Sneak Peek

Sunday, February 16, 2020
I’m all smiles right now because the first book in my Strong and Wade historical mystery series will be releasing next week. It’s been a long path developing this series, but the effort has absolutely been worth it. I love my new characters, Titus Strong and Elisabeth Wade, and the setting is one I’ve wanted to write about for years. I just needed to discover the story that belonged there.

This series is a little darker than my cozy mysteries, so it might not be to everyone’s taste. That’s okay. We can still be friends.

Because I don’t want anyone to buy the first book and be disappointed, I’m making the first two chapters available here on my blog, at least for a limited time. I hope you enjoy them.

Unsafe Harbor

Chapter One

Katie Sullivan leaned against the bar that ran the length of the wall, surveying the action. One of two gambling rooms in the Seaview Hotel, she found Golden Chances a congenial place to approach potential clients. The din of conversation almost drowned out the plinking of a piano a few feet away, but Katie thought she recognized the song as one by vaudeville star George M. Cohan. The combination of music and chatter made it impossible to hear anything spoken more than six inches away from your ear. But Katie wasn’t talking at the moment, so she didn’t mind. Supporting her weight on her elbows, Katie stopped her scan at a table directly in front of her on the opposite side of the room.
It looked like Ranson Payne, chairman of the Board of Selectman, had himself another victim. Three of the other players were regulars, cronies of Payne who often sat down for a friendly game of poker of an evening. But the fourth was a newcomer, someone Katie hadn’t seen in town before. There were always strangers in Whitby in the summer, but for some reason this one drew her attention. The middle-aged man wore a brown herringbone sack coat with a white shirt and tie. He’d already loosened his tie.
Despite the cooling sea breeze that came off the Atlantic Ocean in the evenings and blew through the open windows, his forehead shone with a sheen of perspiration in the light of the new electric chandeliers overhead. Katie preferred the old gaslit ones herself. They provided shadowed corners where you could talk privately, often essential in her line of work. The bright lighting seemed to discourage potential customers from speaking to her, afraid someone would notice them negotiating with the madam of the Honey House. But the patrons of the luxury hotels in Whitby expected such modern fixtures, and so electricity had been brought to this part of town.
The stranger’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his cards. He had an intriguing air about him. While his dark beard and mustache were neatly trimmed, he wore his hair considerably longer than a gentleman would, with the ends a good inch below his collar. It gave him a rakish look.
A small pile of cash was stacked in front of him. From the size of the pile in the middle, Katie could only assume he’d contributed substantially to Payne’s coming win. While the newcomer contemplated his next move, one of the waiters arrived at the table with a tray filled with drinks. He put a glass next to each one of the card players—except the stranger, who waved him off.
“Tony,” she called out as the waiter came toward the bar to refill his tray. The young man filled out his black suit nicely, and Katie knew from experience most of that wasn’t from the revolver in the shoulder holster under his jacket. The crowd in the gambling room could get rowdy, and waiters were often hired as much for their fighting ability as their serving skills.
Tony detoured from his target and beelined toward her. “Good evening, Mrs. Sullivan. What can I do for you?”
“Who’s the new sucker?” She indicated the stranger with a tilt of her chin.
Tony turned to see who she was asking about. His eyes widened with surprise, then he smiled at her. “Don’t you know?”
Katie shifted her weight so she was no longer leaning on the bar and gave the young man a steely stare. “If I knew, would I be asking you?”
“Well, I thought you would have seen him in the papers. That’s Titus Strong, the lawyer.”
Katie gave the stranger a closer look. Now that Tony had identified him, he was unmistakable, if you ignored the shaggy hair and beard. He’d been in the Boston papers often enough over the last few weeks, usually posed next to his celebrity client, Richard Davenport. Davenport had been found standing over the body of his dead wife, a wife it was rumored he didn’t get along with. Despite almost incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, Strong had gotten a not-guilty verdict. As always, money talked, whether in Boston or in Whitby.
“Anything else, Mrs. Sullivan?”
Katie shook her head without altering the direction of her gaze. “No, thanks.”
Strong pushed his remaining cash into the center of the table, then showed his cards. With a knowing smile, Payne spread his hand on the table, then gathered in the pot. Strong rose to his feet, and after a word or two, left the table and headed in Katie’s direction.
Katie gave him her welcoming-but-not-too-interested look as he approached the bar. Losers could often do with some consolation from one of her girls. She wondered if Titus Strong was one of those losers.
* * *

It wasn’t hard to figure out the occupation of the woman with the long red hair and the emerald green gown. The gold brocade running down the front and around the hem was too ostentatious for a gentlewoman. Titus nodded, then turned his attention to the bartender, who hurried to serve him.
“Root beer,” Strong said.
The bartender pulled a bottle of Hires from under the bar. Moisture fogged the sides of the glass and dripped down in rivulets to form a puddle around the base. It must have been sitting in a container of ice, a precious commodity in summer, but one which was expected in a hotel like the Seaview. The bartender wiped off the wet, poured half of its contents into a glass which he placed in front of the lawyer, then hurried off to serve another customer.
“I’d think you’d need something stronger.” The woman’s voice held no emotion. An observation, not a judgment.
Strong took a sip of his drink, then turned toward her. On closer look, tiny wrinkles around her eyes and mouth gave away her age, a greater number than he’d first assumed. “This is strong enough for me.”
She took a long look at him, her eyes, emerald green to match her gown, sizing him up for her next line. He waited for what he knew was coming.
“Perhaps you’d like a different kind of comfort. Something a little more personal and feminine.” Her voice purred seductively.
He shook his head. “No, thank you.” He hadn’t been wrong about her occupation.
Strong took another drink from his glass, this one longer, leaving only a small amount of the soft drink in the bottom. He wondered if she’d continue to pursue that line of conversation or, as he hoped, move on to another potential customer.
“Most men don’t take a loss like the one you suffered so calmly.”
He felt the blood rise in his face as his body tensed. He forced himself to take a few slow, deep breaths. “It happens. It’s harder to read a man when you can’t see his eyes.”
“The glasses,” she said.
“Right. Not only are the lenses almost black, the metal mesh on the sides hides whether his eyes are looking at his cards, or you, or another player, or anything else.”
She must have noticed his perplexed expression. “Many albinos have light-sensitive eyes. It’s the same lack of pigment that makes his hair and skin so pale.”
Ah, that explained it then. He should have realized. But he hadn’t. It was a sign of how distracted he’d been throughout the game. That wasn’t at all like him. Usually he maintained a rapier focus on his opponent, whether at the card table or in the courtroom. This time his anger was more at himself than at the albino. Through clenched teeth, he said, “I know he was cheating, but I’m not sure how. I kept watching for him to manipulate his cards in some way, or perhaps have one up his sleeve, but either he’s a magician, or he was winning legitimately.”
“Ranson Payne doesn’t lose in his town.”
Strong refilled his glass from the bottle, then downed it in one swift movement. He could still feel the anger boiling inside of him; the heat of it spread through his body. He didn’t like it when anger threatened his self-control. “It’s too warm in here. I’m going to take a walk on the boardwalk.”
“Would you like some company?” the woman asked.
Strong was going to say no, but he realized he wouldn’t have told her where he was going unless he wanted her to go with him. To blazes with it. His wife was miles away, and she probably wouldn’t care anyway as long as he showed up to escort her to the next society function. “Why not?”
He almost offered her his arm, but then realized that might be going too far. He headed for the door that led out to the beach, slowing his pace just enough to make sure she was beside him.
After a few steps, the din of the gambling room had given way to the soft sound of the surf and the whisper of the onshore breeze. The air smelled of salt and seaweed. It cooled Strong’s face, and the rhythmic pounding of the waves soothed his anger.
Gaslights on both sides of the boardwalk lit their way, guiding the two of them on their stroll parallel to the beach. Once they were a sufficient distance from the hotel, Titus asked, “What did you mean by ‘Ranson Payne doesn’t lose in his town’?”
The wind blew her hair into a merlot-colored nimbus. She raised a hand to brush it back from her face. “You’ve never been to Whitby before then?”
He shook his head.
“Payne is chairman of the Board of Selectmen. He and his friends control the liquor licenses, and that means they control most of the hotels and restaurants in town. They also control who gets to pave the streets, run the ferries and streetcars, and own beach property.”
The gaslights that had lined the boardwalk to this point suddenly ended, pitching them into the darkness of a moonless night.
“And you’re saying those licenses and permits and services aren’t given out on merit.”
She barked a laugh, answering his question. “They’re more often sold to the highest bidder, with the bulk of the bid going into Payne’s pockets.”
“So how was he winning all those hands? Do you know his method?”
She stared down at her feet as she walked rather than looking at him. It bothered him. He wanted to look in her eyes, eyes which caught the starlight and reflected it back at him. It was the one way you could tell if someone was lying or not.
“He wasn’t cheating,” she said in a soft voice. “The dealer does it for him.”
“Huh.” He hadn’t considered that option.
She cut toward the ocean and leaned on the railing of the boardwalk. Facing into the wind, her hair blew straight back. He was obsessed with that hair. He’d have to be careful he didn’t become obsessed with her. He joined her and rested a foot on the lower rail. “My name is Titus Strong.”
“I know,” she said.
He wondered why she didn’t volunteer the information an introduction usually prompted. “I don’t know your name, though. Who are you?”
She turned her head and fixed her eyes on his, locking his gaze to hers as surely as if she’d used a padlock. “Katie Sullivan. I own the Honey House.”
* * *
Her heart was beating stronger than she’d believed possible. She wondered if he’d understood her. Would he walk away in a huff after learning who she really was? You’d think, after all these years, what people thought wouldn’t matter to her. But in this case, it did.
“An apt name.” He said it as if she’d told him her name was Ann Smith and she sold jam for a living.
“You do know what the Honey House is?”
“I think I do,” he said dryly.
Who was this Titus Strong? Most men would either be shocked and run from her or follow up with some salacious comment that usually ended with a request to get it free. Titus Strong did neither.
“What brings you to Whitby?” she asked. “Other than the poker games, that is.”
A waning crescent moon rose over the ocean. The waves glittered as moonbeams caught the gently tumbling surf.
His face turned pensive. “I needed a break after the Davenport trial.”
“That must have been a stressful situation, having a client who could be hanged if you didn’t get him off.” She wasn’t sure that wouldn’t have been the better option. From what she’d heard of the case, Davenport deserved the gallows.
Strong took his foot off the railing and stood with his feet spread apart, a stance that conveyed stability and strength. He jammed his hands in his pockets, then spoke. “It was stressful, but not because he might have been hanged. No, the stress came because I did my best to get him off, when I would have preferred to see him swing.”
She was struck by his honesty. Titus Strong was definitely a different kind of man. “Couldn’t you have refused to represent him?”
“Let’s keep walking,” he said as he suited his action to his words. His twitchy movements said he was still agitated, whether from the loss at poker or the Davenport trial, Katie couldn’t tell.
After a few minutes, he spoke again. “Boston isn’t so different from Whitby. The people in power control the game. If I’d refused the case, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten another one like it.” He grimaced. “I’d be relegated to bailing drunks out of jail at midnight and…”
He’d trailed off rather than say the next part, so Katie said it for him. “And defending women like me.”
Strong nodded. The tips of his ears turned red. “I mean no disrespect.”
Katie laughed. “That would be a first.”
When his eyes widened, she added, “I am what I am. There are very few ways a woman can make a living, especially in a town like Whitby. I’m not embarrassed about it, nor ashamed. You shouldn’t be, either.”
“I’m not, exactly.” He stopped as if reconsidering. Then he looked at her and smiled. “Well, maybe just a little.”
“Most men are. But I have a feeling you’re different from most men. That’s why defending Richard Davenport bothers you. The shysters I’ve known would be all too happy to pocket the money and forget about whether what they were doing was right or wrong.”
“I can’t disagree with you.” They’d reached the end of the boardwalk, the marker where the public beaches used by guests of the hotels and day-trippers gave way to the summer cottages of the rich. The silhouettes of the three-storied structures blocked out a good part of the sky. “We should turn back.”
An obvious statement, but one that had to be made. The two of them strolled back to the Seaview Hotel. Mostly they were silent. Katie wondered about this intriguing man who was at ease with both the wealthy and a woman like herself. It would probably be too much to hope they might become friends.
When they reached the entrance to the hotel, Strong said, “I’ve enjoyed our walk together tonight. Thank you for filling me in on Payne.” For a moment, a shadow crossed his face as if he were considering something. “Perhaps we might do this again sometime.”
“I’d like that,” she said.

Chapter Two

Titus was awakened from a deep sleep by the sounds of shouting—a drunken man, a strident woman—coming from outside his door. A scream had him leaping from his bed and charging barefoot into the hallway.
He’d been right about the drunken man. In his mid-fifties, with a weather-worn face and a bulbous nose, the wiry figure had a death grip on the mutton sleeve of a young woman who struggled to escape his grasp and flee into the room behind her. Her red dress was torn down the front, exposing the roundness of her breasts beneath the low-cut camisole.
Facing the man was Katie Sullivan, a nickel-plated, two-barreled derringer pointed at the drunk.
“Let go of her, Cooper,” Mrs. Sullivan said with menace in her eyes.
“Awww, Katie. You wouldn’t interfere with a bit o’ fun, would you?”
Katie’s grip on the gun tightened. “I told you to let go of her.”
Titus wasn’t sure what he should do. He longed to leap to Mrs. Sullivan’s aid, but the situation was too tense, and she might pull the trigger if he did. A whimper came from the girl as the drunk tugged on her arm. The drunk bent to kiss her.
“Mr. Cooper.” Titus used the most authoritative voice he could muster, the one he usually reserved for cross-examination. “I’d recommend you do as the lady asked.”
The drunk swiveled in Strong’s direction, peered at him with bleary eyes. “Who be you?”
“A man who won’t stand for a lady being abused.”
“What lady?”
A number of other people had opened their doors to see what all the commotion was about: a man with a high forehead, an elderly couple who looked frightened, one of the men Strong had played poker with last evening. He seemed to remember the poker player’s name was Hinkle.
Footsteps thudded up the stairs at the end of the hall before Titus could respond. Two men appeared and hurried toward the disturbance. Well, the younger one hurried. He wore a uniform, complete with a domed custodian helmet bearing a shiny shield on the front. He had an athletic build. Uncertainty tightened his face. He stopped a few feet away, evaluating the situation. Behind him, a bulkier, older man in a suit huffed and puffed as he caught up, too out of breath to speak.
“What do we have here?” the police officer asked.
Mrs. Sullivan, still keeping the derringer pointed at Cooper, said, “Nate here tried to rape Emily. I heard her screaming and stopped him.”
“Is that true, Emily?” the policeman asked.
Emily, a tear rolling down her cheek, nodded.
“Now, now,” the fat man in the suit said. “Let’s not get carried away.”
Lava flowed through Strong’s veins as a fiery anger flooded through him. A nerve twitched in his clenched jaw. Who was that man?
Mrs. Sullivan lowered the hand holding the gun and swirled in the fat man’s direction. Her hands and voice were trembling. “Rape is not ‘getting carried away’, Chief.”
“Katie, Katie.” The man was shaking his head. “What we have here is theft. So far. I think we should give Nate a chance to complete his transaction.” He addressed the drunk. “Now, if you’ll let go of Emily and pay up, we’ll call it square.”
Nate released the girl and opened his mouth to speak.
Assuming what the answer would be, the chief turned to speak to the madam. “Okay, Katie?”
Before Mrs. Sullivan could respond, Nate Cooper stammered, “I… uh… don’t have any muh-ney… Chief.”
With a smile and a wink, the chief said, “You will in a few days, Nate. I’m sure Emily would be willing to put your transaction on account until then.”
Katie was breathing hard. Without the support of the police, Titus wasn’t sure she could insist on an arrest. He wondered if he ought to threaten civil charges, but from what he’d heard so far of the way Whitby was run, it wouldn’t make any difference. Besides, he’d been hoping to keep a low profile on his vacation. No, better to let Mrs. Sullivan handle this herself.
“Okay, Katie?” the chief repeated.
Katie nodded reluctantly.
“There, you see? Everything’s fine.” The chief turned toward the young officer. “I think we can let these good people go back to bed now.”
The officer looked unsure, but he wasn’t about to challenge the chief, either. Strong wondered what—or who—stood behind the power the chief wielded. He had a feeling it was Ranson Payne.
“Let’s go, Tim.” The chief turned on his heel and led the way back down the hall. The elderly couple retreated and closed the door to their room.
Once the police were out of earshot, Mrs. Sullivan put her hands on her hips and glared at the drunk. “This isn’t the end of this, Cooper. You’re going to pay for what you did, and I don’t mean the pittance you’ll come up with to give to Emily.”
Cooper cowered, then slunk away down the hall. Mrs. Sullivan slid her arm around the girl and coaxed her back inside her hotel room as she murmured comforting words.
Strong looked at the other two men. The expression of the one with the high forehead conveyed nothing. The poker player shrugged, then retreated into his room, as did Titus.
The whole incident disturbed him. This was the second time tonight the ugly underbelly of Whitby had exposed itself. He’d thought Whitby was a happy place, a place where you could spend a day in the sun and a night in the gambling rooms enjoying yourself. He’d hoped to recuperate from the intensity of the trial in Boston. But it seemed as if Whitby had its own intensity, and not of the good kind.
-- End of Sample --

I hope you liked this sneak peek of my newest novel. If you’d like to read the rest as soon as it’s released, you can pre-order the Kindle book here. Or wait until release day (that’s February 25th!) to borrow it from Kindle Unlimited.

Or you can buy the paperback right now.

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