Francesca Felizzi knows she wields an immense power over men. Her patrons see only a carefree courtesan, and they pay handsomely for the privilege of her time.
Francesca never saw him coming, the man who cracked her heart open and ruined her for the job. But he's shown her what a gaudy facade she's built, and she doesn't know how to tear it down without taking her beloved daughters with her. The wrong move could plunge all of them into the sort of danger she has dreaded ever since her perilous work all those years ago.
An exquisite tale that explores the intricate nature of a mother's heart, The Courtesan's Lover draws you close and whispers in your ear. In the tradition of Sarah Dunant and Marina Fiorato, a compelling and vibrant tale from an up-and-coming fresh voice that readers will want to savor.
Praise for the novels of Gabrielle Kimm:
"Gets under your skin"
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The dress I'm going to wear to meet my new Spanish patron has just been delivered-and it is simply gorgeous. I hold the skirts up against me and gaze at myself in the glass. It's truly one of Bianca's best. She chose the brocade for me-crimson and gold, straight in from Venice, she said, and she has given the dress the most glorious deep-red underskirt. At least nine yards of fabric in each piece, apparently. It feels thick and heavy and smooth and sumptuous, and it smells of warm spices.
I think I'm looking forward to this evening.
Crossing to my chamber door in my shift, with the skirts bundled in my arms, I call down to my manservant. "Modesto, can you come up and help me put all this on? Cristo said he'd be here before the Angelus strikes, to take me to meet this...what's his name? Vasquez."
His voice sounds from the kitchen. "I'm just preparing your lime."
I had almost forgotten. "Thank you, caro. I'll come down and get it," I call back. I lay the heavy skirts carefully across my bed.
Standing at the big table in the kitchen, Modesto has a knife in one hand and a lime in the other. I watch as he inserts the point of the knife just under its skin, about a third of the way down. He scores right around the fruit, then slicing through the rest of the flesh, he separates the two sections. He squeezes most of the juice from the smaller half into a bowl and finally flicks out a couple of stray pips with the tip of the knife. "There you are, Signora," he says, handing me the little cup he has made and sucking the lime juice from his fingers. "That should do. Go and put that in."
I run back upstairs to my bedchamber, pull my shift up and out of the way, and, with practiced ease, tuck the lime-skin up inside my body. Modesto seems to know just the most comfortable shape to cut it-I can hardly feel that it's there.
I hear his footsteps on the stairs, and then he knocks at my chamber door. "You done, Signora?" he says from outside.
"I am," I say, shaking my shift back down over my legs again. "You can come in. It's all done. Everything in place. No unwanted offspring. Hopefully." I smile at him. "Thank you, caro."
"Come on then, let's get you ready, Signora. Bum first," he says, picking up a crescent-shaped, stuffed linen roll. I obediently put my arms up and, standing so close in front of me that I can feel his breath on my cheek, Modesto reaches around my waist and lays the roll in place on my hips, shifting it so it sits where it should, projecting out behind to give me a suitably voluptuous arse. He ties the ribbons neatly in front.
Over my head then go the underskirt and the beautiful brocade overskirt, trailing on the ground round my feet and looking exquisite. I reach for my bodice and hand it to him. "Can you lace me in?"
"Turn around then, Signora," he says, "and arms up again."
The bodice is already loose-laced, and the sleeves have been attached. Modesto lifts it up over my arms and head and pulls it down. I wriggle it into place, putting my fingers down inside the top edge to shift my breasts into a more comfortable position. I want them sitting up as high as possible for this dress-and for this occasion. Modesto pulls the laces in tightly and fastens them in a secure bow. My chemise has crumpled inside all the boning-the lawn is so fine that that happens easily-and the folds feel irritating. "Can you pull my shift down for me, caro?" I ask him. "It's all rucked up." He obliges, crouching down in front of me, lifting my hem and reaching up into the impossible folds of the skirts, searching for and finding the bottom edge of my chemise. His fingers brush against my thighs. He tugs gently downward, and I can feel the rucks unfolding.
I straighten the V-shaped front of the stomacher and pat it flat, and we are almost there.
Looking down at my chest, and then across at my reflection in my huge glass, I bite down a smile. I asked Bianca to cut this one low-and she has taken me at my word. The neckline is wide-out to the points of my shoulders on each side. It's been cut deep, and she has lace trimmed it. In fact, it's only the lace that is covering my nipples. They are virtually on display. I let out a soft breath and touch them with the tips of my fingers.
"He should be suitably impressed, Signora," says Modesto, smirking slightly.
"Is it too much, do you think, caro?"
"Absolutely not-you look wonderful." He pauses. "Let's do your hair."
Between us we concoct a web of complicated braids, leaving a fair amount of hair down, and then I wind a string of red Murano glass beads through the web. Garnet ear-drops and a heavy gold ring on my little finger, and I think my preparations are complete.
"Stand back, then, and let's see," Modesto says.
I stand back and preen, as Modesto frowns in appraisal, his thumbnail caught between his teeth. He stares for a full minute, as I turn this way and that, pushing my chest out and arching my back, arms held out sideways like a dancer, so he can have a full and uninterrupted view of the package I intend to present to my new patron in an hour or so's time.
Finally, he draws in a long breath and says gravely, "Well, if this doesn't impress him, he's either blind or stupid, or would rather be fiddling with some grubby little bardassa's ill-fitting codpiece." He smiles at me, and his black eyes crinkle. "You look like a queen, Signora. Go and sit down in your chair and keep yourself clean, and I'll fetch you some grapes."
"Thank you." A thought occurs to me as Modesto turns to leave the room. "Caro, could you run round to the other house after we've gone and let Ilaria and the twins know that I won't be back till the morning? I believe they think I'm coming home tonight."
He nods a brusque assent.
I'm so glad I didn't know about limes before I had the girls. I don't know what I would do without them.
I have a cloth over my lap as I eat my grapes, and Modesto has given me a bowl into which I have been told to spit the pips. Cristoforo-the Conte di Benevento, Capitano di Cavallo in the King's Regiment-is a little late, and while I am waiting, I am entertaining myself by holding the bowl out at arm's length and trying to spit my pips from increasing distances to test the accuracy of my aim. Cristoforo knocks and enters my chamber just as I am leaning forward and holding the bowl out at full stretch. I have just let fly with one of my pips, and it has just plipped into the bowl, when his face appears around the door. My smile of satisfaction vanishes at his obvious amusement.
"So, this is what the more eminent courtesans do when they're alone, is it?" he says, grinning.
"Don't make fun of me!"
"I wouldn't dare!"
I pretend to scowl. "I was bored and you were late."
Cristoforo bows low in apology, and I stand up, letting my cloth drop to the floor. His gaze rakes me from head to foot and, much to my satisfaction, it is clear that he approves of what he sees. "You look particularly lovely, if you will allow me to say so," he says. "My Spanish friend is going to be...overwhelmed, I think."
"And shall you be jealous of his spending time in my company while you're away, readying yourself for battle, Cristo?" I say, looking at him. Stocky, crop-haired, heavily muscled, he is struggling to keep his face straight.
"Of course. I shall be devastated-how could I not be?" He puts on a stricken expression, but beneath this, the smile he seems unable to prevent is open and happy, and I don't believe him for a moment: I doubt he'll pine for me when he is away. I understand that he will be preoccupied-of course he will, he's an important soldier-and I know that he is introducing me to this man, Vasquez, out of concern for my well-being while he's away, but his lack of involvement feels almost insulting. He has, after all, been one of my most regular patrons since I first arrived in Napoli.
"So, are you ready, cara? Shall we go?" he says.
I nod, and together we go down to my front door. Modesto watches us leave the house.
Despite Vasquez's apartment being well within walking distance, Cristo has come to collect me in a little covered carriage. Inside, it's very small and smells of warm leather, and my skirts fill the space between the two red velvet bench seats; they billow up in front of me, puffing up much higher than my knees. No floor space can be seen at all, and when Cristo climbs in from the other side and sits down on the seat opposite, he has to push the brocade out of the way to make room for his legs. He taps the roof of the carriage with the hilt of his sword and, with a rumbling lurch and a scrunch of pebbles, we are off.
"Now, listen again," he says. "I want to make sure you remember exactly what's going to happen. This needs to go well."
Feeling a little frisson of excitement-I've always enjoyed the moment of introduction to a new patron-I lean forward to hear what he has to say.
"Maestre Vasquez can't wait to meet you," Cristo says. "He's had a meal prepared for the two of you, I believe, so I hope you have an appetite. His is prodigious."
"I haven't eaten anything other than a small bunch of grapes since this morning." I'm starving, if the truth be told.
"Modesto and I have sorted out the financial side of the affair-"
"Yes, he told me."
"And you'll be pleased to hear that your new friend will be paying handsomely! More than I do, at any rate. So you'll be financially secure while I'm away, at least. All you have to worry about now is looking beautiful and doing what you do best."
I smile at him, pleased at his confidence in me. But I am still a little hurt that he seems so happy to be handing me over to another man.
"When we arrive, I'll leave you in the care of Maestre Vasquez's servants, who will help you set up the surprise. They've been paid well to keep the details from their master, and they'll make sure everything runs smoothly."
And Cristo runs through the exact details of what I am to do, one more time.
Cristoforo raises a hand in a final farewell salute as the door closes, leaving me inside with the Maestre's servants. This is not the front door to the big house in the Via dei Tribunali, but an unimpressive side door that we only reached by stumbling down a cobbled alleyway so narrow that I had to hold my skirts bundled up in front of me, to stop them brushing against the walls and getting stained.
Inside, even in these servants' quarters, this house is opulent. Cristo was right-my new patron is clearly wealthy. The three young men who are to prepare the "surprise" hustle me down a long covered walkway, one behind me, one on either side, pressing in close, moving fast. They are dressed in old-fashioned, stiff black fustian doublets with starched ruffs, and they all seem intrigued and excited by their task. They are grinning and chattering to each other in Spanish. All three keep glancing around them. It feels clandestine and furtive. I smother a laugh.
"Quick, this way, Señora!" the tallest of the three whispers, in heavily accented Italian this time, pointing to an iron-studded door to our right. He reaches in front of me and opens the door, whereupon, feeling these men's hands on my shoulders and in the small of my back, I am shuffled through and out of sight. The men close and latch the door, then whistle out their relief at having succeeded in their covert operation so far.
Just inside this door is a spiral staircase-wooden, narrow, winding up and out of sight. My new friends urge me to begin climbing, and with one man in front and two behind, I have little choice in the matter. We soon reach another door, which proves to lead into a beautiful upstairs room: huge and bright, with four great floor-to-ceiling windows, through which the evening sun is blazing in thick, downward-sloping diagonal shafts of yellow light.
At the far end of the room, a table has been laid for two; it is positively glittering with glass and silver, and I can see a spray of some brightly colored flowers in a bowl in the middle. Several dishes, covered by gleaming silver domes, have been placed on a nearby credenza.
I wonder what we shall be eating.
Between each of the windows, facing into the room, stands an ornately carved, cross-framed chair, upholstered in gold-colored silk. And at this end of the room, just near where we are standing, fiercely lit by the sun, is an enormous lettiera-a monumental bed. The carving on this great monster matches that of the chairs, and the hangings are of the same silk. It is as though the bed has been swathed in sunshine.
One of the three servants darts forward now and draws back the bed-hangings. The bed within is made up, with the sheets neatly folded back on one side, away from one of several plump pillows. The latent sense of invitation is irresistible.
I feel my hand being taken. The tallest of the servants, who seems to be the only Italian speaker, is pulling me toward the bed, saying, "Señora, my master arrive very soon. But he not expecting you for another hour. We must get you ready for surprise him."
I nod. The servant pulls from a pocket in his breeches a roll of a deep red satin ribbon as wide across as the span of my spread hand. This he flicks out to lie widthways across the bed. Then, from under the bed, he drags a bolt of fabric; pulling the whole length of it off its roll by the armful, he flaps it all out, like shaking out a freshly laundered sheet, across the bed on top of the ribbon. This fabric is sheer and golden, almost transparent, and it shimmers in the low light from the window. It's absolutely beautiful. It is far wider than the bed, though: I watch as the servant leans across and carefully doubles it over, making it two thicknesses deep.
"We could deliver you to Vasquez in a carpet, like Cleopatra," Cristo had suggested.
He seemed excited by the idea, but I demurred. "That's a horrible idea, Cristo," I said. "It would probably ruin the dress, which cost a fortune. Any carpet you might be able to find will probably be filthy,and I'll end up covered in dust and cobwebs and smelling of old wool. Not very attractive. It may have been all very well in ancient Rome, or Egypt or wherever it was, but I don't fancy it in the slightest, here in Napoli."
Cristo saw my point in the end, and so we discussed for some time how we might adapt Cleopatra's plan to suit the occasion. He was wedded to his idea of concealment and would not be moved from it. "People like unwrapping gifts," he said.
"Quick!" the servant says. "Get up here!" He and the other two men help me to seat myself as near to the middle of the bed as we can manage, without creasing my clothes, rumpling the golden fabric, or disturbing the straightness of the ribbon. They almost lift me, in fact. I lie down, both ribbon and gauze stretching out flat on either side of me.
"Ready, Señora?" my new friend asks. His tone is deferential, but his eyes are dancing. He licks his lips, twitching down a smile.
I nod again. "Quite ready, thank you. Just don't wrap it too tightly. It must be left loose: this dress will be rui...Review:
"Kimm's meticulous details not only evoke the era, but gifts readers with a touching, fascinating and uplifting tale with a carefully developed plot and unforgettable characters. Sensual, yet more intimate than sexy; realistic, with a sense of humor; truly sensitive and heart-tugging... 4 1/2 Stars, Top Pick of the Month " - RT Book Reviews
"Gabrielle Kimm has penned an entertaining tale brimming with vibrant imagery, suspense, and poignancy. A definite keeper!" - Historical Novel Review Blog
"In The Courtesan's Lover, Kimm has written a even more exquisite novel." - Readin and Dreamin
"This story is a wonderful way to see a different side of a lifestyle you may have unkind thoughts towards." - Fresh Fiction
"I absolutely adored His Last Duchess and was so excited to read The Courtesan's Lover. Gabrielle Kimm does not disappoint and this book is juicy, dramatic and thoroughly enticing." - Luxury Reading
"Kimm writes in dynamic and often elegant prose that is a pleasure to read, and her accurate evocation of the historic Neapolitan setting is vivid and engaging... A thoroughly compelling read." - Shelf Awareness
"4.5 out of 5 for me. I loved it!
" - DizzyC's Little Book Blog
"A compelling and vibrant tale from an up-and-coming fresh voice with glowing reviews" - Books, Movies, Reviews. Oh My!
"Ms. Kimm is a wonderful storyteller,drawing the reader into the story." - My Book Addiction Reviews
"I am really impressed by the amount of research done by the author. Her sixteen century Naples (Napoli) came to life for me and I was delighted by all these tidbits concerning ships, dresses, renaissance houses and habits of Italians, inhabiting them. I learned a lot!
" - Books as portable pieces of thoughts
"The Courtesan's Lover is a return to the fascinating, decadent world that Kimm fans will want to savor." - Minding Spot
"It's a beautifully written book, lyrical and full of descriptive passages that provide such vivid imagery that readers almost feel a part of the book. I loved it.. and I think you will too!" - Debbie's Book Bag
" I loved every freaking page :) Now I want more :)" - Seriously Reviewed
"What a fabulous follow-up novel to His Last Duchess. In The Courtesan's Lover, Kimm has written a even more exquisite novel." - Christy's Books
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