Pride, prejudice and a shocking secret. Has love any chance at all?
Camilla Knight, respectable Bath lady, has a secret that would ruin her, and her family, if it was ever known. She is also becoming increasingly attracted to Nicholas Lovell, Earl of Ashby which would be delightful – if it were not for the fact that Nicholas is intent on the pursuit of lovely actress Lysette Davide, who just happens to be Miss Knight.
What begins as a careless wager for Nicholas becomes a tantalising dilemma as he comes to realise that the two women he is attracted to are one and the same. And neither is a fit wife for the Earl of Ashby. Can love and trust win out over fear and pride?
This is an extensively revised version of the novel of the same name by Francesca Shaw originally published by Mills & Boon in 2002.
Nicholas Lovell, Earl of Ashby, swung his quizzing glass at the end of its ribbon and listened to the rising hum of anticipation from the well of the theatre below him. From his vantage point in the box he could see virtually the entire sweep of the Theatre Royal, the swirl of colours from the ladies’ silks and satins, the subdued gleam on the gentlemen’s formal evening wear. As usual the Bath audience had paid hardly any heed to the curtain-raiser, chattering, gossiping and waving to acquaintances throughout it. But now the mood had changed to one of heightened expectation.
Perhaps, he mused, his friends had not exaggerated the charms and talents of the Royal’s chief attraction, Mademoiselle Lysette Davide, the sublime interpreter, so it was said, of Shakespeare. And tonight there was the added piquancy of knowing that those privileged enough to procure a ticket would be witness to her last performance of the season. But, no, despite everything, he could not summon up the enthusiasm to join in his friends’ excitement. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the gilded chair.
‘For pity’s sake, Lovell, do wake up and show a bit of interest. The performance is about to start.’ George Marlow leaned over and poked him unceremoniously in the ribs with his quizzing glass.
Nicholas raised one brow in acknowledgment and resumed his bored scrutiny of Bath Society, chattering in the stalls below.
George, persisting in the face of this uncharacteristic show of ennui, added, ‘I tell you, La Belle Davide is well worth the wait.’
‘He’s right, you know,’ Freddie, Lord Corsham contributed. ‘Worth sitting through that tedious ballet for. Have another glass of champagne, old chap. You haven’t had enough to drink, that’s your trouble.’
The last of the quartet, Sir William Hendricks, whose box it was, peered anxiously at the programme. ‘It isn’t Shakespeare, is it? Can never understand a word the fellow’s on about.’
Nicholas laughed, roused from his indolent mood by the look on his old schoolfriend’s face. He well remembered Hendricks’s struggle to concentrate on any literary endeavour at Eton, being more enamoured of the sports field and cockpit than his books. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not Shakespeare. Why do you bother with a box, old chap? It can’t be worth the expense.’
‘Well, one does, you know. After all, I never knows when I might want to come along, and I can tell you, ever since we discovered Mademoiselle Davide we’ve been here virtually every night she’s performed.’ He sighed gustily. ‘If I could only kiss her hand.’
‘And the rest of her,’ George Marlow remarked, with a meaningful grin.
Nicholas was surprised by his companions’ calf-struck demeanours. After all, George had kept a string of actresses for the past few years, yet all the men were behaving like schoolboys whenever this particular woman’s name was mentioned.
‘So what is stopping you?’ he enquired, irritated. ‘She’s only an actress, and we all know what that means. Enough money and you can kiss her from head to toe and all parts in between, never mind her hand.’ It had taken a lot to persuade him to come out this evening. He had only arrived in Bath that afternoon, reluctantly obeying a summons from his elder sister Georgiana, and had had no intention of doing anything but having a good dinner and several glasses of brandy with his brother-in-law Henry.
‘Only an actress?’ Indignation mottled William’s cheeks. ‘She is pure, unsullied, a goddess. The Unobtainable.’ The others, equally earnest, nodded solemnly.
They had all of Nicholas’s attention now. He swung round away from the stage and regarded the trio, making no effort to hide his amused disbelief. ‘There is no such thing as an unobtainable actress. You three are either getting old or you have all lost your touch.’
‘Damn it, Nick,’ Corsham growled indignantly. ‘No one succeeds with her. It isn’t just us. Not even you could storm those unsullied ramparts, I bet you.’
‘If they’re unsullied then I’m a nun. Besides, I can’t be bothered to storm anything,’ Nicholas retorted. ‘Look, the curtain’s going up.’
He turned away as Corsham grabbed his sleeve. ‘Not even if I wager Thunderer?’
Now that was a serious bet. ‘Are you serious, Freddie? I thought you’d never sell that animal, never mind wager him.’
‘Thunderer’s as safe as houses,’ Freddie replied breezily, sitting back as the lime-lights were turned up and the curtain rose on the first scene of The Castle Spectre. ‘Even you couldn’t do it.’ The other two nodded solemnly. ‘You have the ladies falling at your feet when you bother to exert all that charm, but Miss Davide’s reputation for virtue is formidable.’
‘Done,’ Nicholas said promptly. ‘And I haven’t even set eyes on your goddess yet.’