A Daring Deception (Spies and Lovers #6) - Laura Trentham
England, Winter 1813
It was an uncomfortable, frigid day for travel. The steel-gray clouds closing in on them had precipitated an early stop for the evening. At first glance, their hired carriage appeared well-heeled with its red velvet interior and glossy black paint. It had certainly cost an eye-popping amount of coins to hire, but the springs were shot, the wheels were deformed, and the interior smelled musty with the overtones of rotten vegetables.
The mention of the inadequacies had inflamed her stepfather’s ire and earned Jessica a hard pinch. Although she’d done her best not to give Goforth the satisfaction of seeing her pain, a small cry had escaped and made him smile. Any suggestion he was not the cleverest, bravest, and best would lead to less-than-pleasant consequences.
She stepped into the inn and rubbed her still-throbbing arm. Now that Goforth’s back was turned, the urge to stick her tongue out was almost too much to control. But she was attempting to act more ladylike. Although fourteen, she still preferred short skirts and playing catch me if you can with the children in their Pennsylvania village rather than taking tea and quietly embroidering pillows.
Her mother drew Blake, Jessica’s younger brother, closer while Jessica stepped farther into the inn. Burning peat filled the room with a soft veil of smoke. The scent was earthy and foreign but not unpleasant.
“Your two finest rooms, sir. If you have any that qualify as such.” Goforth’s booming voice scraped Jessica’s nerves.
A pall fell over the occupants of the common room as they turned their disapproving gazes toward her family. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. Her mother kept Blake tucked to her front and while drawing an arm around Jessica’s waist and squeezing. Was her mother protecting or warning her?
Protection was all her mother had the strength to offer anymore. She no longer gave her children hope or optimism for the future. Goforth had ground both to dust.
Blake unexpectedly inheriting an earldom through their dead father’s English ancestors had made Goforth alternately resentful and grasping. He too was an English immigrant, although with less illustrious bloodlines. Nevertheless, he thought he deserved the kind of luck that brought Blake, a mere child under his care, such wealth and power. While Goforth wasn’t the cleverest of men, he was cunning enough to seize an opportunity.
Goforth recognized Blake’s ascendancy could carry him to greater heights than an undisputed leader in their Pennsylvania village. Jessica worried their mother was not strong enough to protect Blake from her new husband’s ambition, which was more dangerous than his wrath.
The innkeeper was a soft-spoken man with a lined face and halo of thick white hair. He tried to assure Goforth he would have the best rooms possible, but Goforth made a dismissive sound. Red burnished the innkeeper’s cheeks, and his mouth narrowed. It was obvious Goforth was testing the man’s usually jolly disposition. A young boy was tasked with showing them to their rooms.
“Wait here while I assess the quality. I refuse to sleep with lice,” Goforth said to her mother, but loud enough for everyone in the common room to hear. He stomped up the steps, rattling a series of bucolic watercolors lining the staircase.
Jessica shrugged her mother’s arm off. “You should apologize to the innkeeper for his behavior, or we might find spittle in our dinner this evening.”
Her mother’s gaze darted up the stairs as she shook her head. “It’s best not to try your father’s patience.”
“Please don’t, Jessica. It’s been a difficult journey, and you will only make things worse for yourself.” In a smaller voice, her mother added, “And for all of us.”
Goforth thumped his way back downstairs. “’Tis decent enough, I suppose. Quit hovering over the boy, Margaret.”
Goforth grabbed Blake’s arm and twisted him away from their mother. Blake made a sound of distress and reached out, but their mother lowered her face as if as long as she didn’t see the pain in Blake’s eyes, it didn’t exist.
Jessica stepped between Blake and Goforth. “Leave him alone, you bully.”
Goforth’s lip curled. She braced for one of his insults but got the back of his hand across her cheek instead. Her ears rang from the blow. The pain would come, but for now she welcomed the fury. Straightening, she blinked away the sting of tears and set her chin, daring him to hit her again.
The stillness in the inn was so complete she could hear the crackle of the peat burning in the hearth. Goforth’s shoulders tensed with readiness to deliver another