Even a cloistered young heiress in medieval England has her reckless moments…
Lord Oliver Bellecote has a way of bringing out the vixen in any woman. Any woman, that is, but Cecily Foxe, an innocent flower destined for the abbey who seems utterly immune to his charms. Or so he believes until the night they accidentally meet in the pagan ruins of Foxe Ring, and Oliver discovers that “Saint Cecily” is actually as tempting as sin…
Cecily would like nothing more than to forget her night of heated passion with the dangerously handsome Lord Bellecote. But denial proves quite impossible when she is charged with tending his every need during his stay at Fallstowe Castle. For only in his arms does she feel truly alive, despite the deadly secrets that surround his past—and threaten their tenuous future…
Praise for Never Kiss a Stranger
“Grothaus packs this medieval romance with humor and suspense… Her departure from the formulaic sensuality of many historical makes this tale a delightful read.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A charming romance.” –RT Book Reviews
February 2, 1277 Fallstowe Castle, England
Cecily Foxe was fairly certain she was going to hell.
She had been standing alone for the better part of two hours following the lavish supper, struggling to maintain a serene expression while she watched the revelers and their atrocious behavior. It was proving increasingly difficult. Men drank so heartily and hastily that the fronts of their tunics were dark with wine, and most women recklessly attempted to keep pace with them. Unmarried couples danced, although the lewd displays of bodies touching so intimately could hardly be defined as a supposedly innocent activity.
Cecily bristled as she watched even the least of the nobility, the humble, the homely, the meek, carry on with members of the opposite sex. Even poor Lady Angelica, who had a lazy eye and spat upon anyone unfortunate enough to be engaged in conversation with her, was being twirled about Fallstowe’s great hall with sordid abandon. Cecily had clearly seen the young man currently in possession of Lady Angelica unabashedly grasp the woman’s breast.
Only Cecily stood alone.
No one had asked her to dance. No young lord dared come near and whisper lurid suggestions to her, proposing they steal away from the hall for an hour of private sin. She was a lady of Fallstowe, wealthy beyond comprehension, powerful by her connection to Sybilla, perhaps even wanted as a criminal by the Crown. Unmarried. Both her eyes pointed in the same direction and she kept her saliva properly in her mouth when speaking.
And yet they all simply pretended she wasn’t there.
To everyone who knew her—nay, even knew of her—she was Saint Cecily. Middle daughter of Amicia and Morys Foxe. Slated for a life of quiet, gentle sacrifice. Although she had yet to formally commit to the convent, Cecily already fulfilled many of the obligations put upon one under holy orders. Up to even the wee hours of that very morn, she had assisted Father Perry in the countless and tedious preparations for the Candlemas feast; and in general, she looked over Fallstowe’s charitable responsibilities, tended the ill and dying, duteously prayed the liturgy of the hours.
Most of them, any matter.
She seldom raised her voice in a passion of any nature. She did not lie, nor indulge in gossip. She was obedient to her older sister, Sybilla, the head of the family now that both of their parents were dead. She was not ostentatious in either dress or temperament, preferring to wear costumes so closely akin to the habits of the committed that strangers to the hold often greeted her with a deferential incline of their heads and a murmured, “God’s blessing upon you, Sister.”
Cecily knew she was admired and even revered for her restraint and decorum. She was not outwardly bold, like young Alys, seen now dancing gaily with her new husband in the middle of the crush of guests. She was not obviously ambitious like the eldest, Sybilla, who ruled Fallstowe with a delicate iron fist. Cecily had spent the greater part of her score and two years carefully cultivating her gentle qualities. Molding herself to them.
And yet, at that very moment, her supposedly meek heart was so full of discord, she was quite surprised that she had not already burst into flames where she stood.
The dancers continued to whirl past, little carousels of gaiety and color around massive iron cauldrons that blazed with fires fed by the brown and brittle swags of evergreen and holly that had festooned Fallstowe’s great hall since Christmas. Although the blessed candles burned in their posts, the remainder of the celebration was largely pagan, bidding farewell to the barren winter while at once beckoning to the fertile light of spring. Cecily knew that her elder sister had purposefully sought to emphasize the heathen aspect of the celebration—unfortunately, Sybilla seemed to thrive on wicked rumor.
The Foxe matriarch herself weaved through the crowd now, both adoration and jealousy following close at her heels as she made her way toward Cecily. The men hungered for Sybilla—those few who’d once held her let their eyes blatantly show the aching memories of their hearts, and the many who had not been honored with the privilege of her bed pursued her without a care for their pride. Sybilla was powerful, desirable; Cecily was not.
As if to emphasize this point, Cecily again caught a glimpse of the primary object of her bitterness.
He could have been your husband, a wicked little voice whispered in her ear.
“Hello, darling.” Sybilla had at last fought her way through the pulsating throng to stand at Cecily’s side, her slender arm pulling the two sisters together at the hip. “I would have thought you to be abed an hour ago.”
Cecily was careful to keep her tone light. “This may well be my last feast at Fallstowe, Sybilla. I would remember it.”
Sybilla gave her sister’s waist a gentle squeeze, but did not comment on Cecily’s reference to Hallowshire Abbey. The two women observed the debauchery that ruled the supposedly holy day feast in silence for several moments. Then Oliver Bellecote whirled past once more, causing Cecily to lose control of her suddenly wicked tongue.
“I am quite surprised to see him,” she said, thankful that, at least, her tone was casual.
“Who? Oliver?” Cecily felt more than saw Sybilla’s shrug. After a moment, she said quietly, “I suppose I must call him Lord Bellecote now.”
Cecily’s heart thudded faster in her chest, and her indignation made pulling in her next breath difficult. “August has not been dead a month, and yet he is here—still behaving as if he hasn’t a care in the world or one whit of responsibility. It’s indecent and disrespectful. To his brother and to you.”
Sybilla drew away slightly, and Cecily could feel her sister’s frosty blue gaze light the side of her face. Cecily’s ear practically tingled. She hadn’t meant for her comment to come out that way at all.
“I am not offended by Oliver’s presence, Cee, nor by him enjoying himself at Fallstowe. Although ’tis no secret that Oliver oft exasperated him, August loved his younger brother. And Oliver loved August.”
Cecily turned to look at Sybilla, the question out before she could restrain herself. “Did you love August?”
For the briefest instant, Sybilla’s lips thinned and a fleeting fire came into her eyes. But then it was gone, replaced by a washedout melancholy that wrenched at Cecily’s heart.
“No, Cee. I did not,” she admitted as she turned her attention back to the crowd, now dispersing from the center of the hall as the music came to an end. The guests seemed only able to communicate in shouts and shrill laughter that sounded to Cecily like tortured screams. Yet she heard her sister’s low murmurs as if the two women stood alone in a cupboard. “I’m certain you pity me now.”
“No, not pity,” Cecily insisted. “I only worry for you. I was with the two of you the last time August was at Fallstowe, Sybilla—I remember.”
“As do I.” Sybilla’s eyes scanned the crowd disinterestedly. “I told him not to come back.”
“You didn’t mean it, though.”
“Oh, but I did,” Sybilla argued, quickly but with her signature coolness. “And now he never will come back. Now Oliver is Lord of Bellemont, a position I know from his brother that he never wanted, and is perhaps illequipped to fill. Oliver deserves a final farewell to his carefree existence before he truly dons the mantle of responsibility over such a large hold. Perhaps he’ll marry Lady Joan Barleg now— Bellemont needs heirs.” She paused as if thinking, and when she again spoke her voice was low. “It gladdens me to see him at Fallstowe.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Sybilla.” Cecily had forgotten her selfish pity at the thought that she had caused her sister to relive such sad memories. “You did nothing to cause August’s death. ’Twas a terrible accident, and that is all.”
“Hmm. Well, perhaps you should pray for my soul, any matter.”
Cecily tore her gaze away from her sister’s pale, enigmatic profile as the dancers reformed at the opening notes of the next piece. “I do hope he does marry Lady Joan,” she said abruptly. “He’s been toying about with the poor girl for the past two years. She must be completely humiliated. Are they already betrothed?”
Sybilla chuckled. “Oliver took nothing from Joan Barleg that she didn’t freely offer him, and now that he’s Lord of Bellemont, she has the chance to better her station immensely. Had Oliver been firstborn instead of August, Lady Joan would have had little chance of winning him.” A faint smile remained on her lips. “You likely don’t remember, but there was talk of a betrothal between you and Oliver when you were children.”
Cecily indeed remembered, but she gripped her tongue between her teeth painfully. Should Sybilla continue to goad her so, Cecily would end up as Lady Angelica, spitting her words rather than speaking them.
Sybilla continued in a bored tone when Cecily gave no comment. “It would be quite the coup d’état for Joan. But I have heard no formal announcement from either of them as of yet, so who can know?”
As if their talk had summoned him, Oliver Bellecote himself slid between a pair of dancers, becoming momentarily entangled in their arms. The three shared a raucous laugh as he extracted himself with a lewd pinch to the woman’s buttock, his chalice held high above his head to preserve the wine contained within. Cecily felt her diaphragm shrivel up uncomfortably at his approach.
Then he was before them both, bowing drunkenly, his lips crooked in a cocky grin beneath the close shadow on his face. His brown eyes were like muddy pools powdered with gold dust—dark and dirty and deep, the bright sparkle hiding what lay beneath. His thick black lashes clustered like reedy sentries, both beckoning and guarding at once.
“Lady Sybilla,” he sighed, drawing up Sybilla’s hand beneath his face and kissing the back of her palm loudly three times.
Cecily rolled her eyes and sighed. Sybilla only laughed. “Lord Bellecote, you flatter me.”
He should have risen then. Instead, he dropped to one knee, pulling Sybilla’s hand to his bosom and then lowering his chin awkwardly to kiss her fingers once more before raising his slender, strikingly handsome face to gaze adoringly at Cecily’s sister.
“Lady Sybilla Foxe, my most gorgeous, tempting hostess! Won’t you marry me?”
Sybilla threw back her head and laughed even louder, and although it was likely only the candlelight and smoke, Cecily thought she saw a glistening of tears in Sybilla’s eyes.
“Is that a no?” Oliver asked, feigning shock.
“Guard your honor well, Lady Sybilla!” a female’s gay shout rang out, and Cecily looked up in time to see the comely Joan Barleg skip past them in the arms of her dance partner, her golden curls spilling recklessly from her simple crispinette. She looked so carefree and . . . at ease. Cecily’s spine stiffened further.
Sybilla gave the woman a wink and raised a palm in acknowledgment. She then looked back down at the stillkneeling Oliver Bellecote.
“It is a no,” she affirmed.
To Cecily’s horror, Oliver Bellecote gave a horrendous wail—as if he’d been shot with an arrow—and then collapsed fully onto his back, the drink inside his chalice still miraculously maintaining the level.
“I am crushed! Defeated!” he shouted in mock agony. Several guests were now pointing and laughing at the display he presented on the stones. He raised his head abruptly, took a noisy swallow, and then looked at Sybilla. “Will you at least sleep with me then? Completely inappropriate, I know, considering our very slight degree of separation, but I fear I am now considered quite eligible.”
“Oh, this is truly too much,” Cecily gritted out from between her teeth. Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire.
Sybilla cocked her head and gave him a sympathetic smile. “Sorry, Oliver.”
His forehead wrinkled, giving him the appearance of a chastised pup. “Damn my slothly feet— you’re already spoken for.”
“I’m afraid so,” Sybilla answered.
“Sybilla!” Cecily hissed, outraged that her sister would have such an inappropriate conversation— even in jest—with this man where any could overhear their lewd banter. This man in particular.
“Forgive me, Cee,” Sybilla conceded, turning amused eyes to her sister while Lord Bellecote staggered to his feet.
Cecily squared her shoulders, somewhat placated that Sybilla had at last remembered both her station and her very public venue.
“How thoughtless of me,” Sybilla continued. “Lord Bellecote, I am engaged with other business this night, but I believe Lady Cecily, however, is thus far unattended.”
Cecily’s entire body went ice cold. She was unsure whether she would cry or throw up.
Oliver Bellecote had tardily gained his feet, brushing at his pants with his free hand. Sybilla’s flip invitation caused his movements to freeze. He slowly raised his face until his eyes met Cecily’s.
She would have gasped had she been able to draw breath. His direct gaze was like witnessing lightning striking the ocean. The first thought that came into her mind was, Why, he’s as lonely as I am. Her stomach hardened into a pained little stone. She wanted to scream at him to stop looking at her, wanted to turn and berate Sybilla for drawing her into such an indecent exhibition—
—she wanted Oliver Bellecote to suggest something inappropriate to her so that she might agree.
Oliver’s eyes flicked to Sybilla’s and in that next instant, both the notorious nobleman and Cecily’s sister burst out in peals of laughter.
“I am sorry to tease you so, Oliver,” Sybilla chuckled, drawing her arm back around Cecily’s middle, and Cecily hung a brittle, fragile smile on her numb lips. “My dearest sister would not have the likes of you wrapped up in the holy shroud itself.”
“Nor should she,” Oliver agreed with a naughty grin and deep bow in Cecily’s direction, although his eyes did not look at her directly again. “Alas, I am not worthy of such a gentle lady’s attention, as our wise parents decided so long ago.”
Sybilla quirked an eyebrow. “Yet you are worthy of my attention?”
The rogue winked at Cecily’s sister. “One must never cease to aspire to the heights of one’s potential.” He bowed again. “Ladies.” And then he slipped back into the writhing crowd with all the grace of a serpent in the garden.
Cecily felt her eyes swelling with tears, and she swallowed hard. Sybilla sighed. “Perhaps he— Cee? Cee, are you all right?” “Of course, Sybilla. I’m fine.”