All Lady Catharine, Viscountess Cranbrook, wants is a little excitement. Bored of playing the role of the ton’s favorite slightly scandalous widow, she jumps at the chance to go undercover as a courtesan to help with an espionage mission. After all, beneath her outrageously low bodice beats the heart of a patriot.
Social reformer James Burnham is conducting a study of vice in England’s capital. Driven by his own secrets, he is methodical, intelligent—and wickedly handsome. Catharine is the last sort of woman the upstanding James should want. But want her he does, though she stands for everything he opposes.
When Catharine and James are forced to band together to advance their causes, they’ll be drawn into a web of secrets and lies that endangers their lives—and their hearts.
“May I take your coat, Mr…?”
“Burnham. Dr. James Burnham.” He saw no need to give a false name. A highborn lady amusing herself by playing the role of a courtesan wouldn’t have heard of him. Indeed, most of the beau monde wouldn’t know his name. Other men, more prominent than he, drew attention to their cause. And, yes, he could indeed surrender his coat now, everything having settled back into a less…embarrassing state.
She cocked her head as he handed over the garment. “James Burnham of Society for the Comfort and Elevation of the Poor and the Betterment of Their Children? Author of Vanquishing Vice? And of Crushing Contagion?”
His stomach dropped. She knew him? It should have been impossible! While one part of his mind began churning, assessing escape routes, another recognized the importance of carrying on. “Don’t forget Eradicating Idleness. Although I admit that the alliterative qualities of the latter are, strictly speaking, somewhat lacking.”
She laid his coat on a nearby chair and clasped his hands between hers, drawing him toward the fire. “I always assumed pamphleteers weren’t real people, that they were only names affixed to publications, false identities created to house the collected opinions of gentlemen who preferred to remain anonymous.” Positioning him in front of a settee that faced the fire, she unceremoniously pushed him back into it before joining him, sitting close as she curled her legs up under her gown and turned toward him, eyes shining through the holes in her feathered mask. The jaded siren he’d seen downstairs was gone, replaced by a completely different woman.
He cleared his throat. This was not unfolding as he’d imagined. He was supposed to be the one asking the questions. “Yes, well, here I am. In the flesh.”
She pressed a palm against her heart, drawing his attention to the porcelain skin of her exposed chest, to the heavy golden chain that rested on it, to her elegant collarbones, to the deep V between her breasts. Whatever hung on the end of her chain disappeared into that dark V. Was that the inspiration for her pseudonym?
She leaned so close he felt her breath on his face, and his senses were flooded by the rose-scented perfume she wore. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
He made an effort not to shrink from her. “Thank you. I hope I won’t offend if I confess to being slightly surprised that my reputation precedes me.” He glanced around the airy room. “Here.”
“In a whorehouse?” She leaned back a little, providing some much-needed breathing room.
“That’s not what I—”
“It is, though. It is what you meant. And it’s what you said earlier.” She moved again, putting a few more inches between them. “You don’t think a whore can be well-read enough to know of you, can have enough Christian charity in her heart to know of the work of your Society.”
“It’s a moot question, isn’t it, as I am given to understand that you’re not really a…”
He could do nothing but incline his head. The fire, which a moment ago had seemed to impart a warm, cozy glow now cast a heavy, oppressive glare on the room.
“I keep company with whores, so what’s the difference?”
“For the gentlemen downstairs being informed of the rules, I gather the difference is quite substantial.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then, in a swoosh of silk, she stood and moved to a small sideboard near the hearth and began pouring dark liquid into crystal glasses. “Forgive me, Dr. Burnham. I seem to have forgotten myself. A good whore understands the importance of separating business from pleasure.” She handed him a glass and sat back down. “And I imagine even social reformers get lonely.” With that, she raised her glass, clinked it against his, and threw her head back, drinking deeply.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenny Holiday started writing in fourth grade, when her awesome hippie teacher, between sessions of Pete Seeger singing and anti-nuclear power plant letter writing, gave the kids notebooks and told them to write stories. Most of Jenny’s featured poltergeist, alien invasions, or serial killers who managed to murder everyone except her and her mom. She showed early promise as a romance writer, though, because nearly every story had a happy ending: fictional Jenny woke up to find that the story had been a dream, and that her best friend, father, and sister had not, in fact, been axe-murdered.
From then on, she was always writing, often in her diary, where she liked to decorate her declarations of existential angst with nail polish teardrops. Eventually she channelled her penchant for scribbling into a more useful format. After picking up a PhD in urban geography, she became a professional writer, spending many years promoting research at a major university, which allowed her to become an armchair astronomer/historian/particle physicist, depending on the day. Eventually, she decided to try her hand again at happy endings—minus the bloodbaths. You can follow her on twitter at @jennyholi or visit her on the web at jennyholiday.com.