As one of a handful of female operatives employed by legendary crime fighter Allan Pinkerton, Lilly draws on her theatrical training to go undercover in situations inaccessible to male detectives—much to the discomfort of her partner, Cade McShane. Their latest case takes them to the rough and rowdy bordellos that line Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth, Texas—truly the Wild West.
This time the case is deeply personal. Lilly’s friend, Nora Nash, who traveled to Fort Worth as a mail-order bride, has instead been forced into prostitution. After a desperate call for help, Nora has gone missing. To find her, Lilly must revamp herself as a vamp and expose a seamy underworld of unspeakable secrets where anything goes. But she and Cade soon discover firsthand that lives are cheap in Hell’s Half Acre—including their own . . .
Praise for Penny Richards and An Untimely Frost
“A strong heroine and the intriguing Pinkertons make this historical mystery a cozy way to spend a weekend. Lilly Long’s independence and stubborn spirit will immediately endear her to many readers.”
—RT Book Reviews (4 Stars)
“Penny Richards has created a fascinating heroine, a great mystery,
and an exceptional play on history.”
—New York Times bestselling author, Heather Graham
About the Author
Visit Penny at www.pennyrichardswrites.com; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Penny-Richards-Author, and follow her at twitter.com/pennyRwrites.
Read an Excerpt
Lilly Long approached the man leaning against the brick façade of the Pinkerton offices, engrossed in the newspaper he was reading.
Andrew Cadence McShane, the often dour, sometimes charming man who'd been assigned as her partner, glanced up. Seeing her approach, he pushed away from the building and folded the paper. His bold, blue gaze raked her from the flowers atop her white chipped-straw hat to the toes of her stylish, white leather shoes. He arched a dark eyebrow before doffing his bowler and sketching a bow.
"Good morning, Miss Long. You're looking remarkably cool and fresh this hot summer day."
Though his words were not personal in any way, Lilly could not deny they pleased her or that she'd spent an inordinate length of time fussing over her attire before settling on the simple white eyelet dress adorned with teal ribbons. The fact that she'd taken such care filled her with a sense of dismay. To hide the feeling, she raised her auburn eyebrows and regarded him with innocent brown eyes.
"Feeling flirtatious today, Mr. McShane?" she queried, looking him over from head to toe.
"Just being truthful, Miss Long."
"Well, thank you, McShane. You're looking very dapper yourself."
Instead of reacting to her compliment, he frowned. "McShane? What happened to calling me Cade?"
She hadn't expected him to notice. Flustered, she said, "I've decided it's a bit too personal. McShane sounds more like a business partner."
"In other words, you've been thinking about how Timothy Warner slipped through your defenses, and you're determined not to get too close to a man again. Not even a working colleague."
Tim Warner was the man Lilly thought she'd married several months earlier. His physical attack on her and the theft of her savings had compelled her to leave her acting career and seek employment with the Pinkertons, so that she could aid other women.
"Nonsense! It occurred to me that it would be better all around if we keep things businesslike."
He regarded her with a thoughtful expression. "I'm sure you're right," he concurred with a brusque nod. "So, let's get down to business. Do you know why William has called us in?"
"I haven't an inkling."
Cade made a sweeping gesture toward the door and then held it open while she slipped inside the dim lobby. She took his proffered arm with the barest hesitation, and he guided her toward the stairway.
When they entered the outer office, Harris, William's secretary, rose and greeted them.
"Good afternoon, Miss Long. Agent McShane."
"Good afternoon, Harris," they said in unison.
"Any idea what's up?" Cade asked.
"Mr. Pinkerton is not in the habit of sharing his agenda with me," Harris said, sounding every bit like a prim spinster. His toothy smile softened the statement. "Let me see if he can see you now."
Without another word, the thin, balding man rapped on the door with William Pinkerton's name stenciled onto the milky looking glass. Heeding their boss's summons, Harris stepped inside, only to return in a moment. "Please go in."
"Thank you, Harris." Cade placed his hand at the small of Lilly's back and ushered her into the office.
As usual, William came around the desk to greet them. "Good morning, Miss Long," he said, taking her hand in a hearty grip. Then he turned to Cade. "McShane." Niceties over, he gestured toward the leather armchairs in front of his desk. "Please, have a seat."
Ensconced across from Allan Pinkerton's elder son, Lilly folded her hands in her lap and waited. As usual, William got right to the point.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you in."
"We assumed you have another assignment for us," Cade said.
"Actually, I have some correspondence for Miss Long."
"Correspondence?" Lilly echoed. "Something more from Mr. Linedecker?"
When she and McShane had finished the Fontenot case in New Orleans, she'd found a letter awaiting her from the attorney she'd hired to procure her divorce from Timothy. That letter had informed her that there was no reason to start divorce proceedings, since her marriage had been an elaborate hoax.
Nothing about her nuptials had been real. Not the minister. Not the witnesses. Not the license she'd signed, and certainly not the love Tim had professed. Now she wondered if her attorney had learned something new about the man who'd done such an excellent job of deceiving her.
"No. Not from Mr. Linedecker." William pulled open the middle drawer of his desk and removed two packets.
"I don't understand, sir. Why didn't you just send the letter to my boardinghouse by courier?" she asked.
A pained expression flashed in William's eyes as he handed one envelope across the gleaming expanse of wood. "It's a bit ... complicated."
There was no return address on the cheap white envelope. Impatiently, she tried sliding her finger beneath the flap, but her lacy gloves impeded her. Cade held out his hand. Without a word, she handed him the missive, and he opened it with a smooth flick of his pocketknife.
"It's from an actor friend of yours," William said. "Miss Nash."
"Nora?" Why would Nora send her mail here?
"It appears she needs help."
"Help?" Good grief! Lilly was beginning to sound like a parrot she'd once seen that mimicked everything those around him spoke. Her mind was awhirl with thoughts and memories, searching for ... what?
"What kind of help?" Cade asked, cutting through the chaff and getting to the heart of the matter.
"Why don't you tell McShane about Miss Nash before we get to her problem," William suggested.
Problem? Lilly didn't like the sound of that at all. What could have happened? Confused, and starting to worry, she said, "Nora was with the troupe back in the days before Pierce became the manager. I ran into her last spring in Vandalia, and she told me she was tired of traveling around and wanted to settle down and have a family. She'd signed up to become a mail-order bride."
"Gutsy lady," Cade said. "Or incredibly naïve." A dry smile made a brief appearance. "However, in my limited experience, that seems to be the norm when it comes to dealing with females with a background in the theater."
William smiled, and Lilly's eyes narrowed the slightest bit.
"Don't go all prickly on me, Miss Long," McShane said. "I'm sure you're aware that the unlikely combination of guts and innocence can be quite disconcerting to us mere males. In your case, it has served you well, though I feel my life span has shortened since we've been working together."
The always serious William dared to chuckle. "As we here at the agency well know."
Lilly knew William was referring to the way she'd gone about applying for her job. To make up for her inexperience, she'd devised a plan to apply for the position as three completely different women. The tactic had infuriated the Pinkerton sons, but impressed Allan no end, since his motto was "the ends justify the means."
"The two of you can discuss Miss Long's headstrong tendencies at a later date, Agent McShane. As for Miss Nash ... suffice it to say that she left the theater to follow her dream some time ago," William said. "I believe that's enough information for now. Read the letter to us, Miss Long, and then we'll discuss it."
Apprehension gripped her as she stared down at the envelope in her hands. His vague comments had stirred up an uneasy feeling that churned in her gut. Knowing she could not put it off forever, she pulled the lined pages from the envelope and began to read.
I am writing to you because I can think of no one else who might be able to help me. Since I know your work requires that you travel a lot, I felt the best way to make sure you got this letter was to send it to the Pinkerton office. I only hope and pray that it is not intercepted and that you can find some way to help. You were right about Elijah Wilkins.
Lilly's heart took a plunge. When Nora had first mentioned her decision to go to Texas and marry a stranger, Lilly had been skeptical of the whole notion, especially since she'd learned of the decision soon after her own marriage to a virtual stranger had left her penniless and wallowing in self-doubt.
Nora had brushed aside Lilly's worries, reminding her that even people who met and courted in conventional ways often found they didn't know much about their mates once they began to share a life, something Lilly could not deny. But now it seemed her fears for her friend had come true. She turned her attention back to the letter.
As you know, I was looking forward to starting a new life with my husband, but it took me less than a day to realize I'd been lied to. Eli met me at the train station in Ft. Worth. He was nothing like the man who had exchanged letters with me.
Lilly's fingers tightened on the missive. She knew firsthand what it was like to learn that the one you loved had feet of clay. She read on, words that were difficult to decipher since they were blurred in spots where Nora's tears had splashed onto the coarse paper.
Oh, Lil, there is so much to say and no easy way to say it. Suffice it to say that the man whose words I fell in love with works as a procurer of women for several bawdy houses here in Ft. Worth. He lures women to this place with the promise of marriage and then sells them to whichever madam gives him the most money.
Lilly's gasp of shock sounded loud, even to her own ears. Lowering the hand holding the letter to her lap, she looked up at Cade and then to William.
"Nora has been sold as a ... a ..." Lilly couldn't bear to even connect the ugly word to her friend.
"He's selling women into prostitution," Cade said, summing up the whole miserable mess in one blunt commentary.
"Proceed, Miss Long," William told her.
I tried to escape one night, and when my madam found out, she had me beaten and put me back to work two days later. There are children, too. ...
Lilly's voice faded to a whisper. She'd heard about children who were abused in heinous ways, but it was one of those tragedies that always happened somewhere far away. She'd never expected to have any connection to it. What kind of sick person would hand over an innocent child to be used as a sexual plaything?
She thought of Robbie, the ten-year-old orphan who had followed her and Cade all the way from Chicago to New Orleans. Realizing that the same fate might have befallen him sent a shiver of fear down her spine. The idea of something so dreadful happening to him was unbearable.
"I know this is difficult, Lilly," Cade said, reaching out and curling one scarred hand around hers. "But please finish the letter."
"Of course." She picked up where she had left off.
There are children, too, Lilly. With the help of a friend, I managed to get some of them on a train back East. That time, I was handed over to a bunch of cowboys straight off the trail who were looking for a good time.
I almost didn't make it. I'd heard that a lot of girls kill themselves rather than stay in the life, but until that night I never really understood how anyone could sanction such a miserable death. Now I see that perhaps it's better than the miserable lives we live.
Oh, Nora! Lilly's own teardrop splashed onto the page.
Not me, though. When my body started healing, I decided that taking my own life is the coward's way out, and I've never been a coward. Instead, I decided to get well and find a way to take down this evil operation. And then I'll come home.
I know it's asking a lot, but will you come, Lil? I've been laying low and letting myself heal, and I can hang on for a while, I think. There is no way you can let me know if you're coming or not, but I hope to look up one evening and see you walking through the door. If you can come, hurry. There are too many lives at stake. If not, I understand and will do what I can for the others. Take care, my dearest Lilly.
Lilly refolded the letter with slow, deliberate movements and stuck it back into the envelope. Her tearful gaze moved from Cade to her boss.
"It's ... unthinkable." Her voice broke. "All she wanted was a home, a good man, and a family. This is ... obscene." She met William's gaze directly. "You knew." It sounded like an accusation, even to her own ears.
He nodded. "She sent me a letter, too."
"I must go and help her, Mr. Pinkerton."
"Holy mother of pearl, Lilly!" Cade cried before William could respond. "You can't just run off on a lark. You have responsibilities to the agency."
"Lark!" Lilly sprang from her seat and turned on him, her color and her voice high. "I hardly think going to help a friend who has been abducted and sold into carnal slavery can be considered a lark by anyone with an iota of common sense. Or decency!"
In her state of agitation, she failed to see the look of admiration cross William's face.
"Please be seated, Miss Long."
The authoritative tone halted Lilly mid-sentence. Horror filled her. Not only had she raised her voice, which was very unladylike, very unmannerly, but she had raised it in front of her boss! She felt whatever progress she might have made with the agency would slip away.
"Sit, Miss Long," he said again.
This time, she did as she was commanded. She dared not look at him. She could only imagine what she might see on his broad face. As for McShane, she really didn't give a fig what he thought of her outburst. Really! The man had so few sensibilities!
"You're both right," William said, after letting her stew in a heavy silence for a moment. "McShane is right in saying that you have responsibilities. You're right in saying that your friend needs help and that helping will not be an adventure."
"Will not?" Cade asked. "What exactly are you getting at?"
"As I said, Miss Nash sent me a letter, too, along with two hundred dollars she'd saved for her new home when she got there. She somehow managed to keep it hidden from Wilkins, just as she managed to get these letters to the post office.
"She's offered the cash to me as payment to the agency to send you to find out who, if anyone, in the district they call Hell's Half Acre, is behind Wilkins's enterprise."
"She wants to hire the agency?"
"Yes. But I'm telling you, Miss Long, there is absolutely no way I can take the case for that amount of money. We try our best to help people, but we are a business. There are salaries, expenses. ..." His shrug seemed to encompass everything left unsaid.
Money. Why did it seem everything came down to money? she thought in disgust. "I understand that, sir, but —"
William held up a large hand to silence her. "Your devotion to your friend is admirable, Miss Long. Indeed, she is fortunate to have someone like you on her side. I was about to say that even though the agency is unable to take the case, I've talked with my father, and we are willing to give you time away to deal with the matter. Unpaid, of course."
"Count me out."
Lilly looked at her partner in astonishment. He shrugged. "I can appreciate your concern, and I agree that what's happened to your friend is terrible, but with Robbie living with Meagan and Seamus, I'm responsible for part of his upkeep."
"I understand," she told Cade, and she did.
From their time in New Orleans, Lilly knew the boy ate as if there would be no tomorrow. Seamus had two children and one on the way, while trying to support a family on a policeman's salary.
She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Thank you for your understanding, Mr. Pinkerton. I promise I'll do what I can and try to find Elijah Wilkins, or whoever it may be, as quickly as possible, and I promise not to take advantage of your generosity."
"Surely you aren't considering going to Texas alone, to a place called Hell's Half Acre," Cade said. "From what I've heard, the name doesn't begin to describe it."
She lifted her chin to its familiar, stubborn slant. "I admit that I would feel more comfortable with you along, of course, McShane," she told him, doing her best to sound blasé about the whole thing. "And I'll have to give my plan some careful thought. But Nora is an old friend, and I would never be able to sleep at night if I didn't try to help her."
William and Lilly looked at Cade. His eyes narrowed, and his lips, beneath his neatly trimmed mustache, thinned in anger. He turned to William.
"I cannot work for nothing, sir! And neither can Miss Long, truth be told!"
"My finances are none of your concern!" Lilly told Cade in a huffy tone.
"Please," William said, once again coming between the sparring partners.
"Sorry, sir," they said in unison.
"Surely, we can work out something," Cade said.
Excerpted from "Murder Will Speak"
Copyright © 2018 Penny Richards.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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