Never Love a Lord
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Her future may be in peril, but it will take more than a royal army to be the undoing of a fiery heiress in medieval England. . . Julian Griffin has vowed to fulfill his mission: to secure the estate of Fallstowe for King Edward. Only one obstacle stands in his way--the beautiful Lady Sybilla Foxe. The King suspects her guilty of treason, and Julian must prove the claims are true. But as the evidence against Sybilla mounts, so does Julian's attraction. Prepared to fight for her home, Sybilla is fearless--even when King Edward's army descends upon Fallstowe Castle. Yet in Julian she discovers a more formidable foe than she imagined. For he stirs an overwhelming desire in her. And when she is forced to confront the secrets of her family's past, Sybilla must rely on Julian to save her from the King's wrath. But as their feelings for one another deepen, giving in to temptation will put both their lives in danger. . . Praise for Never Seduce a Scoundrel "Reinforcing her reputation for unique storytelling that is full of humor, suspense and pure romance, Grothaus wins readers' hearts." – RT Book Reviews "An enticing and vibrant historical." – Publishers Weekly
Release date: March 1, 2012
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 353
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Never Love a Lord
Sybilla Foxe swayed with the stiff breeze that shoved its way between the battlements where she stood more than one hundred feet above the ground.
Beneath her, six hundred of King Edward’s finest were readying to make war against her, their torches and bale-fires blooming in the night, the creaking of wooden beams and the clanging of metal wafting up to her as discordant notes from a demonic orchestra. The conductor of the affair had only just arrived in an ornate carriage, driven to the fore of the company and rocking to a stop. As of yet, no one had emerged.
To either side of Sybilla—indeed, around the whole of the castle’s impressive topmost perimeter—Fallstowe’s soldiers crouched behind the protective stone merlons of the castle’s tallest turret, their own torches snuffed. They were one with the shadows cast by the bone-white moon, round and glaring down on them.
Save for Sybilla, who stood in an embrasure, her arms outstretched so that her palms held her fast within the teeth of the battlement. She knew that her silhouette would be visible to anyone with a keen eye who looked in just the right spot. The wind came again, pushing her, buffeting Sybilla so that her spine bowed, her palms scraped against the stone. She was like the mainsail of a ship filled with a seaborne tempest, her rigging straining where it was lashed to landlocked Fallstowe. Her hair blew forward around both sides of her face, catching in the seam of her mouth. If she but loosed her stays, the wind would rip her away from the turret into the night, wildly, silently, without remorse.
Sybilla closed her eyes and tilted her face up. Now she was the carved figurehead on the bow of the ship, so free and fearless. She could feel the grit beneath her slippers rolling as her feet slid almost imperceptibly nearer the abyss.
With one step, it could all be over . . .
The wind relented, and Sybilla sagged back between the merlons. Disappointment prickled along her jaw, causing her chin to tremble, her eyes to sting. She forced her reluctant arms to fold, stepping backward and down from the battlement and onto a mantlet, the large wooden shield ready to be put into service at a moment’s notice. Sybilla turned calmly to face her most faithful friend—Fallstowe’s aged steward—properly.
In that instant, the air before Sybilla’s face went white hot and flames flashed before her eyes with a blinding whoosh. A solid-sounding thunk echoed in the soles of her feet and both Sybilla and Graves looked down at the flaming arrow stuck in the thick wood of the mantlet, a hand’s-breadth before her right foot. A parchment was tied to its shaft.
Sybilla looked up at Fallstowe’s steward in the same instant that he, too, raised his eyes.
“Shall I fetch that for you?”
Sybilla forced herself to swallow. She had been closer to death than she’d realized.
Without waiting for her answer, Graves reached out one long, thin arm and jerked the now sputtering missile free before snapping the shaft in half and tossing the glowing ash of the fletching to the stones. The only sounds atop the turret were the wind, the barely discernible rustle of armor covering the backs of impatient soldiers, and the scratching of Graves’s fingernails against stiff parchment.
Sybilla could scarcely hear them above the blood pounding in her ears.
At last Graves handed the missive to her. Sybilla held the curled ends in her hands, turning the page toward the bright moonlight. The page was covered with thin, scrawling characters, undecipherable in the night, but the ornate preface as well as the thick, heavy seal under her thumb were clear enough that Sybilla understood without reading the royal proclamation.
Edward I had come for her. The king meant to take Fallstowe, this night.
As if she had not already ascertained that fact by the six hundred armed men arriving by moonlight to camp beyond her moat.
She sighed and dropped the hand holding the missive to her side. “Thank you, Oliver,” she muttered. Certainly Edward would have come for her eventually, but the king had no doubt been prompted to act by the message recently sent by Sybilla’s newly acquired brother-in-law, Oliver Bellecote.
Sybilla hoped her younger sister, Cecily, was enjoying her wedding night more than was Sybilla.
Only a handful of months ago, the king himself had warned the youngest of the Foxe sisters, Alys, at his own court. Alys was now safely ensconced at bucolic Gillwick, with her husband, Piers.
It will come down to you, Sybilla. She heard the phrase in her mind, spoken to her so many times by her mother. She could still picture Amicia vividly, lying in the bed that was now Sybilla’s, her useless right side both bolstered and half-hidden by pillows.
And it will end with you.
Sybilla wondered who the king had sent to lead the siege against her, and she called to mind the ornate carriage she’d seen arrive below. She turned her face toward the battlements again, just as another flaming arrow whooshed over the crenellation and sank into the wood at her feet.
Sybilla gasped this time, and she felt her brows draw together as she saw another parchment tied to this arrow’s staff. She was becoming slightly irritated with this particular method of correspondence. The murmur of soldiers’ armor was more insistent this time, and Sybilla knew they were anxious to act.
“My lady?” Her general rose from his position, obviously waiting for her to give the signal to return fire. His drawing hand hung at his hip, the exposed fingers in his glove catching the ivory moonlight as they clenched and unfurled.
“Hold, Wigmund,” Sybilla cautioned him.
“It nearly struck you,” the knight argued. “’Tis obvious the thieves are aware of your presence—they think to avoid a fight should they fell you in advance.”
“I know your men are eager. You will likely gain the battle you crave before the dawn has stepped both feet onto the earth.” Sybilla looked back down at the arrow. “But I am as yet untouched. Hold.”
“Madam?” Graves asked solicitously.
“I’ll get it,” Sybilla said, hitching her skirts up slightly into the crease of her hips in order to crouch down on the massive wooden shield. She untied the parchment, leaving the flames to flicker their little light while she unfurled the message and held it near the dying flame.
Instinctively, Sybilla looked to the battlements, although from her crouched position she could see nothing but sky. Negotiate? She could see no points on which either side was willing or able to concede. The only information that might save Sybilla, and which the king couldn’t already know, was what she had sworn to her mother while Amicia lay dying. And that she would never, ever tell.
Fallstowe might be taken, the Foxe family would be no more, Amicia’s name would be synonymous with deception and scandal, but the greatest secret of all would be buried in a grave.
Most likely Sybilla’s.
As if to emphasize the inevitability of her fate, another flaming arrow lofted over the battlements, this time pinning the hem of Sybilla’s gown to the wooden platform.
The roar of armor shook the night as soldiers rose like a black wave to the battlements, even as Wigmund bellowed “Place!” and was answered by the echoes of his lieutenants repeating the order around the whole of Fallstowe Castle. The air trembled with a whiny reverberation, the audible tautness of hundreds of bowstrings.
Graves cleared his throat. “Won’t you come away from the edge now, Madam?”
But instead of fear, Sybilla began to feel the familiar rumblings of anger. “I said hold!” Sybilla shouted up at Wigmund. “Hold your men!”
The general glared at her but relayed the command. He did not order the men to stand down, and Sybilla had not expected him to. She knew they would be pushed only so far, with or without her word.
Still, once they fired on soldiers of the king, their fates were sealed.
Sybilla tossed the earlier plea for negotiations aside and, without unpinning the still-flaming arrow from her gown, removed the latest message.
“That pompous ass,” Sybilla growled, her fury spreading like thick ice on a deep lake. “Wigmund,” she called out calmly as she jerked the extinguished arrow free from the wood.
“Bring your bow. Wrap and dip a fletching—I want to be certain it is seen.”
Sybilla turned the dead arrow in one hand, using her other hand to place the most recent missive on the flat shield. With the coaled end of the arrow she scratched a short, crude message, and then tossed her makeshift writing utensil aside.
When she looked up, Fallstowe’s general stood above her, his longbow in one hand and a single arrow in the other, its end bulbous and dripping with pitch.
Sybilla stood in one swift motion, still anchored to the wooden shield by the flickering arrow, the parchment crumpled in her hand. She seized the projectile Wigmund offered and then glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye as she tied her message to the arrow.
“I haven’t the strength to draw a longbow, good sir; I shall have the one across your back.”
If the general was surprised that Fallstowe’s lady intended to send the message herself, he hid it well, ducking his head to remove his shorter weapon and holding it toward Sybilla. Before she took it, she bent at the waist and yanked the flaming arrow from her hem, quickly touching it to the primed fletching in her hand. Then she grabbed the bow and turned to the battlements once more.
“I shall be the only one to fire,” she advised her general, and was satisfied as the command to hold made its way around the turret and away into the night.
Sybilla stepped into the embrasure and knocked her arrow, the bubbling pitch hissing, the heat from the flames rising up to warm her face. She knew she had only seconds before she was spotted. She quickly raised her elbows and lowered her weapon until she had sighted in on her target.
The carriage. A lone archer stood with his back leaning against the ornate conveyance, bow in one hand, arms crossed over his chest, as he conversed casually with another soldier. He paid Fallstowe no mind.
She drew the bow, her muscles quivering with effort. With no archer’s glove to protect her, the flesh of the first two fingers of her right hand felt cut to the bone by the bowstring. Her shoulders and chest strained, but she no longer felt like stepping off the ledge into oblivion. In fact, she felt rather better.
Below, the archer’s face turned upward, and she heard his faint shout of surprised alarm.
One more fight then, for posterity’s sake.
Sybilla felt her lips curve into a smile, then she let her arrow fly.
It seemed as though not a single candle was lit within the whole of Fallstowe Castle, implying that the entire household beyond the still, moon-washed stones was abed and unaware.
Julian Griffin was not so foolish as to believe that was true at all, and so he was willing to give the lady ample time to reply. At least another moment or two. It would disappoint him greatly to order the drawbridge fired, but it seemed unlikely that Fallstowe would simply roll over at this late date when faced with yet another royal decree.
Yes, very disappointing indeed. Julian had been very much looking forward to speaking at length with Sybilla Foxe. After the past year of research on her family—traveling both here and abroad—Julian had become fascinated by the enigmatic heiress of Fallstowe. He dropped his hand and the heavy curtain covering the carriage window fell back into place.
Any matter, he was here to perform his duty for the king, and in return he would be rewarded with a home and lands for himself and Lucy. Scholarly curiosity notwithstanding, that was his main goal.
His thoughts turned briefly to Cateline; how smugly pleased she would be if she could see him now, outfitted in one of her cousin the king’s royal carriages, on the eve of leading a siege in the name of the Crown. How far he had come from the penniless noble she had first met upon his return from the Eighth Crusade. Julian had gained so much since then: a powerful friend and benefactor in Edward, the king’s own cousin for a bride, authority in London, coin to spare. And most important of all, of course, was Lucy.
Julian sighed and moved the curtain back once more. He could hear his archer conversing with another soldier. Julian’s eyes shifted, and he saw Erik standing a few feet away from the carriage, overseeing the erection of a war tent. Julian put his hand on the door latch, ready to remove himself from the carriage and set the siege in motion. Sybilla Foxe was not going to surrender.
Before he could open the door, he heard the archer’s shout, and then the carriage shuddered as a loud crack emanated from the roof. Julian turned his face up and saw a distinct point in the satin lining of the carriage ceiling directly above his head, where only a moment before it had been flawlessly smooth.
“What wuzzat, milord?” Murrin gasped, coming aright from her slouch in the corner where she’d been sleeping. Her hands reached instinctively for the traveling cradle beneath her arm, although Lucy had not stirred.
“All’s well, Murrin,” Julian said. He pushed the door open and stood up on the frame in order to poke his head over the top of the carriage.
An arrow, flaming wildly, punctured the king’s royal conveyance. Julian’s face turned upward to the castle’s tallest turret, and in the shadowed relief of the battlements, he saw a small figure.
A figure whose skirt was blowing wide in the wind. Julian reached up and jerked the arrow free of the wood before hopping to the ground and closing the carriage door gently. When he turned, he was immediately surrounded by his officers and two soldiers bearing torches. None of the men said anything while Julian untied the wrinkled parchment and threw the flaming arrow to the ground. He unfurled the page, saw his own writing, and then turned the parchment over.
It was unsigned.
Julian looked up once more at the figure still standing in the crenellations, and he knew the author of the message just as surely as if she had whispered the two words into his ear.
“Hello, Sybilla,” he murmured through his grin.
“Shall we make ready, Lord Griffin?” Erik prompted, shaking Julian from his reverie so that he turned to address the armed man.
“Not yet, Erik,” Julian said, handing the man Fallstowe’s message. “It seems I’ve been granted an audience.” He turned to the carriage door again.
“You’re not actually going alone, though, are you?” Erik demanded incredulously.
“Of course not,” Julian said easily over his shoulder as he opened the door. Then he spoke to the carriage’s interior. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Murrin, but I’m afraid you’ll have to ready Lucy and come with me.” Julian turned back to his frowning officers.
“How many shall accompany us?” Erik asked, his blond brows drawn together ominously.
“No us, Erik—only Lucy and Murrin and I.”
“Lord Griffin, perhaps that is unwise,” Erik suggested, with obviously forced patience. As one of Julian’s closest friends, it was oft difficult for him to retain professional deference before the other soldiers. “Who’s to say that the viperous traitor won’t cut you down once you cross her threshold? And then what will become of Lady Lucy?”
“I don’t think we have to worry about that,” Julian said, helping Murrin down from the carriage, the swaddled bundle that was his daughter held lovingly and securely in her arms.
“Blimy, milord,” Murrin gasped, staring up wide-eyed at the castle. From within the embroidered coverlet, Lucy began to fuss, and Murrin bounced on the balls of her feet out of habit. “Shh, kitten. Shh.”
Julian turned to his men. “Send the first runner with a message stating that I’ve begun negotiations. If you do not have word from me within one hour, send a second, fire the gate, and storm the castle.”
“Julian—” Erik began.
But Julian turned away from his friend and general, staring once more at the lofty battlements. The figure was gone. But now, all along the crenellations of Fallstowe, balls of light burst into existence as, one by one, torches were lit. In less than a minute, Fallstowe wore a fiery crown, and the hundreds of shadow figures that were her soldiers stood looking down on the king’s men.
It was a dangerous situation, yes. And in that briefest moment, Julian considered ordering Murrin to stay behind in the carriage with Lucy. But once inside, Julian had no intention of leaving Fallstowe until he’d brought the lady to heel, and he would not be separated from his daughter in the interim.
From what Julian had learned about the Foxe women, the heeling could take some time. Perhaps decades.
“Come along, Murrin,” Julian said mildly, and began walking around the fore of the company toward Fallstowe’s drawbridge.
“Directly behind you, milord,” the nursemaid chirped.
The three stood on the road near the edge of the moat when the giant slab of wood began to lower with shuddering creaks. Once it had touched earth, Julian saw the flurry of activity within the bailey as the portcullis was raised. Scores of soldiers were falling into rank in two lines to either side of the barbican, forming an aisle of blade and armor through the bailey, up the steps of the keep, and through the open double doors. Red light from the torches bubbled together with shadows.
“Fancy,” Murrin whispered.
“Quite dramatic,” Julian agreed and then stepped onto the drawbridge.
They walked the predetermined path silently and swiftly, but still did not gain the steps of the keep for several moments. During his march, Julian was silently counting the well-armed soldiers keeping watch over them, and mentally calculating the total with the number of men he had seen atop the castle itself.
Julian came to the conclusion that Fallstowe had been more than ready for his arrival, and that troubled him. If it came down to a battle, it would not be a short one, and he’d seen enough bloodshed already in the Holy Land to last him three lifetimes.
Only one more battle, though, he told himself as he stepped into the heart of the Foxe family’s lair. The doors shut firmly behind him, and Julian steeled himself not to turn around, even as he heard the thick beams set in place.
A thin, gray wraith stood at the top of a set of stone stairs, his posture stiff and formal, his hands clasped behind his back as if in anticipation of Julian’s arrival. Julian noticed the old man’s brief and discreet glance at Murrin and Lucy.
“Might I have the privilege of announcing His Lordship’s arrival to Madam?” the old man queried.
Julian felt a faint smile come to his mouth again. “You must be Graves. Your reputation precedes you, even in lands abroad,” Julian offered with a tilt of his head. “Lord Julian Griffin for His Sovereign Majesty, King Edward, to see Lady Sybilla upon her most recent invitation. Also, my daughter, Lady Lucy Griffin.”
Graves bowed, and Julian could detect neither approval nor scorn in the man’s expressionless face. Fallstowe’s steward was nearly a legend for his poor treatment of his betters.
“Won’t you follow me, my lord?” Graves turned on his heel and made his way down the dark stairwell.
The corridor emptied into a hall so large, Julian reckoned it was as grand as any in the king’s own home. The ceiling was high, dark, domed, supported by carved buttresses which wore skirts of balconies and catwalk pleats. Huge black-iron circles hung on thick chains, bearing hundreds of dormant candles. Stacks of planked tables and benches were piled to either side of the polished stone floor, murky gray with shadows.
The only lights were a series of standing candelabras around the perimeter of the hall, and one lit iron chandelier suspended directly above the lord’s dais, where a table and a single high-backed chair rested, their occupant present and awaiting him patiently. She seemed very small from so far away, and it was quite ironic, considering the immense trouble she had caused the king.
Julian felt his heartbeat speed up in a way that no thoughts of impending battle could inspire. In only moments, he would at last be face-to-face with Sybilla Foxe, the woman whose family he knew more intimately than his own. The woman whom many thought to be only a myth.
Ahead of him, Graves called out in a surprisingly robust yet still completely refined voice, “Madam, may I present Lord Julian Griffin and Lady Lucy Griffin?”
As Julian at last began to draw closer to the dais, his heartbeat did not further increase—in fact, it slowed until Julian wondered if time itself would stop. He had heard tales of Sybilla Foxe’s unearthly beauty, her witchlike powers over the opposite sex, her frigid demeanor, but it was only when Julian was close enough to make out her features clearly, breathe the air around her, that he thought he might at last understand.
She lounged in one corner of her chair—which resembled more of a throne to Julian—her legs stretched out to one side beneath the table and her ankles crossed. One elbow rested on the arm of the chair, her forefinger along her temple. A pitcher and a solitary chalice sat on the table before her.
She wore a scarlet velvet gown which shimmered in the candlelight, the arms and bodice fitting, her chest partially bared by the deep U cut of the fabric. Her skin was alabaster, so white and smooth that it didn’t seem to be made of flesh. Her hair, in contrast, was as dark as the underside of a grave, as were her eyelashes, which framed eyes of the most blazing aquamarine. Her lips, full and motionless, rivaled the brightest summer apple—so red, Julian almost expected them to begin dripping at any moment.
She was a sculpture, a study in color and nature—snow, coal, jewels, blood. Julian Griffin’s heart stuttered to a start once more with his next breath, as if it had been startled back to life.
He shook himself inwardly. She was just a woman.
Julian reached the dais and stopped, bowing low. “Lady Foxe, it is a pleasure.”
“Lord Griffin,” Sybilla Foxe said, almost pensively, her posture not twitching. “Did you bring an infant to a siege?”
Her dagger was neatly at her side, attached to her waist on a fine, gold chatelaine. In a blink, Sybilla knew that she could retrieve the dagger and fling it at the man standing before her table, who was foolish enough to enter her home with the intention of stealing it away from her. She would send the blade into his eye, and Julian Griffin would drop to the stones like a pheasant from the sky. Then she would have his body thrown from the top of Fallstowe into the midst of the king’s soldiers as a symbolic beginning to what would surely be the most terrible siege in the history of England.
But he had brought an infant. To a siege.
Julian Griffin acknowledged her question with a self-deprecating tilt of his tawny head. “My daughter, Lucy. She goes everywhere with me. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I do mind, actually,” Sybilla said. “Fallstowe is no place for children. Especially on a night such as this.”
“Then I can do no more than apologize for my presumptuousness,” Julian offered mildly.
Sybilla thought he seemed very at ease, and that increased her resentment of him. “What is it you want, Lord Griffin?”
“I believe you know.”
Sybilla sighed grimly as she settled fully against the back of her chair, interlacing her fingers over her waist. “Fallstowe, obviously. I won’t let you have it so easily, though. It’s mine. My family’s and mine, and I am more than prepared to fight for it.”
“Lady Foxe, you must realize that you’ve brought this condemnation down on your own head,” Julian began in a reasoning tone. “Edward has sent no fewer than six summonses—”
“There were eight, actually,” Sybilla corrected him.
“Eight summonses to Parliament, as well as countless invitations to his private court. The goings-on at Fallstowe since Morys Foxe’s death must be investigated.”
“Why?” Sybilla challenged him. “My mother held Fallstowe legally under Edward’s own father. Is that not enough for our king?”
“I think we might agree that Henry’s methods of rule were . . . less than thorough,” Julian offered.
Sybilla shrugged one shoulder. “My father was loyal to Henry III throughout the most tumultuous period of his rule. He stood with him against the barons. He was killed fighting alongside Edward himself. Regardless of Henry’s head, or lack thereof, for administration, that sort of loyalty needs to be rewarded.”
“Agreed,” Julian said. “And mayhap it would have only taken you explaining your case to the king personally when he summoned you, for you to have avoided this lengthy rebellion.”
Sybilla chuckled. “At the risk of sounding rebellious, you, sir, are full of shit. Edward made clear that he was prepared to charge my mother with treason, and now that charge has been transferred to me by default.”
“If your mother was who I suspect she was, then Fallstowe does not belong to you,” Julian Griffin rebutted quickly, calmly. His words caused Sybilla’s heart to creak in her chest. “The charges against Amicia Foxe will stand posthumously, and the demesne will be seized by the Crown. It’s as if a purse thief stole a bag, but before dying, gave the coin away to a little begg. . .
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