Months have passed since young widow Becca Parcell and former printer Daniel Alloway foiled a plot that threatened the new nation. But independence is still a distant dream, and General Washington can’t afford more unrest, not with food prices rising daily and the value of money falling just as fast.
At the General’s request, Becca and Daniel travel to Philadelphia to track down traitors who are flooding the city with counterfeit money. Searching for clues, Becca befriends the wealthiest women in town, the members of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, while Daniel seeks information from the city’s printers.
But their straightforward mission quickly grows personal and deadly as a half-remembered woman from Becca’s childhood is arrested for murdering one of the suspected counterfeiters.
With time running out – and their faux marriage breaking apart – Becca and Daniel find themselves searching for a hate-driven villain who’s ready to kill again.
Heat rose from Rebecca Parcell’s chest, climbed her neck, and stamped a flush on her cheeks. She knew what would happen next. It was time for the toasts.
“Steady now,” Daniel Alloway whispered. They stood alone in a corner of the crowded ballroom. His good hand brushed hers for reassurance. His other hand hung at his side, deadened by the injury he’d incurred escaping from a British prison ship a year ago.
Becca scanned the room to assure herself that no one watched them. Even his light touch was frowned upon by polite society, but it brought her warmth and comfort.
Their host rapped an ornate silver fork against his crystal goblet again and waited for the magpie chatter of gossip to quiet. He stood by the large fireplace, his feet planted wide as if he were standing on the deck of one of his ships. Mr. Thaddeus Barnes was the wealthiest merchant in Philadelphia, which meant, she knew, that he was one of the richest men in all of North America.
Becca had rarely seen luxury like this, not even last winter in New York City. The ceiling dripped curved garlands of flowers carved of plaster. Blue and white vases from China rested on the carved marble mantel. Cherry wood tables hailed from France, and the glass chandelier from Venice.
“I’d be much more comfortable with a bow in my hand,” Becca murmured. “Or a knife. A knife would do.”
“You’d rather hunt in Morristown than here?” Daniel smiled, his green eyes filled with amusement. The gaunt, haunted look he wore when she met him last winter was gone. But his features still seemed to be carved from stone, all hard angles and shadows. Except when he smiled at her like this.
Despite being tall, Becca had to tilt her chin up to see eye-to-eye with Daniel. “Hunting here will do.” she said, sounding more prim than she intended, and Daniel laughed. “Even this type of hunting.”
They were in Philadelphia, searching for the counterfeiters flooding the colony with fake money. They were the obvious, though unconventional, pair for the job, General Washington had said when he assigned them. Daniel because he was a former printer with the skills to evaluate ink and paper and Becca for her talent with numbers, accounts, and codes, which had already served the general well.
The clink-clink of metal on glass rang through the air again, and Mr. Barnes’s guests finally quieted. “A toast,” he called, beginning the first of the three he would raise to Becca and Daniel. It was the same at each of the parties held in their honor these past few weeks. Always three. Becca dreaded the third. “To independence.”
Becca lifted her goblet and sipped to a chorus of “huzzahs.” One, she counted to herself, because counting was soothing but not soothing enough for what was to come.
When the cheers faded, Mr. Barnes raised his glass again. The wine-filled cup glimmered red beneath the crystal candelabras. “To General Washington.”
“Huzzah!” The ballroom cheered again. Two, Becca counted.
She should be grateful to Mr. Barnes, not gritting her teeth over his toasts. He had opened his home to them at the Washingtons’s request, and he was introducing them to the finest families in Philadelphia, who were happy to welcome two friends of General and Lady Washington.
At least that much was true. Since last February, she and Daniel had become regular visitors to the Washingtons’ residence in Morristown after uncovering a plot that threatened the new nation.
Another round of cheers. Some guests made the mistake of lowering their glasses.
“And…” Mr. Barnes crowed.
A man with ginger-colored hair lounging by the doorway sighed loudly, catching her eye.
Becca couldn’t have agreed more.
The stranger gave her a slow, lazy smile. His expression was almost intimate, as if he were trying to draw her in. She turned away quickly.
“Finally…” Mr. Barnes added.
Becca took a deep breath, inhaling the warm scent of beeswax candles.
“…let us wish the newlyweds a joyous and productive marriage.” Mr. Barnes, a long-time widower, winked at Daniel. “May your hearts ever be at each other’s service.”
The cream of Philadelphia society turned in unison to Becca and Daniel.
She dropped her gaze to avoid the stares.
“A delicate flower, you are,” Daniel whispered without moving his lips.
She banged his ribs with her elbow and heard a satisfying oomph.
Anyone watching her redden and look away at the mention of their marriage might indeed take it that she was a shy, delicate flower. This was false.
She was not shy.
She was not delicate.
And, more to the point, she and Daniel were not married.
Mr. Barnes nodded to a double-chinned musician in the corner dressed in maroon breeches and a matching silk coat. At the signal, he tucked his violin into his neck, lifted a bow, and attacked his instrument. Two men laughed at something a third said. A few women formed a group and chatted, and the high-ceilinged room filled again with noise.
Barnes knew the reason they were in Philadelphia. General Washington had trusted him with that information. But their host believed that Becca and Daniel were wed. This way, Mr. Barnes could rightfully claim to be as outraged as everyone else if their deceit came to light.
Memory pulled Becca back to a dinner with the Washingtons in Morristown. “Perhaps this is unwise.” The general voiced a rare doubt after they agreed to come to Philadelphia. “You are unmarried and unchaperoned. It is scandalous. Society will close ranks against you. You’ll learn nothing.”
Lady Washington had taken a small sip of sherry. Her blue eyes lit with humor. “Then they must appear to be married while maintaining all the proprieties.”
The general made a choking sound that Becca and Daniel decided later was laughter. And so they’d agreed to play the part of a newly married couple, with Daniel looking for a new business opportunity in Philadelphia. It was a brazen plan but might just succeed.
Becca startled. The ginger-haired gentleman suddenly stood before her.
He extended a silk-clad leg and bowed, then rose, displaying the same secret smile that made her uncomfortable minutes ago. His nose was straight, his eyelashes pale against close-set blue eyes. Perhaps his chin was a bit heavy, his mouth a bit small. His features were not memorable, but something about him commanded attention.
It wasn’t just his shock of red hair combed back neatly and tied low along the back of his neck, nor the well-made clothes of ivory silk and gold embroidery. Everyone in the room bore similar signs of wealth. It was the confidence with which he moved, the sense that his regard flattered anyone upon whom it was bestowed.
“You’ve kept her from me, Alloway. I thought I knew all the beautiful women in Philadelphia.” His eyes locked on Becca’s.
She stiffened. It took discipline not to raise her hand and double check that the lace covering the top of her breasts was in place. He made her feel naked.
Daniel stiffened, too. “Mrs. Alloway, may I introduce Mr. Edmund Taylor, another merchant here in Philadelphia.”
Taylor’s light eyebrows shot up in mock distress. “Just another merchant? One of the most successful in the colonies, despite the war.” His gaze dropped to Daniel’s injured hand.
“And is your wife here, too?” Daniel bit down on the words, “your wife.”
Irritation crossed Taylor’s face so quickly Becca thought she imagined it. “My dear,” he called loudly.
A woman standing near the fireplace tensed, then moved toward them with the elegance of a swan. Her hair was honey blond, her skin unblemished, and her eyes a liquid blue. She stopped before them, wearing a tentative smile.
“I’m honored to present my wife, Charlotte Taylor.” He completed the introductions.
“It is a pleasure. I hope you enjoy our city.” Her voice was breathy and slow. There was a stillness about her, as if she had her own secrets to guard.
“I am enjoying it.” From downstairs, Becca heard the butler’s placating voice, then a woman’s shrill, demanding response.
Moments later, Mr. Barnes’s butler, Eli, slipped into the room.
Heads turned to the butler with a mixture of curiosity and mild surprise.
He whispered to Mr. Barnes, who nodded.
Then Eli strode toward them. He cupped his hand over his mouth and leaned toward Mr. Taylor.
“Begging your pardon, sir. There’s a woman at the front door. She says she’s yours, and that she must see you now.”
Becca couldn’t help but overhear. She says she’s yours. The woman at the door must be enslaved. Neither her dead husband nor father had owned slaves. But even she knew that enslaved people did not enter by the front door.
Color leeched from Taylor’s face.
“I will see her.” Mrs. Taylor swept from the room without waiting for her husband’s response.
“How do you find Philadelphia, Mrs. Alloway? Your husband says that this is your first visit,” another guest, who had turned to them at the servant’s approach, asked to mask the embarrassment of the moment.
When Becca didn’t answer, Daniel elbowed her gently. “Yes, Mrs. Alloway. How do you find Philadelphia?”
She really must do a better job responding to her married name. “People have been kind here. I hardly expected it.”
Mr. Barnes joined them, interrupting, “How goes your business, Taylor?”
“We don’t want to bore the ladies.” Taylor glanced at Becca.
“Please, don’t stop on my account. I comprehend so little, but hearing you speak of business never bores me.” Becca would have fluttered her eyelashes if she were the sort of woman who could manage it without appearing to have caught a speck of dirt in her eye.
She pasted a pleasant far-away expression on her face. Men spoke of business and politics as if she couldn’t understand a word, as if she didn’t listen and pass anything of interest back to General Washington. She took a small sip of the straw-colored dry sherry.
“Are you paying your investors in silver or paper these days?” Barnes asked.
Becca admired his playacting. Daniel and their host had rehearsed their lines. They asked the same questions at each party.
Taylor glared. “Sterling, of course. What are you accusing me of?”
Becca slowly lowered her glass. Taylor was the first to interpret the query as an accusation. An accusation of what? Having less silver than a man of his stature should? Or of passing along fake dollar notes?
Barnes nodded to Taylor. “No offense intended. I started seeing badly printed dollar notes again this spring. Merely asking whether you’re being cautious about paper dollars these days, given the situation.”
Taylor nodded curtly.
By now, five men had formed a tight ring as if warming themselves round a campfire. Becca stood just outside their circle.
Another of the merchants stepped up. “I thought I was the only one who noticed the forgeries.”
Daniel feigned surprise. “Has that been a problem here?”
“The British—damn them. They’re printing false money and spreading it as fast as they can,” one of the men said.
“There are worse problems, surely,” Daniel said.
“Ah, a young man who believes war is only about battles,” another guest drawled with feigned pity.
The others chuckled.
“If not winning battles, then what?” Daniel smiled, but the skin around his eyes tightened. He’s offended by the condescending tone, Becca thought.
“The counterfeits will set this country ablaze.” Barnes sputtered. “There have been food riots already. The poor are starving, and they can’t afford bread. How soon until people seek another king, another tyrant who swears that only he can save them?”
“When no one can tell whether money is real, the price of bread goes up, and everyone—everyone—turns against the government,” another man added. He looked to the group for support.
Becca studied them, shaken. She had thought of this trip as a lark, a way to spend more time with Daniel while unraveling a simple puzzle for General Washington.
Daniel bowed to Mr. Barnes. “It does sound terrible. My apologies.” He turned to Taylor. “And what do you think of all this, sir?”
Taylor shrugged. “Mr. Barnes is right. The economy is undone. I’d look to the traitors’ wives first. I wouldn’t put counterfeiting past them.”
“Who are the traitors’ wives?” Becca asked, catching Taylor’s attempt at redirection.
The men turned to her in surprise.
Oh bullocks. “Traitors? I don’t see any traitors at this party. Mr. Barnes wouldn’t allow it.” There. That sounded more like the simple, oblivious young woman they expected her to be.
Taylor and the others chuckled indulgently. “Nothing for you to worry about, Mrs. Alloway. Our apologies.”
“Do you know something specifically about these women, or are you trading in rumors?” Daniel’s voice was soft, but the challenge was clear. Neither he nor Becca cared for baseless rumors, not after gossip had almost ruined her life last winter.
“My husband’s passions sometimes lead him astray.” Charlotte Taylor had returned. “There are times that he causes harm when it is least intended.”
The husband and wife stared at each other from across the small circle of guests. He looked away first.
Excerpt from The Counterfeit Wife by Mally Becker. Copyright 2022 by Mally Becker. Reproduced with permission from Mally Becker. All rights reserved.
Mally Becker combines her love of history and crime fiction in mysteries that feature strong, independent heroines. She is the Agatha Award-nominated author of The Turncoat’s Widow, which Kirkus Reviews called, “A compelling tale… with charming main characters.” Her first novel was also named a CIBA “Mystery & Mayhem” finalist.
A member of the board of MWA-NY, Mally was an attorney until becoming a full-time writer and an instructor at The Writers Circle Workshops. She is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Historical Novel Society. Mally and her husband live in New Jersey, where they raised their wonderful son and spend as much time as they can hiking and kayaking.