Folly's Reward

Folly's Reward
by Jean R. Ewing

(Originally published by Zebra Books  ISBN 0-8217-5621-4)


Finalist: National Readers' Choice Award

Finalist: HOLT Medallion Best Regency 

E-book available now!
"The whole scene (comes) to life. Nothing is as it seems ... Interesting and refreshing." - Rendezvous

"Bright star Jean Ewing shines with excellence as she brings us another irresistible hero to beguile us in a myriad exciting ways. Ms. Ewing spins an intricate web of sharply defined minor characters and a highly engaging pair of lovers to win our hearts over." - Four Stars - Romantic Times

"By no means a typical Regency romance ... secret and complex relationships are revealed. It contains an almost constant undercurrent of suspense and a pervasive air of danger. With a more serious tone than many Regency romances, Folly's Reward captures the flavor of the era while delivering an intriguing mystery and love story." - Gothic Journal

Folly's Reward

But first, a note from the author: In a brief prologue, we've already met a very handsome, though mysterious, young man traveling fast to Paris with some unsavory companions. Now, here's Chapter One, where Bobby's first words are an exact quote from a little boy I met once in Ireland. Enjoy!


 Chapter One

It was a glass-clear morning, shining suddenly in the gray days of March as a golden coin glints among pebbles. Prudence opened her parasol and watched Bobby run erratically down the beach. She tried to let the brightness of the sea and sky calm her fears. They were safe here, surely?

The child stopped and examined something at his feet. His blond head was supported on such a fragile neck above his lace collar. The little trousers buttoned to his pleated muslin jacket were much the same color as his hair under the straw hat, so that his entire figure blended into the pale wash of sand. The hat wobbled as he bent to pick up a shell.

Prudence felt a rush of love and protection for him.

It’s very absurd, she thought, for a five-year-old child to have to carry such a thing on his head. I shouldn’t make him wear it.

As if he heard the thought, Bobby took off the offending headgear and began to fill it with shells. He hunted through the sand, slowly moving away, until he disappeared for a moment behind a ridge of black rock, one of several that ran from the cliffs toward the sea.

Prudence immediately called to him. The child reappeared with the hat clutched to his chest.

"Pray, do not go out of my sight, young man!" Her voice was tinged with anxiety. "It isn’t the done thing, you know. I would not like it at all if I were to lose you." She walked up to him and bent down, though the front of her brown worsted skirt trailed in the sand. "Did you find many shells?"

Bobby looked up at her. "I cannot carry them all," he said seriously. "It’s a hard thing to find so many wondrous things on the beach and to have to leave so many behind."

"But you would seem to have a veritable feast of shells in your hat." Prudence tried to hide her delight. Bobby would always enchant her. "Didn’t you bring the best ones?"

Bobby set down his hat and reached for her hand. "I found something better than shells, Miss Drake. I think you would like it, too. I found a man."

"Did you? Was he a shell man or a seaweed man?"

"No! No!" Bobby’s shrill voice filled with indignation. "A real man. He looks like the man from the song about the seals and he talks a magic language. He’s here, behind the rocks. Don’t you want to see?"

"Very well," she said, humoring the child. "But then we must go."

The proffered hand was slightly sticky with salt. Following Bobby’s sturdy little straw-colored figure, Prudence stepped to the other side of the rock shelf.

"Oh, good gracious!" she said, dropping both the child’s hand and her parasol. "It is a real man."

The man was young, with an air of strength about him even though he lay abandoned and unconscious against the rock. His serge trousers and unbuttoned reefer jacket were soaked and discolored with salt water. He wore no cravat, and his shirt was torn at the front revealing a curve of taut muscle across his ribcage.

One hand, partly lying in a shallow pool, lay turned up on the sand. It was well formed and strong, with marked blisters across the palm. Yet it seemed he took care of his nails, and his sodden boots were of very fine quality.

Prudence moved a little closer and leaned down to look at his face. Beneath midnight hair, slick with salt water, the lines of his nose and chin were clean and hard, beautifully structured. Long black lashes lay against his high cheekbones. Yet they were not curved like her own, but thick and straight.

As she hesitated, the lashes lifted a little. Prudence had the impression for a moment that his eyes reflected the sky, before they closed again.

"Oh, gracious!" she said, jumping back. "He’s alive."

"Of course he’s alive," Bobby replied. "He already looked at me before."

The eyes remained closed, but his lips moved a little. Prudence found herself watching them with an immodest fascination. Very attractive lips.

"Diable!" the man muttered. "Nous ferons naufrage! Vogue la galère!"

"It is a magic language, isn’t it?"

"No, I’m sorry." Prudence could feel her heart leaping and pounding in her breast. "It isn’t the silkie’s language, Bobby. This man is French."

The man turned his head and, revealing eyes the color of harebells, looked straight up into hers. He smiled.

"Not French, ma’am. I am sure of that at least."

He spoke a perfectly modulated and very cultured English, with no trace of the soft Scots accent that colored her own. An Englishman, then.

"But see!" Bobby said. "His eyes are blue, like the silkie’s."

To her immense surprise, the man laughed. He blinked against the bright sun for a moment, then pulled his hand out of the shallow pool to shade his eyes. He grimaced as moisture ran onto his face.

"By God, they are eyes filled unaccountably with salt. No doubt that blue is shot through with red, like the Union Flag. I feel as if I just took the worst from the knuckles of Gentleman Jackson." He felt the back of his skull very carefully, and winced. "And a crack to the pate. No wonder I’m witless."

Prudence had the wildest desire to run away and leave this unsettling find to wash away with the next tide.

"What are you doing here?" she asked instead.

He grinned. His teeth were very white and even.

"As to that, I have no idea. Is there some human habitation hereabouts, or are you an angel sent to accompany this charming cherub—in which case I shall never have cause to care for comfort again? I hate to admit it, but I’m devilish cold. I believe I may have been in the ocean all night."

"Oh, good heavens! You must think me entirely lacking in wits. Are you shipwrecked? From the storm last night?"

The man sat up slowly and ran one hand over his hair, brushing it back from his forehead. His long fingers shook a little.

"I suppose I must be."

"What do you mean? Don’t you know?"

He looked about at the sun-washed beach and the scattering of sea birds. "I am most dreadfully afraid that I do not."

"But where do you come from? What is your name?"

He reached a little unsteadily for the rocks to pull himself to his feet. Prudence impulsively reached out a hand and he took it. It was obvious that he was considerably taller than she, even though he supported himself against the rocks.

He smiled down at her, and did not let go of her fingers. "It would seem, dear angel, that I am a foolish idiot, for however ramshackle it might appear to you, I don’t know that either."

Prudence was uncomfortably aware that the grip of his naked hand against hers was most improper, though it was not at all unpleasant. She tried to ignore it.

"You don’t know who you are?"

"I can do nothing but supply you with doggerel. Rhymes ran through my head all night, though heaven only knows why." He laughed. "Things like this:

A sodden young fellow was found

as he lay without name on the ground.

Though spared by the waves,

his fate was a knave’s,

to be hanged for a rogue when not drowned."

He turned her fingers over in his. "What a shoddy bit of verse! My apologies."

"But you must know your own name," Prudence persisted.

"Like Abou Hassan, I might believe I am the caliph, for I’m damned if I know otherwise. I think my name might begin with ‘P’—no, ‘H’, perhaps. Or perhaps I have the name that Achilles took when he hid among women? A deuced depressing thought, since no one knows it."

Prudence tried to pull her hand away. "Sir, I beg you will remain here while I go for help."

He ran his fingers over hers, as if counting them. "I would much rather you stayed here with me, angel."

"My name is Miss Prudence Drake, sir."

"Miss? Then in spite of the golden hair you share, this cherub isn’t yours? For I can tell without asking that you are a lady of unimpeachable virtue."

Prudence blushed scarlet. "I am a governess, sir. Bobby is in my charge."

Then she realized that she had told him the truth as if it didn’t matter. She could easily have given a false name, pretended that Bobby was her child. No one would be looking for a mother and her son.

"You are ill, sir," she snapped. "Pray, let me get help from the house."

"Then there is a house? A nice, square, ordinary house, I hope, with a fire, and a kettle simmering over the hob. You won’t take me back to your fairy castle and put me under some spell, will you? I should hate to live out my days as a merry little pig among enchanted swine."

Bobby giggled, and Prudence shook her head, surprised into laughter, which she bit back.

"It’s just a small manse, sir."

The man grinned. "Excellent. No doubt in a minute or two I shall be perfectly competent to propel myself there with only a modicum of help from you."

"And from me, sir?" Bobby asked.

"Without question, young fellow."

"Until then, perhaps you might release my hand?" Prudence asked.

"Oh, no, I would much rather keep it. What remarkably elegant fingers you have, Miss Drake! I think I must gallantly kiss them as a mark of my gratitude for your rescue."

Prudence stood nervously in front of him as he carried her hand to his lips and kissed the back of her knuckles. It was done with practiced grace.

"You may not know your name, sir," she said. "And you are no doubt a victim of last night’s wreck. But I don’t think you’re an ordinary sailor. In fact, I believe you may be some kind of villain."

The blue eyes laughed into hers. "Do you? Good heavens, I don’t think I’m a villain, truly. I shall try to prove myself merely a harmless, though possibly idiotic, gentleman, so that you may relax and feel moved to complete my rescue. In the meantime, I am to understand that a ship foundered off this coast last night?"

"If you will return my hand to my own possession, sir, I shall tell you." With a rueful smile he dropped her fingers. Prudence stepped back, out of his reach. "There was a most dreadful storm last night and a brig from France was lost. It is thought she went down with all hands."

He looked at her thoughtfully. "From France?"

"So I was told. And since you did greet me with mutterings in French, I think we might assume that you have just come from that country."

"What did I say?"

"Well, you began with an oath." Prudence frowned at him as sternly as she was able. "Then you mumbled something about a shipwreck and let come what may."

He gazed out over the calm ocean for a moment. "If I was on that sad vessel, I would seem to have washed up to shore like Venus on her shell. Yet it all seems very deserted. Where is this interesting place?"

"This is Argyleshire. Unless you speak Gaelic, you would not be able to pronounce the name of the place."

"Good Lord! I’m in Scotland?" He shivered. "Miss Drake, in spite of the clear sky, the beneficent sun, and the sweet, burning light of your own presence, it isn’t warm on this beach."

"Oh, good gracious! Here, take this!" Prudence held out her paisley shawl.

The man managed to peel off his soaking jacket and began to reach for the shawl. Then he dropped his hand to rub at his face, instead. He had begun to shake.

"Devil take it!"

"Pray remember your language, sir," Prudence said with a glance at Bobby, who was watching the man wide-eyed.

"I’m sorry, guardian angel, truly. But I seem to be as weak as a dandy after six bottles. May I prevail upon you to help me? I should indeed be grateful for the shawl, for I am regrettably ill-clothed, and it’s most inappropriate to be wet when it’s so deuced cold."

Prudence stepped up to him to drape her wrap around his shoulders. Instantly he caught her to him and pressed her body into his. The chill moisture from his shirt seeped into her dress.

"You’re very warm," he said with a shaky laugh against her ear. "Will you share a little?"

"Pray, sir, you don’t help your cause. Do you want my assistance or not? For I am rapidly beginning to think I must leave you here to your fate."

"Then perhaps you should, for now I am disgracefully aware of a desire to kiss you, angel." His lips moved against her hair. "If I am to die out here on this cold beach, that would be my password into Paradise. But instead I promise to be the soul of rectitude, dear Miss Drake, as sober and prudent as a dried apple, if you will but help me off this accursed beach. In the meantime, your shawl will transform me into your aged grandam, as harmless an old lady as ever walked this earth."

He released her and stepped back. With a flourish, he managed to swing her shawl around his shoulders. Taking up her parasol, he opened it. In the next instant, he transformed himself into a caricature of a wizened old dame.

In spite of herself, Prudence laughed. He was just a young man, full of nonsense and bravado, maybe no older than she was, and cold, and in shock. He needed help, not judgment.

"I can walk, ma’am," he said. "Lead on!"

She turned and took Bobby by the hand. The child pulled back to look over his shoulder. The man was following, if a little unsteadily, his sodden jacket slung over his shoulder. Yet at the turn around the end of the shale ledge, he sat suddenly on the rock and dropped his head to his knees.

Prudence released Bobby’s hand and hurried back. The stranger looked up and grinned.

"Don’t discompose yourself, dear angel. Even Jonah was able to save himself, and he was swallowed whole and regurgitated before being washed up."

"Oh, don’t be silly," she said. "Let me help you. Put your arm about my shoulders. The house isn’t far."

He shook his head, but Prudence slipped her arm about his waist to help him stand. Beneath the wet shirt he was supple and lean, yet his flesh felt icy. Leaning on her shoulder, he walked up the beach, Bobby clinging to his other hand.

Yet when they reached the straw hat full of shells, the man bent to retrieve it and handed it to the little boy.

"I imagine you must wear this if you’re to return home, sir," he said. "Allow me to carry your treasures for you."

The shells disappeared into one of his pockets, and he placed the hat on the child’s hair.

"Are you sure you’re not the silkie?" Bobby asked.

"I don’t know. I might be anything. Who is he?"

"It’s an old folk tale," Prudence said. "A belief that some seals can turn into men at night to visit the land. They’re called silkies."

"You can tell if you see a seal with blue eyes that he’s really a silkie," Bobby explained earnestly. "They come to shore and turn into men, so they can meet real ladies and steal their hearts. But they always abandon them and their babies, and go back to the sea in the end."

"I see," the man said. "Dashing, of course, but rather thoughtless of them." He turned to Prudence and gently disengaged himself. "I believe I can manage now, angel. But thanks for the assistance. It felt wonderful. If I thought it would always result in your warm hand at my waist, and my arm around your enchanting shoulders, I would happily suffer shipwreck every day."

Prudence looked up at him. He was too pale and struggling not to shiver, but he didn’t seem in any further need of help.

"And if I thought for one moment that you might be taking advantage of me, sir," she said. "I should wish that you had drowned."

Her answer was a charming smile. "Angel, you are too severe. For so would I."

Bobby let go of his hand and ran ahead toward a track that led up from the beach. A stout, respectable lady stood there shielding her eyes with one hand.

"Look, Mrs. MacEwen!" Bobby cried. "We have found a man."