Deborah O'Hara loves her life, leading her troupe of actors. But when she becomes entangled in a web of secrets spun by the rakishly handsome Damian Beaumaris, Duke of Cirencester, she is forced to play the hardest role of her life: that of the stunning but disloyal Paulette, the duke's widowed sister-in-law.
To regain the honor of his family, Beau needs Deb's help. But despite his intentions to let nothing distract him from his plan, he doesn't bargain on the forbidden sparks that fly with his beautiful leading lady .
"Outrageous, interesting and tremendous fun." Fresh Fiction on The Outrageous Belle Marchmain
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
M iss Deborah O'Hara pressed herself close to the ivy-covered mansion and tried not to flinch as the rain trickled off the brim of her cap and dripped steadilycoldlydown inside her jacket collar. She'd scrambled over the boundary wall and run here through the shrubbery, keeping her head low; but now she was able to look around. Now she was able to see that the acres of formal gardens stretching away on all sides were quite desertedand as waterlogged as the overcast sky.
Hardgate Hall. The very name was enough to send shivers down her spine. Swiping fresh rain from her cheeks, she glanced up once more at the small window on the second floor that some servant must have carelessly left open. It was almost sixteen years since she'd last entered this house, a bewildered six-year-old clutching her mother's hand; though a few minutes later they were being hustled out again and Deb's mother was weeping.
'You made your choices!' Deb remembered Hugh Palfreyman declaring harshly. 'You made your own bed, sister mine. And you can lie on it.'
Deb was twenty-two now and her mother had died long ago. But she'd never ever forgotten this place, and she always imagined it under grey skies, just as it was now.
She scanned the garden once more, trying to suppress her growing anxiety, and relaxed just a little when she saw two familiar figures hurrying towards her through the rain. 'Luke. Francis. There you are. I was beginning to think '
'Think what, Miss Deb?' Young Luke's straggly blond hair was plastered to his face.
She was beginning to fear they might have been caught by Palfreyman's men. Deb said instead, 'You took your time. What news?'
'We looked to see if there was anyone around. Just as you told us to, Deborah.' This time it was the older one, Francis, who spoke. 'Though we were careful to keep under cover, always. And we've good newsit looks as if all the groundsmen have been ordered to spend the afternoon tidying up Palfreyman's glasshouses, on the far side of the south lawn.'
Deb nodded. 'So they'll not catch sight of us here. What about the guard dogs?'
Young Luke spoke up next. 'We heard them barking in the distance and they sound big.' He shivered. 'But they're kept in a yard close by the stablesthough I've heard they're let loose after nightfall, when they prowl around the grounds with teeth so sharp they'd take a great lump out of your thigh, and'
'Thank you, Luke,' Deb interrupted. 'That's enough.' More than enough, in fact. 'So we're safe for now?'
Francis tipped his black hat with the feather in it to gaze up at the vast house that loomed before them. 'It depends,' he said narrowly, 'on what you mean by "safe", Deborah.'
Deb sighed inwardly. Francis Calladine, almost twice Luke's age, was a stalwart friend, but he'd been dubious about Deb's plan from the start. Although it was Francis who'd spotted earlier, as they'd examined the house from the far sidethe safe sideof the boundary wall, that the rooms to the north of the building looked dark and little used.
'And if you're really intent on breaking in,' he'd added, 'all that ivy growing up there is a burglar's delight.'
Deb's response had been instant. 'I'm no burglar!'
'You're planning on getting inside,' Francis had said quietly. 'Though why you're so intent on taking such a risk when the owner's a Justice of the Peace and has already threatened us all with prison remains a mystery to me.'
If Francis had known that Hugh Palfreyman was her uncle, he'd have been quite speechless. But by Deb's reckoning, desperate times called for desperate measures.
'I'm not turning back now, Francis.' Deb spoke with utter calmness, utter certainty. 'I'm always grateful for your advice, believe me. But I hope you've not forgotten that you promised my stepfather you'd trust me.'
'I also promised your stepfather that I'd keep you safe, Deborah,' said Francis, who was distinguishable always by his wide-brimmed hat and his ancient, rust-red coat. 'But I'll do as you say. Young Luke and I will be here, waiting for you'
'What?' This time Francis looked really outraged.
Wo.' Deb shook her head decisively. 'I've changed my mind about you waiting for me here. It's just too risky.' No one at all was around, but it was very possible their luck wouldn't hold, especially if this rain eased off. And in that casebetter for only her to be captured, rather than all three of them. 'I've decided,' she went on, 'that it would be a good idea for you and Luke to return to the horses and wait for me there.'
They'd ridden from Oxford by cutting through the Ashendale Forest and taking a track which brought them almost to the edge of Palfreyman's estate. There they'd left their three horses, carefully tethered, although the sturdy old creatures were most unlikely to gallop off.
Francis clearly didn't think much of Deb's instructions. 'You want us to just leave you here? But what if you get caught? By the servants, or by Palfreyman himself?'
As if she hadn't thought of that. 'And how on earth could the two of you do anything if I did?' she pointed out. 'You can help me get startedbut then you must go, do you understand?'
'What would my stepfather, Gerald, have said, Francis? What did he say to you, when he called the Lambeth Players together and spoke to us all for the very last time?' It was two years since Gerald O'Hara had died, but there was still a catch in her voice whenever she spoke his name.
Francis too looked affected. 'Mr O'Hara said he was leaving the Lambeth Players in your charge.'
'He also told you, I believe, that you were to all work with me and heed me in every way.' Deb surveyed them both with her cool gaze. 'So are you going to wait for me in the woods?'
Luke glanced anxiously at Francis, who still hesitated. 'Very well,' Francis said at last. 'But'
'Thank youboth of you,' Deb cut in quickly. 'And if I don't turn up in the woods by five, you're to ride back to Oxford and the others. Do you understand me?'
Francis's brow was growing dark again and he looked as if he were about to utter some fresh warning. Deb couldn't blame him for having doubts, because she certainly did. 'Remember, Francis! I only let you come with me on the condition that you obeyed me in everything. And what's the motto of the Lambeth Players?'
'Triumph over adversity!' declared Luke.
'Exactly. Now, the sooner I get up there' she pointed at the rambling ivy 'the sooner I'll be back with you, safe and sound.'
To Deb's relief, not another objection was uttered. She could sense Luke's and Francis's tension as she grasped the ivy and began to climb, but she turned round from her perch and gave them a cheerful nod. 'Go, both of you. I'll be fine.'
She saw them cross the lawns in the rain, then weave through the sodden shrubbery. Any minute, she feared she might hear the barking of Hugh Palfreyman's guard dogs, or the shouts of his groundsmen, but, no; Luke and Francis made it to the wall and inwardly she cheered them on. Up and over. That's the way.
Taking a deep breath, Deb pulled down her cap over her thick chestnut curls and pressed on with the scariest and most necessary climb of her life.
* * *
Triumph over adversity. That was an apt motto for the troupe of travelling actors who moved between fairs and country markets each year from March to December, with their old carts full of costumes and scenery. The Lambeth Players were Deb's family and her life.
She'd initially resolved to complete her task today without telling a soul. But as ill luck would have it, sharp-eyed Francis, the senior actor, had spotted Deb saddling one of their horses outside the Angel Inn on the outskirts of Oxford where the Players were staying, and of course he wanted to know exactly where she was off to.
In the face of his determinationwe swore to Gerald O 'Hara that we 'd take care of you and we will! she'd been forced at last to tell him that she was riding to Hardgate Hall. That she was, to be precise, planning to enter Hardgate Hall in secretthough she refused to tell him precisely why. Glibly she'd dismissed the dangersit would be an easy matter, Deb assured Francis, for her to get in and out of the house in no time at all.
But Francis's face was a picture. In fact, he was horrified, and he made so much fuss that she at last consented to let Francis and Luke accompany her on the ride through the Ashendale Forest. And here she was; though she was beginning to have the sinking feeling that this whole idea of hers was a bad mistake.
And the rain didn't help. What if she slipped, or the ivy gave way? It was a long way to fall. Or what if someone came round this side of the house? A gardener, or even a gamekeeper with a gun Stop it. Stop it. Carefully finding footholds with the toes of her lace-up bootsdon't look down, whatever you doshe could only be grateful she was as wiry and nimble as a boy.
'Why, there's nothin' to you, lass. You're all skin and bone,' the innkeeper's wife had declared last night, slamming down a bowl of rather greasy stew before her in the shabby public room of the inn. 'You need to put on a bit of flesh if you're to catch yourself a man!'
Just at that moment, her own spousea surly creature who was over-fond of his homebrewed alehad come in, and Deb thought, Catch myself a man like yours? No, thank you.
Deb didn't want a husband. Her dream was to establish a theatre for the Playersa proper theatre, in Londoninstead of them having to tramp round the country every season. And after today, she would be able to concentrate on her dream once more. Hugh Palfreyman, you might be a Justice of the Peace. But you are nothing to me, she breathed as she clambered on up the ivy. And I will teach you that you interfere with the Lambeth Players at your peril!
At last, the small window was within her reach. Heaving it open, she hauled herself in, knowing that at last she was in the forbidden domain of her uncleand not a sound pierced the silence, except for the thudding of her own heart.
Her mother had wept after that visit to Hardgate Hall sixteen years ago and Deb had crept into her arms 'Mama? Mama?'
'My darling girl.' Her mother had hugged her tightly. 'I shouldn't have taken you there. But I'd thoughtI'd hoped.'
Deb couldn't understand how anyone could want to make her sweet mother cry. 'Is he a bad man, that man in the big house?'
'That man is my brother,' her mother said quietly. 'He is many years older than me and became master of Hardgate Hall when I was still a child. I thought he might have changed. I was wrong.'
'But why was he so cruel to you, Mama?'
'I think he is very unhappy. I think he always was. He was a solitary creature and used to go out for long rides alone, or lock himself away in a room upstairs for hours on end. I think he had secrets.' She'd added, half to herself, 'And what those secrets were, I never wished to find out.'
Deb heard her mother recounting the same tale to Gerald O'Hara months later. I used to wonder why he allowed no one but himself in that room up in the north wing. None of the servants ever entered it. The room was on the second floor; the door was locked and only he had the key.
Deb progressed steadily along the passageway, trying door after door; only to find that not one was locked, and each room she peered into contained nothing but old furniture shrouded with dust sheets.
And thenjust as she was beginning to fear that she'd got everything wrongshe came to a door that wouldn't open. Swiftly she pulled out her small, sharp-pointed knife, used it to slip the lock and stepped inside, alert and aware. In the centre of the room stood a big old mahogany desk, behind it a leather armchair. Heavy red-velvet curtains half-shrouded the windows and every wall was lined from floor to ceiling with books.
This was a private library, a secret library. But it wasn't because her uncle Hugh Palfreyman was a scholar of the classics or some other clever subject. Far from it.
A little over a week ago Deb had visited the stall of a travelling bookseller at the Oxford market, for she was constantly on the lookout for any half-forgotten plays for her company to use. Comedies, tragedies, it didn't matter which, as long as they kept the crowds entertained.
'Aren't you the young lady from the Lambeth Players?' the bookseller had enquired. 'I saw your lot doing that fight scene from Tamburlaine on the village green the other night. By heaven, it was a treat.'
'I'm so glad you enjoyed our performance,' said Deb politely. She glanced through a few more books laid out on his stallno, nothing much of interest therethen went to investigate a box at the back. But the bookseller dived across to stop her.
'Oh, no, missy. Those books in there ain't for the likes of you. They're' he coughed 'they're some serious works of literature. For my private customers only.'
Deb had already glimpsed two of the titles. Serious works of literature? That was a joke. Artistic Treasures of Venus. Classical Collections for Gentlemen of Discernment. She would stake her life that every single one of them was packed with erotic prints and libidinous tales.
'I'm sure you'll get a very good price for them,' she told the bookseller demurely and moved on.
But a little later, when she happened to be passing back that way, she saw the bookseller deep in conversation with someone else, and her heart began hammering against her chest. She'd been only six years old when she last saw him; but Hugh Palfreyman had changed very little, in Deb's opinion, except that perhaps his beaked nose was more protuberant and his little pursed-up mouth even tighter. As Deb watched, she saw the glint of coins being passed. Saw the bookseller reach furtively into that box at the back for several slim volumes, which he proceeded to wrap in brown paper, then give to Hugh Palfreyman.
Palfreyman hurried away, while Deb stood absorbing the full impact of what she'd just witnessed.
Her mother's brothera Justice of the Peacewas a connoisseur of the kind of literature that was described in polite circles as 'stimulating'. Well, button my boots, as her stepfather, Gerald O'Hara, would say.