True as Fate

True as Fate
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
ISBN-10: 1503942899
ISBN-13: 978-1503937635

Lady Chloe Ashford detests going to balls, loathes social pretense, and finds the very idea of hunting for a husband obscene. But she has an even more scandalous secret: she once helped an American—the enemy—escape from Dartmoor Prison. Now, nearly three years later, Ross Trenerry is back—and in trouble again. So is her traitorous heart. He doesn’t know she’s the one responsible for sending him to a second prison, and she has no intention of telling him.

A former privateer, Ross has finally run out of his legendary luck. Only one woman lies between him and freedom. He desperately needs Chloe’s help to prove he hasn’t committed treason, but he’s distracted by the passion that flares between them.

They set out on a cross-country adventure together to prove Ross’s innocence, but peril soon dogs their heels. As they race to reach their appointed rendezvous on time, they must fight their growing attraction and focus on discovering who is behind this deadly plot. Will they finally admit their love and put the pieces together before it’s too late?

Available from Amazon.com in Kindle, Paperback, and audio formats

Excerpt

Devonshire, England
Wednesday, 25 October 1815
11:15 a.m.

“I have made plans to elope with a traitor.” Lady Juliet Ashford flung herself across her sister’s bed and buried her face in the counterpane.

Chloe Ashford set another stitch in her embroidery, and suppressed a sigh over Juliet’s histrionics. “I can imagine no man less likely of being a traitor than Mr. Vernell.”

“Not Mr. Vernell,” Juliet said into the mattress.

Chloe set another stitch, gold thread against lavender silk, a ball gown meant for the spring and one more useless London Season. “Was not Mr. Vernell supposed to propose to you today?”

“Yes, but I have changed my mind and sent word to Ross that I am ready to elope with him instead.”

Chloe jabbed the needle through the silk ball gown and her pink muslin skirt and into her thigh. She gasped, when she wanted to cry out with a pain that ran deeper than the puncture in her leg.

“You have made plans to run off with Ross Trenerry?” She kept her tone neutral, as though the notion did not fill her with irritation toward a sister who had come too close to endangering the entire family during the war, and contempt toward the man who preferred a flibbertigibbet like Juliet to the lady who had saved his life. “Again?”

“Of course again.” Juliet rolled onto her back, hopelessly twisting her skirts beneath her, and gazed at the bed canopy as though reading the pages of one of her romantic novels on the silk hangings. “But this time it is all right because the war has been over for months and months.” Juliet flung an arm across her face. “At least I thought it was all right this time until Deirdre arrived and told us the Americans want to hang him.”

“Deirdre is here?” Chloe cast aside her embroidery and shot to her feet. “And Kieran? Why did you not tell me? Did they bring the children?”

“I just told you, and they brought the worst news.” Juliet’s response ended on a wail. “I so thought we could be happy now the war is over.”

“As I told you last year, Juliet, you and Ross did not know one another well enough to know whether or not you would be happy together.”

A year and a half earlier, Chloe had tried to comfort a brokenhearted Juliet thwarted in her plans to elope to Guernsey and meet Ross for a clandestine marriage that would have ruined the entire Ashford family if Chloe had not stopped it.

“Our hearts knew one another.” Juliet sat up and covered her face with her hands. “At least I thought they did.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that such an understanding happens only in novels?”

“You also said men are only heroes in novels, but Kieran was a hero for Deirdre, and then Ross was so brave during the war . . .”

Chapter

“Ross was the enemy during the war.” Chloe took a deep breath to clear the anger from her voice, if not her heart. “His only heroic actions were against Englishmen.”

Chapter

“That is not true and you know it.” Juliet pummeled her fists on the bed.

Chloe winced as though those small hands beat on her chest. “All right, not always, but every other action he took during the war speaks against him, especially contacting you.”

“He was answering the call of his heart.”

Chloe snorted.

“Do not be such a killjoy.” Juliet glared at Chloe through the tumbled tresses of her hair. “Just because you have never been in love does not mean you can dismiss the tender feelings of my heart.”

“Of course not.” Chloe turned away so her face betrayed nothing to her younger sister.

Juliet was wrong. Chloe had been in love. At the least, she thought she was. But when the object of one’s affection proved so vastly unworthy, the ache of unrequited emotions turned to anger mixed with disdain and now not a little guilt.

“I am only twenty-three.” Chloe hid her feelings behind the mundane. “That gives me plenty of time to fall in love.”

“You will be twenty-four in three days. That is positively on the shelf, and I have no intention of joining you there.” More tears spilled down Juliet’s face. “I hoped not to, anyhow.”

“You are to receive a formal proposal from Mr. Vernell today.” Chloe leaned against one of the tall, carved bedposts. “He is handsome and wealthy and soon to become a member of Parliament.”

And a dead bore. But he was the steady sort Juliet needed to counter her notions of heroism gleaned from the novels she read incessantly.

“So why the waterworks?”

“Because—” Juliet broke off to heave a sigh screaming of exasperation. “I have finally heard from Ross and wrote back that I will meet him, even elope with him if that is his wish.”

Chloe’s body tensed, ready to stop the man in his tracks at a moment’s notice. “Is it his wish?”

“He did not say so specifically, but I am certain this is his wish. Or was certain until Deirdre and Kieran arrived with the news.” Juliet gulped. “Deirdre said the Americans have declared Ross Trenerry a traitor.”

“Nonsense.” The word snapped from Chloe’s lips. “America never knew a more loyal subject or citizen or whatever they call themselves.”

“That is what I thought.” Juliet sobbed hard enough to make the bed ropes creak. “But Deirdre—Deirdre just s-said the Americans claim he is.”

Chloe swallowed against dryness in her throat and smoothed Juliet’s tumbled black hair away from her face. “Calm yourself, then tell me what Deirdre said.”

“I do not know. I ran away as soon as I overheard Deirdre telling the others that Ross has been declared a traitor to his country.”

Chloe shook her sister’s shoulder. “Talk sense. Deirdre would never say that of Ross Trenerry. They were friends for years before the war.”

“But she did say it.” Juliet raised her head to show red-rimmed blue eyes. “I was coming in from a walk. I did not sleep well last night because I knew Mr. Vernell was to propose to me today, and I was never quite certain I wanted to wed him, and especially not after Ross got a message to me saying he has come back. You know I have looked for a message every day since the war ended, and, at last, he got a letter to me through our secret postbox . . .”

Chloe closed her eyes. She should have repaired the mortar on that loose stone in the wall.

She should have paid better attention to Juliet’s comings and goings of late, but when Ross had not contacted Juliet at the end of the war nearly a year ago, Chloe believed he had decided to stay away from England and Juliet.

“Exchanging letters in that havey-cavey fashion is no way to court a young lady.” To Chloe’s own ears, she sounded like a stiff-necked spinster. “Continue with your tale. What did this missive from Ross say?”

Juliet’s eyes brightened. “It said that he wanted to see me.”

“Nothing more?”

“He did not need to say more. I know what he meant—marriage at last.”

“He would not—” Chloe stopped herself from claiming Ross possessed more sensibilities than to offer marriage, especially a clandestine one, to a young woman he scarcely knew.

Perhaps he would do something so ungentlemanly now that he was in some kind of trouble and needed an alliance to a powerful family. Chloe scarcely knew him—but she knew him better than Juliet had. Juliet knew him from two nights of nursing him through wound fever after she caught Chloe sneaking out in the middle of the night to tend to the injured escaped prisoner of war hidden in the caves below Bishops Cove, the Ashford estate. Chloe had known him through her visits to Dartmoor Prison during the seven months prior to the escape, disguised in her brother Kieran’s old clothes, taking blankets and food and what coin she could spare from her pin money to ease the plight of the captured Americans. A few comforts in their imprisonment was the least she could do for the Americans captured by Kieran in his brief stint as a privateer. Chloe knew Ross from his fevered ravings for the weeks before Juliet caught her slipping down to tend to him. Chloe knew him from the harrowing escape from Dartmoor and that moment when he kissed her—a moment she should forget.

“So he contacted you after knowing he is in some sort of difficulty.” Chloe glowered at a painting of the sunset burning through clouds above a roiling sea as though it were a portrait of Ross Trenerry she could shrivel with the power of her glare. “I thought even he would have more honor than that. But then, if he has done something to get himself accused of treason, he must have changed.”

“He must have, and my heart is shattered.” Juliet sniffed and mopped at her eyes with the backs of her hands. “But I do not wish for him to be captured either if he comes here to see me.”

“Then simply do not respond to his message.”

“But I told you I already did. I told him to meet me in the park at midnight.”

“Of course you did.” Chloe’s nose wrinkled. “And no gentleman would comply with such a suggestion, but then, Ross Trenerry is no gentleman.”

“He is. He—”

Chloe cut Juliet’s protest off with a slash of her hand. “We do not need to argue with the merits of Ross Trenerry’s progenitors. You were foolish to respond to his message with such a suggestion, and whether or not he will meet you at midnight or come to the front door as is right, you say he is now accused of a crime, and therefore you cannot meet him at all.”

“You sound like my old governess.”

“I sound like your sensible big sister who does not read silly novels. Now you must deliver a new message to your postbox and tell him you have changed your mind and do not wish to see him.”

“But I do if he is innocent.”

“You cannot until we know he is.”

“I know.” Juliet bowed her head, but no more tears fell. “The difficulty is, I cannot leave the house. I told Mama I am not feeling well so Mr. Vernell could not propose to me this afternoon, as I was sure I could have persuaded Ross to elope to Guernsey with me tonight.”

Chloe crossed her arms beneath her considerable bosom. “You were going to attempt another dash for Guernsey tonight and had not told me?”

“I would have left a note.”

“Of course you would have.” Chloe wanted to bang her head against the wall. “Write another message for Ross instead, and I can simply exchange one message from you with another.”

Juliet bounced off the bed. “Will you do this for me?”

“I will do anything to stop Ross Trenerry from harming my family.”

She had already attempted that, not that anyone knew just how far she was willing to go to protect her family and how much it had cost her heart, her soul, to do so.

Juliet hesitated. “You must make certain no one sees you. If the letterbox ceases to be secret—”

“Juliet.” Chloe spoke over her sister’s admonitions. “When will you cease believing life is to mimic one of your novels?”

“When I cease being the only member of this family who has never had an adventure.”

“I would say trying to escape to a Channel island to meet up with an enemy privateer is quite enough adventure for any lady.”

“But I never got so far as the boat that was to take me across, thanks to you. You had the true adventure with how you got him out of prison and all.”

“He still preferred you.” Chloe tasted the disappointment, the hurt, and, yes, the hint of envy-born anger, and turned away. “Write your note for him.”

“What shall I say?” Juliet settled herself at Chloe’s desk. “I will seem like the most horrible of jilts.”

“Not to a man who had no business paying his addresses to you.” Chloe strode to the door. “I am going to find Deirdre and learn what is at the bottom of these accusations.”

“Do you think this could be some kind of mistake?” Juliet glanced up, her eyes, dark blue rather than golden brown like Chloe’s, widened with an expression of hope.

“I will know more after talking to Deirdre.” It was the best answer Chloe would give her sister.

But Juliet returned the lid to the inkwell. “If you think I might be able to elope with him after all . . .”

“Regardless of the outcome, you cannot elope with Ross Trenerry or any other man who will not court you right and proper.”

“I suppose you are correct.” With a sigh, Juliet removed the lid to the inkwell and dipped in the quill. “I will tell him we must wait. That is not jilting him.”

“Juliet, you cannot—” Chloe pressed her lips together.

The truth was, now that the war was over, Juliet could marry Ross Trenerry whether or not he was a fugitive. Juliet was of age.

Regardless of how Chloe’s disdain for him had grown over the past two and a half years, she struggled to believe Ross was a traitor to America. She needed to know what news her brother and his wife, Chloe’s good friend Deirdre, had brought. Not the sketchy details Juliet provided with her histrionics.

She slipped out of her bedchamber, leaving Juliet brushing the quill back and forth across her chin as she stared at a blank sheet of foolscap. Voices led Chloe to the morning room, cheerful with yellow chrysanthemums on the Chinese wallpaper and the yellow striped cushions despite a cloudy October day outside.

The gentlemen stood at her entrance. With a nod to her father and Mr. Vernell, Chloe crossed the room to kiss her brother on the cheek and embrace his wife.

“What a surprise to see you both. Did you bring the children?”

“They are in the nursery sleeping at last.” Deirdre smiled.

“And that is a miracle.” Kieran rubbed red-rimmed eyes. “I do not know where those two get so much energy.”

“From me.” Deirdre patted his arm. “You poor old thing.”

Not for the first time since Deirdre came into her brother’s life and heart, Chloe experienced a twinge of envy over the hollowness of something missing in her own life. She doubted she would ever meet a man who would love her as much as Kieran adored Deirdre, nor one she could let herself love with the devotion Deirdre showed toward Kieran. She had thought so once, but that had been when she was nearly as young and foolish as Juliet.

Shaking off the momentary sadness, she asked, “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company? I did not think we would see you until Christmas.”

“Sad news.” Deirdre shot a glance toward Mr. Vernell.

He looked downcast. Chloe supposed Mama had informed him that Juliet would not be receiving callers that day. She was a silly chit to risk forfeiting a proposal from a man with Vernell’s patrician good looks, impeccable manners, and excellent prospects.

“But I don’t wish to bore your guest with the tale,” Deirdre added.

“Would you like some coffee?” Mama asked. “I can send for fresh.”

“No, thank you.” Chloe perched on the edge of a chair. “I should have some tea sent up to Juliet.”

“I am sorry she is feeling out of curl,” Vernell said in his rich baritone. “I would hope—” He shrugged and rose. “But I should leave you all to this reunion.”

Papa and Mama made token protestations that he was welcome to stay, but with Juliet refusing to see him that day, his presence was de trop and awkward.

With him gone, Chloe turned to Deirdre. “Juliet was babbling some nonsense about Ross Trenerry being accused of treason against his country?”

“It is apparently true.” Kieran’s voice held more satisfaction than it should have.

Surely he had stopped being jealous of Deirdre’s old friend after three years of marriage.

“What did he do?” Chloe asked.

“I learned this from a peculiar source,” Kieran continued in a more sober fashion, “so details are always suspect. But apparently his privateer was captured near our coast one night. His men were tossed into Dartmoor and he vanished for the duration of the war.”

Chloe tried to mask her shock with a show of confusion. “Surely that alone cannot make him a traitor. I mean, would he not merely have been sent to another prison, or perhaps paroled as a captain should be? To call a man traitor for that seems . . . unfair . . . or . . .” She trailed off under the scrutiny of her family.

“There’s no record of him being imprisoned or paroled,” Deirdre said.

“And his crew said he came ashore shortly before the capture,” Kieran added.

Of course he had. He had come ashore to leave a note for Juliet, the contents of which had sealed his fate—sealed it more disastrously than Chloe had imagined possible.

“That seems like little enough to go on to call a man traitor.” Chloe’s tone was sharper than she intended, reflecting the piercing blow to her conscience.

“It is enough to make him stand trial for treason.” Papa cradled his Sevres cup in both hands and studied Chloe over the rim. “If he was not up to no good, some kind of record of his imprisonment or parole would appear. The navy is meticulous about records.”

Chloe shook her head. “I do not see how this is possible. He wanted nothing more than to fight for America.”

“He is a Trenerry,” Kieran said. “From the ones in Cornwall to the ones in America, they are all lawless.”

“Considering that my own children helped him go off to fight against England,” Papa said in a dry voice, “you should not be casting stones at the Trenerrys.”

“I find this difficult to accept as well.” Deirdre tugged on a strand of her loose coppery hair. “He was always a loyal and faithful friend aboard my father’s ship.”

“War changes men,” Papa said.

Chloe looked at her parents. Neither of them knew Ross, but they knew war, had suffered themselves in the last conflict between England and America.

“Does war change a man so much he would turn traitor toward his own country?” Chloe posed the question for form’s sake alone.

She knew the query was moot. Ross had not betrayed his ship and crew and gone free himself. He had been in a prison hulk. She knew that for certain because she was responsible for him being there, however unintentionally.

“A man desperate for money might turn traitor.” Papa reached for a handbell and gave it a sharp ping to call in a footman. “Or if someone in his country did something for which he wanted revenge, a man might turn traitor.”

“It made my father greedy and violent,” Mama said, “during the last war between our countries. He was never loving, but he had not been mean before the war came.”

While a footman took away the clutter of coffee service and congealing cream, Chloe studied Deirdre’s face. She looked as fatigued as her husband. From worry or from two days of travel from Hampshire to Devon with two children under three years of age?

“There is never,” Papa said once the footman departed, “good cause for a captain to betray his men.”

He’d been in His Majesty’s Navy for fifteen years, long before his children were born, and understood the laws of the sea and loyalty to ship and crew. But Deirdre had been aboard her father’s merchant ship with Ross for six years and surely knew him better than anyone. If she believed these stories, Ross was in deep trouble.

“So,” Chloe asked a little too brightly, “how did you all learn this news before we heard anything?”

“That’s the peculiar part.” Deirdre tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. “I was shopping in Portsmouth and was approached by Freddie Rutledge, who gleefully informed me of the fate of my former shipmate.”

Chloe stared, her mouth agape. “Freddie Rutledge? But he does not speak to Ashfords.”

“Unless he is imparting bad news for one of us.” Kieran’s hands fisted on his buckskin-clad knees. “Not that just him speaking to one of us is not bad news in itself.”

“We should warn your parents they will be hearing from him as well,” Deirdre said.

Mama stiffened on her chair. “Why would that man wish to speak to us?”

“Something about turning over a new leaf.” Deirdre curled her upper lip.

She and Kieran, indeed all the Ashfords, had reason to sneer at thoughts of Frederick Rutledge. If that heir to a barony had changed his ways any more than leopards changed their spots, all the Ashfords would be shocked. He had lied and cheated in an attempt to protect his sister’s reputation at Kieran’s expense, hurting him and all the Ashfords.

“He could be lying.” Chloe spoke aloud before she realized she intended to do so.

“I wish he were.” For the first time since Chloe entered the parlor, Deirdre’s composure broke and her lower lip quivered. “But he has, apparently, made friends with the American attaché in the past few years and learned the news from him.”

Chloe willed herself to be calm.

“So tragic—about Mr. Trenerry, that is, not Mr. Rutledge. He can return to America with his attaché friend for all I care.” Afraid she was going to be sick, Chloe rose. She needed air. She needed a few uninterrupted moments to think.

She started for the door, but hesitated in the center of the Wilton carpet. “What will happen to Mr. Trenerry if he is caught?”

“If he is here in England,” Papa said, “he will be turned over to Mr. Beasley, the American attaché in Plymouth, then transported back to America for trial.”

“If he is in England,” Kieran said, “he will be caught.”

Especially if he responded to Juliet’s message and arrived at Bishops Cove at midnight.

Hoping he had not yet retrieved Juliet’s note, Chloe excused herself with the explanation she should send tea up to Juliet, then slipped into the estate office to write her own note. Stay away or you will be captured.

Warning him was the least she could do for the mistake she had made that got him imprisoned in one of the derelict ships the English called prison hulks, and now, possibly, condemned as a traitor.

Warning note in hand, she headed across the parkland. Outside a pedestrian gate in the wall, she rounded the corner and walked along the stone edifice until she reached the overhanging tree. Beneath branches good for climbing should one not be able to leave by the gate, Chloe found the loose stone the three Ashford ladies had used over the past three years.

“Please still be there. Please still be there.” As she worked the rock free, Chloe found herself begging for Juliet’s note telling Ross to meet her at midnight to still be in place.

But the hollow behind the stone was empty.

Better than Gold

Better Than Gold
Laurie Alice Eakes
ASIN: B06XT5FH59
Series: Iowas Historical

Ever since a deadly fever robbed her of her family and left her alone on her family’s farm for a year, Lily Reese wants nothing more than to leave her small Iowa town and head for the crowds of the city. She saves every penny she can from her wages as a telegraph operator and keeps applying for work someplace besides the middle of the prairie. She won’t let herself fall in love with anyone who doesn’t have the same ambition as she–until Ben Purcell steps off the train and into Lily’s heart.

Ben Purcell will have his stable home at last. Raised by an itinerant salesman father, Ben has longed for land and a home. To gain that end, he takes a job managing a livery in Browning City, Iowa, where he hopes to earn enough money to buy a farm. A wife isn’t in the picture, but then he meets Lily and begins to change his mind–until someone seems bent on killing him.

Rumors that a train robber left gold somewhere around the livery have circulated since the Civil War ten years earlier. Most people dismiss them as nonsense. Others take them seriously. Someone takes them seriously enough to want Ben gone, even dead. Learning the identity of the culprit draws Ben and Lily together until her chance to head for the city finally comes through, and she must choose among the golden lights of the city, the train robber’s gold, or something even better.

Available on Kindle

Teaser

Lily had to push with all her strength to open the door so she could fetch more firewood. Wind caught her hat and sent it sailing into the darkness then tore her hair from its pins and flung it across her face in heavy, wet strands.

“I hate this place!” She cried the words into the night, where she knew no one could hear her. “I want to run away.”

The kitchen door slammed behind her. She staggered to the woodpile and grabbed up as many logs as she could hold. Fighting the wind like a beast caught in a locomotive’s cowcatcher, she stumbled back to the door and reached for the handle with near-frozen fingers.

Another hand reached it first.

“Let me help you,” Ben Purcell shouted over the blizzard’s roar.

He opened the door. She toppled inside, dropping logs and gasping for breath. A moment later, he entered with more logs and his own bare head white with snow.

She wanted to hug him. She hadn’t felt like hugging a man ever in her life. But the sight of Ben, tall and broad shouldered, sturdy and full of life, sent such a wave of joy through her that she knew she should run as fast and as far away from him as she could.

Except she couldn’t run anywhere. The weather held her captive.

Ben’s gaze held her captive.

“You—you shouldn’t have come out in this,” she said through a dry throat.

“I couldn’t leave you ladies on your own once the storm grew worse.” He set his load of logs in the wood box and stooped to gather up the ones she had dropped. “I think if I hadn’t come along, you’d be in Kansas by now.”

“Missouri.”

“Hmm?”

“The wind is from the north. It would send me to Missouri.”

“Right.” He laughed up at her.

Lily wrapped her arms around herself. She fell the rest of the way in love with Ben Purcell.

My Enemy, My Heart

My Enemy, My Heart
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
ISBN-10: 1503937631
ISBN-13: 978-1503937635

The sea is Deirdre MacKenzie’s home, and the crew of her father’s Baltimore clipper is the only family she loves. She’s happier wearing breeches and climbing the rigging of the Maid of Alexandria than donning a dress and learning to curtsy. But when the War of 1812 erupts, the ship is captured by a British privateer, leaving her father, the captain, dead. Deirdre watches her crew herded into the hold, destined for the notorious Dartmoor prison in England. Though her fate as a noncombatant is uncertain, she knows she must find a way to free her crew.

Kieran Ashford has caused his family one too many scandals. On his way to exile in America, he is waylaid by the declaration of war and a chance to turn privateer and make his own fortune. But he regrets his actions as soon as the rich prize is secured. Now his best chance at redeeming himself in the eyes of his family is to offer Deirdre the protection of his name in marriage.

But love and loyalty clash as Kieran begins to win Deirdre’s heart despite her plot to betray him. Will Kieran’s plan mend the relationship with his family, and can this fated couple find true love despite the secret lies between them?

Available in Paperback, Ebook, and Audible CD at Amazon.com and Digital Download at Audible.com. Or ask at your local bookstore.

Excerpt

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The War of 1812 may be the most fascinating war America has ever gotten herself into. The majority of our citizens opposed it, though Great Britain was behaving badly, bullying our merchantmen, stealing our sailors, and telling us where we could and could not trade as though we were still their colonies. Yet we had no business taking on the most powerful nation in the world—again. We pitted our 18 naval vessels against their 506, our ragtag army against their well-oiled war machine. We lost nearly every land battle we fought. And yet we excelled in the water, conquering the British through their merchant fleet, and gained every concession in the Treaty of Ghent we demanded.

As with every war, however, the price was lives lost or broken, fortunes lost and won, and families torn apart. This story is about how a handful of people try to rise above enmity of nations and find common ground, loyalty, and love.

PART I – CHAPTER 1

Caribbean Sea
September 1812

“Nothing to worry about.” Her observation of the ship on the horizon complete, Deirdre MacKenzie shoved the spyglass into her waistband, swung into the rigging, and slid down a backstay to land on the deck with a barefooted thud. “It’s only a British merchantman, Captain, sir.”

Daniel MacKenzie gave her a faint smile, amused to have her call him Captain instead of Father, as she had done since she could talk. Despite the smile, his face remained pale, grayish due to the ill health that had plagued him since their rough passage around Cape Horn. “If it’s only a merchantman, we’re safe running up the Stars and Stripes.”

“Are you certain about that, sir?” the first mate, Ross Trenerry, asked from where he stood manning the Baltimore clipper’s wheel. “We haven’t been what one would call friends with the British lately.”

“Only their navy, Ross.” Father pressed one hand to his chest, and his breath rasped loudly enough to be heard above the whistle of wind in the rigging.

Deirdre bit her lip. She wanted to wrap her arm around her father’s too-thin frame and lead him below, suggest he lie on his bunk and let Ross or her make contact with the other merchant ship if the British came their way. He wouldn’t welcome the solicitude, though. She knew that all too well.

“British merchantmen aren’t impressing men from American merchants.” Deirdre spoke more to reassure herself than convince Ross or her father.

Ross shook shaggy, dark hair out of his face and snorted. “The British think they can do whatever they want. I think we’re better off hightailing it out of here.”

“You may be right.” Father sounded as though he’d been running a footrace. “I’d like a bit more wind . . . for that. Deirdre, nip up top again and get their heading. We’ll evade . . . them . . .”

“Sir—” She wanted to stay near him when he looked so poorly. But he was her father and her captain, and one condition of being allowed to stay aboard these past ten years, working as a crewman on voyages such as this recent one from Alexandria, Virginia, to Canton, China, and back was that she obey him without question. “Yes, sir.”

She exchanged a glance with Ross. His eyes held the same concern she felt. He swung his glance toward her father, then jabbed a thumb toward his chest. The message was clear—he would take care of their ailing leader.
Still reluctant, Deirdre swung into the rigging and climbed to the crosstrees with practiced ease. The slanting rigging of the Baltimore clipper was harder to negotiate than a ship-rigged vessel with straight masts, but the speed with which they could sail made every other hazard worth the risk. With wind, they could outrun everything, especially a British merchantman.

One arm hooked around a line to hold her in place sixty feet above the deck, she held the telescope to her eye. A moment or two passed while she adjusted balance and vision to the increased sway at the top of the mainmast. Then the glorious view of the world came into focus through the magnifying lens—blue sky, bluer water, white lines of gently rising wave crests. Hot sun blazed down on the water, shimmering and sparkling like half-submerged gold and gleaming off the pale sails of the distant ship. Merchantman for certain, and the British Union Jack prominently displayed and unmistakable at her masthead even at that distance.

“They’re on a due easterly heading,” Deirdre shouted to the nearest man in the rigging, a half Seneca man called Blaze for the white streak through his black hair.

He passed the word to the deck. The other thirteen crewmen, whether on duty or not, stood to attention, sail mending or personal laundry forgotten when any moment they might need to spring into the rigging and change tack.

No order to do so came from her father. The men began to drift back to their tasks, and no one raised the Stars and Stripes. Apparently, her father had decided that the British ship would miss them altogether if they continued their own north-by-northwest course. He’d chosen that direction as the safest action. Yet he didn’t order up more sail. In a moment, Deirdre realized why.

The wind was dying. What had been a brisk blow at sunrise had steadily dropped throughout the morning. Now, at early afternoon, with the sun at its zenith, its heat seemed to beat everything into somnolence—including the precious wind. Once-billowing sails began to slacken and drooped from their yards. Crewmen wiped sweat from their brows and glanced toward the west.

Dry-mouthed, Deirdre used the telescope to look to the west. The British merchantman should be becalmed, too.
She wasn’t. Like a graceful sea creature, she glided across the water. Her heading changed. Instead of a tack that would take her well past their stern, she now headed straight for the Maid of Alexandria.

“Sweeps!” Deirdre dropped the spyglass in her scramble to reach the deck. “They’ve got sweeps.” She sucked in a mouthful of briny air. “And big guns.”

In the Caribbean especially, oars long enough they required at least three men to operate them, along with cannon ranged along the gunwales, meant only one thing: the Union Jack was a trick, a ruse to engender a sense of safety.

Ross swore and gripped the near-useless wheel with such force his knuckles showed white through his tanned skin. Behind Deirdre, old Wat Drummond muttered “pirates” as though it were the worst of disasters.
To a frail schooner like the Maid of Alexandria, it was a disaster. The Baltimore-clipper-style schooners were equipped to run, not fight. Without wind, they couldn’t run. Their ordnance consisted of four one-pounders, a cutlass apiece for the fifteen crewmen, and a sword for her father.

Deirdre read the hopelessness of this disadvantage in her father’s face, now blue-lipped and beaded with perspiration. He met her gaze with eyes the same pale green as her own. “Deirdre, get below.”

She dropped her hand to the dirk sheathed at her belt. “No, sir.”

“That’s . . . an order.”

“I’m disobeying you, sir. I’m useless below.”

“You’re safer below.”

She crossed her arms over breasts bound to maintain the illusion that she was a tall, gangly youth of fifteen, not a woman of twenty-three. “No, sir. I am as much a part of this crew as any of the men. If they fight, I fight.”
For several moments, only the flap of limp canvas and creak of timbers broke the silence that fell across the deck. Deirdre held her father’s gaze in a wordless battle of wills they’d fought since she could talk. The crew looked away, staring toward the approaching enemy, faces taut, waiting for the family battle to end and their captain to give orders to collect arms, run out the guns, or raise a white flag.

Deirdre took a step away from her father and toward the nearest gun.

“You know this means . . . you will . . . never sail with me . . . again.” Her father’s call was labored.

Deirdre’s heart staggered in aching response. She should be reaching toward him, not backing away from him. But this was not the time to argue. She could not skulk in her cabin or the hold while her fellow crewmen and, most of all, her father suffered at the hands of pirates.

“So be it, sir.” Deirdre’s voice sounded thick in her ears. “But right now, the men need orders to take up arms and fight.” She turned her back on her father.

In that instant, gunfire split the stillness.

Deirdre raced for the nearest cannon. It looked like a child’s toy compared to the gun that blasted the stillness. But she was a good shot. If she laid even a one-pounder in the right place like along a line of sweeps, or into the crowd of men on the fo’c’sle . . .

She made calculations of barrel angle as she kicked open the gunport. Yanking off the tackle rope holding the weapon secure, she ran through the steps of ramming, priming, firing.

Firing. She needed fire to light the fuse.

She spun toward the galley.

Ross and Blaze tackled her halfway down the main deck. The three of them tumbled to the planking, winded, struggling to disentangle arms and legs.

Above them, another blast from the English vessel ripped the day in two. A cannonball sailed through the bowsprit, shattering it to kindling.

“Let me go.” Deirdre punched Ross in the belly with one fist and Blaze in the jaw with another. “If you’re all cowards—”

“MacKenzie’s dying.”

Deirdre caught her breath at Ross’s stark announcement. “No!”

But a glance toward the quarterdeck told her that her father no longer stood there. He lay on the deck, Old Wat and Zeb, a former slave, bent over him.

“No.” Though she repeated the denial, the fight drained out of her. She stumbled to her feet on the canting deck and headed aft.

Ross and Blaze turned toward the schooner’s pitiful excuse for ordnance. She pushed Zeb and Wat aside so she could kneel at MacKenzie’s head. “What is it, Father?”

His breath rasped and rattled. He didn’t speak.

“What is it?” Deirdre laid her hand on his brow. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Apoplexy,” Wat said.

“What should we do?” Deirdre didn’t know to whom she posed the question.

Her father answered. “Get . . . below.” He gave the order around a wheeze. “Surrender.”

“Not after this. We—” She stopped. A rattling breath and glazed eyes told her that her father, her captain, had heard her argue with him for the last time.

Her chest tightened. Her throat closed. Springing to her feet, she whipped the dirk from her belt. “Why are you all just standing here? Run out all the guns. Break out the swords. We can’t run, but we can fight them off.”

No one moved.

Toward the bow, the enemy ship drew near enough for her to see details without a spyglass. Long guns bristled from the bow and along the beam. Men swarmed across the deck and maneuvered the sweeps, at least three times the number of men than on the Maid.

“We can’t fight them.” Wat gave her a pitying look. “Not unless we’re all ready to die trying.”

“Your captain died.” Deirdre swallowed against the hitching lump in her throat. “Are you going to let them get away with driving my father to his death?”

In response, Blaze stepped forward and began to run a white flag up the masthead.

“Stop!” Deirdre flung herself at him.

Ross caught her by the upper arms and swung her around to face him. “You stop.” His words came out harder-voiced than she thought possible spoken in a South Carolina drawl, and he gave her a none-too-gentle shake. “We don’t have the men or arms to fight. We’ll be prisoners, but we’ll have a chance at living and even escaping. If we fight, we’ll die for sure.”

“Suit yourself.” Deirdre tried to pull away. “I’m going to fight them.”

“No, you’re not.” Ross spoke with utter assurance.

As though he had given a command, every one of the Maid’s crew closed ranks around her, hemming her in like prison walls.

“You’re going to stand here and keep your mouth shut so they don’t notice you’re a girl, just like we do every time we meet another vessel. We don’t want them to work out that you’re the captain’s daughter when we won’t be able to protect you.”

Deirdre gritted her teeth. She hated to admit that Ross was right. As the captain’s daughter, she would be held for a higher ransom at best. At the worst, as a female . . .

A thud jarred the clipper from stem to stern. Without looking, Deirdre knew the enemy had grappled their ship to the Maid. In moments, pirates in the guise of British merchantmen would swarm aboard and take over her father’s beloved vessel and the precious cargo of tea and silk. They would imprison the crew, including her, if they thought she was a boy.

Her stomach rolled with the pitch of the schooner as the first boarders landed on the foredeck. She must pretend she didn’t care any more about her father’s death than anyone would care about the loss of a stern but fair captain. Regardless of what they might do to his body, she must not show that he was her beloved father, who had spoiled her too much to leave her on shore.

She ceased pulling against Ross’s hold, swallowed the lump clogging her throat, and turned with everyone else to watch their captors board.

They didn’t look like she imagined pirates would. Their white canvas breeches and striped cotton shirts were clean, their hair short, their faces smooth-shaven. With cutlasses in hand and a few pistols in belts, most of them resembled boys playing at pirate, taking orders from an older, harder-faced man.

“Secure the prisoners,” commanded the older man in a clipped English accent.

Five men swarmed toward the Maid’s crew. Three men with pistols drawn, two with muskets. Others dropped down the ladders to the lower deck and the hold.

Deirdre rested her hand on her dirk, tempted to draw, to avenge her father’s death with one blow.

“Don’t even think about it.” Ross curled his fingers around her wrist.

“Drop your weapons and kick them here,” one musket-bearer commanded.

Ross tightened his hold on Deirdre’s wrist. “Drop it.”

She dropped the dirk and kicked it between the legs of Zeb and Blaze, who stood in front of her like human shields. But that wasn’t the only weapon on her person. At her father’s insistence since she grew into womanhood, she had worn a stiletto braided into the thick plait of hair he would not allow her to cut. The British would never know.

“Prisoners secured, Captain,” a carrot-haired youth with spots proclaimed in a voice that sounded as though it had recently broken.

The man addressed as captain stepped forward and cleared his throat. “By the power vested in us, master, owner, and crew of the royal privateer vessel Phoebe, by His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent of England, we declare you prisoners of war of the sovereign . . .” His proclamation blurred into nonsense in Deirdre’s ears beneath the rush of confusion, then disbelief.

Prisoners of war. Prisoners of England. This was a British privateer, not a pirate ship.

The deck rolled beneath Deirdre’s feet. She braced herself against Ross’s sturdy arm, saw that his face displayed the same kind of astonishment she felt. She’d never in her life believed that President Madison would actually go to war with England. The United States didn’t have the ships, the equipment, or the men to fight the British Empire.

“Where is your captain?” the Englishman concluded his proclamation.

Deirdre didn’t dare answer for fear her voice would break if she spoke one word about her father. None of the rest of the Maid’s crew said a word either. Nor did any of them look at MacKenzie’s supine body a few yards away.

The enemy captain looked annoyed. “I need to know who accepts our terms of your surrender.”

A bubble of laughter rolled up Deirdre’s throat at the absurdity of this remark. As if any of them would accept their surrender willingly. A few of her crewmates even snorted.

The Phoebe’s crew shifted, aligning their weapons as though preparing for a fight. Deirdre stared at the Phoebe’s crew. One by one, she memorized each countenance from the carrot-haired youth with spots, whose pistol looked less than steady in his hand, to the middle-aged man with silver hair referred to as captain, to . . . him.
He was the true privateer, not a fighting man or even a sailor, but the mastermind behind the adventure. Deirdre knew it the instant he appeared on the bulwark of the Phoebe. Tall and lean-muscled, he posed against a backdrop of the two vessels’ bowsprits, one broken, one whole, and a flawless blue sky. His features were indistinct from that distance, but his straight posture and the angle of his head proclaimed “mine.”

Deirdre feared if she didn’t look away, she would break past the nearest guard and fling herself at this man, her stiletto in hand. Yet she couldn’t stop staring—at the blue-black hair he wore in an old-fashioned queue, at the broad shoulders covered with a fine, white cambric shirt, at the long, muscled legs in buckskin breeches and Hessian boots.

Those legs began to move. They carried him forward with the unhurried precision of a cat stalking its prey.
No, not a cat. That produced images of something warm and cuddly. He was far more dangerous, a tiger ready for a feast. He passed the Phoebe’s crewmen as though they didn’t exist, all his attention focused on one goal. The closer he drew, the tighter Deirdre’s muscles grew. She sensed the tension of the men around her, as though all of them held their breath. The crew of the Phoebe watched him, their faces wary.

He paused beside Daniel MacKenzie’s body. His face tightened. His nostrils pinched as though he smelled something more foul than a ship three months at sea.

Deirdre’s body jerked. Her hand flew to her braid tucked beneath the neck of her loose cotton shirt.
Ross caught hold of her arm and yanked it down to her side. “Don’t you dare.” His words were barely audible above the clamor of men taking over the Maid.

The tiger must have heard him anyway. He raised his head and looked straight at Deirdre.

Despite the blazing sun, a shiver rippled through her. She’d never seen eyes like his, topaz gold beneath thick, dark lashes and heavy lids that lent them a sleepy look. They gave nothing away as to his thoughts or feelings. Neither did his face display any expression. With its full-lipped mouth and straight, high-bridged nose, that flawless, sculptured countenance would have been too pretty for a man save for the strength of his chin and broad cheekbones.

He broke eye contact first, addressing the Phoebe’s captain. “Why has this body been left here?”

His voice jolted Deirdre. It was pure English aristocrat, the sort she had heard from the boxes at the theater during their one visit to London before the relationship between the two countries deteriorated. She had been happy then, released from the boarding school where she had been uncompromisingly miserable in dresses and gloves, and so little activity her muscles grew soft.

A sob escaped her throat.

Behind her, Wat laid a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Steady there. He’s given you too much attention already.”

She swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked back tears. She would not grieve in front of these strangers, these enemies.

“We thought to take care of the live ones first, Kier—Mr. Ashford,” the older man said. “We are looking to see if anyone is hiding below and inspect the cargo to see what—”

“Later.” Ashford gestured to her father’s body. “Then take this poor man away and prepare him for burial.”
They weren’t going to simply dump him overboard. Gratitude softened a crumb of Deirdre’s heart toward this man. Then he faced them once more, and she closed her eyes against the impact of his gaze.

“Who is he?” Ashford demanded.

None of the Maid’s crew responded.

“I wish to give him a Christian burial.” The man’s voice held annoyance. “I cannot do that without knowing his name.”

A nice ploy. Once he had her father’s name, he would look through the captain’s log and know he was the captain. He would then know that he had prisoners without a leader, without one of them deserving, by the laws of the sea, the respect of a cabin rather than the hold. Not one of them would be up top with a chance at freeing the others.

Deirdre squeezed Ross’s arm. He was the first mate. He should claim the role of captain with her father . . . gone.
He shook his head, the merest fraction of movement.

It drew Ashford’s attention anyway. He fixed his gaze on Ross. “Who are you?”

Ross drew back his broad shoulders, tilted his chin. “Ross Trenerry out of Charleston, South Carolina, first mate.”

“And you?” Ashford shifted his gaze to Deirdre.

“The dead man,” Ross said with more speed than usual, “is Daniel MacKenzie, our captain.”

The tactic worked to draw the man’s attention away from Deirdre. Ashford looked back at Ross. “Thank you.” He turned to two of his crew. “Find a bit of sail and sew him up. We’ll bury him at sundown. Now get the prisoners below.” Pivoting on his heel, he stalked to the ladder that led to the Maid’s cabins.

The clipper had two cabins. One belonged to the captain. The other should have gone to Ross, but Deirdre needed privacy, so received the privilege.

She thanked the good Lord that she didn’t own anything female, not so much as a hair ribbon or piece of jewelry. Nothing would give away her sex to the English aristocrat turned privateer.

The Honorable Heir

The Honorable Heir
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
ISBN-10: 1503937658
ISBN-13: 978-1503937659

Catherine VanDorn Is No Thief

Catherine, Lady Bisterne, returns to Tuxedo Park cloaked in scandal, the widow of a nobleman who’d loved only her fortune. As she sets out to repair her family’s reputation, another Englishman in her midst is seeking reparations of a different sort.

While Lord Tristram Wolfe may suspect that Catherine has stolen the Bisterne jewels, he looks at her in a way her husband never had.

As Tristram’s investigation continues, one thing becomes clear: the only thing Lady Catherine has ever stolen is his heart. But can he convince her to trust another English nobleman…and take a second chance on love?

Available in Paperback, Ebook, and Audible CD at Amazon.com and Digital Download at Audible.com. Or ask at your local bookstore.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Tuxedo Park, New York
November 1, 1900

“The young widow should wear deep crepe for a year and then lighter mourning for six months and second mourning for six months longer. There is nothing more utterly captivating than a sweet young face under a widow’s veil, and it is not to be wondered at that her own loneliness and need of sympathy, combined with all that is appealing to sympathy in a man, results in the healing of her heart. She should, however, never remain in mourning for her first husband after she has decided she can be consoled by a second.” Emily Price Post

She felt his gaze upon her from the instant she stepped into the clubhouse ballroom. That ballroom, all white pillars and blue velvet benches around the circular walls, fell silent the moment Catherine VanDorn, now Lady Bisterne, strolled through the white painted doors from the great hall, and a hundred pairs of eyes swiveled in her direction. Yet the intensity of one man’s bold stare drew her own past the gowns and jewels of the New York elite to meet the audacious dark eyes of a gentleman at the far side of the room.

Her heart skipped a beat. Her gold-shod feet stumbled. Skin-deep cold from the rainy November evening crept through to her bones, and for the first time that evening, she accepted that Mama was correct to tell her not to wear the mauve satin ball gown a mere thirteen months after her husband’s death. It was too bright, too frivolous, proclaiming, however falsely, that the debutante who had departed from Tuxedo Park in triumph on the arm of an English lord, a scandal in her wake, intended to seek a new husband.

Behind her, her sister Estelle poked Catherine in the spine. “If I have to be here, at least let me in.” She spoke in a whisper loud enough for the staring gentleman to hear.

It unleashed a buzz of other voices. A rising tide of exclamations, speculations, and a handful of greetings broke through the waterfall of words. “She doesn’t look to be mourning anyone,” came from a pretty matron in lavender tulle, and “I wonder whose fiancé she’ll run off with this time,” emerged from the pouting lips of a slip of a girl in white lace. But Mama’s circle of intimate friends glided forward to embrace Catherine in wide sleeves and perfume and niceties like “I know your family is happy to have you here” and “You’re too young to stay in blacks forever.”

Pompadours and powdered cheeks blocked Catherine’s view of the staring gentleman. Warmth began to steal back into her limbs, clear through to her heart, giving her hope that perhaps she could make this homecoming work out well for everyone, especially her family.

She smiled back at the ladies, then some older gentlemen, friends of her parents. She shook hands. Orchestra music rose from the stage, rising into an invitation for the annual ball to commence. Onlookers and interlocutors began to drift away in pairs to take their places in the center of the circular room. Catherine’s parents strode off arm-in-arm, a young man claimed his dance with Estelle, and their brother, Paul Henry VanDorn the Third, claimed the hand of the doll-sized girl in white lace.

Catherine stepped back so her ruffled skirt brushed the blue velvet of a curving bench. She should seat herself and remain unobtrusive after her explosive entrée back into Tuxedo Park society. But sitting felt like surrender. Standing, on the other hand, looked too much as though she were inviting one of the still unattached gentlemen to ask her to dance. Indeed, two youthful-looking males headed in her direction. She glanced away so she didn’t meet their eyes, as she had those of the man who had stared without subterfuge, and nearly choked on a suppressed groan that tried to leave her throat.

“You aren’t dancing, are you, Lady Bisterne.” Delivering the words as a statement, not a question, an older lady who’d worn black for longer than Catherine’s twenty-four years, stomped forward with the aid of an amber cane and seized Catherine’s hand in a crushing grip. “We may all recover from you returning in mauve, and perhaps even those jewels in your hair, but if you dance tonight, you may as well take yourself back to England, as no one worth knowing will receive you.”

Catherine granted the lady a curtsy. “I doubt you’ll receive me regardless of whether or not I dance, Mrs. Selkirk.”

“Depends.”

“On what, ma’am?”

“Whether or not you’re sorry for what you did to my granddaughter.”

“Oh, I’m sorry if I hurt her.”

Though she had, in truth, done Georgette a favor in keeping her from marrying Edwin, the Earl of Bisterne.

“Perhaps she’ll let me tell her just how sorry I am.” Catherine sought out Georgette Selkirk.

She spotted her gliding around the floor to the rhythm of the Strauss waltz—in the arms of the staring stranger. He caught Catherine’s eye and inclined his head before the swirl of dancers carried him and Georgette out of her sight again.

“Is that her new beau she’s dancing with?” Catherine asked.

“A mere friend of my grandson’s, but Georgette seems to have a growing fondness for him.” Mrs. Caroline Selkirk rapped her cane on the floor dangerously close to Catherine’s toes. “So keep your distance from Lord Tristram.”

“Lord Tristram Wolfe?” Invisible hands seemed to have gotten hold of Catherine’s stay laces and drawn them tight enough so she could no longer breathe.

Mrs. Selkirk leaned forward to peer into Catherine’s face, though she was a full head shorter. “Do you know him?”

“No, I never met him. But his cousin was with my husband when he died.”

And if she didn’t get away from Mrs. Selkirk’s reek of peppermint and the overcrowded ballroom, Catherine was going to expire right there.

“If you will please excuse me, ma’am . . .” Catherine slid her right foot a few inches over in preparation to glide out of Mrs. Selkirk’s reach. “I should ensure my sister’s instruments have gotten stowed away behind the stage safely.” She added a smile to convince the older lady of the truth of her words. “Would you like to sit for the upcoming performance?”

The cane thumped on the floor loudly enough that it could have been the bass drum in the orchestra. “I’d like you to assure me you won’t hurt my granddaughter again.”

“On the contrary, I wish to make amends for the past.” Catherine steeled herself against rejection. “May I call on your family in the near future?”

“I don’t want you near our house.” The clipped words and thump of the cane resounded like blows against Catherine’s heart.

She winced, blinking hard against blurriness in her eyes, and half turned away. “Then I’ll be on my way.” Not waiting for a fare-thee-well nor permission to depart the older lady’s company, she swept around fast enough to send the green-velvet-trimmed ruffles on the bottom half of her skirt flaring out like a dozen fans.

With Estelle swooping around the ballroom floor, Catherine did need to ensure her younger sister’s instruments had reached the clubhouse. Being allowed to provide part of the night’s entertainment, along with some of the other young people from Tuxedo Park, was the only real reason why Estelle agreed to attend the ball that launched her into society. If so much as a fingerprint marred the cello, violin, or the banjo especially, Estelle would leave the launching of the season, even if she had to walk uphill to her home at Lake House through the rain. Having endured enough trouble getting Estelle to the festivities, Catherine was not about to let her younger sister conduct herself with even a hint of scandalous behavior.

Catherine slipped around a group of gawking young men she didn’t recognize and headed for the doorway.

“Heed my warning.” Old Mrs. Selkirk’s voice rang out in the sudden lull as the waltz concluded.

She heeded. She heeded. She heeded. She would have to find a way other than a social call in order to talk to her old friend. Right now, she needed to escape from Mrs. Selkirk and the folly of her imprudent decision to wear mauve and green to announce she had left first mourning a few months early. Around her, the crowd eddied and flowed like wavelets on the shore. Several people nodded greetings to her. She returned the salutations and continued to flit past and around the handful of guests between her and the exit.

“Lady Bisterne.” A drawling English voice cut through the hubbub of the throng. An all-too-familiar voice.

Her heart lurched in her chest like a badly sprung carriage. She halted and turned back toward the speaker, for not doing so would be insufferably rude. He strode toward her with two other gentlemen in tow. Before them, the company parted as though the men were royalty.

They weren’t. Two of them could scarcely call themselves part of the aristocracy. She didn’t know the third gentleman. Even if his looks likely opened any door he wanted, his choice of friends didn’t recommend him as someone she wanted to meet, nor did the fact he’d stared at her upon her arrival.

“What are you doing here, Ambrose?” In as chilly a voice as she could muster, she addressed the man who had called to her, the man who had been with her husband when he died.

He stopped before her and bowed. “I had an invitation to visit this fair land so took advantage of it.”

“How nice for you.” Her tone was sweet. Her stomach churned. “And you didn’t come alone.”

Ambrose’s teeth flashed in a grin. “You know I never liked being alone.”

Neither did she, but she had been for too many years, thanks to men like Ambrose Wolfe.

“I have my cousin with me.” He gestured to the stranger in the mix. “Lord Tristram Wolfe.”

She’d never met the younger son of the Marquess of Cothbridge, but she’d heard of him, mostly in less than favorable terms. He was rather better looking than the gossip rags led her to believe. He was rather better than good-looking, with high cheekbones, a square jaw, and eyes the color of fine, dark Chinese jade in perfect contrast to hair the color of caramel sauce with a rather delightful cowlick.

“Pleased to finally meet you, my lady.” Lord Tristram bowed.

“How do you do?” She dropped a perfunctory curtsy, then glanced at the third man, her husband’s cousin, Florian Baston-Ward.

He sidled closer to take her gloved hand and raise it to his lips. “Cousin Kate, I see you’ve come out of mourning already, complete with wearing stolen Bisterne jewels.”

***

Later, Lord Tristram would take Florian to task for tipping his hand about the jewels. For now, he saved his concentration for the lady and how she responded to the careless remark.

“Stolen?” Other than that single word and a widening of her long-lashed eyes, Lady Bisterne gave no telling reaction. Her complexion maintained its porcelain purity. No color drained from her cherry-ice-colored lips, and her gaze remained fixed on Florian’s face. In short, she didn’t look guilty despite the fact that two of the jeweled pieces Tristram had crossed half of Europe and then the Atlantic to find shimmered and sparkled against her rather glorious dark auburn hair.

“Not a discussion for the ballroom.” Tristram tore his regard from the lady to scowl at the younger son of his mother’s cousin and his father’s oldest friend. “Badly done of you, Baston-Ward. You should ask her to dance, not make careless accusations.”

“I’m not dancing,” she said at the same time Florian exclaimed, “You expect me to ask her to dance? It’s bad enough she’s wearing colors—”

“Florian, be nice.” Ambrose punched the younger man in the shoulder.

“Go foist yourself on some pretty American girl.” Tristram added his voice to Ambrose to be rid of the youth and leave him alone with Lady Bisterne.

Florian’s blue eyes flashed with lightning. “When she left me penniless?” He waved a hand toward her ladyship. “No American girl would be interested in me.”

“Try a wallflower.” Tristram glanced around to locate the inevitable row of young ladies with whom no one wished to dance because of their poor looks or their lack of money.

A lack of money wasn’t prevalent in that land of the elite wealthy. Some plain-faced young women did perch on the edges of the cushions as though about to jump up and run, or lounged back as though they wanted to sit out the dance. One of the latter wasn’t plain faced at all. Indeed, she looked too much like Catherine, Lady Bisterne, not to be related.

“I see any number of young ladies not dancing.” Tristram jostled Florian’s elbow to get him thinking with reason about going away.

Florian opened his mouth as though to protest, then shut it again and stalked off toward the wallflower row. Ambrose followed with a mumbled, “Wouldn’t mind another dance or two myself.”

Tristram turned back, but Lady Bisterne had gone. She’d been heading for the door when Ambrose had waylaid her, presuming upon their acquaintance back in England. Tristram could follow her. He should follow her in the event she disposed of those bejeweled combs in her hair. Not that doing so would change the fact that she wore them, that a hundred people had seen her wearing them like she possessed a right to do so.

Tristram’s mouth hardened, and he headed for the exit. The sooner he learned the truth from her ladyship, the sooner he could return home and settle matters with his father.

“You’re not going to go hide away with the old men, are you, Tris?” His host, Pierce Selkirk, clapped Tristram on the shoulder. “Never used to be the type to drink spirits and smoke cigars.”

Tristram shuddered. “Not in the least.” A fact that hadn’t gone over well with his fellow army officers. “I wished to . . .” He trailed off, unwilling to admit he wished to go after a lady. Ambrose and Florian knew why he was there in Tuxedo Park, but to his host, Pierce, his friend from university, he was doing what hundreds of other titled men from all over Europe had been doing in the past decade or two—looking for an American heiress as a wife.

Not that he would object to one if he loved her. If he found the proof he needed that Lady Bisterne had stolen the jewels from her late husband’s family. If he met his father’s requirements to prove his younger son could succeed at something, even if Tristram had failed to bring military glory to the family.

Pierce was watching him with one sandy brow raised in enquiry, and Tristram struggled for a truthful response. “I wish to avoid another dance so soon.” He touched the back of his head, where his hair now sprang up in an unruly cowlick from a ridge of scarring beneath.

“Ah, the old head not up to more twirling about?” Pierce laughed. “Mine doesn’t like it much either, and I don’t even have your excuse. But no worries. After this dance, there’ll be an entertainment. Some of the younger set will perform.”

“Sounds like a good reason to escape.”

“Most of it, yes, but Miss VanDorn is worth listening to.” Pierce’s gaze flicked to the dance floor and an auburn-haired young lady whirling about with Florian.

Lady Bisterne’s sister.

“She’s an extraordinary talent,” Pierce added.

“And pretty. Do I detect some interest there?” Tristram smiled.

“About as much as you have in my sister.”

Tristram’s smile died. Fortunately, the music faded to a close. Dancers and chaperones cleared from the dance floor and politely jockeyed for seats on the blue velvet benches along the walls. Abandoning their partners to their own families, Georgette, Ambrose, and Florian joined Tristram and Pierce near the doorway.

“Miss VanDorn is one of the performers.” Florian’s eyes gleamed. “She plays the banjo. I’ve never heard one.”

“They’re all the rage with the ladies here.” Pierce grimaced. “Most should burn theirs.”

“Burn instruments?” Both Florian and Ambrose protested such a notion, being musicians themselves.

“Pierce is referring to my attempts.” Georgette’s sweet voice held a laugh. “But Estelle is quite different. You’ll enjoy her part. Now, do excuse me. I see Grandmother beckoning to me.”

The old lady waved her cane in their direction, much to the peril of those around her.

“She’s going to brain someone with that one day. Sometimes I think—”

Lights in the ballroom darkened except for over the stage. A hush settled throughout the attendees, and several young ladies in fluttery white dresses filed onto the stage escorted by young men with dark coats and stiff collars. From behind them, an unseen musician gave them a pitch, and the chorus began to sing in voices angelic enough to grace any church.

A theatrical sketch followed the ballads. When she forgot her lines, the leading lady dissolved into nervous titters. As though this were part of the drama, the audience laughed with—or perhaps at—her, someone prompted her from the rear of the stage, and she proceeded without another hitch.

“How long does this go on?” Ambrose whispered a little too loudly.

Tristram elbowed him in the ribs. “You’ll never catch an American wife if you are rude.”

“I’ll never catch an American wife without a title,” Ambrose countered. “Even your poor excuse of a courtesy title is worth something here.”

“I think—” Florian began.

Several people nearby hushed him.

The attention of the guests shifted from polite to interested, with those standing slipping a step or two closer to the stage and some of those previously seated standing, as pretty Miss VanDorn glided onto the stage.

She settled a peculiar-looking stringed instrument onto her lap and began to play. She played it like a professional musician. The notes hummed and trilled and tumbled over one another like gemstones caught in a waterfall. At the conclusion of each piece, the audience applauded with the enthusiasm the performance deserved. After three selections, Miss VanDorn rose, bowed, then swept off stage.

Lights from the chandeliers overhead blazed through the room. Like wind from an approaching storm, voices rose to fill the circular chamber. On the stage, the orchestra returned, while on the dance floor, the guests began to mill about and again pair off.

Ambrose punched Tristram’s arm. “Time to start solving your mystery, Sherlock Holmes.”

Tristram shook his head. “There is no mystery here. I need to gather my proof, or we can take no action against an American dowager countess.” He scanned the room for that countess. Surely she had returned to hear her sister’s performance. If she had, though, she must have entered from somewhere near the stage, or she would have passed by his position near the doors. With his height advantage, he should have been able to see her. But no jeweled combs flashed in dark reddish-brown hair. Pierce had wandered off, so Tristram was free to leave the ballroom in search of Catherine, Lady Bisterne.

“Oh no you don’t, Lord Tristram.” Georgette swooped up beside him, her sky-blue eyes sparkling. “We need all the men we can catch to stay and continue partnering the debutantes. Let me introduce you to a few.”

Those debutantes seemed to consist of a few dozen ladies of all ages. Whether cool matron or giggling girl, one factor they shared was their reaction to learning he could, by way of his father’s status, place “Lord” in front of his first name. Their smiles widened, their fans fluttered faster, and they leaned a little closer.

Weary of Georgette Selkirk shepherding him forward like a lost lamb, Tristram chose a plain but lively young lady to be his partner in the first set. Miss Hudock executed the figures of the dance with light steps and not a great deal of chatter.

“You’ve likely already seen what Tuxedo Park has to offer, my lord, so do tell me about where you live. Is it a castle?”

Tristram laughed. “It’s rather a larger and older version of many of the houses I see here in the Park. Half-timber.”

“And stone. Yes, isn’t it pretty? How old?”

“Three hundred and twenty years.” He talked as they rounded the circular ballroom.

How many dancers grew dizzy or lost their way without sides and corners?

“It belongs to my father, though, not me.” He scanned the room for Lady Bisterne or her sister, still not seeing them.

“The windows are rather gray because the glass is so old.”

“Will it be yours one day?”

“Not if God and I see eye to eye on the issue.” They passed the entrance door, one of the few landmarks to give him spatial perspective on the room.

Before him, the young lady’s gray eyes widened. “You don’t want to own a manor house?”

Only for the good he could do with the income. But he didn’t think she would understand that.

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “A great deal of responsibility and privilege comes with it.”

“My papa says privilege is a form of responsibility.” She spoke as the music slowed and ended.

“You have a wise papa.” Tristram bowed, and when he straightened, he caught a glimpse of pinkish-purple satin through a door near the stage.

With more haste than the charming lady deserved, he returned her to her mama, then skirted the room as quickly as he could manage without knocking anyone over. Still, when he reached the doorway, he didn’t see a sign of her ladyship’s luxurious gown.

He did, however, catch a glimpse of something sparkling against the floorboards.

In two strides, he reached the gemstones and scooped them up. Diamonds sparkled and gold and pearls gleamed against his white glove. Above the teeth of the comb, the setting arched on a twist at the edges, an unusual design. Save for its partner comb, a unique setting brought into the Bisterne family over a hundred years earlier. It belonged to the estate, the new Earl of Bisterne, his father’s oldest friend. Yet the twenty-four-year-old Dowager Countess of Bisterne calmly walked off with this and a host of other jewels that did not belong to her.

Tristram curled his fingers around the comb until the filigree setting and stones marred his gloves. Eyes narrowed, he scanned the corridor for her larcenous ladyship.

“I’ll find you before you can rid yourself of the other comb.” He headed down the great hall, nearly empty during the dance. Despite Georgette’s claims, this early in the evening, most of the men hadn’t abandoned the ladies in pursuit of more manly diversions.

But her ladyship appeared to have abandoned the festivities. Tristram spotted her on the other side of the massive fireplace and stalking toward the clubhouse’s front door.

He started after her. A few older gentlemen and couples impeded his progress and line of sight. He paused, his way blocked by a cluster of young people. “I beg your pardon, but may I please get through?”

“We’re terribly sorry.” They started back as though he’d spoken a foreign language. A gap formed he could pass through.

Nodding his thank-you, Tristram lengthened his stride. “Lady Bisterne.” He kept his voice low.

She either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him.

“My lady?”

She grasped the faceted crystal doorknob.

Tristram closed his free hand over hers, feeling the chill of her fingers through the thin gloves. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

She emitted a squeak of a gasp and reared back. Her other comb lost its anchor on her hair and dropped to the floor with a clatter.

“What are you doing?” She yanked her hand free and clapped her hands to hair still anchored by pearl-headed pins.

“I need to talk to you about this.” He held out the first comb, then stooped to collect the other.

She set her foot upon it. “These were a wedding present from my late husband. That is all you need to know.”

“That’s not what the new earl claims.”

Collision of the Heart

Collision of the Heart
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
ISBN-10: 1503936287
ISBN-13: 978-1503936287

This was formerly published as The Professor’s Heart, and has since undergone author and editorial additions and improvements.

Mia Roper isn’t a typical nineteenth-century woman. Refusing to pass up the hard-won opportunity to prove herself as a journalist, she left Hillsdale, Michigan, hoping in vain that Ayden Goswell would follow her to Boston.

When the train bringing her back for her first major story crashes in a snowstorm outside town, Mia is stranded. Not even the survival of a fellow passenger , a toddler, can ease her heart’s sudden ache at seeing Ayden, now a history professor at the local college, courting someone else.

Ayden’s never gotten over the fact that the most fascinating woman he ever met chose her career over marriage . . . and he let her go. But marrying the department director’s daughter could at least guarantee him a permanent job. It’s a satisfactory arrangement, yet his kind, pretty bride-to-be has one simple flaw: she’s not Mia.

As soon as the trains are running, Mia will be leaving again, unless she and Ayden can reconcile ambition and love—and take a leap of faith together.

Available in Paperback, Ebook, and Audible CD at Amazon.com and Digital Download at Audible.com. Or ask at your local bookstore.

Endorsements

“Eakes seamlessly blends romance and intrigue, faith and history.” — Booklist

“Eakes will leave readers breathless.” — Louise M. Gouge, award-winning author of At the Captain’s Command

Excerpt

From Chapter One

Hillsdale, Michigan
February 8, 1856
Near Midnight

In ten minutes, the westbound train would reach the town Euphemia Roper once vowed to never set foot in again.

Hillsdale, Michigan, was the town Euphemia—Mia to her friends—had called home longer than anywhere else in her twenty-six years and the town she had left with a broken heart. Only opportunity knocking too loudly to be ignored had drawn her back. For a week, she would research the story that would establish her as a professional lady of letters, while she avoided encounters with Ayden Benaiah Goswell.

She twisted in her train seat and rubbed frost from a patch of glass with her gloved fingers. The action accomplished little beyond making her hand damp through the knitted wool. The lights of Osseo had already dimmed beyond a veil of falling snow. The train gathered speed.

So did Euphemia’s heart.

Muscles twitching in her legs, Euphemia tucked her handbag under one arm and her writing portfolio under the other. Rustling pages, snapping locks, and a child asking if they were there yet rose like a wave before a high wind. Euphemia rose to get up the aisle and near the door before the train stopped so she could be one of the first passengers to disembark. Others preceded her, including a child barely old enough to walk. He paused to grasp the side of her seat.

“Are you lost?” Euphemia leaned toward the boy. Someone should be frantically searching for the little one.

“Nana?” His quivering lower lip protruded.

“Uh-oh. Don’t cry. I’ll find your mo—”

The train whistle blasted its mournful call into the night. Several women exclaimed. Mia jumped, and the child let out a howl loud enough to wake any passenger still asleep after the whistle blast.

“You poor baby.” Euphemia set her handbag and portfolio on her empty seat and crouched before the boy, her skirt billowing around her. “I’ll find your momma.” She raised her voice. “Is anyone here missing a—”

With the cacophony of a hundred metal sheets slamming together, the train shuddered to a halt. The car floor bucked. The baby, Euphemia, and luggage tumbled across the aisle. Passengers screamed.

“We’ve wrecked!” someone shouted.

The car rocked on its wheels. More cases fell. More passengers shrieked.

“We’re going to derail!”

“We’re going to die!”

“Fire! Fire!”

No more than the usual tendrils of coal smoke filled the car, but passengers stampeded for the door. One wrist throbbing, Euphemia snatched up the child and dove back into her seat. The contents of her handbag crunched under her feet. Her writing case remained on the seat.

“Help me!” A woman’s cries rose above the hubbub of wailing, shouting, shoving passengers. “My leg. I can’t walk! I can’t move.”

“Stay here.” Euphemia laid the child on the seat. She picked up her writing case before she headed for the back of the car, toward the crying woman.

“Where are you?” Euphemia called.

Banging, wailing, and bellowing drowned out the woman’s reply—if the woman replied. She could have fainted—or worse.

Euphemia’s heart leaped into her throat, pulsing hard enough to choke her. She paused to take a deep, steadying breath. Calm would accomplish more than panic. Enough chaos reigned behind her. She didn’t need to add to it.

She took a step toward where she thought she heard the woman crying for help. The car tilted. A piece of luggage slammed into her legs. She grabbed for a seatback to steady herself, and pain blazed through her left wrist. She tucked her writing case beneath her left forearm in order to free her right hand. It was all right, strong, capable of groping in the near total darkness between the seats for the woman who had been sobbing and calling for help or for anyone else unable to ask for assistance. Three seats lay between Euphemia and the end of the railroad car. She checked on, between, and under each one.

“Ma’am?” Euphemia shouted above the ruckus of what seemed like more people than the car—or the entire train—could have carried. “Are you there?”

Behind her, a baby wailed. The one she’d found or someone else’s. Must get back to him, find his momma or nurse. First, the woman.

She reached the last row. Her questing fingers touched a shoulder between the seats and wedged against the rear exit.

A hand clasped hers. “You’ve got to help me.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Euphemia stooped to get her arm under the woman. “Can you lean on me?”

“I think my leg is broke.” The hand gripped Euphemia’s nearly hard enough to break bones. “I can’t walk. I need to get out of here.”

“We all do.” Euphemia freed her hand.

“Don’t leave me.”

“I must go to get help.” Euphemia took a step back, turned, and headed up the aisle, calling, “Any men here? There’s a woman here who needs to be carried.”

No response from inside the car. Outside, a few lights bobbed, perhaps a promise of rescue on its way.

She paused at her seat. The toddler still lay there. He no longer sobbed or so much as whimpered. Surely, such quietness wasn’t normal for a child.

“Anyone missing a baby?” She grimaced at how ridiculous the words sounded when shouted.

If a woman had mislaid her child, she would be doing the asking. Yet no cries of a frantic mother—or anyone else seeking a little boy—rose above the ruckus. That made two people to help, the woman and the baby

Euphemia patted the toddler. “I’ll be right back.”

She started up the aisle. “I need someone to carry a woman. Please.”

Someone grabbed her arm. “Can you help me, young lady?” The voice shook. The hand shook.

“Of course. Hold on to my arm.” Euphemia continued toward the exit.

“Can someone help me with these children?” A woman yelled, her voice breaking.

“I can’t find my cane.” The voice cracked from the throat of a man who sounded ancient.

“I’ll return to help you shortly,” Euphemia assured the supplicants.

She must get her current charge off the train, aid those she could, find assistance for those she couldn’t. She must work fast. Too much smoke filled the air now, and that stench of hot metal twisted her insides like one of those new pretzel rolls. Judging from the smell, the train was on fire.

“I said it would burn!” The voice rose to a shriek. “Out. We have to get out of here!”

Passengers began to push and shove. The hubbub grew deafening, no voice loud enough to rise above another.

“Quiet, all of you.” Deep and authoritative, a man’s voice penetrated the chaos. “We will get you off one at a time and faster if you stay calm.”

Euphemia’s knees buckled. Breath snagged in her throat. Spots danced before her eyes.

She knew that voice. Not so long ago, her ears strained to hear it calling her name, murmuring he loved her. Now the last thing she wanted was to push forward with the rest of the passengers and meet him face-to-face.

She freed her arm from the older woman’s hold and tapped the shoulder of a man in front of her. “Will you please help this lady? I need to assist others.”

If the man said anything, the noise inside the car drowned out his words, but he reached a hand behind him. Euphemia placed the elderly woman’s fingers in his and then slipped past her to the woman with the children.

“Stay here for a few more minutes,” she said. “It’s too crowded up there right now.”

“But the train’s on fire!” The woman sobbed as loudly as her offspring. “We’ll burn alive.”

“No, no. The fire is a long way off.” Euphemia smiled to make her assurance more convincing.

She did speak the truth. A dozen cars lay between the engine boiler and theirs. With the wetness of snow, the fire shouldn’t spread quickly. Wind might carry sparks, though, and then . . .

She tugged a woolly cap more snuggly around the younger child’s ears. “I’ll be back in a minute to help get your children up to the door. There . . . there’s a man there, helping people down.”

She swung away. Pulling on this boy’s cap reminded her of the toddler. She must look to his safety. The woman with the broken leg still needed aid.

The old man caught hold of her coat sleeve. “My cane. I can’t find my cane. You said you’d help me find my cane.”

“I did, yes.” Her movements awkward with her left forearm pressing her writing case to her chest, Euphemia sank to her knees and began to grope around on the floor for the cane. She found it amid a pile of small parcels wedged beneath a seat across the aisle, yanked it free, and handed it to the gentleman. “Will you be all right from here? I have a baby to look after and a woman with a broken leg.”

She didn’t wait for the man to answer. The toddler had begun to wail. She reached him and started to lift him. Her toe struck something on the floor, and she remembered her spilled handbag. She must gather what she could of her possessions, her purse at the least. She needed money to pay for her lodging at the boardinghouse and meals. She needed her return train ticket.

She settled for patting his back. “I’m here, baby. We’ll find your mother. She’s got to be here somewhere. Or someone had you with them.”

Once again, she felt around on the dirty and rather wet floor, gathering up what objects she encountered and shoving them into her handbag. If they proved not to be hers, she would seek to locate the owners later.

“All right, then.” She shoved a bottle of scent, miraculously unbroken, into the bag. “Off to find your momma.”

“Nana.” The baby snuffled.

“Nana.” Euphemia tried to lift the boy. She couldn’t do it with one arm, but she couldn’t leave her writing case.

She set it down and picked up the toddler. Her left wrist protested. Hissing a gasp of pain through her teeth, she gathered her case and headed for the front of the car, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going for help now, ma’am.”

No one answered. That wasn’t a good sign. The woman must have lost consciousness, which meant she was seriously hurt.

Euphemia quickened her steps. In front of her, the crowd surged forward.

“One at a time.” Ayden’s voice boomed above the other voices, more like a preacher’s than a professor’s, as full and rich as summer cream.

Euphemia shut her eyes. If only her ears could close, she could pretend he wasn’t there, not a dozen feet away, their encounter inevitable.

“Just jump, ma’am. I’ll catch you, and if I don’t, the snow’s as soft as a featherbed.” He laughed as though this were some new game.

His light tone worked. The passengers calmed. They stopped shoving one another and lined up for their turns like obedient schoolchildren. Consequently, the line moved more quickly. Four seats, three seats, then only two seats were between Euphemia and the doorway. With each step, her stomach knotted more tightly. Her heart beat as though threatening to pound its way out of her ribs. She should have prayed to avoid Ayden. She should have dyed her hair and pretended to be someone else. She should have—

“Next?” Ayden directed.

Euphemia opened her eyes. She was next, or rather, the child was next.

She hastened to the doorway. “Take this child. I’ll return.” She spoke in breathless accents.

“You need to stay with your child, ma’am,” Ayden said.

He didn’t recognize her—yet.

She leaned down. “Take him. He’s heavy.”

“Ma’am, you can’t—”

Squirming now, the toddler slipped from Euphemia’s one-armed hold. Ayden caught him and shot an annoyed glance Euphemia’s way. Light from a lantern hanging from the side of the car shone on his face, etching every strong, chiseled bone like a sculptor’s tool. A knitted hat covered most of his thick, dark hair. His deep-blue eyes widened. His mouth gaped.

“Mia?” He barely whispered his pet name for her.

“Mia, mi amore” was what he had dubbed her throughout their courtship.

A lump rose in her throat. The lantern light blurred, and she spun on her heel. “Others. I need help with others. There’s a woman in here with a broken leg.”

“Whose baby is this?” he shouted after her.

“I don’t know.” She choked on the tightness in her throat.

“Mia.”

The baby’s wails drowned out anything else he might have said to her. The crying grew fainter. He must be moving away from the train. Good. She could help the woman with the children. But she couldn’t help the woman with the injured leg on her own.

She reached the mother and took the hand of one of the children. “I can help you outside now.”

She led the child to the doorway. “Stay there. I’ll lift you down.”

She glanced at the ground. Without steps or platform, the floor of the car looked half a story high. Without assistance, she was going to fall flat on her face.

“Mia, wait.” Ayden sprinted across the snow-laden ground as though it were flat, dry pavement. “I’ll catch you.”

She’d rather fall flat on her face or stay in the train than have him anywhere near her, but to her right, the front of the train blazed like a bonfire. Heat reached back on every gust of wind.

She jumped.

Ayden caught her around the waist and held her suspended above the snow. “You’re too thin.”

“And you’re rude. Now set me down.” She pushed at his chest with her portfolio.

He set her down. “Straight ahead. Pa’s just arrived with the sleigh. We’ll take these people home.”

“I thought you might.”

“You can come, too, you know.”

She shook her head. “Not a good idea. I’m staying at the boardinghouse.”

“I expect it’s already full.” He moved past her to lift down the children and their mother.

Euphemia didn’t move. “I have a reservation.”

“Did you intend to stop here, ma’am?” Ayden asked the mother.

“We were going to my parents in Chicago.” She sobbed as hard as her two children. “I don’t know nobody here.”

“That’s all right. You can stay with us. Mia, will you take one of the children and show this lady to our sleigh? It’s about a hundred feet straight ahead, with the two lamps on it.” He started toward another car.

“Wait,” Euphemia called. “There’s another woman in there. She’s injured. She says she can’t walk.”

“I’ll get her.” Ayden hoisted himself inside the car.

Euphemia gave the mother and her children a reassuring smile. “I’ll help you all get through this snow to the Goswell sleigh. You’ll be safe there.”

“I don’t know, ma’am.” The woman clutched her children to her skirts. “They’re strangers.”

“You can trust them.” She grimaced. “Not that you have any reason to trust me.”

Somehow, that remark seemed to reassure the woman. She released her hold on the taller of the two children, a girl inadequately clothed for the weather. “Can you help her? I never seen such snow.”

“I have. It’s like walking through a bag of flour,” Euphemia said.

“Cold flour,” the girl added through her snuffles.

Euphemia took her hand. “Really cold flour. I hope you can walk. You’re too grown up for me to carry you.”

“I’m seven.”

“Really grown up.” Euphemia clutched the child’s mittened fingers and started toward the twin carriage lamps suspended from a sleigh, no doubt the one she had taken dozens of rides in over the years, tucked up between Ayden and his younger sister or his mother or cuddled just with him . . .

She slammed the door on those memories and trudged forward. Newly fallen, the snow lay in fluffy drifts atop a layer of hard-packed snow from another storm. She sank up to her knees in places. The child struggled beside her. Her mother carried the boy. Each step proved an effort. There was no way Euphemia could walk into town. But surely someone would give her a ride, someone other than the Goswells.

Except she couldn’t go into town yet. She must get these children and their mother to the Goswell sleigh. She had to find that toddler’s people. Once she accomplished those tasks, she could find transportation into Hillsdale to stop her.

Plan made, she continued to tramp through the snow. Her feet felt like the packed-down stuff, heavy, solid, immovable. She didn’t want to see Mr. Goswell any more than she wanted to see Ayden again. He had been a father to her, more so than her own parent, who had disappeared in pursuit of nameless dreams only to return when those dreams faded or grew dull, until he disappeared permanently. Her father’s last words to her had been “I’ll be back.” Mr. Goswell’s last words had been “I’m so disappointed in the two of you that it hurts.”

Her response was nothing she was proud to recall, and a fresh wave of guilt stabbed her as he loomed before her. Unlike Ayden’s hair, Mr. Goswell’s hair was gray rather than mahogany brown, but his eyes were still as blue and his smile as warm as his son’s. “Euphemia Roper, what a sight for sore eyes. I knew you’d be back.”

“I’m not returning. This is a brief stop for business purposes.” She kept her tone neutral. “Right now, Ayden sent me over with this family.”

Mr. Goswell squeezed her shoulder. “Good. You’ll stay with us.”

“No, I—”

“I have that little one tucked up until we find his people. And whom do we have here?”

“Some passengers who don’t have a place to stay in Hillsdale.”

“Yes, they do—with us.” Mr. Goswell crouched to be eye-to-eye with the children. “Would you like to come to our house for soup and biscuits?”

The children stood in silence, turning into little snowmen beneath the tumbling flakes.

“I . . . I don’t have much money,” the mother protested.

“They won’t want money.” Euphemia touched the woman’s arm. “I know the Goswells. They have lots of room and will feed you until you cry for mercy.”

Kind, generous, godly—all words to describe the Goswell family. She should want to stay with them. She shouldn’t have left them behind. She hadn’t wanted to leave them behind, not permanently. She and Ayden were supposed to return to Hillsdale for holidays, but Ayden chose to stay instead of choosing to love her.

She shook off the hurt like snow accumulating on her coat and held out her hand to draw the woman forward. “Is Mrs. Goswell in the kitchen already?”

“The minute we heard the wreck.” Mr. Goswell returned his attention to the children. “Would you like a sleigh ride?”

The children nodded. Their mother made protesting noises in her throat.

Mr. Goswell glanced up at Euphemia. “Will, uh, you stay to help me with these little ones?”

“I need to look for the baby’s mother or whoever should have been in charge of him.” Euphemia stepped back. Her foot sank into a pile of soft snow, and the crystallized wetness tumbled over the top of her boot to soak her stocking and freeze her foot. “Perhaps this lady can help.”

Mr. Goswell rested his hand on Euphemia’s shoulder. “She already has her own two, and you shouldn’t be charging off on your own through this crowd at night. It’s not safe.”

“I’ve been in worse,” Euphemia said.

“I’m happy to see to the little one to pay my way,” the woman said.

“There’s no need,” Mr. Goswell began.

“That’s an excellent idea.” Euphemia recognized the woman’s need to contribute to spare her pride. “If you go to the Goswells’ house, I’ll know where to find you when I find the baby’s people.” Without further ado, she yanked her foot from the snowdrift and headed toward the train, the worst of the crowd and the blazing fire creeping back from the engine.

“I’ll be back to fetch you,” Mr. Goswell shouted after her, but she continued without glancing behind her.

The going grew rougher with each step. Snow clung to her skirt and petticoats, weighing them down. More snow filled her boots. She should have gone into town with Mr. Goswell. His wife would have all the fires going and hot coffee on the stove. But duty called.

Euphemia approached a group of women huddled together. “Are any of you missing a child about a year and a half old?”

The women stared at her, their faces blank with shock in the flickering light of the burning train.

“No,” one finally answered.

“If you hear of anyone, send them to the Goswell house.” Euphemia turned away.

She went around, asking another group and then another. The answer remained the same—no one had heard of anyone seeking a baby like the one she described. Plenty of people sought loved ones. They wandered through the snow and stench of burning coal like sheep without their shepherd despite the dozens of townspeople who moved through them, talking, soothing, gathering the stranded passengers to transport them into town. Every conversation focused on the train—or more specifically, the trains. Off their schedules, the eastbound and westbound locomotives had crashed.

“The eastbound didn’t have no headlight,” one man said again and again. “It didn’t have no headlight.”

Frozen to her bones, Euphemia paused on snow packed as hard as ice from scores of feet and the heat of the fire. Mere yards away, the trains blazed, some of their cars broken free of their couplings and toppled over. Others leaned at a precarious angle, and the cars farther back, like the one she’d ridden in, appeared undamaged.

“What a mess.” She took in each detail, committing it to memory.

If only she owned a camera and knew how to take photographs, this incident would do more for her journalism career at the Ladies’ Monthly Fashion than any of the stories she wrote. She should take notes, write down snatches of conversations. The conflagration provided enough light for her to see a page in her portfolio.

Careful of her throbbing wrist, she opened her writing case and extracted a pencil and paper. Stray toddler. Woman broken leg. Old woman . . .

“What are you doing?” Ayden snatched the pencil from her gloved fingers.

“I’m taking notes so I don’t forget any of my impressions.” She held out her hand. “Please give me back my pencil.”

He did so. “You always were taking notes on something.” He smiled. A dimple flashed in his left cheek, and her heart performed a somersault inside her ribs.

No, no, no. She would not succumb to the charm of that smile, that boyish dent in his cheek, his deep, resonant voice.

She took a step away from him. “I should get into town, I suppose. I heard something about the churches opening up to help stranded passengers. Perhaps I can find that boy’s people there. Did you get that woman help? I suppose Dr. Clark is run off his feet help—”

“Hush.” Ayden laid a gloved finger across her lips. “You don’t need to be nervous around me, Mia.”

She laughed. “Why would you think I’m nervous around you?”

“Because you’re talking too much.” His smile faded. “And to answer your question, no, I did not help that woman. She wasn’t there. The car was empty of people.”

The Mountain Midwife

The Mountain Midwife
2016 RITA® Finalist Inspirational Romance

Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Zondervan
ISBN-10: 031033344X
ISBN-13: 978-0310333449

The women in Ashley’s family have helped mothers usher new life into this world for generations. But what if it’s Ashley’s turn to have a new life?

Ashley Tolliver has tended to the women of her small Appalachian community for years. As their midwife, she has seen it all. Until a young woman gives birth to a baby at Ashley’s home and is abducted just as Ashley tries to take her to the nearest hospital. The new mother is dangerously bleeding and needs medical attention. Now Ashley is on a mission to find the woman and her newborn baby… before it’s too late.

Hunter McDermott is on a quest—to track down his birth mother. After receiving more media attention than he could ever want from a daring rescue of a young girl, he received a mysterious phone call from the middle of Virginia from a woman claiming to be his mother. He seeks out the aid of the local midwife—her family has assisted in the births of most babies for many generations; surely she can shed some light on his own family background.

Ashley isn’t prepared for the way Hunter’s entrance into her world affects her heart and her future. He reignites dreams she has long put aside, dreams of earning her medical degree and being able to do even more for her community. But is it commitment to her calling or fear of the unknown that keeps her feet firmly planted in the Appalachian soil? Or is it something more—fear of her growing feelings for Hunter—that make her hesitant to explore the world beyond the mountains?

Excerpt

Chapter 1

(Note: This is from a galley version and therefore may contain some typographical errors that will not appear in the final published version.)

The doorbell rang sometime after midnight. The electronic tinkling of the telephone in the middle of the night meant a patient had gone into labor. But this was the double-toned chime of the doorbell in the darkness, and that meant trouble.

Heart pounding, Ashley Tolliver rolled out of her queen-size four-poster, dislodging several cats in the process, and snatched up the jeans and Tshirt ever ready on a chair beside her bed. By the time the bell chimed again, she was dressed and shoving her feet into a pair of ballet flats. The third ring found her halfway down the steps.

A shadow loomed behind the sheer curtain covering the front door’s glass at the foot of the steps. It was a hulking man’s silhouette against the porch light. No sign of a woman beside him.

Ashley paused on the bottom step. At the least she should have brought her cell phone with her despite the terrible reception inside the house there in the hills. The gun her brother insisted she own for protection on her lonely nighttime excursions to patients was, as usual, locked in the glove compartment of her Tahoe.

She turned to retrieve her cell.

Three rings of the bell in rapid succession conveyed a sense of urgency. She was being silly. No burglar was going to announce his arrival by ringing the doorbell so persistently. Emergencies brought men and their expectant wives, daughters, girlfriends, to her door.

She grabbed a cordless phone from the foyer table and slid back the dead bolt. “May I help—”

“Let us in.” The door slammed against her hand, stopping at the end of the too-flimsy chain lock.

Wind off Brooks Ridge swept through the opening, carrying with it the sharpness of wood smoke and drying leaves, along with a far less pleasant odor. Ashley’s nose twitched. The stench was familiar, but she couldn’t place it at the moment, only knew she wanted to be away from it.

She took a step back from the door. “Do you need a midwife?” The admission tasted like ashes to speak. “I deliver babies, and I can’t—”

“Why do you think I’m here, you stupid—” A string of adjectives of profane origins accentuated this assault on Ashley’s intelligence. “She’s going to drop this baby any minute.”

“Where is she?” Ashley shifted the cordless landline phone so her forefinger rested on the preprogrammed emergency button. “Let me see her.”

The man’s hand, broad and liberally sprinkled with red hairs, left its pressure on the door. He stepped aside far enough for Ashley to catch a glimpse of a woman, bent forward as far as her belly would allow. Straight blond hair masked her face and nearly touched the porch floor. A low moan escaped her along with the faintly bleachy odor of amniotic fluid. Her water had broken. Not good for someone Ashley had never seen. Examining her after the water had broken risked infection.

She’d have to take the chance.

Ashley shut the door far enough to release the chain, then opened it again. “Bring her in.”

The man scooped up the woman more like a sack of feed than a person he cared about. “Where to?”

“This way.” Resisting the urge to suggest he carry his lady in a more loving manner, Ashley led the way down the hall, flipping on lights as she went. “What’s her name?”

“Uh, Jane.”

“Uh?” Ashley’s rubber sole squeaked against the floorboards as she halted and twisted around. “You’re not sure?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure I’m sure.” The man didn’t meet Ashley’s eyes. “Jane Davis.”

Not Jane Smith? Ashley kept the thought to herself.

“How old are you, Jane?”

In response, the young woman made a mewling sound like a kitten and writhed in the man’s hold. Not unusual for a woman in labor to remain wordless. Pain caused some females to draw into themselves, and yet that generally changed when the second stage of labor began.

Ashley looked at the man, unshaven, clothes rumpled, and that unpleasant animal stink, and tried to meet his eyes without success. “How old is she, Mr. Davis?”

He shrugged. “Nineteen? Twenty?”

“Uh-huh.” If the girl was eighteen, Ashley would eat her nurse-midwifery license. And if the girl wasn’t at least eighteen or lawfully married to the man with her, Ashley had trouble on her hands.

She resumed her course to the exam room. “How long have you been in labor?”

A groaning whimper from the girl was the only response she gave.

“Too long, the lying . . .” The man’s voice was a mere rumble.

For the girl’s sake, Ashley hoped he wasn’t her husband or even her boyfriend. He was worse than indifferent to her situation—he was hostile to it.

She pasted a smile on her lips and crossed the kitchen’s tile floor. “How long is too long then?”

“Her water broke an hour ago.”

The girl groaned.

Ashley wanted to join her. She settled for a mild, “Oh, dear.”

“Made a mess all over my truck.”

“I’m sure it did.” Ashley reached for a doorknob.

Accessible through the kitchen and an outside entrance with a small foyer, the addition to the ancient farmhouse had been built by her mother two decades earlier to accommodate the patients who found being examined or giving birth at the midwife’s home more convenient than their own. This was only the second time Ashley had delivered a baby there, though her mother had used the room often. That other time, she’d had a birthing assistant with her and hours to prepare.

“Set her on the bed.” Ashley gestured to the daybed she used instead of a traditional examination table.

Fortunately, she always kept it prepared with clean sheets and special sterile and absorbent paper. Her instruments were sterile as well, but not set out, not ordered, not to hand.

Watching the man all but drop “Jane” on the bed, Ashley began to assemble equipment from her birthing kit—gloves, clamps, scissors. The patient remained supine, her face ashen and glazed with sweat. Her hands clutched the sheet in a white-knuckled grip, while that haunting keening issued from her lips.

Ashley needed to examine her, at the least palpate her abdomen to see if the baby was head down yet. If Jane was dilated and the baby’s head wasn’t down, she needed to call the hospital and take the girl to the nearest emergency room for an obstetrician. She needed one of the birthing assistants she usually worked with, preferrably Sofie Trevino, but doubted she could arrive from her house on time.

“Will you get her undressed?” Ashley called over her shoulder to—Mr. Davis? “Just her slacks.”

She caught hold of the cart containing the computerized baby monitor, Pinard stethoscope, and a stack of sterile towels and dragged it close to the bed.

From the bed, Jane emitted a primal growl.

Ashley spun toward the patient. She now lay on her side, her knees drawn up, her arms clasping her belly. She wore loose dark pants and an oversize T-shirt. The latter was good; the former a problem if Ashley’s suspicions that the baby was coming at any moment proved true.

“I need your help taking her slacks off.” She kept her voice calm, though her heart kicked up a notch.

To say something was wrong with this situation was an understatement. The girl was too still for a woman heading into the second stage of labor, and the man too indifferent to have any relationship with his female charge. He hadn’t so much as flickered a pale eyelash over his paler blue eyes, let alone made a move to help.

Ashley tried another tack, the one she used on frantic fathers. “Mr. Davis—wait, what is your first name?”

“John.”

Of course it was. John and Jane. He couldn’t have thought up more generic names had he tried.

“Help me undress her right now.”

“Oh, no.” John paled. “I won’t—I can’t—”

He backed to the doorway. “I-I’ll just wait here in the kitchen.” He vanished around the corner and yanked the door closed.

Ashley could insist he help. She knew a dozen tricks for getting the pregnant woman’s uncooperative partner to assist her if no one else was available. But this man’s attitude was all wrong, his lack of interest in the woman stretching beyond fear of making a fool of himself like fainting at the sight of blood.

Ashley turned her attention to her patient. “Jane?”

The girl didn’t respond.

“Is your name Jane?”

Another one of those primal growls was the only response, sign of another contraction nearly atop the previous one.

“I need to get your pants off, Jane.” Ashley rested one hand on the girl’s shoulder in a gesture of reassurance and reached beneath the shirt with the other.

The girl flinched away from Ashley’s touch.

“Jane, I’m not going to hurt you.” Ashley smoothed silky blond hair away from the girl’s sweating face. “I’m a certified nurse-midwife and have delivered almost five hundred babies.”

And unless instinct and experience were failing her, she was about to deliver one more momentarily.

“I need to get your slacks off of you first. Do you understand?”

The girl nodded.

Progress.

“Let’s get you onto your feet just long enough to get those slacks off.”

Easier said than done. Jane couldn’t weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds even presumably full-term, but she seemed incapable of doing anything to help herself. Applying her own considerable strength, Ashley half pushed, half pulled the girl onto her side. Twice contractions gripped Jane’s belly, and she let loose with more of those animal moans deep and inhuman.

Ashley held on to her. “Wrap your arms around me as hard as you can.”

Jane went as stiff as the hard mattress beneath her and flattened her hands on the bed. Mere inches from Ashley’s, her blue eyes darted back, forth, up, down. The pulse at the base of her throat slammed against her pallid skin like hammer blows. Ashley needed to take her blood pressure, monitor for fetal distress . . . a dozen prebirth preparations.

The third growling emission crescendoed into a shriek.

Scissors in hand, Ashley dropped to her knees beside the bed and slit the inside seams of the pants from hem to mid-thigh. The cheap cotton fabric tore with a hardtug, parting at the crotch. Ashley yanked on sterile gloves just in time for Ashley to cradle the baby’s head—a correct back-to-front position.

“Good girl. It’s coming. Don’t push. We want this to come nice and slow.”

The girl pushed.

“Easy does it. I know you want to push, Jane, but try, really.” Ashley cradled the head in one hand. Forehead, nose, chin.

“Nice and slow.” Ashley cleared mucus from the baby’s nose and mouth, waited for the next contraction, then began to ease the shoulders out.

A small baby. Narrow shoulders. With the mother growling and keening in turns, the baby girl slid the rest of the way into Ashley’s hands, with her eyes and mouth open as though she were surprised to enter the world. Ashley’s heart constricted, the familiar pain of emptiness of her own womb. Twenty-nine and not the slightest prospect of marriage, let alone children. Neither had seemed possible so far. Now neither would fit into her plans for the future, and yet—

Blood followed the entrance of the infant into the world, jerking Ashley’s attention back to the tasks at hand. Normal. Perhaps a little more than normal. Nothing to worry about—yet.

“Good work, Jane.”

The little girl’s first cries filled the room.

John pounded on the door. “Is it here? Hey, lady.”

Ashley wiped the baby as clean as she could without prepared water, and wrapped the baby in the towels, wishing they were warmer.

“Hey, what’s going on in there?” John shouted.

“Either get in here and help or be quiet,” Ashley called back.

She lifted the baby to its mother. “Take her while I cut the cord.”

And deal with the third stage of labor.

Most of Ashley’s patients welcomed this moment. The chance to hold their baby immediately was one reason why they chose a home birth. But Jane turned her face away and began to sob.

The infant wailed louder. The harder she cried, the harder Jane wept.

And John pounded on the door again. “What’s wrong?”

“Too much for me to list,” Ashley muttered. Aloud, she shouted, “Get in here.”

The door slammed back against the wall and John charged in. “What’s wrong? The baby sounds all right.”

“The baby is all right.” Holding the infant, slippery in birthing fluid and towels, in the crook of one arm, Ashley clamped then cut the umbilical cord. “But Jane isn’t.”

She was still bleeding. Some blood was normal. This much was not. Nor were the bruises on the girl’s thighs. They were old and fading stripes about the width of a man’s belt, with the occasional wide, round patch as though the buckle end had been applied.

Ashley glanced at John poised in the doorway with one foot out as though he intended to bolt again. His buckle was of normal size, an average-size rectangle.

More questions raged in Ashley’s head, but she still had work to do with the patient and the baby, half of them tasks the birthing assistant usually performed.

“Take her.” Ashley rose and laid the mewling infant in John’s huge hands. The baby’s mouth worked. John’s mouth worked.

A grim smile twisted Ashley’s lips. “Hang on tight. She needs her neck supported, and she may squirm a little.”

“I can’t hold a baby.”

“And I can’t attend to your—Jane and hold her.” Having no choice but to trust the man to keep the baby safe, Ashley grabbed a plastic pan from her supply cabinet and returned to her patient, to kneeling beside the girl—and the blood. “Jane, we have to get the placenta out. That means a little pushing this time.”

Jane turned her face toward the wall, eyes squeezed shut. Tear tracks ravaged her face, but no fresh moisture dripped from beneath her golden lashes.

“Jane,” Ashley spoke with all the authority six years of experience had given her, “pay attention to me. I need you to push. We need to get that placenta.”

Perhaps the bleeding would stop with that.

Jane didn’t move. Her belly contracted on its own, but too weakly. Ashley could administer a dose of Pitocin, but she dared not with the bleeding.

“Come on, sweetheart.” She stroked Jane’s belly, feeling the mass still inside. “Work with me or I’ll have to get you to a hospital.”

“No.” The breathless, husky whisper was the first word the girl had spoken.

Ashley startled, her hands kneading the girl’s abdomen a little too hard. Jane gasped, and the afterbirth expelled with far too much blood, too much for the pan. It splattered the plastic sheeting on the bed, the floor, Ashley’s pants.

“John?” As she packed gauze to stanch the blood, Ashley kept her tone calm, but loud enough to be heard over the baby’s apparently healthy lung exercises. “What kind of car do you have?”

“I gotta pickup, why?”

“Two seats or one?”

“Front only.” He stepped to the doorway. “What—” He broke off on a curse. “What’s wrong with her?”

“I don’t know. I have no medical history to do anything but guess right now. But I do know that we need help and fast. We can use my Tahoe. It’s faster than waiting for an ambulance.” She stood. “I’ll get my keys and call the hospital to be ready for us.”

She caught up the cordless phone and began to dial even as she charged through the kitchen and up the steps to her room and her purse.

She’d been holding the phone to her ear for a full thirty seconds before she realized it was dead.

It couldn’t be dead. She had taken it from its charging cradle. She slid to a halt outside her bedroom and stared at the receiver. Not the battery. The keypad glowed with life, but no dial tone sounded when she pushed the green On button.

Her skin prickled all over. Short hairs beneath her heavy braid stood on end. She willed them down. The couple and the birth were all wrong, but they had nothing to do with no dial tone. This was the country. Phone lines went dead. No problem. Her cell phone rested on the nightstand beside her car keys and wallet and another phone. She tested that one, too, conscious of wasting time. No dial tone.

She caught up cell, keys, and wallet and sped back to the door. “I’m going to go open my car.” She called out her intent as she took the steps down two at a time.

Silence greeted her. The baby had stopped crying.

Ashley slammed open the front door. “I’ll be back to help in a minute.”

Once outside where she could get a signal, she told her phone to call the hospital. By the time she reached her SUV, the phone was ringing. By the time she clicked the electronic locks on the doors, someone answered, “Memorial Hospital. Jenny speaking.”

“Ashley Tolliver.”

Jenny knew her, and Ashley let out a breath knowing an excellent nurse was on duty tonight.

“I’m bringing in a woman—”

The roar of an engine speeding up the drive drowned her voice from her own hearing. Headlights, high and too bright, cut an arc across the trees lining the drive and her Tahoe before heading straight for her.

She flung herself back against the house. The black hulk of a jacked-up truck barreled past her with a bare yard to spare and swept around the circular drive. Seconds before it reached the rear of the house, another smaller pickup blasted from near the tree line edging the backyard and shot down the drive. The black truck accelerated in pursuit. The vehicles accelerated on their way downhill, tires sending gravel spraying behind. Ashley flung up her arms to protect her face. Her phone sailed from her hand and landed in a rosemary bush.

The rumble of the trucks’ engines dwindled around a curve in the road. In the ensuing quiet, she caught a tinny voice calling, “Ashley, are you there?”

“Keep talking. I dropped my phone in the bushes.”

And her patient had just been abandoned.

What about the newborn she had so far rejected?

Ashley plucked her phone from the bush and raced toward the exam room. “Emergency delivery. Potential hemorrhage.” She reached the kitchen. “I know nothing about her. She—” She slid to a halt halfway across the kitchen.

A trail of blood led through the exam room to the open back door.

“Ashley, are you still there?” Jenny called through the phone. “Ashley?”

“I’m here.” Ashley could barely push the words out of her throat. “But I think—” She swallowed and tried again. “I think you’d better call the sheriff. My patient and her baby have disappeared.”

Available in print and E-Book from wherever you purchase books.

A Stranger’s Secret

A Stranger’s Secret
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Zondervan
ISBN-10: 0310333407
ISBN-13: 978-0310333401

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?

Endorsements

“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

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Cornwall, England
March 1813

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.

Available in print and E-Book from wherever you purchase books.

A Lady’s Honor

A Lady’s Honor
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Zondervan
Series: A Cliffs of Cornwall Novel
ISBN-10: 0-3203-3206-0
ISBN-13: 978-0-3103-3206-0

On the cliffs of 19th-century Cornwall, a spirited, impetuous young woman is torn between the honor of her family and the longing of her heart. England, 1811 A tarnished reputation. A distant home. A forced engagement to a dangerous man. When Elizabeth Trelawny flees London, she has more than one reason to run. And when her carriage, pursued by her would-be fiance, is caught in a storm, she quickly accepts the help of a dark stranger. Anything to get back to Cornwall. Rowan Curnow is not exactly a stranger. Not quite a gentleman either, class disparity once kept him from courting Elizabeth . . . even if it didn’t keep him from kissing her. The couple elude their pursuers and reach Bastian Point, Elizabeth’s future inheritance and the one place she calls home. But in the very act of spiriting her to safety, Rowan has jeopardized Elizabeth’s inheritance—if her Grandfather ever learns she spent the night, however innocently, in the company of a man. When smugglers unite the pair in a reckless, flirtatious alliance—an alliance that challenges the social norms that Elizabeth has been raised to revere and rattles Rowan’s fledgling faith in God—Elizabeth must choose between the obedience of a child and the desires of a woman: whether to cling to the safety of her family home or follow the man she loves.

Available at Christianbook.com, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Family Christian, Lifeway, Parable, Books-A-Million, Printsasia and your local bookstore.

Endorsements

“Beautiful 19th century Cornwall offers a contemplative setting for this dramatic romance that involves murder, suspense and a surprise villain.”–Romantic Times, 4 1/2 stars

“Eakes delivers beautifully written romantic suspense set in Cornwall during the Regency era.”–Publisher’s Weekly

Excerpt

Chapter 1
Cornwall, England
April ,1811

“Faster. Faster.” Elizabeth Trelawny leaned forward on the edge of the carriage seat as though the angle of her body could bring the impossible out of the coach and four—more speed. “This pace will never do.”

“It will g-get us all killed.” Her middle-aged companion, Miss Pross, stammered one more protest to the breakneck pace Elizabeth demanded of her coachman. “It’s d-dark out.”

Indeed it was—too dark. The three-quarter moon Elizabeth counted on to guide her escape floated somewhere above a layer of black cloud rolling in from the English Channel and threatening rain at any moment.

Rain would be her undoing, making narrow, winding roads too slick for speed.

“But the marquess is right behind us.” He had been since he caught up with them at an inn outside Plymouth. Only the freshness of Elizabeth’s horses and the fatigue of the marquess’s, coupled with her coachman’s quick thinking, had gotten them way ahead of Elizabeth’s would-be fiancé. With the size of Romsford’s entourage and the ability to send men across Cornwall on horseback or to sail along the coast in a fishing boat, Elizabeth’s slight advantage wouldn’t last for long.

“I must reach Bastion Point before he blocks our way in all directions.”

Bastion Point, perched on the cliffs along the north coast of Cornwall and still twenty miles away, had represented safety for Trelawnys for the past one hundred and fifty years. Elizabeth Trelawny was one more generation seeking shelter behind its gray stone walls.

“But this p-pace isn’t dece—ooph.”

Brakes squealed. The carriage slewed sideways and jarred to a halt.

“No.” Elizabeth shot up and rapped on the hatch. “Do not stop. Coachman—”

Shouts and the sound of galloping hooves surrounded the vehicle. A shot roared like thunder for the approaching storm. A man yelled. Another one laughed.

“Highwaymen,” Miss Pross cried.

“Romsford.” Elizabeth nearly sank to her knees. If only she knew something more than the liturgical recitations she performed with the congregation at St. George’s Hanover Square every Sunday morning.

“At least we’ve stopped.” Miss Pross sounded calm, her usual self-possessed person of governess turned companion. “You will see that the marquess will not harm you. His intentions are completely honorable.”

“Then why does he seem incapable of listening when I say no?” Elizabeth knocked on the hatch again. “Coachman, stop this nonsense and get moving.”

The hatch remained closed, the coachman silent, others unnaturally quiet, the hiss of their whispering voices not much louder than the sea a hundred yards away. Those murmurs rose and fell close to the carriage door, but not close enough for more than a word or two to penetrate the enameled panels as though the wind snatched a fragment of conversation here and there to throw it against the window.

“Boat.”

“Never do.”

“Circle around.”

Her heart beating hard enough to break through to her stomach, Elizabeth pressed her face to the glass. Despite her eyes adjusting to the darkness inside the carriage, she could see little beyond the window, as though a curtain had been drawn across the outside of the pane.

Yet the subdued argument continued, and this time she heard her name. Her name. No highwayman would have her Christian name.

She grasped the handle. “I’m going out there.”

“You cannot.” Miss Pross grasped Elizabeth’s shoulder. “They could be—”

The carriage door burst open. Strong hands grasped Elizabeth by the waist and swung her from the coach. A scream rose in her throat, but she choked it back. Souvenez qui vous etes, she recited the family motto in her head. Remember who you are.

Trelawnys didn’t scream; they fought.

She kicked the shin of the man who held her. Pain shot through her toes in their kid slippers. She sucked in her breath. The man merely laughed as he slung her over his shoulder and started carrying her away from her carriage.

Miss Pross was screaming as she scrambled out behind them. She carried no family motto demanding a certain type of behavior. “You let my lady go, you brute, you beast.” She ran after them, brandishing her umbrella.

The man ignored her and instead picked up his pace, striding forward as though Elizabeth weighed no more than her velvet cloak.

That same velvet cloak imprisoned her arms so she couldn’t beat on his back, twisted around her knees so she couldn’t jab him in the middle. Her hood tumbled over her face, smothering her and muffling the sobs pressing at her lips.

I’ll not cry. I’ll not cry. I. Will. Not—

Tears burned in her eyes. She struggled in the man’s hold, trying to loosen it.

He held on to her more tightly. “Stop it, Elys, you’re safe now.”

Elys?

She went limp over the man’s shoulder. Only four people in the world called her by her Cornish name. Grandpapa, Grandmama, Conan, her childhood friend, and—

“Drake?” Her soft exclamation of her brother’s name became lost in Miss Pross’s shout of protest.

“I’ll not go back to the carriage without my lady. You cannot make me.”

Apparently they could. A door slammed and the protests grew muffled. A whip cracked. With a crunch of wheels on roadbed and the flicker of swaying carriage lamps, the coach began to move.

The man holding Elizabeth, the brother she hadn’t seen in six years, set her atop a horse. “Grab the reins,” he commanded in an undertone, a gentle voice just above a murmur. “You can still ride astride?”

“Yes, of course, but where—”

“Later.” He released her.

As bidden, she caught up the reins with one hand, then tried to smooth her skirts over her legs as far as possible with the other. Darkness, if not the fabric of her narrow skirt, preserved her modesty. As though allowing anyone to see her stocking-clad ankles mattered when Drake had not failed her after all but come to her rescue in the spectacular way she expected of her daredevil elder brother.

She nearly laughed aloud.

“Let’s ride.” Drake rode up beside her on another horse. “I’ve got a lead rope. You just stay in the saddle. We’re going to go fast to beat this rain.”

He clicked his tongue at his mount, and both horses sprang into action, heading west toward the narrow track that led over the spine of Cornwall to Bastian Point. Elizabeth held on with hands and knees, bent low over the horse’s neck, her hair flying loose of the last of its pins. Behind them, the rumble of the carriage and other horses faded away to the east, back toward Falmouth. Romsford would catch up with Miss Pross, not Elizabeth.

As long as his men hadn’t managed to ride cross-country or take a boat and get ahead of her.

She was free, flying through the night toward Bastion Point, toward home at last.

Except they continued west instead of taking the road—such as it was—north. Elizabeth smelled the sea on the rising wind before she heard the crash of waves against the rocky shore to her left instead of the quiet of the moorland at night.

Nearly breathless, she tried to rein in. But Drake with the lead rope kept her mount going, galloping despite the darkness, despite the danger.

“Wait.” She shouted above hoofbeats and surf. “This is wrong.”

“No!” Drake’s shout sailed back to her on the wind. “This is best.”

He must know what he was doing. He knew Cornwall better than she, having never left it save for his illegal forays to France for silk and tea. He knew more than she of why she should not allow their parents to force her to marry the Marquess of Romsford. After all it was Drake who had written to warn her against the nobleman even before his lordship’s behavior made his repulsiveness quite, quite clear to her.

She shuddered, sick at the memory, and concentrated on maintaining her seat atop the galloping horse. She would be sore in the morning, but what matter as long as she suffered in her old room under her grandparents’ care?

Laughter bubbled to her lips again, worry fleeing on the Channel gales.

“Home. Home. Home,” she called out.

Lightning forked across the obsidian sky. Her mount shied, then skidded to a halt just as the sky opened with a torrent of rain.

“All right?” Drake dropped back beside her.

“Yes.” Her legs ached from the unfamiliar position of gripping the horse with her knees, but it had saved her from sliding to the ground.

Drake squeezed her arm. “Good girl. We’re almost there.”

“Almost where?”

He either did not hear or chose not to answer her. No matter. He’d suggested that he help her get home safely, escape the man their parents insisted she marry after her three—to her parents anyhow—unsuccessful seasons. They didn’t believe the rumors about the Marquess of Romsford. They saw his title and his ten thousand pounds of income a year income. Elizabeth saw the look in his one good eye when it fell upon her. A patch covered his other eye. A quantity of scent failed to cover up less pleasant odors on his person. His title and money didn’t stop him from attempting liberties no gentleman should take.

She would endure a hundred miles in the driving rain to get away from him.

She endured perhaps one, although it felt like a hundred with rain soaking through her cloak, sarcenet pelisse, and gown to pebble her skin with gooseflesh. She couldn’t feel her cold fingers inside her leather gloves. Presumably she still clutched the reins. She couldn’t tell until after Drake finally slowed them and led her mount into a cobbled yard, the horses’ shoes ringing on the stones. He dismounted to help her down.

“Let go.” He tugged the reins from her frozen hands. “We’ll be inside in a moment.”

“Inside w-what?”

She sounded like Miss Pross with her chattering teeth.

“The inn. Or what used to be an inn. No one comes here anymore except a few locals on Saturday nights. But there’s an old innkeeper here. He’ll give us shelter until the rain stops and we can take a boat around Land’s End to the Point.”

“A fire?”

Drake lifted her to the ground. “I expect so, but wait beneath the eaves until I am sure none of Romsford’s men have gotten ahead of us and sheltered here first.”

Elizabeth started forward toward the dark bulk of the inn that couldn’t boast more than a common room and one or two rooms to let for wayfarers not wanting to stay in Falmouth five miles behind. Perhaps a fisherman or two.

Above the roar of the rain and wind, the sea’s deep boom crashed against the rocky shore a hard stone’s throw away. The inn lay silent and dark. She hesitated beneath the eaves. They afforded little cover from wind and rain. Drake had said to wait there. But surely she would be all right to step over the threshold. If she was wrong and someone was inside, she could dash into the night again, hide . . . somewhere.

She groped for the dagger she kept in her pocket. Drake had given it to her when she left for London at fifteen. A lady couldn’t be too careful.

She lifted the handle and nudged open the door, then poised on the threshold. She’d never walked into an inn alone in her life. No matter that this one appeared deserted, a hollow blackness reeking of spilled ale and vinegar. Twenty-one years of training told her entering a common room on her own just would not do. Yet her hands, toes, lips, and chin had gone numb. She smelled no smoke to suggest the innkeeper was present and had built a fire. But at the same time, a roof, walls, and air warmer than what blew off the sea beckoned. And Drake would join her in a moment.

In a flash of lightning through a window, she caught a glimpse of tables and chairs, black humps rising from the dark chasm of the floor. Nothing moved save for a piece of paper skittering off one of those tables and into a distant corner. Beyond the deserted chamber, most likely where the kitchen lay, a streak of light shone from beneath a door.

Fire. Hot water. A cup of tea.

Elizabeth started forward, her kid slippers a mere whisper on the dusty floorboards, her sodden skirt clinging to her legs. And then she stopped. She must appear disreputable, worse than something the cat would think to drag in, with her hair tumbling down her back as though she’d been swimming in the sea, and her clothes clinging to her in a most unsuitable fashion. Even if one or more of Romsford’s men hadn’t managed to get ahead of her and seek her in the first shelter the bleak coast offered . . .

She finger combed her hair away from her face and twisted it into a knot at the base of her neck, where her hood held it in place. She could do nothing about her sodden clothing.

Whether the enemy or an innkeeper, his wife, or his maiden aunt sat behind the door with the promising light, she couldn’t walk in there alone. The mahogany color of her hair and ice-blue eyes would give her away as a Trelawny. By morning her reputation would be in tatters. She must, at the least, be accompanied by her brother. Drake’s behavior wasn’t always the most respectable, but he was beloved in the county. If he told the innkeeper to remain silent about her presence, then the innkeeper would remain silent about her presence.

Romsford’s men wouldn’t remain silent if it would serve their master’s purpose. The marquess was determined enough to wed the last female in London whose parents were desperate enough to be rid of their obstinate and unpopular daughter to accept his offer. Especially after that unfashionable daughter had been caught kissing a dance partner in one of the ballroom bowers. A stupid, schoolgirl stunt to play, but she had been so weary of society—and hoping to be returned to Cornwall once and for all—that a stupid action seemed the right course to take.

She’d been hoisted in her own petard, giving her parents reason to marry her off as soon as possible.

Of late, she’d made too many mistakes. She didn’t need to risk making one more.

She remained where she was in the middle of the floor, motionless, listening. The wind was shifting, carrying the spring storm west to the Atlantic. Waves still slammed against the shore. Storm and surf blotted out all other sounds from outside or in, and Drake reappeared beside her with no more warning than the absence of cold air from the still-open door as it clicked shut.

“You should have waited outside as I told you to.” Though he spoke in the undertone that suggested he didn’t want anyone to hear him more than a yard or two away, an edge of anger tinged his voice. “This innkeeper has always been a friend to . . . a Trelawny, but one never knows when someone with the marquess’s rank comes along.”

“I know. I was thinking Romsford or his men could have come by sea and gotten ahead of me.” She held out her hand, still shaking from the cold and perhaps more, needing reassurance. “He couldn’t have, could he?”

“I’d like to say no.” He took her hand and tucked it into the crook of his elbow. “I haven’t seen any sign of another boat or horses present, but we’ll proceed with caution. Shall we?” He led the way across the common room, his booted feet making less sound than her slippers and dragging gown.

At the inner door, he released her and raised his hand to his neck. When he brought his fingers in front of him again, light flashed off the blade of a knife.

Elizabeth raised her own knife and stepped back.

“One can’t be too careful.” His teeth flashed in the faint light, and then he lifted the door latch with his free hand.

Light flared from a single candle guttering on a deal table in the center of the kitchen. Cold air swirling around them suggested an open door beyond the stacks of barrels lining the walls and forming a divider against one end of the room. Despite the candle, the room appeared deserted.

“Where’s the innkeeper?” Elizabeth asked.

“I don’t know. I thought he would be in here by a fire.” He glided away from her, moving through the shadows cast by the flickering tallow dip on the table. “I’ll secure this back door and then build a fire.”

Teeth clenched against their chattering, Elizabeth huddled by the door to the common room, her dagger drawn, her gaze fixed on her brother.

He prowled around the periphery of the room, looking behind the stores too plentiful for an inn with little business, a clear sign of a man in league with smugglers. He moved with grace and stealth for such a big man. And a man he was now, not the youth of nineteen she’d left in Cornwall. He’d grown brawnier, seemed a bit taller. And he apparently cared little for the fashion of shorter hair; his own fell in loose waves around his ears and collar. Such pretty dark hair for a man to possess.

Too pretty. Too dark.

He glided out of the shadows behind a stack of barrels. The candlelight fell full on his face for the first time, and Elizabeth pressed a hand to her lips to stifle a scream, her heart battering against her ribs like the sea beating at the rocky shore outside. She managed to choke out, “You’re not my brother.”

Available at Christianbook.com, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Family Christian, Lifeway, Parable, Books-A-Million, Printsasia and your local bookstore.

Sincerely Yours

Sincerely Yours
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Revell
Novella: “Moonlight Promise”
ISBN-10: 0-8007-2204-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-8007-2294-3

Four unexpected letters. Four intrepid women. Four lives changed forever.

Spanning a century and a continent, these romantic novellas will lead you on a journey through the landscape of love. Four young women find their lives altered after each receives a letter that sets her on a new path. From a Hudson River steamboat to a lush drawing room, from a carousel carver’s workshop to a remote hospital, you’ll be swept into the lives of women who are making their way in the world and finding love where they least expect it.

Moonlight Promise by Laurie Alice Eakes

Camilla Renfrew is a highborn English lady fleeing false accusations when she runs smack into love on a steamboat bound for the new Erie Canal. But can this unexpected attraction survive the treacherous journey?

Available at Christianbook.com, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Family Christian, Lifeway, Parable, Books-A-Million, Printsasia and your local bookstore.

Excerpt

From Chapter One of “A Moonlight Promise”

New York City
October 24, 1825

“Wait. Wait.” Camilla Renfrew raced down Barclay Street, waving her umbrella at the lone figure at the dockside of the last steamboat moored along that section of the East River. “Please, do not leave.”

The man who had been pointed out to her as Captain Nathaniel Black glanced toward her and said something inaudible above the chugging of the boat’s engine, the patter of the rain against Camilla’s umbrella, and the clatter of her hard, leather soles on the wooden planks of the wharf. She did not need to hear what he said. His turned back and feet heading up the gangway, his dark hair lifting like mourning kerchiefs waving farewell in the icy wind blowing off the Atlantic, spoke a trumpet blast of a message—he would not wait for her. Emphasizing his rejection, a bell clanged from the upper deck.

Camilla kept running toward the solitary boat and broad, indifferent back. “Oh, no, please, just another moment.” Heedlessly sacrificing her last bonnet to the rain, she collapsed her umbrella and tucked it under her arm so she could gather up her skirt with one hand and run unimpeded by layers of fabric.

She hit the edge of the dock just as the gangway began to rise.

A bell clanged, and the paddle wheel began a languid shug, shug, shug.

She glanced at the growing gap between wharf and gangway, took a deep breath, and leaped onto the latter.

The gangway rocked beneath her, swaying like a tree branch in a gale. Men shouted. Two left the tarpaulin they were tying over some barrels and surged toward her. Captain Black motioned them back with a gesture so forceful he may as well have shoved them, and charged toward Camilla. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Coming . . . aboard.” Running, sliding, gasping for breath, she closed the distance between herself and the captain.

The boat heeled beneath the onslaught of an incoming wave, and Camilla landed on the planks at his feet. She gripped his arm. Beneath her gloved fingers, his arm stiffened to something akin to an iron railing.

She glanced up at its owner and could not move. Eyes the pale green of spring grass back home in Gloucestershire pierced into hers like ivory knitting needles. For all their sharpness, those were young eyes. He could not be more than two or three years beyond her own twenty-five.

“What,” he asked in a frosty tone, “possessed you to do something so dangerous? If you’d fallen into the river, the current would have pushed you right into the wheel.”

Camilla gulped. Her stomach churned like the paddle wheel towering at the stern of the boat. Even in the gloom of the rain-soaked afternoon, the blades flashed in lethal grace. If she had gotten caught, those paddles would have pounded her like a piece of hide in the hands of a tanner.

She clutched Black’s arm more tightly, though her fingers slipped on his wet leather coat, and swallowed three times before she managed to speak. “I insist.”

In response, Black extricated his arm from her grasping fingers and stepped away from her. His face turned stony, emphasizing every chiseled angle. “I can’t help you.”

Behind him, the now mostly idle crew watched with expressions varying from dismay to amusement.

Their curiosity lent Camilla some courage to press her suit. “But you must help me.” She firmed her chin to keep it from quivering, and her voice emerged so sharply she feared she sounded shrewish. “All the other boats have left, and I must reach Albany before October twenty-sixth.”

“You’re not the only one.” He turned half away. “This is not a passenger boat. There’ll be more of those tomorrow.”

“But I cannot—”

She could not stay in the city another night. She could not tell him that, however. Of everything else she had lost over the past six months, no one could remove her pride.

She hefted her reticule. The beaded and embroidered velvet bag hung limp with its sad compliment of some English and American pennies and a five-dollar gold piece she doubted would last her another day in the city.

Her chin quivered despite her efforts. “Please.”

“As soon as we can get turned back, I’ll put you ashore again.” He walked away from her, past a black tower belching smoke and radiating blessed heat, and up a stairway.

Camilla followed. “You do not understand, sir. It is vital I reach Albany immediately.”

He paused at the top of the steps. “And it is vital I’m not delayed any longer.”

A Reluctant Courtship

A Reluctant Courtship
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Revell
Series: Daughters of Bainbridge Book # 3
ISBN-10: 0800734688
ISBN-13: 9780800734688
E-Book ISBN: 9781441243089

A woman without a prospect. A man without a homeland. Can love give them a future?

Honore Bainbridge has been courted by two men, one of whom turned out to be a traitor, the other a murderer. Banished to her family’s country estate, where she will hopefully stay out of trouble, she finally meets the man she is sure is exactly right for her: Lord Ashmoor. Tall, dark, and handsome—what more could a girl ask for?

But he too is under suspicion because of his American upbringing and accusations that he has helped French and American prisoners escape from Dartmoor Prison. If he’s to keep out of a British prison himself and secure his place in British society, Lord Ashmoor needs a wife beyond reproach—something the vexingly beautiful Honore certainly is not. Yet he may be honor-bound to court her because of a promise made in haste.

For the sake of her heart, Honore determines to prove Ashmoor’s innocence—even if doing so risks her own life.

Available at Christianbook.com, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Family Christian, Lifeway, Parable, Books-A-Million, Printsasia and your local bookstore.

Read the first two books in the Daughters of Bainbridge Series:

A Necessary Deception
A Flight of Fancy

Endorsements

“Eakes seamlessly blends romance and intrigue, faith and history.” — Booklist

“Eakes will leave readers breathless.” — Louise M. Gouge, award-winning author of At the Captain’s Command

Excerpt

September 1813

Miss Honore Bainbridge was about to fall off a cliff. One minute she stood examining a fissure in the stratified rock, and the next, the crack turned into a gaping hole, ready, able, and apparently eager to swallow her whole. Her feet plunged off solid ground. Her pinwheeling arms grasped a spindly shrub struggling for life above the sea, and she clung to it with about as much hope of survival as the infant bush.

She did not scream. She had opened her mouth to do so, but her middle slammed into the rock, driving the breath from her lungs in an ignominious squeak.

And there she dangled with her arms around a sapling, her feet swinging two hundred feet over the sea, and a hawk circling above as though trying to decide if her feathered hat was some kind of new small bird.

“I am not your dinner,” she gasped out to the hawk.

More like supper for several schools of fish.

At least Papa would never know that his youngest daughter had culminated her disastrous penchant for falling in love unwisely by falling off a cliff.

“I suppose this is one catastrophe you can’t get me out of, Lord?” Through gasps for air from her constricted lungs, she managed the kind of cynical prayer that had become her usual way of communicating with God of late. “I suppose you can, but it looks like—”

The shrub began to loosen from its precarious hold on the thin soil.

This time Honore screamed.

“Hold on.” A male voice sped past Honore’s ears.

She gritted her teeth. “I am . . . holding.”

A pity the bush to which she clung was not. Half its roots, connected to the earth shallowly at best, now waved in the constant wind from the sea.

Like someone saying goodbye.

Honore kicked her legs, seeking the side of the cliff, seeking a toehold. No good. Empty space met her flailing limbs. A jagged edge of broken limestone scraped along her side. Inch by inch, her torso slid toward the abyss into water foaming and roaring over a tumble of serrated rock.

“If you get. . . me out of this . .. Lord . . .” No, she was not supposed to bargain with God. She made herself stop staring at the tearing bush between her hands and gazed into a sky made of the kind of clear blue that her beaux had described as dull compared to her eyes. “Please, God?”

The shrub tore a little further. Only Honore’s arms and hands clung to the earth. Only two thready roots still clung to the thin soil.

So, apparently God did not please.

She doubted she could even make the heroine of her novel in progress endure such an incident.

Honore closed her eyes. “Will I see you in heaven, Papa?”

He would not wish to see her if she died without doing something of which he could be proud.

Hands like iron bands grasped her wrists. “I’ve got you,” an unfamiliar voice with a peculiar accent pronounced.

Honore’s eyes popped open, closed, opened even wider the second time. She was not hallucinating. A being was indeed crouched in front of her and gripping her wrists.

“Angel,” she murmured.

If angels possessed medium-dark hair and eyes, and skin too bronzed to belong to a gentleman. Perhaps angels were not gentlemen.

A giggle bubbled into Honore’s throat. She swallowed it down so as not to sound mad—laughing while she dangled off a crumbling cliff.

“No, ma’am, I’m not an angel,” the stranger said. “I’m just a flesh-and-blood man who heard you scream. Now, if you’ll—”

The cliff trembled. The rough-edged rock digging into Honore’s collarbone broke away. She wanted to scream, but tin- tasting lint seemed to have replaced the moisture in her mouth, keeping her silent.

The man flattened himself along the ground. “Let go of the bush and grip my wrists.” His voice was deep, slow, even. “I’m less likely to lose my grip that way.”

“I ca-cannot.”

“And I can’t let you go, so we’ll both go tumbling into the sea.”

She could not be responsible for another death. Nor could she get her hands to loosen their grip on the shrub.

The man’s hold tightened on her wrists. “So one of the Bainbridge daughters is a coward.”

“Yes, me. I.” Another chunk of limestone broke away, slamming her diaphragm against the striated wall of rock. “Ooph!”

The man laughed. The gall of him.

She could not let him get away with laughing at her, this—this peasant. She would show him.

She kicked her legs as though the air was water and the motion would propel her forward. The motion set the cliff face trembling.

“Don’t move.” He yanked her hands apart, tearing her gloved fingers from their tenuous clutch on the sapling. “Now hold on to me.”

“I do not think—”

He narrowed his eyes and flashes of gold speared into hers. “I would rather live another thirty years or more. If you wouldn’t, tell me so I can let go and save my own neck.”

“Why, you heartless, unfeeling—”

A slab of cliff large enough to form a table for King Arthur and his knights broke off not a foot away. Chalky dust misted the air. Honore cried out and lunged for her rescuer. Her fingers scrabbled at his shirtsleeves, tore through fabric, held.

Muttering something unintelligible above the thunder of falling rock and crashing waves, he started to rise. His body reared up from the ground. Honore slid over the edge of the cliff. What was left of her pelisse tore down the front. Muscles bulged against the sleeves of the man’s shirt. Her muscles strained, ached, surely were tearing away from her bones. Hiccuping sobs shredded her throat. Her fingertips shredded his shirtsleeves. The wristbands ripped away and she lost her hold.

But he gave a mighty heave. She slammed onto the ground. Air whooshed from her lungs.

And the earth tilted beneath her.

“Move!” He surged to his feet, dragging her up after him. He sprinted inland. Honore followed, limping, skipping, hhopping to keep up with him. Beneath them, the cliff side shivered like a giant with the ague. Behind them, veined stone tore free and boomed into the sea. Ahead of them, a low stone wall that had graced the Devonshire coastline for centuries promised stability and safety.

Honore collapsed upon it and doubled over, gasping for breath. Her hat had vanished. One shoe likely provided a home for the fish, and even a rag picker would reject her gloves and stockings as too damaged, not to mention her skirt, pelisse, and petticoat sliced to muslin ribbons.

“You’ll be wanting this.” Soft wool settled around her shoulders.

She glanced up at him through a spill of hair freed of its pins, took in his torn shirt, and shook her head. “You look as though you need it more than I do.” She curled her fingers around the coat’s collar, intending to hand it back to him.

He stayed her fingers against the fabric. “No, Miss Bainbridge, you keep it. You, er . . .” He looked away, his ears turning a fiery shade of red beneath shining waves of auburn hair.

“But you have done enough, and—” Honore glanced down at her ruined garments and gulped.

No wonder he had given her his coat. No wonder his ears looked about to catch fire. Only her lace fichu, snagged and frayed but still in place, lay between her stays and the view of the world.

She grabbed the lapels of the coat and wrapped it across her chest. Her own ears, along with her cheeks, throat, and everything below her fichu, burned. “Th-thank you.” She kept her head bowed. “Thank you for everything. If I can repay you in any way, just give me the word.”

From the quality of his coat, his shirt—even if it was in tatters—and his buckskin breeches and Hessian boots, he did not look in need of money. But he did not talk like a gentleman. His voice was pleasant, kind of smooth and rich like Devonshire cream. Yet he sounded like no Englishman she had ever heard, so he was likely not a gentleman. Perhaps a merchant from the provinces or one of the Channel Islands.

“I am a Bainbridge.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know.”

“Of course you do.” She twisted one of the brass buttons on his coat between her thumb and forefinger. “Then you know I have considerable influence in the county.”

And money at her disposal, since she had been left in charge of the estate by default.

He coughed. “Thank you. I don’t need any thanks or favors. I didn’t do anything any man wouldn’t have done had he been near enough to help.”

And strong enough to lift her.

“I-I think you were an answer to prayer,” she admitted.

The first one of those since Papa had died during a debate with his friends over the war with the Yankees, leaving them all shocked and devastated a month after her sister Cassandra’s wedding.

Cassandra’s elopement, the minx.

The stranger laughed. “I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of being an answer to prayer before.” He still did not look at Honore. “Except maybe your father, God rest his soul.”

“You knew Papa?” Honore sprang to her feet, forgetting her missing shoe. The sole of her foot landed on a sharp stone and she squeaked.

He glanced at her then. “What’s—ah, a shoe is a casualty of the rock fall.”

“Yes, and I liked the pair. They fit so well and exactly matcghed this gown.” Honore stared at her ragged skirt and started to laugh. Mirth bubbled up inside her chest and burst out like sea foam in a high wind, flying about without purpose or control. She tried to stop, but her chest continued to heave until tears trickled down her cheeks and the giggles metamorphosed into sobs. Covering her face with her hands, she sobbed like a babe missing its mama, deep, rasping hiccups clawing at her chest and lungs.

“There now.” The man cleared his throat, and several sheep baaed in the field beyond the wall.

Honore shook her head, tried to breathe slowly to stop the weeping, and only cried harder.

“Miss Bainbridge, you’re really all right, you know.” His big, strong hand touched her shoulder.

Honore sobbed harder, eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to stop the flow of tears, hands fisted around the ends of the too- long coat sleeves.

The coat’s owner patted her shoulder. “Hush, please. Miss Bainbridge, you’re all right now. No need to cry.”

“IT-I know.” Honore hiccuped the words and sniffled. “I ca-cannot. . . s-stop.”

“Hmm. Well then. Um, there’s a handkerchief in the pocket of that coat.”

She fumbled through every pocket without finding anything more than the crackle of paper folded into an inside pocket. Her face grew wetter. What was left of her fichu grew wet. Finally, she drew the lapels of the man’s coat up to her face and sobbed into the soft wool smelling of sunshine and bracken and coffee, familiar, comforting aromas that reminded her of home as it had been only two years ago, before she insisted on a London Season and made amok of her debut into Society, before Papa died.

“I want my papa,” she wailed into the stranger’s coat. “Nothing bad happened to me when he was alive.”

“Nothing bad happened to you today.” The stranger smoothed a strand of her hair away from her cheek. “Not in the end. You’re safe now.”

“Without Papa, I will never be safe.”

“That’s rather illogical.” He moved a step away from her. “You scarcely ever saw him.”

“I know. I know.” Honore nodded too many times. “But nothing bad happened to me when he was alive.”

“Ha! That’s not what I’ve heard.”

Her gasp of indignation interrupted her next sob, and she jerked her head up to glare at him. “What have you heard?”

“A great deal.” He pressed a cambric handkerchief into her hand with a muttered, “Apologies. This was in my breeches pocket.”

“Indeed.” Her face hot from crying, from him mentioning his unmentionables to her, and, most of all, from his knowledge of something unsavory about her, Honore snatched the handkerchief from him and dashed it across her eyes and cheeks. Hiccuping sobs still disrupted her breathing, and she dared not speak.

“Good girl.” The stranger smiled at her. “His lordship would be ashamed of such a display from one of his daughters, wouldn’t he?”

Most definitely. But then, Papa had been ashamed of most everything she had done those last months before he died.

With one last heaving sob, her breathing returned to normal. She wiped her eyes a final time and shoved the handkerchief into the pocket of the man’s coat. “I wish those sheep were horses so I could ride home.”

And get away from this bold, kind, and rather rude stranger.

“Unfortunately, they are just sheep.” The man’s tone was abrupt. “I’ll have to carry you.”

“Sir, you cannot.” She stared up at him, her eyes wide.

He met her gaze full on, and for the first time, his eyes’ true color reached her brain. Colors was more accurate—brown and gold and green swirled together like paint on her sister Lydia’s pallet. The longer he looked at Honore, the more the gold stood out like sunshine breaking through a cloud bank.

She swallowed against that lint dryness in her mouth.

He swallowed too and grinned. “I can carry you. You can’t weigh more than a calf.”

“A calf?” Honore narrowed her eyes. “You just compared me to a cow.”

“A young one, small as you are.”

The corners of her mouth tightened. “I will manage to walk, thank you.”

“You’ll cut your foot to ribbons.” And without a by-your- leave, he scooped her into his arms and started along the wall toward Bainbridge Hall.

“Put me down,” Honore commanded.

Lord, please do not let anyone see me.

With her gown in tatters, her person swathed in the coat of a man whose shirt also hung in little more than ribbons, she would be ruined if someone caught sight of them and drew terrible conclusions, as people were wont to do about her of late. Ruined worse than her two disastrous courtships the previous year had left her. At least those men were gentlemen. Villainous, but gentlemen. This man was—

“I don’t even know who you are,” she blurted out.

“I beg your pardon.” He stopped and set her on her feet with the gentleness a body showed a Sevres vase, then he granted her a somewhat stiff but proper bow. “Allow me to present myself, since no one else is here to do the honors. I am the sixth earl of Ashmoor.”

“You—you are Lord Ashmoor?” The ground beneath her feet took on the consistency of the quaking edge of the cliff. She swayed. She pressed her fingers to her lips to cover her gaping mouth. She could not call a peer of the realm a liar. Then again, if he was a liar, he was not a peer of the realm.

“Speechless, Miss Bainbridge?” Gold sparkled in his multicolored eyes. He crossed his arms over his chest and propped one foot on the low stone wall. “Let me see if I can help. Local gossip says I’m too ashamed of my father’s past to show my face in Devonshire, so I’m hiding out on one of the lesser estates. Or maybe you heard that I was locked up in Newgate or Dartmoor or a hulk in the More the instant I set foot on these hallowed shores. Is one of those stories close to the gossip you’ve heard about why the new owner of the title hasn’t yet shown his face in Devonshire?”

His wool coat grew too warm for the crisp autumn day. The heat spread all the way to her hairline, and she turned her face into the wind blowing straight from the Bristol Channel. “I, um, yes, I’ve heard all of that.”

“And it’s all true.” He let out a humorless laugh. “Don’t look so shocked. I arrived from New York after the war started and was immediately suspect.”

Honore jumped. “You are an American?”

“That, my dear, is debatable now, since I wasn’t born in the United States or England and have been invested with the title, thanks to your father.”

“Papa?” Honore stared at him. “Papa helped you accede to the title?”

“Our fathers were friends long ago. so I appealed to Lord Bainbridge when I found myself taken up for a spy the instant I arrived here.”

“And your jailers listened to you?” Honore barely suppressed a skeptical snort. “You expect me to believe they contacted a peer of the realm for a foreigner?”

He shrugged. “I was carrying a letter with a royal seal. I expect the local magistrate didn’t want to risk being wrong about my claim of who I was—er, who I am.”

“And just like that my father got you freed and accepted by the Royal College of Arms?”

If she were not missing a shoe, she would have set off across the field for home at a trot. She had spent quite enough time alone with this odd stranger with his claim of a connection to her father. More like a claim to a physician at Bedlam.

“If three months is ‘just like that,'” he responded to her with the ease of the self-assured—or someone so insane he thought he spoke the truth—”then yes, he helped me ‘just like that.'”

Honore gazed at him through narrowed eyes. “When?”

“A year ago.”

“Aha!” She backed away a step, prepared to climb over the low wall around the pasture, one shoe or not. “Papa was not in London or Devonshire a year ago.”

“He was until the end of September and again from the end of November until his passing.” He held his hand out to her without touching her. “I was with him that night, you know.”

“You were?” Honore halted her retreat. “You knew him that well?”

“By then, yes. Well enough to attend a private meeting in Cavendish Square regarding a marriage settlement.”

“A marriage settlement?” A distant bell of memory rang in Honore’s head, and she started to feel queasy. “You wanted my father to find you a wife?”

“It was his idea.” He set his foot on the ground and straightened to more than a head taller than she stood. “He considered the earl of Ashmoor a suitable match for his youngest daughter.”