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By Heather Grothaus
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Heather Grothaus
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 1077 London, England
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 straightening his slightly rumpled tunic and striding in her direction.
After Nick had departed, Tristan turned to look down at his wife, who still stared intently at the dark-haired woman.
"What think you, my lady?" he asked. "Will Nick make yet another conquest out of the girl?"
A devious smile curled Haith's lips. "I think mayhap if he is not wary, Nicholas could find himself the one conquered."
"Might I visit the other hall, Sister?" Didier asked as soon as Simone was returned to her stool. "I saw some wondrous cakes I'd care to sample."
Simone dropped her chin and turned her head slightly before murmuring, "Nay, Didier. You shall remain here with me until Papa says 'tis time to depart."
"Why-y-y?" the boy whined, causing Simone to wince. "I've not had a sweet in so long-none shall notice me, I swear!"
Simone gave an unladylike snort. "Oh, verily, no one at all would notice tiny morsels of food rising from the buffet and then falling upon the floor." As soon as the words left her lips, Simone regretted her sarcasm. She softened her tone. "You've told me before that you can no longer taste, Didier-what would be the purpose?"
"I can imagine it," the boy said, casting hurt eyes to the marble floor beneath his feet. "If I try very hard, I can almost recall the taste of honey."
His words wrenched Simone's heart, and she smiled sadly at him through her veil. "Mayhap when we return to our rooms, I will have a tray sent up and then you can play a bit."
Didier sighed. His head popped up once more, and a devilish smile lit his gamine face. "Who's this coming to visit, I wonder. I've not seen him before."
Simone glanced out of the corner of her eye to see whom Didier was referring to, and nearly gasped aloud.
A large man, easily a half-head taller than Simone's father, was weaving his way through the crowd toward her. She noticed with an odd sensation in her middle the way the ladies he passed followed him with their eyes in a most familiar manner.
And it was no wonder that he held the female guests' attention-he certainly had Simone enthralled. From the dark hair curling to his shoulders, the penetrating gaze of his blue eyes that captured Simone's and held them, the hard line of jaw that chiseled the planes of his face into a sculpture, the man was a god.
His full lips cocked at one corner into a sleepy smile, and the warmth it created in Simone was as delicious as it was unsettling. His fine tunic and cloak indicated that he was a man of wealth and status-or had been, at any rate. The embroidered cloth was stained and wrinkled, and Simone thought she might have glimpsed the straggling threads of a poorly repaired hem. But his gait was confident-even a bit arrogant-as he drew nearer and nearer Simone and her brother.
"Didier," she hissed in warning. "Not a word." Simone calmly turned her face from her veil to look at the magnificent man who had stopped before her and was now bowing deeply. He nearly tipped sideways.
"My lady," he said, the rich timbre of his voice sending warm ripples over Simone's skin. "I hope you do not perceive me as bold in approaching you without introduction, but I fear I could not restrain myself. Your beauty drew me to you like the lowly moth to a brilliant flame, and I felt I must seize the opportunity to speak to you lest you vanish like the vision you appear to be."
"Oh, la-la!" Didier laughed directly into Simone's ear. "Methinks the man wishes your gown to vanish, the way he ogles you!"
Simone's smile faltered at Didier's bawdy comment, but she quickly recovered and placed her fingertips in the man's offered palm.
He bent once more to brush warm, dry lips across her knuckles, his eyes never leaving her face. Simone's skin tingled even after his touch, and when he spoke again, her stomach felt as though a litter of piglets had been set loose within.
"I am Nicholas FitzTodd, Baron of Crane," he offered, flashing a glimpse of white, even teeth.
"Oooh," Didier said in a singsong voice. "A baron!"
Simone stopped gritting her teeth to open her mouth and give the man her name, but he raised a silencing hand.
"Again, forgive me, Lady du Roche," he offered with a boyish grin. "I must admit that I asked after you upon my arrival." He gestured discreetly across the breadth of the hall toward a handsome couple. "My brother and his wife are my informants."
Simone eyed the large blond man and striking redhead warily and was quite disarmed when the woman raised a hand near her face and wiggled her fingers at Simone. Simone inclined her head in acknowledgment before turning her attention once more to the baron.
"Then I must be sure to extend my thanks to them before departing London," Simone said, her voice husky with the enchantment the man's very presence seemed to cast over her.
On the floor near her stool, Didier howled. The boy clutched at his ribs and hiccoughed with laughter.
"Do you thirst?" the baron asked. "Might I fetch you some wine?"
"Merci," Simone replied. The man nodded with a heart-stopping grin and disappeared through the throng once more, and Simone whipped her head about to glare at her brother.
"Didier! Get up from the floor this instant!"
Fat, silvery tears of mirth rolled down the boy's cheeks. "M-m-merci, lover!" he cried, reaching a spindly arm after the departing man.
"Stop it, I said!" Simone felt the heat of her flush to her hairline.
Her brother finally pulled himself together enough to stand, wiping at his cheeks with the backs of both hands. "Ah, Sister-that was wonderful! You forgot yourself so that you spoke English!"
Simone cringed. That the guests assumed she spoke only French was her single defense among the enemies. Should their hosts find out her deception, her chances for a profitable match would dwindle against their bruised pride.
Excerpted from The Champion by Heather Grothaus Copyright © 2007 by Heather Grothaus. Excerpted by permission.
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