Beauty, wit, and charm may catch a gentleman's eye, but nothing attracts suitors quite like property . . .. as beloved, award-winning author Kate Moore reveals in this delightful novel.
Lucy Holbrook has recently inherited her father's south London inn, the place she's always called home. Now her fashionable friends, arming her with The Husband Hunter's Guide to London, are urging her to sell the establishment and become a society lady, just as her father always hoped. Lucy would rather toss the little book into the hearth—she could never desert the alehouse or its patrons, including an elderly blind man who depends on her care. But she may need every bit of good advice when a handsome stranger arrives with a secret agenda and a baffling crime to solve . . . and Lucy finds herself navigating a most dangerous attraction.
Praise for Kate Moore and her novels
“Moore writes with a lyrical beauty that will leave no heart untouched.” —RT Book Reviews
“Fans will hope for more of Moore's sinful delights to come.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Moore skillfully whets readers' appetites . . .” —Booklist
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The Tooth and Nail Inn
At the crunch of carriage wheels on gravel, Lucy Holbrook stuck a last branch of golden forsythia in a black jug on the sideboard of the Tooth and Nail's only private dining room. By placing the forsythia just so, she concealed a spot where the edge of the ivy wallpaper curled away from the wall. To Lucy the inn's flaws were as dear as its comforts, but she didn't want her home to appear shabby or rustic in her friends' eyes; and worse, she didn't want them to blame Papa for the inn's defects. She knew her father had meant to get to the wallpaper, and she was sure he had given her a childhood as golden as the flowers in the jug. She took a quick look around the dining room, prayed that its faults would be overlooked in the pleasure of the company, and descended to meet her guests.
The usual crowd of neighborhood men, who came for their daily pint and a smoke, had ceased their talk to gawk at the visitors on the landing as if the curtain had opened on a wonder at the St. Botolph's Fair sideshow.
The ladies, for their part, took no notice of the bench sitters. The twins, Cassandra and Cordelia Fawkener, in matching dark green, fur-lined cloaks, concentrated on removing blue kid gloves and black bonnets. The sisters were used to being remarked upon from their habit of dressing in matching outfits since their come-out some twenty years earlier.
Only Margaret Leach turned to Lucy with a broad smile and opened her arms. Lucy stepped without hesitation into her friend's embrace. A brief flood of memories washed over her. So many times at school when the subject of a girl's connections had arisen, Margaret had offered kindness and wisdom. Lucy had come to appreciate the distinctly feminine nature of such comfort. While he was alive, Papa had patted her shoulder and told her she would be a lady someday. And old Adam had mutely squeezed her hand when he sensed her distress. But her friend Margaret knew when to hold her. Enfolded in that familiar embrace against a silken, scented bosom, Lucy felt yet unshed tears threaten. She pulled back. Tears could wait.
"Dear Lucy," Cassandra began, turning her back on the public room, "we've been so worried."
Lucy smiled at that. "Surely not, though I expect you've been eager for me to return that third volume of Mrs. Raby's romance."
"To think of you here, alone, child," Cassandra added, draping her cloak on the growing stack in her footman's arms.
"Which you see I am not."
"Lucy" — Cordelia thrust a brown-paper-wrapped package at her — "we've brought you a gift. You must open it."
"Don't rush the girl, Cordelia," Cassandra advised.
Lucy thanked Cordelia and took the package. "I've a private room ready for our luncheon."
The ladies exchanged a glance of obvious relief and turned their backs on the bench sitters. As they climbed the stairs, Lucy took a moment to summon Hannah to help the footman with the cloaks and tell him that he might make himself at home in the taproom or the stables.
In the little room that she and Hannah and Ariel had done their best to smarten up, the ladies studied the cold collation Mrs. Vell, the inn cook, had consented to serve on a Sunday. Pigeon pie, sliced tongue, pickled eggs, and a glistening apricot pudding filled the inn's best plates, arranged on a clean white linen cloth with shining silver serving spoons. While the ladies filled their plates, Lucy poured glasses of a raspberry cordial she had persuaded Mrs. Vell to uncork.
"We have not put you to any trouble, I hope," Margaret said, looking up from the sideboard.
Lucy saw where Margaret's glance caught a yellowing water stain like a lace fringe above the bow window.
"None," Lucy insisted, unless one counted persuading Mrs. Vell to alter her time-honored patterns. "It's a cold collation, as our cook has strong feelings about Sunday cooking."
The ladies settled themselves at the table and gingerly picked at the food.
"We've missed you at services, dear. Our little readers' group is not complete without you," Margaret said. Their group called itself the Back Bench Lending Library from their habit of exchanging novels after services each week at the chapel in South Audley Street. Lucy had not joined them since her father's death a fortnight past.
"But we've brought you a book," Cordelia added, breaking off at a look from her sister. "Well, Cassandra, really, Lucy can see without unwrapping it that it is in fact a book, and what else, pray, would we be bringing?"
Most people could not tell the fashionable dark-haired twins apart until they spoke. Then Cassandra's forcefulness of personality made one notice the sharper arch of her brows and jut of her chin. And Cordelia's eagerness to please made one conscious of the softness about her mouth and eyes.
"Nevertheless, Cordelia," Cassandra said, turning to Lucy. "Before we get to the book, we must talk about your situation, dear girl."
"My situation?" Lucy held her fork suspended above a pickled egg. It was a careful word, a word that meant there was a problem to be dealt with, something that could be fixed or altered or improved, the way one cleaned a chimney that smoked or moved one's seat away from a draft.
The three ladies nodded in vigorous unity. Cassandra looked to the other two and clearly received some signal to proceed. "You do see that you must leave the inn."
Lucy put down her fork and slid her hand into her lap. She did not want her friends to see that hand tremble. She should not be surprised that they judged the inn as an unacceptable setting for a lady of their acquaintance.
"Yes, now that your dear father is gone," Cordelia added, "you may not stay in a common inn."
"But the inn is my home. It's where I live."
"It is what you've been accustomed to, to be sure," said Cordelia, "while your father was alive. However, a gentlewoman does not stay in a public house without a male relation on the premises and indeed without a female companion."
"Surely, my case is different, as I am now the innkeeper." Lucy watched Margaret for any sign that her dearest friend was on her side in the matter, but Margaret seemed intent on cutting a piece of tongue into the smallest possible bites. Margaret had been an instructor at Mrs. Thwayte's Seminary for Young Ladies in Hammersmith until she left to become the companion of the twins' elderly mother, Lady Eliza Fawkener. It was Margaret who had introduced Lucy to the twins and the Back Bench Lending Library group.
Cassandra pushed her untouched plate aside. "What you are, Lucy, is a woman of ... property. You'll sell the inn of course," she announced.
"Sell the ... inn?" Lucy had almost said sell my home,but she could see that her friends would be deaf to the claims of such a home with its noise and bustle, its rustic furnishings and humble hospitality.
"Once you've sold, you may convert the profits of the sale into the funds," Cassandra continued.
Lucy looked at the three solemn faces, alike in their expressions of certainty. Behind them the forsythia branch hid the wallpaper. They, too, had a plan for hiding any flaws Lucy might possess as she entered their world, such as being the daughter of a former pugilist who kept an inn.
At school, a girl named Amelia Fox had been the self-proclaimed expert on origins. "Your origins are your destiny," she would say, as she rated each girl's family ties. In Lucy's case Amelia had proclaimed that nothing could be done about her father, and it was just as well that nothing was known about Lucy's mother, because surely nothing good could be known. Now Lucy's friends invited her to shed her questionable birth forever with a simple economic transaction. As an heiress with her money in the funds, Lucy could slip into their world as if there'd never been a Papa, a Tom Holbrook, who'd once been Iron Tom in a bout against the champion. It was a tidy plan.
"Lucy, dear," Cordelia urged, "do open our gift. We found it in our pew, just where you usually sit, and knew at once that it was a sign." Cordelia gave the package a shove across the table toward Lucy.
"Not yet, Cordelia," Cassandra admonished. "Everyone should eat. I recommend this pudding. You may compliment your cook, Lucy."
* * *
Captain Harry Clare, late of the First Royal Dragoons, opened the door of the Tooth and Nail, a west London inn from which coaches and travelers set out for Dover and the continent. He let in a gust of cold March air that caused the men on two long benches to glance his way and holler greetings. He had not encouraged the familiarity, but they greeted him as if he were one of their own.
He slipped out of his wet coat and hat and tossed them on a hook by the door. He had been lodging at the inn since the debacle that closed the Pantheon Club. The club, a front for a group of handpicked spies in England's great game against her former ally, Russia, had been Harry's home for nearly a year as he and his fellow spies had tracked down enemy agents operating in London.
The club's unexpected closing had come just as Harry was about to complete his final assignment and receive the promised reward for his year and a day of service. Instead, he'd been cast out to shift for himself. He was an old hand at such shifts, having joined the army at seventeen and seen action from Spain to Waterloo. He could make a billet anywhere, from a muddy mountainside to the ruins of a shelled castle. And he was a man who never failed to complete an assignment, even one as puzzling as the one he'd been assigned — to find a blind man who was the only witness to a murder.
He'd found his unlikely murder witness at the Tooth and Nail, where the old man sat on a bench near the kitchen door, doing odd bits of handwork. The man, Adam Pickersgill, was simple-minded and easily agitated. A stray bit of conversation from the bench sitters could rouse Adam to a frenzy of waving fists and shouted words until his voice failed. Harry had seen similar cases of sudden starts in men who'd been subjected to the shock of war. Getting information out of Adam to solve a crime would not be easy.
The old man's daily pattern revolved around Lucy Holbrook, the innkeeper's daughter. She was a distracting female. The eye wanted to follow her, all golden hair and fair skin, but Harry was generally good at ignoring distractions when he had a job to do.
When he'd first come to the inn, he'd made an arrangement with the innkeeper, Tom Holbrook, about his lodging. In exchange for letting Tom set up a display cabinet at the front of the inn with the few mementos he'd acquired in the long campaign against Napoleon, he had a fine room. Tom Holbrook had fitted up a glass case in the entry to hold Harry's Waterloo relics: his straight sword, a bronze replica of the eagle he'd helped Alex Clark take from the French Guard, the Morning Chronicle's report of his exploits, and a fine collection of Evershot plates depicting the heroes of June 18, 1815 — Blücher, Wellington, and the Prince of Orange. If Harry thought the true heroes of the day lay in the fields of Belgium, he kept that thought to himself. He could tell a good war story with the best of them.
Then Tom Holbrook had been so inhospitable as to die. "Iron Tom," as he'd been known in his youthful days in the ring, had been buried the previous Sunday, and his golden-haired daughter had become a woman of property. The Tooth and Nail looked just as it had the week before, but its usual customers had taken to combing their hair and replacing stained waistcoats and worn jackets with Sunday finery. It was plain that, as the inn's new owner, Lucy Holbrook had become a sought-after prize. Harry was not a betting man, but he'd wager that the girl had other plans than marrying one of her neighbors.
From the entry, Harry stepped down the three wide steps that led to the common room. The inn's oak wainscoting was as brown as beef and ale. Its walls were gold as mustard or onions. Its hearths were black with a century's worth of soot.
Under the old mullioned windows facing the yard were the long tables where coach passengers could get a quick meal. A slate menu read: Lamb. Pork. Beef. A great stone inglenook fireplace divided the room between the front tables for travelers and the lowly benches in the tap where the inn's usual customers had their pints and smoked their pipes, dipping the stems in their ale.
The place was a bit of England for which the long war with France had been fought, but the men who sat on its benches knew war only as plunging or rising prices, changing governments, and distant battles that faded into history faster than the local champion's fame in the ring. They were civilians, and even after ten years of peace Harry didn't think he knew how to be one of them.
A thin layer of bluish smoke hung in the taproom air. The long-case clock ticked, the fire crackled, and outside, rain clattered in the drainpipes. The regular bench sitters slumped over their pint pots. Harry guessed the reason for their dejection — the innkeeper's golden- haired daughter was nowhere to be seen.
Will Wittering, a blacksmith with the forge that served the inn stables, called out, "Captain, come wet yer throat w' us this sad day."
Harry strolled their way, and the group shifted to make room for him on the bench.
"A bit of news for you, Captain," Will offered.
"What's that?" asked Harry. He nodded at Frank Blodget, the tapman, to draw him a pint. With the spy club closed, Harry no longer had to stick by its rule of no spirits.
"One of Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe's Rockets was stopped by a gang of highwaymen last night."
Harry took his first swallow of ale and listened as the tale poured out from several tellers. He took a moment to glance at the blind man, alone on his bench without his usual work. Queenie, the inn's orange-and- white cat, lay curled in Adam's lap between the big man's slack hands.
"Did the robbers get much?" he asked the bench sitters. He wondered whether he could get some sense out of the old fellow while Lucy Holbrook was away.
"That's the puzzle," said Will, shaking his head. "They only took the horses."
"Not Radcliffe's gold?" Harry knew the animals on one of Radcliffe's Rockets would hardly be prize horseflesh. Radcliffe ran the kind of coaching enterprise where profits were lean, and his drivers were the kind who drove their beasts until they died in the traces somewhere between London and Dover.
The bench sitters chuckled. Geoffrey Radcliffe had been knighted for loaning staggering sums to King George when the latter was a mere prince.
The bench sitters shook their heads. "A gang, they were," Will added. "Spoke some gibberish."
"Coulda been gypsies," suggested another bench sitter.
Harry ventured a glance at the blind man. It was a rare moment when Lucy Holbrook left the old man alone. Adam Pickersgill had been Harry's objective for weeks, but finding him had only deepened the mystery. Adam was tall and gaunt with a shock of white hair above a linen band that circled his head, covering his sightless eyes. Harry guessed his age to be near eighty and credited Lucy with keeping the old man clean and combed and neatly dressed.
Most days Adam sat on his bench with his brushes and blacking or a pile of silver and a pot of polish. The bench sitters knew little about him and cared less. Most of them simply considered the old man a fixture at the inn. He'd been there next to Lucy Holbrook as long as anyone remembered. Sheepishly, John Simkins, a merchant who sold water flasks, had confessed that as boys they had teased Adam and tried to provoke him whenever Lucy led him out of the inn for a bit of sun and air. How the girl had come to be responsible for the old man no one knew.
Harry turned back to the bench sitters, who were talking about roads and robberies and boasting that any one of them would have been a better match for the highwaymen than the coachman had been. It was pot-valiant talk, the kind Harry had heard from raw recruits on the night before battle. As the talk grew louder and bolder, the bench sitters glanced often at the door of the inn's private dining room. Harry suspected that at least three of them were working up the courage to solicit Lucy's hand in marriage.
"Where's Miss Holbrook?" he asked when talk of the robbery lapsed.
All the heads nodded at the door on the other side of the entry, and Will spoke for the group. "At luncheon with her lady friends."
Will wiped the foam from his lip. "Here's a puzzle for you, Captain," he said. "Why did Sir Geoffrey send his gold to Hell?"
Will, a fair-haired giant of man, was the wit of the group, and his companions waited for the punch line.
Excerpted from "A Lady's Guide to Passion and Property"
Copyright © 2018 Kate Moore.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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