|jeanrossewing.com Rogue's Reward|
Rogue's Reward by Jean R. Ewing
(Originally published by Zebra Books ISBN 0-8217-5146-8)
Finalist: HOLT Medallion Best Regency
by May 1
Ewing is a genius... incredible... perfection... wonderful and
impossible to put down. I can't get enough of her writing." -
- Affaire de Coeur
compelling narrative, full of twists and turns, is wonderful from
beginning to end, and Leander is a hero to die for. This is a book no
historical lover—no romance lover should miss."-
"This well-crafted, compelling story
features charming dialogue, a good sense of the period, an intelligent,
exceptionally appealing heroine, a wonderful hero, and a nicely handled
mystery. Ewing has definitely hit her stride with this one."
The tennis ball bounced sharply, cracked into the waiting racket, and flew back at the heedless blond head of Walter Feveril Downe. Mr. Downe’s wandering attention returned too late. He lunged clumsily and sent the ball careening into the wall of the court. The dandies watching from the gallery clapped and cheered.
"Game, set, and match to me, sir!" Leander Campbell laughed and tossed his racket into the air before deftly catching it again in his other hand. "And sixty guineas, I believe?"
"Devil take it, Lee!" Walter Downe frowned and thrust one hand through his disordered hair. "How the devil is a fellow supposed to win against you?"
"If that fellow had been paying the slightest attention to the game, instead of dreaming like a lotus eater, he would have stood a better chance. What’s on your mind? A member of the frail sex, no doubt."
Walter grimaced. "If you knew what it was like to have normal human feelings, you wouldn’t be so damned cynical about love. I would willingly lay down my life for an angel like Lady Diana Hart."
Lee raised a brow at this fervent sally. "But of course as a hardened rake and gambler, angels are above my touch." He strode up to the net and the men shook hands. "Have you proposed to this paragon of female grace and been rejected, or are you merely pining from a distance, the lady oblivious to your devotion? Either way, to effect an instant demise seems a very odd way of demonstrating your affection."
"Damn it, sir! This is serious. I’m in a devilish quandary. I worship the very hem of her skirt, yet how can I propose to her when I’m only plain Mr. Downe, destined to become a vicar?"
"The Honorable Mr. Walter Feveril Downe," Lee corrected.
"Yes, but what on earth are my prospects?"
"Considerably better than most." Lee bit back a wry grin as the men walked together to the changing rooms. "You are a viscount’s younger son. You will become a model churchman, and Lady Diana will make you a faultless wife. I am to assume that the lady returns your regard and would wed you willingly if only her dragon of a mama would allow it?"
"Well, I don’t know," Walter said, coloring a little. "I think she likes me, but it’s impossible, don’t you see? How can I in honor address her? She’s heiress to a fortune. Lady Augusta will make her marry a duke."
"And you will stand aside and allow this outrage against all your finer sensibilities to take place? How can you allow the lady to be consumed by a duke, when your infinitely superior self is available? She would hate being a duchess. In fact, I think you should elope with her."
"Campbell, for God’s sake!"
"Why not? Court her, secure her affection, and run off with her. What else could Lady Augusta do then but agree to welcome you as her son-in-law?"
Lee peeled off his clothes and stepped under the shower. At the pull of a chain, cold water dumped over his head. He soaped up, pulled another chain, and rinsed the soap off his body, before reaching for a towel to dry himself.
Walter Feveril Downe was still sitting on the bench, staring at the floor.
"Alas," Lee said, rubbing at his wet hair. "I see that your scrupulous honor forbids your stealing an heiress. If I were in your shoes, I shouldn’t let the fortune stand in my way. Think of the family connections! There’s no sense in living in poverty if you have a chance at some comfort. There must be several rich livings within the gift of Hawksley. In fact, you would undoubtedly end up a bishop. And if not, Lady Diana would much rather be a parson’s wife than a duchess."
Downe leaped to his feet, his face puce. "If I didn’t know you would mow me down like a blade of grass, I would call you out, sir. Damn me, if I wouldn’t!"
Lee choked back a wicked temptation to laugh, shrugged into a spotlessly clean white shirt, then sat to pull on a pair of breeches.
"Your righteous indignation would carry the day," he said. "I could never prevail against it and I concede the duel in advance."
"But how dare you presume to know what Lady Diana Hart of Hawksley Park would like?"
"Because she’s my sister, of course."
The blond man collapsed back to the bench as if he had been punched. "What do you mean? She’s an only child, isn’t she?"
Lee’s boots reflected soft gleams of light from the windows. "Lady Augusta’s only child. My half-sister, I should have said. Lady Diana and I had the misfortune to share the same father, the late Lord Hawksley. Sadly, in my case he neglected to marry my mother, which is why I’m plain Mr. Campbell. As far as I know he never learned of my existence. He must have been a remarkably careless fellow."
"I had no idea," Walter Downe said faintly.
"No, most people haven’t." Still suppressing his inclination to mirth, Lee strode to the mirror to run a comb through his hair. "They only know that I’m not respectable."
"But you’re an earl’s son—"
"And the title died with him. I am that most sorry of creatures, I’m afraid, a bastard. I use my mother’s last name, though I never knew her."
Walter was still gaping. "And Lady Diana knows about this?"
"Of course." He arranged his cravat in elaborate folds. "We grew up together. My stepmother took me in when I was deposited on her doorstep and raised me."
"For heaven’s sake, Lee, what an extraordinary act of generosity! How did she know you really were her husband’s child?"
"Because I was accompanied by a document naming him as my father. But I do see your point. Lady Augusta is not generally thought of as the soul of charity, is she? No, I have the additional misfortune of looking exactly like the late Lord Hawksley, dark of hair and aspect, while staring at the world from damnably blue eyes, far more suitable in a woman. Apparently one glance at my infant face was sufficient to prevent any possibility of denying the connection."
"Wasn’t it rather humiliating to be raised by your father’s wife, after he had abandoned your mother?"
"My dear fellow," Lee said with a grin. "I was actually raised by a succession of rather brutal schoolmasters at Eton, as were you. Lady Augusta gave me every advantage that she could and did more than her duty, don’t you think? Obviously I have no claim on Hawksley, but I received the normal education of an English gentleman and am thus able to make my own way in the world. I am grateful to her."
"But you would never be able to marry into any of the best families," the Honorable Mr. Downe said sympathetically. "And I suppose you have no property and no chance at all at any number of professions. I am sorry, old chap, for wailing on about my problems."
Lee finally gave way to a genuine burst of laughter. "Save your compassion for your future flock. Unlike you, my dear fellow, I am not in love with a scion of the peerage and don’t intend to be so. Having known of my unfortunate birth all my life, I don’t view it as any kind of calamity, but rather as the source of a blessed freedom. I have never had the least problem living by my wits. Now, for God’s sake, get washed and changed."
Walter Feveril Downe stripped off his tennis clothes and stepped into the shower.
Lee turned to leave just as the door to the dressing room burst open to reveal the white face of one of London’s most famous dandies.
"Thank God I found you, Campbell!" he exclaimed. "No one knows what to do. Manton Barnes just shot himself."
* * *
"What a grim place!" Helena said, laughing. "How can you bear it, Eleanor?"
"Languishing in jail like the Pearl of Brittany?" Lady Eleanor Acton warmly embraced her sister-in-law. "I admit I really do feel a little like a medieval princess, wickedly imprisoned. Which would you prefer—the chair or the sofa? Both are equally ill favored."
Helena surveyed the uncomfortable furniture provided for guests in the parlor of Miss Able’s Select Academy for Young Ladies. Her stylish traveling dress elegantly disguised an interesting condition, so she was more than ready to sit down.
In contrast, Eleanor was clad in the demure white muslin considered suitable by Miss Able for her pupils, even if they were the daughters of the peerage.
"I shall take the horsehair sofa," Helena said. "It will remind me of my own schooldays in Exeter. Richard and I just met the formidable Miss Able. Your brother is now trapped in her office making polite inquiries about his little sisters, but I had to escape to see you right away. Now I find you don’t even have a seat worthy of the name."
Eleanor dropped to the remaining wooden chair and lifted amused brown eyes.
"At this moment poor Joanna is agonizing over an elegy she must learn by heart, and little Milly is memorizing ‘The Malays are ferocious and unprincipled to a high degree,’ and ‘Patagonia is a desolate country, where men have been seen of a gigantic size,’ and so we learn about the world. But my captivity is soon to be over. I’ve a letter from Mama. I’m to come out this Season."
"And be presented at court?"
"Mama says it’s high time her brown hen was married and that I have surely learned enough French and embroidery to be considered perfectly accomplished. I’ll have to curtsy to the Queen with a feather on my head. Can you think of anything more absurd? But more remarkable still, first I go with Mama to Norfolk for Easter."
Helena laughed. Lady Eleanor might have chestnut hair and nut-brown eyes, but she was definitely not a brown hen. "To Norfolk?"
"We visit Hawksley Park, home of my friend Lady Diana Hart and her mother, the ominous dowager countess, who undoubtedly counts as being regal enough for practice. Since I understand that Mama and Lady Augusta are always at daggers drawn, it wouldn’t appear to be the most amiable undertaking. No doubt I shall be grateful that it’s essential to polite society for countesses to be civil to each other. Diana did invite me for Christmas—"
"But you came to us at Acton Mead, instead."
"Because I wanted more to meet Richard’s new wife, of course. And it was splendid, in spite of my suffering from the most frightful ague and the presence of all my brothers and sisters. Pray do not think for a moment that it was any sacrifice. But it’ll be good to see Diana again. She was the loveliest thing in this school and she’s been out for a year."
Helena met this with genuine surprise. "She’s not wed?"
"She’s received innumerable offers, but Lady Augusta turned down every one, angling for a spectacular match. And since Diana is sole heir to Hawksley Park, she’s bound to get one."
"As eldest daughter to the Earl of Acton," Helena said, smiling, "so are you. But you won’t meet anyone in Norfolk."
"Exactly! Which makes me wonder why Mama wants to take me there. For you know as well as I that the beautiful Countess of Acton never did a thing without an ulterior motive in her life."
Helena remembered her own encounters with Eleanor’s mother and laughed, but her attention was diverted by the sound of footsteps striding down the corridor. Her heart sang as she recognized her husband’s step. Eleanor’s brother Richard, Lord Lenwood, heir of the Earl of Acton, was almost at the door.
Both ladies jumped up and Helena said softly, "Marry for love, Eleanor!"
Eleanor grinned at her sister-in-law. "Don’t be silly! Just because you and my splendid brother are as entwined as Philemon and Baucis doesn’t mean there’s usually any connection between love and marriage among the peerage. Anyone the least interesting would be bound to give Papa apoplexy on the spot and I’ll never experience the wild adventures you did."
"In truth, I hope not," Helena replied.
Eleanor slipped an arm around Helena’s waist and whispered her next comment into her ear as the door began to open.
"My parents’ idea of a suitable match will be some fatuous lord in need of my portion, but I must be dutiful and clear the way for my sisters, I suppose. In the meantime, anything is better than school. I intend to thoroughly enjoy a dull stay in Norfolk and practice my curtsies."
* * *
The door to Manton Barnes’s lodgings on Ryder Street stood open. A couple of young men gaped at the body sprawled on the floor. Lee knelt over him for a moment, but it was obviously useless to feel for a pulse.
"The damned silly fool!" he said softly, betraying nothing of anger or pain, though both burned within him.
"We came to fetch him for a drive and found him like this," one of the men said shakily. "What will his family think?"
"That he met with an accident cleaning his gun," Lee replied firmly. "Why did you fetch me?"
"We thought you’d know what to do, so if you wouldn’t mind taking charge— Anyway, he left a note addressed to you. It’s over there on the mantel."
Lee retrieved the note. "I trust that no word of this will pass any of your honorable lips?"
"Of course not," the first man said indignantly.
"Then there’s nothing more you can do. I shall see that he’s not buried at the crossroads."
"But why did he do it?"
"Is it any of your business?"
The man colored and looked away. "No," he mumbled. "No. We’ll leave now, then, and say nothing."
Lee was left alone.
He tore open the note and scanned the contents before tearing it in pieces and casting them into the fire. Without hesitation he began to search the room. Several other documents joined the note in the flames. Satisfied that nothing else incriminating remained, Lee took out a gun-cleaning kit that he found in a closet and began to arrange the body as if there had been an accident.
He had barely finished when Walter Downe burst into the room. The blond head was still damp from the shower and his cravat was twisted.
"For God’s sake, Lee! Why did he do it?"
"Manton Barnes died rather than have that come out, sir. I think we might respect the peace of the dead, don’t you?"
Downe blushed. "Which is why you are rearranging his body?"
"He thought it was worth his fortune—and finally his life—for his family not to know about his little scandal. There’s no need at all for them to suspect as much."
"Good God! The affair with Blanche Harrison? He was being blackmailed? Did he leave a note? Who forced him to such desperation?"
Lee looked about the room, making sure that he had covered up every hint of suicide.
"I don’t know. Had he told me, the blackmailer would not live to see another dawn. But he did give me a clue."
"Dear Mr. Downe, you are too full of questions. Why don’t you go and tell the Bow Street men that we have found our poor friend dead of an accident, there’s a good chap."
Walter Downe bowed and left the room. Lee sat in a chair beside the body and waited. He had told his friend the truth. He had no idea of the blackmailer’s identity, but he would go down to Norfolk to find out. In the meantime the final sentence of poor Barnes’s note meant no sense at all.
"The cad is impossible to stop, Campbell," the note read. "I am bled dry. Once he has his claws into you, it’s worse than the punishment of Prometheus. Even the Actons are involved—God! Ask the lady!"
* * *
Lady Eleanor Acton allowed her maid to unhook the fasteners at the back of her dress, then dismissed the girl for the night. She was alone in a shadowed bedroom of the Three Feathers, one of the better post-houses on the Norwich road. Her mother had a room just down the hall and their maids were to share a chamber at the back of the house.
She began to take down her hair, when her fingers brushed the bare skin at the back of her neck.
"Damnation," she said aloud in the most unladylike manner. "I’ve lost my locket."
She sat on the chair beside the bed and thought for a moment. It had been there at dinner, because Mama had commented that it looked very well and asked about it. Thus it must have slipped off somewhere between the private parlor where they had dined and her bedchamber. Richard and Helena had given it to her after that amazing Christmas at Acton Mead, and she realized with a sudden pang that it was the most precious thing that she owned.
It was impossible to reach all the hooks on her dress by herself, but maybe a shawl would cover the gaps. So Eleanor wrapped herself in her silk shawl, unlocked the door, and stepped out into the corridor.
There was no sign of the locket in the hallway or on the stairs. Perhaps it had fallen in their dining room? She knocked tentatively at the door to the private parlor, then pushed it open and walked inside. The room was dark except for the light from the fireplace, so Eleanor went to the grate and took up a taper to light some candles.
"I wish you would not," a man’s voice said softly.
Eleanor whirled around. A young man was lying full length on a couch at the side of the room. His booted feet were crossed on one arm of the sofa and his dark head was propped carelessly at the other end. A very white shirt lay open at the neck. Firelight flickered lovingly over little hollows at the base of his throat.
"Forgive me, sir," she said, her heart hammering. "I had no idea that anyone was in here. You didn’t answer my knock."
"As it turned out, it didn’t matter, did it? For you came in anyway. But please don’t light any candles. It would be more than I could stand."
"Why?" Eleanor asked.
"Because I am three sheets to the wind. Which means, of course, that it is more than foolish of you to remain in here with me."
"I only came to search for something I might have dropped. It won’t take me a moment to look about the room and I’ll leave the instant I find it."
"You obviously didn’t listen to what I said. No lady of quality would remain for one second in a private parlor with a stranger at an inn. Especially when that stranger is as regrettably foxed as I am at this instant."
"Then perhaps I should introduce myself, sir—"
"Please leave, young lady!" His eyes closed for a moment as if in pain. "For you must be either a schoolgirl or a hussy. Either way we shall both regret it if you stay a moment longer."
"Stuff!" Eleanor said. "This is a perfectly respectable inn. Your dress is that of a gentleman. Surely you can remain on your sofa while I search for my locket?"
"Ah," the man said softly. "Then this is what you were looking for?"
He sat up in a remarkably smooth, fluid movement and held out something on the palm of his hand. Eleanor recognized it instantly.
"Thank heavens! Yes, that’s mine and I’m very glad to have it back. My brother gave it to me."
There was the slightest change in his expression, but the subtle voice betrayed nothing.
"Then the handsome devil whose miniature lies inside is your brother? And the beautiful blonde—"
"Is his wife, Helena. Now if you would be so kind as to restore my property to me forthwith?"
Eleanor marched boldly up to the man and held out her hand.
"Dear lady," the cultured voice said lazily, while his gaze swept over her. "Do you know that your pulse is very fast and that something remarkably erratic has happened to your breathing?"
"If it has, it’s because I am understandably nervous." Eleanor could feel herself getting flushed, but only with annoyance. "Whether you are drunk or not, sir, you are behaving disgracefully."
"Nowhere near as disgracefully as I am about to behave," the stranger said with a sudden grin.
Before Eleanor had time to react, he had grasped her outstretched hand and pulled her onto the couch beside him. She landed against his chest in a flurry of sprigged muslin, one hand still imprisoned by his, the other clutching desperately at her shawl. He bent her head back against his arm.
Firm fingers ran gently over her hair before smoothing down the curve of her cheek.
"You have the most beautiful skin I have ever touched," the man said as with his other hand he very carefully pulled away her shawl.
Eleanor didn’t struggle, though she knew in the last coherent thought left to her that she should. Instead it was as if a paralysis had seized her and the whole world was moving as slowly as a trail of smoke from a faraway chimney.
His mouth smiled above hers, his lips carved like a sculpture, firm and smooth. Black lashes swept down over eyes the color of violets. Slowly, slowly, his fingers inched her shawl aside. Silk slid across her naked back, leaving her nape open to his delicate exploration.
She stared up at his closed lids in an odd desperation, torn between a frantic need to escape and a desire so mad it left her breathless. His cheek dimpled a little, as if in secret hilarity. He had stunning bones and rich, dark hair, thick and—soft, surely? His fingertips caressed, tenderly moving up her neck, creating an oddly languorous sensation in the pit of her stomach. Longing fired in her blood, sweeping over her in a wave. What would it be like to touch this man’s lips with her own—press her mouth up to his and realize the promise of that sensual smile?
Yet he held her lightly, almost courteously, in spite of his thumb sweetly tracing the outline of her ear.
She did her best to gather her wits. Her mouth was free to shout for help, which would also bring down the inn staff and her mother to witness her disgrace—
"Well," she said instead. "Which is it?"
The warm breath left her neck. He pulled back to look down at her, his lids very slightly slack above the blue depths of his eyes.
"Which is what?" he said with a smile. His fingertips still caressed her throat.
Eleanor did her best to summon every ounce of defiance. "Schoolgirl or hussy? I warn you that I shall take either description as an insult."
It was a devastating smile. "Hardly a hussy, in spite of your rather odd state of undress."
Hot blood raced to her cheeks. "Then what on earth is your excuse for showing so little respect for my reputation? For if I’m not a hussy, I must be a schoolgirl, in which case you are committing a form of robbery."
"No, your composure betrays you. You can hardly have come straight from the schoolroom. Not a schoolgirl, either, I think."
"Which shows you to be excessively wanting in judgment, for that is exactly what I am."
The lazy, comfortable look in his eyes disappeared. He released her, though he still smiled with wry delight.
"I did warn you," he said at last.
Eleanor sat up. She clasped her shawl around her shoulders as if it were a coat of chain mail.
"No, you didn’t. For how could a schoolgirl possibly be expected to understand what you intended?"
"You might have been a hussy in spite of being sister to the fellow in the locket. Since your dress is unhooked and you displayed no appropriate maidenly vapors, the odds seemed to be in my favor."
"Your profession is to take risks?"
The sardonic mask slipped back over his face. "Only calculated ones. I make my living at the gaming tables."
Eleanor stood up. Her legs trembled like saplings. "Then perhaps you should have done a little more calculating before accosting me. I am Lady Eleanor Acton, my father is the earl, and I would very much appreciate my locket."
Yet instead of looking impressed the gentleman with the violet eyes threw back his head and began to laugh. The sound was muted since he put both hands over his face. Hands that were extremely well made and well cared for, Eleanor noted distractedly.
She began to back away from him toward the door.
"No, no," he said, suddenly regaining control. "After all your intrepid bravery, don’t leave without it."
He leaped to his feet. If he really was drunk, it didn’t show in his athletic movements. He was very graceful, this young man of lithe strength and lean muscles with the carved face of a Renaissance prince. He caught her hand and deposited the locket into her palm.
"I don’t imagine that you will forgive me, Lady Eleanor," he said. "But I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. I’m afraid that I can’t let you leave quite yet."
"Why not? Am I to be ravished? I assure you that would make me kick and scream with no decorum or composure at all, before becoming hysterically vaporish, of course. But since I’m known in my family as the brown hen, I can hardly be tempting enough to someone of your undoubtedly wide experience."
"Do you always talk this way to gentlemen, my lady?"
"Never. But it doesn’t seem that I’m in the presence of a gentleman, after all. You have told me that you’re a gambler and I suppose you’re also a rake? I insist on leaving this instant."
"Not yet." The beautiful fingers closed on her wrist. "First you must tell me what you know about blackmail, brown hen."
Astonishment struck her dumb for a moment. "Blackmail?" she said at last. "Is that your game? You really are a bastard, aren’t you?"
"Yes," he said, smiling. "I am."
"What’s your plan? To inform my family that you compromised me at the Three Feathers and then demand money to tell no one else? For God’s sake, sir! My brother would kill you."
"The gentleman in the locket? Richard, Lord Lenwood, heir to the Earl of Acton, yes, I know him. He’s not a terribly good shot. I pray you won’t make him challenge me, because I would kill him and then you really would never forgive me."
"So you knew who I was all along?"
"Perhaps I did, and perhaps you meant your other brother, Harry? He’s reputed to be a crack shot, though I’ve never seen him with a gun. I have to admit it’s enough to give me pause, though I flatter myself I could match him."
"I also have a little brother, John, who’s excellent with a slingshot, and two sisters who would stop at nothing in my defense. And my mother stays with me in this inn, sir, and would very likely have you hanged for your conceit. Now, are you going to let me go, or am I going to have to bring the house down?"
"Your mother the countess, Lady Acton? Oh, Lord," he said, and laughed. "Your family name is the same as the name of the earldom, isn’t it? Which leaves us with an entire bevy of Actons and maybe more than one Jezebel among them. I told you I was foxed."
He bent and touched his lips to her fingers, then pulled her to him and kissed her fleetingly, just once, his mouth tender, maddeningly lovely against hers. She had drunk hot honeyed wine at Christmas, but this tasted infinitely sweeter.
His breath was warm on her cheek as he whispered against her ear. "Get the hell out of here, brown hen, and I beg you’ll forget you ever met me."