Scandals Reward

Scandal's Reward
by Jean R. Ewing

(Originally published by Zebra Books  ISBN 0-8217-4666-9)

Winner:  Award of Excellence, Best Regency

Nominated: Romantic Times Best First Regency

Finalist: HOLT Medallion Best Regency 

E-book available now!

"Pure delight. The conclusion is so perfect you will savor it forever." - Affaire de Coeur

"True Regency wit and charm ... a delightful novel with a hero who will capture every reader's heart." - Jo Beverley

"An absolutely splendid hero ... This is an excellent book, one of the best Regencies I've read in ages." - Rendezvous

"Remember the name of Jean R. Ewing. This major discovery makes a most impressive debut with
Scandal's Reward, the fascinating tale of a clergyman's daughter who gets involved with a notorious gentleman out to prove himself innocent of the death of a foolish maid ... an author on the rise." - Romantic Times

Scandal's Reward

From Chapter Two

Catherine has accepted a post as lady's companion with Lady Montagu at Lion Court. After hearing rumors that  Charles de Dagonet (their cousin and the black sheep of the family) has been seen in England, Sir George Montagu (Lady Montagu's son) and Charlotte Clay (Lady's Montagu's widowed daughter) have come down to Lion Court from London. Charlotte made her disapproval of Catherine obvious when they first met...

She was to play for them all after dinner. It had been a little uncomfortable during the meal, since Lady Montagu insisted over Charlotte’s better sensibilities that her companion dine with the family. Catherine had tried to keep the peace by at least dressing as plainly and conducting herself as meekly as possible. She wore a simple green dress that was cut high to the neck and possessed only one deep flounce around the hem.

As if to emphasize their difference in social status, Charlotte was arrayed in a dazzle of jewels. Diamond pendants swung from her ears, and a matching necklace lay around her short neck above the décolletage of her puce silk. Even Lady Montagu wore a set of pearls that Catherine had never seen before, and Sir George’s elaborate neckcloth was pinned with a diamond that matched the jewel on the face of his fob.

"The necklace becomes you, Mama," Sir George said as they all went into the drawing room and Catherine folded back the lid of the piano. "I don’t know why you didn’t think it right to wear it."

He winked at Charlotte.

"That is such a common gesture, George! The pearls look very well, Mama, but to speak plainly they would be better suited to a younger lady. I only wish Mr. Clay might have seen me in these." She patted the earrings. "He liked to see me wear fine gems."

"I own I cannot really like it, George," Lady Montagu insisted. "We really have no right, even at a family dinner."

"Yes, just a trifle vulgar, wouldn’t you say?"

A man stepped from the shadows at the corner of the room. Power and grace stalked each long stride. The muscled limbs and broad shoulders were elegantly dressed in immaculate evening clothes, but his dark hair tumbled over his forehead. In his right hand, almost casually, he held a pistol which seemed to have an unerring attraction for Sir George’s capacious chest.

Lady Montagu uttered a small scream and sat down. Catherine quietly put down the music book and stood, her heart thudding, beside the piano.

"What the devil do you mean by this?" Sir George’s face was puce above the folds of his cravat.

The stranger moved a little farther into the candlelight. His gaze was deep green and fathomless, like the sea. It was the rider of the gray Thoroughbred.

"What, no warm welcome for the prodigal returned from the pigsty, Charlotte? And cousin George? You look as if the ghost had just appeared before you on the battlements: ‘How now, Horatio! you tremble and look pale: / Is not this something more than fantasy?’ I am not the harbinger of doom, my dears, only cousin Dagonet, back from Spain. Perfectly harmless, really!"

"The servants had instructions to show you the door, sir, as a scoundrel and a blackguard, if you ever showed your face here again."

"Don’t be pompous, George! It doesn’t become you. I was, of course, turned away when I humbly presented myself at the front door. Such a lamentable lack of family feeling! But no matter, he who is denied entrance by the door must needs come in at the window."

"What can you want here?" Lady Montagu said faintly. "Oh, this is all quite dreadful!"

"Then I am sorry to distress you, Aunt." Dagonet bowed his head with perfect courtesy. "But I came among other things for the family jewels. Don’t move, George! If I were forced to kill you, there would be no one to inherit Lion Court from our grandfather. Charlotte, you really should take a seat and close your mouth."

While George sputtered and the ladies wrung their hands, Devil Dagonet moved smoothly from one to another and divested them of their jewelry. Catherine, forgotten by the piano in her plain frock, moved as quietly as she might around the sofa and the Sheraton chairs to the bellpull beside the fireplace. So the insolent stranger on the moor had been the notorious Dagonet! He should not get away with stealing the jewelry if she could help it.

She had the bellpull in her hand and was about to give it a mighty pull, when the entire length of silk cord, suddenly severed, slithered past her arm and coiled on the floor at her feet. A small knife, expertly thrown, quivered in the cornice above her head.

Dagonet was looking straight at her, his eyebrows very slightly raised.

"I do not believe," he said with unstudied grace, "that I have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance?"

She met his gaze steadily, though her breath was coming uncomfortably fast, as if she had just raced up six flights of stairs.

"My name is Catherine Hunter, sir. I am Lady Montagu’s companion. We met, in case you have forgotten, on the moor. It seemed to me to be about time to interrupt this melodramatic little scene by inviting in some other members of the household. I don’t suppose that even you can shoot both Sir George Montagu and the butler at the same time. However, you have severed the bellpull, and neatly prevented me from being the heroine of the hour."

"Ah, the servants." He seemed to consider for a moment. "Unaccountably, it has occurred to no one to scream, Miss Hunter. Perhaps the family do not wish any witnesses? Or," he looked straight at George, "perhaps they do not wish me to meet certain members of the staff?"

Catherine stood her ground. "Perhaps they are simply embarrassed by childish games. It is already distressful enough for Lady Montagu to have a nephew whose name is used to frighten children in the village, without having the pearls removed from around her neck in her own drawing room. Not having any such scruples myself, of course, I could very well cry out for help."

"And I do not frighten you, Miss Hunter? A brave young lady! I am, according to my own cousin, my companion from childhood, a scoundrel and a blackguard. Each member of the household has given me some token of their wealth. Since you are determined to be included in this family scene, is there nothing you can contribute to my venality? Nothing I can steal from you?"

Catherine hated the way she knew the color was rising in her cheeks as he walked slowly toward her. The sea-green gaze swept over her simple frock in the most insolent manner. For no good reason Annie’s silly words kept running through her mind, ‘He’s had tons of lovers,’ and Amy stating with such confidence, ‘It was because of his reputation with the ladies that they called him Devil Dagonet.’

He shall neither charm nor frighten me, she promised herself. He shall not. I shall scream if he comes a step closer. Yet her breathing was already shattered, out of control.

He thrust the pistol in his belt, stopped directly in front of her, and reached long fingers to her cheek. He brushed a stray wisp of hair from her neck and touched tenderly below her ear. She was desperately aware of the soft pressure of his fingers and of his clean, masculine scent: plain soap, and the outdoors, with perhaps the faintest hint of brandy.

"A lock of hair, perhaps?"

She met his gaze defiantly. There was something so magnetic and powerful about him! "I do not give you any such permission, sir."

"But I must not disappoint our audience," he said. "After all, I have my reputation to live up to. Since you refuse me the gift of your hair, Miss Hunter, I shall have to steal a kiss."

Surely she could have cried out for the servants then, but she felt stunned into silence. For in the depths of his eyes she saw the last expression she would have expected: neither anger nor malice, only a rueful laughter, ruthlessly buried. Helpless with astonishment, Catherine lost all sense of where she was: the candlelit room, its scandalized occupants, all disappeared from consciousness as unwittingly she gave herself up to his embrace.

He tilted her head and his fine lips closed over hers. An aching sensitivity inflamed her blood. Her tongue tasted honey, tender and sweet. Strange delight flooded through her body: a terrible, wonderful anguish—like the gift of an angel!

Moments later he kissed her throat tenderly, then murmured against her ear.

"I apologize for not being sucked down in Rye Combe Bog as you directed. It did display scurrilous manners not to instantly die so, after treating you so cavalierly. Though it’s no excuse, I was rather preoccupied and, of course, I’ve known the track perfectly well since childhood. I hope you’ll forgive me, Miss Hunter, but please don’t call the servants. I don’t want to have to slay any of the footmen."

He pulled away and crossed the room. No one had moved. They stood like pawns awaiting the hand of the chess master. Catherine felt bereft, her heart thundering.

Dagonet laughed aloud. "I thank you all for your contributions." Turning to Catherine, he swept her a bow, then sat on the windowsill, folding the ladies’ gems and his cousin’s diamond pin and fob watch into his pocket handkerchief.

"Damn you, Dagonet! What do you intend to do with the jewels?" It was Sir George, his face suffused with anger.

"Why, what would you expect me to do with family heirlooms? Sell them and support my dissolute lifestyle, of course."

"Then you can go to the devil!"

Dagonet’s eyes opened a little in amused astonishment. "How can I possibly go, George, where I already reside?"

The curtains parted and fell together again and he was gone.