Today's Reading

Folding her arms, she tried to remember that Thomas's wide eyes and spray of freckles made him appear more innocent than he really was.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. "You should've been down to the docks long ago. If Mr. Baggett or the Peacock's Inn boy beat you to it, and we miss out on new guests—"

"Aww, Jo." His toe scuffed a circle in the dirt. "You know I'm faster 'an them. 'Sides, the ferry's not due in for at least another hour."

"Even so, if you're not the first to persuade those arrivals to stay at our inn, I fear we won't..." She paused and craned her neck one way then another to see behind the boy's back. Her brother shifted with her movement—a crazy dance, and a guilty one at that. "What are you hiding? Let's see those hands." His shoulders stiffened. Times like this broke her heart afresh with longing for her father. As much as she needed him, how much more did the young boy in front of her?

She popped her hands onto her hips and stared him down. "Now, young man."

A sigh lifted his chest. Slowly—any slower and she'd wonder if it physically pained him—one arm stretched out, then the other. When his fingers unfolded, crude wooden dice and several coins sat atop his palms.

"Thomas Elliot Langley!"

"Well I won, din't I?" He cocked his head at a rakish angle, his freckles riding the crest of a wicked smirk. "And against Wiley Hawk and his band, no less. Pretty good, eh Sis?"

"You were gambling?" The word filled her mouth like a rancid bit of meat. Sickened, she pressed a hand to her stomach. "Oh, Thomas, how could you? You, of all people, know the evils of such a pastime."

"We were just playing. That's not gambling." A scowl darkened his face, matching the low-lying blanket of grey clouds overhead. "It's fun. Something you wouldn't know anything about."

"What I know is that gamblers are never to be trusted. And worse, you lied about it. Is that the sort of reputation you want spread from one end of Dover to the other? Thomas Langley, the liar? What will Mam say? What do you think this will do to her?"

His toe scrubbed the dirt once again. What had been a scowl morphed into a grimace. "Don't tell Mam, Jo. Please don't."

Was that glistening in his eyes authentic? Hard to say—and even harder to remain cross with his quivering lip and thin shoulders slumping like an old man's.

"Very well." She stretched out her palm. "Hand over that ill-gotten gain, and we'll keep this between ourselves."

With a sly grin, he sprinted off, bits of gravel spraying up from his feet. As he raced, he yelled over his shoulder, "Sorry, Jo! I've a ferry to meet."

Picking up her skirts, she dashed after him, then lessened her pace as she neared the main road. What would people think of her, chasing her scamp of a brother? She'd never catch him anyway. Oh, what a day this was turning out to be.

She slowed, then stopped, her eyes narrowing. Was that a flash of yellow-stockinged legs dangling over the inn's front-door awning? She flattened against the wall and watched.

A loosened shingle smacked onto the ground ahead of her, followed by the thunk of two feet. So that's how Lucius Nutbrown snuck in and out without her knowing.

Girding herself mentally for a conversation that was sure to be ridiculous, Johanna pushed from the wall. "Mr. Nutbrown, a word, if you please."

For an instant, his body stiffened into a ramrod. Then he turned, the creases around his mouth settling into a smug line. For a man so lean, how he managed to gather such extra skin on his face was a wonder. When he reached into an inner pocket of his dress coat, Johanna rolled her eyes. Indeed. This would be ridiculous.

Nutbrown's hand emerged, covered with a raggedy court-jester puppet, which he promptly held out front and center. "Sorry, Miss Langley." The puppet's head bobbed side to side, the man's falsetto voice as crazed as the movement. "Mr. Nutbrown is late to an appointment. He shall attend you later this evening. Good day."

Nutbrown pivoted, the tails of his coat swinging wide. Did he seriously think she'd let him off that easily?
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