28 Apr 2023

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays: THE SECRET SERVICE OF TEA AND TREASON by India Holton (Excerpt)

Science Fiction and Fantasy Fridays introduces readers who are unfamiliar with the Adult SF/F genre to books, authors, and discussions all about the vast expanse of the world of Adult SF/F!


Author: India Holton
Series: Dangerous Damsels #3
Source: eARC via Publisher
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: April 18, 2023

Two rival spies must brave pirates, witches, and fake matrimony to save the Queen.

Known as Agent A, Alice is the top operative within the Agency of Undercover Note Takers, a secret government intelligence group that is fortunately better at espionage than at naming itself. From managing deceptive witches to bored aristocratic ladies, nothing is beyond Alice’s capabilities. She has a steely composure and a plan always up her sleeve (alongside a dagger and an embroidered handkerchief). So when rumors of an assassination plot begin to circulate, she’s immediately assigned to the case.

But she’s not working alone. Daniel Bixby, otherwise known as Agent B and Alice’s greatest rival, is given the most challenging undercover assignment of his life— pretending to be Alice’s husband. Together they will assume the identity of a married couple, infiltrate a pirate house party, and foil their unpatriotic plans.

Determined to remain consummate professionals, Alice and Daniel must ignore the growing attraction between them, especially since acting on it might prove more dangerous than their target.

Three years Daniel Bixby had worked as a butler for the rogue pirate Rotten O’Riley. Three years flying a rickety, ensorcelled house at speeds one could only describe as improper, smuggling pennyroyal tea into Ireland, and washing O’Riley’s laundry. Yet after just one week in Dahlia Weekle’s service he was exhausted. Criminal life had nothing on the rigors of shopping with an aristocratic lady.

This purse-snatching offered the best entertainment he'd had since his return to London (or, to be fair, second best, since nothing could surpass yesterday's discovery of a Utopia edition in the original Latin). Indeed, he might have stopped the hoodlum at once by using a phrase from the magical incantation that pirates employed to fly their battlehouses and witches to move small objects-O'Riley's witch wife had taught him how to bring down a man with just one enchanted word-but it was invigorating to give chase (not to mention that witchcraft was highly secret, highly illegal-and, according to pirates, highly, er, low behavior.)

About three hundred feet along the street, he caught the thief. After a struggle, he twisted the man's arm behind his back, relieved him of the purse, and held it out of reach.

"Thank you," said a woman's voice behind him.

Daniel felt the purse removed efficiently from his grip. Glancing around, he was astonished to see the lady's maid. Time seemed oddly suspended as he stared, arrested by the sight of her. You, said something inside of him, like a memory or a dream. It had whispered to him in the dress shop but spoke louder now, as if she'd removed a mask and he could see her more clearly. Her delicate face was framed by a coiffure so severe it made him think of backboards and plain, starched undergarments-

At which point, time dropped into the pit of his stomach with a crash that sent reverberations through his entire nervous system.

"Ma'am," he said, taking refuge in politeness even while his nerves clamored and the thief swore and kicked in an effort to get free. "It was a pleasure to be of assistance."

"You are too kind," she replied, her voice civil but her expression making it clear she was speaking literally. She turned and handed the purse to the thief.

Daniel blinked, trying to comprehend the evidence before his eyes. He had not been so confused since hearing Wordsworth described as a poetic genius. And confusion was dangerous in his line of work (i.e., when he felt it, other people became endangered). He twisted the thief's arm further, causing the man to holler, and took the purse from him once more.

"I beg your pardon," he reproved the lady's maid.

At his somber tone she cringed, her big dark eyes filling with tears, her lashes trembling. Daniel felt like an utter cad. "Please don't cry," he said, holding out his hand in apology.

And she grabbed the purse in it, tugged hard, and jabbed the fingers of her free hand up into his armpit.

Daniel gasped at the sudden pain. His grip weakened, and the purse disappeared once more from his possession. The woman returned it to the thief, who took it with an attitude of bemused uncertainty.

"For goodness' sake," Daniel muttered. Although years of piracy had presented little opportunity for heroics, he felt certain they did not usually involve the victim attacking her rescuer. Wrenching the thief about, he snatched the purse from him and-

The woman grasped his wrist with both hands. Daniel attempted to shake her off, and she attempted to emasculate him with an upthrust of her knee, and he saved himself (and his future children) by quickly blocking her with his own knee, leading to her stomping down on his foot, and him twisting her arm, and both of them stopping abruptly to watch the thief escape along the street.

"Is that your pearl necklace he's carrying?" Daniel asked mildly.

"Yes," she replied.

"Oh dear."

She shrugged. "Hopefully he won't bite the pearls to see if they're real. They are in fact cyanide capsules."

As the thief turned a corner and disappeared from the narrative, Daniel released the woman. She took a careful breath, her fingers twitching at her skirt, and he frowned with concern. "Are you hurt?"

The look she gave him was such that Daniel immediately wanted to find a chalkboard and write I will not ask stupid questions one hundred times upon it.

"Yes," she said in a quiet, terrifyingly precise voice. "I have a headache, my feet ache, and it has been six hours since my last cup of tea. Six hours! And now I even sound like her. Do you realize how much work went in to shepherding that woman into position so her purse could be stolen? How many boutiques I have endured this week? Do you realize how many conversations about penny-dreadful novels I have been forced to endure?"


"One such conversation would be too many, but there in fact have been dozens, all mixing together into a ghastly, giggling blur. And yet there goes Putrid Pete back to his gang's headquarters without the tracking device in Miss Tewkes's purse, thanks to your dratted chivalry."


"Furthermore, what were you thinking, bringing Miss Weekle shopping on Bond Street today? Her servants coordinate with Miss Tewkes's servants so as to ensure the ladies never meet. The last time they did, there was a fracas over a parasol, and Miss Weekle's footman ended up with his nose broken. You have disrupted everything. Therefore I say good afternoon, sir. This ends our acquaintance."

And grabbing the purse from him, she turned and marched away.

Daniel stared dazedly after her. His memory was shouting for attention . . . His body, however, drowned it out with a hot, uncomfortable throbbing. Perhaps he had strained something in his fight with the thief. He would have to consult a medical encyclopedia this evening.

The woman took an unrelenting course along the footpath, obliging more genteel ladies to leap out of her way. She moved with the dangerous grace of someone entirely aware of her surroundings and entirely unafraid. He watched her, knowing she would know that he did.

And for the first time in living memory, Daniel Bixby grinned.

Excerpted from The Secret Service of Tea and Treason by India Holton Copyright © 2023 by India Holton. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved.

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