"In a plot that twists, turns and surprises, Johnson has woven a compelling romance between two stubborn, endearing people. If you love smart heroines, intelligent heroes, witty dialogue and clever mystery plots, this gem of a historical romance might steal your heart."Bookpage
Detective Inspector Owen Rednerwell once found himself entangled with Charlotte Walker, the daughter of an infamous criminal. Now his new case will draw him back to the woman he could never forget.
Years ago, Owen Renderwell earned acclaimand a titlefor the dashing rescue of a kidnapped duchess. But only a select few knew that Scotland Yard's most famous detective was working alongside London's most infamous thief...and his criminally brilliant daughter, Charlotte Walker.
Lottie was like no other woman in Victorian England. She challenged him. She dazzled him. She questioned everything he believed and everything he was, and he has never wanted anyone more. And then he lost her.
Now a private detective on the trail of a murderer, Owen has stormed back into Lottie's life. She knows that no matter what they may pretend, he will always be a man of the law and she a criminal. Yet whenever he's near, Owen has a way of making things complicated...and long for a future that can never be theirs.
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A Talent for Trickery
By Alissa Johnson
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Alissa Johnson
All rights reserved.
Owen Renderwell, the first Viscount Renderwell, marched up the front steps of Willowbend House with the determined stride of a man who was less enthusiastic about reaching his destination than he was reliant upon the power of momentum to see him there.
He stopped short of reaching for the knocker.
Behind him, Sir Samuel Brass shifted his mountainous frame and scratched thoughtfully at his full beard. "Reconsidering, are you?"
Brushing at the sleeves of his fashionable coat, Sir Gabriel Arkwright's equally fashionable face lit with a mocking grin. "I believe our fearless leader is now contemplating the fact that this is our last chance to turn back."
"It's too late to turn back," Samuel pointed out. "We're already here."
"We are not turning back."
"One can turn back after arrival," Gabriel countered. "It's called retreat."
"We are not turning back."
Owen didn't want to turn back. That was, perhaps, the most disconcerting aspect of his current predicament. A good part of him wanted to be here, in Norfolk, on the steps of this very country house. That part of him had, in fact, wanted to make the trip years ago and was as eager to knock on the door as the rest of him was reluctant.
It was an uncomfortable thing to simultaneously wish to press forward and step back, and Owen recognized his incongruent feelings as the same he'd experienced at age nine, when his sister Eliza had convinced him it would be great fun to hurl a stone at a wasp's nest. It was the delicious thrill that came from succumbing to the allure of a very bad idea.
Resolute, he grasped the knocker and brought it down for three quick raps. Then he stood back and waited to regret his decision.
A silver-haired woman with light eyes clouded by age opened the door. She looked between them with open suspicion. "Yes?"
"Lord Renderwell to see —"
"Oh." Instantly, her demeanor changed. She stepped back, allowing them entrance, and waved a maid forward to take their hats and coats. "Welcome, my lord. Welcome to Willowbend. You honor us."
It still amazed him how efficiently his title removed obstacles from his path. It had been a revelation when he'd inherited the barony at sixteen and had only become more pronounced since he'd received the viscountcy.
As a child, he'd known few advantages of being the son of a baron. His family of nine had resided in what was laughably referred to as genteel poverty, which was, as far as he'd been able to tell, really no different than your common variety poverty. One could not fill an empty belly with an obscure title.
But a smart man could use it to open doors like this one.
The housekeeper showed them into a small but well-appointed parlor, and for a few disorienting seconds, it seemed to Owen as if he had stepped into the past. He'd never been in this house, never seen it. But he knew this room. How many times had he walked across that counterfeit Axminster carpet, or lit one of the brass lamps, or smirked at the large, imposing oil portrait of William Walker hanging over the fireplace? How many times had he sat on the pale blue sofa or in one of the matching wing chairs?
"Someone has taken up sketching," Gabriel announced.
Owen turned to see him pick up a sketchbook from a monstrously oversized escritoire (featuring a large number of carved animal heads) that was shoved awkwardly into a far corner.
"Quite good, really," Gabriel said, and he held up a skilled rendering of a rearing horse.
And just like that, the illusion was broken. Owen couldn't say with any degree of certainty if one of the younger Walker children had been artistically inclined eight years ago. But he knew with absolute certainty that he had never seen that hideous desk.
"Miss Esther Bales is quite accomplished," the housekeeper said with pride. "Fond of horses, that one. Doesn't miss a single detail." Then she took a second look at the sketch and paled. Because it wasn't just a horse. It was a stallion. In all his intact glory. And Esther had, indeed, not missed a single detail.
With a speed that was nothing short of miraculous, she darted across the room and nipped the sketch out of Gabriel's hands. "That is ... I do believe this is Mr. Bales's effort. I'll just ... I'll see he finds it, shall I? And fetch Miss Bales. I shall fetch Miss Bales directly." She headed for the door, paused, and turned round again, this time with a small blush. "It is Miss Bales you wish to see, is it not? Miss Charlotte Bales?"
"It is," Owen confirmed. "Thank you, Mrs ..."
"Oh. Lewis, my lord. I do beg your pardon. Mrs. Lewis."
"Thank you, Mrs. Lewis."
Owen waited for the housekeeper to curtsy and hurry out of the room. "Is distressing elderly women a new vice of yours?" he asked Gabriel. "Or one I've merely overlooked?"
Gabriel lacked the shame to hide his smile. "It wasn't intentional. I didn't notice the details; I was taken with the picture as a whole." He walked past the settee to inspect a door to an adjoining parlor. "Charlotte won't agree to see us, you know. We'll have to fetch her out."
"Perhaps." Owen hoped not. He couldn't imagine this going well, exactly, but with any luck, it wouldn't go so badly as to require brute force.
"She refused to see you the last time," Samuel reminded him.
"That was a long time ago."
"Think she's changed?" There was an unmistakable wisp of hopefulness in Gabriel's voice. He headed to the row of windows along the front wall and closed the two left cracked open. "Do you suppose any of the Walkers have changed?"
"It's Bales now, and I don't know."
"Peter will have," Samuel pointed out, unnecessarily. Peter had been no more than six when last they'd seen him.
Gabriel shook his head. "I still say he's the one we should be asking —"
"No." They'd agreed to keep the youngest Bales-formerly-Walker removed from the situation until they knew how informed the boy was of his family's past. Or rather, Owen had ordered his men to keep their mouths shut around the lad, and his men would obey.
"Please see we are not disturbed, Mrs. Lewis," a familiar voice sounded from the foyer.
Owen barely had time to register the pleasant tingle up the back of his neck before the parlor door opened and Charlotte strode into the room, exactly as she had the first time they'd met — with the grace, confidence, and bold defiance of a monarch whose claim to the throne came by virtue of having personally pried its original occupant off with a sword.
If pirates had a queen, he mused, she would enter a room like Miss Charlotte Walker-Bales.
Owen resisted the urge to shift his weight. Seeing her again felt like an unexpected shove. The sort one had a masculine obligation to pretend not to notice.
No easy task, that. Not when everything about her was just as he remembered — keen dark eyes in a heart-shaped face, thick black hair done up in a loose topknot.
She'd adopted the current fashion of narrow skirts and bustle, he noted, but he saw none of the flounces and frippery that were all the rage in London. No ruffled underskirts for Charlotte. No fringe or bows or buckles, nor dizzying, contrasting patterns that made a man's eyes cross. Just a simple gray gown with a small train and a single red ribbon woven through the top edge of a square-cut bodice. Elegant, severe, and alluring, all at once.
And there was that stubborn jaw and the mouth that turned up ever so slightly at the corners, lending the impression of a woman in possession of a wicked secret. Quite possibly your wicked secret.
There had been a time when he'd been captivated by that secretive mouth and spent more hours than he cared to admit looking for ways to turn that promise of a smile into the sparkling laugh he knew was hiding just beneath the surface. He couldn't imagine trying, let alone succeeding, in such an endeavor today. And so he kept his own voice polite but detached as he greeted her.
The three men bowed in unison. In return she said, "Well," and looked at each of them separately. "You're still alive, I see."
"And you're still angry," he replied.
"How very observant of you. Eight years and not a thing has changed," she drawled. "I vow, I feel a young woman of two-and-twenty again."
Things had changed. Drastically, in his mind. They'd been friends once. But her father's death had shattered her world, and for that, it seemed she would never forgive him.
He wanted to tell her that it wasn't his fault, that Will Walker had brought about his own demise and they both knew it. Frankly, it was a miracle the old criminal had ever made it past thirty. But she appeared no more inclined to admit the truth today than she had all those years ago. The last time she'd agreed to see him was the day he'd brought the news of Will's murder. The next six or seven times he'd called on her, he'd been turned away at the front door, and the letters he'd written in the following weeks and months had been returned to him unopened.
In the face of her continued refusal to have anything to do with him, Owen had set aside his desire to make things right between them. He had tried to forget her and, for long stretches of time, he had failed.
"It is good to see you again, Charlotte."
"Is it?" She tossed the pen she'd been holding onto a small side table, where it clattered softly against the varnished wood. "What are you doing here? I presume this is not a social call?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
She walked around the sofa and took a seat without suggesting they do the same and without taking her eyes off him, even when she said, "Stop sniffing about like a blind hound, Mr. Arkwright. There are no eavesdroppers on my staff."
No, there wouldn't be — not in the Walker-Bales household.
Gabriel straightened from where he'd been leaning an ear against the door to the foyer. Scowling, he returned to his original position next to the window. "One can never be too careful."
"No, one cannot," she agreed. "It is the mark of a fool to trust overmuch."
Ignoring the implied barb, Owen stepped closer. "We've come because we need your help."
One finely arched brow lifted slightly. "You must be joking."
"To be more precise, we need your father's help."
"My father's?" She let out a small puff of breath that may have been a laugh. "At the risk of repeating myself ... You must be joking."
"He kept journals. Detailed notes on specific encryptions employed by the various smugglers and gangs in and around London. Some of which he created himself."
"Yes, I know."
"Because you encrypted or deciphered a few of them for him." He wasn't sure why he was stating what everyone in the room already knew, except that it lent a businesslike — and therefore familiar and comfortable — air to an otherwise agonizing scene.
"And for you," she reminded him.
"Later, yes," he agreed. "Do you recognize this?" He pulled a letter from his pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to her.
She studied the long lines of letters and numbers. "No." Damn it. He was certain the encryption was similar to work Will Walker had done in the past. "Pity. Nonetheless —" When he reached for the letter, she pulled her hand away and continued her inspection.
Gabriel stepped forward from the windows. "Certain you don't know it?"
She looked up. "Yes."
"Why should we believe you?"
"Still the thickest of the three, aren't you?" She glanced at Owen. "Why ever have you kept him around so long?"
Owen shrugged lightly. "He's a good shot."
"There is something in that, I suppose." She turned her focus back to Gabriel. "I cannot refuse to share that which I do not possess, Mr. Arkwright. And I would rather the pleasure of informing you I will not help than admit to the fact I cannot help. Yes?"
Rather than reply directly, Gabriel sent a smirk to Samuel. "This one hasn't changed."
Neither had Gabriel, Owen thought. He had always enjoyed needling the Walker sisters.
Owen took hold of the letter and slipped it free from Charlotte's fingers. He didn't want her needled right now — he wanted her cooperative. "She doesn't know it." Clearly, it had intrigued her, but that was another matter. "Do you still have your father's journals?"
"Perhaps. Somewhere." One shoulder hitched up. "What does it matter? He gave you every cipher on which he worked. Your men had access to everything."
Doubtful, he thought. Highly doubtful. "We hope there might have been something we overlooked. Perhaps a codebook or cipher he'd forgotten — "
"You mean something he kept hidden from you," she translated.
"It makes little difference to me, either way."
"He gave you everything we had," she said coolly. "Just as he promised."
Had the situation not been quite so tense, Owen might have laughed at that nonsense. Will Walker had not been a man to keep his promises, nor give away all his secrets. "We should like a look at them, all the same."
"Would you?" She leaned back against the sofa cushions. "Dead these eight years and still you want my father to do your job for you."
Samuel stepped forward, breaking his silence. "We're offering more than equitable pay for the journals —"
"I don't need your money, Mr. Brass." She held up a hand. "I do beg your pardon. It's Sir Samuel now, isn't it? And Sir Gabriel?"
"May we see the journals?" Owen asked, before the conversation could veer into his men's elevation to knighthood and the painful circumstances surrounding it.
For the first time since she'd walked into the room, Charlotte's lips curved into a true smile. "You haven't my father's chance in heaven, but do give him my love on your way to hell."
Owen folded the letter and tucked it away. "A woman has been murdered."
The smile disappeared and she stared at him a moment before looking to Samuel. "Is this true?"
Samuel nodded. "A Mrs. Popple."
Charlotte went very still. "Maggie Popple? The madam?"
Owen resisted the foolish urge to step forward and take her hand. She didn't want his comfort. Nonetheless, he said, "I'm sorry."
She blinked and lifted her shoulder again. "She was my father's acquaintance. I scarcely knew her." She looked to Samuel once more. "The murderer sent the letter to you?"
For some reason, Owen found himself irritated that she would turn to Samuel now. "He left it with her," he answered and waited for Charlotte to face him again. "And three more just like it at the sites of burglaries in and around Belgravia."
"And how is it they came to be in your possession? It was my understanding you left the police. Private investigators now, aren't you? For the wealthy and well connected? How modern."
"You've kept informed," Gabriel said with a small smile.
"One does hear things."
"A former colleague requested our assistance," Owen told her. "Inspector Jeffries. Do you recall him?"
"Vaguely," she replied. "He gave you the letters?"
"They're copies. Tidier than the originals. But identical in every other way," he was quick to add. "Down to the length, width, and slant of every letter."
"Hmm. And does Inspector Jeffries know you've brought them here?"
"No." As far as most of Scotland Yard was concerned, the Walker children had emigrated to Boston immediately following the death of their father. Only Owen, his men, and the Crown knew the truth.
"I see." She stayed quiet for a while, drumming three fingers against the arm of the sofa in a pattern utterly familiar to Owen. The index finger twice, then the middle finger once, then the ring finger twice, and back to the middle finger for one tap, then the index finger twice again, and so on. He couldn't say why it pleased him to see she retained that odd little quirk.
"You may see the journals," she announced and stopped drumming.
Owen nodded, not particularly surprised by her decision. There had never been a question of whether or not she'd hand over her father's notes once she learned of the murder. The question had been — and continued to be — how painful would she make the process?
She rose from her seat and brushed a hand down the front of her gown. "Most of my father's belongings are stored away. It will take some time to find — "
"Time is of the essence," Gabriel cut in.
Excerpted from A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson. Copyright © 2015 Alissa Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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