A thief turned reluctant protector. A countess who resents but can't resist him.
Sir Geoffrey has dedicated his life to exacting revenge on the men who killed his parents and stole his birthright. The son of a baron, he has been reduced to stealing the resources he needs to reclaim his family legacy. Just when he’s on the verge of success, his uncle asks him to help protect a wealthy countess. It’s a distraction Geoffrey resents, even more so when he meets Lady Sara. The gorgeous, complicated and alluring lady is everything he’d want in a woman—and everything he can’t have.
With her betrothed coming to claim her hand in marriage and a distant cousin intent on usurping her earldom, Lady Sara Caiser feels beset by controlling men. As if that weren’t enough, her father’s deathbed request was for two lawless border reivers to serve as her protectors. Despite her misgivings, an undeniable attraction pulls her into Sir Geoffrey’s arms. The man she thought nothing more than a thief is more dangerous than she believed, for he’s noble, caring and sinfully attractive. As the threats against her continue to mount, Sara must decide what’s more important—her duty or her heart.
The Thief's Countess is the first book in a historical romance series set in 13th century Northumbria. If you like strong female heroines, alpha male and sizzling romance, you’ll love the first installment of the Border Series. Transport yourself to the medieval world of The Thief's Countess today.
Release date: February 27, 2017
Publisher: Altiora Press
Print pages: 292
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Thief's Countess
“Thieving bastards.” Sir Geoffrey Waryn wasn’t talking to anyone in particular, but his uncle wouldn’t let the comment pass.
“Should I remind you this raid was your idea?” Sir Hugh Waryn shouted, riding next to him. “Besides, neither of us should comment on thievery.”
Ignoring that last remark, Geoffrey urged his horse to a gallop. He needed to undo what he’d done, and that meant finding the others before the daylight faded. They couldn’t be far ahead, but the forest was dense enough to restrict his view.
“There,” he whispered. The trees had opened to a small clearing, and there they were, the small gang of reivers Geoffrey and his uncle had aligned themselves with a few weeks earlier. The crisp autumn air filled his lungs as he deliberately slowed his breathing, preparing for the worst.
He should have trusted his instincts and his uncle’s counsel. Even among thieves, these men had no honor. The raid had gone well until the lord’s young son had made an appearance. Then, before Geoffrey realized what Elliot and his cousins were planning, they’d sped away with the boy in tow.
Stealing cattle was one thing. Geoffrey and his uncle needed resources, badly. Stealing a lad was quite another.
The last thing he wanted was a fight with these men, but he would not let them kidnap the boy.
Geoffrey easily passed all four mounted reivers, including the one who held the young boy, and angled his horse in front of the front rider. His uncle skirted a massive oak to remain at his side.
“Give him up, Elliot,” Geoffrey shouted to the startled man in the lead.
The leader abruptly stopped, leapt from his horse, and grabbed the lance at his side.
Damn. Elliot isn’t going to make this easy. Well, neither will I.
A leering grin spread across his former ally’s face. “If you want him, take him.”
Swinging his own lance into place, Geoffrey decided to make a quick demonstration of the leader as the other men began to dismount from every side. Towering above his opponent, Geoffrey swung his lance, laying the man flat on the ground with two deft strokes. He tossed the lance aside, slipped his dirk from its leather sheath, and held the knife to Elliot’s neck. The leader’s eyes darted to the other riders, one of whom had dragged the bound and gagged hostage with him toward the fight.
“Don’t be stupid. You know exactly how this will end.” He had no desire to spill the blood of a fellow Englishman.
But he would.
“Drop your weapons.” His tone made it clear that it was not a request.
Geoffrey had a bit of a reputation with his lance, and he wasn’t surprised when they tossed their weapons to the ground. “I have no desire to call the Elliot family an enemy, but you go too far.”
“Sir Geoffrey.” Elliot’s eyes darted desperately from him to the hostage. “Think of the ransom.”
Geoffrey sheathed his dirk and walked swiftly over to the child. He said nothing as he pulled the boy out of his kidnapper’s grasp and lifted him onto his own destrier.
Only then did he turn back to his opponent, who was rubbing his back and attempting to stand. “Elliot, think of your honor.”
A ransom that would feed them for months wasn’t worth terrifying an innocent young lad. The captive was no more than ten and one, and his eyes were wide and full of tears. Geoffrey’s stomach roiled.
Had it really come to this?
* * *
“Thank you, milord.”
Geoffrey didn’t correct him.
“I’m sorry you were so mishandled, boy.” After a short ride, he and Hugh dropped the boy off a safe distance from the search party that had been sent out for him.
Without speaking, Geoffrey followed his uncle’s lead as they rode away from the sight of the botched raid. Their mounts expertly navigated increasingly uneven terrain as they headed south into the Cheviot Hills. A steep incline and rocky descent finally gave way to a narrow valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. When they reached flat ground, they exchanged a nod, then dismounted to give their horses a much needed rest.
And resumed the argument that had begun before that evening’s doomed attempt to steal a few heads of cattle to feed his siblings and sell to retain mercenaries for their campaign.
“I won’t do it.” Hugh was the last person Geoffrey wanted to contradict, but the stakes were too high. They’d been building momentum, gathering promises from men to fight along with resources, and this wasn’t the time to stop. Five years earlier, Scottish raiders had stolen Geoffrey’s home, his inheritance. Everything he and his family owned. And he would not rest until his parents were avenged. “I’m not a nursemaid to be ordered about by Caiser’s steward.”
When his uncle had received word the day before that his assistance was required at Kenshire Castle, the seat of the Earldom of Kenshire, Hugh had shocked Geoffrey by instantly agreeing to the request. He immediately sent word to Geoffrey’s siblings that their return would be delayed.
“What of Lettie and Simon? They need the spoils of this raid.”
His mother’s aunt and her husband cared for Geoffrey’s brothers and sister. They took them in when Bristol was lost, but the small manor could hardly sustain itself even without extra mouths to feed.
“Taken care of. The messenger has been properly compensated to deliver the coin we’ve earned.”
Kneeling beside the stream that crisscrossed the valley, Geoffrey cupped his hands against the current. It would be hours before they next stopped to rest.
When he stood, he turned his eyes to the sky, praying for patience, before he finally met and matched his uncle’s stare. He couldn’t imagine any mission more important than the one they’d spent the last five years preparing for. This was a distraction they didn’t need.
“It’s no concern of ours if the lady—”
“Sara,” said Hugh.
“Fine, Lady Sara. It’s not our—”
Once again his uncle cut him off.
“Actually, it is our concern. As I’ve said before, Lord Kenshire was a friend.” Hugh broke eye contact and turned away, his normally proud shoulders slumping slightly as he spoke. The earl had apparently died after a long illness three weeks earlier, and the man’s steward had immediately sent for Hugh. It had taken some time for Kenshire’s men to find them, but now that the message had been received, his uncle could not be swayed from his decision to attend to the new countess and help her secure her claim.
“When we were young knights, Lady Sara’s father and I met at the very first Day of Truce. In truth, I saved his life. Before he was addressed as ‘Your Grace,’ —” Geoffrey’s uncle turned to him again, his stance daring another interruption, “—we were as close as brothers. Later, our paths took us to separate places. I will help his family now.”
Geoffrey tossed the stone he was holding. Just like that, his protests no longer mattered. “But what of the men we’ve gathered? Nothing—” he stressed the word with as much force as he dared, “—is more important than taking back Bristol.” They’d spent years gaining support and promises of aid when it was needed. But rather than build on the momentum they had gathered, his uncle would have him head south, away from Bristol.
“I know you’re impatient,” Hugh said, “but Lady Sara’s claim is tenuous. Sir Randolf Fitzwarren believes his claim to Kenshire is strong, and he may have the support he needs to bring an army to Kenshire.”
“Fitzwarren? That traitor is Caiser’s relative?”
“A distant relation, yes. And desperate for power.” Hugh narrowed his eyes. “Lady Sara needs us. I made a promise to her father, and I intend to keep it.”
“I’m surprised the earl recognized a man who fought against the king.”
And now he tried to claim Kenshire in the earl’s absence. Geoffrey had heard enough. “Then it seems we have no choice. Someday I’ll have the full story.” He grabbed his horse’s saddle to prepare for a ride into the devil’s lair. “For now we leave on your command.”
He saw his uncle’s smirk out of the corner of his eye. What did he have to smile about? Hugh must know their actions would likely be detrimental to them both.
“You win, Uncle,” he said, grudgingly resigned to their task. “Let’s go start a war.”
* * *
Lady Sara Caiser was running out of ways to avoid her staff.
She had skipped the morning meal as well as her daily meeting with castle officials, opting for a short ride to the village instead. Discussing castle accounts wasn’t her favorite part of the day, but it was still preferable to answering questions about their “guests.” Today she’d managed to avoid both thus far. Her good cheer must have shown, because when she walked into the spacious kitchen, Cook said, “It’s good to see milady smilin’ again.”
A flurry of activity greeted Sara. The kitchen staff was scurrying all about, large black cauldrons hung over an open fire and the smell of roasting venison made her mouth water. She reached for a loaf of bread, expecting to get her hand slapped. She wasn’t disappointed.
“Breakin’ apart a fine loaf before it’s cut. Hmph.” Cook wiped her hands on her well-worn apron.
Winking at a nearby kitchen maid, Sara reached for the bread again. Making herself sound as pitiful as possible, she said, “I missed breakfast.” She tore off the prize and popped it into her mouth.
“Mayhap you should eat with the rest of the household then,” the woman replied.
“Perhaps. But how would I avoid Peter then?” She flashed Cook her biggest smile and averted a lecture by making a hasty retreat.
Sara left the kitchen and made her way to Kenshire Castle’s main keep. Every step felt heavier than the one before as she approached the ancient stone walls marking the entrance of her home. There was no use in trying to hide from the inevitable. Lifting her blasted skirts so she could climb the stairs, she made her way to the very place she’d been avoiding. The room attached to the lord’s chamber was where her father conducted business. Usually it was a spot that lent comfort to her, but not today.
The only person currently occupying Sara’s solar didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. Her anxious lady’s maid began talking as soon as she opened the heavy oak door. “Our guests are expected tonight, milady.”
“Tonight?” If her unusually sharp tone startled Faye, her maid didn’t react. The middle-aged woman served as a surrogate mother, friend and, at times like these, a much-needed calming influence. She was well-accustomed to Sara’s moods.
Faye guided her to a cushioned stool and began brushing the unruly hair the young countess had inherited from her mother.
“I don’t care how renowned these men’s ‘skills’ are. I simply refuse.” A knock at the door meant she would quickly be outnumbered. Faye stopped her ministrations to allow the entrance of Sara’s steward.
“Lady Sara.” Peter made his way toward through the solar. “The kitchen has been informed of the altered supper plans. The guests’ rooms are being readied as well.”
Of course he’d already seen to the preparations. Peter was stocky for his advanced age, and his full grey beard, gruff manner, and proper dress intimidated those who didn’t know him. To Sara, he was like the grandfather she’d never had.
Peter seemed to be gauging her response.
She took a deep breath, determined to remain calm. “About our guests,” she started, not wanting to take out her displeasure on a man who was only following orders. Her father’s orders, no less. “I’d like to speak to you about them.”
“Lady Sara, we discussed this. At length. There is no other option.”
As they stared at each other, Peter’s bushy eyebrows rose. She’d seen that familiar look more often since her father passed away. Sara would not doubt herself this time.
“Peter, we don’t need those men. They’re reivers. Lawless thugs who murder and steal for sport and take advantage of the uncertainty at the border. The thought of being protected by them is … unacceptable.” Once, an English marshal whose manor lay just across the border from Scotland had stopped to seek shelter at Kenshire. Sara still remembered his stories of brutal Scottish and English reivers who cared not for the origins of their victims. Master horsemen despite the mountainous terrain, they spent their days rustling livestock, stealing household goods, and even taking prisoners for ransom. She shuddered at the memory, bringing herself back to the present.
But when she looked to Faye for support, her lady’s maid tilted her head to the side, which could only mean one thing. “Lady Sara, you know as well as I do that Sir Randolf will not stop until he has his hands on Kenshire.”
“But he has no claim!” It infuriated her that a distant cousin could think the earldom was his for the taking simply because she was a woman. Her father had trained her from early childhood to take care of the earldom. He’d left her in charge many times, and she’d proven herself a competent leader before.
So why did he doubt me in the end? Why send for those men? Why betroth me to the Earl of Archbald?
She tried to push the thoughts from her mind.
“Through misadventures, numerous rejected marriage proposals … my lord gave you more freedom than proper,” scolded Faye.
Peter and Faye were only trying to help, but that didn’t mean she had to agree with how they were trying. Her head hurt from trying to imagine ways she might stop the reivers’ arrival. And her impending marriage of convenience, for that matter.
“My lady.” Faye resumed her ministrations with the brush. “We’ve been through this before. I have no authority to give you orders save appealing to you to consider your father’s wishes. But murderers for sport? I hardly think the late Lord Kenshire would have had dealings with such men.”
“And if I may,” continued Peter, “marriage to Lord Lyonsford isn’t a fate worse than death as you’d have us believe.”
“Not unless one has no desire to marry an elderly gentleman.” She couldn’t keep the mockery out of her voice. “His ‘vast lands’ and ‘favored countenance’ aside.” It was an old argument, but not one that had been settled to anyone’s satisfaction.
Neither Peter nor Faye replied. Sara gathered her freshly brushed hair to one side, giving Faye a tight smile of thanks.
“My lady,” Peter sighed, “please don’t look at us that way. At your age, as an earl’s daughter, ‘tis a wonder you’ve not been wed three times over.”
Faye nodded. “Lady Sara, earl’s daughters simply don’t marry for love. But that doesn’t mean you won’t share affections with Lord Lyonsford.”
“And as for our visitors,” Peter added, “you must remain Countess of Kenshire until your wedding day.”
What was the point of arguing? Everyone in the room knew how it would end. She would be married to the Earl of Archbald, and these border thieves her father had summoned would come to protect her in the meantime.
She was in charge of an entire household—a village!—but not herself.
Sara closed her eyes, not wanting to look at their expectant faces. She was the Countess of Kenshire, but Faye and Peter had a talent for making her feel like a wayward child. Her father would never have let anyone sway him from his decisions.
But he was the one who had wished for both of these things—the engagement and the reivers—and now he was gone.
She stood, smoothing the front of her deep green overcoat, picking imaginary stray threads off its silver lining. “When do they arrive?”
Both Peter and Faye looked more than a little relieved.
“Anytime now, my lady,” Peter beamed.
“Then thank you for preparing the kitchen. Let’s be about our day.”
She made a quick decision as she watched Peter and Faye exit the room. Sara made her way through the door that adjoined the bedchamber. From the ornate trunk in the corner, which had belonged to her mother, she selected a soft white cloak with a fur-lined collar.
Wrapped up in the cloak, she crept quietly to the great hall and then exited through a side door adjacent to the hall. Though she felt a tad guilty about escaping preparations for the second time that day, she knew her advisors would ensure all was ready for her unwanted guests.
The cloak protected Sara from the crisp air that always accompanied the change in seasons. She was grateful for it as she made her way down a path known only to a few. The “sea path,” her father had called it. A gateway to the North Sea.
Eventually she found herself walking through tall grass, her feet sinking deeper into the gritty sand with each step.
How did he do it?
When he was alive, her father had been both reticent and giving, uncompromising and yielding. Somehow he’d demanded respect without asking for it, and he’d always made the right decision. Or so it had seemed.
She straightened her back, resisting the tingle in her cheeks. She would not cry. Her duty was to the hard-working people who lived and worked on the unforgiving coast of Northern England. They needed her to do everything in her power to retain her title. There were so many dangers for her in Northumbria—at least until she had a husband. The border. The Scots. Sir Randolf Fitzwarren, that vile usurper who tried to steal Kenshire from under her.
For her people, she’d accept Lord Lyonsford. For them, she’d allow the reivers to stay at the keep.
But that didn’t mean she had to like it.
After changing into a bright crimson surcoat adorned with as many gems as she could tolerate, which wasn’t many, Sara slowly approached the second floor stairway. The guests had arrived—Faye had come upstairs to tell her so. She willed herself to remain calm, but she already longed for her typical attire. The low-hanging sleeves of the surcoat were undeniably stylish, but they were hardly practical for anything more than folding her hands in front of her. With the announcement her “guests” had arrived, Sara willed herself to remain calm.
This is what Father wanted.
Sara caught her first distant glimpse of Hugh and Geoffrey Waryn as she descended the stairs leading to the great hall. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the nephew. Luckily, she reached the bottom before getting a better look at the man. She would surely have tripped and thoroughly embarrassed herself had she seen him any earlier.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...