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The Secret Pearl

By:Mary Balogh

Dear Reader,

A large number of you, especially those who have discovered me only recently with the Bedwyn series (the Slightly books), have written to ask me when my backlist is going to be available again. I am as delighted as any of you may be that it is happening now with this republication of The Secret Pearl. The book has a gorgeous new cover but no changes to either the title or the contents—I know that is important to many of you.

The Secret Pearl is often listed by readers as one of their favorites among my books. I think they are drawn to the wounded hero, who is trapped in a world of barren honor, and to the fugitive heroine, who hides deep wounds of her own. They meet under unhappy circumstances, but despite almost overwhelming odds, passion grows between them as they discover healing in each other—until they find themselves confronted with a classic dilemma, the choice between honor and love. Can they have both—and happiness and each other too? Well, this is a love story, and we all know that romance writers will settle for nothing less than happy endings.…

For those of you reading this earlier book of mine for the first time, I do hope you will enjoy the story and return for the republication of the Web trilogy sometime soon. And for those of you who are reading this for a second or third or twenty-third time, I hope you will like it just as well or even better in this new and lovely packaging.

Happy reading!

Mary Balogh

THE CROWD OUTSIDE THE DRURY LANE THEATER had dispersed for the night. The last carriage, with its two occupants, was disappearing down the street. Those few theatergoers who had come on foot had long ago set out on their way.

It appeared that only one gentleman was left, a tall man in a dark cloak and hat. He had refused a ride in the last carriage to leave, preferring, he had told his friends, to walk home.

And yet he was not the sole remaining occupant of the street, either. His eyes, as he looked about him, were caught by a figure standing quietly against the building, her cloak a shade lighter than the night shadows—a street prostitute who had been left behind by her more fortunate or alluring peers and who seemed now to have lost all chance of a fashionable customer for the night.

She did not move, and it was impossible to tell in the darkness if she was looking at him. She might have swaggered toward him. She might have moved out of the shadows and smiled at him. She might have hailed him, offered herself in words. She might have hurried away to find a more promising location.

She did none of those things.

And he stood looking at her, wondering whether to begin the solitary walk home he had planned or whether to engage in an unplanned night of sport. He could not see the woman clearly. He did not know if she was young, enticing, pretty, clean—any of those qualities that might make it worth his while to change his plans.

But there was her quiet stillness, intriguing in itself.

She was looking at him, he saw as he strolled toward her, with eyes that were dark in the shadows. She wore a cloak but no bonnet. Her hair was dressed neatly at the back of her head. It was impossible to tell how old she was or how pretty. She said nothing and did not move. She displayed no wiles, spoke no words of enticement.

He stopped a few feet in front of her. He noted that her head reached to his shoulder—she was slightly above average height—and that she was of slim build.

“You wish for a night’s employment?” he asked her.

She nodded almost imperceptibly.

“And your price?”

She hesitated and named a sum. He regarded her in silence for a few moments.

“And the place is close by?”

“I have no place,” she said. Her voice was soft, devoid of either the harshness or the cockney accent that he had expected.

He looked at her out of narrowed eyes. He should begin his walk home, make a companion of his own thoughts as he had planned to do. It had never been his way to copulate with a street whore in a shop doorway.

“There is an inn on the next street,” he said, and he turned to walk in its direction.

She fell into step beside him. They did not exchange a word. She made no move to take his arm. He did not offer it.

She followed him into the crowded and rowdy taproom of the Bull and Horn and stood quietly at his shoulder as he engaged a room abovestairs for the night and paid for it in advance. She followed him up the stairs, her feet light on the treads so that he half-turned his head before reaching the top to make sure that she was there.

He allowed her to precede him into the room and closed and bolted the door behind him. He set the single candle he had brought up with him in a wall sconce. The noise from the taproom was hardly diminished by distance.

The prostitute was standing in the middle of the room, looking at him. She was young, he saw, though not a girl. She must have been pretty at one time, but now her face was thin and pale, her lips dry and cracked, her brown eyes ringed by dark shadows. Her hair, a dull red in color, was without luster or body. She wore it in a simple knot at the back of her head.