A London officer goes undercover to expose a plot against the Crown Dover, England, 1808: Officer Alexander Moore goes undercover as a gambling gentleman to expose a high-stakes plot against the king—and he’s a master of disguise, for Johanna Langley believes him to be quite the rogue. . .until she can no longer fight against his unrelenting charm. All Johanna wants is to keep the family inn afloat, but when the rent and the hearth payment are due at the same time, where will she find the extra funds? If she doesn’t come up with the money, there will be nowhere to go other than the workhouse—where she’ll be separated from her ailing mother and ten-year-old brother. Alex desperately wants to help Johanna, especially when she confides in him, but his mission—finding and bringing to justice a traitor to the crown—must come first, or they could all end up dead.
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
Dover, England, 1808
Numbers would be the death of Johanna Langley.
Three hours of sleep after a night of endless — or more like hopeless — bookkeeping. Two days to pay the miller before he cut off their flour supply. And only one week remained until the Blue Hedge Inn would be forced to close its doors forever.
Numbers, indeed. Horrid little things.
A frown etched deep into Johanna's face as she descended the last stair into the taproom. Stifling a yawn, she scanned the inn's public room, counting on collaring their lone boarder, Lucius Nutbrown. His payment would at least stave off the miller. Six empty tables and twelve unoccupied benches stared back. Must all the odds be stacked against her?
To her right, through the kitchen door, an ear-shattering crash assaulted the silence, followed by a mournful "Oh no!" Johanna dashed toward the sound, heart pounding. Dear God, not another accident!
She sailed through the door and skidded to a stop just before her skirt hem swished into a pool of navy beans and water. Across from her, Mam eyed the flagstone floor, one hand pressed against her mouth, the other holding the table edge.
Johanna sidestepped the mess. "You all right, Mam?"
Smoothing her palms along her apron, her mother nodded. "Aye. That crock were a mite heavier than I credited."
"As long as you're not hurt. You're not, are you?" She studied her mother's face for a giveaway twitch in her poor eye. Unlike her father — God rest his soul — her mother would make a lacking card shark.
"I'm fine. Truly." A weak smile lifted the right side of Mam's mouth.
With no accompanying twitch.
Johanna let out a breath and grabbed a broom from the corner. First, she'd tackle scooping up the beans and earthenware shards, then mop the water.
"Where is Cook?" Johanna asked while she worked. "Why did you not let her carry such a load?"
"Ana's gone, child. I let her go this morning."
The words were as vexing a sound as the bits of stoneware scraping across the floor. Though her mother's declaration was not a surprise, that didn't make it any easier to accept. A sigh welled in her throat. She swept it down with as much force as she wielded on the broom. Sighing, wishing, hoping ... none of it would bring Ana back.
She reached for the dustpan. "I suppose we'll have to forego the plum pudding this year then, too, eh?"
"Pish! Oak Apple Day without plum pudding?" Mam snatched the dustpan from her hands, then bent in front of the crockery pile. "You might as well hang a CLOSED shingle on the front door right now. What's next ... leaving off the garland and missing the prayer service as well?"
"Of course not." Setting the broom aside, Johanna grabbed Mam's hands in both of hers and pulled her to her feet. "God's seen us through worse, has He not?"
"Aye, child. That He has." For an instant, the lines on her mother's face softened, then just as quickly, reknit themselves into knots. "Still —"
"No still about it. If we fail to trust in His provision, what kind of faith is that?" "Aah, my sweet girl ... you are a rare one, you are."
The look of love shining in Mam's good eye squeezed Jo's heart. She'd smile, if she could remember how, but she didn't have to. Boyish laughter from outside the kitchen window cut into the tender moment.
Johanna flew out the back door and raced around the corner of the inn. Boys scattered like startled chickens, leaving only one to face her in the settling dust.
Folding her arms, she tried to remember that Thomas's wide eyes and spray of freckles made him appear more innocent than he really was.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "You should've been down to the docks long ago. If Mr. Baggett or the Peacock's Inn boy beat you to it, and we miss out on new guests —"
"Aww, Jo." His toe scuffed a circle in the dirt. "You know I'm faster 'an them. 'Sides, the ferry's not due in for at least another hour."
"Even so, if you're not the first to persuade those arrivals to stay at our inn, I fear we won't ..." She paused and craned her neck one way then another to see behind the boy's back. Her brother shifted with her movement — a crazy dance, and a guilty one at that. "What are you hiding? Let's see those hands."
His shoulders stiffened. Times like this broke her heart afresh with longing for her father. As much as she needed him, how much more did the young boy in front of her?
She popped her hands onto her hips and stared him down. "Now, young man."
A sigh lifted his chest. Slowly — any slower and she'd wonder if it physically pained him — one arm stretched out, then the other. When his fingers unfolded, crude wooden dice and several coins sat atop his palms.
"Thomas Elliot Langley!"
"Well I won, din't I?" He cocked his head at a rakish angle, his freckles riding the crest of a wicked smirk. "And against Wiley Hawk and his band, no less. Pretty good, eh Sis?"
"You were gambling?" The word filled her mouth like a rancid bit of meat. Sickened, she pressed a hand to her stomach. "Oh, Thomas, how could you? You, of all people, know the evils of such a pastime."
"We were just playing. That's not gambling." A scowl darkened his face, matching the low-lying blanket of grey clouds overhead. "It's fun. Something you wouldn't know anything about."
"What I know is that gamblers are never to be trusted. And worse, you lied about it. Is that the sort of reputation you want spread from one end of Dover to the other? Thomas Langley, the liar? What will Mam say? What do you think this will do to her?"
His toe scrubbed the dirt once again. What had been a scowl morphed into a grimace. "Don't tell Mam, Jo. Please don't."
Was that glistening in his eyes authentic? Hard to say — and even harder to remain cross with his quivering lip and thin shoulders slumping like an old man's.
"Very well." She stretched out her palm. "Hand over that ill-gotten gain, and we'll keep this between ourselves."
With a sly grin, he sprinted off, bits of gravel spraying up from his feet. As he raced, he yelled over his shoulder, "Sorry, Jo! I've a ferry to meet."
Picking up her skirts, she dashed after him, then lessened her pace as she neared the main road. What would people think of her, chasing her scamp of a brother? She'd never catch him anyway. Oh, what a day this was turning out to be.
She slowed, then stopped, her eyes narrowing. Was that a flash of yellow-stockinged legs dangling over the inn's front-door awning? She flattened against the wall and watched.
A loosened shingle smacked onto the ground ahead of her, followed by the thunk of two feet. So that's how Lucius Nutbrown snuck in and out without her knowing.
Girding herself mentally for a conversation that was sure to be ridiculous, Johanna pushed from the wall. "Mr. Nutbrown, a word, if you please."
For an instant, his body stiffened into a ramrod. Then he turned, the creases around his mouth settling into a smug line. For a man so lean, how he managed to gather such extra skin on his face was a wonder. When he reached into an inner pocket of his dress coat, Johanna rolled her eyes. Indeed. This would be ridiculous.
Nutbrown's hand emerged, covered with a raggedy court-jester puppet, which he promptly held out front and center. "Sorry, Miss Langley." The puppet's head bobbed side to side, the man's falsetto voice as crazed as the movement. "Mr. Nutbrown is late to an appointment. He shall attend you later this evening. Good day."
Nutbrown pivoted, the tails of his coat swinging wide. Did he seriously think she'd let him off that easily?
Heedless of who might be watching, she darted ahead and stopped directly in his path. "I'm afraid not, sir. This cannot wait."
His brows pulled together, drawing a dark streak above his eyes, yet he shoved the jester forward. "Very well, miss. But make it quick."
"Please, put away your puppet, sir. It gains you nothing." She extended her hand. "Pay up your room and board for the past fortnight, and I shall have nothing more to say."
The jester's head plummeted, his plaster nose pecking her palm.
She yanked back her hand. "Mr. Nutbrown! Really! I should hate to bring the magistrate in on this, but if I must —"
"No." Nutbrown's hands shot up as if she'd aimed a Brown Bess at his chest, the crazy puppet waving like a banner overhead. In three long-legged strides, he sidestepped her, lowering the puppet out at arm's length. "By week's end, Miss Langley, you shall be paid in full. You have Mr. Nutbrown's word on it."
The puppet disappeared into his coat, and Nutbrown scurried down the street.
Wonderful. The word of a jester made of cloth and papier-mâché, and the clown who wore it upon his hand. Yet he was their sole source of income unless she could pry those coins from Thomas's fingers, which wasn't likely. Bending, she gathered up the dry-rotted chunks of broken shingle and frowned. Her world was falling apart as tangibly as the inn — the place she loved most. The home she and Thomas and Mam must leave if they didn't come up with the rent payment by the end of next month.
Holding tightly to the shingle remnant, she closed her eyes. At the moment, her faith felt as crumbly as the wood — which was always the best time to pray.
"Please God, provide a way. Fill the inn ... and soon."
* * *
Knuckles hovering to strike, Officer Alexander Moore slid his gaze once more to the left. It paid to think before pounding away, be it in a street brawl or — as in this case — on a door. A tarnished brass relief of the number seven hung at an angle, as if no one had given the slightest thought before nailing up the house number. Considering the man who supposedly lived here, the haphazard detail stayed his hand a second more. Had he written down the magistrate's address incorrectly?
Only one way to find out.
He pounded thrice, then stepped back, ready for anything. Behind him, hackney wheels ground over cobbles, grating a layer off his already thin nerves. Magistrate Ford never — ever — invited guests over for dinner. So why him? Why now?
Hinges screeched an angry welcome as the door opened. Lantern light spilled over the pinched face of a tall man shrouded in a dark dress coat, dark waistcoat, and darker pants. Rounding out the theme was a single-looped cravat, black as a crypt, choking the fellow's neck. A ghoul could not have been garbed more effectively. The man didn't say a thing, but even without words, Alex got the distinct impression he read, condensed, and filed away every possible facet of him in a glance — from shoe size to propensity for warmed sherry.
And Alex didn't like it one bit. That kind of intelligence gathering was supposed to be his specialty.
"My apologies. I must have the wrong address." Alex nodded a valediction, careful to keep a wary eye on the figure from the dead. "Good evening."
"Step this way, Officer Moore." The fellow set off without looking to see that Alex complied, nor even that the door was shut or locked. The magistrate would never abide such ineptitude down at Bow Street. Surely this was a ploy, or perhaps some kind of test of his wit.
Aah. A test? A slow smile lifted half his mouth.
With a grip on the hilt of his dagger, he unsheathed the blade and withdrew it from inside his great coat. Crossing the threshold, he left the door wide should a quick escape become necessary and trailed the disappearing lantern down a hall as lean as the man he followed.
At the end of the corridor, the grim reaper tapped twice on a closed door, then pushed it open without waiting for a response. The brilliance of the room reached out and pulled Alex forward. He entered a grand dining hall, incongruous in size and opulence with the street view of the ramshackle building. Crystal wall sconces and an overhead chandelier glittered light from one mirrored panel to another. A thick Turkish rug sank beneath his steps. The place was fit to house a peer of the realm, not a law keeper who served out gritty justice to the malefactors of London.
Directly across from him stood Bow Street Magistrate, Sir Richard Ford, stationed at the farther end of a polished table. Ford snapped shut a pocket watch and tucked it inside his waistcoat, then skewered him with a piercing gaze. "Prompt as always, eh Moore?"
"I try, sir."
Flipping out his coattails, Ford sat, then shook out a folded linen napkin and covered his lap. "Put that weapon away and have a seat. I invited you to dinner, not a skirmish."
The butler stepped forward, offering his arm to collect Alex's coat.
Alex sheathed his knife, then shrugged out of his woolen cloak and handed it over with a whispered warning. "You might want to shut that front door."
Across the long table, Ford chuckled. "Your concern for Underhill is admirable, but quite unnecessary. Though my butler's appearance leaves much to be desired, his service is impeccable. As for the door, by now it's not only sealed but would take a two-ton battering ram to break it in."
Sinking into the chair, Alex cocked a brow.
"You doubt me?" Ford's question dangled like a noose.
"Never, sir. Just curious, is all. Seemed a simple enough slab of oak."
"Oak, yes. Well, mostly. As for simple?" Ford shook his head. "Pulleys, gears, a generous portion of iron reinforcement. Try putting in a monstrosity like that without attracting attention from one end of the neighborhood to the other."
The magistrate paused to ring a small silver bell sitting next to his plate. Before the last of the short chime cleared the air, a housemaid entered with a tray.
Ford ignored her as she set a steaming bowl in front him. "I suppose you're wondering why I asked you here."
Only a thousand times. The retort lay dormant on his tongue. To admit he'd anguished over this meeting would show weakness — a trait he'd vowed never again to embrace. He followed the sleek movement of the girl as she placed his bouillon on the table, then returned his gaze to the magistrate. "The thought crossed my mind that, perhaps, I was to be the main course."
A thin smile stretched the magistrate's lips. "Not that you don't deserve to be after your unorthodox capture of Ned Dooley."
And there it was. What this entire charade was about. Alex leaned forward, bumping the table and rippling the wine in his glass. "Regardless of how it was accomplished, sir, Dooley's conviction ended that smuggling ring, saving countless lives, not to mention the expense spared to the Crown. How you can possibly say —"
Ford's hand shot up, cutting off further comment. "You already know my thoughts on the matter. I daresay neither of us will sway the other's opinion, so let us officially consider this topic closed to discussion. There is a much larger scheme prompting this meeting."
"Must be spectacular." Alex sank back in his chair. "Inviting me here is a singular event. As far as I know, not a runner has ever uncovered where you live, and though I begged you time and again as a lad, you never relented."
"Indeed. Sometimes extreme measures are necessary." Ford shooed away the serving girl with a flick of his fingers, then sat motionless until she disappeared through a hidden panel in the wall. He took a moment to sample his soup. "I would like you to go incognito for a while."
Taking the magistrate's lead, Alex picked up his spoon and downed several mouthfuls of his broth, tasting nothing. Something was not right about the magistrate's request. Ford could've asked him the same thing in his office without the pretense of dinner. In fact, he could've asked any number of other officers or — suddenly understanding dawned bright and clear.
He shoved back his chair. "With all due respect, I've hardly forgotten the assignment you handed Brentwood last year. Am I the only available officer for you to proposition?"
The more he thought of Nicholas Brentwood's previous mission, the hotter his blood ran. He'd sooner quit than be saddled with the care of a spoiled rich girl, as had his friend — even though it turned out well in the end.
Rising, he frowned at the napkin as it fell to the carpet. Let the impeccable butler pick it up. In fact, let Underhill have the assignment. "My thanks for your hospitality, sir, but if that is the case, my answer is no. A firm and emphatic no."
Ford's tone — or was it the use of his Christian name? — slid over his shoulders like a straight-coat, pinning him in place. Suddenly he was ten years old again, compelled to do his guardian's bidding.
Excerpted from "The Innkeeper's Daughter"
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.
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