Wings of the West Book 8
Kate Ryan has always had a streak of justice in her. When she decides to apply to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, nothing will stand in her way. Initially hired in a clerical position, she quickly works her way up to field agent with the help of her mentor, Louise Foster. When Louise is injured, Kate gets her first assignment and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Henry Maguire has been undercover in the household of wealthy entrepreneur Arthur Wingate. Employed as a ghostwriter to pen the man’s memoir, Henry is also searching for clues to a lucrative counterfeiting scheme. When Henry’s “wife” shows up, he’s taken aback by the attractive woman who isn’t Louise. Now he must work with a female agent he doesn’t know and doesn’t necessarily trust. And because he has another reason for coming into Wingate’s world, Kate Ryan is unavoidably in his way.
Kate Ryan is the daughter of Matt and Molly from THE WREN, and THE STARLING is the first of five novels featuring the second generation of Ryans in the Wings of the West series.
Don't miss a follow-up short story, THE STARLING AND THE FOX, available in The West: A Romance Collection.
The Wings of the West Series Reading Order
Book One: The Wren
Book Two: The Dove
Book Three: The Sparrow
Book Four: The Blackbird
Book Five: The Bluebird
Book Six: The Songbird (Novella)
Book Seven: Echo of the Plains (Short Story)
Book Eight: The Starling
Book Nine: The Canary
Book Ten: The Nighthawk (Pre-Order Now)
Read Chapter One
Kate Ryan shifted on the hard seat of the buckboard as it rattled along the road. The setting sun cast rays of light from its western position, blossoming like a flower.
“Why didn’t your husband pick you up and take you to this party?” The question broke the spell of her anxious anticipation. The driver, a burly older man the Pinkerton agency had hired at the last minute, glanced at her.
“I’ve arrived a day early and didn’t have the opportunity to send word to Hen—” She caught herself at the last second. “To Gilbert.” My husband’s name is Gilbert. She repeated the mantra a few more times, trying to drill it into her brain. Henry Maguire was the man playing her husband. She was getting the break of a lifetime—the ability to work as a full agent on a case at only nineteen years old—and she didn’t want to spoil it by ruining the other agent’s cover.
“It’s a surprise,” she added in a rush.
Kate frowned, uncertainty fluttering in her chest. “You don’t think this is a good idea?” Her heart sped along with a steady rat-a-tat-tat, her palms clammy, and her mouth tasting like cotton balls, offering little help in wetting her dry lips.
Her nerves were stretched to the brink.
“He don’t know you’re coming, and he’s at the Wingate’s party without you? It’s just ….” He pulled on the reins, guiding the team around a bend in the road, and cast a sympathetic look her way. “You seem like a nice young woman. I just don’t want you to be disappointed … or have your feelings hurt.”
For a moment, Kate was at a loss as to what he meant, and then it walloped her over the head like her brother, Eli, sometimes did when the two of them argued. Not an actual wallop but a verbal harangue. Kate, however, had always held her ground with her older sibling. And she would need to do so now.
The man was implying her husband was a philanderer. Of all the circumstances she had anticipated dealing with, this one honestly hadn’t crossed her mind. Mostly, she supposed, because this wasn’t a real marriage. It probably was true that Henry had a woman somewhere, although she knew from the Pinkerton office that he wasn’t married. Well, this driver wouldn’t rattle her. She had a job to do. And part of that job was to be Henry’s loving wife as well as his partner on the job. She could do it. She would do it.
“I’m sure it will be fine. I know my Gilbert, and he would never be anything but a gentleman. He was expecting me tomorrow. I’m just a day early. He left me a note at the house as to where he would be this evening,” she added, warming to the prevarications spilling from her mouth.
“So he knew you were coming? But you said he didn’t.”
“Well, I, ah.” She cleared her throat. “He wasn’t certain when I was to arrive. I was visiting my mother. She’s very ill, you see. I had told him I might arrive tonight, or tomorrow. I told him to go to the party and not to wait for me.” Stop talking, Kate. She folded her gloved hands onto her lap and glanced at the countryside, dense pine trees standing vigil in the fading light. Lying was going to prove a challenge for her.
Her mentor at the agency, Louise Foster, who had single-handedly gotten Kate this assignment, had told her during her training to keep the mistruths to a minimum. It would make it easier to remember them.
“Well, then,” the driver said. “I’m sure it will be fine. Your Gilbert will be mighty happy to see you.”
They crossed beneath a large wrought iron arch and entered a massive ranch. It hadn’t been a long journey from the cabin where she and Henry would be staying together as husband and wife, but her bottom was sore from the buckboard. She would have been much happier on her own horse, but Edgar Jones, her boss, had insisted she not enter the fray alone. He embraced working with female agents on his payroll, but he was careful with their safety as well.
Mr. Jones had sent word to Henry via a courier that she was arriving, but it hadn’t been clear whether the message had been received. It had contained Louise’s suggestion that Kate attend the party. Louise had argued with Jones from her hospital bed that Henry was sometimes too stubborn in wanting to work alone and that if they didn’t force Kate upon him, he might keep her away from the investigation. Kate had been uncomfortably present for that exchange, leading her to wonder if Henry were a good agent after all, but underlying the discussion was a genuine tone of concern in both Jones and Louise’s voices.
However, now that Kate was here, the bigger problem presented itself—Henry was expecting Louise as his “wife” partner, not Kate. In fact, Kate had never met Henry, so of course he wouldn’t know who she was when she arrived.
Hence her anxiety.
In the distance, the lights of the main house blazed, growing brighter as they neared. The front area was crowded with buggies, horses, and carriages. Her driver was forced to stop some distance from the front porch.
He set the brake, climbed down, and came to Kate’s side. She gathered the full folds of her royal blue gown, quite the fanciest thing she had ever worn. The Rocking Wren, her folks’ ranch, rarely required this level of poshness. She clasped the driver’s hand and stepped down.
She confirmed she had her reticule looped around a wrist and then patted her brown hair, pinned into a fancy upsweep. She had to trust she looked presentable considering that she’d had to dress behind the cabin because it had been locked and she hadn’t had a key.
She turned to the driver. “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t get your name.”
“Francis, ma’am. It was a pleasure, Mrs. Gilbert ….” He raised a bushy brow in question.
“Holmes. And please, call me Sallie.” She was immensely proud that she had gotten her alias correct, although she had no doubt that this was the smallest of tests she was about to endure. Still, she must take every victory she could get.
“Shall I wait for you, Sallie?” Francis asked, his gaze filled with genuine concern. Kate felt badly for having thought him a bit strange when she’d found him waiting for her in front of the cabin. He’d been inspecting the front steps and frowning, and for some reason she’d found his behavior peculiar.
“No, of course not. My husband will see me home.” She hoped.
Francis donned his hat, giving a nod and a tug on the brim. “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you again, Mr. Francis ….” She leaned forward and raised a brow.
He chuckled. “O’Malley. I’m new to town, but I run the livery and the blacksmith. If you need a horse shod, you give me a holler. I’ll do it for free. It’s the least I can do.”
As she started to turn to leave, he added, “And watch yourself in there.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. He really was a nice man, and her first point of contact on this job. A tinge of embarrassment came over her from their awkward first meeting.
“Mrs. Wingate, she can be a little … too much. Don’t let her scare you. People like her sense fear and they pounce. Someone like you don’t deserve that. If you ever have any trouble and your husband isn’t doing his job, you come see me, you hear?”
Kate relaxed her shoulders, feeling the genuine concern emanating from Francis. “Thank you. I appreciate it. I truly do.”
She left him and made her way to the entrance of the grand home, feeling as if every step were taking her into the lion’s den. But she wouldn’t be afraid. She had wanted to have a career in law enforcement since she had turned sixteen. It was why she had pursued employment with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, one of the only places that allowed women—and especially young women—to have a chance to do important work.
The front entrance was open and attended by a butler. Kate took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.
* * *
Henry scanned the bustling ballroom filled with partygoers chattering away—men in suits and women in gowns awash with color. Everyone loved a good Wingate extravaganza, or at least that’s what Henry had learned in the past week of undercover work.
His gaze rested briefly on Arthur Wingate, his target in this investigation. The man was tall, making it easy to find him in a crowd, his gray-streaked black hair slicked back. He was holding court with three men. While he didn’t recognize the two on the left, Henry knew the other one was William Phelps, a manager at the First National Bank of Trinidad.
And it was odd because it had been the bank that had contracted the Pinkertons for this job in the first place. They had hired the agency to investigate possible money counterfeiting and insurance fraud, and Henry was certain that Wingate was at the center. All he had to do was prove it. But he was also certain that Phelps wasn’t included in any of the communications with Henry’s boss, Edgar Jones, back at his temporary headquarters in Albuquerque. Jonesy would have told him.
But Henry also had a secondary reason for being here, one he hadn’t shared with his boss, despite that he and Jonesy were more than employer and employee. They were friends, too. But Henry didn’t want Jonesy and the agency implicated if things went south. Henry’s father, Hugh Maguire, had died in Trinidad eight years ago. The official story: he’d fallen down a mine shaft, and it had been ruled an accident. But Henry had reason to believe that hadn’t been the case.
And at the center of it all was Arthur Wingate.
Henry was here to prove that Wingate was not only a criminal, but a murderer as well.
His brother’s voice echoed in Henry’s head. “There was an investigation, Henry,” Ian had said, “and no foul play was found.” He and his older brother often failed to see eye-to-eye, hence Henry had told no one his true reason for being here, least of all Ian.
He took a sip of his brandy … barely. He had no intention of clouding his judgment with alcohol this evening.
“Sir.” A valet drew his attention.
Henry nodded his acknowledgement.
“Your wife has arrived, sir.”
My wife ….
What the hell? Louise was here? Now?
Jonesy had agreed that Louise Foster would be summoned when Henry sent word. And he hadn’t sent word. Dammit.
“Of course,” Henry replied. “Thank you.”
“Please follow me, sir.”
Henry thought of abandoning the drink he’d been nursing for the last hour, but instead kept it as he followed the valet through clusters of people and the low din of talking and laughing. In fact, he took a large gulp as he walked to soothe his nerves. Sometimes his own rules needed to be amended. This wasn’t a disaster, he reminded himself. Louise was a good field agent, one he’d worked with more than once, and he respected her abilities. She was also his friend, one of the very few along with Jonesy. If she were here now, there must be a good reason. While his cover had included a wife, Henry rather liked working alone, and he’d told Jonesy that Louise could join him when it seemed necessary. And it hadn’t been necessary … yet. But apparently Edgar Jones had pulled rank, thinking differently.
As Henry entered the foyer, his gaze landed on a young woman in a stunning blue gown, curls of dark brown hair accenting her oval face, her figure lithe and youthful. Her reserved countenance indicated her discomfort as she conversed with Arthur’s wife, Lottie, near the front entrance, and Henry couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her. Lottie Wingate had been mostly unwelcoming to him.
The young woman’s poise drew his eye and for a moment, Henry considered what it would be like if he weren’t working, if he could simply pursue a conversation with an attractive woman. He had purposely not set down roots. His work made it impossible. Well, not impossible. He’d simply never met a woman who could turn his attention from his job.
And hell if that didn’t remind him that he was more like his old man every day.
He pushed aside the memories of the last time he’d seen his father, of the terrible fight they’d had, of the anger that had pulsed white hot within Henry.
Instead, he focused once more on the alluring distraction of the woman in blue, and then, reluctantly, he peeled his eyes from her and searched the foyer for Louise, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“She must have stepped into another room,” Henry said to the valet.
“No, sir.” The young man stopped and gave a nod toward Mrs. Wingate and the striking woman beside her.
Henry endured a brief state of confusion, an unnatural occurrence since he kept everything in his life compartmentalized and in order.
Recovering quickly, he said, “Of course, thank you. I must need my spectacles this evening.” He left the valet before he was forced to converse further, giving even more opportunities for a slip up. He walked slowly to the two women, since he wasn’t certain what he should say. Clearly, the valet had been misinformed.
Henry glanced over his shoulder, confirming the man had left the foyer. With the all-clear, Henry shifted his path to miss the two conversing women, although a twinge of regret flared. A small part of him wondered what would happen if he struck up a conversation with the woman who drew his gaze with such ease. But now wasn’t the time for personal interests. Just as he passed within three feet of the women, a voice rang out, “Gilbert! Darling!”
Henry stopped and faced the woman who had in a brief span sparked such an intense interest in him. She’d used his alias. It all became clear in an instant.
She was his wife.
He plastered the biggest smile he could on his face. “Sallie, there you are.” He went to her and planted a kiss on her cheek, the softness branding his lips while the scent of honeysuckle surrounded him, warm and fruity.
His Sallie blushed, her cheeks a bright crimson, heightening her beauty and adding to his frustration.
He kept his expression amiable and besotted, playing the part of a happy and surprised husband, and said, “I had no idea you were coming.” But beneath it all, anger threatened to uncoil in his chest.
He took some measure of pleasure when his new wife flinched ever so slightly, no doubt catching the flash of censure he allowed to escape his gaze. He could accept her as his wife, but it didn’t mean he had to like it, whether she was compelling or not.
But still, where the blazes was Louise? Why had Jonesy sent this much too young of a woman with whom he had no acquaintance and could therefore not assess her skills as an agent? To make it all worse, his pulse had quickened as soon as he’d looked into her clear green eyes. She might be young, but a spark of intelligence snapped across the distance between them.
“It was last minute, darling,” she replied, her voice tinged with excitement.
It was too late to turn back now. They had an audience with Lottie Wingate, who watched them intently. He couldn’t afford to cast any suspicion upon himself. He’d managed to ingratiate himself with Arthur Wingate, posing as a writer hired to pen the man’s life story, but Lottie had been cold from the start.
“I’m thrilled you’re here,” he said, taking Sallie’s hand. He turned his attention to the older woman. “If you’ll excuse us, I’d like to have a word in private with my beautiful bride.”
“Certainly,” Lottie said, her gaze speculative. She was a striking woman with fair skin and red hair that had yet to succumb to graying. “It was lovely to meet you, Sallie. I hope we’ll have a chance to speak more. And you’ll have to accompany Gilbert the next time he comes here.” Henry didn’t miss the hard flash in her gaze. Lottie hadn’t liked him from the moment he’d arrived and the feeling was mutual. “We could have tea while the men discuss business.”
“I’d like that,” Sallie said.
Having abandoned his drink on a side table, Henry tucked Sallie’s gloved hand into the crook of his elbow and led her into the next room. He wanted to speak privately but in a flash knew this would be impossible. It was too risky to engage in any kind of conversation beyond the benign while they were at this party.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked quietly. He could use another one.
Sallie smiled and nodded, sliding a quick glance at him, and then letting her eyes roam the room.
They found a waiter and his wife’s gloved hand soon held a sherry and Henry’s a whiskey, straight up. He drank it in one swallow. His wife narrowed her eyes, the first sign of some backbone in the woman.
“I know my arrival is unexpected, Gilbert,” she murmured over the rim of her sherry glass, taking a sip. “But rest assured, I’m here to stay. You’re not alone any longer.”