The Innkeeper's Daughter

By: Michelle Griep

CHAPTER ONE





Dover, England, 1808

Numbers would be the death of Johanna Langley.

Three hours of sleep after a night of endless—or more like hopeless—bookkeeping. Two days to pay the miller before he cut off their flour supply. And only one week remained until the Blue Hedge Inn would be forced to close its doors forever.

Numbers, indeed. Horrid little things.

A frown etched deep into Johanna’s face as she descended the last stair into the taproom. Stifling a yawn, she scanned the inn’s public room, counting on collaring their lone boarder, Lucius Nutbrown. His payment would at least stave off the miller. Six empty tables and twelve unoccupied benches stared back. Must all the odds be stacked against her?

To her right, through the kitchen door, an ear-shattering crash assaulted the silence, followed by a mournful “Oh no!”

Johanna dashed toward the sound, heart pounding. Dear God, not another accident!

She sailed through the door and skidded to a stop just before her skirt hem swished into a pool of navy beans and water. Across from her, Mam eyed the flagstone floor, one hand pressed against her mouth, the other holding the table edge.

Johanna sidestepped the mess. “You all right, Mam?”

Smoothing her palms along her apron, her mother nodded. “Aye. That crock were a mite heavier than I credited.”

“As long as you’re not hurt. You’re not, are you?” She studied her mother’s face for a giveaway twitch in her poor eye. Unlike her father—God rest his soul—her mother would make a lacking card shark.

“I’m fine. Truly.” A weak smile lifted the right side of Mam’s mouth.

With no accompanying twitch.

Johanna let out a breath and grabbed a broom from the corner. First, she’d tackle scooping up the beans and earthenware shards, then mop the water.

“Where is Cook?” Johanna asked while she worked. “Why did you not let her carry such a load?”

“Ana’s gone, child. I let her go this morning.”

The words were as vexing a sound as the bits of stoneware scraping across the floor. Though her mother’s declaration was not a surprise, that didn’t make it any easier to accept. A sigh welled in her throat. She swept it down with as much force as she wielded on the broom. Sighing, wishing, hoping … none of it would bring Ana back.

She reached for the dustpan. “I suppose we’ll have to forego the plum pudding this year then, too, eh?”

“Pish! Oak Apple Day without plum pudding?” Mam snatched the dustpan from her hands, then bent in front of the crockery pile. “You might as well hang a CLOSED shingle on the front door right now. What’s next … leaving off the garland and missing the prayer service as well?”

“Of course not.” Setting the broom aside, Johanna grabbed Mam’s hands in both of hers and pulled her to her feet. “God’s seen us through worse, has He not?”

“Aye, child. That He has.” For an instant, the lines on her mother’s face softened, then just as quickly, reknit themselves into knots. “Still—”

“No still about it. If we fail to trust in His provision, what kind of faith is that?”

“Aah, my sweet girl … you are a rare one, you are.”

The look of love shining in Mam’s good eye squeezed Jo’s heart. She’d smile, if she could remember how, but she didn’t have to. Boyish laughter from outside the kitchen window cut into the tender moment.

Thomas!

Johanna flew out the back door and raced around the corner of the inn. Boys scattered like startled chickens, leaving only one to face her in the settling dust.

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.”