A Stranger’s Secret
Laurie Alice Eakes
As a grieving young widow, Morwenna only wants a quiet life for herself and her son. Until a man washes ashore, entangling her in a web of mystery that could threaten all she holds dear.
Lady Morwenna Trelawny Penvenan indulged in her fair share of dalliances in her youth, but now that she’s the widowed mother to the heir of the Penvenan title, she’s desperate to polish her reputation. When she’s accused of deliberately luring ships to crash on the rocks to steal the cargo, Morwenna begins an investigation to uncover the real culprits and stumbles across an unconscious man lying in the sea’s foam – a man wearing a medallion with the Trelawny crest around his neck.
The medallion is a mystery to David Chastain, a boat builder from Somerset. On a quest to discover the mystery surrounding his father, all David knows is that his father was found dead in Cornwall with the medallion in his possession after lying and stealing his family’s money. And he knows the widow who rescued him is impossibly beautiful – and likely the siren who caused the shipwreck in the first place—as well as the hand behind whoever is trying to murder David.
As Morwenna nurses David back to health and tries to learn how he landed on her beach, suspicion and pride keep their growing attraction at bay. But can they join together to save Morwenna’s name and estate and David’s life – and acknowledge the love they are both trying to deny?
“While the romance between Morwenna and David is captivating, Eakes makes a point of focusing on family in the continuing saga of the Trelawny clan.” – Four Star Review from Romantic Times
The storm left more than missing roof tiles and downed tree branches in its wake. A mast, splintered like a twig in the hands of a giant’s child and tossed upon the beach, a handful of spars, and masses of tangled rigging bellowed a tale of destruction. That not a box, barrel, or chest floated on the returning tide amidst the skeleton of the wrecked ship testified to destruction well beyond the ravages of the sea.
“Wreckers.” Morwenna, Lady Penvenan spat the single word as she surveyed the wreckage from the top of the cliff, her arms wrapped across her body to stave off the icy blast of wind from the sea and the chill of fear from her heart. For the second time in as many months, the local inhabitants of Penmara village had resurrected the ancient practice of luring ships to their doom upon the rocky shore below her home. She had watched the light bobbing on the cliff top signaling safe harbor where no safety lay, knowing she couldn’t stop the wreckers in the middle of their work without risking her own life and leaving her son unprotected, unable to save the ship and its passengers and crew. But now, if she didn’t find out who was leading the men into lawlessness, the whispers of her involvement from the previous wreck would like as not blossom into full-blown accusations. The heaviness of her heart dragging her down as though the skirt of her woolen gown and cloak were soaked with seawater, Morwenna called to the deerhounds, who had been her constant companions since her husband’s murder, and descended the cliff path to the beach. By her reckoning, she had another hour to hunt for clues before the tide turned and began to claim what the wreckers had left behind.
The dogs raced ahead, eager for a gallop on the sand after a day’s confinement in the house. “Oggy, Pastie, come.” She commanded the dogs back to her side.
Their noses deep in a pile of flotsam, they ignored her.
“Do not eat anything rotten.”
They emerged with what appeared to be a hunk of salt beef from beneath the stays of a stove in barrel. Nothing Morwenna would want and apparently nothing the looters had wanted either, but harmless enough to the canine palate and digestion.
Leaving them to their prize and friendly tussle over who got to gnaw on it first, Morwenna set to her formidable task. She pulled aside sheets of sodden canvas to peer beneath, rolled half-crushed kegs, and lifted one end of what had once been a handsome sea chest to which someone had taken an axe. Not so much as a button remained in the chest. The stench of rum suggested what the keg had once held. Now the barrel lay empty of even seawater. Beneath the canvas, she discovered nothing more significant than wave-pounded sand.
And so the hunt progressed. As though repentant of the damage it wrought during the night, the waves rose and fell with no more force than a lady’s blue skirt in a dance, its usual roar more a rumbling hiss. Overhead, the sky glowed ice blue and clear.
Morwenna paused on the edge of the surf. As she feared, nothing of value remained on the shore. Every cask, barrel, and chest lay split open, their contents hauled away. Not even the axes and clubs used to split those containers remained to hint at the owner of the hand that wielded the implement of destruction. Wet sand had captured dozens of footprints, the deep indentation of hob-nailed boots.
Every man in the village owned a pair of hob-nailed boots. The footprints told no tales. Still Morwenna hunted, occasionally pausing to call to the dogs and keep them close at hand for comfort more than protection. More splintered wood or fragments of fabric, a dislodged button, even strands of hair held the potential for identification of someone.
The flotsam remained void of identifying objects save for lingering odors of rum, salted fish, the stinging stench of tar. Everything with even remote value had been picked clean. Later, men, women, and children would arrive on the beach to haul away whatever was useful to use as firewood or bits of canvas to patch a hole in thatched roofs. When the mines closed as those on Penmara had, families went hungry and cold. If she could find a way to reopen the mines, the villagers wouldn’t resort to crime to survive.
She lifted her gaze from the tideline, to the remains of the vessel, one of its two masts sticking out like an accusing finger. No doubt some enterprising souls had waded or taken a boat out to the shattered hull to ensure nothing—nothing and no one—remained aboard. For those sailors who had not drowned . . .
Dead men told no tales.
Morwenna said a prayer for the families of the men who had died either by the hand of nature or the hand of men. She knew all too well the anguish of being left behind.
She trudged the last hundred feet of the beach. Waves swooped in, one or two high enough to dampen her cloak and gown. With each step, her heart grew heavier until it felt like a lump of cold lead in her middle. She reached the end of Penmara land where an outcropping of rock separated the Penmara beach from Halfmoon Cove below Bastion Point, her grandparents’ home. The incoming tide nearly blocked the strip of sand that allowed one to enter the cove from the beach and the entrance to a maze of caves beneath. Some of those caves ran beneath Penmara. If anyone grew suspicious about the coincidence of yet one more ship wrecked on her beach, they would likely find goods from the vessel stored in those caves, just enough to ensure she took the blame.
She kicked at a bundle of rags at the edge of the surf and turned away from the sea, calling the dogs to her side. They galloped to her like ponies. Their tongues lolled out of happy puppy grins, and Morwenna braced herself for the impact of a dozen stone worth of dog love.
But they didn’t throw themselves at her. At the last moment, they swerved toward the tideline and began to snuffle at the bundle of rags, once fine wool now waterlogged, possibly considered too damaged from salt water to be useful to anyone.
Truly? When men and women stuffed newspapers beneath their shirts for warmth, even water-stiffened wool useless?
Her heart began to thrum like war drums in her chest. “Come away from there, you two.”
She clapped her hands at the dogs to get their attention above the rising surf.
A wave foamed over the bundle. The dogs backed up, snorting from snouts full of sea water, then, when the surf receded, they darted right back to poke and sniff at the bundle with muzzles and massive paws.
Suddenly certain of what the bundle of rags contained, Morwenna lunged toward the dogs. “Oggy, Pastie, enough.”
Oggy, the male hound, grasped a mouthful of woolen cloak and began to pull.
“Oggy, no. Drop—” The last word choked in her throat.
The body had just moved without assistance from the dogs.
“Dogs, sit.” Morwenna grasped the hounds’ leather collars and hauled them away from the body. “I said sit. Now stay.”
They obeyed her this time, perhaps sensing an urgency in her tone. Their bodies quivered, but they remained at the head of the tide line while Morwenna returned to the lump of sodden wool and dropped to her knees. Sand and rising seawater soaked through her gown in icy tendrils. She shivered, but ignored the discomfort. She would suffer more if she didn’t inspect whether or not the incoming tide had caused the illusion, or if she really had seen a hand emerge from the folds of a cloak.
“Madam?” She scanned the length of the figure, realized it was half submerged beneath a sheet of canvas, and corrected herself. “Sir? Sir, can you hear me?”
Nothing happened. No sound of a response rose about the gentle roar of the surf. The dogs whined from their position at the edge of the tideline.
Morwenna brushed aside a tangle of water-blackened hair and touched the man’s face. Skin rough with beard stubble chilled her fingers. Because he’d lain in the cold for hours or because he had already succumbed to weather, water, or a wound she hadn’t yet found?
Shuddering at the notion of inspecting a dead man, Morwenna slid two fingers to the soft place beneath his ear. If a pulse existed, she couldn’t feel one. With gentle pressure, she tugged at his neck cloth. Sodden, it resisted. No way could she untie the knot. Another wave washed over him and her legs, prompting her to haste. She worked her fingers between his skin and the fabric in search of the pulse at the hollow of his throat.
She found no pulse, but she found a chain.
For a moment, she gripped the metal between her fingers, surprised to find a piece of jewelry around a man’s neck, more surprised the wreckers wouldn’t have taken the jewelry. Most likely in their haste they hadn’t troubled to reach beneath a tight neck band in search of something no one would expect to find on a man.
She wanted to tug the chain free, see if it held a locket or other jewelry that might identify him. In moments, however, the tide would rise enough to wash over and drown him. Already the sand beneath him sucked away with each receding wave nibbling at the surface of where he lay. He was twice her size, but she couldn’t wait to move him until she found help.
She took up handfuls of his cloak. With the low heels of her walking boots dug into the sand, she tugged. At the same time, a wave rolled in, sending spray over the man and Morwenna. The sand shifted beneath her feet, and the surf rose higher, high enough to lift the man’s body an inch or so off the ground, enough to float him toward her.
“Yes. Yes. Yes.” She cried in triumph.
Then the receding wave sucked the sand from beneath her feet, and she landed on her seat. In an instant, Oggy and Pastie leaped toward her, whining and nuzzling against her.
“Back, you beasts.” The command held all the affection she felt toward these beloved dogs of her son’s father.
They backed away a foot or two and stood, tails swishing, eyes fixed on her face.
“If only you two could pull.” She staggered to her feet, turned her face to the water, and watched for the next wave. As it rolled in, raising the level of the tide, she pulled the man toward the dry sand. If she got him above the tideline, she could go for help without fearing he would drown, if he still lived. If he did not . . .
Shivering so hard she could barely hold onto the man’s cloak, she planted her feet and tugged again, then again, then again. At last, her feet braced in the rocky sand, but finally, she managed to drag the man above the tide line and straightened in preparation to go for help.
Behind her, stones showered from the cliff. She glanced up in the hope someone had come to inspect the wreck and could run for help for her. She saw no one, merely a flitting shadow that might only be a trick of sunlight, wind, and a few shrubs clinging to life on the edge of the rocks.
Disappointed, she turned back to the man. Now that he was in no danger of washing out to sea, she needn’t hurry if he no longer lived. She could take the long way, the dry path, to Bastion Point. But if he lived, she needed to make haste and go through the surf.
She stooped and tucked her fingers under his neck band once more. She still felt no pulse. With a heavy heart, she managed to tug the chain free, marveling at the heft of the silver links. A blue and silver medallion swung free. The silver back flashed in the sun, caught a hint of Morwenna’s pale face and her own tangled dark hair, and gave her an idea. She wiped the mirrorlike surface on her cloak and held it under the man’s nose.
The shining surface clouded. He was breathing. He was alive.
And she knew why no one had taken the medallion even if they had found it. Valuable as the silver might be, the family crest enameled on it warned no one could ever sell it.
Sunlight glinted off the silver and made the blue enamel glow. An azure lion rampant on a field of argent with the inscription Memor quisnam vos es—Remember Who You Are. It was a crest she saw painted on the family pew in the village church. Once she had seen it in a book of family history.
The stranger wore a medallion bearing the Trelawny family coat of arms.
Morwenna never believed a body’s heart could stop beating as did the hearts of heroines in sensational novels. The instant she comprehended that the unconscious man sprawled on the sand wore a pendant of the Trelawny family crest, Morwenna’s heart missed several beats. Her breath snagged in her throat. If a gust of wind hadn’t driven spray from a wave crest washing over her, she feared she might have fainted across the stranger’s body. The medallion slipped from her fingers to lie against the man’s sodden neckcloth.
He must be soaked through. Now that she knew he lived, she realized she must get him some warmth. Her cloak was wet, but not as wet as he. She removed it and spread it across him, then called to the dogs. Their coats were also wet. They were also thick and warm. She ordered them to lie beside the stranger, one on each side.
“Stay.” She patted each of them on their heads. “I’ll return as soon as I can.”
She gathered her skirts and fled up the beach. Her mind raced over whom she could ask for help. On most days, Henwyn, her son’s nursemaid and her maid of all work, was the only other occupant of the house until the outdoor man arrived around noon. She reached the outcropping of rock separating her beach from that of Bastion Point and splashed through knee-deep water to the path that coiled along the cliff to the house. Incoming waves slammed against her, driving her toward the jagged rocks. Sand fell away from her heels as the waves receded. Gripping handholds wherever she found them in the granite, she plunged on through the tide. Going around through trees and over fields would take far too long. Her other hand gripped her dress and petticoat above her knees to keep them from pulling her under.
And all the while, her mind raced around the circular pendant like the letters of the Trelawny family motto. How could a stranger have such a trinket? Morwenna didn’t even know such a thing existed. Yet a man who didn’t look at all familiar, at least not in his current unconscious and half-drowned state, wore a representation of the family around his neck. To find out why, if not for reasons of simple kindness, she must get this man to warmth and safety and save his life, if it could be saved.
Dead men didn’t give answers.
Morwenna hit the cliff path and landed on her hands and knees. For the first few yards, she crawled up the steep incline, then she managed to get to her feet and race to the top of the sixty-foot cliff. To her left, a door led into her grandmother’s garden. If it was unlocked, she could get into the house in moments.
She circumvented the garden and then the house, hoping neither grandparent was looking out the windows she passed, and charged for the stables. One or two of the grooms would help her. She had known them all her life, been friendlier with them than the daughter of the family who employed them should have been with servants. If they were part of the gang that had helped the ship to wreck and left the man to drown, she might be making another mistake in her relationship with the outdoor servants. She didn’t care at the moment.
“Miss Morwenna—m’lady.” Henry, one of the grooms called from the stable doorway. “You look half drowned.”
“I am, and freezing too, but I need your help. There’s a man . . . on the beach.”
Henry’s eyes widened until the whites shone around irises nearly as dark as Morwenna’s own. “He’s still alive?”
“He is.” Morwenna narrowed her gaze at him, but refrained from asking him why this news shocked him.
Of course Henry had been with the wreckers. Who in the village hadn’t been? No matter. She needed his help and he would give it, trustworthy so long as she stayed with him and watched every move he made.
Colder than ever, she stepped closer to him. “I need at least two of you to help me get him up to Penmara.”
“Not here at Bastion Point, m’lady?” Henry was shaking his head as he spoke. “It ain’t right for you to have a man staying up there.”
“You can’t carry him all the way here. The beach access is blocked by now. Now hurry.”
“Aye, m’lady.” He ducked back into the stable and emerged with another groom. “Go on home, m’lady, and we’ll bring him up.”
“I must come. The dogs are with him.”
The grooms looked grim and gave no argument. They simply set out across country with Morwenna, a brisk trot over open land and then a copse of trees, to more open land above the Penmara cliff. Her path wasn’t as steep as the one at Bastion Point, nor as high as the way down to Halfmoon Cove. Chill and urgency lending her power, she managed to keep up with the youths’ long-legged strides then surpassed them on the beach.
She surpassed them because they slowed to drop behind her. When she glanced back, she saw them eyeing the dogs with apprehension, as the enormous hounds rose to greet their mistress.
“Good dogs.” Morwenna gave them each a scratch behind their ears and then crouched down beside the still unconscious man. She reached for the medallion to test whether or not he still breathed.
But the medallion with the Trelawny family crest enameled upon it no longer hung around the stranger’s neck.
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