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Blue Dahlia

Nora Roberts


  Memphis, Tennessee

  August 1892

  Birthing a bastard wasn't in the plans. When she'd learned she was carrying her lover's child, the shock and panic turned quickly to anger.

  There were ways of dealing with it, of course. A woman in her position had contacts, had avenues. But she was afraid of them, nearly as afraid of the abortionists as she was of what was growing, unwanted, inside her.

  The mistress of a man like Reginald Harper couldn't afford pregnancy.

  He'd kept her for nearly two years now, and kept her well. Oh, she knew he kept others - including his wife - but they didn't concern her.

  She was still young, and she was beautiful. Youth and beauty were products that could be marketed. She'd done so, for nearly a decade, with steely mind and heart. And she'd profited by them, polished them with the grace and charm she'd learned by watching and emulating the fine ladies who'd visited the grand house on the river where her mother had worked.

  She'd been educated - a bit. But more than books and music, she'd learned the arts of flirtation.

  She'd sold herself for the first time at fifteen and had pocketed knowledge along with the coin. But prostitution wasn't her goal, any more than domestic work or trudging off to the factory day after day. She knew the difference between whore and mistress. A whore traded quick and cold sex for pennies and was forgotten before the man's fly was buttoned again.

  But a mistress - a clever and successful mistress - offered romance, sophistication, conversation, gaiety along with the commodity between her legs. She was a companion, a wailing wall, a sexual fantasy. An ambitious mistress knew to demand nothing and gain much.

  Amelia Ellen Conner had ambitions.

  And she'd achieved them. Or most of them.

  She'd selected Reginald quite carefully. He wasn't handsome or brilliant of mind. But he was, as her research had assured her, very rich and very unfaithful to the thin and proper wife who presided over Harper House.

  He had a woman in Natchez, and it was said he kept another in New Orleans. He could afford another, so Amelia set her sights on him. Wooed and won him.

  At twenty-four, she lived in a pretty house on South Main and had three servants of her own. Her wardrobe was full of beautiful clothes, and her jewelry case sparkled.

  It was true she wasn't received by the fine ladies she'd once envied, but there was a fashionable half world where a woman of her station was welcome. Where she was envied.

  She threw lavish parties. She traveled. She lived.

  Then, hardly more than a year after Reginald had tucked her into that pretty house, her clever, craftily designed world crashed.

  She would have hidden it from him until she'd gathered the courage to visit the red-light district and end the thing. But he'd caught her when she was violently ill, and he'd studied her face with those dark, shrewd eyes.

  And he'd known.

  He'd not only been pleased but had forbidden her to end the pregnancy. To her shock, he'd bought her a sapphire bracelet to celebrate her situation.

  She hadn't wanted the child, but he had.

  So she began to see how the child could work for her. As the mother of Reginald Harper's child - bastard or no - she would be cared for in perpetuity. He might lose interest in coming to her bed as she lost the bloom of youth, as beauty faded, but he would support her, and the child.

  His wife hadn't given him a son. But she might. She would.

  Through the last chills of winter and into the spring, she carried the child and planned for her future.

  Then something strange happened. It moved inside her. Flutters and stretches, playful kicks. The child she hadn't wanted became her child.

  It grew inside her like a flower that only she could see, could feel, could know. And so did a strong and terrible love.

  Through the sweltering, sticky heat of the summer she bloomed, and for the first time in her life she knew a passion for something other than herself and her own comfort.

  The child, her son, needed her. She would protect it with all she had.

  With her hands resting on her great belly, she supervised the decorating of the nursery. Pale green walls and white lace curtains. A rocking horse imported from Paris, a crib handmade in Italy.

  She tucked tiny clothes into the miniature wardrobe. Irish and Breton lace, French silks. All were mono-grammed with exquisite embroidery with the baby's initials. He would be James Reginald Conner.

  She would have a son. Something at last of her own. Someone, at last, to love. They would travel together, she and her beautiful boy. She would show him the world. He would go to the best schools. He was her pride, her joy, and her heart. And if through that steamy summer, Reginald came to the house on South Main less and less, it was just as well.

  He was only a man. What grew inside her was a son.

  She would never be alone again.

  When she felt the pangs of labor, she had no fear. Through the sweaty hours of pain, she held one thing in the front of her mind. Her James. Her son. Her child.

  Her eyes blurred with exhaustion, and the heat, a living, breathing monster, was somehow worse than the pain.

  She could see the doctor and the midwife exchange looks. Grim, frowning looks. But she was young, she was healthy, and she would do this thing.

  There was no time; hour bled into hour with gaslight shooting flickering shadows around the room. She heard, through the waves of exhaustion, a thin cry.

  "My son. " Tears slid down her cheeks. "My son. "

  The midwife held her down, murmuring, murmuring, "Lie still now. Drink a bit. Rest now. "

  She sipped to soothe her fiery throat, tasted laudanum. Before she could object, she was drifting off, deep down. Far away.

  When she woke, the room was dim, the draperies pulled tight over the windows. When she stirred, the doctor rose from his chair, came close to lift her hand, to check her pulse.

  "My son. My baby. I want to see my baby. "

  "I'll send for some broth. You slept a long time. "

  "My son. He'll be hungry. Have him brought to me. "

  "Madam. " The doctor sat on the side of the bed. His eyes seemed very pale, very troubled. "I'm sorry. The child was stillborn. "

  What clutched her heart was monstrous, vicious, rending her with burning talons of grief and fear.

  "I heard him cry. This is a lie! Why are you saying such an awful thing to me?"

  "She never cried. " Gently, he took her hands. "Your labor was long and difficult. You were delirious at the end of it. Madam, I'm sorry. You delivered a girl, stillborn. "

  She wouldn't believe it. She screamed and raged and wept, and was sedated only to wake to scream and rage and weep again.

  She hadn't wanted the child. And then she'd wanted nothing else.

  Her grief was beyond name, beyond reason.

  Grief drove her mad.