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Authors: Jean R. Ewing

Tags: #Regency Romance

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BOOK: Scandal's Reward
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“No, no! Like this! Here and here . . You see!” Steel clattered on boards. “You’re dead, sir! Kate Hunter goes unavenged.”

And Captain Morris, who had been very neatly disarmed, sat down suddenly on the floor and went off into peals of laughter. Dagonet, panting slightly, reached for the dropped weapon and set both blades aside.

“God’s teeth, but you’re a demon with a sword, Dagonet! Now, when I get my breath, for Fortune’s sake, show me how you did that.”

“After a glass of wine?” Charles replied, crossing to the decanter. “Isn’t that how it was at Burgos?”

“Oh God, don’t!”

Grasping at his sides, David Morris rolled on the floor in helpless hysterics, while Dagonet sat calmly on the edge of the table, a wine glass in each hand. Eventually he slipped from his perch and quite deliberately poured one glass over Morris’s brown hair.

“I shall never make a swordsman out of you, if every time I try, you throw my past misadventures in my face and make yourself silly with laughter.”

“Oh, Jupiter!” Morris struggled to his feet and mopped, quite unconcerned, at the wine now trickling down his face. “I’m sorry, but you were the one involved with those French soldiers, risking your worthless life as usual, while I watched and saw their faces. God knows how you got away with your skin!”

“Because I speak gutter French like a native of course. My father taught me.”

“It was worth the entire campaign just for that moment. Come, let’s go back to the study! You’ll never teach me anything now.”

* * * *

The fire had died away and the talk had ranged over nearly every subject with which any educated young man might be conversant, and a few less familiar, when Dagonet stood and made for the door.

“I’m to bed, David. If you’re to take out the charming Miss Amelia in the morning, you had better wash your hair.”

His long fingers were on the doorknob, when suddenly he turned to his friend. “Listen. If it should prove uncomfortable for you, even for a moment, to have me here, you have only to say.”

“What? When I owe you my life, more than once, and what’s left of my sanity? Never! You may have the run of the place for as long as you wish.”

“Then I thank you.”

“But I do wish you would tell me, Charles: What was the truth about Millicent Trumble?”

The softness and relaxation were swept instantly from Dagonet’s features. He replied deliberately in the language of his father.
“Il vaut mieux tâcher d’oublier ses malheurs, que d’en parler.”

But David Morris had drunk just a little too much and was just a little too tired and comfortable to take the hint. “You may not want to talk of your misfortunes, but don’t tell me that you’re here because you want to forget them. You’re trying to find out something at Lion Court that will clear your name, aren’t you? I think I have the right to ask.”

“You have the right to ask, of course.” The cultured voice was perfectly courteous. “But that does not mean that I have any obligation to answer.
Rien n’est beau que le vrai
—there is nothing more beautiful than the truth, and the truth is that Millicent was a very silly girl.”

David’s jaw dropped open. He closed it with a snap. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry. Whatever happened, it changes nothing now, of course.”

“Ah, but it has changed, and will always have changed, everything. The sad little serving wench! I should not have been so foolish as to leave myself lying around for anyone to discover. I don’t know whether I killed her, if that’s what you want to know. I’m sure I was, however, as responsible as anyone for her death. Good night!”

Captain Morris stared silently at the fire for a moment. Of course he could trust his friend when it came to Catherine Hunter, if for no other reason than her being sister to his sweet Amelia. If only Charles de Dagonet felt that he could return that trust! He was a natural leader of men and had been a fearless soldier, but no one—not even his closest companion, Captain David Morris—had ever been able to get truly close to him. He didn’t seem to care what others thought of him and shrugged off his reputation as a rake and a libertine.

Morris shook his head, then leapt to his feet and without a backward glance walked through the house to the kitchens.

“Hello, Cook. Do you have any warm water left?”

He plunged his head up to the ears in the bucket she indulgently provided.


Chapter 4


Catherine enjoyed a day off once each week, and was thus to be found walking arm in arm with the Reverend Hunter through the sleepy streets of Fernbridge just a few days later. She had said nothing, of course, of what had happened the night that Dagonet had stolen the jewelry, but she was fooling herself if she had thought she could put it from her mind. His face was constantly in her thoughts. She blushed to remember her feelings when he kissed her. It was as if he had kindled a bright flame somewhere deep inside and the smolder might burn her to ashes however hard she tried to shutter it.

Yet how dared he?

She buried her rage and confusion. After all, there was nothing she could do. If Sir George Montagu, for the sake of his mother, was going to ignore the incident and take no action with the authorities against his renegade cousin, it was hardly her place to question it. Devil Dagonet, she fervently hoped, was now far distant, enjoying his ill-gotten gains.

She was deep in conversation with her father about something quite different, when they were hailed in a shrill voice.

“Oh, Reverend Hunter!”

It was Charlotte, at the reins of a little pony cart. She whipped up the pony, drew level beside them and pulled clumsily to a stop.

“How delightful to run into you, Vicar! I hope you will not take it amiss that I should condescend to speak to you on the public thoroughfare. My dear departed husband, Mr. Clay, always had the greatest respect for the cloth and would have wished me to acknowledge you.”

Her father murmured something polite while Catherine tried to keep a straight face.

Charlotte turned to her next. “How do you do, Miss Hunter? I suppose you have been telling your father all about the horrid unpleasantness we have had at Lion Court?”

“No, indeed not, Mrs. Clay!”

Charlotte ignored her and leaned forward like a conspirator.

“The most distressing thing imaginable, sir! My cousin Dagonet broke into the house after assaulting the servants and insulted us all. He removed our jewelry at the point of a gun. And we women without Mr. Clay any longer here to support us! My mother has been bearing up very bravely these last few days, but you can imagine our feelings. I declare my brother is quite overset. He is too loyal to family feeling, of course, to make trouble over it. Sir George has the greatest sensibility. Yet I intend to write to Lord Somerdale with the whole. My grandfather must be told. It will be news to cause him the greatest distress, but I see it my duty. Mr. Clay was always mindful of his duty. Well, I must be off. Good day, sir! We shall send for you and your wife, perhaps, some evening for cards?”

With that she whipped up the pony and rattled away.

“Well,” Reverend Hunter said with a decided twinkle in his eye. “How honored we are to be, in truth!”

“Papa, pray do not comment or I shall be quite undone,” Catherine replied, bursting into peals of laughter. “Sir George Montagu a man of sensibility! I believe he has the hide of an ox.”

Her father’s expression became suddenly serious. “So, what then is the tale? I am to take it that Charles de Dagonet has paid a visit to his family with disastrous consequences?”

“Papa! Mrs. Clay had made the most particular point that I should tell no one what happened.”

“Yes, but now the cat is out of its proverbial bag, you may as well tell me the whole.”

She took his arm again and they walked companionably on down the cobbled street.

“Very well. It was rather dreadful. Dagonet was apparently turned away from the front door—and no wonder! He boxed Sir George Montagu’s manservant, Potter, and blacked his eye, then tied him and three stable boys to the trees in the drive. Then he climbed in the window and robbed Lady Montagu and her family of their jewelry. I thought to ring for help, but he threw a knife and cut down the bellcord. He claimed with pride the titles of scoundrel and blackguard. Papa, your old pupil is the most out-and-out rogue, I’m afraid.”

“Is that everything?”

Her father’s glance was very keen. Catherine realized that she had never withheld anything from him before. Her face flamed. She would never mention that ruthless kiss.

“Isn’t that enough? I think him a man quite without scruple.”

“We cannot always know what’s in the hearts of others, my dear, nor all the circumstances of their lives. Do not judge too harshly.”

“But his behavior was unforgivable. How could he show his face here again, especially after what he did all those years ago?”

Her father sighed. “Millicent Trumble was a pretty, empty-headed little thing; she hardly seemed the type to attract Dagonet. I have never believed that he killed her. Only the family really know the details, but I think there must have been some kind of accident. Yet the fact remains that he was found that day passed out from drink by the path to the lake. He took a blow to the head in his fall and was ill for some days afterward.”

Catherine looked away in disgust. “Drink! It was the coward’s way out.”

“I’ll never understand it. The lad was anything but a coward. Afterward he stood up to the wrath of his uncle and the towering rage of his grandfather with the greatest courage. He denied nothing and said nothing, except that he was sorry that Milly had drowned. Lord Somerdale cut him off without a penny and he was turned out of Lion Court with curses. He had to give up Oxford, of course. He lost every hope that he might have had for the future. A lesser man would have broken under it. Instead, he left right away for the war.”

“The marquis bought him a commission?”

“No, indeed not. Dagonet went to join up as a common soldier. He had nothing, my dear. He wasn’t even allowed to keep his horses. Thank God that the recruiting officer had the good sense to recognize what he was and passed word to his superiors. Dagonet was, after all, a gentleman and he spoke fluent French. He was attached without official rank to a secret reconnaissance and intelligence unit of Wellington’s. However, nothing could have put him in more danger and I’m surprised he survived the campaign.”

“However do you know all this, Papa?”

“Because I made it my business to find out. I was fond of him, you see, and forgiveness is part of my profession. Now, enough! Here comes Amelia.”

In a very fetching straw bonnet and sprigged muslin gown, Amelia Hunter sat beside Captain Morris in his smart little curricle. As the horses drew to a halt, Amelia began to climb down.

“Papa! Cathy! The most extraordinary thing! We have just met Mrs. Clay. Devil Dagonet has been in Fernbridge. Captain Morris claims no interest in the matter, but I’ll swear he guesses something about it.”

Handing the reins to his tiger, Captain Morris jumped from the carriage to help Amelia. The party fell into step together.

“Do you think we’re all in danger?” Amelia asked.

“Good Heavens, Amy!” Catherine tried to put more conviction in her voice than she felt. Since the arrival of Dagonet, she seemed to be becoming embroiled in several small deceptions. “He must be a hundred miles away by now. I’m sure that none of us is in any danger at all.”

None of them noticed that Captain Morris seemed most unaccountably relieved when Reverend Hunter changed the subject.

* * * *

The next morning found Catherine playing softly at the piano, while Charlotte and her mother busied themselves with some mediocre embroidery.

“I met the Reverend Hunter in Fernbridge yesterday, Mama,” Mrs. Clay began, as if Catherine were not in the room. “I declare he has aged. One would not think the duties of a country parish so heavy.”

Catherine tried very hard not to crash out the chords of the piece she was playing.

“Hello, Mama.” Sir George came idly into the room, running a finger around his tight cravat. “Dashed uncomfortable day. Charlotte complaining again, or filling your ears with the virtues of the dear departed?”

“There’s no need to be arch, George. I only commented to Mama that I had run into the Reverend Hunter. It put me in mind that we should entertain while we are here. Mr. Clay would have seen it our duty.”

“What! And sit at table with a bunch of damned stuffy neighbors and talk about the corn prices and the wool crop. No, thanks!”

“Well, perhaps we could have a little evening dance, George,” Lady Montagu ventured. “Just a handful of couples to stand up in the blue salon. Since your father died, I have done very little entertaining and I rather owe it to the community.”

George flung himself into a chair. “And as lord of the manor, I must oblige? Any pretty girls to invite?”

“I think we might invite the Cartwright sisters, and Major Cartwright has friends at the Hall.”

“Have that chap Morris from Stagshead!” George said, sitting up. “He’s got the most bang-up team of cattle I ever saw.”

“And Miss Amelia Hunter is his betrothed,” Charlotte announced. “So we may invite the Reverend and Mrs. Hunter and their second daughter, and thus do our duty by the parish. Oh, Miss Hunter! I quite forgot you were here.”

“I have taken no offense, Mrs. Clay,” Catherine said. “I am sure my family would be honored to attend.”

She finished the piece with a flourish and snapped down the lid of the piano.

“Come, Miss Hunter,” Lady Montagu said. “You shall make all the arrangements. I declare I feel quite the thing. A splendid idea, Charlotte! Let us set a date!”

* * * *

Catherine’s duties, once so light, were becoming increasingly onerous. Charlotte Clay had been even more spiteful and querulous since the encounter with Dagonet. It was obvious that the family was afraid that their black sheep might visit them again. Sir George Montagu sulked, but he directed several of the menservants to keep up a constant vigil.

Lady Montagu had trouble sleeping, had to be coaxed to eat, and spent several afternoons in a darkened room with the headache. Now the plans for the dance kept her in a state of constant nervous agitation. Catherine found herself called upon to read aloud to her mistress in her chamber long after the rest of the household had gone to bed.

BOOK: Scandal's Reward
11.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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