True as Fate
Laurie Alice Eakes
Publisher: Waterfall Press
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?
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Wednesday, 25 October 1815
“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 . . .”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.