|jeanrossewing.com Valor's Reward|
Valor's Reward by Jean R. Ewing
(Originally published by Zebra Books ISBN 0-8217-5410-6)
A note from the author: I broke a few unspoken 'rules' in this one! Valor's Reward touches into territory not often found in Regencies, though I can't explain without revealing too much. Yet in other ways, in style and detail and setting, perhaps, it's my most typical Regency. You'll have to read it to find out what I mean, but it's a favorite with many readers. (And yes, Jessica is holding a dueling pistol behind her back on the cover, though I promise she won't shoot... or will she?)
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"Marvelous ... Michael is the embodiment of a woman's secret longings, insightful, commanding, gentle. I found myself likening Valor's Reward to fine brandy, full, bodied, smooth, delicious and leaving me wanting more ... a delight." - Rendezvous
"A real favorite ... intriguing characters ... a memorable love story." - Four Stars - Romantic Times
|Michael, Earl of Deyncourt, rides rapidly north as a spring snowstorm threatens to close the roads. His manservant, Dover, rides close at his heels. Alas, Lord Deyncourt's journey is about to be unexpectedly interrupted....|
From CHAPTER 1
His bay snorted, flung up its head, and shied.
The earl brought his mount to a halt. Dover stopped dead behind him.
A carriage blocked the road ahead, its wheels sunk in the mud.
A team of matched grays stood hanging their heads in their collars. They were blowing and trembling, their coats darkened with sweat, their rumps marked with streaks. The coachman had obviously been applying the whip in an attempt to get the horses to move, but now he sat with the reins looped in the guard, and his hands above his head. Several other servants stood in the snow and also reached their hands to the clouds.
As Michael watched, the remaining occupant of the carriage descended from its interior to stand puffing in the mire. He threw up his hands and cried out.
"Outrage! Outrage! I’ll see you hanged for this."
For they were all being held at bay at the point of what looked suspiciously like a very old-fashioned dueling pistol, a weapon held with perfect steadiness in the hand of the driver of a wicker donkey cart.
The donkey stood patiently, idly flicking its long ears, as snow coated its back.
Michael had recognized the coach at once. The rotund lines of the figure now standing in the road, and the purpling jowls above the starched collar, could belong to only one individual: Lord Clarence.
Here was a pretty spectacle! Hanging Judge Clarence being robbed by a woman.
For the driver of the cart was female. Wrapped in a shabby cloak, she stood on the board in front of the seat with her pistol trained on the judge’s capacious chest.
Michael signaled his man to stay where he was, while he edged his horse a little closer. As a precaution he took his loaded weapon out of his pocket and cocked it.
The robber spoke. Her voice was clear and unexpectedly cultured, though with the faint accent of the North Country. Could it be some sprig of the gentry out on a wager? Good God! The girl would hang just the same whether the stunt was in jest or in earnest.
"The outrage is in your stubbornness, sir," she said coldly. "Now without your excessive weight, perhaps your team may try again? Coachman!"
The coachman lowered his hands and again took his whip and reins. The grays leaned into their collars. The carriage slowly moved forward.
Breathing hard, Judge Clarence glowered at his assailant.
"Now, sir," the donkey cart driver said. "You may trudge after your beasts until they reach the top of the hill. Then their honest hearts may not be broken having to drag your generous carcass through this mud."
"But you will first return his lordship’s purse, young lady." Michael’s voice rang with deadly clarity through the falling snow.
The girl cast a startled glance over her shoulder, causing her pistol to swing around. One of the judge’s men grabbed for his blunderbuss and raised it.
Michael’s finger closed. An appalling explosion of sound ricocheted through the trees as powder ignited in his pistol and then in the blunderbuss. As if felled by the roar, the girl crumpled and fell to the ground.
The donkey bolted. The cart bounced behind it as it disappeared into the gloom.
Michael spurred forward and leaped from his bay. The girl turned to glare up at him. The clear gray eyes that looked back into his were dilated in shock. Blunderbuss shot peppered the snow around her.
He had a sudden wild desire to take her by the arms and shake her. Instead, before she could react, he thrust aside her cloak and pulled her torn dress away from the wound. She was bleeding freely from a graze near her shoulder, but she would live.
"For heaven’s sake," she said with fierce bravado. "‘Murder most foul!’ You tried to kill me?"
"But you are only wounded. How careless of me! It would wickedly delight my acquaintance to know that I missed my mark."
"Yet you didn’t hesitate?" She choked back a gasp as he tied up the wound with swift, sure movements. "Is casual murder your habit?"
"My past is littered with corpses," he said with deliberate mockery, "though seldom those of women. I aimed for the heart, of course."
"So you think I should count myself fortunate?"
"Very! You survived both my ball and the blunderbuss. Of course, though the guard’s shot has a wider scatter, our pistols have more range. If I hadn’t shot you, perhaps you would have murdered me?"
He grinned and pulled the cloak around her. White flakes were steadily coating their heads and shoulders.
"With whom are you working?" he asked. "Your friends seem to have left you to your own devices."
"I don’t have any friends. Oh, devil take it! Here comes Gargantua."
The earl looked up to where the judge was struggling toward them through the mire.
"By Jove, Deyncourt! Here’s the result of your radical ideas, sir. The highway’s not safe for honest gentlemen. If you hadn’t turned up, this creature would have robbed and murdered me in cold blood. Hanging’s too good for such villains."
Michael rose so that his body blocked the girl from the judge’s gaze. He was shamelessly pleased that the snow was beginning to fall ever faster, blurring the landscape.
"Purely fortuitous, Lord Clarence," he said smoothly. "You are not hurt, I trust? I am relieved to hear that you still have your purse—and your life, of course. For you were about to fall foul of a vicious gang. This is no woman lying here."
Judge Clarence stopped. "What do you say, sir?"
"I have shot down a boy in a woman’s cloak—like the infamous Old Mob who robbed coaches dressed as a female. It’s the latest ruse of a ferocious band of highwaymen. One waylays a coach in such an innocent guise while the others hide in the woods, ready to spring upon the victims. Fortunately, the sound of our gunfire has frightened them off."
"Did you not hear their horses’ hoofbeats?"
"Indeed! Muffled by the snow, of course, but now that you mention it, I did. Yet we have this one in our clutches, at least. I’ll see him hanged before the week’s out, or my name’s not Clarence."
Michael inclined his head. "Very fitting, sir. Didn’t you hang three miscreants together just last month? Yet it’s a foul night. Why don’t you continue your journey in peace? You must still have some way to go, whereas I am at the doors of Tresham, my destination. I can take this rogue in hand and relieve you of the trouble."
Lord Clarence shook snow from his shoulders. "Be grateful if you would, Deyncourt. Late already for Lady Fletcher’s dinner, don’t you know. I’ll send a man over for the fellow in the morning. Clap him in irons and take him to Bedford."
With that he tipped his hat and turned away to slog up the hill after his coach and servants, cursing as the slush befouled his evening slippers.
Michael returned his attention to the wounded robber. She was clutching at the makeshift bandage. Her lashes were damp, perhaps only with snow, for she made no other protest. As she sat up, the hood of her cloak fell back, revealing hair that blazed like a flame in the dim light. She immediately grabbed at the wet fabric and thrust it back over her head.
"You shot me," she said. "Why on earth are you now protecting me?"
"Perhaps I like an enigma, or maybe I’m the very model of chivalry. On the other hand, how can you be sure I’ll protect you? Lord Clarence’s man will arrive in the morning with chains, after all. Yet when life presents such a delicious absurdity as a lady in a donkey cart holding up a judge on the King’s highway, I’m damned if I’ll miss the chance to explore it. Can you ride?"
"I’m not sure." It was obviously a particularly annoying and humiliating admission. "Where do you intend to take me?"
"To a snug pallet of straw in the storage rooms at Tresham Hall, the place whose woods are keeping off the worst of this storm right now."
She looked at him with open suspicion. "Why should I trust you?"
"I am ‘a true, a perfect gentle Knight,’ of course."
"Oh," the girl said. "Chaucer? How very erudite! Then why don’t you take me to your castle?"
"I can’t," he replied. "It’s too far. But Tresham will suffice until you’re taken to the gallows. You might have thought twice before despoiling the local magistrate."
"I could hardly be expected to know that the object of my venality was a judge, could I?" To his immense surprise, she laughed. "Oh, very well! Take me where you like."
"At least you will have one last dry night before you swing from a tree."
He lifted her to her feet. At the movement, she stumbled against him.
"Devil take it!" Michael said softly. "If you faint, we’ll all freeze where we stand. Dover, take the animal!"
The servant hurried over and caught the earl’s horse by the bridle.
"Now, Miss Highwayman, if you will allow me?"
In one swift movement, he picked her up in his arms and set her onto his mount. He nodded to his servant and took his horse’s reins.
"Thank you, Dover. If you would find the poor startled ass?"
Dover mounted his own horse and rode off in the direction last taken by the donkey cart.
Michael smiled at the girl before vaulting up behind her. It was a smile guaranteed to soften female hearts, but she sat stiffly away from him.
"Pray, relax against me, ma’am," he said in her ear. "It would make it easier for both of us. I shall need to put an arm about your waist in order to guide the horse."
"Am I expected to enjoy a close proximity to someone who has just wounded me?"
"Why not? Ladies usually enjoy my company." He kept the touch of his arm as impersonal as possible as he gathered the reins. "Though it’s a form of courtship I admit to having shamefully neglected in the past. Would you rather I left you to bleed to death in the snow?"
"I would rather you had not shot me in the first place."
"Nevertheless, I have done so, ma’am," he replied with exaggerated courtesy. "So please rest against me, and I shall take you all the faster to a more commodious location. And while we ride, by all means contemplate every delightful motive that a gentleman like myself could possibly have for rescuing a damsel in distress."