Trusting Miss Trentham

A Novel

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Faerie godmothers do not exist…

 

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Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.

Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing—to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret—including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

Reviews

“[An] amazing book which I read in one sitting. I love, love, love this book and the Baleful Godmother series, which I’m delighted to give my highest recommendation.”
~ Roses R Blue

“This book gripped me from the start. It was beautifully written. Very much a page turner.”
~ Gwen @ NetGalley

“Icarus Reid is all the tormented hero that one could want.”
Heather @ NetGalley

“Another very strong entry in this entertaining and unusual series, and while it can be read as a standalone, I’d recommend starting at the beginning – simply because the earlier books are too good to miss.”
~Caz @ All About Romance

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

October 31st, 1808
London

MISS LETITIA TRENTHAM, England’s wealthiest unmarried heiress, received her eighteenth proposal of the year at the Hammonds’ ball. The Little Season was drawing to its close and the company was thin, but more than a hundred people crowded the ballroom. Four of them were currently angling after her fortune.

When Laurence Darlington suggested that they sit out their next dance, Letty experienced a sinking feeling. When Darlington suggested that they repair to the conservatory, the sinking feeling became stronger. The conservatory adjoined the ballroom—was in fact in full view of the ballroom, had a table of refreshments and an attendant footman, and could hardly be called secluded—but it was secluded enough for a proposal.

Experience had taught Letty that it was better to get proposals over with as swiftly as possible, so she let Darlington lead her down the short flight of marble stairs.

The musicians struck the first notes of a contredanse. “Champagne?” offered the footman.

Yes, a big glass, Letty thought. “No, thank you.”

Laurence Darlington led her to the farthest end of the conservatory, where there was a stiff array of ferns and a row of gilded chairs precisely aligned. Only a glimpse of the ballroom could be seen. Music floated down the steps. The smell of the ball—sweet perfumes, spicy pomades, and pungent sweat—smothered any scent of greenery.

Letty sat and smoothed the sea-green silk of her ball gown over her knees and braced herself for what was to come. For the past two weeks, Laurence Darlington had been doing a good impression of a man falling in love. It was one of the better impressions she’d seen this year, although not as good as Sir Charles Stanton’s. That had been masterful.

Laurence Darlington sat alongside her and gazed ardently into her eyes. A very handsome man, Darlington. The most handsome of this year’s crop of fortune hunters. And up to his ears in debt.

“Miss Trentham,” Darlington said, emotion throbbing in his voice. “What I am about to say can surely come as no surprise to you.”

No. No surprise.

Letty heard the proposal with weary resignation. It was a pretty speech. Darlington wasn’t fool enough to call her beautiful; instead, he praised her character and her intelligence. Even so, his words resonated with falsehood. When he finished, he said passionately, “There is no one I would rather marry. No one! You are everything I could ever wish for in a wife.” The first half of that statement rang with a clear, bell-like tone. It was actually the truth. The second half gave a discordant clang in Letty’s ears.

“I lay my heart at your feet.”

Darlington was a good actor. He did almost look like a man who’d laid his heart at his lover’s feet. His handsome face bore an expression of hopeful longing and his eyes burned with passion.

Passion for my fortune.

“You love me, Mr. Darlington?”

“Yes,” Darlington said fervently.

“And my fortune . . . ?”

“Means nothing to me!”

Darlington’s delivery was perfect—the earnest expression, the vehement tone. Letty might have believed him, if not for the dissonant clang in her ears, like a cracked church bell being struck. She took a moment to be thankful that she had a Faerie godmother, that she’d been given a wish on her twenty-first birthday and that she’d wished as she had, that she could hear Darlington’s lies.

“Tell me, Mr. Darlington, if we married, would you be faithful?”

Darlington blinked. He hadn’t expected that question. None of her suitors ever did. But she always asked it. “Of course!”

Clang.

Letty nodded, as if she believed him. She looked down at her hands and smoothed a wrinkle in one of her gloves. “Is it true that you’re a gambler, Mr. Darlington?”

Darlington appeared not to have expected this question either. There was a short pause, and then he said lightly, “I roll the dice occasionally.”

Letty glanced at him. More than occasionally, and more than just dice. Cards. Horses. Dogfights. Cockfights. Prizefights. Anything and everything, if what she’d heard was correct.

“And is it true that you’re almost bankrupt?”

It was a shockingly rude question to ask, one she wouldn’t have asked in her first season, or even her third, but years of fortune hunters had taught her that bluntness was best.

Darlington stiffened. The mask of passionate lover slipped slightly. His smile was fixed, almost a grimace.

They stared at each other for a long moment, while the strains of the contredanse drifted down from the ballroom, and then Darlington relaxed and laughed. “My dear Miss Trentham, I can assure you that―”

“I sympathize with your financial troubles, Mr. Darlington,” Letty said brusquely. “But I will not marry you.”

Darlington lost his smile. He closed his mouth. The glitter in his eyes wasn’t passion. Color rose in his cheeks. Not embarrassment, but anger.

His jaw tightened. He stood stiffly and turned from her without speaking, strode across the marble floor, climbed the shallow steps to the ballroom.

Letty watched him disappear among the dancers. Fury surged through her, fierce and bitter. How dare he? How dare any man pretend a love he didn’t feel and vow a fidelity he had no intention of keeping?

On the heels of fury was an urge to cry. Tears stung her eyes. Letty blinked them back. She would not cry over a man like Laurence Darlington. She wouldn’t cry over any false suitor—a promise she’d made to herself in her first season.

But that promise was becoming harder to keep. The proposals had always hurt, but this year they hurt more than ever. This year, each proposal made her feel older and plainer and lonelier. Lonelier than she’d ever felt in her life. A hopeless, aching loneliness. And while part of that loneliness was because her cousin Julia had died last year, an equal part of it was because she was twenty-seven and still unmarried. Will no one ever love me for myself?

After all these years on the Marriage Mart and nearly two hundred proposals, it seemed unlikely.

I wish I wasn’t an heiress. For a brief moment, Letty indulged in a dream of going somewhere far, far away where no one knew who she was, and winning true love, like a princess dressed as a pauper in a Faerie tale.

She snorted under her breath. Princesses in Faerie tales were always beautiful, and she was most definitely not beautiful.

Perhaps that’s what I should have wished for on my twenty-first birthday: Beauty, not hearing lies. But then she would have been a beautiful heiress, besieged by suitors and unable to hear their falsehoods—and that road must surely have led to misery.

“Miss Trentham?”

Letty glanced up. A man stood before her. He was tall, taller than Darlington, and broad in the shoulder. He was dressed for dancing in a tailcoat and knee breeches and silk stockings, but despite those clothes he looked as if he had no place at the Hammonds’ ball. No languid tulip of the ton, this man. He was whipcord lean, his skin tanned brown, his expression unsmiling. He looked almost dangerous.

Letty felt a slight flare of nervousness. She looked for the footman. Yes, he still manned the refreshment table.

“Miss Trentham?” the man asked again. The tan gave a misleading impression of health. He wasn’t just lean, he was gaunt. His tailcoat, for all its fine cut, hung on his frame.

A soldier back from India, invalided out? His dark brown hair was clipped short and his bearing was military.

“Yes.”

“My name is Reid. I wondered if I might have a few words with you?” She saw exhaustion on his face, and tension.

Letty hesitated, wishing for the nominal chaperonage of Mrs. Sitwell, currently ensconced in the card room. Get this over with, whatever it is. “I’m engaged for the next dance, but until then you may certainly speak, Mr. Reid.”

“Thank you.” He gave a curt nod.

Letty folded her hands in her lap and gazed up at him, trying to look politely expectant, not nervous.

Mr. Reid gave her a long, frowning stare and then said abruptly, “You have a reputation for being able to distinguish truth from lies.”

Letty tried not to stiffen. “Some people believe I can.” She said it with a smile of amusement, as if she thought it a joke.

Mr. Reid didn’t return the smile. “Can you?”

It wasn’t the first time Letty had been asked this question. She’d learned to turn it aside with a jest, with a lie. But something about Mr. Reid made that impossible. His eyes were intent on her face. They were an extremely pale shade of gray, almost silver. She had an odd sense that his gaze was razor-sharp, penetrating skin and bone. Her awareness of him became even stronger—his tension, his exhaustion. There is something very wrong with this man.

“Sometimes,” Letty said, and heard a clang in her ears at the lie. “Sit down, Mr. Reid. Tell me what it is you wish to know the truth of.”

Reid hesitated, and then pulled one of the gilded chairs out of line and sat at an angle to her. He moved like a soldier—precise, controlled movements with no graceful flourishes.

Once seated, he was silent for several seconds, then spoke tersely: “There are two men here in London—I served with them in Portugal—one of them passed information to the French.”

Letty blinked, hearing the truth in his words.

“I’ve spoken with them, and they both say they didn’t, but someone did, and they were the only ones who knew other than the general and myself. The general didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone. One of these two men lied, and I can’t tell which one. Would you be able to?”

Letty released her breath slowly and sat back in her chair. “Perhaps.” Clang. “If one of these men is a traitor, what will you do?”

“I don’t know.”

Clang.

“That, Mr. Reid, is a lie.”

Hope flared in his silver eyes, flared on his gaunt face. He leaned forward. “You can tell.”

“What will you do to him?” Letty repeated.

“Probably kill him.” This time, Reid spoke the truth.

Tiny hairs pricked up on the back of Letty’s neck. She glanced at the footman, stationed at the refreshment table, and back at Reid. Common sense urged her to push to her feet and walk from him as quickly as she could—run, if she had to. This man was dangerous, possibly even deranged.

Wary caution kept her where she was. “I need to know more before I decide whether I can help you.”

Reid sat back in his chair, even tenser than he’d been before. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

He stared at her for a long moment, grim-faced, and then began to speak. “I was on General Wellesley’s staff, an exploring officer. Reconnaissance. We’d been in Portugal less than a month. We engaged the French at Roliça, and then four days later at Vimeiro.”

Letty nodded. She’d heard of the battles. Victories for England, both of them. “August of this year?”

“Yes.” Reid’s hands were clenched together, his knuckles sharp ridges beneath the gloves. “I had three local scouts. I went out daily with them. Not all together, you understand. I’d go with one man; the others would scout alone. We met each evening. On the day before Vimeiro, just on dusk, we were captured. The scouts were summarily executed.”

Killed in front of him, was what he meant. Letty swallowed. “Why weren’t you executed?”

“I was in uniform; they weren’t.”

She nodded.

“The French were waiting for us. It was an ambush. And I had chosen our meeting place. Other than the general, only two men knew of it. They both claim not to have told a soul—and yet one of them must have.”

“Who are these men?”

“Wellesley’s aides-de-camp.”

Letty frowned. “Surely such men would be trustworthy?”

“Someone told the French,” Reid said flatly. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t the general, it wasn’t my scouts.”

Letty gazed at him uneasily. Do I want to go further with this? Reid’s tension was disturbing. He seemed balanced on a knife-edge. What if he kills a man based on my say-so?

She opened her mouth to tell him that her rumored ability to distinguish truth from lies was merely a trick, that she’d only guessed he was lying earlier—and then closed it again.

What if she didn’t help Reid, and he killed the wrong man?

Letty chewed on this thought for a moment, and then said, “Tell me about the two men, Mr. Reid.”

“They were new. I didn’t know them well. Didn’t like them much. Playing at soldiering.” His upper lip curled. “Wellesley didn’t like them either. They’d been foisted on him.”

Letty raised her brows. “You didn’t know these men well, and yet you told them where you and your scouts would be?”

“Wellesley had asked me to keep him informed of my movements. He was in a meeting when I left, so I told his aides.”

“And both these men are currently in London?”

Reid nodded.

“Isn’t that unusual?”

“One sold out, the other was cashiered.” His lip curled again.

“Cashiered? You mean dismissed? Whatever for?”

“Dereliction of duty. He spent the Battle of Vimeiro in his billet, too drunk to stand up.”

Letty nodded, and looked down at her hands. She plucked at the tip of one finger, pulling the glove. Do I want to be involved in this?

“The man who sold out is Reginald Grantham.”

Letty’s head jerked up. “Grantham?”

“A suitor of yours, I’m given to understand.”

She nodded, mute.

“When you next see Grantham, could you ask him for me?” Reid’s voice was neutral, almost diffident. “Please?”

His voice might be neutral, but nothing else was—the sharp-knuckled hands, the intensity of his gaze, the way he sat—stiff, leaning forward slightly. This means a great deal to him.

“Please?” Reid said again, and emotion leaked into his voice: a faint edge of desperation.

For some reason, that edge of desperation made her ribcage tighten. He’s begging. Letty looked down at her own hands. “Were the scouts close friends of yours, Mr. Reid?”

Reid didn’t speak for several seconds. “No. I barely knew them.”

Letty glanced up. He was no longer leaning tensely forward. The intensity was gone from his face. He looked tired and ill and defeated. He expects me to refuse.

“What sort of men were they?”

“Good men. Brave men.” His mouth tightened. “Peasants.”

Did he think that that admission would make her less likely to help him? Yes, he did; he was pushing to his feet.

“Sit down, Mr. Reid.”

Reid cast her a sharp glance, hesitated, and then sat again.

Letty looked back down at her hands, rather than his hopeful eyes. “How did you hear of my . . . knack?”

“A friend. He told me Grantham was at your feet, and that you’d be certain to kick him away because you always knew when your suitors were untruthful. He said you had an uncanny talent for distinguishing truth from lies.”

“Which friend?”

“Colonel Winton.”

Letty saw the colonel in her mind’s eye—stocky, graying, eagle-eyed—and nodded. “Tell me about yourself.”

There was a pause. She glanced up to see Reid’s brow wrinkle. “Me?”

“Who are you, Mr. Reid?”

Another pause, and then Reid said, “My father was Sir Hector Reid of Yorkshire. I’m the youngest of five sons. I joined the Thirty-third Foot as an ensign. Flanders first, then India.” His delivery was flat and unemotional. “After the Battle of Mallavelly, Wellesley took me for one of his aides. I was on his staff for five years, then Gore’s. Wellesley requested me back for Copenhagen. After Copenhagen, we were to sail to South America, but we were sent to Portugal instead.”

“What’s your rank?”

Another pause. “I was a major.”

“You’ve been invalided out?”

“I resigned my commission.”

“Because of what happened in Portugal?”

“Yes.”

Letty studied his face. A career soldier didn’t resign his commission because of the deaths of three peasants he barely knew. “Something else happened, didn’t it?”

Reid’s face tightened. “Yes.”

“What?”

Reid’s face became even tighter. He didn’t speak.

“Major Reid, if you’re not truthful with me―”

“It’s not fit for your ears,” he said flatly.

Letty closed her mouth, hearing the bell-like chime of truth in his words. Something terrible had happened in Portugal. Something terrible enough to make this man resign his commission.

She studied Major Reid’s face—the skin stretched taut over his bones, the tension, the exhaustion. She’d been right to think there was something seriously wrong with him. He was brittle, ready to break.

Up in the ballroom, the musicians stopped playing. The contredanse was over. It was time for her to leave the conservatory and find her next partner.

Letty stayed seated. “Who is the second man?”

“George Dunlop.”

“I don’t know him.”

“He’s in Marshalsea.”

Letty jerked slightly. “Prison?”

“He’s a debtor.”

“Major Reid, I can’t . . .” Letty shook her head silently. I can’t enter a prison!

Reid leaned forward on his chair. The tension and the fierce hope were gone. He looked drained. More exhausted than anyone she’d ever seen. “Miss Trentham, I’ll be dead before the end of the year and I need to make this right before I die. Please, will you help me?”

Letty stared at him, hearing the truth in his words. Muscles constricted in her throat, but she wasn’t entirely certain why. Because Reid was dying? Because he was begging? Both? “Of course I’ll help,” she heard herself say.

Reid closed his eyes briefly. “Thank you.” He exhaled a low breath and straightened in the chair, but his exhaustion didn’t ease. Everything about him was weary—his long limbs, his gaunt face, his silver eyes. Even his hands were weary, no longer clenched.

“But you must promise not to kill the traitor.”

Reid’s eyebrows came sharply together. The weariness evaporated. He was suddenly taut, tense, dangerous.

“I will not be responsible for deciding whether a man lives or dies,” Letty said firmly. “A military court is the place for that.”

Reid stared at her for a long moment, his eyes boring into her—and then he gave a stiff nod. “Very well.”

“You must promise me you won’t kill him. On your word of honor.”

“You have my word of honor I won’t kill him.” The words came from his mouth reluctantly, but they were the truth.

Letty almost wished he had refused. Did she really want to be involved in this? “I ride in Hyde Park most afternoons. Meet me there tomorrow. I’ll ask Grantham to join me.”

“Will he come?”

“I’m the heiress he’s angling to marry,” she said tartly. “Of course he’ll come.”

Reid’s eyebrows lifted slightly at her tone, but he made no comment.

“You may ask Grantham your questions; I’ll tell you whether he’s lying or not.”

“You will be able to tell?”

Letty nodded.

“How?”

“I hear it.”

“This knack of yours, is it . . .” His brow creased as he searched for a word. “Infallible?”

“I hear every single lie, Major Reid.”

He frowned. “How?”

A gift from my Faerie godmother. Letty shrugged lightly. “A quirk of my birth. You may test me tomorrow, if you disbelieve me.” She stood. “Now, you must excuse me; I’m engaged for this dance.”

Reid stood, too.

“Three o’clock at the Grosvenor Gate.”

“Thank you.”

Letty could think of no suitable reply. You’re welcome, and It’s my pleasure, were both lies. She settled for a nod.

She climbed the shallow steps and emerged into the ballroom with a sense of having woken from a disturbing dream. This was normalcy—the rustle of expensive fabric and glitter of jewels, the scents of dozens of different perfumes, the babble of voices, the gaiety. The fortune hunters.

Letty glanced back, almost expecting Major Reid to have disappeared. But no, he stood in the conservatory, tall and gaunt, watching her. With a black cloak and scythe, he’d be the Grim Reaper.

And I have agreed to help him. Not smart, Letitia. Not smart at all.

Letty shivered, and set out across the dance floor in search of Lord Stapleton.