Like most women, Elizabeth Miles assumes many roles; unlike most, hers have made her a woman on the run. Living on the edge of society, Elizabeth uses her guile to relieve so-called respectable men of their ill-gotten gains. But brutal and greedy entrepreneur Oscar Thornton is out for blood. He's lost a great deal of money and is not going to forgive a woman for outwitting him. With his thugs hot on her trail, Elizabeth seizes the moment to blend in with a group of women who have an agenda of their own.
She never expects to like or understand these privileged women, but she soon comes to respect their intentions, forming an unlikely bond with the wealthy matriarch of the group whose son Gideon is the rarest of speciesan honest man in a dishonest world. She knows she's playing a risky game, and her deception could be revealed at any moment, possibly even by sharp-eyed Gideon. Nor has she been forgotten by Thornton, who's biding his time within this gilded orbit, waiting to strike. Elizabeth must draw on her wits and every last ounce of courage she possesses to keep her new life from being cut short by this vicious shadow from her past.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Victoria Thompson
Jake looked much too smug.
Elizabeth’s hand itched to smack the smirk off his face, but well-bred young ladies didn’t go around smacking people in hotel dining rooms. Since she was pretending to be a well-bred young lady at the moment, she made herself smile pleasantly and threaded her way through the mostly empty tables to where he was sitting.
He jumped to his feet and pulled out her chair, because he was pretending to be a well-bred young man. “Good morning, dear sister. Did you sleep well?”
“Did you drop the leather?” she asked.
“Of course, and he just came into the dining room. Oh, wait. He stopped to talk to someone.”
Elizabeth glanced over, turning her head only slightly so she wouldn’t be caught watching their mark. Jake had done the same thing.
“It’s a woman,” Jake murmured.
“Shhh.” She could see that. She needed to hear what they said. If he had a friend in the city, someone who might advise him . . .
“Hazel, how nice to see you,” Thornton said, although a trace of strain in his voice indicated it wasn’t really so nice to see her at all.
“Oscar,” the woman said. Her back was to them but her tone was unmistakable. Elizabeth almost shivered from the frost in it. She’d have to practice that tone. It might come in handy someday.
“What brings you to Washington City?” Thornton asked with obviously forced enthusiasm. He’d also felt the chill and was trying to pretend he hadn’t.
The woman rose to her feet, and even though she was much shorter than Oscar Thornton, she seemed to tower over him. How did she do that? “I can’t believe that is any of your concern.” She laid her napkin down on the table and walked away, making Thornton look like a dog. How on earth did she do that? But Elizabeth couldn’t worry about that now. She had to salvage Thornton’s pride.
“Start talking,” Elizabeth whispered.
“So I told him I wanted to order a dozen pair,” Jake said a little louder than necessary so Thornton would know they’d been talking to each other and hadn’t noticed that woman cutting him dead so beautifully. Never embarrass a mark. “And he looks down his nose at me, the way those clerks in those fancy stores do, and he says, ‘Sir, you will never have use for a dozen pair.’”
“He didn’t!” Elizabeth said, outraged on behalf of her brother in this imaginary conversation.
“He did. So I told him I’d take two dozen instead.”
She laughed the little tinkling laugh she’d practiced so many times and said, “Father will be furious.”
“Why do you think I did it?” Then he looked up in apparent surprise to see Thornton approaching their table. “Good morning, Thornton. Won’t you join us?”
Elizabeth looked up, too, and gave him a delighted smile that told him how pleased she was to see him, because she was pleased, if not for the reason he thought. His face was still scarlet from the woman’s snub, but she gave no indication she noticed. “Yes, do join us and save me from having to listen to any more of my brother’s silly stories.”
Jake pretended to be affronted, but they soon had Thornton seated and responding to Elizabeth’s subtle flirting. He probably hadn’t forgotten that woman, but he was thinking about Elizabeth now, which was all that mattered.
“Oh dear, are those women still marching at the White House?” she asked, seeing the headline in the newspaper Thornton had carried with him.
“Yes, even though they’re getting arrested almost daily now,” Thornton said. He’d cleared the last of the humiliation out of his voice, she noticed with relief.
“I don’t know why women would want to vote anyway. Would you, Betty?” Jake asked, using the name they’d chosen for this job.
“I can’t imagine why,” Elizabeth said. “Politics is so boring.” She didn’t have to lie about her opinion of politics, at least.
“And not something a lady should concern herself with,” Thornton said with the condescending smile that set her teeth on edge.
Thornton told them the details of the suffragettes’ latest brush with the law while the waiter in his spotless white gloves served them eggs and potatoes and bacon and refilled their coffee cups. When they were nearly finished, Elizabeth said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Thornton.”
“For what, my dear?” he asked. He thought he was charming, and she let him think so.
“I stepped on your foot.”
“No, you didn’t,” he assured her.
Elizabeth frowned in confusion. “It must have been you then, Jake.”
“No, it wasn’t,” he said.
“Well, I stepped on something,” she said, pushing her chair back a bit and looking down at the floor. “What could it be?”
She couldn’t see because of the tablecloth, so Thornton obligingly bent down to help look. Then he reached under the table and came up with a man’s wallet.
“You’ve dropped your pocketbook, Perkins,” he told Jake.
Jake patted his jacket. “No, I haven’t. Mine’s right here. It must be yours.”
Thornton patted his own jacket and shook his head. “It’s not mine, either.”
“Someone’s going to be very upset,” Elizabeth said. “Look how much money is in it.”
Thornton had opened the wallet and discovered a large amount of cash inside.
“How much is it, do you think?” Jake asked.
“Several hundred at least,” Thornton said.
“We need to find the owner and return it,” Jake said. “Is there anything in there with a name on it?”
Thornton started emptying the wallet, which was stuffed not only with money but other papers as well. He laid the items out on the table, and Elizabeth and Jake moved the dishes aside to make room.
Jake picked up the stack of money and counted it while Thornton laid out several telegrams, a paper with a row of letters and numbers written on it, and a newspaper clipping.
“There’s over six hundred dollars here,” Jake said. Two year’s salary for an average working man.
“What does the newspaper clipping say?” Elizabeth asked.
Thornton read it to himself. “It’s about some fellow named Coleman making a killing in the stock market.”
“These telegrams are to someone named Coleman, too,” Jake noticed.
“Is that his photograph?” she asked, peering at the clipping in Thornton’s fat fingers.
“For all the good it does.” He turned it so she could see. The photograph was of a man holding his hat to cover his face.
“We don’t need his photograph if we have his name,” Jake pointed out. “He’s probably staying at the hotel. Let’s take it to him. I want to see his face when he gets it back.”
Thornton glanced over at her. “How do you feel about going to a strange man’s hotel room, Miss Perkins?”
She gave him a mischievous smile. “It’s scandalous, I know, but I’ll be thoroughly chaperoned.”
“Indeed you will,” Jake said with a grin.
While Jake stuffed everything back into the wallet, Thornton rose and pulled out her chair for her. She thanked him with a coy little smile that promised things she would never in this world deliver. Jake went on ahead to the front desk to see if Mr. Coleman was registered at the hotel. Which he was, of course, and he also happened to be in his suite at that very moment, the clerk reported after telephoning to find out.
Elizabeth should have been pleased. Everything was going perfectly. Jake was doing his part and she was doing hers. So why did she have that hollow feeling in her stomach every time she pictured how it would end?
The two men allowed her to go before them to the elevator, and Elizabeth felt Thornton’s gaze on her like a slimy hand. She and Jake were pretending to be members of an “old money” family, but she was sure Thornton knew they weren’t. She’d gathered that his late wife had come from one of the old New York families, so he’d know the difference. That didn’t matter, though. Actually, it was better if he thought they weren’t rich. He only needed to believe she was interested in him, and a young woman of limited means would certainly be interested in a single man of apparently unlimited means, no matter if he wasn’t particularly handsome or very young.
And Jake had determined that Thornton had the means while they chatted in the smoking car on the train down from New York. If he was green in other areas, Jake was a master at getting marks to talk.
The elevator operator deposited them on the top floor.
“The rooms up here are pretty nice,” Jake remarked as they walked down the hall. “I wanted to get a suite, but Betty wouldn’t hear of it,” Perkins said.
“It’s a waste of money,” she said, reinforcing Thornton’s suspicions that they weren’t actually rich.
“This is it,” Thornton said when he found the room.
“Betty, you stand out of sight,” Jake said, “in case this fellow doesn’t take the news in a friendly way or something.”
Elizabeth gave him a surprised look, but Thornton said, “Stand behind me and slip away if things get ugly.”
“All right,” she said, stepping back to allow Thornton to protect her. He was probably hoping they did have to slip away. Left to his own devices, he most likely would have just pocketed Coleman’s cash and left the wallet for the hotel staff to find, so they’d get blamed for stealing the money.
After a few moments, the door opened a little and a suspicious man peered out at them. “Yes?”
“Mr. Coleman?” Jake said.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Jake Perkins and this is Oscar Thornton. We—”
“Stop bothering me. I already told you, I’m not giving any more interviews.”
He started to close the door but Jake threw up a hand to stop him. “We found your wallet downstairs in the dining room, and we’re returning it.”
The man frowned at the wallet Jake held up. “I haven’t lost my wallet.”
“Are you sure?”
He patted his jacket impatiently, just the way Thornton had downstairs, but he didn’t find the telltale bulge he was expecting. He patted some more and felt around in all his pockets. “You’re right, I do seem to have lost my wallet. I’m sorry to be so rude, but I thought you were newspaper reporters. They hound me all the time, which is one reason I came to Washington City. I thought I could get away from them here. Please, come in, gentlemen.” He held the door open. “Oh, and young lady,” he added when Thornton stepped aside to allow Elizabeth to proceed him.
“My sister, Miss Perkins,” Jake said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Coleman said with a nod. “Come in, all of you.”
The suite was even nicer than Elizabeth had expected, with a view of the White House grounds across the way.
“I guess you can identify this,” Jake said, holding up the wallet again.
“Of course. Let’s see, I had a few hundred dollars, five or six, I think. Some telegrams, and a list of ciphers. Oh, and a newspaper clipping. Is that close enough?”
“Yes, it is,” Jake assured him. He handed over the wallet with a little flourish he probably thought was cute. Elizabeth managed not to roll her eyes.
She watched Thornton’s surprise when Coleman didn’t count the money to make sure it was all there the way Thornton probably would have. Instead, Coleman pulled out the piece of paper with the rows of letters and numbers and tossed the wallet with its wad of cash carelessly onto the table. “I can’t thank you enough for returning this. I wouldn’t have missed the money at all, but without this paper, I’d be out of business.”
“We were wondering what that was,” Thornton said. “What did you call it? A cipher?”
“That’s right. Say, can I offer you fellows a drink? And some sherry for you, miss? I know it’s early, but I feel like celebrating. Please, sit down and join me.”
Jake gave Thornton a questioning look, and Thornton shrugged. She was sure he never turned down a free drink.
Coleman poured a generous amount of whiskey into three glasses and a small amount of sherry into a stemmed glass for her and handed them around.
“You have good taste in whiskey, Coleman,” Thornton said after a taste.
“What kind of business are you in that you need a cipher?” Jake asked. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh, it’s all very hush-hush, but I think you folks have proved you’re trustworthy. I work for a combine of Wall Street brokers who are trying to break up the branch stock exchanges and the bucket shops. They control the rise and fall of large blocks of stock, and they send me around the country and tip me off when to buy and sell. You probably saw those telegrams in my wallet. They’re written in code, telling me what stocks to buy and sell. Without this cipher, I wouldn’t know what they were saying, and I’d probably lose my job.”
“And they pay you to do that?” Jake asked in amazement.
“No, they don’t,” Coleman said with wink. “But they do let me keep the money I make when I sell the stocks. Say, I feel like I should give you some kind of reward for returning my wallet since you saved my bacon. I know you don’t need the money, but how about if I give each of you fellows a hundred to cover your expenses while you’re in town at least?”
“That’s awfully sporting of you, Coleman,” Thornton started to say, probably thinking a hundred sounded good, but someone knocked on the door and called, “Telegram!”
“Excuse me,” Coleman said and went to answer.
“Say, Thornton, did you ever hear of a scheme like this?” Jake whispered while Coleman was busy with the bellhop.
“Sure,” Thornton said, although he was most certainly lying. “Those Wall Street types are always manipulating the market somehow.” Which was probably true, at least.
Coleman tipped the bellhop and sent him on his way. Then he hurried over to the desk and consulted his cipher to translate the telegram he’d just received. When he’d finished, he said, “I’ve just gotten instructions to buy some stocks, so I’m going to have to go to the brokerage right away. Before I do, though, I want to give you fellows your reward.”
“We couldn’t take a reward,” Jake said, completely ignoring the black look Thornton was giving him. “Anybody would’ve done the same thing.”
Thornton wouldn’t have, Elizabeth was certain, but Coleman said, “Don’t be too sure of that, young fellow. I know you’re both honorable men, but I still think I owe you something. Tell you what—why don’t I take the two hundred I was going to give you and buy stock with it for each of you? This order I just got is going to pay off big, and I’m going to sell by the end of the day, so you can keep the original investment and whatever your share earns. It should at least double.”
Even Thornton smiled at that prospect. “I think I could live with that, Coleman.”
“I don’t know much about stock, but it sounds good to me,” Jake said. “If it’s going to double, I have a notion to give you fifty of my own, too, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Oh, Jake, do you really think you should?” Elizabeth said with a worried frown.
“You’re right to be careful, Miss Perkins, but in this case, you can’t go wrong,” Coleman said. “I can guarantee your brother will double his money.”
Before Elizabeth could protest again, Jake pulled out his wallet and passed Coleman a fifty.
“How about it, Thornton?” Jake said. “Don’t you want to get in on this deal?”
“Mr. Thornton is as careful as your sister,” Coleman said with a smile when Thornton made no move for his own wallet. “I don’t blame him for hesitating. But I think I’ll have your confidence by the end of the day. Can I meet you gentlemen in the hotel bar at around six o’clock to give you your earnings?”
They agreed that would be satisfactory, and Coleman tucked their money into an envelope. Then he thanked them again and sent them on their way.
“I can’t believe you gave him your own money,” Elizabeth scolded her brother when they were in the elevator.
“Do you think I made a mistake?” Jake asked Thornton.
“I guess you’ll find out,” Thornton said, apparently gratified that Jake was finally asking his advice.
“And maybe you’ll be sorry you didn’t give him anything yourself,” Jake said with a grin.
“Oh, Jake, how could you have been so foolish?” Elizabeth cried, blinking back tears. Two days had passed since they’d found Mr. Coleman’s wallet, and Coleman’s stock deals had turned the original two hundred reward dollars and Jake’s fifty into over a thousand. Thornton had even given Coleman some of his own money to invest the last time. This success had led Jake to sign a check for a hundred thousand dollars he didn’t have in order to purchase stock that Mr. Coleman had recommended.
And now he was in trouble.
“It’s not foolish, Betty,” Jake said. They were sitting with Thornton in the empty hotel dining room in the middle of the afternoon, discussing the situation. “This Coleman knows what he’s doing, and the stock he told us to buy with that check did exactly what he said it would. We made a fortune! Just think what the Old Man will say when he finds out,” he added, his eyes literally sparkling with glee at the prospect. She only wished she thought the Old Man would really be pleased by any of this.
“Then why can’t you just collect your money? Wouldn’t that cover the check, too?” she asked.
“Miss Perkins,” Thornton said gently, “it’s really nothing to concern yourself about. The brokerage is just being careful, and we did give them a worthless check when we bought the stock.”
“We just didn’t realize they’d contact the bank and find out we didn’t even have an account there,” Jake said, as if this were some unimportant detail.
“I told you not to put your name on a check so large,” Elizabeth said, sniffling again. “You heard me say it, Mr. Thornton, but you let him do it anyway.”
“All we have to do is come up with the cash to cover the check, and we can collect our profits,” Jake said. “Betty, we made over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“But only if you have a hundred thousand in cash to cover the check. How on earth will you manage that?”
Jake nodded at Thornton. “Our friend here is going to help.”
Elizabeth let him see her admiration. “Oh, Mr. Thornton, we hardly know you. We couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Jake and I are partners.”
“And Oscar and I are going to split the profits,” Jake said.
“Oh,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Which is why I’m putting up half of the money to cover the check,” Thornton said.
“But where will the other half come from?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’ve got those bonds Grandmother gave me that I can sell for about thirty,” Jake said.
“But what will Father say?”
Jake waved away her concerns. “He’ll never know, because I’ll buy them back when I get my money. And I thought we could use your inheritance, too.”
“You want me to help you?” she cried, suddenly furious. “But that’s the money Aunt Mabel left me for my dowry.”
“It’s only for a few days,” Jake said.
“And you’ll get back more than double what you had,” Thornton said. “The stock had a return of a hundred and fifty percent.”
“But I only have about ten thousand,” Elizabeth argued. “That still isn’t enough to cover the check.”
“Mr. Coleman offered to lend us the rest of it,” Jake said. “He’s a good fellow.”
“He must be,” Elizabeth said, still not quite convinced. “Oh, Mr. Thornton, I don’t know what to think. Tell me what I should do.”
Thornton smiled and patted her hand where it lay on the table. It took all her will power not to jerk away. “Miss Perkins, you should lend your brother the money. In a day or two, you’ll be a very wealthy woman, and I’ll be an even wealthier man.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Of course I’m sure, and then we can celebrate by taking a ship down south to where it’s warm. Didn’t you say that’s what you’d like to do if you could?”
Elizabeth blinked the tears from her eyes. “Oh my, yes, that sounds wonderful.” She turned to Jake. “All right, then, I’ll help you. But Jake, you must promise never to get into another fix like this again.”
Jake gave her an unrepentant smile. “She says that every time, but this time you won’t be sorry, my girl. Now, we’ll need to go down to the bank and open an account. Mr. Coleman will help us. They know him down there.”
“It’ll be just a matter of days before we have our money transferred into the account,” Thornton said. “Then we’ll take it down to the brokerage and pick up our profits.”
“Take it down to the brokerage? You mean you’ll be carrying all that money around with you in cash?” Elizabeth asked, horrified anew. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“You worry too much, Miss Perkins,” Thornton said. “I’ll have my boys watching us.”
A frisson of alarm shivered over her. “Your boys?”
“Yes,” he said with that superior grin he always gave her when he was explaining something he thought she was too simple to understand. “I always travel with bodyguards. They’ve been bored these past few days, so they’ll be glad to have something to do.”
Elizabeth had her bag packed, and she’d been pacing her hotel room, looking out the window each time she reached it. Not that she expected to see anything. All she had was a view of the rear of the hotel, where the deliveries came in. They hadn’t wasted money on a better room, since Thornton wasn’t going to be coming to see her here, much as he might want to.
Finally, someone knocked on her door, but it couldn’t be Jake. She’d given him a key. Her apprehension hardened into fear.
“Lizzie, it’s me. Open up!”
She hurried over and opened the door to Coleman. “What’s wrong? Where’s Jake?” she asked as he closed the door behind him.
“You need to get out of here, Lizzie. It came hot and Thornton went wild when Jake told him it blew up.”
“You were supposed to cool him off,” she cried.
“I warned you—when you play it against the wall, there’s no way to cool off the mark. You just get out the best way you can. Thornton slugged Jake, so he ran.”
“You were supposed to hit Jake!”
“I told you, Thornton went wild. He sucker punched the boy before I could do a thing. And when Jake ran, Thornton sent his goons after him. He’s probably going to come looking for you next, so you need to get out of town.”
“But he let you go?”
“Of course. Jake might be a fool, but he knows how to do a switch. Thornton still believes I was conned, too.” Switching a mark’s allegiance from the roper to the inside man was crucial to a successful con, and Elizabeth had to admit that Jake was particularly good at it.
“What about Jake?” she asked, picking up her suitcase.
“Just leave that. I’ll bring it to you in New York with your share of the score. What the . . .?” he said, looking out the window. Elizabeth hurried over to see. They were on the second floor, so they had a clear view of Thornton’s two bodyguards finally catching Jake near the loading dock of the hotel.
“They’re going to kill him!” she cried as the two men began to beat him.
“I’ll take care of it, Lizzie,” Coleman said, his voice high with terror. “But I can’t save you both. You need to get out of here and go straight to the station. Get yourself on the first train out. It doesn’t matter where. You can get back to New York from any place. Do you need money?”
“No, I—” She cried out as one of the men landed a particularly vicious blow and Jake doubled over.
“Hurry,” Coleman said, pushing her toward the door. “Thornton is probably already trying to get the desk clerk to tell him where your room is. He’ll be here any second.” He grabbed her shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. “You’re a woman, and you know they won’t be satisfied with just beating you. Now go.”
He checked the hallway and then sent her out. She didn’t wait for the elevator, instead racing down the stairwell, nearly tripping over her skirts in her frantic haste. She took a deep breath before pushing open the door and entering the busy lobby. She didn’t want to call attention to herself, but she couldn’t resist the urge to at least hurry. She was nearly running when she reached the front door. The doorman had already opened it for her when she heard Thornton call, “Betty!”
She didn’t turn. She didn’t slow. She ran for her life.
Reading Group Guide
Readers Guide for
CITY OF LIES
1) Throughout the course of the novel, Elizabeth learns a great deal about herself and who she really is. Have you had experiences in your life that have changed the way you think about yourself?
2) The women Elizabeth encounter are marching for the right to vote. Have you ever felt strongly enough about something to join a protest? What methods did you use to engage others in your cause?
3) Elizabeth and her friends’ experiences following their arrest at the White House are based in fact. Did their experiences change your impression of the women’s suffrage movement? Were you familiar with the Night of Terror and the hunger strikes the women endured as they fought for the right to vote?
4) At times Elizabeth must deceive her friends as she navigates her new life. Do you agree with the choices she makes in regards to Anna and Mrs. Bates? Have you ever had to lie to people you care about out of necessity?
5) Elizabeth’s new found suffragist friends create strong bonds while they are in prison. Do you think they would have become so close under different circumstances? How did their shared experiences strengthen the ties that formed between them?
6) When we meet Elizabeth, she is running an elaborate con on a cut-throat entrepreneur and takes on a different identity. Do you feel you play certain roles in your everyday life? How does your personality differ when you are at work, with friends, or with family?
7) Gideon and Elizabeth deal with several obstacles as they get to know one another. How did you feel as they were facing these challenges? Did any of them seem insurmountable to you? What kinds of challenges have you had to face when pursuing a friendship or relationship?
8) Gideon has a strong moral compass. Do you feel he was sometimes a bit too inflexible or was he right on the mark? Do you think that honesty really is the only policy or do certain situations call for a measure of duplicity?
9) Thornton is a particularly odious villain, a brutal man with little or no conscience. What are his motivations? What seems to be important to him? Do you ever see him as a victim? Do you think he sees himself that way?
10) Elizabeth isn’t the only character who transforms throughout the course of the novel. In what ways does Anna evolve? Do you feel her family is accepting of her journey? What do you think are the defining moments of her friendship with Elizabeth?