Read Virtue's Reward Online

Authors: Jean R. Ewing

Tags: #Regency Romance

Virtue's Reward

 
VIRTUE’S REWARD

 

Jean R. Ewing

 

“Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.”


Measure for Measure

 
Chapter One

 

“By God, I’ve been hit!”

Captain Richard Acton whirled his mount at the cry. His fellow officer had sagged over the neck of his charger. The horse jibbed and shied as the reins fell slack. At the violent movement, the rider slid heavily from the saddle and thudded to the ground, leaving a dreadful smear of scarlet across the animal’s sweat-drenched shoulder. The frightened horse threw up its head and galloped away.

Richard swore beneath his breath as he pulled up his bay and leaped to the ground.

The men were momentarily alone, sheltered suddenly from the fury of the battle by a slight dip, where a stunted bush sent out the first green shoots of spring, and the remains of a stone wall rose jaggedly from the lane. Behind them a cluster of French farm buildings lay in gaping ruins, then fruit trees and trampled vineyards stretched away toward the far white-capped peaks of the Pyrenees.

Ignoring the acrid smoke-filled air and the thunder of the guns echoing through the damp orchard, Captain Acton knelt over his friend.

“So you have, sir,” he said gently.

Edward’s red coat was absorbing the blood as it was designed to do, without showing any stain, but it was becoming dark with moisture. Richard tore off his sash and wadded the cloth into the wound. In moments it was the same color as their coats.

Sir Edward Blake smiled wanly up at him.

“Don’t waste your time, old fellow!” He coughed weakly and blood spattered his chin. “I’m done for.”

“Nonsense,” Richard said. “You’ll live to win another hundred guineas from me yet.”

“Lying don’t suit you, sir. Not your style! Final wager to make now: Heaven or hell, what’s it to be?”

Blake grinned but clamped his teeth together as a spasm of pain shot through him and his fingers unwittingly crushed into his friend’s muscled arm.

Richard cradled the dark head against the strength of his own body and smoothed back the damp hair. Edward had begun to shake. He was right, of course. A pretense would do nothing to help, not this time. He offered his flask of brandy: balm and sure death in one.

“Then you don’t want to meet your maker sober, do you?” he said quietly.

But the wounded man pushed his hand away. His face was the color of the silver stopper.

“Richard, listen, there’s—” He choked and a fresh rush of sweat soaked his features.

“What is it, Edward? Name anything!”

“My cousin,” Edward gasped. “Helena. It’s hers. I—” Another shudder shook his frame.

“Easy does it. What’s hers, my friend?”

“Will—” His hand moved ineffectively toward his own brandy flask as he shut his eyes against the pain.

“Mine’s as good as yours, sir, but if you prefer your own poison, you shall have it.”

Richard reached carefully for Edward’s flask in its tightly stitched leather cover, and pulled off the top.

“Helena,” Sir Edward Blake insisted. “Trethaerin. Cornwall. Will you—?” His voice was filled with pleading.

Captain Richard Acton gripped the dying man tightly by the hand. “Never fear, my friend. You have my word. I will take care of her.”

Edward smiled faintly.

“Brandy,” he breathed.

And died.

Richard ran his fingers over the silver monogram stamped into the leather, before he replaced the stopper and thrust his friend’s flask into his own pocket. Laying the body of Sir Edward Blake softly into the mire, he said a single prayer, then swung back onto his restive horse. The noise of the guns and the shouts of men exploded around his head. Spurring the bay into a wild gallop, Captain Richard Acton burst out of the lane and cut a swath of merciless destruction through Napoleon’s fleeing men.

*  *  *

“I am very sorry to tell you this, ma’am, so soon after your other loss.” The solicitor coughed discreetly into his gloved hand. “But in the circumstance of your cousin having died intestate . . . It’s very awkward, ma’am.”

“I don’t see any awkwardness at all, Mr. Marble,” Helena Trethaerin replied calmly. Ever since her father’s death, this sense of unreality, of disconnection, had dominated her days. Now it could spread its numbness a little deeper, that’s all. “I am sure that Mr. Garthwood will do right by me when he arrives. Poor Edward! I hope it was sudden. Had my father known before his own death—” She rose to her feet. “But there it is! I thank you very much for coming all this way—and in such dreadful weather—to explain things so clearly.” She smiled and held out her hand. “There is no reason, surely, why I should not stay on here for now?”

“None at all, ma’am. Mr. Garthwood made that perfectly clear. You are to continue to treat Trethaerin House as your own. He will not be able to wrap up his other business, he tells me, for some months, but he is very sensible of the injustice of your situation. He will most certainly not see you turned from the door.”

The solicitor left, and Helena gazed out at the steady rain pouring down past the windows. It was unusually wet for April.

“Awkward!” she said aloud to the empty room. “Papa, now that poor Edward is killed, you have left me with a complete disaster.”

*  *  *

“Why does the summer sky of England smile on her children like a mother, when the sunshine of Spain sucks the soul of a man like a leech?”

The charger flicked back an ear at his rider, then forward again when no further comment ensued. Captain Richard Acton was back on his native soil, where the world was green and lush again. It was late summer in England, and the wheat stood ripe in the shook, promising the chill winds of autumn any day.

The horse bent his glossy neck under his master’s caress, then at the touch of his heel cantered away down the road.

Richard did not speak to his horse again, but allowed the balm of the green trees, the rich fields, and the snug cottages to do their work. The Peninsular Campaign was long over. He would never see Spain again. Wellington’s army had fought its way into France and won the final battle at Toulouse in April. They learned too late that Napoleon had already abdicated. It made no difference to Edward; he had been over a month dead by then.

The early part of the summer had passed quickly enough in Paris, and then in August Richard had been required to join Wellington as he surveyed the defenses of the Low Countries. The Iron Duke was now back in the French capital as ambassador, and his captain could at last return to England.

Richard thought briefly of what he had discovered in Paris and suppressed a shudder of rage. It was one reason he had not returned to London in June to join in the victory celebrations. The delay had been more than unwelcome, but he had done what he could.

Now he was free to fulfill his own obligations rather than those of his government or his conscience. Secure in his saddlebags he carried Sir Edward Blake’s leather brandy flask, all that was left of his friend. Somewhere in Cornwall was a place called Trethaerin and Edward’s cousin Helena. He would find her and deliver the flask, and make sure that she wanted for nothing.

No doubt he would have to make up some heroic tale about Edward’s death. Ladies did not want to think that their relatives were victims of such a random and sordid slaughter. There were not even any noble last sentiments to convey. Every simple word of that final conversation was engraved in his memory.

Would he also have to lie to her about that?

Frowning, he slowed his horse and gazed blindly at the straggling roadway ahead. Ever since Edward’s death he’d felt haunted. There had been something else, something important, that his friend had wanted to tell him.

Whatever it was, he would never know, and neither would this cousin Helena. In any event, he was sworn to take care of her, whether he found her in wealth or in poverty. He wondered fleetingly what she was like and what her situation was, before he forced his mind back to his journey. His charger broke into a fast trot. The rise of Exmoor lay before him, and around the next bend was Fernbridge. He would get a room for the night with David Morris before continuing on down the coast to Cornwall.

* * *

“Good God, Acton! Welcome, welcome! To what do I owe this unexpected happiness?”

“To convenience, sir.” Richard grinned at Morris and then at the antlered brass doorknocker. “Stagshead is on my way. I could hardly pass by without paying my respects to a comrade-in-arms, could I? May I beg a room for the night?”

A groom took the bay, while David Morris showed Richard into his study and poured them both a shot of brandy. Richard threw himself into a wing chair and sprawled back against the squabs.

David turned to him, his face alight with pleasure.

“Devil take you, Acton, but it’s good to see you! How long can you stay?”

He did not have time to reply. A dark-haired gentleman had appeared in the doorway. He came in and leaned gracefully against the mantel.

“Long enough that we may all get thoroughly drunk reminiscing about our recent glorious, brave, and noble campaigns, I hope. How else should three old soldiers spend an afternoon together?”

Richard looked up in astonishment, then sprang to his feet and shook the newcomer by the hand.

“I would recognize that acid tongue anywhere. What on earth are you doing on Exmoor, Dagonet?”

“Je me jette dans l’eau de peur de la pluie.”

“You leap into the water for fear of the rain?” Richard raised a brow, then laughed. “I’m damned if I see why having a French father entitles you to speak nonsense in his infernal tongue, except when it was useful against Boney, of course.”

Dagonet grinned and filled a glass for himself.

“You will get nothing more out of him, Acton,” David said. “He has come here for some sordid purpose of his own.”

The newcomer winked at Richard. “And stays at Stagshead, imposing on the generosity of poor Morris and hiding his disgraceful presence from the locals.”

“Don’t tell me you’re undercover once again?”

“For purely personal reasons this time,” Dagonet said. “I grew up here.”

“Then I’ll be discreet, of course.” Richard sat back and relaxed. He and Dagonet had worked together on more than one covert mission in Spain. He knew better than to question further, and he had concerns of his own. “What particular part of our nasty military endeavors did you wish to recall?”

“Can’t we talk about peace?” Morris said a little wistfully.

Dagonet took a swallow of brandy. “If what we saw in Paris is what peace will bring, perhaps we’re better off without it. Were you able do anything at all, Acton?”

“I’ve done what I can.” Richard choked back his disgust. “Whatever a considerable sum of gold and the services of some damnably efficient fellows can accomplish.”

“Did you think there was danger in becoming so deeply involved?” Dagonet asked.

Richard laughed. “To me? Hardly! But we shan’t have much time to indulge ourselves in maudlin remembrances of either Paris or the glorious Peninsula. I’m for Cornwall in the morning.”

Dagonet sat down in the third chair, the sunlight from the window profiling his perfect features, and turned the glass of brandy in one elegant hand. “Why to Cornwall?”

“For Edward Blake’s sake. If it were up to me, I would never travel again.” Richard smiled. “All I want for myself is some quiet domesticity.”

Dagonet closed his eyes. “Poor Blake! I’m sorry.” He was about to go on, when there was a noise in the hallway. In the next instant he had sprung to his feet and made for the window. “Someone comes, dear Morris. I must leave like a thief.” He nodded to Richard. “If I don’t see you again before you leave, dear Captain Acton,
bon voyage
!”

He bowed, threw up the sash, and stepped into the garden. Richard closed the window behind him.

“Impossible as always,” David Morris said. “It’s what comes of being a spy. Such habits are hard to shake, I suppose—but then you were an equally competent conspirator, weren’t you?”

Richard grinned. “I certainly never saw him here.”

The door opened and two ladies walked into the room.

“It’s the most awkward and annoying thing, David,” the first cried. “Catherine may visit only when Lady Montagu allows her the day off. Can you imagine anything more mortifying? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, sir.”

Richard bowed over the hand the speaker held out. She was a vision of English beauty: blue eyes, curling yellow hair.

“Don’t linger too long over that pretty hand, Captain Acton,” Morris said with a smile. “It belongs to my betrothed, Miss Amelia Hunter. She is my peace. May I present Amy’s sister, Miss Hunter?”

Richard turned to the other lady. Taller, browner, she was regarding him with a look of considerable amusement. Catherine Hunter was obviously used to men reacting to her younger sister’s classic looks.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” she said as she curtsied. “Do you visit Stagshead long?”

“Only for the night, Miss Hunter,” Richard replied. “With regret. I go down to Cornwall tomorrow.”

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