“On a scale of 1-5 stars, this is definitely a 6 star book. Don’t miss this one!”
– Affaire de Coeur Magazine
She risked everything in one seductive dance . . .
Disguised as a veiled courtesan, Lady Rexana Villeaux dances for Fane Linford, the new High Sheriff of Warringham. Desperate to distract him while her servant steals the missive that condemns her brother as a traitor to the Crown, she entices Fane with all the passion in her soul—and he is tempted.
A hero of the crusades, Fane has been granted an English bride by the king. Fane wants only one woman: the exquisite dancer. When he discovers she’s actually a highborn lady, and that her rebellious brother is imprisoned in his dungeon, he will have no other wife but her.
Rexana doesn’t want to become the sheriff’s bride, but it may be the only way to save her brother. Yet as she learns more about her brooding husband tormented by barbaric secrets, she finds it harder and harder to deny his love or their dance of desire.
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Tangston Keep, England, 1192
“I do not like this wretched scheme, milady.”
Lady Rexana Villeaux shivered in the icy night wind that whipped into Tangston Keep’s forebuilding. “I know, Henry, but ’tis the only way to get the list of traitors.”
She drew against the stone wall, into the shadows at the bottom of the stairs. Bawdy laughter and the music of lute and drum carried down into the passage from the great hall. As she smoothed the veil covering her nose and mouth and the silk over her head, tiny bells tinkled at her wrists. The jewelry’s weight pressed upon her skin, a foreign sensation.
She inhaled a shaky breath. Would her deception succeed?
In the dim light, Henry glanced at her, his gaze worried. Rexana’s belly clenched into a knot. She must not succumb to fear. She must focus on her task. Her brother’s life depended on her. Dear, impetuous Rudd, the only family she had left.
Wiping her sweaty palms on her embroidered skirt, she started up the stairs.
Henry strode beside her. Torchlight flickered on his silvery hair and shadowed the grim set of his mouth. “I hope your hot-headed fool of a brother appreciates the risk you are taking to save his arse.”
Rexana shot Henry a sharp glance. “Mind your tongue. He is not your pupil in the tiltyards any longer, but master of Ickleton Keep. Your lord.”
“With respect, he is fifteen and very much a boy.” Henry wagged a finger, callused from years of wielding a sword. “I still remember the day your mother and father presented him to me, all pink, squished, and noisy as a pig’s fart.”
Her heart squeezed. “Henry!”
“You are right. ’Tis no time to speak of such matters. May your parents forever rest in peace.” Henry’s eyes darkened. With a scarred hand, he caught her elbow, halting her just outside the light spilling in from the hall. “Milady, look at you. An earl’s daughter, dressed like an infidel whore. What madness convinced me to let you go through with this?”
She swallowed a sting of irritation. Heaven above, she did not need his permission. When would Henry cease treating her like the child he had bounced on his knee and hand-fed expensive sweetmeats? “Not madness, Henry. Fate. The girl who plays the Saracen’s lover in the local mummer’s troupe would have entertained the sheriff—”
“Except she fell ill.” Henry nodded. “I helped her through Ickleton’s gates, then summoned the healer.”
“A boon, that her costume fit me well enough.”
He snorted in clear disapproval. “Nay, a curse.”
Rexana looked down at her stiff fingers, darkened like her body with thin layers of flour and mud. “The girl knew of no one to take her place, and it provided us a way to get through Tangston’s gates. Henry, we must find the missive that lists the names of sworn traitors. The one the sheriff intends to send to the crown.”
“Because somehow Rudd’s signature is on the document.” Henry sighed. “Could the maidservant who fled Tangston be mistaken about what she overheard? She was half mad, ranting about the sheriff’s barbaric ways—”
“Her dead sire swore fealty to my father. Moreover, she is a friend of Rudd’s. She had no reason to speak false.” Cheers and laughter erupted in the hall and, with a shudder, Rexana looked toward the noise. “Rudd is not involved in the rebellion stirring against the crown. I will not see him ruined by accusations of treachery.”
Henry touched her arm. “Please. Must you dance? We will find another way to save Rudd.”
“There is no other way.” Rexana curled her clammy hands into fists. “I can delay no longer. The others know what to do?”
Footfalls echoed in the corridor. She glanced past Henry to see four musicians approach, men loyal to her and Rudd. They willingly risked their lives this eve. For that, she would be forever grateful.
Rexana’s pulse began a painful thunder against her ribs. Her fingers flitted to the delicate gold brooch pinned to her bodice and hidden by the garment’s fringe. An arrow wrapped with a flowing ribbon, a gift from Rudd a few sennights ago. A reminder of the bond forged between them one snowy day, and why she must not fail.
She pulled from Henry’s grasp. As the mummer had instructed, Rexana removed her leather shoes. If she did not fully accept her role this eve, she would never deceive the barbarian sheriff.
Gasping as her bare feet connected with cold stone, Rexana pressed her shoes into Henry’s hands.
“Rudd would try to save me,” she said softly. “And I am indebted to him in more ways than you could ever understand.”
Blinking away stinging tears, she stepped into the hall.
Fane Linford, High Sheriff of Warringham, sipped his wine and glanced across the vast, smoke-hazed hall. Every nobleman in the county, it seemed, had accepted his invitation to this feast. They celebrated his return to England as well as the position of authority granted to him one hot, bloody morn at Acre by King Richard himself.
All, that is, but a significant few.
His gaze drifted to the lute player sitting near the fire who plucked out a song. More musicians, strangers to Fane like the majority of the guests, moved to the hearth with their instruments.
A rough voice rose above the hall’s noise. Fane’s eyes narrowed on the harnessed black bear which stood on its hind feet, turning in a circle as its trainer shouted commands and flicked a stick. A crude if not effective display of a master’s power over his minion. A display Fane intended to emulate when he crushed the rebellious lords rising against the crown.
“A clever bear,” said Lord Darwell, seated at Fane’s right.
Setting aside his silver goblet, Fane reached up to pull a lock of ebony hair from his eyes. “I preferred the fire eaters who performed earlier. I admire a man who risks his own demise, but is still fully hale afterward.”
Darwell scratched his thick, graying beard and laughed as though uncertain how to respond. “You have a point.”
“One of many I learned on crusade.”
A flicker of unease crossed Darwell’s face, quickly replaced by a mix of curiosity and admiration. “You spent many months as a prisoner of the Saracens, did you not? I must congratulate you. I understand the siege of Acre last year would never have succeeded without you. I doubt my son would have returned.”
A chill rippled down Fane’s spine. With his eating dagger, he speared a morsel of roasted quail and shoved it between his teeth. “I only did what was necessary.”
“How did you manage to stay alive amongst the infidel? Did you not spy for the king?”
The chill spread. Deepened. Fane forced a smile. “A warrior has his secrets.” He chewed the meat, poorly spiced like most of the fare he had recently tasted. With wicked intensity, he craved a fiery mélange of turmeric, cardamom, and cumin, and the perfume of eastern food.
Darwell chuckled. “Secrets? Mayhap a woman?” After taking a noisy slurp of wine, he slid sideways until his elbow pressed against Fane’s arm. “Are the rumors true?” he asked in an eager, hushed voice. “Did you really fornicate with a Saracen wench? What was it like? Did you enjoy it? Did she—”
“As I said, a warrior has his secrets.” Fane stifled the urge to grab Darwell by the front of his tunic and growl in his face. Every lord he had met since his return to this cold, wet country had wanted to believe in his depravity. Even when they commended his heroism, he saw disgust in their eyes. Darwell hid his distaste better than most.
With a grin, Darwell straightened and eased away. “One day, you will tell me the truth. When we have drunk each other under the table and trust one another as friends.”
Fane laughed. Hellfire, he did not have to disclose his past to Darwell or any man. One day, his peers would look upon him and speak to him with genuine respect, accepting him for who he was. It would take time to build the necessary alliances and destroy the canker undermining loyalty to the crown—far longer than the three sennights he had resided at Tangston—but Fane had long ago mastered perseverance. His allegiance to the king had sustained him through days when he longed for death. He would ensure the crown’s victory in Warringham.
Shrugging aside his thoughts, Fane glanced back at the bear. The animal completed its circle. Grunting, it dropped back to all fours.
Applause filled the hall. Darwell cheered.
As Fane clapped and thanked the flushed-faced trainer, he noticed movement near the forebuilding’s entrance. Light glittered off the embroidered costume of a dancer. Eastern garments accented her figure and floated like cobwebs as she wove her way past the far tables.
Fane’s breath caught in his throat. Memories . . .
Leila’s lithe, oiled body gilded by lamplight. The cloying smell of burning incense. Torture. Imprisonment. Living each day as though it were his last.
The sapphire ring on his right hand glowed as blue as the dancer’s garments. He grabbed his wine and gulped a mouthful. It tasted like sand.
What insanity had possessed him to grant the eager-to-please steward full control over the eve’s entertainment?
He should send the dancer away. Immediately. But others in the hall had already noticed her. If he dismissed her now, even discreetly, he implied displeasure, disastrous for a woman who earned her livelihood through recommendations of her good performance. The poor wench probably depended on this eve’s coin to put food in her belly and feed her children.
Nay, God help him, he could not send her away.
Beside him, Darwell blew a sigh, then squinted at the left side of the hall. “I have not seen young Rudd Villeaux yet this eve. Did he not plan to attend?”
Dragging his gaze from the dancer who hesitated in the shadows, fingering her veil, Fane wiped his lips with his thumb. “I received word from him earlier this eve. He cannot come. Pressing matters of estate.”
“A pity, his parents’ deaths. He is young to have the responsibilities of lord.”
“They died recently?” Out of the corner of his eye, Fane watched the dancer stretch her slender arms over her head, preparing her body to perform. The men at the tables behind her grinned, pointing to her navel, and he bit back an inexplicable pang of annoyance.
“The earl and his wife were buried six sennights ago. Both killed by sickness.” Pouring more wine from a silver jug, Darwell said, “Did you know the Villeaux’s are distant cousins of the king? No purer blood in England. The son is a handsome enough lad, but the daughter—”
“Daughter?” Fane murmured. The dancer rubbed her arms with her hands. Was she chilled from standing in one of the drafts wafting through the hall? Or, was she anxious about performing before him? His mouth curled into a bitter smile. Had she heard the subversive gossip that called Fane the failed son of a once-powerful earl? That named him a ruthless infidel? Regrettable, that some of it was true.
“Her name is Rexana.” The name tumbled off Darwell’s tongue with undisguised appreciation. “Exquisite. Fair of face with breasts like—”
Fane tipped his head to the nearby fruit bowl. “Oranges?”
With a chuckle, Darwell uncurled his hands. “Finer than your costly oranges.” He shook his graying head. “I am a fool to speak so, when I pray my son Garmonn will marry her. ’Tis Garmonn who is friends with Rudd Villeaux and who went on crusade,” he added with a sly smile. “Mayhap you will speak favorably of my son when I petition the crown for the marriage?”
“Mayhap.” Pushing aside his goblet, Fane reached for the bowl and speared a dried fig with his eating dagger.
“Wedding Lady Rexana will permit Garmonn into the most respected court circles,” Darwell said eagerly. “’Twould be a great honor. What father would not want the best for his son?”
Resentment stung the back of Fane’s throat, but he quickly cleared away the foolish emotion. Years ago, he had vowed not to feel even an inkling of remorse for the final, bitter confrontation with his sire. Futile, to wish that dark day had been different. The old tyrant was long dead.
Keeping his tone noncommittal, Fane said, “I will consider your request. Though she sounds so exceptional”—he plucked the fig from his dagger—“I am tempted to wed her myself.”
Disappointment clouded Darwell’s eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but a tabor’s strident hammering curtailed his words.
Fane glanced up. He froze.
Lifting her hands high in the air, fingers curved outward in invitation, the dancer slunk between the rows of tables. She twirled into the open space in the hall’s center.
With slow, sinuous movements, she began to dance.
Each step brought Rexana closer to the dais. To the dark skinned man with wild black hair and eyes that glittered with frightening intensity. To the barbarian Sheriff Linford, who held her brother’s fate like the fig caught between his fingers.
She silently cursed her stiff limbs. Her body was no stranger to creative expression. Yet, when she danced in the meadow, she had only the birds, still water, and ancient willows watching. There, she danced for herself.
Never for a man.
A shiver tore through her. She must focus, draw upon her heightened emotions, use her anxiety, sorrow and fears to enhance her performance.
She must not fail.
Ignoring the appreciative stares of the noblemen around her, she whirled across the space directly before the sheriff. Dry rushes scratched against her feet, an odd sensation. The pungent scents of dried basil, fennel, and rosemary floated up from the floorboards. Cool air brushed against her naked stomach. She fought the urge to cover herself.
Raising her lashes a fraction, she glanced at Linford. He was not watching! He conversed with Lord Darwell whose tongue, as she well knew from past feasts at Ickleton, always loosened after a few goblets of wine.
Disquiet swirled inside her. Curse Linford! Did the rumors not claim that he enjoyed eastern courtesans? Why, then, did he ignore her?
She spun in a graceful turn. Still, he did not watch.
Frustration bubbled in her throat. By the saints, she must distract him, otherwise Henry would not be able to slip into the sheriff’s solar to find the missive.
Too many lives depended on her. Most of all Rudd’s.
Rexana cast the musicians an urgent glance. Faster, her mind cried. As though sensing her urgency, the drummer nodded, quickening the pace. She threw out her arms and stamped her feet. The tiny bells at her ankles chimed.
Whirling even nearer the lord’s table, she thanked the holy saints that the poor lighting and dark cosmetics would hinder Darwell from recognizing her. As would the veil and head covering, she silently reminded herself. The musicians had commented earlier how thoroughly all her features, except her eyes, were concealed.
Spurred by a burst of confidence, she drew close enough to distinguish the sheriff’s deep, slightly rough voice. Close enough to see the tanned plane of his cheek and the hard, sensual curve of his mouth. Close enough to speak to him, if she dared.
“Look at me,” she whispered, “Look at me.”
Linford glanced up. Over the floating veil, she caught his gaze. His eyes were brown and shadowed by wickedly long, black lashes. His wary, perceptive gaze slashed into her with stunning force.
She stumbled, caught herself, and disguised her falter with elaborate turns. As she spun back to face the dais, she saw Henry edging his way to the stairwell.
Fear sharpened her breaths. Her gaze shot to Linford. He had not seen Henry. Laughing at a comment from Darwell, Linford turned the fig slowly in his fingertips. The sapphire ring on his hand glinted as he tossed the fruit into his mouth, then stared directly at her.
So, she had captured his attention.
A spark of satisfaction warmed her. With a smooth swivel of her hips, she dropped to the rushes. The drummer faltered, then resumed his frantic pace. Do not fail me, she prayed.
With catlike movements, she crawled across the coarse rushes. The tang of crushed herbs, rotting food scraps, and mildew filled her nostrils. Never in all her years had she been this close to a hall floor. Her mother would have swooned with horror to hear of such an occurrence.
A blush stung Rexana’s cheeks. Resisting the urge to scramble to her feet, she rose up on her knees, arching her spine to flaunt her bare skin. She must focus on her goal, not her fear. No one recognized her. No one would ever know of this incident. Once Henry had the missive, she could forget all about this eve.
Curving her arms in an elegant move, she straightened and rose to her feet. She peeked at Linford through her splayed fingers. His gaze met hers. He slid another fig between his teeth, chewed, then licked his bottom lip.
She glided toward him.
He resumed talking with Lord Darwell.
A scream burned for release. Stubborn, stubborn man. She had piqued his curiosity. Now, how did she keep him enticed? How did she hold the interest of a savage?
Heady anticipation shimmered through her. She must think like a barbarian. Act the part of an infidel courtesan. Play to his desires. Reveal the wildness trapped in her soul.
Closing her eyes to the faces around her, she focused on the tabor’s rhythmic beat as well as the plaintive melody. Reminded herself that Rudd’s life hinged upon this moment. Stretched her body and limbs farther than she ever had before.
The ankle bells tinkled.
Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
Fear, anxiety, and longing bloomed inside her, feelings she had known well since childhood. The schooling of a titled lady left little time for chasing beetles or butterflies, or for picking bouquets of stringy wildflowers.
Her parents had expected her to accept her noble duty. She had done so. Bravely. Willingly. She had loved and trusted them. Now, they lay buried in the hard earth.
Dance, Rexana! Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
He was watching now.
The silk brushed against her legs, a sensation similar to the breeze wafting through the grasses near her secret pool.
There, surrounded by the quiet majesty of trees and weathered rocks, she allowed the stifled voice inside her to cry out.
There, lifting her hands to the sun, she absorbed the power of the vast blue sky and the soil beneath her feet.
Surrendering to the passionate howl inside her, she danced.
She reached her palms upward. Aye, just like that.
Step. Whirl. Step. Sway.
Rexana dared another glance. Linford stared as though he could not look away. As though her dance seduced him.
She rolled her head and shoulders in a slow, sensual arc.
Exhilaration flooded her mind.
Her steps quickened.
The familiar cry hummed through her body. Heightened her senses. Infused her heart and soul with a heady blend of joy, confusion, and . . . yearning.
Her body arched.
She danced as she dared near the pool, where no one could see, with only her reflection to laugh at her folly. In those moments, she felt more alive than at any other time in her life.
As she whirled in wild momentum, she heard the music slow. The dance was ending. Too soon!
She would summon the musicians to begin another song. She lowered her arms. Blinking away the haze of bittersweet memories, Rexana dipped her head, then extended her arms in an elegant finale.
The last strains of the music stopped.
The hall fell silent.
Her breaths, obscenely loud, rattled in her throat.
Why had the chatter and merriment halted?
She raised her head a fraction. Her pulse kicked against her ribs. Darwell sat alone at the lord’s table, his cheeks flushed and his jaw gaping.
Not five paces to her right stood Linford, his arms crossed over the front of his tunic. Half masked by smoky shadow, his face revealed no emotion.
She rubbed her trembling hands over her belly. What had happened? Had Darwell recognized her? Had he told the sheriff her identity?
Fear shot through her. For herself. For Henry and the musicians. For Rudd.
Tugging her veil closer about her face she took two startled steps back.
“You will not run away.” Linford’s mouth tipped up in a half smile. He crooked a finger. “Come here, little dancer.”
Fane scowled as the woman’s eyes widened with panic. Why did she want to flee? Because of the shocked murmurs spreading through the hall? Because of the rumors about him? Or because no man had dared to confront her after a performance?
Her chest rose and fell in a frantic rhythm. Perspiration beaded on her throat and dotted her bronzed skin. He looked lower, at her breasts swelling against the embroidered silk bodice. Beautiful. A generous handful of warm flesh. Breasts as big as . . . oranges.
His hardened loins stirred.
With effort, Fane wrenched his gaze from the dancer’s cleavage to meet her stare. She had not moved, but stood as still as a carved stone statue. He sensed her reticence, strong as the sensation that virtually hummed in the space between them. She would cross to him. Of that, he had no doubt. Whatever the rumors, he was Warringham’s sheriff, appointed by the crown. By virtue of setting foot within his keep, she owed him that gesture of respect.
“I am waiting, love.”
She swallowed and made a small sound of distress. His gaze narrowed on her face. Her nose, mouth, and chin were concealed by the veil. Were her lips full and red? Was her nose slim or angular? A woman of mystery. Mayhap deliberately so. Her eyes were rimmed with kohl, heavily lashed but . . . emerald green. Unusual, for a wench of dark skin and eastern blood.
Frowning, he glanced at the cloth covering her head, but the fabric lay flat against her temples. He doubted her hair flowed thick, glossy, and black like Leila’s.
His hands tightened into fists, even as he snuffed a sting of anger. Foolish, to take offense. This woman was an entertainer, a wench of English blood acting a role. She did not understand the nuances of eastern dance. He had recognized that the moment he saw her move.
As though sensing his displeasure, the woman tipped up her chin. She started toward him, each step articulated by the chime of bells. Ah, but how she moved.
Torchlight skimmed over her slender shoulders and down the planes of her firm stomach. She glided toward him as though she approached King Richard himself. Head held high, she radiated the poise and elegance expected of the highest noble courts.
Who was this woman?
She paused before him. Almost in afterthought, with the barest hint of resentment, she lowered her gaze to stare at his tunic. He sensed the tumultuous emotions warring within her, threatening her self-control. The same fierce emotions had reverberated in her dance and touched a note deep inside him. Her heart had spoken. It echoed the profound, primitive bellow of his own tormented heart. Before her dance had finished, before he could stop himself or consider the consequences, he had walked around the table, stepped off the dais, and crossed to her.
Steeling his wayward concentration, Fane drew in a breath. She smelled of violets. Sweet. Delicious.
“An interesting dance you performed this eve,” he said.
“I hope it pleased you, milord.” Her very English voice sounded slightly husky and breathless. The way a woman sounded after she had been kissed. Focus, fool!
Shoving aside the distracting thought, Fane muttered, “I never saw a dance quite like yours in all my years in the east.”
She stiffened. The bells at her wrists jingled as she clasped her hands over her stomach. “I was instructed in this fair country. I admit I have never danced before a sheriff of such . . . authority, milord. Your esteemed reputation—”
“Ah.” With a firm hand, he reached up and touched the edge of her veil. As his fingers tried to drag down the shimmering fabric, she jerked away. He frowned. “You fear me, little dancer?”
Beneath the sweep of her lashes, her eyes sparked. “I do not.”
“Yet, you turn your face away and refuse to look up at me. You are indeed frightened. Or you hide secrets from me.”
Her green eyes glittered in the torchlight. Lovely eyes, darkened with anger, confusion and distrust. Eyes that revealed the passion within her.
“I am honored you wished to speak with me,” she said with the barest quaver, stepping back, “but I must leave now.”
His jaw hardened. “You cannot. I have not dismissed you.”
“I do not need—” Her sharp voice faltered.
Fane’s lip curled in anger. She did not need to finish. He heard her unspoken words. I do not need your wretched dismissal, barbarian. A treacherous thought for a peasant who fed herself through the coin earned from her dance.
As though sensing his displeasure, her gaze softened. So, she was wise enough to bite her tongue and try to pacify him. “I believe the jugglers are to perform next. I do not wish to delay the rest of the eve’s celebrations,” she said. Glancing at the musicians, who stood staring at her as though awaiting a superior’s orders, she added, “Your guests will grow restless.”
As I grow restless, woman, in your presence. As my blood stirs, and my pulse thickens, and my soul hungers for more of your dance. “You will stay.”
She gasped, a sound of utter indignation.
Before she could dart away, he caught her hands. Raising them to his lips, he kissed her fingers, feeling the tremor that coursed through her. As he released her, he drew the sapphire ring from his finger and pressed it into her palm.
“A token of my appreciation, and my interest.” He trailed his thumb down over the veil to her lips. “You will stay, love, as I command. By the end of this eve, we will know each other very well. And I will know all of your secrets.”
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