Thief Of Hearts
Forced to resort to a life of crime in
order to support his siblings, Asher Cordell is now ready to walk the
straight and narrow path. But when an old rival, the Marquis of Ormsby,
infuriates him with his insipid arrogance, Asher cannot resist stealing
the pompous fool’s famous diamond. However, he’s shocked to discover he
isn’t the only intruder in Ormsby’s library. The culprit is none other
than his beautiful neighbor, Juliana Greeley. Asher has known Juliana
since childhood and has always harbored a secret affection for her. When
she asks Asher to steal letters Ormsby is using to blackmail her
sister, he’s happy to oblige. Embarking on a bold scheme that gives way
to an equally fiery passion, the adventurous pair discover a love
neither can live without…
“A fast plot packed with clever twists keeps the action and passion blazing.” —Publishers Weekly
“Busbee…is a pleasure to read.” —Booklist
“Busbee is back and better than ever!” —Julia Quinn
“Delicious…fast-paced, intriguing.” —Affaire de Coeur
From his place of concealment near the Marquis of Ormsby’s
palatial London town house in Grosvenor Square, Asher
Cordell watched the comings and goings of the multitude of
handsome carriages that thronged the road in front of the
brilliantly lit house. Any member of the ton still in town at
the end of June, and fortunate enough to receive an invitation
to Lord Ormsby’s annual masked ball, was here tonight.
Instituted over two decades ago, in time the Ormsby Masked
Ball had come to signal the end of the Season, and after tonight
most of the gentry would scatter far and wide across the
breadth of England to spend the remainder of the summer at
their country estates.
By London standards the hour was still early, approaching
midnight, and Asher decided that he had wasted enough time
determining that everything was going precisely as it should.
Tonight’s task wasn’t difficult. It was a simple robbery—child’s
play for him. He’d already done two dry runs and could, he felt
confident, find his way over the rear wall, through the spacious
gardens, and into Lord Ormsby’s library blindfolded.
The previous evening, during the final practice run, standing in
the middle of Ormsby’s darkened library, he’d fleetingly considered
stealing the famous Ormsby diamond necklace then
and there, but decided against it. Changing plans on whim,
he’d discovered, could cause fatal complications.
In the shadows of his hiding place, Asher grimaced. Christ.
Could it ever! Last spring’s events at Sherbrook Hall had certainly
proven that fact and he wondered if the outcome
would have been different if he’d held to his original plan. He
sighed. Probably not. Collard had been up to no good and
there was no telling how it would have ended. Bad enough
that Collard had murdered that unpleasant wretch Whitley.
Bad enough that he’d shot and killed Collard, even if it had
been to save his own neck.
He shook off the memory and concentrated on the task before
him. This would be his last theft, he reminded himself;
the last time he took such risks. After tonight, he would retire
to Kent and spend his days overseeing his own holdings, becoming
finally the respectable, wealthy gentleman farmer
everyone already thought he was.
Eager to put the past behind him, he was on the point of
slipping around to the back of the house when he recognized
the latest vehicle to halt before Lord Ormsby’s doors. The
coach was not in the first stare of fashion and was pulled by
four rather unimpressive bay horses, but the moment the vehicle
lumbered into position, as if royalty had arrived, the
milling contingent of meticulously groomed gentlemen lingering
on the steps leaped to attention.
Asher grinned. Who would have ever guessed that eighteen year-
old Thalia Kirkwood would take London by storm? Odes,
poems praising her fair beauty were forever being written
about her these past few months. Thanks to her, flower stalls
all across London did a bustling business, the scented, colorful
blossoms purchased by eager swains finding their way to the
modest house just off Cavendish Square that her father, the retiring
Mr. Kirkwood, had taken for the Season. It was rumored
that at least one duel had been fought over the fair Thalia and
gossip claimed that since May her father had turned down
offers from at least a half dozen lovesick, imminently suitable
gentleman—a few with the prospect of a title in the offing. To
the dismay and long faces of many young bucks tonight, the
current betting in the gentlemen’s clubs was that before the
family returned to Kent at the end of the week, Thalia’s engagement
to the Earl of Caswell would be announced.
It might be a masked ball, but there was little effort at disguise
and there was no mistaking Thalia’s tall, voluptuous
form as she regally mounted the steps to the house, the upswept
silvery fair hair gleaming in the torchlight. Her velvet
cloak was sapphire blue, a perfect foil for her blond beauty,
the color deepening, he knew, the icy blue of her brilliant
eyes. The gentlemen swarmed around her, like bees to a fragrant
bud, the servants bowing and scraping as they opened
the heavy front doors.
Almost lost in the pandemonium surrounding Thalia’s progress
was the descent from the coach of her widowed older
sister, Juliana. Though her husband had been dead for four
years, it still gave Asher a start to think of Juliana as a widow.
His lips twitched as he watched her gather up the folds of her
pale green gown. He’d always considered her, at twenty-eight,
only five years younger than himself, in much the same light
as he did his two younger sisters, and thinking of Juliana even
being married had been a challenge for him. He shook his
head. Damn shame her husband, the younger son of a baronet
with extensive lands in Hampshire, had died of lung congestion
only three years into the marriage. There had been no
children, but Juliana had been well provided for and shortly
after her husband’s death she had purchased a charming estate
not five miles down the road from the home she had
grown up in. With their mother long dead, upon Juliana’s return
to Kent, she had fallen back into her previous role of
surrogate mother to Thalia. Since Mr. Kirkwood abhorred
the constant round of soirees and balls so necessary for a young
lady’s successful Season, Juliana stepped into the role of chaperone
for her younger sister’s London Season. The notion of
Juliana being anyone’s chaperone was pure folly as far as Asher
was concerned, recalling some of her youthful escapades. He
decided that if anyone needed a chaperone, it was the elder
sister, not the youngest.
Eyes narrowed, he watched as Juliana, a pair of elegant
gentlemen on either side of her, followed her sister up the steps.
Her cloak was in a soft shade of lavender and, as tall as Thalia,
she carried herself with much the same grace as her younger
sister. There was a glimpse of sable hair as Juliana passed by
the torches on either side of the door and then she was gone.
Annoyed for allowing Thalia and Juliana’s arrival to distract
him, Asher shook himself and focused on the task at hand.
After a last look around the area, he worked his way to the alley
that ran behind the handsome homes that faced the square.
His dark clothing making him nearly invisible, like a shadow
he flowed along the wall at the rear of the houses. Arriving at
the section of the wall he wanted, he made a careful survey
and, seeing nothing to alarm him, he swung up and over the
stone wall and silently dropped down onto the other side.
Several feet beyond the place where he stood was the tradesmen
and servants’ entrance to the house and in the faint light
of the small flickering torch above the doorway, he saw that
the area was deserted.
Excellent, he thought, as he did a slow scan of the grounds.
It was unlikely there would be any trysts by the staff tonight—
from past experience he knew that every servant, even those
hired just for tonight, would be far too busy seeing to the
needs of the aristocratic guests to have any time for dallying.
He easily found the doors to the library and within two
minutes of having breached the rear walls was standing inside
Lord Ormsby’s library. He stood motionless a moment, his gaze
moving slowly around the room. A faint sliver of light showing
beneath the door that opened onto one of the hallways of
the interior of the house broke the utter blackness. Dark
shapes loomed up here and there but, already familiar with
the layout, he quickly crossed the room to where Ormsby’s
ornate desk sat in front of a pair of long windows.
He’d discovered Ormsby’s hiding place the first night he’d
broken in to the house, although “broken in” didn’t quite describe
simply pushing open the door to the library and strolling
inside. He’d also learned during his observations of the routine
of the Ormsby household, except for the front door and
the gates at the rear of the building, that there was nothing to
halt anyone with thievery in mind. The house was a sitting
goose, ripe for plucking. He grinned. Which made his job so
much easier. Sliding out the bottom drawer on the right side
of the desk, his skillful fingers made short work of finding and
opening the secret drawer. Something resembling a sneer
crossed his lean features. Did Ormsby really think that a clever
thief wouldn’t discover the drawer and its contents?
Asher needed no light to find the famed Ormsby diamond
necklace; the size of the diamonds and the heavy weight of
the necklace told him the minute he touched it. He’d never
actually seen the real necklace; in fact, except for the occasions
the current marquis had shown it off to his various acquaintances,
it had not been seen in public for nearly fifty years, not
since Ormsby’s mother had died. But Asher had once seen the
necklace in the portrait of Lady Mary, wife of the first Marquis
of Ormsby, which hung in the grand gallery at Ormsby Place.
Though he’d made note of the necklace—after all, it was
rather famous—he hadn’t thought to steal it . . . at the time.
Like a dutiful guest he had studied the painting, his keen eye
making note of the size and brilliance of the stones even in a
mere portrait. No, he hadn’t thought to steal it then and he
wouldn’t be here tonight taking it from the secret drawer and
carefully slipping into the specially sewn pocket of his jacket,
if Ormsby hadn’t . . .
His mouth tightened. He didn’t as a rule steal from people
he knew, nor was he inclined to hold grudges, especially against
neighbors, even vain, arrogant, obnoxious neighbors, but in
Ormsby’s case he was willing to make an exception. Bastard
shouldn’t have shot my grandmother’s favorite old dog, he
Petty to steal a priceless family heirloom because of the
death of a dog? Asher shrugged. Perhaps. But it would be a
long time before he forgot his grandmother’s grief-stricken
features when the body of her elderly spaniel, her companion
and friend of many years, was dumped at her feet by one of
the Ormsby grooms.
With all the arrogance of his master, the groom had said,
“Milord sends his apologies. He saw the beast on the road
and thinking it was the dog that has been killing the hens
lately, shot him before he realized it was your old Captain.”
Standing beside his grandmother, Asher’s hands had clenched
into fists and he fought back the urge to seek out and throttle
Lord Ormsby for his cruelty to an old woman. In his heart he
knew that the killing of Captain had been deliberate—not two
days previously, to the marquis’s open fury, his grandmother
had turned down Ormsby’s latest offer to buy several hundred
acres of her land that adjoined his estate. Ormsby had
simply killed the dog in petty retaliation. Another example,
Asher thought tightly, of Ormsby striking out when displeased
and to those weaker than himself.
When the groom rode away, Asher had helped his grandmother
into the house. He had then quietly made arrangements
for Captain to be buried near her favorite rosebush, a
place the old woman and the old dog often sat for hours enjoying
the garden and the soft play of light over the trees and
shrubs. Watching the dirt fall into the dog’s grave, he swore
that Ormsby would pay something for his grandmother’s
sorrow. The great lord of the district wasn’t going to walk
away unscathed this time.
It had taken Asher a while to come up with an appropriate
plan to ensure that Ormsby felt, perhaps for the first time in
his arrogant life, the pain of loss that he often inflicted upon
the common folk of the neighborhood. Killing him was out
of the question—even Asher wasn’t prepared to kill a man
over a dog and an old woman’s grief—but there had to be a
way to pierce that smug composure. . . . He smiled in the
darkness. The idea, when it came to him, had been perfect:
Ormsby loved nothing more than himself and his possessions,
so what better way to make him suffer, than to steal his most
famous possession, the Ormsby diamond necklace?
What the devil he was going to do with the damned thing
now that it rested in his pocket escaped him. He didn’t need
the money and selling it was out of the question. The necklace
was too famous and the hue and cry once its theft was
discovered would make it unlikely that any of his usual contacts
would touch it. He could break it up into individual diamonds
and have those reset if the whim took him, but he
balked at the idea of such wanton destruction. If the portrait
was anything to go by, it was a beautiful and uniquely designed
piece of jewelry and he had an inherent dislike of destroying
something so lovely. His lips twisted. Unless he wished
to have his neck stretched on the gallows or face deportation
to some godforsaken continent on the other side of the world,
he’d have to hide the necklace somewhere it would never be
Asher slid the drawer shut. He’d bury the bloody thing in
the ground if need be and plant a rosebush over it; for him it
was enough to know that Ormsby’s pride would have suffered
a grievous wound. Bastard. Shouldn’t have shot my grandmother’s
The opening of the door rooted him to the spot. He caught
the merest glimpse of a woman’s form in the light from the
hallway before she shut the door behind her.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he took a half dozen quick
steps backward and melted into the heavy velvet folds of the
drapes that hung at the sides of one of the long windows of
the library. His back pressed hard against the wall next to the
window where the drapes were gathered, he reached for the
small pistol he carried inside his vest, but decided against it
and his hand fell by his side. Escaping unseen was his plan
and that didn’t include firing his pistol; using the pistol would
be his last resort. His thoughts scrambling, he listened intently
as the female intruder walked swiftly in his direction. Had
she seen him? No. He’d been too careful and he knew that no
one had seen him slipping into the library. When she opened
the door? No. He’d been on the other side of the room, concealed
in the darkness well beyond the brief flash of light that
had heralded her entrance; she could not have seen him. So
why was she here? There was something furtive about her
movements and he noted the fact that she had made no attempt
to light a candle. What was she up to? Something occurred
to him and he closed his eyes in a silent prayer. Please.
Not a lovers’ rendezvous.
A moment later, there was a faint ray of light beneath the
curtains and, peeking through the drapes, Asher saw that his
intruder had lit a tiny candle. Her back was to him and he
stared bemused as she hurriedly explored the desk, obviously
looking for something. He leaned his head back against the
wall. Someone else thinking to steal the Ormsby necklace?
Intrigued, Asher watched as she hastily fumbled through
first one drawer, then another. Under other circumstances he
might have been amused at the situation, but with the Ormsby
necklace burning like a fire red brand against his thigh, he
rather wished that if she wanted the blasted necklace, she’d
beaten him to it. For a second he wondered what would happen
if he stepped from the drapes and gifted her with the
necklace. Except as a way to inflict some humility in Ormsby,
the necklace meant nothing to him. He considered the idea.
No. The silly wench would probably scream at the sight of
him and all hell would break loose.
Resigned to waiting for the woman to leave, he had just
leaned his head back against the windowpane, when he heard
her gasp. He jerked forward to see the cause of her alarm.
The door was opening again.
As he had done, she flitted backward to hide amongst the
drapes. Instinct more than design had Asher catching her
around the waist and pulling her snugly against him at the
same instant his other hand clamped over her mouth. Into
her ear he hissed, “I mean you no harm—and for God’s sake,
don’t scream or struggle.”
The slight form in his arms stiffened and a curt nod was
his answer, but Asher kept his arm locked tightly around her
and his hand firmly over her mouth. Women were simply too
The latest arrival stood for a long moment in the doorway,
the light from the large candelabrum he carried flooding the
room with a soft glow.
“Hiding, my dear?” drawled the new arrival. When only
silence met his words, he added impatiently, “Come now, I
know that you are here. Did you really think that I wouldn’t
see you slip away? That I wasn’t expecting you to try something?”
Asher’s teeth ground together at the first sound of that
rich, mellow voice. Ormsby! Bloody hell! If Ormsby discovered
him here in the library, he’d have to shoot the bastard,
after all. As for the woman . . . Christ! Could this last, simple
job get any more complicated?
Loosening his grip on the woman’s waist and praying that
she wasn’t going to cause him trouble the moment he removed
his arm, he started again to reach for his pistol. The
sound of another male voice froze his actions.
“Ormsby! I say, old fellow, what are you doing wandering
around back here? Aren’t you supposed to be dancing with
the fair Thalia soon?”
Asher nearly groaned aloud. Killing Ormsby was one thing,
but a second man as well? His only choice was the tall window
behind him and he hoped to God that he sustained no real
injury from leaping through it. But if he survived the window
and if he could reach the back wall and disappear into the
darkness . . . A faint, reckless grin flashed across his face. He
might salvage tonight after all.
“Ah, thank you, Kingsley,” drawled Ormsby, “for reminding
me. I forgot.”
“Forgot!” exclaimed Kingsley. “Forget a dance with the
loveliest chit to grace London in decades? My dear man, you
His voice bored, Ormsby replied, “I think you forget that I
have watched her grow up. Remember if you will that the
Kirkwoods are my neighbors. I am well acquainted with the
“That reminds me of something, been meaning to ask you
for weeks—how the deuce could you let such a pretty piece
slip through your fingers? I would have thought you’d have
sewn her up before she ever stepped foot in London.” Kings-
ley chuckled. “Losing your touch, old fellow? Her engagement
to young Caswell will be announced any day now.”
“Really? I wouldn’t place my final wager just yet, if I were
“You know something the rest of us don’t?”
“There is, my friend, if you will recall, many a slip between
the cup and the lip. Miss Kirkwood is not yet Caswell’s bride.”
“You mean to snatch her out from underneath his nose?”
Kingsley gasped. “The gossip says that it is a love match—
even someone of your wealth and title can’t compete with
love. So how do you propose to change the tide?”
Ormsby laughed, although there was little humor in it. “I
play my cards close to my vest but I would warn you not to
buy a betrothal gift for the pair just yet,” he said. “Now come
along, let us rejoin my guests. I have left them too long.”
Asher watched as the light retreated and Ormsby ushered
Kingsley toward the door. But Kingsley seemed in no hurry.
“But why did you leave in the first place? Ain’t like you to
An ugly edge to his voice, Ormsby said, “I had my reasons.
Believe me I had my reasons.”
The door shut and from inside the library there was only the
faint murmur of voices as the two men moved down the hall.
Deciding not to wait around to see who else would pay the
library a visit, the door had hardly shut before Asher shoved
the young woman out from behind the drapes and began urging
her toward the French doors that opened onto the gardens.
He didn’t have a precise plan; his one thought was to
escape the grounds as fast as he could. The woman was a
problem. He couldn’t just let her go. Or could he?
He considered the idea. She’d certainly been quiet as a
rock while Ormsby had been in the library. Clearly she hadn’t
wanted to be discovered either. He didn’t know her reasons
for sneaking into the library or for going through Ormsby’s
papers, but he knew one thing: she’d been up to no good.
And if she’d been up to no good, then she had ample reason
not to raise the alarm. Dare he risk it?
His hand still over her mouth and griping her arm firmly,
he pulled her outside. Pushing her ahead of him, they walked
through the gardens, Asher not stopping until the back wall
loomed up before them and the faint light from the torch
over the servants’ entrance pierced the darkness. He still hadn’t
made up his mind what to do, but taking everything into account,
especially the fact that she had made no attempt to escape
from him, it was possible that she might actually keep
her mouth shut and not raise the alarm.
He glanced at the wall, still considering. Even if she
screamed, he’d be up, over and away before anyone reached
this deserted part of the grounds.
His lips pressed against her ear, he asked, “If I let you go,
do you swear not to scream?”
She nodded vigorously and against his better judgment, he
removed his hand.