Laura Lee Guhrke

New York Times Best Selling Author of Historical Romance

The Charade

     Home, freedom, liberty . . . those were mere words to Katie Armstrong, a savvy thief and indentured servant on the run in colonial Boston. For the sake of survival, she agreed to a British lord's bribe: unmask the identity of the patriot known as John Smith, or be returned to her brutal master. But soon the cagey John Smith was making the same threat–unless she spied for him. Katie planned to play both men against each other . . . until, masquerading as Smith's mistress, she lost her heart to the seductive stranger she had set out to undo.

     Ethan Harding's steely heart was ready to risk anything to end British tyranny–even if it meant taking on the false identity of John Smith, putting his own life in jeopardy, or blackmailing a beautiful and terrified young woman. And if that woman's angelic face made other men spill their secrets, so much the better. But now, Katie Armstrong's charms were about to betray his heart and his cause–and his desire for the elusive temptress would turn the tables on everyone and everything he had pledged to protect.



     Boston, February, 1775
     At dawn, North Square was seething with activity. Women with baskets stood amid the flimsy stalls of the marketplace, haggling with farmers or their agents over the high prices. Their voices mingled with the crowing of live turkeys for sale, the beckoning calls of merchants, and the rattle of carts that rolled through the square carrying precious firewood, apples and onions from the country.
     Preoccupied with their own business, no one noticed the man who stood in the doorway of an inn on the edge of the square. Perhaps it was because the winter morning was bleak, and his long black hair and black cloak blended into the dark shadows of the doorway. Or perhaps it was because he stood utterly motionless, little more than a shadow himself.
     His position commanded an excellent view of the square, and in the dim light of early morning, his gray eyes restlessly scanned the area. He was looking for one man, and that man would tell him that his call for a meeting had been heeded.
     Ethan Harding's acquaintances would have been astonished to see him skulking about in doorways in the wee small hours of the morning, since it was common knowledge that he never rose before noon. But then, they would not see him here, for they were fast asleep in their beds themselves, and it was unlikely they would have recognized him in any case. The dark clothing he wore was so unlike his customary wardrobe of colorful silks and lace, and his hair was not concealed by a powdered wig. The wealthy dandy of the Tory drawing rooms was completely unrecognizable in the serious man swathed in black who stood in the doorway of a second rate inn on North Square. And that suited Ethan perfectly well.
     A fishmonger's cart rolled into his line of vision and came to a stop. Ethan let out his breath in a slow sigh of relief at the sight of the driver, a big, bald Scotsman who jumped down from the cart, crying, "Fresh clams today! Fresh clams!"
     Colin Macleod's fish were often wrapped in seditious newspapers. Ethan smiled to himself, knowing perfectly well that Samuel Adams didn't mind if his fiery prose smelled of cod or haddock, as long as the public was kept informed of every single transgression committed by the British government.
     Ethan started toward Colin, but matrons and housekeepers eager for fresh clams swarmed around the cart, and he stepped back into the shadows, waiting for the women to depart. While he waited, he continued to observe his surroundings, a habit gained from long experience.
     The baker, Matthew Hobbs, had a stall beside Colin's cart and seemed to be doing a brisk business. A pity, since the man was a staunch Tory. Ah well, not everyone wanted liberty from England. What they didn't realize was that it was inevitable.
     A young woman of perhaps nineteen or twenty paused beside the baker's stall, less than a dozen feet from Ethan's place in the shadows. Her clothes were rags, too tattered to make her the servant of even the meanest master. Against the chill of the Boston winter, she wore no hat. Her hair, the golden brown color of honey, was cropped short, and Ethan guessed she had probably sold the rest of her hair to buy food or lodgings. She stood in profile to him, and although the long cloak she wore hid the lines of her body, Ethan could see hunger in the hollow of her cheek and the line of her throat. She was clearly a beggar, a common street waif that a man would seldom notice, unless it was with a wary eye and a hand on his purse. But when she turned his way, Ethan drew a deep breath of surprise and revised his opinion. There was nothing common about this girl. She had the face of an angel.
     Ethan was not a man to be impressed by a woman's beauty. In truth, he seldom noticed women at all these days, which he considered rather a shame when he took the time to think of it.  There had been a point in his life when women had been one of his major preoccupations, but suspicion was his only mistress now, and he knew all too well that treachery could easily hide behind a woman's charms. Ten years as a spy had taught him that. Nonetheless, he could not help staring.
     Her wide eyes were the azure blue of a summer sky, with all the innocence of a child. Yet her thick, dark lashes and soft, generous lips had all the seductiveness of a courtesan. Her features were delicate, her flawless skin the color of cream. But it was her smile that fascinated Ethan. It was a smile that could make a man abandon his ideals, forget his honor, sell his soul. It was a smile that enslaved. It was magic.
     He wondered what had brought that smile to her lips, but from this vantage point, he could not tell. She returned her attention to the baker who, like Colin, was preoccupied with a crowd of customers. Because he was observing her so closely, Ethan did not miss the apparently casual glance she gave her surroundings, nor the two meat pies that slipped from the baker's table into the folds of her cloak.
     Well done, he approved, watching in amusement. Anyone who stole from a Tory deserved high praise indeed. She moved out of Ethan's line of vision, and he leaned forward so that he could continue to watch her, but she disappeared into the crowd.
     Even though the two men would speak in seemingly trivial terms, Ethan did not want to run the risk of having anyone overhear their conversation. It was always best to be cautious.
     A boy of about twelve stood only a few feet from Ethan's doorway selling newspapers. Tory newspapers, no doubt, since it was almost impossible for a boy to sell Whig newspapers in the marketplace these days. The soldiers harassed the Whig newspaper sellers so mercilessly that such an occupation was hazardous for a boy. Ethan set his jaw grimly. Soon, boys would be able to sell newspapers with any opinions under the sun without fear of reprisal from the bored and unruly troops of a tyrannical king.
     A man paused beside the boy to buy a newspaper, a man who was obviously wealthy. His shoe buckles were cast of silver, his cane was made of gold and ivory, and his wig was of the finest quality. Ethan could not see his face, but the fashionable cut of his clothes and the vivid peacock-blue color of his coat and the lavish lace at his cuffs proclaimed him an even more dandified Tory than Ethan pretended to be.
     "Thief! Thief!"
     The sudden cry rose above the noise of the crowd, and Ethan once again leaned forward in the doorway, curious to see what was going on. To his surprise, he saw the angel girl again, but this time she was in the grip of a prosperous merchant.
     "I am no thief!" she said indignantly, trying to wrench her wrist free of her captor's grasp. "Unhand me!"
     "You took my pocket watch. I know you did." Keeping a firm hold on her wrist, the man looked around for a constable. Ethan watched as she shoved and struggled against her captor, and he caught the glint of silver as she slipped the man's watch into his pocket.
     Clever girl. Ethan grinned, knowing no one would be able to prove theft against her now. Unaware that his property had been returned, the merchant continued to shout for a constable, but the only person who came to assist was a young, redcoat officer. "What is going on here?" he demanded as he stepped forward out of the gathering crowd.
     "This girl stole my watch," the merchant accused, twisting the girl's wrist with enough force to make her cry out.
     "I did not! It's a lie!" She looked up at the officer, her gorgeous eyes wide and pleading. She lifted her free hand in a helpless gesture. "A ghastly mistake has been made," she said in a voice that would have melted stone. "This man thinks I have stolen something from him, and I am unable to convince him of my innocence. Oh, Major, you seem such an able and intelligent gentleman. Please help me."
     The officer, who was only a lieutenant, puffed up like an arrogant peacock at her flattery. He smiled and patted her arm. "I'm sure everything will be fine," he said soothingly and turned to the merchant. "When did you lose your watch, sir?"
     "I didn't lose it," the other man said angrily, scowling at the officer. "She stole it."
     "Have you proof of this?"
     "Proof? She'll have it on her, and that's all the proof you'll need."
     The girl's expression was one of such martyred innocence that Ethan nearly laughed aloud. "By all means, search me if you must," she said with injured dignity. "I will gladly submit if it will convince you I am innocent. But, if you please, sir, ask this gentleman to search his own pockets as well, for I am sure he is mistaken."
     The lieutenant would not have been human if he had not responded to such a plea. He turned to the merchant. "Sir, are you certain your watch is not on your person?"
     "Of course I'm certain. Any fool can see she stole it."
     Being called a fool did not sit well with the lieutenant. He frowned. "Would you mind verifying that the watch is missing?"
     "Of all the ridiculous . . ." The merchant let go of the girl and patted his pockets, muttering impatiently to himself and scowling, but his irritated expression changed to astonishment as he pulled the heavy silver watch out of his coat pocket.
     "It appears that you have falsely accused this young lady," the lieutenant said.
     "I must have misplaced it," the other man murmured, and Ethan choked back his laughter only with a great deal of effort. Red-faced, the merchant bowed stiffly and walked away without another word.
     The girl turned to the officer, her face shining with gratitude. "Oh, Major, I don't know how to thank you."
     Now that the excitement had passed, the crowd that had gathered around them dissipated. The dandy with the peacock-blue coat walked on with his newspaper, and matrons returned their attention to Colin's clams.
     Ethan, however, continued to watch the girl. After such a close call, he expected her to beat a hasty retreat, but he found he had underestimated her. Instead of counting her blessings and going on her way, she lingered beside the officer, talking with him. One or two more flattering comments, a few moments of rapt, wide-eyed attention, and the lieutenant was completely captivated. He smirked and swaggered, too besotted by his bewitching companion to notice when one of her small, delicate hands slid into his pocket.
     Tongue in cheek, Ethan watched her remove the officer's money purse quicker than the blink of an eye and slip it into her cloak. By the devil, he thought in admiration, this girl could get through heaven's gates by stealing the keys.
     Impressed by her audacity, Ethan watched, certain that the officer would come to his senses and realize what had happened. But such was not the case. She touched the redcoat's cheek in a lingering caress of farewell and turned away, leaving the dazed young officer staring after her with an expression on his face similar to that of a bewildered sheep. Giving him one last glance over her shoulder that held all the promise a man could want, she melted into the crowd and disappeared.