England 1076. An era of kings and their loyal knights, of grand castles and courts, and of passions too bold to be denied. Brought to life with power and grace, this is the story of a nobleman in need of a wife. . .and the woman who offers him the love of a lifetime.
Nicholas FitzTodd, Baron of Crane, has little interest in marriage--the privileges of rank are too many and too pleasurable. But when the bride he finally chooses refuses him, he takes out his frustration in wine and women. Simone DuRoche is but another lovely temptation, until a moment of indiscretion results in a hasty wedding. Nick is furious--Simone may be beautiful, but she is nearly penniless and rumored to be mad. . .
Simone hardly expects her reluctant husband to believe that her young brother's ghost has followed her to England--or that she suspects his death was murder. Marriage to the fierce, guarded Nicholas is difficult enough. But when she learns the truth behind her brother's death, a dangerous family secret threatens the fragile peace she and Nicholas have achieved, and she must risk everything she holds dear to prove that her love is worth fighting for. . .
"A spirited tale rich in intrigue, betrayal, ancient magic, and a love destined to overcome all odds." --Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author, on The Warrior
Release date: October 9, 2013
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 352
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Near the Welsh border, England
“She’ll saddle me like a horse.”
Nicholas FitzTodd, Baron of Crane, glanced at his riding companion, the bright moonlight allowing him to easily see the curious frown on his first man’s face. The two men were paused atop a rocky promontory where a woodland stream crawled sluggishly from the forest at their backs and ran invisible and black to throw its end waters into the icy Wye below. The winter night itself seemed frozen in its stillness, a thought that pleased Nicholas as he and his man-at-arms rested their mounts and scanned the shadowed hills of the Welsh borderlands.
There would be no raids this night, Nicholas was certain. Not even the most bloodthirsty would risk the Wye’s ice-crusted clutches. King William’s border—and Nicholas’s as well—was safe.
At least from foreign invaders.
Beside him, Randall cleared his throat. “Er…who would have you saddled?”
Nicholas gave a sigh that sounded put-out even to his own ears. “My betrothed, of course.” Majesty had drank his fill at the stream, and so Nick clucked and urged the horse onward.
“Your betrothed?” The towheaded man drew his mount even with Nick’s as the beasts picked their way over the rocky terrain.
“Aye, Randall. My betrothed.” Nicholas had not planned on revealing his true motive for riding to the village of Obny this night until the deed had been done. He didn’t know what had prompted him to speak his black thoughts aloud, but now that he had, it felt rather good to voice his displeasure with the task he’d set himself to. Any matter, the visit itself was no more than a formality, a courtesy to an old friend. As baron, Nick’s right was a bride of his choosing.
“Once I hear Lord Handaar’s report, I will tell him of my decision to take his daughter as my wife.”
Randall’s hoot of laughter echoed off into the inky sky. “God’s teeth! The blasted cold must’ve frozen my ears, Sire, for surely I did not hear you true. It sounded as though you said you were to take a wife!”
Randall’s jest was like a splinter in Nick’s pride, but he held his temper in check. Had any other man dared make light of the decision Nicholas had made, that man would at that moment be lying on his back with a sword at his throat.
“Aye, those were my words.” Nick blew out another stiff breath, the vapor ghostly white and curt in its own manner. “’Twould seem my mother has proven successful in her incessant nagging—she has managed to convince me that I must now provide the barony with an heir.”
Randall’s chuckles mingled with the hardy breeze and were whisked away. “Ah, well. ’Twas inevitable, my lord. And what better maid could you choose than Lady Evelyn?” Nick heard a rustling and then the soft pop of a cork. A moment later, Randall thrust a leather flask into Nick’s shoulder with a gulp and a hiss. “To the next Baroness of Crane, then.”
Nick seized the flask, but paused before bringing it to his lips. “Bah.” He spat on the ground and then drew deeply at the strong spirits. The liquid expanded down his throat and into his guts with a soothing heat. He handed the flask back to Randall and then urged Majesty down the narrow, rocky path that led to Obny.
Randall continued from behind. “You should be relieved to take a bride as well met as Lady Evelyn. Most only meet their wives the day they wed—you’ve known the lady since her birth.”
Nick merely grunted.
“You’ve spent much time in each other’s company. You get on well, hold many of the same views—I fail to see what catastrophic difference making her your wife will cause. Save that she will share Hartmoore with you.” Randall paused, as if carefully considering his next words. “And your bed, of course. But I doubt you would consider that a great hardship.”
Nick said nothing.
“She’s quite easy to look at,” Randall continued, now in an almost goading tone. “Her beautiful wavy hair, skin like cream. Not to mention her great, round, plump br—”
“Enough!” Nick shouted, but he could not keep the laughter from his voice. The path had widened to a sandy ledge and Obny lay before him, twinkling in her candlelit robes, Nick’s future—wanted or nay—safe within. Nick paused on his mount to stare grimly at the border town. “There is no blight upon Lady Evelyn, in body or mind. She is a good match for me, and in truth, I would have no other.”
Randall’s smile faded. “Then why rail so, my lord?”
“Because a woman—a wife—is a shackle.” Nick shook his head and snorted. “This is all Tristan’s doing. Had my brother not become so fully ensnared, Mother likely would have let me be to decide the time to take a wife. Now I feel obligated to appease her.”
“Lord Tristan does not seem shackled by Lady Haith. He—”
Nick waved a hand to cut Randall off. “Be not fooled, my friend. He is shackled, as well as any beast of burden.” Nick’s bark of laughter jarred the starry stillness. “Saddled.”
Nicholas abruptly swung down from Majesty, looked around, and then scrambled up a jumbled motte of boulders—a mountain of sorts. He turned slowly, taking in the shallow bowl of the valley, draped in winter black.
He, by God, would not be saddled.
Nick spread his arms wide, drew a deep, aching breath of the frigid air, and called for any and all to hear.
“Nicholas FitzTodd answers only to God and King William! No woman will own me! I swear it!”
His words echoed over the valley and died away, and Nicholas felt cleansed. He was in control once more and could now face the chore ahead of him. Marriage would not change him, for good or ill. He was the Baron of Crane, and all within his demesne would still bend to his will.
Nick was off the boulders in two giant leaps, and he looked up at Randall’s quirked brow.
“Feeling better now?” his first man asked.
“Aye, better.” Nick swung up into Majesty’s saddle with a grin and wheeled the beast to once more face Obny. “I’m ready to tell Lord Handaar the good news, that I have chosen his daughter for my wife.”
And with that, Nick spurred Majesty in a gallop toward the border town.
“Lord Nicholas.” Handaar rose from his chair before the hearth as Nick entered Obny’s great hall. The elderly lord of the small town bowed slightly at Nick’s approach, and although the man’s smile seemed genuine and welcoming, he appeared to have aged a number of years since last they met. “’Tis good to see you again, son.”
Nicholas reached Handaar, and the two embraced as old friends. At this close range, Nicholas saw more clearly the deeply etched lines on the man’s face, the thinness of the white hair that ringed Handaar’s shining pate.
“And you as well, Handaar.” Nick clapped the old man’s bony back and drew away. “How fare things at Obny?”
“Well. The border is quiet and my scouts report no sign of trespass.” Handaar gestured to the pairing of chairs before the hearth. “Sit, if you would.”
Nicholas gratefully complied, sinking into a padded chair near Handaar’s. His eyes traveled to the small table between them, on which sat a carafe and two chalices—the one closest to the old man already half-full of deep red wine. Nick’s leg bounced on the ball of his foot several times before he took notice and stilled it. He knew it was a nightly ritual for Handaar and his only child to share a drink and talk of the events of the day before retiring, and as thoughts of Evelyn crossed Nick’s mind, his tongue seemed to dry up completely and swell against his teeth.
As if Handaar had noticed Nick’s longing glance at the carafe, he filled the empty chalice and handed it to Nicholas with a weary smile.
“To warm you from your journey.”
“My thanks.” Nick drained the vessel and was immediately obliged with more. He gestured toward Handaar with the chalice. “I vow Lady Evelyn will be much put-out with me for claiming her comfortable perch and cup.”
Nicholas thought he might have seen Handaar flinch before he spoke. Slowly, as if choosing his words with great care, Handaar said, “Evelyn will not be joining me this evening.”
Nick’s brow lowered. “She is not ill, I hope.”
“Nay.” Handaar gazed into the blazing hearth, and the firelight danced across his worn countenance. “She is not ill.”
“’Tis well, then.” Nicholas could not fathom the root of Handaar’s melancholy from the blunt statement, and so he pressed on. “I do hope to speak to her this night if she can spare me a moment. I did not send word of my visit as I wished to surprise her, but mayhap I should have.”
The old man shook his head, his gaze focused on the brilliant flames. “Nay, ’twould have mattered not that you sent word.” Handaar looked directly at Nick now, and his face took on a pained expression. “Two days past, she told me you would come.”
Nick’s eyebrows rose. “Did she? But how…?”
Handaar shrugged. “You know as well as I that Evelyn has always possessed a keen ability to sense certain events. Just as she seems to know what any lowly beast would think.”
Nick chuckled, even though his discomfort with the task before him was being compounded by Handaar’s strange behavior. Something was about in Obny’s keep.
“Yea, you are right, Handaar. Did I not know otherwise, I would wager she calls Majesty to her, therefore requiring my presence as well.” He took a sip of his wine. “Oft times, I suspect she cares more for my horse than for me.”
Handaar’s gaze sharpened. “Evelyn cares for you very much, Nicholas.”
Nick’s stomach clenched like a tight fist at the man’s grave tone. Now was as good a time as any would be.
“Lord Handaar, I—”
Handaar rose abruptly and strode to face the hearth. “How fare your brother and his wife?”
“Well.” Nicholas frowned at being cut off. The subject was difficult enough to voice without being forced to begin again. But mayhap ’twould be better to humor the old man. “They have a daughter now—Isabella. Mother has recently returned from Greanly and brought word that Tristan’s town prospers.”
Handaar nodded but did not turn. “Then the baroness is in good spirits as well?”
“Yea.” Nicholas chuckled and relaxed a bit. “As beautiful and overbearing as ever, and still hounding me ceaselessly.”
Handaar did not laugh at the jest, nor did he make any reply at all.
Nicholas placed his chalice on the small table with unnecessary care and leaned forward in his chair, his forearms braced on his knees. He took a deep, silent breath.
“Her hounding has relevance to my visit to Obny this night.”
“Of course it does.”
Nick frowned at the man’s back. “Handaar, I must speak with you in seriousness. I—”
“Do not, Nicholas.”
Nick’s nerves were wearing thin. “Please, friend, hear me out. This is not a thing I would take lightly and I think ’twill please you.”
After a moment of silence, Handaar sighed, and his words were curled with sorrow. “Go on, then, if you feel you must.”
“Very well.” Nick cleared his throat, rubbed his hands across his thighs. “Since my father’s death, it has been fully realized to me the responsibilities I now hold. Barring Mother’s nagging, I know that for my father’s line to be continued, I must marry. As you know, I am the last FitzTodd.”
He cleared his throat again. “I have known Lady Evelyn since her birth. You were like a brother to my father and a second father to me.” Nick’s voice grew a bit hoarse with his last words, so he stole another quick gulp of wine before continuing.
“The baroness loves Evelyn as she would her own daughter, and I care for her as well.” Nick took a deep breath, his heart kicking against his ribs as if it would burst from his chest and gallop from the hall without him. “As my wife, Evelyn will want for naught. I swear it to you.”
“’Tis not possible,” Handaar said, his voice gravelly and low.
Nick paused a moment to collect his thoughts. He had expected this, and he was prepared. “I know that she is promised to the convent, but Handaar”—Nick rose—“I will secure her freedom. I will pay the abbess her dowry so that Evelyn may marry.”
When no reply came, Nick’s nerves were outrun by his growing frustration. “Do you not see? She need not throw her life away by joining the order. You must admit that you are loathe to send your only child from you, and now, ’twill be avoided. She will be close at hand for the rest of your days and cared for by one you claim to be as your own son.” Nick felt confident in the logic of his argument. “It only makes sense that we wed.”
“I made a vow to Fiona,” Handaar said. “I beg of you, Nick, let us not speak of it further.”
“Evelyn’s mother is dead, Handaar,” Nick said as gently as possible. “Though do you not think if she were still alive, if she could see what a companionable match your daughter and I make, that she would bless this union?”
“Mayhap,” Handaar said quietly. “But it matters not. As I’ve said, ’tis impossible.”
Nick felt his choler rising as it never had before with the old warrior. “Nay, ’tis not impossible. As baron, ’tis my responsibility to see to the welfare of my people, and I will not have Evelyn waste away in a moldy priory when she could live in comfort, among family and friends.”
Nicholas stepped closer to Handaar’s back. His next words would be difficult to say to the elder lord, but Nick felt his authority in this matter need be exercised.
His voice was steady now, deep with resolve. “Handaar, as baron, ’tis also my right to take a bride of my choosing. I have made my choice, friend, and there is naught you can do to sway me.” He placed a comforting hand on the stooped shoulder. “Fiona would understand, I am certain. Now, let us seek Lady Evelyn and share with her the good news.”
Handaar turned under Nick’s palm, and Nick was shaken and disturbed to see streaks of wet glistening on the wrinkled cheeks. Handaar’s voice was strained but, aside from the tears on his face, his expression was stony.
“Evelyn is already gone, Nick.”
Nicholas took an involuntary step back as Handaar’s words hit him like a physical blow. “Gone? What do you mean?”
“She has left for the convent.” Handaar swiped a hand over his face. “Two days past, when she foretold of your arrival.”
Nick returned to his chair, stunned. “But…but why would she go if she knew I was coming? Were we not always friends?”
“That is the very reason,” Handaar said, as he too regained his seat. He poured more wine into the chalices. “Although I am certain you perceived your hints about the matter as subtle, Evelyn knew you would offer marriage. As you yourself said, it only makes sense.”
“But…she knew?” Nick asked, his thoughts tripping over themselves. He looked at Handaar and at the old lord’s expression of sympathy, Nick knew that his bewilderment must have been evident on his face. “She would choose the convent over me?”
Handaar shook his head and looked to a spot between his boots. “She had no wish to marry, to bear you the children she knew you would require of her. Evelyn took the vow I made to Fiona most seriously.”
Nick felt his jaw harden until he thought his teeth would crack. “Then she is selfish and stupid. There is no guarantee that her fate would have been as Fiona’s—that she would die in childbirth. She has thrown her life away and abandoned me.”
Handaar sighed quietly. “In her heart, she felt she was freeing you.”
“Freeing me? For what purpose? To be forced to take a stranger for a wife?” Nick’s bark of laughter was bitter and jagged. “Ours would have been a union of friendship and trust. That she would leave me is unforgivable. She never cared for me at all.”
“Evelyn loves you very much, Nick.”
“Nay!” His palm sliced through air thick with tension. “Nay, you do not treat one you claim to be in love with in such a manner as this—with deceit.”
“I said that she loved you, not that she was in love with you. There is a difference.” Handaar looked weary now to the brink of collapse, but Nick’s hurt was not considerate of the old man.
“Love, in love.” Nick waved a hand. “What does it matter?”
“Mayhap that is the very core of why she left—to give you the opportunity to see how much it truly does matter.”
Nicholas stared at the old man for several moments, and Handaar stared back. He had already told his mother, his brother, and several of the other underlords of his plan to take Evelyn as his wife. He’d even told his first man. What would they think of him now, when a woman Nick had known the whole of her life would prefer a convent before him as her husband?
Never had he felt such awkwardness, such humiliation in this place that was as familiar to Nicholas as his own home. He could no longer sit under its heavy weight, and so he stood.
“Very well, then. I bid you good night, Lord Handaar.” After a curt nod in the old man’s direction, Nick crossed to the great hall’s doors.
“Nick, son.” The sounds of Handaar rising and calling out chased Nick’s retreat. “Let us not part on poor terms. Stay at Obny tonight. Would that I could have spared you this hurt, but in truth, I am not certain I can bear it myself.”
At Handaar’s words, Nick paused in his stride.
“Please, Nick.” Handaar’s voice hitched on the plea. “I have no one left now.”
Nick turned, and at the sight of the old warrior, his once broad shoulders stooped with age and sorrow, Nick’s chest tightened. He recrossed the hall and embraced Handaar while the man’s shoulders shook.
“Ah, Nick,” Handaar gasped, “I miss her so already.”
“Forgive me, old friend, for my callousness,” Nick said. “Never would I want to further your grief. But I cannot stay within these walls when every stone carries Evelyn’s memory.”
Handaar nodded, clutching Nick’s arms and drawing away to look at him. His voice was gruff when he spoke. “Of course I forgive you. But ’tis my hope that you’ll not stay from Obny forever.”
Nick shook his head. “I will return.”
Handaar nodded and released Nick, his wide, gnarled hands suspended in the air for a moment, as if reluctant to let him go. Nick saw their tremble. “Safe journey, my son. Godspeed.”
With a final squeeze of Handaar’s shoulder, Nick spun on his heel and departed Obny’s hall, leaving Handaar alone with only the ghosts of his wife and daughter for company.
Simone du Roche perched upon her gilded stool in the king’s grand ballroom, her rich velvet kirtle puddling in deep, green pools at her feet. Her black mane was intricately braided and twined around her headpiece, held at a lofty angle, and her cat-green eyes beheld the other guests with barely concealed disdain as they pranced about to the twanging music.
’Twas the third and final evening of King William’s birthday celebration, and Simone was infinitely glad. With the conclusion of tonight’s fete, she would finally be freed from the curious stares and hushed whispers aimed in her direction by the petty and spiteful lords and ladies that infested the English court.
Simone ground her teeth into a tight smile as a flabby noble nodded toward her.
He tries to be charming, Simone fumed to herself, and yet the dunce knows not that I understood every scathing word his companion said about me.
“He is too fat, Sister,” Didier whispered to her in their native French tongue. “He would smash you, were he your husband.”
Simone hid a wicked grin behind the veil attached to her headpiece and whispered back, “Didier, quiet! You are too young by far to have such knowledge of a husband and wife.” Keeping her head turned to hide her mouth, she added to the boy, “Would that you had stayed behind in our rooms as I asked. I cannot help but feel you will yet cause me trouble this night.”
Didier merely shrugged his bony shoulders. His elfin face was a younger version of Simone’s, with identical green eyes and a mop of unruly, raven hair.
“I dislike being left alone, and no one has noticed me thus far,” the boy reasoned.
“Regardless, you must not speak to me so freely here. ’Twill draw attention I do not wish.” Simone smoothed her veil back into place and rested her hands demurely—she hoped—in her lap.
The set ended and the soft, old lord who had earlier caught Simone’s eye parted from his companion. His fine, fur-trimmed tunic billowed from his considerable backside as he waddled toward her. At least he has a kind face, Simone conceded.
Didier snickered beside her. “Speaking of unwanted attention, the fat one cometh.”
Simone steeled her face into a calm mask as the short, round noble bowed before her. He addressed her in French.
“Lady du Roche, it does not seem appropriate for one of your beauty to sit unattended at such a celebration. Your father has given permission for you to join in the next dance.”
Of course he has, Simone thought to herself. You are a rich old man and ’tis my duty to display the wares.
But aloud, she said only, “The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Halbrook.” And then she placed her fingers into his damp, thick palm with an inward shudder.
He would smash you, were he your husband.
As Halbrook led her to the center of the ballroom and the opening notes of the next set began, Simone struggled not to bolt from the line of ladies she joined and run back to the relative safety of her rented rooms.
Armand du Roche caught Simone’s eye as the women sank into a low curtsey. Simone’s father inclined his head ever so slightly, his auburn hair falling across the wicked scar on his forehead, to indicate the portly lord opposite her. He raised an eyebrow.
He will do, non?
Simone broke gaze with her father to plaster the required smile to her face and concentrate on the set.
Oui, Papa, he will do.
It no longer mattered to Simone whom Armand chose as her husband. Simone, her father, and even young Didier were outcasts in this foreign country, oddities to be whispered about by the gluttonous English. Her entire life was a lie.
Her feet followed the steps mechanically, and she wrapped the coldness of the truth around her like an icy shield.
“You are late, Brother,” Tristan scolded as Nicholas approached. When Nick stumbled into a tall, delicate urn near them, Tristan added, “And also quite drunk, ’twould appear.”
Nick caught the teetering vase just in time and sent Tristan a lopsided grin. “I had some rather pressing business to attend to, I assure you. Lady Haith, you look ravishing this evening. Mother sends her love.”
Nicholas took his sister-in-law’s hand and leaned in to peck her cheek. His lips barely landed on her ear and Haith rushed to steady him.
“Lord Nicholas,” she choked. “Would this business entail dousing yourself in a vat of ladies’ cologne?”
“My apologies, m’lady.” Nick grinned despite Tristan’s glare, as his brother caught wind of him.
“Good God, Nick! You might have at least bathed. ’Twill not be good for William to see you in this state. You know he will wish to meet with you while you’re in London.”
Nicholas shrugged. “’Tis no matter. William will care not that I have raised a cup or two—only that I bring word that his border is safe.”
Nick’s beautiful sister-in-law looked to her husband. “My lord, mayhap ’twould be best if we accompanied Nick to his rooms. ’Twill not do for him to be seen in this condition.”
“It cannot be helped, my sweet,” Tristan replied to the red-haired woman with chagrin. “The ladies have already spied him. He is trapped, I’m afraid.”
Nick turned to the room behind him and indeed saw several pairs of feminine eyes pinned to him as the ladies impatiently finished the current set.
He chuckled with unabashed glee. “Yea, I am trapped, and what a gentle snare it is!”
“Nicholas,” Tristan warned, “the purpose of your attending the king’s birthday celebration—of which you’ve not deemed worthy of your presence until now—is to find a suitable bride. Not to bed the entire female population.”
Lady Haith rolled her eyes at the crude conversation and turned her back to the brothers, sipping her wine and admiring the dancers.
“’Tis only what I’ve been doing, Brother,” Nick insisted. “I’ve been most harried, attempting to determine each lady’s worth.” Nick wiggled his eyebrows. “My investigations have been quite thorough.”
Tristan leaned closer, and through the haze of drink, Nick caught a glimpse of concern—or was it disapproval—in his brother’s blue eyes.
“This is no good, Nick,” Tristan advised quietly. “You can drink and wench until the end of your days and ’twill not bring Lady Evelyn back to you.”
“Do not mention the cow’s name to me,” Nick growled, all tipsy good humor gone. “Her deceit has no bearing on how I choose to entertain myself. She means naught to me.”
“Really?” Tristan raised an eyebrow. “Is that why all the ladies presented to you thus far have been too dark or too wide, too tall, or having eyes of the wrong shade?”
Nick glared at his brother. “Mind your own affairs.”
“I am merely suggesting—”
“Well, do not.” Nick seized the chalice Tristan held and took a healthy gulp. His eyes scanned the bobbing, twirling crowd with less enthusiasm now, his earlier joviality diminished after his brother’s meddling observations.
Many of the ladies in attendance openly stared at him, their eyes issuing blatant invitations—particularly those whose favors he’d already sampled. There were some new faces among the dancers, he noticed—young girls recently put out to market by their families and eager to make a profitable match. Although several were quite fetching and would make for enjoyable sport, none sparked any real interest in Nicholas.
’Twas as if he gazed over an open field dotted with cattle—each cow having slightly varying features, but when viewed as a whole, none were discernable from the herd.
Evelyn’s face came to his mind’s eye totally unbidden, as it was wont to do. Heavy shocks of wavy, auburn hair framing the calm, blue eyes of a winter sky. The delicate constellation of freckles across her rosy cheeks haunted him here when faced with the carefully composed masks of the ladies before him.
For the thousandth time, he scolded himself. Would that I had seized her from the convent, he thought. The very night I learned of her flight, I should have ridden to the priory at Withington and brought her back to Hartmoore, willing or nay.
But just as quickly as the thought blossomed, it withered and died. He would not press his suit to a woman who so obviously didn’t want him. Even now, Evelyn’s messages to him remained unopened. He could not bring himself to read the excuses and apologies the letters surely contained. She had deserted him, refused him.
The set ended then, and the crowd was dispersing evenly from the floor. Nick raised his commandeered chalice to his lips, but his arm paused halfway as he glimpsed the delicate creature being led from the crush by elderly Lord Cecil Halbrook.
She appeared impossibly tiny, even when paired with her portly partner, and Nick fancied that the crown of her head would not reach his shoulder. Her green gown trailed behind her in a regal swath, and when her downcast face tilted slightly in Nick’s direction, his breath seized in his throat.
The greenest eyes he’d ever seen pierced him with their gaze. The lady only glanced at him, a fact that pricked at his pride, before bowing her raven-tressed head once more.
“Fetching, is she not?” Lady Haith asked lightly, once more addressing the brothers.
“Hmmm,” Tristan replied.
Nick shook his head slightly as if to clear away the cobwebs that had enveloped it. “Who is she?”
“Lady Simone du Roche,” Haith said. “Arrived recently from France with her father.”
“Is she game?” Nick’s eyes followed the beauty as Halbrook deposited her on a stool some distance away. Her partner immediately dismissed her and stepped away to speak to a tall, bullish man standing nearby. Left to her own devices, the woman averted her face into her veil, hiding her porcelain features.
“Indeed, she is game,” Tristan replied. “The odd-looking brute to her left is her father, Armand du Roche. ’Twould seem her most recent dance partner has taken more than a passing interest in her.”
“But why would she be presented at English court?” Nick asked. “Surely there was no dearth of French suitors for a titled lady as lovely as she?”
Tristan shrugged and then inclined his head toward his wife. “My lady?”
Haith’s eyes sparkled as she leaned closer to Nick. “There was a fantastic scandal in her homeland. She was betrothed to an old, noble family, but the contract was broken by her intended on the very day they were to wed.” Haith lowered her voice even further. “’Tis said she’s quite mad.”
“Mad?” Nick was only partly listening to the information about the woman he could not take his eyes from.
“’Tis rumored that she hears voices in her head—speaks to people who aren’t there.” Haith sniffed. “But I do not believe that for an instant. I think—”
Nick shoved his brother’s chalice at Haith, effectively silencing her. “I must speak to her,” he said before straighte
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