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Undercover Ladies Book Two
By Margaret Brownley
Barbour Publishing Inc.Copyright © 2015 Margaret Brownley
All rights reserved.
Arizona Territory, 1882
Maggie Taylor spotted the thief the moment she stepped off the Southern Pacific train and onto the open-air platform.
As a Pinkerton operative, she'd dealt with her share of pickpockets through the years, but this one put the profession to shame. He made no attempt at discretion; he simply bumped into a male passenger and walked away with the man's gold watch.
Normally Maggie wouldn't hesitate to pursue the culprit, but today she had bigger fish to fry. Chasing after a third-rate thief could jeopardize months of hard work and careful preparation, and she couldn't take the chance.
That is, until he targeted a young mother with three small children. Maggie changed her mind. He had to be stopped.
Threading her way through the crowd, she reached the woman ahead of the thief and picked up the drawstring handbag she'd carelessly left next to a carpetbag.
"Your purse, ma'am. There are thieves around. Better keep an eye on it."
The harried mother took the bag from her. She looked no older than nineteen or twenty. "Thank you," she murmured, as if thieves were the least of her problems.
Satisfied that the pickpocket's latest attempt at larceny had been thwarted, Maggie pushed him from her mind and swung her gaze over the crowd. Never before had a new assignment filled her with such anxiety. But then again, never had she attempted such a daring venture.
Would she recognize the suspect on sight?
According to Pinkerton files, Garrett Thomas stood six feet tall, was forty-five years of age, and had dark hair and blue eyes. His one outstanding feature was a scar along the side of his face — a war wound. He was also extremely clever. Some said even lucky. A suspected thief and murderer, Thomas had endured the Battle of Gettysburg and a year in the Andersonville rebel prison — an impressive record of survival by anyone's standards.
Though he was suspected of committing a daring train robbery, his most notable achievement was evading Pinkerton's best detectives for nearly two years. We'll see how long your luck holds out this time, Mr. Thomas. Eventually even a cat runs out of lives.
After checking that her feathered hat was angled just right, she pushed a strand of auburn hair behind her ear and smoothed the bun at her nape. Her wardrobe had been chosen with utmost care, and her demeanor meticulously polished.
The goal was to look fashionable but not ostentatious: to act domesticated without appearing dull. At all times she had to be charming, well spoken, and industrious. In matters of politics, religion, and finances she must take care not to express a contrary view as she was often inclined to do. In other words, she had to look and act like a woman that any man would be proud, indeed anxious, to wed.
Given her somewhat opinionated and independent spirit, curtailing her impulsive nature would be her greatest challenge. She couldn't afford to do or say anything without careful consideration of the consequences. Not this time.
Not only did she have to make a fine impression but one that would throw no suspicion her way. "Dazzle Thomas with your charm and good looks," Mr. Pinkerton had said. "He won't suspect a thing."
In her current state, she'd be lucky to dazzle a horsefly. She was hot and she was hungry and more than anything, travel weary.
Despite the desert heat, she donned her kid gloves and smoothed the wrinkles from her blue velvet-trimmed suit. Steam hissed across the platform, and passengers sidestepped the heated blast.
A barefooted boy of nine or ten raised a folded newspaper in the air and yelled something about a fire. "Readallaboutit!"
A man bumped into her and almost knocked her off her feet. Regaining her balance, she pivoted just in time to see the same thief she'd spotted earlier snatch the paperboy's money bag and dart into the crowd. The nerve! It wasn't bad enough trying to steal from a young mother, but a child?
The youth's face turned red. "That man took my pouch!" His eyes brimmed with tears, though he tried not to let them fall. "Now I gotta pay the money back."
Maggie hesitated. If only the boy didn't look so needy. His tattered shirt was a size too small, and his threadbare trousers fell six inches short of his dirty bare feet. "Stay here!" she said and took off after the robber.
The thief moved at a fast clip, but the crowded platform and a limp kept him from altogether running. His long dark coat was more suitable for cold weather, and it made him stand out among a crowd dressed mainly in calico dresses and boiled white shirts.
Something was definitely wrong with his left leg. He dragged it along, toes pointing away from his body. She'd almost caught up to him when a dark-skinned porter pushed a cart of baggage in her path, momentarily blocking her way.
By the time the cart moved, the pickpocket had vanished. She ran to the end of the platform and immediately spotted him lumbering along the railroad tracks. Had he been physically able to run she might have given up the chase, but he looked like an easy mark.
Jumping to the ground, she raised her skirt above her ankles and took off after him. Here I go again, tossing common sense to the wind. But she couldn't seem to help herself. Not where children were concerned.
Running on the gravel in high-button shoes and a straight skirt wasn't easy, but she quickly gained on the man. She just hoped he didn't force her to pull out her pistol.
No more than a couple of yards separated them when the heel of her boot caught on a wooden railroad tie. All at once her feet flew from beneath her. Arms and legs windmilling, she fell facedown on the ground.
The wind knocked out of her, she fought to gather her wits. Now look what she'd done. Grimacing, she ever so slowly pushed to her feet and squinted against the blazing sun. On the left side of the tracks a bleak desert stretched for as far as the eye could see. Since the thief was nowhere in sight, he'd probably ducked through the adobe brickyard that paralleled the tracks on the right.
What kind of town was this anyway that a man could steal from a young boy in plain sight and get away with it?
Gritting her teeth, she stared down at her stylish blue traveling suit now covered in dust.
She brushed herself off with quick angry swipes and straightened her feather hat. When would she ever learn? One impetuous moment could jeopardize six months of careful planning.
The sound of crunching gravel made her whirl about. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood but a few feet away staring at her with eyes the color of a deep blue sea.
"Is everything all right, ma'am?"
Her mouth fell open, and her hand flew to her parted lips. The red scar slicing down the side of his handsome square face told her he could be no other than the suspect Garrett Thomas, the man she had traveled all this distance to wed.
* * *
Maggie's mind scrambled. Normally able to think on her feet, she had a hard time coming up with a plausible explanation for standing on the railroad tracks. God, don't let me mess up this job. Not like she did the Madison case, which had landed her in jail. This time she would get her man if it killed her. Reminding herself to "dazzle," she lifted her chin with a brilliant smile.
"I'm quite all right, thank you." Taller than she'd expected, he towered over her five-foot-seven-inch height by more than six inches. He was clean shaven with high cheekbones and a straight nose. His brown hair, neatly trimmed to just above his collar, was combed from a side part.
"Mr. Thomas, right?" she said, extending a gloved hand. At least the Pinkerton report got the color of his eyes right, though listing the color as merely blue hardly did them justice.
He stared at her for a brief moment before his hand swallowed hers in a firm grip. His wide shoulders filled his boiled shirt and low-cut vest with no room to spare. A large-brim hat shaded his face.
"And you must be Miss Taylor."
"Yes." She smiled and lowered her lashes as she imagined a woman meeting her fiancé for the first time might do. Under Allan Pinkerton's guidance, she had answered this man's advertisement for a mail-order bride and corresponded with him for nearly six months.
Much to her dismay, he didn't look particularly dazzled. Instead he frowned. "What are you doing here on the railroad tracks?"
"I was hoping to ... convince a thief to return his haul." Sticking as close to the truth as possible was the key to creating a realistic illusion. She'd worked long and hard to arrange this meeting and would play her role to the hilt.
As if suddenly aware that he still held her hand, he released it. "And how, exactly, did you intend to do that?" His eyes shone with amusement. "Convince him, I mean."
With a strategically pointed gun, if necessary. Of course she couldn't say that aloud. "With charm and goodwill," she said instead.
He hung his thumbs from his vest pockets and grinned. "I don't know how it is in your hometown, ma'am, but here in Arizona, charm and goodwill won't get you the time of day."
So much for the principal's dazzle theory. "What will?" she asked, feigning a look of innocence.
"A firearm and a good left hook."
She would have felt a whole lot better had he said it with a smile like the one she'd seen before, but he looked serious. Dead serious. Nevertheless, she maintained her composure. "I didn't know that Arizona was so ... civilized."
This time he did smile, which only emphasized his nicely shaped mouth. "Oh, we're civilized all right. We haven't had a shootout since last Wednesday." He crooked his arm and inclined his head. "Shall we? My rig's over there."
She slipped her arm through his and forced herself to breathe. It hardly seemed fair for a suspected killer to be so attractive, but she wasn't about to be fooled by his charm or good looks.
She willed the knot in her stomach to go away as they approached his horse and wagon. Her bout of nerves was annoying and totally uncalled for. He had no reason to suspect she was anyone other than who she pretended to be: an innocent farm girl and mail-order bride.
All she had to do was act like the perfect little fiancée until she found the proof to put him away and she'd be home free. It sounded easy enough during the planning stages, but now that she'd met him in person, something told her that nothing about this man would be simple.CHAPTER 2
Garrett Thomas was surprised to see his Aunt Hetty on his doorstep later that day. Yesterday she was on her deathbed declaring, "This really is the end." And here she was no more than twenty-four hours later, dressed in her Sunday-go-to-meeting best and looking spry as a young hen.
Normally he would be delighted to see her up and about, but he knew from experience that any time his aunt donned feathers and silk midweek, it was never a good sign. Either this really was her last day on earth or she was about to put her nose where it didn't belong. The appearance of Reverend Holly could mean either one of his suppositions was correct.
"Don't tell me you're planning your funeral again," Garrett said wryly, bracing himself for her usual long and tiresome list of physical complaints, or what he called her "organ recital." Her last recitation started at the big toe and worked up from there to the cranium.
But she surprised him. No palpitating heart complaints today. No sciatic grievances. Nor any rheumatism updates. Instead, his aunt pushed past him in a cloud of rustling brown silk and lavender perfume.
"No, but now that you mention it, I do wish to make some changes." She pulled off her kid gloves as she spoke and gave them an emphatic shake. "I'll not have that awful Grace Lytton sing at my funeral." Aunt Hetty was a small, birdlike woman whose sharp tongue had, at one time or other, alienated everyone in town.
The minister splayed his hands and shrugged before following her inside the house with an apologetic air. He was a short, barrel-chested man with a goatee. Red suspenders held up his trousers, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbows. His one concession to formality was his ever-present bow tie with the pointed ends.
His aunt planted herself on the divan as if intending to take root, and the minster took the nearby upholstered chair.
Before Garrett had a chance to find out what was really going on, his five-year-old daughter, Elise, ran into the parlor, her face bright with delight.
"Aunty!" she squealed.
Aunt Hetty wrapped her arms around the child's small frame, but other than a quick glance at Elise, her attention remained on Garrett. "Be careful of my back, precious, and watch my bad knee. Oh, and we must do something with your hair. We can't have you looking like a waif for your father's wedding."
Garrett stared at his aunt. So that's what this visit was about. He should have known.
"What's a waif?" Elise asked.
Garrett kept his irritation in check, as much for his daughter's sake as for the man of God. He didn't have much use for the church, but the reverend deserved respect, as did any guest in his household.
"I'll tell you later. Now run along like a good girl." She patted Elise on the backside. "I wish to speak to your father."
And Garrett wished to speak to her.
Aunt Hetty meant well, but he and he alone would decide if and when he married. Miss Taylor's letters had looked promising; she wrote with intelligence, warmth, and wit. But after meeting her in person, he had grave concerns about her lack of judgment. Chasing after a thief, of all things ... She could have gotten herself killed. In the name of Sam Hill, what had she been thinking? And what other character flaws did she possess?
He waited until Elise had left the room. "As I explained the other day, Miss Taylor and I wish to wait until we've had time to get to know each other." Selecting a new wife was not a task to be taken lightly, especially when his two children were involved.
"Wait too long and I might not be around to enjoy your wedding. You know how my back has been acting up and —"
"A bad back is not generally a cause of death," Garrett argued.
Aunt Hetty stared down her pointed nose. "That's not all that's wrong with me and you know it."
The minister, apparently sensing she was about to run through another shopping list of ailments, interrupted. "Speaking of weddings, when do we get to meet the bride-to-be?"
"Good question." Aunt Hetty leaned forward, both brown-spotted hands atop her cane. "We stopped at the hotel and the clerk told us there was some sort of mix-up."
"There was a mix-up all right." The room he'd reserved for Maggie a month ago had been given to someone else. "No rooms are available."
"Hmm. How odd." Aunt Hetty gave him a questioning look. "So where is she staying?"
"Right now she's staying here."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Then there's no time to waste. I won't have you living in sin around my grandniece and grandnephew."
The reverend mopped his damp forehead with a handkerchief but refrained from comment.
Aunt Hetty sniffed. "It's a good thing I dragged myself out of a sickbed to come over here. I probably shortened my life by —"
"You shouldn't have done that," Garrett said.
"Nonsense. I promised your dear mother that I would take care of you."
"And no one could have done a better job than you." His widowed mother died when he was six, and his aunt devoted herself to his upbringing at great sacrifice. That's what made it so difficult to stand his ground now.
"Surely you see the advantage of getting to know my bride first before we tie the knot. Let the children get to know her."
"Hogwash! There'll be plenty of chances for the children to get to know her after you've made an honest woman of her."
The reverend tucked his handkerchief in his pocket. "It seems to me that the bride should have something to say about this."
Garrett inclined his head toward the bedroom where Miss Taylor had been closeted since they'd arrived home. "She's resting from her journey."
"Did you tell her about Toby?" his aunt asked.
Garrett inhaled. His eight-year-old son had become a sore subject between them. He wasn't a bad kid, just curious and adventuresome and far too active for his aunt to handle.
"There's nothing to tell."
"Tell me what?"
Excerpted from Undercover Bride by Margaret Brownley. Copyright © 2015 Margaret Brownley. 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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