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Passion Becomes Her

Shirlee Busbee

ISBN 9781420105421
Publish Date 6/5/2012
Format Paperback
Categories Zebra, Historical, Romance
Currently out of stock

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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

Chapter One

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 thought grimly.

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 discovered.

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 dog.

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 damned unpredictable.

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 alarm me.”

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 family.”

“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.”

“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 wander off.”

An ugly edge to his voice, Ormsby said, “I had my reasons. Believe me I had my reasons.”

“Yes, but—”

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.

About Shirlee Busbee:

Shirlee Busbee has written seven New York Times bestselling novels and has over nine million copies of her books in print. She is the recipient of numerous awards for excellence in writing, including the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and Affaire de Coeur’s Silver and Bronze Pen Awards. She lives in California with her husband Howard, and is working on her next historical romance for Zebra.

Photo credit is ©Kimarie

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