Authors: Evie North
For my husband, who makes writing so much easier.
Newgate Prison, London, 1805
Katherine could not stop shivering as she followed Turnkey Martin along cold stone corridors and up narrow, grimy stone stairs. It might have been the chill air in the underground prison cells where she’d come from, or it could have been the hasty, lukewarm bath she’d been forced to undertake before she was dressed in some cast-off, ill-fitting clothing, which was at least clean, and had her wet hair bundled up under a white linen cap.
She couldn’t believe this was happening.
That he’d asked for
And she couldn’t believe she’d said yes.
But then again, wasn’t anything worth it, if it meant she could escape the filth and horror of the most infamous prison in England? Newgate, despite being rebuilt twenty years earlier, was the worst of places. When she’d been brought here six months ago Katherine had felt as if she was entering one of Dante’s circles of Hell.
She, the teacher’s daughter. Well-read, ladylike, unassuming…how could
have come to this?
Onward they went. Katherine’s ill-fitting clogs clattered on the bare stone floor. When she wasn’t holding up the hem of her too-long skirt to prevent herself from tripping over, she kept the handkerchief to her nose, with its faint scent of better days. And to remind herself that the man she was going to now had been kind to her, once.
“How are you feelin’, Kathy?” the turnkey asked in hushed tones, glancing around.
“Resigned,” Katherine whispered back.
Turnkey Martin was a decent man, and therefore like gold dust in a place like Newgate, where everyone was after something. Bribes were commonplace. Clothing was stolen from sleeping or dead prisoners and sold on, and if you wanted something better than the stale piece of bread and gruel for your supper, then you had to find some coins to pass on down the line.
But this turnkey had been kind to her. He once confessed he’d taken the work because he’d been a prisoner himself, and had no option when the outside world would no longer consider him. So he remained here, in Newgate, and Katherine for one was glad of him.
“This is where they put the toffs,” Turnkey informed her. “See, it’s cleaner. And the torches are lit. And you can smell proper food,” he added, and lifted his large nose to sniff the air.
He was right. They had reached the area of the prison reserved for the important prisoners; the wealthy gentlemen.
crème de la crème
Soon she would be given over to her fate and that fate was Gervais Hawley, gentleman highwayman currently residing in Newgate.
She’d seen him strolling about the prison, dressed as if he were attending a society ball in his tight breeches and well-cut superfine jacket, his dark hair brushed neatly, his handsome face cleanly shaven.
The Honourable Gervais Hawley
Wealthy aristocrat. Gentleman. Darling of London society.
Highwayman. Thief. About to be hanged at the gallows tomorrow morning.
Men who were about to be hanged had a final wish. Turnkey had explained it to her. If that wish could be granted by the Keeper of the Gaol, and if the prisoner could pay enough bribes and fees and grease enough palms, then it would be.
Gervais’s wish was a night with Katherine.
“You don’ have to do it,” Turnkey had assured her, when the offer was first mooted, his monkey face screwed up with concern. “But if you do then Gervais has said he’ll pay off your creditors and Keeper will let you out. Freedom, Kathy, eh? How does that sound? And it’s not as if—”
“As if I haven’t done it before?” Katherine had finished for him.
Well it wasn’t, was it? She’d had a man in her bed, and surely all men were much the same?
Perhaps she made a noise because once again the turnkey glanced at her over his shoulder. They’d reached a thick blackened door and now he had found the right key from his bunch and held it poised over the lock.
“Ready?” he asked.
Was she? She opened her mouth to say that no, she wasn’t ready and she didn’t want to do this. She wanted to go back to her filthy, crowded cell and spend the next year or so locked in there, awaiting the money to pay Edward’s debts. Money Edward owed, and just because he had run off didn’t mean the debt could be wiped clean. She’d begged his family to help but they’d never liked her, never thought she was good enough for their son—and besides she and Edward weren’t married, though he’d always promised her father that he would. It came down to the fact that someone had to pay off the debt, and the rest of the world had decided that someone was Katherine.
Not surprisingly, Katherine shut her mouth again and nodded.
Martin turned his key in the lock and the door creaked open. Light spilled out like a ray of sunlight, reaching toward her. Suddenly she could feel warmth and smell food. Katherine felt light-headed with hunger—she hadn’t been able to eat her gristle-filled gruel today. The sight of the sour bits floating on top of the watery soup, along with her worries about this meeting, had turned her stomach.
“Lady to see you, sir!” Turnkey called into the room, with some humour, and a wink at Katherine. He waited until she took an awkward step over the threshold, and then another, before swinging the heavy door shut again behind her. She heard it lock.
Her blue eyes grew wide and she looked wildly about her.
This wasn’t a cell, surely?
With soft thick rugs on the floor and rich tapestries to hide the damp stone walls it had all the appearance of a wealthy gentleman’s residence. And there were furnishings! A comfortable divan set with cushions, a table groaning with platters of food, and candles in silver sconces blazing from every surface. And amid all this luxury…Her gaze came to rest upon the man at its centre.
The Honourable Gervais Hawley, standing with a glass of red wine in his hand, watching her with a half smile curving his sensual mouth.
She stared back. With his dark hair and eyes, his narrow face and aristocratic nose, he was so handsome she felt as though she was frozen to the spot, afraid to move in case he vanished in a puff of smoke. Newgate was not a place for beauty, but Gervais was tall and well made, his white shirt open at his throat to show a swathe of brown masculine skin. The snug fit of his trousers delineated his strong muscled thighs and long legs, ending in highly polished boots.
Gervais was every inch a toff. How on earth had he come to be in this awful place?
“Sit down, Katherine.” His voice was deep and warm, and it seemed to delve inside her so that its echoes tingled, fizzing through her blood.
The first time she’d seen him was in the courtroom of the Old Bailey next door, where she had been sentenced to prison for Edward’s unpaid debts. Gervais Hawley had been passing, surrounded by guards and admirers, but when he’d seen her tear-streaked face he’d stopped and produced a snowy white handkerchief.
“Dry your tears, sweetheart,” he’d murmured. “Things are never as bad as you think them.”
They had been every bit as bad, but still Katherine had treasured the moment. And the handkerchief.
The second time she saw him was when she was being taken back to her cell from the doctor’s rooms—she had been ill with gaol fever—and he had passed her in the corridor, perhaps also having visited the physician. He had caught her eye and smiled, just a twitch of his lips, and then he’d bowed.
Katherine still remembered the heat of her cheeks afterwards, the bewildering sense that he admired her. She, the teacher’s daughter, the innkeeper’s mistress, the girl who never quite fit in anywhere.
The third time…well,
was the third time. They had met briefly only twice and yet incredibly he’d thought of her tonight, his last night. He’d chosen Katherine to be his final wish.
“You know you must do as I tell you, Katherine.” That deep voice again, making her tingle, bringing her back to the here and now. “This is to be my last night. My last wish. Do you promise to obey my commands?”
She’d already made her decision. Her voice was firm and sure.
“I promise, sir.”
“Good. Then I command you to sit down.”
She took a step forward and then another, aware of her ill-fitting clothing, her clogs almost falling from her otherwise bare feet, and her wet hair dripping down her back. It was so luxuriously warm in here. There was a fire in the grate and she wanted to run to it and hold out her hands. Instead she sat on the divan he’d pointed to and watched him the way a mouse watches a large cat.
He was watching her too, candlelight reflected in his dark eyes, a faint curve at each corner of his sensual mouth. He was the sort of man who could have anyone he wanted, she knew that. Women must be begging for him to spend the night with them.
And yet he’d chosen her.
Well that was a good thing, surely? She rallied herself. For after tonight she would be free of the filth and misery of Newgate, free to take up her life again, free from her lover’s debts. She would make a new life for herself…somewhere.
But that was tomorrow and there was still tonight stretching ahead of her. To her own surprise she felt a tingle of excitement and it was stronger than any doubts or fears she might have. Like a yearning. Or a promise of things to come.
“Have they told you what tonight entails?”
Gervais was approaching her with his catlike prowl. A lock of his dark hair fell forward over his brow and he brushed it back with the hand not holding the wineglass.
“I…” Her voice came out creaky, like the mouse she imagined herself to be. She cleared her throat. “I am here to spend the night with you, sir. I am here to do whatever you wish me to do. Until cock crow.”
“Cock crow. Yes. But that is a long way from now, isn’t it, Katherine? We have hours yet, and I intend to spend them in pleasure.”
On the last word his voice dropped in tone and Katherine gave a little shiver as the sound of it rasped across her senses.
He had come to a stop before her and now his gaze travelled over her. She knew what he was seeing: a young woman who was too thin, whose borrowed clothing hung loose on her, whose long fair hair was escaping the white cap she wore, whose blue eyes were wide with anxiety, and whose lips were held firm with the determination to go through with this.
Turnkey Martin had warned her that Gervais might spring upon her like a drowning man seeking dry land, that he might take her brutally, and then fall into sleep. In fact, he’d said, that might be best for her in the long run.
“Because I’ve heard Gervais Hawley is a rake, Kathy. He knows how to pleasure a woman, how to use her senses to bind her to him. And you don’t want that, do you? You don’t want him to steal your heart, eh?”
The rake in question now took a sip of his wine. She watched his throat move as he swallowed, saw the gleam of a silver signet ring upon the hand that held the glass.
“You are a beautiful woman.”
Surprise widened her eyes still further. Beauty was not something she normally associated with herself, and when she did it was more of a cross to bear than a blessing. Edward had been a jealous man and any glances sent her way at the inn by travellers or guests were viewed with suspicion. And woe betide her if she were ever to smile back. Katherine had received many a slap or bruise from an ill-considered smile.
“I prefer to be thought of as a modest woman,” she replied quietly.
Gervais’ smile was back, but he bowed his head in acknowledgement of her dignified answer. With a gesture toward the table, and the food piled upon it, he said with a hint of self-mockery, “Will you eat with the condemned man? I assure you it is all fine fare.”
She hesitated and then followed him to the table, where he set down his wine to pour her a glass of her own. “No gruel?” she was brave enough to jest.
Gervais turned with surprise, his dark eyes pondering her, and then he chuckled. “A joke, Katherine? So there is more to you than your modesty and your beauty.”
He was standing so close to her. It was as if he were taking the air from the room, because she was having difficulty breathing. Desperate, she smoothed her hands over her skirts, looking down to avoid his eyes. She was out of her depth. Why was he being so polite, so
? She had steeled herself for this moment and now he was chipping away at her armour, bit by bit, exposing the soft vulnerable Katherine inside.