of Fortune’s Folly.
Coming your way in summer 2009!

Other titles from Harlequin Historical

The Last Rake in London

Lord Greville’s Captive

The Rake’s Mistress

One Night of Scandal

The Notorious Lord

 

Browse www.eHarlequin.com for
Nicola’s full backlist

Nicola Cornick
 
Unmasked
 
 

Dear Reader,

 

From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro, Robin Hood to William Wallace, the real-life legends and fictional stories of those who fight for freedom and justice have always inspired me. In
Unmasked
I have written an outlaw story of my own! Over the wild heather-clad hills and dales of Yorkshire ride a band of highwaywomen, taking from the rich to give to the poor, protecting the weak and setting right the injustices of society in true Robin Hood style. But the Glory Girls who ride in
Unmasked
are no ordinary outlaws. These are women who defy convention because they cannot bear to sit at home, confined by the traditional role of the Regency wife or widow, who see injustice and feel a burning need to take action.

 

Nick Falconer, the hero of
Unmasked,
is a man of honor, sworn to uphold the law, and when he is sent to bring the Glory Girls down he is determined to do his duty. But in Mari Osborne, the woman he suspects to be Glory, he finds someone very different from the criminal he is expecting, someone whose principles equal his own…. I loved writing my story of those dashing Regency outlaws the Glory Girls, and I hope you enjoy it, too!

 

Love from

 

 

This book is dedicated to Yorkshire,
county of my birth, for all the wild and
wonderful places that inspired me.

Unmasked
 
PROLOGUE
 
 

London—April 1805

 
 

Daffodil—Deceit

 

“T
HE THINGS
I
DO
for England.” Major Nick Falconer stood back and squinted at his reflection in the pier glass in the hall of the Marquis of Kinloss’s London mansion. The Marquis was out of Town, which Nick thought was probably all to the good. His great-uncle was notoriously high in the instep and might have cut up extremely rough had he seen his heir’s outrageous appearance.

Nick turned to the young man who was leaning against one of the marble pillars and watching him with amusement in his blue eyes.

“What do I look like, Anstruther?”

“You look quite shocking, sir,” Dexter Anstruther said politely. “The ribbon is a nice touch, as is the perfume and the patch.”

Nick laughed. “And the jacket? Quite dandified, I think.”

“Much worse than a dandy,” Anstruther said, a smile twitching his lips. “I beg your pardon, sir, but you look like a
molly
with extremely dubious sexual tastes. A rum cove, as my father would have said.”

“I do my poor best,” Nick said. He picked up his hat, a jaunty wide-brimmed affair with a flirtatious orange feather.

“This place you’re going to,” Anstruther said, “this club…”

“The Hen and Vulture,” Nick supplied.

“Yes.” Anstruther looked vaguely uncomfortable. “Is it really the case that one cannot be sure whether…I mean, there are men there, and women…”

“And the men may be dressed as women and the women as men,” Nick finished. He grinned. “So I understand. Far too shocking for youngsters like yourself to visit, Anstruther.”

“Men dressed as women,” Anstruther muttered, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “How could that possibly be attractive?”

“I believe the appeal of such a place lies in the ambiguity,” Nick said. “Apparently some of the most beautiful courtesans in London also attend and the skill is in telling them apart from the men in women’s clothes.”

“Good God,” Anstruther said faintly. “It’s so…unBritish.”

“Just count yourself lucky that you don’t have to come with me,” Nick said comfortingly. He looked at his companion, sober in his black evening dress. Dexter Anstruther had been assigned to assist him in his current mission by no lesser personage than the Home Secretary himself. The boy had only graduated from Oxford the previous year but he was clever, diplomatic and hardworking, and Nick’s current venture, to rein in the wilder excesses of his cousin the Earl of Rashleigh, required assistance from someone with absolute discretion. Dexter Anstruther fitted the bill perfectly.

“How would you dress if you were visiting the Hen and Vulture, Anstruther?” Nick inquired.

“Just as I am—as a repressed English gentleman,” Anstruther said ruefully, looking at Nick’s somewhat colorful outfit, “rather than the sort of mincing dandy I see before me—with the greatest of respect, sir.” He straightened, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “What if Lord Kinloss should hear of this, sir? He’ll have a fit. The heir to a Marquisate in a house of ill repute!”

“I’ll probably recognize plenty of other peers in there,” Nick said, “so no one will be able to point the finger.”

Anstruther shook his head in disbelief. “It is difficult to believe, seeing you like that, sir, that you have a certain reputation for ruthlessness.”

Nick was adjusting his outrageously lacy collar. “Thank you, Anstruther. Unfortunately I also have the bad luck to be Rashleigh’s cousin.”

“And the best shot in England and one of Gentleman Jackson’s finest,” Anstruther said, with an air of hero worship.

Nick smiled. “More to the point, Anstruther, Lord Hawkesbury knows I’ll be discreet because no matter how much I hate my cousin, this is a family matter.” He tilted his head to one side and patted the patch on his cheek. “Too much, do you think?”

“You look like a whorehouse madam, sir.”

“Just the style I was attempting,” Nick said.

“Lord Hawkesbury said that this was a delicate business,” Anstruther said, shifting from one foot to the other, as though he was not quite comfortable to be in the same room as a man in such dubious attire. “A matter that could cause repercussions through the top ranks of society, he said.”

“Yes,” Nick said. “It is damnably delicate. You know that my foolish cousin Rashleigh has borrowed heavily from the sprigs of the nobility, Anstruther. He has targeted those youths with generous allowances and lax guardians. And now that his activities are exposed there are peers lining up from Aberdeen to Anglesey threatening to see him in hell. Lord Hawkesbury wants Rashleigh warned off tonight and the money repaid before one of them kills him.”

Nick stopped, thinking that in better times Dexter Anstruther himself might have been one of Rashleigh’s targets. The boy’s father, whilst not titled, had been from a good family and had had a tidy fortune—until he had gambled it all away.

“I had heard that Lord Rashleigh was a scoundrel,” Anstruther said gruffly. “I know he’s your cousin, sir, but he’s still bad
Ton.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Nick said affably. “Never could stand Rashleigh myself. He comes from the dissolute branch of the family. My mother’s brothers were all worse than scoundrels.”

“Dashed nuisance that you have to go to this so-called club,” Anstruther observed. “Did you try calling on your cousin at home, sir?”

Nick laughed. “Yes, I tried. He declines to see me. We have not spoken for several years and last time we met he damned me to perdition for refusing to advance him a loan.”

“A pity he is a habitué of the Hen and Vulture rather than Whites,” Anstruther said. “You could have had a pleasant evening there.”

“Whites blackballed him years ago,” Nick said.

“You don’t surprise me. Unwholesome fellow.” Anstruther shifted uncomfortably once more. “I heard Lord Hawkesbury say that he was robbed blind by one of his mistresses a few years back? He said it was the talk of the
Ton
for a while.”

Nick’s mouth set in a thin line. “Yes, it was. She was a Russian girl. Rashleigh’s side of the family had estates there, inherited from his grandmother. He told me once how he had sold his serfs off to the highest bidder.” His fist clenched in an instinctive gesture of anger and repudiation. “I think—” his tone hardened “—that that was when I really started to hate him.”

He could see that Anstruther was staring at him but he did not elaborate. Nick had spent his adult life in the army, fighting for honor and freedom and principle, to defend the weak and preserve the things that he believed to be right. It was a moral code he believed in, a belief that had only been strengthened by the violent death of his wife some three years earlier. But his cousin, in contrast, treated human life as though it were a commodity to be bought and sold, as though people’s very souls were of no account. He sneered at the weak and crushed them under his aristocratic heel. Rashleigh had laughed at the reformers and sworn that those who wanted to abolish slavery were soft in the head. And in Nick’s book that made Robert Rashleigh the scum of the earth.

Nick adjusted his hat to a more rakish angle. “That’ll do. I’m off.”

“Good luck, sir,” Anstruther said, holding the door for him. “You are sure you do not need me to accompany you?”

Nick looked him up and down. “A selfless offer, Anstruther, but in that outfit you would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.” He slapped the younger man on the back. “I shall see you later, when I am confident you will be able to report to Lord Hawkesbury on a job well done.”

Out in the street it was a brisk April night with a cold breeze whipping the ragged clouds across the moon. Nick settled back in a hackney carriage and winced in the draught from the ill-fitting door. He had no appetite for this errand and no time for his cousin, but for the sake of his family’s good name, he knew he had had to take the Home Secretary’s commission. As the carriage clattered through London’s streets he thought, with no degree of affection at all, about his errant cousin and the trouble that he had caused from the day of his birth. There was no doubt, as Anstruther had said, that the Earl of Rashleigh was worse than a scoundrel.

The hack drew up abruptly and Nick sighed and jumped down, pushing the plumed hat down farther on his head as a gust of wind threatened to take it off. His current garb, he reflected, was about as far from his army uniform as could be.

From the outside the Hen and Vulture looked much the same as any low tavern in the Brick Hill area. The shutters were closed and from within came the flicker of candlelight, the mingled smell of ale and stale smoke, and the roar of voices and laughter. Nick squared his shoulders. He had been called upon to perform some unusual roles during his career in the Seventh Dragoon Guards but none had taken him anywhere quite like this.

He pushed open the door.

Inside it was so dark that for a moment Nick could not see properly, then his eyes adjusted to the light and he headed for a quiet corner, sliding along the wooden bench behind a rough ale-stained table. The room was almost full. Despite the tavern’s reputation, there were only one or two outrageously clad men. One was dressed in an embroidered corset and a trailing golden robe with satin-lined sleeves. He had a well-powdered wig, ear pendants and a beauty patch on one cheekbone that was a match for Nick’s.

The inn servant—a slender youth who could actually have been a girl—slopped a beaker of ale down onto the table and gave Nick a flirtatious smile, which he returned in good measure as he slipped the payment into the youth’s hand. He looked around the room. As far as he could see, Rashleigh had not yet arrived.

Nick took a mouthful of the ale. It tasted like dirty water and he put the tankard down again quickly. It was threatening to be a long evening if the drink was so poor. He glanced around the room again and caught the eye of a strikingly pretty, masked woman in a tight crimson gown. Like him she was sitting alone in a quiet corner. It looked as though she was waiting for someone. She held Nick’s gaze for a long moment and despite their surroundings, despite his outrageous garb sufficient to confuse anyone as to the true nature of his sexual interest, a connection flashed between them that was so intense he felt it like a kick in the stomach.

The girl got up, walked slowly across the room and slid into the seat beside him.

“Hello, darling.” Her voice was warm, inviting and very definitely feminine.

Nick thought quickly. In showing more than a fleeting interest in the girl he had no doubt made her think that he was a potential customer. The sort of whores who paraded their wares in places like the Vulture, male or female, did not in general interest him, but he supposed that he would draw less attention if he pretended an attraction to this one, and that would not be very difficult for she was extremely pretty.

He had barely looked at another woman in the three years since his wife had died. Anna had been his childhood sweetheart and their marriage had been an understood thing from the first, an eminently sensible arrangement between two families. They had married when Nick was one and twenty and he had confidently expected to live very happily ever after. It had therefore been both a shock and a disillusionment to find that the reality of their marriage had not lived up to its early promise. Anna was delicate and could not follow the drum and he was young and determined to serve abroad and so they had spent much of their time apart. Nick had told himself that it did not matter, that it was a good enough marriage, better than many, but he knew something was lacking. And so it might have continued for years had not an opportunist robbery in a London street turned violent and he had lost his wife in one vicious moment. He had finally been forced to confront his failure and guilt, and the grief had overwhelmed him, not only for Anna but also for what might have been. His distance from home and the sheer helplessness of his situation only served to compound his remorse, but by the time he had received the news of her death and returned to England, Anna was cold in her grave and his heart was even colder.

He had never felt an interest in another woman since but he looked at this one now and felt an unexpectedly strong pull of attraction. As she leaned toward him he could smell a fresh flower scent on her, light and sweet. He felt her silken warmth wrap about him, a far cry from the stale perfume and sweat he had expected. The sensation went straight to his head—and to his groin. He could not remember the last time he had noticed the scent of a woman but this one filled his senses. It made him feel restless and disturbed in a way he could not quite explain, as though he was dishonoring Anna’s memory in some way. He pushed the feeling away and gave the girl a long, slow smile in return. This was, after all, only business.

“Hello, sweetheart,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

The girl looked him straight in the eyes. “Several things spring to mind,” she murmured.

She was not shy then. She was not even pretending to be shy. Nick did not mind. He disliked artifice in any form. A direct man himself, he preferred bluntness in his dealing with others and whatever she was, she seemed honest.

He allowed himself a moment to study her. She had blond hair that curled about her face, and behind her velvet mask her wide-set, candid eyes were so dark Nick thought they were black until a stray beam of candlelight shone on them and showed up the tiny flecks of green and gold in their depths. She was wearing far too much paint for a young girl but the deep cherry-red of her lips was alluring and drew his gaze. She ran her fingers lightly but deliberately over the lace that edged the low-cut bodice of her gown, back and forth gently across the swell of her breasts, and Nick’s eyes followed the movement and he felt the lust slam through his body in response.

He looked up to see her watching him, a knowing look in her eyes.

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