Book Three of The Stranje House Novels

Refuge for Masterminds - Book Cover

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 Refuge for Masterminds (Stranje House, #3)

 

“Aww. Dudes, I’m such a sucker for this series . . . I loved the heck out of it.” – Rachel’s Book Reviews

“This spy school for girls . . . is impossible to put down! . . . I recommend this book to anyone that loves brave girls, adventure and great friendships.” – 5 Girls Book Reviews

“I am so excited!!” – Amber, Goodreads Member

“Please, please, please, please! I need the book to live. Thanks for not making us wait too long!” – Hermione, Goodreads Member


It’s 1814. Napoleon has escaped his imprisonment on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. Stranje House is a School for Unusual Girls, where five young ladies are secretly being trained for a world of spies, diplomacy, and war….

LADY JANE MOORE has a secret. A secret that must be kept buried. For if anyone discovered the truth, her life at Stranje House would crumble. And with Napoleon Bonaparte threatening to invade England, everyone at Stranje House is already in mortal danger.

A traitor in the house.

Someone is sneaking information to Lady Daneska and Ghost, Napoleon’s spies. Jane is determined to find out who it is before the bonds of friendship at Stranje House are ripped apart by suspicions. Her desperate hunt for the traitor ensnares a brash young American inventor, Alexander Sinclair, Robert Fulton’s nephew, into an ambush that puts his life in danger. Sinclair is the most maddening young man in all of Christendom, a sharp-tongued rascal with boorish manners, but Lady Jane cannot bear the thought of the golden-haired genius being harmed.

Is Jane enough of a mastermind to save Alexander, her friends at Stranje House, and possibly England itself?

Fans of Gail Carriger, Patricia Wrede, and Caroline Stevermer will love this Regency-era alternate history filled with spunky heroines, handsome young lords, and dastardly villains.


 Read an Excerpt…

 CHAPTER ONE
Lady Jane Moore

The oil lamp flickers and hisses. It is late, very late. The oil will run out soon. Even though it is long past midnight, I continue working at my desk in the library, listing possibilities, drawing lines from one hypothesis to another, scratching out those lines and mapping new ones, trying to calculate which of the many options our enemy will take next. In my mind, the players line up before me like pieces on a chessboard, and it keeps coming back to this . . . to Lady Daneska.

Evil queen takes knight.

Checkmate.

We lose.

Except she isn’t a queen. Lady Daneska was once one of us, one of Miss Stranje’s students. Now she’s Napoleon’s clever little troublemaker, and paramour to Ghost, codename for the British traitor who leads the emperor’s secret Order of the Iron Crown. I set down the quill and massage my forehead.

The knight is in danger.

Alexander Sinclair, nephew of the American inventor, Robert Fulton, has been hiding at Stranje House. He’s slated to leave in three short days. Captain Grey and Lord Wyatt plan to help him sail the prototype of his steam-powered warship to London where they’ll demonstrate its capabilities to the British admiralty. Everything hinges on Alexander and his warship arriving unscathed in London.

They shouldn’t risk that journey. Not yet, not until we have more safeguards in place, but I’ve been overruled. They insist there isn’t time.

Why can’t they see what will happen?

Lady Daneska wants that steamship for Napoleon, and she doesn’t care whose throat she has to cut to get it. She proved that when she tried to steal the plans a few days ago and nearly killed Tess and Madame Cho. And if Napoleon gets that warship, England will lose this war.

She’ll try to steal it. I can predict exactly how it will play out. Their men will attack at sea, pirate the ship, and capture Mr. Sinclair, or send him and the others to graves at the bottom of the ocean.

Mr. Sinclair scoffed at my warning yesterday. “You fret too much, Lady Jane. The Mary Isabella is highly maneuverable.” He and Georgie are exceedingly proud of their prototype of Fulton’s remarkable invention. “That vessel can outrun any other ship because she can sail against the tide and winds.”

Their boastful assurances are all well and good, but my misgivings remain. “Have you forgotten we’ve been infiltrated?” I protested. “Stranje House has a traitor.” They shrugged off my objections.

“The Iron Crown has fake plans.” Georgie tried to placate me. “That buys us the time we need.”

We survived Lady Daneska’s last attack and sent her away with falsified plans, so now everyone is convinced we finally have the advantage. When in truth, the temporary advantage we may have gained slips away with every deadly tick of the clock.

There must be a way to make them listen to reason.

I slump over my desk, weary and troubled, well aware there is another, less altruistic, thought vexing me. Even if, by some miracle, we succeed in getting Mr. Sinclair and Fulton’s remarkable warship safely to London, Mr. Sinclair will then most likely make a hasty departure to the United States.

Of course, he will. Why shouldn’t he?

What does it matter?

I sit, ramrod straight, hoping proper posture will alleviate the pinch in my neck. He is nothing to me. Less than nothing. To be frank, the golden-haired inventor is the most maddening young man of my acquaintance, and that’s saying a great deal considering my two plague-y older brothers and their wastrel friends.

My head begins to throb abominably. I stand, slide my papers beneath the blotter, and extinguish the lamp. Mr. Sinclair is a sharp-tongued fellow with boorish manners, and he is not even an Englishman. The idea of parting with him ought to be a relief.

Ought to be – but isn’t.

The thought of his leaving twists my stomach into a Gordian knot. Some warm milk might ease it out of its misery. Yes, that is exactly the tonic I need, a calming cup of warm milk. I pad silently out of the library and head down the dark hallway toward the kitchen.

Stranje House is an odd place at night when everyone is asleep. It’s as if the old Tudor manor is alive the way it creaks and the windows shudder. A young lady given to flights of imagination might feel as if the walls are leaning in as she walks through the unlit hallways. I, however, do not indulge in such far-fetched thoughts. I’m quite certain that moaning sound is nothing more than wind breathing through the secret passages.

I’ve no need of a candle. Even in the deep of night, I know my way around Stranje House well enough and prefer to forego the wobbly glare of a flame. Besides, the heavy darkness suits my mood.

The last stairs leading down to the kitchen are wide stone steps with no banister. They can be a trifle thorny to navigate in the dark. Fortunately, thin gray moonlight whiskers up from the downstairs windows and I glide my hand along the wall for added guidance.

Stepping into the spacious room, I breathe deep the smell of baked rye bread and onion soup that still lingers. But something yanks my attention to the window above the baking table.

It might’ve been a wisp of fog, or an owl soaring by to catch a mouse in the garden, except it had seemed bigger and more human. If I were prone to fanciful ruminations, I might’ve thought a phantom flitted past. Fortunately, I do not entertain such notions.

No, my suspicions run in an entirely different direction. I rush to the window and lean up on my toes to peer out. In the distance, I spot the creature, cloaked in grey, who passed by the window, and she wears a dress.

Most decidedly not a ghost.

Although, she may be working for one.

Unless I miss my guess, this particular phantom is going about her duplicitous duties, reporting our plans to Ghost’s cohorts. I press closer to the window hoping to see her more clearly, rubbing the glass I squint, straining to identify her, watching as the clever minx leads the dogs to their pen and shuts them in.

This has to be our betrayer—our traitor. The person responsible for all our slanted looks and unspoken suspicions. The sneaky girl who is ripping apart the bonds of friendship here at Stranje House. At least, when Lady Daneska betrayed us, we’d known who she was, and she didn’t hide the fact that she ran off to join Napoleon’s cause.

This traitor moves in secret, slowly stealing away the confidence we have in one another’s loyalty. She is a disease, rotting us from the inside out. For what are we without trust? Naught but a group of misfits and outcasts. Trust is the foundation of our strength. Without it, we will surely crumble and leave the path clear for Napoleon to sail in and conquer England.

Which of us would commit such a crime?

I intend to find out.

Pulling my shawl around my shoulders, I hurry to the bench beside the kitchen door and slip on cook’s pattens, the wooden clogs she wears to go out into the muddy garden. Her mud shoes are three sizes too big but they will have to do. I leave the door unlatched so I can return easily, and sneak out to follow our poisonous little turncoat.

Last week I cut holes in the right side pockets of my dresses. I slip my hand through the opening and reach for the dagger strapped in a sheath to my hip. Ever since Tess taught me how to wield a knife in a close fight, I’ve kept it on my person. I breathe easier once I feel the hilt in my palm. Without a coat and bonnet, I am not properly dressed for an outdoor excursion, especially one in the middle of the night, but at least I’m suitably armed.

I keep to the shadows, as does our traitor. We skirt through the trees alongside the drive, all the way to the towering gates that guard Stranje House. She opens the ancient iron sentinels just wide enough to slip through. They creak. She pulls her hooded cloak tighter, and glances over her shoulder as if she senses she’s being watched. I hold back, crouching in the undergrowth, not daring to get any closer lest the culprit might see me and pretend she is simply out for a late night stroll. The misty night hangs over us in a swirling fog and I am too far away to make out her features.

I wait until she scurries on her little rat feet far enough down the road that she won’t see me pass through the open gate behind her. Unlike Tess, I am not skilled at creeping through the woods and undergrowth. Each branch that cracks and every pile of leaves that crunches underfoot causes me to hold my breath expecting to be discovered.

In truth, I am nothing like the other girls at Stranje House. They all have extraordinary talents and skills. Tess is a warrior who has the advantage of prophetic dreams. Sera takes notice of every detail, no matter how miniscule, and draws conclusions based on the smallest thread of evidence. Georgie is a brilliant scientist, and Maya’s voice is magical, she can soothe tempers with a few well-spoken words.

I have none of those skills.

As my brothers so delicately phrased it, I am an overly opinionated female who refuses to mind her own business. That’s why they packed me up and hauled me off to Stranje House, to keep me out of their way. I have absolutely no idea why Miss Stranje allows me to stay. She says it is because I am a mastermind.

Stuff and nonsense! 

I’m no mastermind. A mastermind is a strategic genius. I’m nothing of the kind. Oh, I admit I am a bit managing, and I have a rather strong bent toward the practical, but only because I easily grasp the facts of a situation, much the way one does when playing chess. It’s a simple thing, really, anticipating an opponent’s next few moves, and it’s only natural to devise and implement a sensible course of action. After all, it’s my duty to protect and care for the people I love. That’s all there is to it.

Nothing extraordinary.

Well, I suppose I do have a knack for organizing the players in my plans, and I like to think I do so with quiet efficiency. Occasionally, my friends tell me I’m not as subtle about organizing them as I imagine myself to be. They sometimes tease me about that. Tess, in particular, likes to needle me by saying I would’ve made a splendid governess. Although, when it comes to teasing, none of them holds a candle to Alexander Sinclair.

What would they have me do? Sit back and twiddle my thumbs when trouble is brewing? Not ruddy likely. Not when people I care about are in danger. I was born an earl’s daughter. It’s only natural that when difficulties arise, if no one steps up into the driver’s seat, I will do what must be done and take the reins in hand.

That is the very reason I’m out here in the middle of the night, slogging through mud and rotting leaves, struggling to keep from knocking cook’s clunky pattens against rocks and fallen branches in the underbrush. I may not excel at this sort of activity, but I’m certainly not going to allow this villainous creature to escape. She is threatening all of us at Stranje House—my friends, England, and even my annoying Mr. Sinclair.

Truth is, I would wade through a snake filled bog if need be. Stranje House is my refuge, my sanctuary. I’ll protect it or die trying. My no account brothers will never know the favor they did me by bringing me here to Miss Stranje. She allows me to experiment with crop rotation and animal husbandry to my heart’s content, and this is the perfect place for me to hide. As long as no one outside of our little circle learns I am here at Stranje House, there is a chance, or the hope of a chance, no one will discover my secret.

For now, though, it is Stranje House’s secrets that need protecting, not mine. I tuck my shawl tighter and press forward. The traitor stops up ahead in a small clearing off to the side of the road. She looks around as if expecting to find someone lurking in the trees up ahead.

Where is that blasted moon? Why must it drift behind clouds when I so desperately need its light to see our betrayer. I hide behind a wide oak and hold my breath, hoping she won’t see me peering around the edge as I try to catch a glimpse of her face. If only I could see the color of her hair, or the pattern of the dress she wears beneath her cloak, anything that might give me a clue as to her identity.

The sound of chirping insects and piping tree frogs fills the night. A shrill whistle cuts through the noise of the woods—a poor mimic of a hawk screech. The traitor answers with a light trill meant to sound like a less like a predatory bird, more like an innocent sweet songbird. Ha! There is nothing innocent or sweet about our Judas.

At the edge of the trees furthest from me, a man emerges cloaked in a brown greatcoat wearing a dark hat pulled low over his brow. She approaches him and mumbles a greeting.

I draw my knife and clasp it tight. The weight of it in my fist makes me feel a little stronger, a little braver. I press against the tree, straining to hear. If I can catch a clear snippet of her voice I’ll know who it is, but the dead leaves and the foliage seemed to swallow up the sound. “What’ve you learned?” He speaks low as if he fears being overheard.

Her voice is higher, much softer, making it far more difficult to hear than his. I only catch a word here and there. I think I heard her say, “Ship.”

“When?” he demands. “Where?”

Her answer is impossible to distinguish. She speaks rapidly and gestures toward the coast. I cringe when he asks, “To London?”

She nods.

“Two days.” He rubs his chin. “Doesn’t give us much time.”

It’s wretchedly dark and I’m too far from the spies. A smaller tree stands directly in front of me, a narrow alder. It is an enticing two yards closer to them. I hunch low, preparing to dart forward unseen.

Someone grabs me from behind. He claps a hand over my mouth. “Don’t,” he whispers in my ear.

Instinct takes over. Without a second thought, I move into the training I’ve practiced with Tess and our defensive arts master, Madame Cho. I jab backward with my elbow and strike him squarely in his ribs. Extending my leg, I clamp hold of his arm and heave him over my shoulder. Immediately, I pounce on the villain with my knife at his throat.

Alexander Sinclair! It can’t be.

I blink, unable to believe my eyes. It is him. Those are his disorderly blond curls, his broad chest I’ve pinned to the ground, his rumpled shirt and worn coat.

What in heaven’s name is he doing here? My breath catches. He must be in league with the traitor. I should never have trusted him. Never. I let my guard down and what happens, the blighter turns out to be a common spy. I dig my elbow into his ribs.

“What are you doing?” He says under his breath as if I am the one making a blunder.

“Me?” I press the knife closer to his treacherous throat. “What are you doing here?”

“Following you,” he whispers heatedly.

I don’t believe his innocent act. “You grabbed me.”

“Yes, because you were about to give yourself away.”

I ease up with the knife and glance over at the traitor and her accomplice. Too late. I groan. They’ve seen us.

Her accomplice curses roundly. “Fool! You’ve been followed.” He shoves her away and takes off like a stag crashing through the underbrush. Our sneaky betrayer follows suit, except she bolts in a different direction.

It’s my turn to curse, something I never do. “Dash it all! She’s getting away.”

I scramble up, springing after her, dodging trees and bounding over fallen logs. Behind me, I hear Alexander scramble to his feet. He quickly passes me in pursuit of the traitor.

 

_______________

I hope you enjoyed this unedited sneak peek at Refuge For Masterminds.
Preorders are up at some booksellers and more will be set up in the days to come. Most booksellers have a price match guarantee so that you are assured the lowest price and that way you get the book the same day it comes out. 

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 Refuge for Masterminds (Stranje House, #3)