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At Long Last
By Shirlee Busbee

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 At Long Last

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At Long Last
By Shirlee Busbee
ISBN: 0446608076
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: At Long Last , by Shirlee Busbee

Chapter One

"You did what?" exclaimed Arabella Montgomery, her voice a mixture of horror and incredulity.

Across the brief distance that separated them, her younger half brother Jeremy would not meet her eyes as he muttered, "I gambled away the plantation. Everything. We have nothing left."

As Arabella stared at him transfixed, he sank down into a chair near her desk and buried his blond head in his hands. "Dear God, Bella, we are ruined! What am I to do?"

Telling herself not to let blind panic seep in, Arabella took a deep breath. This particularly lovely April morning, she had been seated behind the desk in the small room she used as an office, humming happily to herself and looking for a recipe for making rose water. The mundane tranquillity shattered by Jeremy's announcement, she carefully laid aside the scrap of paper she held in her hand, and in a surprisingly calm voice said, "Tell me what happened."

"I don't really know," Jeremy replied despairingly.

"I was too drunk."

With an effort Arabella bit back the angry recriminations that sprang to her tongue. Now, she reminded herself grimly, was not the time to take him to task. She would see to that once the current crisis was past!

Suppressing a sigh, she stared at his bent head, not really seeing him as her thoughts turned to all the other crises they'd faced in the past few years. The sudden death of their father, William, just barely two years ago had been by far the hardest to bear and overcome— there were still days that she longed painfully for his calm, steady guidance and affection.

Besides Arabella, his eldest child and the only issue of his first marriage, at the time of his death, William had left behind five minor children and a widow—his second marriage over twenty years ago, to the young Miss Mary Kingsley, having proven to be quite fruitful. Arabella had been ten years old when William married his second wife and after an initial stiffness between the two females, she and Mary had become increasingly fond of each other. As for her half siblings, Arabella simply loved all of them.

In addition to the now twenty-one-year-old Jeremy, there was seventeen-year-old Sara, a budding blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty, who already had the young gentlemen falling over their feet in their haste to become part of her court. Fourteen-year-old Jane, her hair still in long braids, thought that Sara was too puffed up with herself and could not understand what all the fuss was about. Nine-year-old George and seven-year-old John were still too young to be more than a pair of limpid-eyed mischievous little imps whose antics left Arabella uncertain upon occasion whether to smack their bottoms or laugh aloud—laughter won more often than not.

There were times, however, when she wondered what life would be like if her father had never remarried and there was only herself to worry about. She made a face, attractively wrinkling her saucy nose. She would probably go mad from boredom within a week.

William's tragic death falling from his horse had only been one more crisis for the family to bear—although, by far, it had been the most painful and hardest to overcome. For many in the Natchez area, the years from 1789 to 1796 had been difficult, anxious ones, the tobacco depression reducing most planters to near ruin—including the Montgomery family. Only the invention of Eli Whitney's saw gin in 1795, the year William had died, had given them a glimmer of hope. The following year, nearly everyone with any sense had planted cotton, and for the first time in years, the planters felt that they had a future.

Arabella smiled sadly. She wished her father had lived long enough to see the near-miraculous profits of his five far-flung plantations last year. But having overcome one hurdle, another loomed—one that not only touched the Montgomery family but encompassed the whole Mississippi Territory.

For as long as Arabella could remember, Natchez and the surrounding lands had belonged to the Spanish, and while she and her family were English, as were many of the other inhabitants in the area, they had lived well and prospered under the rule of the Dons. But that was to change. Last year all the lands east of the Mississippi River and above the thirty-first parallel claimed by Spain, which included Natchez, had been transferred to the control of the young United States. The entire territory was currently a hotbed of intrigue.

Despite the treaty, Spain was showing a strong reluctance to turn the land over to the Americans. The Americans were grimly persisting in their efforts to oust the stubborn Spaniards, and rumors of an English invasion from Canada had lately been sweeping through the district.

It was an unsettling time. There had already been riots, and amongst some of the rougher element of the town there was loud talk of attacking the Spaniards. Intrigue and plots were everywhere—Arabella was never certain when she woke in the morning if she would find herself and her family in the midst of a war, or if they were to be greeted by another day of surface placidity. And now this, she mused uneasily, her gaze sharpening as her thoughts turned once again to the present.

"Whom were you gambling with, Jeremy?" she asked quietly. "I cannot think of any of your friends who would allow you to play for such high stakes." Unhappily his blue eyes met hers. "It wasn't a friend; it was Daniel Leyton."

Arabella's breath caught sharply. "Daniel Leyton! Oh, Jeremy, how could you? You know that he is the most unscrupulous gamester in Natchez. You should have known that the only reason he would play with a stripling like you was because he knew you were easily duped! What were you thinking?"

As soon as the words left her lips, she bit back further recriminations, cursing her unwise tongue. Having turned twenty-one only three months previously and having come into control of his inheritance at that time, Jeremy was painfully conscious of his youth, and he tried to compensate for that fact by attempting to act far more adult and mature than he was. Behind his back, Arabella and Mary smiled fondly at his posturing. Arabella rested assured that, since he generally had a good head on his shoulders, he would soon enough become less sensitive about the issue and return to his easygoing self. But chastising him and pointing out his youth just then were the worst things she could have done.

Jeremy stiffened, and resentment was obvious in his expression. "Thank you very much! I come to you for help with the disaster we are facing, and all you can do is criticize me." But his resentment did not last, and, sounding very young, he muttered, "Oh, Bella, do not scold. I know I was a fool. What are we going to do?"

"Well, I suspect that the first thing we need to do is get our property back," Arabella returned coolly—far more coolly than she felt.

"Can that be done?" Jeremy asked with a frown. "A gentleman does not go back on his word, and I would never fail to pay my debts. I signed the vowels." He grimaced. "At least I think I did. It was all very hazy to me."

Arabella rather thought that it would be. Jeremy was not prone to drink, and Daniel Leyton and his cronies were known for their hard drinking and less-than-fair play. Jeremy was just one of many young men who had come to grief at Leyton's hands. Only last year a neighbor's son had shot and killed himself over his gambling debts—gaming debts owed to Leyton. Her soft mouth tightened. That was not going to happen to Jeremy, Arabella swore fiercely to herself. They were going to get back those vowels if she had to steal them back!

A little appalled at her own thoughts, she looked at her brother and decided there was no reason to involve him in whatever she finally decided to do. She asked simply, "Do you want to tell me all about it?"

Jeremy nodded. His eyes everywhere but on hers, he began, "Uh, we started in, uh, a little place on, uh, Silver Street."

"Silver Street, Jeremy?"

He nodded again, a flush on his cheeks.

Wisely Arabella made no comment about his preence in the notorious area known as Natchez-under-the-hill. Its reputation was legendary up and down the Mississippi River, and the stories of knifings and killings, eager whores, free-flowing drink, and cutthroat gambling were more understated than not.

"Did you go there by yourself?" she inquired. Silver Street was not a place that she thought Jeremy would gravitate to on his own. He was, in his way, a rather in-nocent young man and much preferred his horses and hunting to drink and loose women. In fact, she had sel-dom known him to partake of much more than a glass of hock before dinner. And as for women—he still blushed when addressed by the sisters of his friends.

Jeremy tugged at his neatly tied stock. "The first night there were several of us—Tom Denning, James Gayle, John Roache, and Edward Crocker," he said, naming his usual quartet of friends. Arabella knew them all—every one of them a nice young man about Jeremy's age and station. She could not picture any of them leading him into the kind of situation in which he had apparently found himself.

When Arabella said nothing and merely regarded him with a slightly raised brow, he added with obvious reluctance, "And, uh, Vincent Walcott."

"Ah," Arabella said softly, much suddenly becoming clear. Vincent Walcott was as nasty a piece of goods as it had been her misfortune to meet; but as is often the case with impressionable young men, Jeremy and his friends thought him to be a model of sophistication. Older than Jeremy and his cronies by nearly a decade, he was closer to Arabella's age than Jeremy's. He was a handsome man, tall and urbane, and came from a respected family, but his predilection for scandal and unsavory pursuits had made him somewhat of an outcast amongst the more staid planters and their families. Which, of course, coupled with his easy charm, elegant dress, and fine eye for beautiful women and horses, made him quite alluring to the younger set.

Vincent's family had quietly disowned him years ago. These days he managed to live on a small inheritance from a great-aunt, supplementing it by methods that were not discussed in polite circles. Winnowing young fools into Leyton's net was only one of the ways that Vincent managed to maintain a facade of wealth. Jeremy was not the only green youngster Walcott and Leyton had befriended, fawned upon, then ruthlessly ruined.

"What do you mean by that?" Jeremy demanded defensively. When Arabella looked innocent, he said, "You know what I mean—that 'ah,' you just gave."

Arabella shrugged her delicate shoulders. "Only that Vincent's addition to your party explains a great deal." His defensiveness fading as quickly as it had come, he sighed, and said morosely, "I've made a fool of myself, haven't I? And ruined us in the bargain."

"We are not precisely ruined and although your losses will certainly hurt us, the family does have a few other assets. You were reckless, but you've done nothing that half your friends wouldn't have done in the same situation," Arabella said gently. "You were flattered and excited by the attention that a pair of older, worldly men paid you, and they took blatant advantage of that fact. You are not to blame."

"But I am," Jeremy said miserably. "I knew that Vincent was friends with Leyton, and everyone knows his reputation. And I knew that I should not have gone back the next night. Tom and Edward tried to dissuade me, but Vincent ..."

"But Vincent mocked their efforts and made them look young and foolish, and so you went."

"Yes, that's exactly what happened!" Jeremy replied, much impressed by his sister's quick grasp. "I thought I was being singled out by Walcott and Leyton because I was so much more sophisticated than my friends. I was quite puffed up with myself, believing that I was so much more mature," he said with loathing. "I realized late yesterday—when the enormity of what I had done became clear—and my head had stopped aching—that they had only befriended me to take advantage of me. And fool that I was, I let them."

Arabella frowned. "This did not happen at one sitting? But several?"

Jeremy gave a bitter laugh. "Oh, yes, indeed—I've been gambling with them off and on for nearly a month. I can see now that they played me skillfully. Teasing me, letting me win occasionally, letting me think that I was this incredibly lucky gambler as they baited their hook and lured me to strike. It wasn't until Sunday night—or rather the early-morning hours of yesterday, that they set the hook and landed me." He shook his head. "I should have known better, but I was caught up in the excitement of it all. We were drinking and we played for hours and hours—I lost all idea of the time—and how deeply I was plunging. On the last hand, I pledged everything on the turn of a card, encouraged by the pair of them to believe that I could win back all that I had lost that night—and other nights." Dully, he added, "Instead I lost everything, Bella. Everything." His voice muffled, he hung his head again and said, "Finally realizing what I had done, I lay awake all last night bracing myself to tell you and wondering if it wouldn't be easier just to kill myself."

"Well, that would have been silly in the extreme— and cowardly. It was very adult of you to decide to accept your responsibilities," Bella said carefully, trying to assess just how serious he was about the latter half of his statement. Leaning forward, she said urgently, "Jeremy, we need you now more than ever. You are the head of the family and do not forget that your mother and brothers and sisters look to you for guidance. They would be devastated if anything were to happen to you. They need you, Jeremy."

He looked up smiling faintly, and the hard knot of fear in her breast eased. "You are the one everyone looks to when there is a problem, and you know it," he said mildly, "so don't try to bamboozle me, my girl." She grinned at him, her cat-slanted eyes crinkling at the corners, golden lights dancing in their sherry-colored depths. "Now who is bamboozling whom, my good young man?"

A crack of laughter came from Jeremy. "Oh, Bella! What would I do without you? I was certain my life was over, and now you have me laughing." He sobered immediately, and asked, "But what are we going to do?"

"I've already told you—we'll get the vowels back ...some way." When Jeremy started to argue, she said quickly, "And if the worst happens and we do not, we shall not be as bad off as you think. If you will recall, I have my mother's fortune and the plantations left to me by my grandfather. Fortunately," she said dryly, "those you could not pledge because they do not belong to you. We may have to practice a few unpleasant economies, and, of course, Greenleigh is not as grand or as lovely as Highview, but we shall survive. We shall not be destitute."

Relief flooded Jeremy's face, and he stood up and took a few steps around the small room. Looking back at Bella, he said, "I had forgotten about Greenleigh—it is rather small, but it would do. And I should have known that you would find a way to save Mother and the children. They were my first concern." His young face hardened. "As for me, you do not have to fear that I shall expect you to see to my welfare. I shall find some way to support myself and then, even if it takes me my whole life, I shall repay you whatever it costs to take care of the family." He straightened his shoulders.

"It is my fault that we are brought to this point, and I shall do my best to see that the others do not suffer unduly from my mistakes—I swear it to you, Bella!"

He looked very young and proud as he stood before her, and Bella's throat suddenly closed up with emotion. Keeping her voice as even as she could, she said, "Admirable sentiments—and I would not have expected any less from you, but for the time being let us keep this matter between us. I do not want your mother and the others upset until it is absolutely necessary."

Jeremy looked puzzled. "But Bella, there is no other solution. Do you not understand? I lost Highview and all the land I inherited from Father." He dropped his gaze and admitted painfully, "Even the lands and monies held in trust for the others—I have ruined their lives as well. We shall have to leave—although I am certain that even Leyton will give us a few weeks to depart the premises. Mother must be told."

Bella rose to her feet and came around the end of her desk. Grasping Jeremy's arm, she guided him to the door. "Ah, yes, but she does not have to be told today, does she? Let us not worry her until we have no choice. We do not want her upset and anxious until we have everything worked out. You and I shall think on our problem for a few more days, and once we know precisely where we stand, we shall explain it all to her. Don't you think that would be wise?"

Jeremy stared down at her, a little frown creasing his forehead. "What are you planning, Bella?" he asked suspiciously. "Moving to Greenleigh is our only option. We have no choice. Mother should be informed as soon as possible about our change of circumstances. There is much to be done to move a household of this size."

"Yes, yes, I quite agree," Bella said soothingly, patting his arm lightly, "but I still think it would be wise if we waited a few days before disrupting the entire household." She smiled conspiratorially at him. "You know how your mother worries. Wouldn't it be better if Greenleigh were all prepared for her and the children before we told her? Greenleigh has sat empty these past years, except for the Tidmores, who keep the house up. There is much to be done before the house is ready for us. Wouldn't it be wiser to wait...just a little while?"

Half-convinced, but still not entirely won over, Jeremy regarded her narrowly. Of all the siblings, despite the eleven years that separated them, he and Bella were the closest. He knew her well, and there was something about her manner that made him wonder just what she was up to. Aware that she would tell him nothing until she was ready and that her arguments had some merit, he reluctantly gave in. "Very well," he said. "We shall wait—but only until Thursday morning."

Arabella considered pressing for more time, but hastily discarded the idea. She knew that stubborn look on his face, and, if pushed further, Jeremy was likely to stalk from the room and blurt out everything to his mother. In the meantime, she needed to distract him and keep him busy—too busy to pay attention to her activities. A plan was forming in her mind, and she smiled sunnily up at him. "Very well, Thursday morning it shall be. Meanwhile, why don't you ride over to Greenleigh and assess what needs to be done?" As if the idea were spontaneous, she added, "It might be a good idea if you stayed the night there, so that time will not be wasted riding back and forth between the plantations." Something occurred to her. "You lost the plantations, but what about the slaves and other personal possessions? Did you pledge them, too?"

Jeremy grimaced. "I think so. I don't really know— you have to remember, I was very drunk."

If Jeremy had indeed pledged the plantation slaves, their loss would almost be worse than the loss of Highview. Without the slaves, they would not be able to work the remaining lands, and her fortune, while considerable, could only be stretched so far. It would be completely depleted if she had to spend it on replacing slaves, as well as using it to support Mary and the children.

She took a deep breath. It didn't really matter she reminded herself grimly. She had every intention of getting Jeremy's vowels back. Forcing a smile, she said, "Well, let us hope that it is only your plantations that have been lost. Now, why don't you get ready to go to Greenleigh? If you hurry, you will be there in less than an hour. I shall tell your mother that you are doing me a favor by seeing how the house and lands are faring."

His hand on the door, Jeremy halted and looked back at her. The sun shining through the window behind her turned her bright red hair to fire and bathed her in a golden glow. With her small stature and lively, fey features, she looked, he thought fondly, almost like a little fairy princess standing there. Despite approaching her thirty-second year, she did not look much older than Sara did—much, he knew, to her chagrin. This morning she had certainly been his fairy godmother, he admitted gratefully. Without her he probably would have put a period to his existence. Still, he didn't quite trust her. When Arabella got something in her mind, there was no swaying her, and he could not help thinking that she had something planned he would not like. He knew very well that he was being sent to Greenleigh to get him out of the way, and it made him uneasy.

A little frown creasing his brow, Jeremy said, "I may have been duped, but I did lose Highview to Leyton. There is nothing that can undo my foolish actions—and I do not want you doing anything that might be equally foolish."

Arabella opened her eyes very wide, and, looking as innocent as she knew how—which was very innocent indeed—she murmured, "Why Jeremy, how you do run on. Of course, I will not do anything foolish."

Her reply did not satisfy him, but he knew it was all he was going to get from her. "Very well, I shall have a horse saddled and leave for Greenleigh. I will be back either tomorrow night or Thursday morning—and we will tell Mother then. Correct?"

"Of course. We agreed."

After sending her one last searching glance, he finally left, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Alone once more, Arabella began to pace the small room, her small face scrunched up into a fierce scowl. Thursday morning did not give her much time, but she was sworn to have Jeremy's vowels back by then, and by Gad, she would!

She waited impatiently until she knew that Jeremy had well and truly departed for Greenleigh. Then she called for her cart to be readied, not fifteen minutes behind Jeremy, and drove in the opposite direction, to Natchez. Once in town, she went quickly to the family attorney and, without explanation, despite his grave misgivings, retrieved the documents she wanted from his safe. Placing them carefully in the small portfolio she had brought with her for that purpose, she turned to face Mr. Haight. Flashing him an impish smile, she said, "You are not to worry. I know precisely what I am doing."

Mr. Haight, bald and bespectacled, regarded her soberly. He had known the family since they had arrived from England nearly fifteen years previously and had considered William Montgomery a personal friend. "I hope you do," he said, his brown eyes concerned. "I have heard some disturbing rumors recently about young Jeremy's doings. I trust you are not going to ruin yourself while trying to save him from the folly of his ways."

Arabella opened her eyes very wide. "Why, Mr. Haight, whatever do you mean?"

He snorted. "And don't try that innocent look on me, miss!"

Arabella laughed, a seductively throaty sound, so at odds with her puckish features. "Very well then, I won't. Good day to you, sir, and my best to your wife."

Thoughtfully, Mr. Haight watched her drive away in her jaunty dark green and yellow cart pulled by a gleaming black mare. What that little minx needed was a husband. A strong-willed husband who would not be distracted by those laughing eyes or become helplessly twined around one of her slender, dainty fingers.

It was a shame that young lieutenant of hers had been killed back in '87, when she had been only twenty-one. As he recalled, they had planned to marry that fall. Lieutenant Stockdale had seemed a nice young man when he had come to visit at Highview in the summer of 1786. Damned shame, Mr. Haight thought again. Instead of gallivanting about and risking her own fortune for that silly young fool, Jeremy, she would by now, no doubt, be surrounded by her own brood of children.

His gaze still on Arabella's disappearing cart, he frowned. Of course that business five years earlier with Tony Daggett would never have done. It had been bloody bad luck that Dagget had returned from London just as she finally put aside her grieving for her dead fiancé. Dagget was a libertine of the worst sort, with two dead wives to his credit, wives that most people believed he had murdered. Haight could understand William Montgomery's vigorous objections to the match. Fortune and family aside, Mr. Haight certainly would not have wanted a daughter of his to marry Tony Daggett. It was a dashed good thing that Arabella had for once shown some sense and followed her father's dictates.

Arabella's cart completely disappeared from sight, and, with a shake of his head, Mr. Haight turned to go back inside his office. He'd said it once and he'd say again—that little baggage needed a husband!

Smiling to herself, Arabella tooled happily down the dirt track leading away from Natchez, having a fair idea of Mr. Haight's thoughts. Nearly everyone was convinced that she should marry. Even her stepmother bewailed the fact that Arabella was approaching thirty-two and still unmarried. And just then, it was a good thing, Arabella thought to herself, that she wasn't married. No husband would allow her to do what she had every intention of doing!

Excerpted from At Long Last , by Shirlee Busbee . Copyright (c) 2000 by Shirlee Busbee . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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