Read an Excerpt
Her Lord Protector
By Eileen Wilks
Chapter OneGretchen Hanson loved babies. It was their mothers she didn't have much use for. "It won't work," she repeated, stubbing out a cigarette smoked down to a finger-burning butt. The noise level in the honky-tonk let her speak flatly, not bothering to whisper. "Midwives don't sign death certificates."
The plump, wide mouth of the woman sitting across from her pursed in a pout. Carnation pink, those lips were tonight. And sulky. "I can't believe you're wimping out on me now, Gretchen. You're always complaining about how dumb those doctors are. If you don't think you can fool one of them -"
"I don't." After all these years, Gretchen knew Ursula Chambers pretty well. Well enough to know that while Ursula's devious plans could lead Gretchen to a life of luxury, Ursula would have no qualms about using Gretchen as her fall girl if they were caught. And she knew how Ursula saw her. Barbie's best friend. The girl who would always and forever be second-string, her only claim to glamour the fallout from her friend's glittery shoulders. In high school, that had been true enough, Gretchen thought grudgingly. But high school was a long time ago. Not that she didn't still play along sometimes, but secondhand glamour wasn't worth risking prison over. "God, girl, get real. There's no way I could slip her an overdose without anyone noticing. Maybe we should rethink this."
Ursula smiled and leaned forward, the tousled fall ofhoney-colored hair sliding over one bare shoulder. Her blue eyes were bright with mischief. "I've already thought of a way to get her to have the baby at her damned ranch. I'll tell her the apartment is going to be sprayed for bugs - she shouldn't be around all those chemicals, right? You'll go out there with us. She's due any day now, so we won't have to keep her there for long."
The naughty pleasure in those eyes sent a chill up Gretchen's spine. What had seemed like an acceptable plan months ago suddenly felt all wrong. They were talking about murder, not short-sheeting someone's bed. Nervously she pulled out another cigarette and tamped down the end. "There would still be a body to explain."
Ursula rolled her eyes. "There's only a body to explain if we tell people about it."
"You mean ... get rid of her. Bury her or something and tell people she left town." Gretchen's breathing turned shallow and fast. "It's a huge risk."
"It's a huge amount of money we're talking about. Remember our plans? Sweetie, we'll never have to worry about money again. You'll finally get out of this stupid town, the way you've always talked about doing. See new places, buy the kind of pretty things you've always wanted. Live the royal life. And don't forget that you'll be able to put that half-wit brother of yours in a good home."
"Gerald isn't a half-wit. He's ..." Gretchen laughed. "He's dumber than a dog, is all. Drives me crazy sometimes. But he does mind me pretty well." As long as he understood what she wanted ... "It will be nice to live my own life without having to watch out for him all the time." The possibilities glittered in front of Gretchen's suddenly blank eyes. "But the risk. If I were caught ..."
"I've got it all worked out." There was a febrile excitement about Ursula now, as if something was burning her up from the inside. She stretched out a hand and gripped Gretchen's wrist. A ruby glinted, blood-red, on one finger. "Think about that poor baby."
"Huh." Gretchen wasn't so lost in fantasies that she bought that. "As if you care about the baby."
"You care, though. Don't tell me you don't. And you know what Jessie has been saying. We've talked about all this, Gretchen. She wants to raise her baby all by herself out on the ranch. The poor little thing will never know his father, never know the life he should have had. She's so selfish, Gretchen!"
"They all are," Gretchen muttered. "They think they're getting some pretty doll to dress up, then when the pain hits they start yelling. `Get me a doctor,' they say. Like I'm not good enough - but the only reason they want a doctor is to give them drugs. They don't care if it's good for the baby or not. All they think of is themselves."
"They don't care like you do." Ursula's voice was almost a croon. "Jessie sure doesn't. She wants to use the baby, that's what it is. Keep him a secret to pay his father back for dumping her. Is that right? Is that what's best for the baby? Letting the poor little thing grow up in a dreary house in the middle of nowhere when he could be living in a palace? He's a prince, Gretchen. But he'll never know it - unless you help him."
Gretchen's stomach clenched and her eyes went soft. Yearning ripped through her system like a triple-hit of nicotine. This was how Ursula had gotten her hooked on this scheme in the first place. Oh, she thought about that baby. She thought about all the babies she delivered. All those babies she had to put into other women's arms, all those blithely fertile women who didn't deserve the precious gifts they were given, the innocence, the love....
She cleared her throat and tried to make her voice hard. "He won't be a prince. He'll be a bastard."
"A royal bastard. The only male child in direct line for the throne." Ursula tossed her hair back impatiently. "Trust me, sweetie, I know how these people think. They'll be so delighted this baby exists they'll pamper him, pet him, give him everything a bitty baby could want ... and they'll give us what we want, too." She leaned forward again, her voice low, her eyes shining. "I'll be the baby's aunt, so of course I'll live there with him. In the palace. But you know me, sweetie. I don't know beans about babies. I'll need you to take care of him. What do you say, Gretchen? Would you like to be a royal nanny?"
Gretchen's heart began to pound. All those months ago, when she and Ursula had first started scheming, she'd been distracted by the thought of wealth and famous connections. Now an even greater reason to go along with Ursula struck her. She wouldn't have to hand this baby over to some other woman. The idea made her dizzy, almost sick with yearning. "You never told me how you're going to convince the king and queen of Montebello to even talk with you, much less persuade them we've got their grandchild."
Ursula smirked. "I've got connections." Some man, no doubt. Gretchen reached for her lighter. "Oh, please don't. Smoking causes wrinkles."
"Causes worse things than wrinkles." Not that there was much worse than wrinkles in Ursula's world. Maybe cellulite. She flicked the lighter and held the flame to the tip of her cigarette, inhaling deeply. "All right. I'll do it."
"Oh, I knew I could count on you!" Ursula was all but quivering with excitement. "I'll get Jessie out to the ranch, but then I'll have to leave. I'll have to go to Montebello to set things up."
"Fine. I'll need some money up front."
"You don't trust me?"
Not for a minute. "I won't be able to work for a while, will I? I'll have to lie low with the baby until you call me." With the baby. That sounded good.
It sounded wonderful. Ursula leaned back in her chair. "You know how strapped for cash I am right now. I wouldn't be in this stupid town if I weren't so broke."
"Broke. Huh! You don't know the meaning of the word. Sell some of the jewelry your back-stabbing ex-manager gave you. If there's as much money in this deal as you say, you can buy more and better."
"I already sold the diamonds Derek gave me." Her mouth drooped. "I hated that, but the ticket to Montebello will be expensive."
"Those diamonds were worth a lot more than the price of a plane ticket. And if you need more ..." She grabbed Ursula's hand and held it up. "This ring you've been flashing around has to be worth - Hey, isn't this your sister's ring? The one you're always bitching about because your grandma left it to her, instead of you?"
"Oh, you noticed." Ursula's giggle was light and girlish. She wiggled her fingers. The ring was unusual, possibly unique, with a ruby and a pearl nestled together in an ornate golden bed. "I don't think my dear sister Jessie will miss it, do you? Not where she's going."
Excerpted from Her Lord Protector by Eileen Wilks
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.