Book 2 in Reader Favorite Michelle Griep’s Charming Once Upon a Dickens Christmas Series London, 1853: Innkeeper’s daughter Mina Scott will do anything to escape the drudgery of her life, for there’s nothing more mundane than serving customers day after day. Every minute she can, she reads and dreams of someday becoming a real lady—and catch the eye of William Barlow, a frequent guest at the inn. William is a gentleman’s son, a charming but penniless rogue. However, his bachelor uncle will soon name an heir—either him or his scheming cousin. In an effort to secure the inheritance, William gives his uncle the impression he’s married, which works until he’s invited to bring his wife for a visit. William asks Mina to be his pretend bride, only until his uncle names an heir on Christmas Day. Mina is flattered and frustrated by the offer, for she wants a true relationship with William. Yet, she agrees. . .then wishes she hadn’t. So does William. Deceiving the old man breaks both their hearts. When the truth is finally discovered, more than just money is lost. Can two hearts survive such deception?
About the Author
Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. She is the Christy Award-winning author of historical romances: A Tale of Two Hearts, The Captured Bride, The Innkeeper’s Daughter, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, The Captive Heart, Brentwood’s Ward, A Heart Deceived, and Gallimore, but also leaped the historical fence into the realm of contemporary with the zany romantic mystery Out of the Frying Pan. If you’d like to keep up with her escapades, find her at www.michellegriep.com or stalk her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. And guess what? She loves to hear from readers! Feel free to drop her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
In the tiny back courtyard of the Golden Egg Inn, Mina Scott lowered her copy of David Copperfield to her lap and lifted her face to the October sun. Closing her eyes, she savored the warmth and the first line to a new adventure, as was her wont whenever Miss Whymsy stopped by and lent her a book. Though she no longer stared at the page, the shapes of the words lingered, blazed in stark contrast to the brilliance against her lids. What a curious thought, to be one's own hero — for the only hero she wanted was William Barlow.
Ahh, William. Just thinking his name lit a fire in her belly.
She shot to her feet, and the book plummeted to the ground. Her stomach dropped along with it — both for being caught idle and for the dirt smudges sure to mar the cover. With her toe, she slid the novel beneath her skirt hem, then patted her pocket to make sure the note Miss Whymsy had left behind hadn't fallen out as well. The small, folded paper crinkled beneath her touch, hidden and snug. Satisfied, she faced her father.
Jasper Scott, master of the inn and commander of her life, fisted hands the size of kidney pies at his hips. "What are ye doin' out in the yard, girl, when ye ought to be serving?"
She dipped her chin. "It's hardly teatime, Father. I thought to take a break before customers arrived." From the peak of the inn's rooftop, a swallow not yet flown to warmer climates chided the frail excuse. Not that she blamed the bird. It was a pitiful defense.
Her father fumbled his big fingers inside a small pocket on his waistcoat and pulled out a worn brass pocket watch. He flipped open the lid — and the whole thing fell to the ground. "Oh, bother!"
As he bent to pick it up, she stifled a smile. How large Father's grin would be on Christmas Eve when he opened the new watch fob she'd been saving all her pennies for.
Swiping up the dropped watch, Father first frowned at the time, then at her. "It's past tea." He snapped the timepiece shut and tucked it away. "I wager ye were reading again. Am I right?"
How did he know? How did he always know?
Slowly, she retrieved the book and held it out. "Maybe you ought to keep this until we close tonight."
"I thought as much when Miss Whymsy stopped by. Keep your head in the world, girl, not in the clouds. Ye'll never get a husband that way." He snatched the novel from her hand. "And besides that, this being the last day o' October, ye must turn yer sights away from make-believe tales and toward Christmas. Only a little over seven weeks remain to make this the best celebration the Golden Egg has ever seen, so ye must focus, girl. Now off with ye. There are patrons already clamoring for a whistle wetting."
"Yes, Father." She scurried past him. Since she'd been a little girl, the annual Christmas Eve celebration at the Golden Egg meant everything to Father. 'Twas a poor replacement for her departed mother, but a replacement, she supposed, nonetheless. She darted through the back door and nearly crashed into Martha, the inn's cook.
"Peas and porridge!" Martha stepped aside, the water in her pot sloshing over the rim and dampening the flagstones. "Watch yer step, missy."
"Sorry, Martha." Giving the woman a wider berth, she grabbed her apron from a peg and a cloth for wiping tables, then scooted out to the taproom.
Once she entered the public area, she slowed her steps and drew a deep breath. No one liked to be waited upon by a ruddy-cheeked snippet of a skirt. Scanning the room, she frowned. Only two tables were filled. Surely Father could've managed to wait upon these few —
Her gaze landed on her brown-haired hero, and her heartbeat increased to a wild pace. William Barlow leaned forward in a chair, deep in conversation with the fellow seated adjacent to him — his friend, Mr. Fitzroy. Will's presence lit the dull taproom into a brilliant summer landscape simply by merit of his presence — especially when he threw his head back and laughed. And oh, what a laugh. Carefree and merry, as if he'd reached out his hand and pulled her into a jig with the lightness of it.
Mina grabbed a pitcher and filled it with ale, the draw of William too strong to deny. Bypassing the other customers, she headed straight for his table.
"He's invited me to a tea, of all things." His voice, smooth as fresh flowing honey, grew louder the closer she drew to his table. "Can you imagine that, Fitz? A tea. How awful."
A smile curved her mouth as she imagined taking tea with William. Just the two of them. Him in his finest frock coat with a snowy cravat. Her in a new gown. She'd pour a steaming cup for him, and he'd lift a choice little cake to her lips while speaking of his deepest affections. She sighed, warm and contented. "I should think a tea would be very pleasant," she murmured.
Both men turned toward her. Mr. Fitzroy spoke first. "Well, if it isn't the lovely Miss Scott, come to save me from this boorish fellow." He elbowed William.
Will arched a brow at her, a rogue grin deepening the dimples at the sides of his mouth. "I was wondering when you'd grace us with your appearance, sweet Mina."
Sweet Mina. Heat flooded her cheeks. She'd be remembering that endearment in her dreams tonight.
But for now, she scowled. "Mr. Barlow, if my father hears of your familiarity, I fear —"
"Never fear." He winked — and her knees weakened. "I'm a champion with ruffled fathers."
Ignoring his wordplay, she held up the pitcher. "Refills?" William slapped his hand to his heart. "You know me too well."
Not as well as I'd like to. She bit her tongue. Where had that come from? Maybe Father was right. Maybe she had been reading too many books.
"I'm as intrigued as Miss Scott." Mr. Fitzroy held his cup out to her, for she'd filled William's mug first. "Why would you not want to attend your uncle's tea? As I recall, he's a jolly enough fellow." Will slugged back a long draw of his ale and lowered his cup to the table. "Nothing against Uncle Barlow, mind you. And in truth, I was pleased he'd made contact. It's just that, well ... I am to bring my wife along."
The pitcher clattered to the floor. Mina stared at it, horrified. Ale seeped into the cracks of the floorboards, the very image of her draining hopes and dreams. William Barlow had a wife?
Will shot to his feet. "Mina, you look as if you've seen the Cock Lane ghost. Are you ill?"
"I'm f–fine. The pitcher — it slipped, that's all." She crouched, righted the pitcher to preserve the remaining ale, then yanked the rag from her waistband and mopped up the mess with more force than necessary. The scoundrel! All this time he'd had a hearth and home already tended by a wife? Did he have children as well? She scrubbed harder, grazing her knuckles against the rough wood. Good. She relished the pain and for a wicked moment thought about swishing the spilled ale over William's shoes.
"Wife?" Surprise deepened Mr. Fitzroy's voice also. So ... Will's best friend had not known either? That was a small satisfaction, at least.
"This is news," Mr. Fitzroy continued. "When did that happen?"
Holding her breath, she ceased her scrubbing, though why she cared indicted her for being naught but a dunderheaded hero seeker. Silly girl. Silly, stupid girl.
William sank back to his seat. "Well, I don't actually have one yet. And that's the problem."
"Thank God." The words flew out before she could stop them, and she pressed her lips tight.
William's face appeared below the table. "Are you quite all right?"
"Yes. Just finishing up." She forced a smile, reached for the runaway pitcher, and stood. This afternoon was turning into a novel in its own right. For the first time since she'd met William, she couldn't decide if he were truly a hero or a villain.
Will straightened as well, his gaze trained on her. The sun slanted through the front window, angling over his strong jaw and narrow nose. But it was his eyes that drew her. So brilliant, so magnificently blue, a sob welled in her throat. She swallowed. She truly was a silly girl.
"Say, Mina," he drawled. "You wouldn't be willing to be my bride, would you?"
"I — I —" The words caught in her throat like a fish bone, and she coughed, then coughed some more. Heat blazed through her from head to toe. Surely, she hadn't heard right.
William's grin grew, his dimples deepening to a rakish angle. "Oh, don't panic. It would only be for one afternoon. Surely you could beg off serving for an hour a week from next Thursday?"
Her mouth dropped, but no words came out. What was she to say to that? Everything in her screamed to shout yes, but how could she possibly slip out from beneath Father's notice? And a week from next Thursday? Not that her social calendar was packed full, but something niggled her about the date.
"Oy, miss! Another round over here." Across the taproom, a stout fellow, buttons about to pop off his waistcoat, held a mug over his head.
"I — I don't know," she blurted out to Will and turned.
But William grasped her sleeve. "Please, Mina. Allow me to explain. It won't take but a moment."
She stared at his touch, a frown tugging her lips. Father wouldn't like her dawdling with William, but how could she refuse the man she'd cast as the champion in every story she'd read? With a quick nod and a brilliant smile to stave off the other customer, she turned back to Will. "Make haste. I have work to attend."
"Right, here's the thing." He leaned forward, the excitement in his tone pulling both her and Mr. Fitzroy closer to him so that they huddled 'round the table.
"Uncle Barlow is ready to choose his heir. It's between me and my cousin Percy —"
"Egad!" Mr. Fitzroy rocked back on his chair. "That pompous donkey? I should think there'd be no competition."
"I agree, but my uncle favors a married man. And since I am not ..." Will tugged at his collar, loosening his cravat. "Well, I gave
Uncle Barlow the impression I'd recently wed, or I'd not even be considered."
Mr. Fitzroy let out a long, low whistle.
Mina's eyes widened. "You lied to your uncle?"
William shook his head, the tips of his hair brushing against his shoulders. "No, not outright. I merely led him on a merry word chase, and he arrived at a particular conclusion."
Mr. Fitzroy chuckled. "One day, my friend, your deceptions will catch up to you."
"Perhaps. But not today. Not if you, my sweet Mina" — William captured her free hand and squeezed — "will agree to be my wife for the tea. I could pick you up at two o'clock. What do you say?"
Say? How could she even think with the warmth of his fingers wrapped around hers and his blue gaze entreating her to yield? It would be lovely to live a fairy-tale life if only for part of an afternoon. Take tea in a grand house, finally be a real lady, just like those she so often read about —
"Miss!" the man across the room bellowed again.
— And escape the drudgery of serving corpulent patrons who more often than not smelled of goats and sausages.
Pulling her hand away, she smiled at William. "I say yes."
God bless her! For surely her father wouldn't. Before Will could say anything more, she scurried off to fill the other patrons' mugs and drain her pitcher dry. On her way back to the tap, she swerved around a table, and her gown brushed against her hand. Paper crinkled at the contact.
Then she knew.
Setting the pitcher down on the counter, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking before she retrieved the note from her pocket. A moan caught in her throat as she reread the instructions:
Sisterhood meeting November 10th2:00 p.m.
Drat! That was a week from next Thursday. How was she to be in two places at once?CHAPTER 2
I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.
No matter the time of day, London streets teemed as if a great bucket of humanity had been upended and dumped onto the sidewalks. And late afternoon was the worst. Cabs, drays, and coaches filled the cobblestones, forcing pedestrians to travel as far from the gutters as possible, lest they be splashed with liquid refuse of all sorts. William Barlow not only took it all in stride but relished the challenge as well. A good leg stretcher, that's what he needed — especially after the ridiculous proposal he'd just issued to Mina Scott. What in the queen's name had he been thinking?
"Hold up!" Fitz's voice turned Will around — his sudden stop earning him a scowl and a curse from a fishy-smelling sailor who smacked against him.
The man gave him a shove as he passed. "Watch yer step, ye carpin' swell."
Ten paces back, Fitz dodged a knife-seller's cart, one hand holding his hat tight atop his head, and caught up to Will. "I didn't realize this was a race."
"Sorry. My mind was elsewhere."
"Hmm, let me guess. Somewhere back at an inn with a certain blue-eyed beauty?"
Will clouted his friend on the back, and they fell into step together. "You can't be serious. Mina Scott is a sweet girl. Nothing more."
"As I suspected. And now that Miss Scott is out of ear range, how about you tell me the real reason for such a scheme?"
Will shrugged. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't play the innocent with me. Ever since Elizabeth, you've avoided anything to do with women other than lighthearted banter, and you've never given Mina Scott a second thought. Something else is going on here, something mighty powerful to be prodding you to play the part of a husband."
Thankfully, they stepped off a curb to cross Bramwell Street, where it took all of William's concentration to weave in and out of traffic unscathed. And just as well — for he'd rather not dwell in the unforgiving land of memories.
Once across, Fitz joined his side, with only somewhat muddy trouser hems to show for the experience. "You know I won't be put off so easily."
That was an understatement. When Thomas Fitzroy was set on something, there was no turning the man back — a trait that served his friend well down at Temple Court. Even so, Will plowed through a few more pedestrians before he answered. "I told you everything. Uncle Barlow is —"
"Yes, yes." Fitz waved his fingers in the air like an orator making a point. "Uncle Barlow, what have you, and so on and so on. Not that I don't believe every word you said, but I suspect there are a few more words you've conveniently left out. So let's have it."
He snorted. "Perhaps you should have been a barrister instead of a law clerk."
"Perhaps you should get to the point."
Jamming his hands into his coat pockets, Will stared straight ahead. Better that than witness the pity that was sure to fill his friend's eyes once he told him. "It's my mother. She's not doing well. I can barely keep abreast with her medical bills, let alone continue to manage her housing expenses."
"Oh ..." Fitz's feet shuffled. "Sorry, old chap. I didn't realize. Is she that bad off?"
"Hard to say. You know doctors." He shook his head as the last of October's light faded into the first gloam of evening. "I shall have to move her from France, which will mean setting up a household of my own instead of rooming with you." He sighed. "And that will come with a hefty price tag."
"I see. No wonder this whole inheritance thing is so important to you."
"It is. Don't get me wrong. I don't wish any ill on Uncle Barlow. Quite the contrary. I hope the old fellow lives a great many more years. But were I to be named heir, I'd have the collateral of the position if I must apply to a banker for funds. Lord knows I wouldn't get a penny on my name alone."
His friend's hand rested on Will's shoulder, slowing him to a stop. Will braced himself for the concern sure to be etched on Fitz's brow. But despite his preparation, he sucked in a breath at the sympathy welling in the man's eyes.
"I hope for your sake, and your mother's, that this all works out."
"Indeed." He cleared the huskiness from his voice and forced a half smile. "Let us hope so."
"But I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this." Fitz rubbed the back of his neck. "Miss Scott is a beauty, no doubt. And ladylike. She's been nothing but kind and ever attentive. Yet is she the right sort of woman to impress your uncle as a realistic bride? She is an innkeeper's daughter, after all. Not exactly a highborn miss. And she's nothing like ... Well, you know."
While it was a champion thing of his friend to voice his misgivings so earnestly, Will cast Fitz's cares aside. Mina Scott would charm Uncle Barlow, perfect manners or not, for she was a perfectly charming sort of girl.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Tale of Two Hearts"
Copyright © 2018 Michelle Griep.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.