“Busbee is back and better than ever!” —Julia Quinn
She Couldn’t Escape Her Past
Ripped from her dying mother’s arms, Morgana Fowler was cast into a life of desperate thievery. With a tongue even sharper than the blade she deftly wields, she has all but mastered her devious trade—until she picks the pocket of a dashing American who wrests her from the sordid streets of London. In the arms of her gallant protector, she is helpless against the longing he elicits within her…
He Couldn’t Contain His Passion
Royce Manchester basks in a world of privilege and power in the decadent British Regency, and lowborn Morgana finds in him a love she’s never known. But the secret of her true parentage threatens to bring her new life crashing down. With a sinister figure from her past ever lurking at her heels, she and Royce must confront one of Regency England’s most diabolical villains—a challenge that fans the flame of a love that knows no bounds…
“Busbee delivers what you read a romance for.” —West Coast Review of BooksPraise for Shirlee Busbee and Scandal Becomes Her
“A scandalously delicious read that left me wanting more!” —Bertrice Small
“A walloping good story. Don’t miss it!” —Catherine Coulter
“A delightful romance—altogether a wonderful book.” —Roberta Gellis
Lady Hester Devlin, the Dowager Countess of St. Audries, was dying.
Oblivious to the other occupants in the room, she gazed bewilderedly about the sumptuous chamber, the lethargy that was slowly stealing through her slender body making coherent thought difficult. As she lay in solitary splendor in the huge mahogany bed with its silken curtains and fine linen sheets, nothing seemed real to her, not the two men speaking in low tones near the foot of her bed, nor the newborn infant who lay crying softly in the cradle nearby.
Apathetically her eyes continued to scan the spacious room, passing over the delicate chairs in gold velvet, the large mahogany armoire, and the graceful dressing table. It was only when she began to look at the various portraits hanging on the walls that one particular picture caught her interest. A spark suddenly lit her paindull green eyes, and a warm smile curved her pale lips as she stared lovingly at the portrait of her late husband, the sixth Earl of St. Audries.
Could it have been only a year ago that he had appeared in her life? Barely eleven months ago that one of the handsomest, most charming lords in all of England had taken her as his bride? Even now it seemed a dream to Hester as she drank in the beloved features of the man in the portrait.
Andrew Devlin, the sixth Earl of St. Audries, had been a particularly handsome man, and the artist had captured his dark, vital looks exactly—the thick, black, curly hair, the proud nose and arrogant chin, as well as the longlipped, sensuous mouth. All of the Devlins bore a striking and unmistakable resemblance to one another, the exotically almondshaped gray eyes with their haughtily arched black brows appearing generation after generation without fail. It had been the laughter gleaming in those same gray eyes that had first drawn Hester to the tall, distinguished gentleman the previous spring. She had been just twenty years old, and even though he had been, at fortyfive, many years older than she, it had made no difference; she had taken one look atAndrew, Lord Devlin, and fallen deeply in love.
That this handsome, sophisticated member of the aristocracy returned her love seemed almost a dream, and though there were those who said enviously that it was only her great fortune that aroused his interest, when Lord Devlin asked for her hand in marriage, Hester could not bring herself to say no. They had married after an indecently brief courtship, but since Hester had been an orphan and her only guardian had been a fond old uncle, who had been equally bemused by the Earl’s desire to marry his niece, no objections had been raised.
Despite the differences in their ages and despite the fact that the Earl of St. Audries’s finances had been in desperate straits before his marriage to the Heiress of Bath, as Hester had been called, no one seeing them together could doubt that, incredible though it might seem, theirs was a true love match. That the Earl had lived scandalously, the infuriatingly indifferent object of much shocking gossip and speculation among the rich and powerful, before Hester’s advent into his life could not be denied. Nor did he attempt to hide his wild and wicked past from his bride. Perhaps it was his own rueful admission of his less than respectable history that made Hester love him even more.
Hester never doubted his love for her, and that first month of marriage had been thrilling and exciting as she had discovered the erotic pleasures of the flesh in her husband’s strong arms. And then there had been London! The theater and the balls and the shops had been utterly fascinating to a young woman who had known only the tranquillity of country living and the sedate society of Bath. But Andrew had opened an entire new world for her as he had proudly escorted her about London, introducing her to the many delights the city had to offer.
But the time she had treasured the most, the time she remembered as being the happiest in her life, was that painfully brief time that they had lived together at St. Audries Hall near the picturesque town of Holford in the lovely Quantock Hills of Somerset. She had enjoyed her honeymoon sojourn in London, but the glorious hills and valleys near her husband’s home appealed to something deep inside of her, and she had eagerly looked forward to their life together in this beautiful corner of England.
Those first weeks at St. Audries had been enchanting. During the day, Andrew had acquainted her with the countryside, and together they had made plans for the restorations they would make to the once lovely, but now crumbling, manor home that had housed the Earls of St. Audries for generations. And the nights . . . Even now, months later, her body weakened and racked by pain, a soft smile curved her gentle mouth as she remembered those nights in her husband’s arms, not only the passion, but the plans they had made, the children they would have, the improvements to his estate her fortune would allow them to make, the sweet future that awaited them.
A future that had ended with stunning brutality less than six weeks after their marriage. Even now Hester could not believe that Andrew was dead; even now she could not accept the fact that her husband had apparently gone to meet his mistress in a secluded cottage on the estate and that the mistress, furious at his marriage, had driven a knife through his heart before doing the same thing to herself. Hester had been utterly bereft. Not only was the man she had adored and trusted dead, but he had died in such sordid and ugly circumstances. She had not believed his infidelity then, and even now as she lay dying, she still did not believe it.
Andrew had loved her! He had admitted to his wicked past and had claimed sincerely that all of his wild living was behind him, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she still believed that he had spoken sincerely. All through the painful months that had followed his death, Hester had never doubted that there had to be some other explanation for Andrew’s having been in that cottage with that woman.
There had to be! If not, everything Andrew had appeared to be, everything she had loved about him, was a falsehood, and she could not and would not accept the knowledge that their entire courtship and marriage had been a sham.
When Andrew’s younger brother, Stephen, who had been touring Italy with his wife and young son, hastily returned home to comfort his young, widowed sisterinlaw and to inherit the title and estate, Hester had spoken earnestly with him, telling him that she did not believe that Andrew had gone to meet his mistress. Stephen, looking heartbreakingly like Andrew with his black hair and gray eyes, was very kind to her, but Hester could see that he pitied her and believed that his brother had, as the gossips claimed, simply married her for her fortune and had intended to continue with his scandalous life.
Hester had liked Stephen, although she could not say the same for his wife, Lucinda. For some reason, Lucinda greatly resented her and had made no bones about it, making it very clear that she was now the Countess of St. Audries and that she could not wait for Hester to remove to the shabby dower house and out of St. Audries Hall. Lucinda had also made it bluntly apparent that she would have preferred that Hester leave St. Audries altogether. “After all,” Lucinda had said cruelly, “there is nothing here for you, and with your fortune, you can live wherever you choose. My husband is now the Earl, and my son will one day inherit the title from him.” Her hazel eyes full of hostility, she had finished the unpleasant conversation by saying, “And don’t be fooled by Stephen’s kindness to you. He wants you gone from here too—no matter how much he pities you, nor how much he might want to convince you to expend some of your great wealth on this pile of rotten timber and stone he calls home!”
Lucinda’s words had cut deeply, but Hester had remained, quietly making plans for the improvements to the dower house and, despite the advice of others, bestowing a large sum of money upon Stephen for the restoration of St. Audries Hall. As she had explained it to him: “It is what your brother would have wanted me to do, and it is in memory of him that I beg you to accept my help.”
Reluctantly, for he was a proud young man, Stephen had taken the money, and within days, the work that she and Andrew had dreamed about had begun in earnest. Seeing the many workmen scurrying about what would have been her home had helped her in some indefinable way to get through those first agonyfilled weeks after Andrew’s sudden death.
The time immediately following her husband’s death had passed by in a blur for Hester. Shock upon shock seemed to have been piled onto her slender shoulders and they all contributed to Hester’s lack of awareness of the changes within her body. It was not until Andrew had been dead and buried for over a month that Hester concluded that she was pregnant. With a growing sense of awe, she realized that something wonderful would come out of those brief weeks of her marriage—Andrew’s child. Possibly his heir.
Needless to say, Lucinda and, to a lesser extent, Stephen were not particularly delighted by the possibility that Hester’s child might be a boy. If Andrew’s posthumous son was born to Hester, Stephen would lose the title and the ancestral lands and mansion he had assumed were now his. Polite London thought it a delicious situation, and just like Andrew Devlin, even in death, to create a sensation. All through the winter and early spring of 1796, the ton, amidst much malicious speculation (for Lucinda and Stephen were not overly admired), had waited for the birth of Hester’s child.
It had not been an easy time for any of the principals. Hester, while delighted with her pregnancy, continued to grieve for her dead husband. Stephen and Lucinda were in a state of great agitation, uncertain whether the home they were living in, a home that was being lavishly and expensively restored to its former grandeur, was actually theirs; and as for the title . . . Were they the Earl and Countess of St. Audries or not?
During these uneasy months, Hester had grown very fond of Stephen. He was unfailingly kind to her and was extremely solicitous of her health and wellbeing. It was Stephen who undertook on her behalf the overseeing of the complete renovation of the dower house. He had insisted that he be allowed to pay for everything. A wry smile curving his fulllipped mouth, he had said gravely, “It is your money, after all, even if the account has my name on it.” But Hester had tossed her blond head and had replied lightly, “Yes, so it is, but if you will remember, I gave it to you . . . to use on the manor house, not on your sisterinlaw’s home!” A twinkle in her green eyes, she had added tartly, “She is quite capable of paying her own bills.” They had laughed together, and that had been the end of it—the dower house had been as richly and elegantly restored as the main house, and Hester had paid her own bills.
As her pregnancy had progressed, Hester had found herself relying more and more on Stephen; he spent a great deal of time with her, willing to run her every errand, and while Hester appreciated this coddling of her, it was also very painful—Stephen looked so very much like Andrew that there were times when he entered a room unexpectedly that her heart would leap in her breast and for one wild moment she would think that miraculously Andrew had come back to her. But then reality would intrude, and the wound of her husband’s death would be torn open anew, and she would be dreadfully unhappy for days.
Sometimes Hester fretted that it was Stephen’s many kindnesses to her that had aroused Lucinda’s antipathy, but when she attempted to discourage his frequent visits, explaining how it might offend his wife, he had merely laughed and brushed her concerns aside, saying negligently, “My wife understands her position well enough. You have nothing to fear from her, and do not distress yourself about her haughty ways—she is merely puffed up with herself for having gone so suddenly and unexpectedly from being the wife of the younger son to possibly being the Countess of St. Audries.” If his attitude seemed cold and unfeeling, Hester convinced herself it was only her own imagination, but it still made her wonder about the type of marriage they had.
When Hester was nearly eight months pregnant, it was Stephen who had suggested that she see to the making of her will. Holding her slim hand in his, he had smiled down at her and murmured, “I am certain that you will deliver safely, but should something go wrong . . .” Since she had come to rely on him so heavily these past months, and had never really shaken the apathy that had overtaken her upon Andrew’s death, she had obediently followed his instructions and had allowed his attorney to draw up her will. It was an extremely simple document—if she died, her immense fortune passed to her child, and in the tragic event that both she and her child should die, the bulk of her wealth would go to “her brotherinlaw and dear friend, Stephen Devlin.”
Her will made, her affairs in the capable hands of her brotherinlaw, Hester seemed to lose all interest in life. Her appetite diminished, and day by day she grew paler and weaker. Not even the impending birth of her child aroused her from the debilitating lassitude that had overtaken her. As Stephen had worriedly explained it to the rector, “It is as if her will to live has vanished. All she talks of is Andrew . . . and that soon she hopes they will be together. I am most fearful of her life and that of her child. She is alone in the world, except for me—her uncle died just last month. Poor child! If only there were some way to make her want to live.” Stephen had shaken his dark head. “I have done my best, even Lucinda has come to see her, but nothing seems to do any good. If only there was something I could do to give her a reason for living. I feel that I have failed her in some way.”
The rector, with the familiarity of a longstanding association, had touched him lightly on the arm and murmured soothingly, “Now, now, my son, do not condemn yourself; everyone in the village knows how much you care for your young sisterinlaw and how very kind you have been to her during her time of trouble. You have done your best—what happens now is in God’s hands.”
It had never occurred to Hester that it might be God’s will that she would die within weeks of her twentyfirst birthday, within hours of giving birth to her daughter. She had only known that in spite of her joy at the prospect of bearing Andrew’s child, during these past weeks she had grown weaker and paler with every passing day. She had tried to keep her strength up, eating the nourishing meals prepared by her excellent cook, taking gentle walks in the spring air, and making certain that she got plenty of rest, but still she continued to waste away. And now it appeared that her one great unspoken fear was about to come true—she was dying, leaving her newborn daughter, Morgana, an orphan.
Despairingly she gazed at the small cradle near the side of her bed, wishing desperately that she had the strength to go on living, that this terrible numbness which was spreading inexorably through her body would cease. There was so much love that she would have lavished on her little daughter, so much laughter they would have shared, so much that she wanted to tell Morgana about her father . . . so much that she wanted to protect her small daughter from—especially the lies and gossip about Andrew’s death. But there was nothing she could do; she was dying, and she hadn’t needed the grave expression on the physician’s face, nor the pain in Stephen’s gray eyes, to tell her that the time left to her in this world was to be measured in minutes.
It eased Hester’s mind somewhat to know that at least Morgana would be well provided for—Stephen would be her guardian, and Hester had no doubt that he would prove to be a kind and loving one. She worried about Lucinda, though, fearful that Stephen’s wife would resent and bully her little daughter and make Morgana’s early years unpleasant. But then she reminded herself that Stephen would not allow Lucinda to mistreat Morgana. And as for material things—upon her twentyfirst birthday, or upon her marriage, whichever happened first, Morgana would come into the vast fortune that Hester had willed to her, a fortune that Stephen would manage during the years of her minority.
Materially, Morgana would want for nothing, but Hester, having grown up without a mother herself, knew that objects could never take the place of a loving parent, and she was conscious of a great sadness that she would not be there to watch her daughter grow into adulthood.
While Hester did not look forward to dying, if it weren’t for Lucinda’s unaccountable antipathy toward her, she might have faced her own death more peacefully and with less fear for her infant daughter’s future. The situation with Lucinda worried her immensely; she had never quite understood why Lucinda had taken such an immediate dislike to her and been unwilling to meet her many overtures of friendship. It had been months before she had learned from the squire’s wife that Andrew’s name had once been connected with Lucinda’s. “It caused quite a bit of talk, I can tell you!” the squire’s wife had said forthrightly. “Lucinda had met Stephen first, you see, and they were already engaged when Andrew came on the scene. Andrew seemed quite enchanted with her and paid her marked attention for several weeks before the wedding. She certainly did not discourage his attentions either! I personally think that Lucinda decided she might prefer being a Countess instead of the wife of a penniless younger son—no matter how charming and handsome the younger son might be! But nothing came of it, of course.” Adding with a kind glance at Hester, “I wouldn’t dwell on it, my dear—it happened years before the Earl met you!”
Even telling herself that Lucinda’s dislike might simply be based on the fact that she had been jealous of the woman Andrew had eventually married did not quite explain to Hester why Lucinda acted as she did—after all, she had presumably married the man of her choice, Stephen. So why did she now so obviously resent Andrew’s wife? Her open malice had not bothered Hester overmuch in the beginning, and she had assumed that eventually she would be able to dispel Lucinda’s animosity and that, in time, they might even become friends. But now that she was dying and the unpleasant realization that Lucinda would be rearing her daughter passed through her brain, Hester was filled with foreboding.
Desperately she tried to rally her fading strength, the driving need to speak to Stephen, to beg him to watch over her daughter, making her more aware of what was happening around her. Rousing herself, she became conscious now of the soft crying of her newborn daughter, and a wave of love flooded through her as she looked at the cradle and caught a glimpse of the infant’s surprisingly full head of black hair. Morgana Devlin, her daughter. Andrew’s daughter.
Hester’s face softened, and it was at that moment that the conversation taking place between the two men at the foot of her bed suddenly impinged upon her brain. Stephen was one of the men, but the other one, she did not recognize, and for the first time, she thought it odd that a stranger should be in her room at all and especially under these circumstances. But it was Stephen’s words that made her blood run cold and stilled the urge to call him to her side.
With growing horror and disbelief she listened as Stephen muttered, “I don’t give a damn what you do with the brat— just get rid of it and make certain that she is never found!”
“And how do you intend to explain her disappearance, milord?” the stranger asked. “A great heiress like that doesn’t just disappear.”
Stephen glanced around the room, mercifully not noticing Hester’s increased awareness. “I’ll take care of that; don’t you worry. No one needs to see the infant’s body—a pile of rags wrapped in a blanket and placed in the coffin should take care of everything.”
“Why don’t I just smother the little thing now?” the stranger asked. “It won’t be the first time you’ve called upon me to do murder. . . .”
“Shut up, you fool!” Stephen growled. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, but it is simply that even I cavil at infanticide. Just take her away!”
The stranger laughed cynically. “Oh, I understand you very well, indeed. You don’t really care if I slay the brat the instant we are out of sight; you are just too squeamish to watch me do it!”
Stephen’s face whitened. “I am not paying you a huge sum of gold to listen to your speculations about my motives. Just get rid of the child!”
The man jerked his head in Hester’s direction. “And what about her? Are you certain you don’t need my help with her?”
For a brief moment, some expression of regret passed across Stephen’s handsome face. His voice softer, he murmured, “No. She is dying and there is no reason for anyone to hasten her death. The physician has told me that she will be dead before dawn.”
Frighteningly aware that she must act quickly if she was to save her little daughter, Hester gave a small moan as if she were just becoming conscious. When Stephen reached her side, she hid the loathing and fear she felt for him, and said weakly, “Dear Stephen! Are you still keeping watch over me?
How kind of you!” Then, hoping he would detect no change in her voice, she asked, “Is the physician still about? I would like to speak to him.”
The two men exchanged glances. “I’m sorry, my dear,” Stephen said smoothly, “but he has left. Is there anything that I may do for you?”
Instantly she realized that though they could not be sure that she had overheard them, they were taking no chances. Unless someone entered the room by mistake, Hester knew that she would be allowed to speak to no one. Feverishly she tried to think of some way to outwit them. If not Morgana’s life, then Morgana’s entire future was at stake, and despite her weakened state, despite the knowledge that she might die at any moment, Hester was determined to find a way to thwart their evil plans.
“My baby!” she cried softly. “Let me hold my baby before I die.”
Reluctantly Stephen picked up the infant and placed it in Hester’s outstretched arms. Looking at him through tearfilled green eyes, Hester murmured, “Will you give me a few moments alone with her? You will have her a lifetime, while I will have only these precious minutes.”
It was apparent that Stephen did not wish to leave her alone, but after a tense moment, he bowed and said quietly, “Of course, my dear. We shall leave you now. I will be in the antechamber—call me if you need me.”
Hester nodded weakly, wondering frantically how she could best use the scant time she would have to insure her daughter’s safety. Clutching the baby protectively to her breast, she gazed distractedly about the room, seeking some way to save Morgana from the fate the stranger and the man she had thought her dearest friend had planned for the child.
She realized with a sickening lurch of her heart that there was little she could do, but as her gaze fell upon her Bible and the writing paraphernalia that lay on the table next to.