When Miranda Hunt sees the classified ad for an heiress to the legendary Last Chance Ranch, she knows assuming the identity of Annie Beckman is the perfect cover. As one of the finest agents for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Miranda has been tasked with apprehending the Phantom—an elusive and notorious train robber thought to be hiding on the sprawling ranch.
But she isn’t the only one at the ranch with something to hide. Wells Fargo detective Jeremy Taggart is working undercover as well. Their true identities may be a secret, but it is impossible for Jeremy and Miranda to hide the sparks flaring between them.
Neither is about to let romance interfere with such a huge case. Besides, Miranda hasn’t removed Jeremy from her list of suspects yet. The closer they get to uncovering the identity of the Phantom, the more dangerous he gets—and no one on the ranch is safe.
The longer Miranda and Jeremy spend working together, the harder it becomes to keep their feelings in check. Their careers—and their lives—depend on solving this case. Love will just have to wait.
“. . . an absolute delight. I spent the whole book reading with a grin on my face.” —Mary Connealy, best-selling author of Petticoat Ranch (for Dawn Comes Early)
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By Margaret Brownley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Margaret Brownley
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Pinkerton National Detective Agency: We never sleep.
New Orleans, 1897
Miranda Hunt drew a linen handkerchief from the sleeve of her black mourning frock and dabbed the corner of her eye. Only the most discerning person would spot the foot tapping impatiently beneath the hem of her skirt. Or guess that her respectfully lowered head hid a watchful gaze.
As far as anyone knew, she was exactly who she purported to be: Mrs. James Kincaid the Third, friend of the deceased.
"Such a modest man," one of the mourners, a middle-aged woman, lamented, looking straight at Miranda. "Wouldn't you agree, Mrs. Kincaid?"
"Most definitely," Miranda replied. From what she knew of Mr. Stanton, he had much to be modest about.
Everything in the stately mansion from the polished marble floors to the gold filigree ceilings was due to Mr. Stanton's marriage to the heiress of a flypaper empire. The rich knew how to live, and judging by the carved oak coffin edged in gold and lined in silk, they also knew how to die.
An elderly gray-haired man approached her chair and put up his monocle. "Would you care to pay your last respects, Mrs. Kincaid?" He was stoop-shouldered and spoke with a lisp.
Miranda stood with a solemn nod and crossed the elegantly furnished parlor to an alcove near the grand piano. Tall palms stood like sentries guarding the open coffin. The deceased was perfectly laid out in a fine tailored suit, his white mustache and hair neatly trimmed. Had it not been for the silver coins concealing his eyes, one might think him merely asleep.
The last few petals of Miranda's rose fluttered to the floor but she dutifully laid the wilted stem by the dead man's side. She allowed a ladylike sob to escape and drew a handkerchief to her cheek—all for the benefit of the monocle-eyed man.
Like all operatives of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Miranda was an expert in disguises. Blending in was the key to nabbing an unsuspecting criminal and that took a certain amount of concentration, attention to detail, and, of course, acting ability.
Today, it took considerably more. It took a steadfast stomach to eat the Russian fish eggs and liver paste that the rich called food.
Returning to her seat, she strained to hear three young women whisper among themselves. A private detective had to listen to an amazing amount of gossip, which went against Miranda's Christian upbringing. But between the "he dids" and "you won't believes" was where an operative often gleaned the most useful information. Certainly God made allowances for those fighting for law and order. At least Miranda hoped He did.
The hands on the longcase clock swept away another hour and Miranda's spirits sank, but her vigilance remained. So far this week she had attended two weddings, three funerals, and a baptism without a sign of the man known as the Society Thief.
Though he excelled at what he did, he was considerably more than just a criminal; he was her stepping-stone to bigger and better assignments.
He had been a bane to the city's upper class for more than a year. No jewel was safe from his sleight of hand; no wealthy man's corpse immune to his pilfering fingers. Catching him red-handed would prove to the Pinkerton brothers once and for all that she was ready for more than the jobs no other operative wanted. At the age of twenty-four, she was ready for a real challenge.
She had just about decided that this funeral was a waste of time when she spotted the straw boater. It was always the details that tripped up a person and today it was the hat. Senses alert, she studied the latecomer. The fact that he'd failed to give his head-covering to one of the servants like the other male guests made him suspect. There was always the possibility that he planned on using his hat to conceal a dastardly deed. Or perhaps he simply kept it so as to make a quick escape.
Slender of build, he had short black hair and a pointed beard. He was immaculately dressed in a black sack coat over gray trousers and vest. A short turnover collar showed above a floppy bow tie.
The other male guests wore silk suits and linen shirts, appropriate attire for a warm spring-like day, but this man wore wool—the fabric of choice for pickpockets. Wool didn't rustle like other fabrics, allowing the wearer to move without detection.
The man's gaze met hers and she gave her fan a coquettish flick and smiled. Confident enough to think she was flirting, he smiled back. The scene was set.
A rush of excitement raced through her as it always did whenever she was about to nab a suspect. You should see me now, Papa. Maybe then you wouldn't have been so against me becoming a detective. She moved across the room, but the deceased's widow reached his side first.
"I'm Mrs. Stanton," she said. "And you are ...?"
"Harry Benson. Your husband and I were business acquaintances. I apologize for being late."
A rehearsed response if Miranda ever heard one. He lowered his head and said something more, but his voice failed to reach her straining ear.
The widow blushed. "Thank you, Mr. Benson. That's very kind of you to say." She gestured toward the enormous table of delicacies. "Do help yourself."
With a swish of her black taffeta skirts, Mrs. Stanton walked away. A snap of her fingers sent servants scampering to the kitchen for more plates of pâté and caviar. Had the woman realized that Mr. Benson had taken her quite literally and helped himself to her diamond brooch, she might have been less inclined to worry about his appetite.
Miranda quickly moved toward her prey. "Mr. Benson," she said by way of greeting. "I'm Mrs. Kincaid. Perhaps you know my husband?"
"I'm afraid not." Raking her over, his gaze settled for a split second on her diamond necklace before belatedly meeting her eyes. The necklace had been borrowed from a local jeweler and the Pinkerton agency would have to pay quite handsomely should it disappear. Miranda meant to see that it didn't.
"Would you care for some refreshments, Mrs. Kincaid?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you."
"Allow me." The nature of the crime required a pickpocket to make physical contact with his target, so it was no surprise when Mr. Benson, or whatever his name was, offered his bent elbow.
Since a detective needed to get as close as possible to a perpetrator, she slid her arm through the crook of his.
They strolled like two old friends to the refreshment table. A pickpocket's second order of business was to distract his intended victim. Mr. Benson did this by "accidentally" spilling cider on her dress.
"Oh, forgive me." He drew out his handkerchief and quickly dabbed at her skirt. Like any good victim, Miranda allowed him to do so.
"How clumsy of me," he murmured. "I do apologize."
In the blink of an eye, he had expertly relieved her of her jewels—a true professional if she ever saw one. Any pickpocket worth his salt took pride in his work and would never be so inelegant as to cut a lady's dress or a gentleman's apparel. While he pocketed the necklace with one hand, Miranda just as efficiently matched his professional pride by slipping a handcuff on his other.
His mouth dropped open but it was the gun that turned him pale as the corpse.
"It w-was an accident," he stammered. He cast a nervous glance around the room but no one paid them any heed. "I'll be happy to make compensation for the d-dress."
"This old thing?" She smiled. "You needn't worry about it, but you might be a tad bit concerned about your pockets."
One eye twitched and sweat dotted his forehead. "Who ... who are you?"
"A thief's worst nightmare," she replied, raising a palm to reveal her Pinkerton badge. "It might interest you to know that the police are waiting for my call."
Before Miranda could clamp the second cuff around his wrist, a female servant dropped a tray and screamed, "She's got a gun!"
A collective gasp rose from the mourners but before anyone had a chance to move, the pickpocket grabbed for Miranda's weapon.
"Stop," she hissed.
They struggled and the derringer arched back and forth between them, the loose handcuff swinging from his arm. The gun went off with a deafening bang. Overhead, the crystal chandelier shattered and glass sprayed down like silver rain.
Guests scrambled beneath the buffet table. Others dived behind sofas and chairs. One robust woman fainted dead away.
The weapon went off a second time.
The pickpocket was good at his craft but was no match for Miranda. With a well-placed knee and a perfectly aimed blow, she gained control of the gun. Doubled over in pain, the thief could do nothing to prevent her from snapping the second steel bracelet around his wrist.
Her derringer in one hand, she pulled an array of watches, bracelets, and necklaces from his pocket with the other and dumped them on the buffet table. The palm nippers used to snip jewelry free from an unsuspecting neck or ear, she kept. One never knew when such a tool might come in handy.
"Calm down, everyone." Miranda held her badge over her head for everyone to see. It was now just a matter of calling the police. "Everything's under control."
"Not everything," the widow cried. She had thrown herself across the coffin and her feet flopped about like newly caught fish. "You shot my husband!"
* * *
Miranda's stomach churned as she hurried down Fifth Street to the three-story building housing the Chicago headquarters of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. One hand tucked in her muff and the other holding on to her hat, she kept her head down. The icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan sliced through her gray woolen skirt and chilled her to the bone.
Summoned to the office posthaste, she dreaded her meeting with Mr. William Pinkerton. She was definitely in trouble. A large black-and-white eye on the face of the building seemed to confirm it. Today the firm's logo appeared to glare down at her.
She battled the heavy door leading to the lobby. It was still early, which meant that none of the other operatives or secretaries had arrived yet. She alone had to face the principal.
Inside the building, she straightened her hat, wiggling the hat pin in place. She then held her chin high, ready to explain and, if necessary, defend her actions. Thus braced, she took the elevator to the top floor and marched right past the detective room and into the principal's wood-paneled office.
William Pinkerton greeted her with a curt nod and waited for her to be seated. He then paced back and forth in front of her, hands clasped behind his back.
He shook his head, his heavy jowls jiggling and his walrus mustache drooping. "You shouldn't have shot the dead man."
"Yes, that was most ... unfortunate. But as I explained to the widow, except for the hole in his head and dislodgement of coins at his eyes, her husband's ... uh ... condition remained unchanged."
Pinkerton regarded her from beneath slanted brows. "The last thing the agency needs is more bad press and now Mrs. Stanton threatens to bring about a lawsuit."
She grimaced. "I ... I don't know what to say. The man was dead when I got there and dead when I left."
"You should never have tried to restrain the thief yourself. Your instructions were to identify him and then call the police. That was all."
"If I had called the police first, we would have lost him. I caught the Society Thief and that's more than Stands or Masters did." The two operatives had worked on the case for six months without success.
Pinkerton stopped pacing. "Many believe that a woman has no business fighting crime."
"Including your brother," she said. She'd heard the two arguing over that very subject not long ago.
He nodded. "Including Robert. But unlike my brother, I believe women have an advantage over men when working undercover." Pinkerton sat on the edge of his desk and rubbed the back of his neck. "I promised Charles to watch out for you, but I can't do that if you continue to take unnecessary risks."
A dark cloud entered the room at the mention of her father. If it hadn't been for a careless Wells Fargo detective, her father might still be alive. "Papa was one of your best operatives. He taught me everything I know about detective work."
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Pinkerton said. "Your father took his share of unreasonable chances."
Miranda tightened her fingers around her fur muff. She still hadn't gotten over her father's death three years earlier. Her only consolation was carrying on the work he loved so much.
"My father might have taken unreasonable chances, as you call them, but he captured more criminals than all your other operatives put together." She leaned forward. "I want to be treated like every other agent. If I were a man, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Pinkerton blew out his breath. "You're your father's daughter through and through." He folded his arms across his chest.
Miranda chewed on her lip. "You aren't thinking of letting me go, are you?" She feared that more than anything in the world. To be relieved of her duties would be an affront to the memory of her father. It would also break her heart to give up the work she loved.
"On the contrary. The governor of Arizona Territory has asked for our help. He wants to hire us to track down a man who has terrorized the county for more than a year. I'm sure you've heard of the Phantom."
Her mouth dropped open. "You want me to track down the Phantom?"
"Normally this would be handled by the Denver office, but they lack relevant personnel," he said. "If you're successful, it would put a shine on our tarnished reputation."
She frowned. Relevant personnel seemed like an odd term to use and she had no idea what it meant. "But the law—" Pinkerton agents were accused of employing bullying tactics during the union riots and using undue force. That led to Congress passing a law preventing the government from hiring private detective firms. The law had cut into the agency's work, but so had the increase in competition.
"The Anti-Pinkerton law prevents the U.S. government from hiring us. It says nothing about territories." He stood and walked over to a map pinned to the wall. Arizona Territory was riddled with black Xs.
He jabbed the map with his finger. "All the robberies committed in the last year are marked."
Miranda joined him. Doing a quick count, she stopped at twelve. Even the James gang in their glory days hadn't been that active.
"As you can see, the robberies are centered in the southeast portion of the territory—in Cochise County, to be exact. They tend to be centered around ... here." He pointed to a blank space between Tombstone and a little town called Cactus Patch.
She squinted at the tiny dot that marked the town. "Doesn't look like there's much there but desert."
"That's why the governor asked for help. The long-range manhunt is taxing local authorities." His finger made a circle on the map. "This is a cattle ranch called the Last Chance. As you can see, it's the most centrally located to the robberies. Unless I miss my guess, that's where we'll find the leader of the gang. And even if he's not hiding out at the ranch, he's got to be somewhere nearby." He plucked a newspaper clipping from his desk.
"It gets even more interesting," he continued. "The ranch is owned by an old lady named Eleanor Walker. I believe she's a bit soft in the head." He read the piece aloud. "Heiress Wanted." He chuckled and stroked his mustache. "Now I ask you. Does it sound normal for someone to advertise for an heiress?"
"It does sound odd," she agreed.
"Yes, but also fortunate." He read the rest. Not only was the "heiress" expected to learn the cattle business, but she also had to promise to forgo marriage. "So how do you feel about cattle ranching?"
He didn't have to ask how she felt about forgoing marriage. No man would be so foolish as to marry a Pinkerton operative. "I think ranching is a dirty business but someone's got to do it."
"Yes, and as it turns out, that someone is you."
She gaped at him. "You want me to answer that advertisement?"
"Yes," he said, though he didn't look happy about it. "Miss Walker might be fey, but I'm sure she would notice if a male operative showed up wanting to be her heiress."
Excerpted from Gunpowder Tea by Margaret Brownley. Copyright © 2013 Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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