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by Nicola Cornick

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Wickedly handsome Nick Falconer would stake his life on it! He's been sent from London to the tranquil English village of Peacock Oak to solve the murder of his cousin Rashleigh and unmask this female Robin Hood. But Nick never expected that Mari would be so intoxicatingly beautiful or so disturbingly luscious. Determined to have her—body, soul and


Wickedly handsome Nick Falconer would stake his life on it! He's been sent from London to the tranquil English village of Peacock Oak to solve the murder of his cousin Rashleigh and unmask this female Robin Hood. But Nick never expected that Mari would be so intoxicatingly beautiful or so disturbingly luscious. Determined to have her—body, soul and secrets—at any cost, Nick sets out to seduce her with a passion that inflames them both.

But Mari holds much deeper, darker truths than Nick could ever imagine. Despite her fierce resistance, she can't stop her body from yearning for his touch. Can she hide her sinister past from him much longer? Or will trusting the one man she so desperately wants lead her straight to the hangman's noose?

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Yorkshire—June 1805

Monkshead—Danger is near

Sometimes the nightmare would come to her in the depths of the darkness and she would wake cold and shaking, reaching for the comfort of the candle's light. Other times—this time—it caught her unawares, tricked her in that hour before daybreak when the summer light had already started to creep around the edges of the curtain.

She was going to die. She could not breathe. Her wrists were chafed raw from the rope that tied her to the cart and her legs ached intolerably from the long, stumbling miles. She could hear the rumble of the carriage wheels echoing in her head. Her skirt was ripped to shreds and her thighs were criss-crossed with wheals where Rashleigh had leaned from the carriage and plied his whip, laughing as she staggered in the mud. He had sworn to punish her for being seasick all the way from Russia to England. This was his revenge because he had wanted her—wanted to spend the entire voyage in bed with her, no doubt—and instead of pleasuring him her body had thwarted him with her illness. He had told her that she disgusted him.

It was winter and the road was bad. Her feet were bare and blue with cold, her hands numb, her wrists torn. And there was murder in her heart. If Rashleigh gave her but one chance, if there was one single careless moment when his attention was diverted, then she would kill him. It was as simple as that.

But the moment never came. In her dream there was all the anger and the frustration and the pain almost past enduring but never the satisfaction of release. The darkness stretched before her endlessly with no promise of escape. She was a serf, a slave, nothing more than property. She was trapped forever.

Mari struggled awake. The remnants of the nightmare fled. She was lying in her huge bed in her cottage in Peacock Oak. It was light now and downstairs the servants were already awake and at work. She could hear the muted sound of them moving about. Jane would be bringing up the morning tea for her. Soon she would be knocking at the bedroom door, chattering blithely over the beauty of the day as she drew back the drapes and let the sunshine into the room.

There was the rattle of china outside the door, then Jane's knock and the same words that she used each day, "Good morning, madam!"

Mari had always thought that Jane had an amazing capacity for cheerfulness. Even on the gloomiest of winter mornings with the snow piled up on the windowsill and the wind blowing spitefully down the chimney she would remark that it would brighten up later. Jane was their housekeeper and ran Peacock Cottage with the help of one maid of all work and a handyman gardener called Frank, a cousin of hers who was a dour Yorkshire man of as few words as Jane had plenty.

"What a beautiful morning, madam!" Jane had placed the tea tray carefully on the bedside table and gone across to open the curtains. "It will be perfect for her grace's garden party and ball later."

"I hope so," Mari said. She sat up and reached for her wrap. Jane poured the tea from the tiny china pot. It was rich and strong, just as Mari liked it. Strong tea was a proper Yorkshire custom, Jane had said proudly, when Mari had expressed her preference, little knowing that Mari's own tastes had been set years before in Russia, where the black tea had been so strong Mari suspected even Jane would have choked on it.

Beside the cup was a letter and next to that a three-day-old copy of the Times. The news reached Peacock Oak a little later than elsewhere but it scarcely mattered. Rural life rolled on its way in this part of Yorkshire with very little change or challenge from day to day and that was exactly how Mari wished it to be.

"I was worrying last night that there might be a summer storm that would flatten all the flowers," Mari said now, "and all our work would be ruined."

"Not a bit of it," Jane said stoutly. "The garden will look beautiful, madam. So many of those lovely flowers you chose for her grace! Mr. Osborne would be so proud of the way you have kept his work alive." Her gaze went to the small portrait hanging on the wall at the side of Mari's bed.

"Ah, yes," Mari said. She smiled, stretched. "Dear Mr. Osborne."

She was very fond of the late Mr. Osborne. An older man, graying, avuncular, he had a gentle face and gave the impression of a manner to match. He had been the perfect husband, rich and kind. Mari felt a rush of affection for him. Sometimes even she almost forgot that Mr. Osborne was imaginary, so real had he become in her mind.

She had never told anyone that she was not a widow. A single woman living in a small village needed a respectable background and hers could not have been more scandalous. The imaginary Mr. Osborne had, in contrast, been a most upright man, the younger son of an obscure clergyman from Cornwall, the owner of a small but profitable business importing and growing exotic plants. Mari had found it remarkably pleasing to create the sort of husband she had required. Mr. Osborne, she was sure, had been shrewd in business but mild in his family life. He had been a temperate drinker, the smoker of the odd cigar on special occasions, but had had no other discernible vices. Certainly he had required nothing from her emotionally and even better, would not have wished for a physical relationship. Which was good because she thought that she never, ever wanted a physical relationship with a man again.

For a moment the nightmare threatened to invade her mind once again, and Mari shuddered. Rashleigh… But she would not think of Rashleigh and the horror of the past. That was dead, gone, buried. Rashleigh himself was dead, after all, murdered in a London rookery two months before.

Marina shivered a little to remember the events of that night. She had never discovered how the Earl had tracked her down to Yorkshire seven years after she had escaped him. Foolishly she had even started to believe that she would be free forever, so when his letter had arrived, threatening blackmail, she had been almost sick with shock. She had known at once that she had to confront Rashleigh for the sake of all those he threatened to expose. He knew all her secrets and could have her hanged for them—he knew that she was a runaway slave and a thief, and worst of all, somehow he knew the true identity of Glory and the girls who rode with her, and he was threatening to tell the authorities and have them arrested if Mari did not meet with him.

She had had no choice if she wanted to save those she loved. She had traveled up to London; had arranged to meet Rashleigh at the Hen and Vulture. She had had a private room waiting in a tenement across the street, had told him to wait a few moments before he followed her, but he never came. And then she had heard the cry go up that he had been found stabbed to death in the alley outside.

Mari had not stayed to hear more. She knew that if people once knew her history as Rashleigh's slave and his mistress, if they found out that the Earl had threatened her with blackmail, she would not stand a chance. All the secrets she had tried so hard to hide would come tumbling out and all the people she cared about would be ruined. She knew she had the best motive in the world for murdering Rashleigh and no one would believe her innocent. So she had run from him for the second time in her life.

Well, Rashleigh was dead now and no one else could trace her. She had reinvented herself years ago; covered her tracks too well to be discovered. She was not even sure how Rashleigh himself had managed to find her again, but now that he was dead the secret had surely gone with him to the grave.

Mr. Osborne had been the opposite of the Earl of Rashleigh in every way. He was gentle, moderate, kind. She had invented the memory of a paragon, the kind of man who would never hurt her or threaten her or give her cause for grief.

"Indeed," Mari repeated, smiling at the portrait that she had picked up in a pawnshop for two shillings. "Mr. Osborne was a shining example amongst men."

"Lady Hester is taking breakfast in her room this morning, madam," Jane said referring to Mari's companion of the past five years. "She says that she is a little fatigued but will join you for a stroll on the terrace at ten of the clock, before you go to the garden party."

"That would be delightful," Mari said, but mentally she was shaking her head slightly. She knew Hester's ailment and it was not mere tiredness. Lady Hester Berry, the spoiled cousin of the Duke of Cole, was bored, and boredom led her to drinking in alehouses, picking up low company and worse. No doubt this morning she was still half cast away.

Jane was collecting Mari's cup and tidying the tray. She always enjoyed a gossip in the mornings.

"Frank says that there was another attack last night, madam," she said. "That gang, the Glory Girls…"

Mari paused, unfolding the newspaper slowly to give herself time. "What did they do?"

"They stopped Mr. Arkwright's banker on his way back to Harrogate and took Arkwright's money."

Mari raised her brows. "All of it?"

"A tenth of the profits, madam." Jane's eyes were bright with excitement. "A tenth was the money that Arkwright had promised his loom workers and then refused to pay. They say that the Girls gave it back to those who had been cheated of it. Heroines they are, madam!"

"They are criminals," Mari pointed out. "They break the law."

Jane's face fell. She preferred the romance of robbing the rich to give to the poor, rather than the harsh reality of the penal code.

"Yes, madam," she said. "Of course." Her voice warmed with pride. "But begging your pardon, ma'am, I do think that our girls are proper heroines! I know it's not for you to encourage highway robbery but they only hurts those as mistreat the weak and needy."

"Quite," Mari said. "You need not think that I disapprove of the Glory Girls' principles, Jane. I merely remember that highway robbery is a capital crime."

"Yes, ma'am." Jane dropped a respectful curtsy. "Shall I return in a little while to help you dress, ma'am?"

"Thank you, Jane," Mari said. "I shall read the newspaper for twenty minutes or so and then I will be ready."

Jane went out and Mari listened to her footfalls receding along the landing. She did not pick up the paper again. Instead she reached for the letter that had lain untouched on a side table until then. Hester always laughed at the way that Mari left letters unopened for hours when she fell upon hers with excitement the minute that they arrived. But then, Hester fell on life with eagerness whereas Mari had always been rather more careful.

She unfolded the letter. There was a single line of writing, printed in capital letters.

I know all about you. I know what you did.

There was no signature.

Mari did not react to the letter in the manner in which nine out of ten people would have done. She did not turn pale or cry out. Instead she narrowed her eyes, tapping the letter against the fingers of her other hand.

I know all about you. I know what you did.

The difficulty was that she had done so many things. She had stolen from the Earl of Rashleigh. She had run away from him. She had lied to create an alternative life for herself. She had been present at the scene of Rashleigh's murder. She was party to a conspiracy that robbed the rich to give to the poor…

She had no idea to which of these incidents the letter writer was referring.

She dropped the letter onto the bed, slipped from beneath the covers and went across to the window, drawing back the curtain and standing beside the open sash. A slight breeze caressed her face and flattened her nightdress against her body. The wind was warm and smelled of hay and summer. Jane had been right, it was a beautiful day for a garden party and Mari's friend Laura, Duchess of Cole, certainly knew how to entertain. The event would be the talk of the county for months.

From her window, Mari could see across the lawn to the hothouses where she cultivated her rare and exotic plants. Frank was already hard at work opening the vents in the greenhouse roof and plying his watering can along the row of seedlings. The mellow south wall behind the hothouse separated Mari's land from the deer park of Cole Court. There was a charming white-painted door in the wall through which she often walked when she went to see Laura. Sheep were grazing beneath the spreading oak trees of the park and beyond the grounds the river curled slow and shallow. Nothing else moved in the landscape. A faint heat haze was already rising from the grass.

The view was peaceful but despite the warmth of the day, Mari wrapped her arms around herself as though seeking comfort. She could feel something malevolent in the air. Someone was watching—and waiting.

The letter had disquieted her. Of course it had. That was only natural. Now she thought about it, she realized that the timing of it could not be a coincidence, coming so soon after Rashleigh's death. He must have told someone else her whereabouts. The nightmare was not over after all. She should have known better. She should have known that a runaway slave always had to keep on running.

She knew what would happen next. There would be a demand for money in return for silence and she would have to decide what she was going to do about that. Giving in to bullies and blackmailers had never been her style, though she wondered a little wearily when she would ever be free of the past. She could never forget it, of course, but she could try to live with it, to carry the burden of her history, to keep the secret. If only there were not others so intent on reminding her….

She gave herself a little shake. These blue devils were very unlike her. She was anxious at the prospect of the opening of the new garden and the enforced mingling with the Duchess's guests, of course. She disliked grand social occasions. And then there had been Jane's mention of the Glory Girls' activities. But there was no intimation that the authorities were any closer to identifying the group of female desperadoes who oc-casionally—very occasionally—terrorized the rich and miserly to redress the balance for the poor and needy.

And the letter… Well, she would just have to wait and see what happened there. Hester would help her. They always helped one another. Hester and Laura were the only ones who knew all her secrets.

With a decisive step, Mari crossed the room to ring the bell for Jane to come and help her dress. It was going to be a beautiful day. The new garden would be a raging success, the Duchess's guests would be suitably appreciative and at the end of it life in Peacock Oak would settle back into the same peaceful routine it had possessed for the last few years. Nevertheless, Mari felt a chill.

Someone was coming. She could sense it. Someone dangerous.


Meet the Author

USA Today bestselling author Nicola Cornick has written over thirty historical romances for Harlequin and HQN Books. She has been nominated twice for a RWA RITA Award and twice for the UK RNA Award. She works as a historian and guide in a seventeenth century house. In 2006 she was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Ruskin College, Oxford, where she wrote her dissertation on heroes.

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Unmasked 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
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Romance-Reader More than 1 year ago
All I can say is: I can't wait for her next novel.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1805 the Home Secretary loudly orders Major Nick Falconer to investigate the murder of his odious cousin and to go to Yorkshire to destroy the infamous Glory Girls gang. Nick prefers to do neither, but immediately races off for Yorkshire before his superior rips more skin off his back.------------ In Yorkshire, Nick meets Widow Mari Osborne whereas he swears they met in London on the same night his cousin died, she insists they never met before. A bit taken aback as he knows she has no twin or doppelganger, Nick concludes she is lying although he cannot fathom why. He decides to make her his priority as he is attracted to her, but he remains unaware that the two other cases his superior has made Nick¿s will soon tie together through the woman he loves.------------ Robin 'Hood-ettes' inside a regency romance make for a merry tale filled with suspense and murder. The story line is fast-paced from the moment that the government operative and the widow meet and never slows down as he investigates her secrets while she tries to nudge him onto false trails filled with red herrings. That passion called love makes for strange bedfellows as Nicolas Cornick provides an enjoyable historical cat and mouse tale.---------- Harriet Klausner