4 ½ stars-"Fantastic--Keeper", March 2005
Dance of Desireby Catherine Kean
Desperate to save her brother Rudd from being condemned as a traitor, Lady Rexana Villeaux must dance in disguise at a feast for the High Sheriff of Warringham. Her goal is to distract him so her servant can steal a damning missive from the sheriff’s solar. Dressed in the gauzy costume of a desert courtesan, dancing with all the passion and… See more details below
Desperate to save her brother Rudd from being condemned as a traitor, Lady Rexana Villeaux must dance in disguise at a feast for the High Sheriff of Warringham. Her goal is to distract him so her servant can steal a damning missive from the sheriff’s solar. Dressed in the gauzy costume of a desert courtesan, dancing with all the passion and sensuality in her soul, she succeeds in her mission. And, at the same time, condemns herself.
Fane Linford, the banished son of an English earl, joined King Richard’s crusade only to find himself a captive in a hellish eastern prison. He survived the years of torment, it’s rumored, because of the love of a Saracen courtesan. The rumors are true. And when he sees Rexana dance . . .
Richard has promised Fane an English bride, yet he desires only one woman - the exotic dancer who tempted him. Then he discovers the dancer’s identity. And learns her brother is in his dungeon, accused of plotting against the throne. It is more temptation than Fane can resist.
The last thing Rexana wants is marriage to the dark and brooding Sheriff of
Warringham. But her brother is his prisoner, and there may be only one way
to save him. Taking the greatest chance of her life, Rexana becomes the
sheriff’s bride. And learns that the Dance of Desire was only a beginning
. . .
4 ½ stars-"Fantastic--Keeper", March 2005
6 stars-Affaire de Coeur Magazine, March 2005
4 1/2 blue ribbons-Romance Junkies’ Blue Ribbon Reviews, March 2005
Four plugs-"Excellent"--The Romance Readers’ Connection, March 2005
Romance Reviews Today, March 2005
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Dance of Desire
By Catherine Kean Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One Tangston Keep, England, 1192
"I do not like this wretched scheme, milady."
Lady Rexana Villeaux shivered in the icy night wind that whipped into Tangston Keep's forebuilding. "I know, Henry, but 'tis the only way to get the list of traitors."
She drew against the stone wall, into the shadows at the bottom of the stairs. Bawdy laughter and the music of lute and drum carried down into the passage from the great hall. As she smoothed the veil covering her nose and mouth and the silk over her head, tiny bells tinkled at her wrists. The jewelry's weight pressed upon her skin, a foreign sensation.
She inhaled a shaky breath. Would her deception succeed?
In the dim light, Henry glanced at her, his gaze worried. Rexana's belly clenched into a knot. She must not succumb to fear. She must focus on her task. Her brother's life depended on her. Dear, impetuous Rudd, the only family she had left.
Wiping her sweaty palms on her embroidered skirt, she started up the stairs.
Henry strode beside her. Torchlight flickered on his silvery hair and shadowed the grim set of his mouth. "I hope your hot-headed fool of a brother appreciates the risk you are taking to save his arse."
Rexana shot Henry a sharp glance. "Mind your tongue. He is not your pupil in the tiltyards any longer, but master of Ickleton Keep. Your lord."
"With respect, he is fifteen and very much a boy." Henry wagged a finger, callused from years of wielding a sword. "I still remember the day your mother and father presented him to me, all pink, squished, and noisy as a pig's fart."
Her heart squeezed. "Henry!"
"You are right. 'Tis no time to speak of such matters. May your parents forever rest in peace." Henry's eyes darkened. With a scarred hand, he caught her elbow, halting her just outside the light spilling in from the hall. "Milady, look at you. An earl's daughter, dressed like an infidel whore. What madness convinced me to let you go through with this?"
She swallowed a sting of irritation. Heaven above, she did not need his permission. When would Henry cease treating her like the child he had bounced on his knee and hand-fed expensive sweetmeats? "Not madness, Henry. Fate. The girl who plays the Saracen's lover in the local mummer's troupe would have entertained the sheriff-"
"Except she fell ill." Henry nodded. "I helped her through Ickleton's gates, then summoned the healer."
"A boon, that her costume fit me well enough."
He snorted in clear disapproval. "Nay, a curse."
Rexana looked down at her stiff fingers, darkened like her body with thin layers of flour and mud. "The girl knew of no one to take her place, and it provided us a way to get through Tangston's gates. Henry, we must find the missive that lists the names of sworn traitors. The one the sheriff intends to send to the crown."
"Because somehow Rudd's signature is on the document." Henry sighed. "Could the maidservant who fled Tangston be mistaken about what she overheard? She was half mad, ranting about the sheriff's barbaric ways-"
"Her dead sire swore fealty to my father. Moreover, she is a friend of Rudd's. She had no reason to speak false." Cheers and laughter erupted in the hall and, with a shudder, Rexana looked toward the noise. "Rudd is not involved in the rebellion stirring against the crown. I will not see him ruined by accusations of treachery."
Henry touched her arm. "Please. Must you dance? We will find another way to save Rudd."
"There is no other way." Rexana curled her clammy hands into fists. "I can delay no longer. The others know what to do?"
Footfalls echoed in the corridor. She glanced past Henry to see four musicians approach, men loyal to her and Rudd. They willingly risked their lives this eve. For that, she would be forever grateful.
Rexana's pulse began a painful thunder against her ribs. Her fingers flitted to the delicate gold brooch pinned to her bodice and hidden by the garment's fringe. An arrow wrapped with a flowing ribbon, a gift from Rudd a few sennights ago. A reminder of the bond forged between them one snowy day, and why she must not fail.
She pulled from Henry's grasp. As the mummer had instructed, Rexana removed her leather shoes. If she did not fully accept her role this eve, she would never deceive the barbarian sheriff.
Gasping as her bare feet connected with cold stone, Rexana pressed her shoes into Henry's hands.
"Rudd would try to save me," she said softly. "And I am indebted to him in more ways than you could ever understand."
Blinking away stinging tears, she stepped into the hall.
Fane Linford, High Sheriff of Warringham, sipped his wine and glanced across the vast, smoke-hazed hall. Every nobleman in the county, it seemed, had accepted his invitation to this feast. They celebrated his return to England as well as the position of authority granted to him one hot, bloody morn at Acre by King Richard himself.
All, that is, but a significant few.
His gaze drifted to the lute player sitting near the fire who plucked out a song. More musicians, strangers to Fane like the majority of the guests, moved to the hearth with their instruments.
A rough voice rose above the hall's noise. Fane's eyes narrowed on the harnessed black bear which stood on its hind feet, turning in a circle as its trainer shouted commands and flicked a stick. A crude if not effective display of a master's power over his minion. A display Fane intended to emulate when he crushed the rebellious lords rising against the crown.
"A clever bear," said Lord Darwell, seated at Fane's right.
Setting aside his silver goblet, Fane reached up to pull a lock of ebony hair from his eyes. "I preferred the fire eaters who performed earlier. I admire a man who risks his own demise, but is still fully hale afterward."
Darwell scratched his thick, graying beard and laughed as though uncertain how to respond. "You have a point."
"One of many I learned on crusade."
A flicker of unease crossed Darwell's face, quickly replaced by a mix of curiosity and admiration. "You spent many months as a prisoner of the Saracens, did you not? I must congratulate you. I understand the siege of Acre last year would never have succeeded without you. I doubt my son would have returned."
A chill rippled down Fane's spine. With his eating dagger, he speared a morsel of roasted quail and shoved it between his teeth. "I only did what was necessary."
"How did you manage to stay alive amongst the infidel? Did you not spy for the king?"
The chill spread. Deepened. Fane forced a smile. "A warrior has his secrets." He chewed the meat, poorly spiced like most of the fare he had recently tasted. With wicked intensity, he craved a fiery mélange of turmeric, cardamom, and cumin, and the perfume of eastern food.
Darwell chuckled. "Secrets? Mayhap a woman?" After taking a noisy slurp of wine, he slid sideways until his elbow pressed against Fane's arm. "Are the rumors true?" he asked in an eager, hushed voice. "Did you really fornicate with a Saracen wench? What was it like? Did you enjoy it? Did she-"
"As I said, a warrior has his secrets." Fane stifled the urge to grab Darwell by the front of his tunic and growl in his face. Every lord he had met since his return to this cold, wet country had wanted to believe in his depravity. Even when they commended his heroism, he saw disgust in their eyes. Darwell hid his distaste better than most.
With a grin, Darwell straightened and eased away. "One day, you will tell me the truth. When we have drunk each other under the table and trust one another as friends."
Fane laughed. Hellfire, he did not have to disclose his past to Darwell or any man. One day, his peers would look upon him and speak to him with genuine respect, accepting him for who he was. It would take time to build the necessary alliances and destroy the canker undermining loyalty to the crown-far longer than the three sennights he had resided at Tangston
-but Fane had long ago mastered perseverance. His allegiance to the king had sustained him through days when he longed for death. He would ensure the crown's victory in Warringham.
Shrugging aside his thoughts, Fane glanced back at the bear. The animal completed its circle. Grunting, it dropped back to all fours.
Applause filled the hall. Darwell cheered.
As Fane clapped and thanked the flushed-faced trainer, he noticed movement near the forebuilding's entrance. Light glittered off the embroidered costume of a dancer. Eastern garments accented her figure and floated like cobwebs as she wove her way past the far tables.
Fane's breath caught in his throat. Memories....
Leila's lithe, oiled body gilded by lamplight. The cloying smell of burning incense. Torture. Imprisonment. Living each day as though it were his last.
The sapphire ring on his right hand glowed as blue as the dancer's garments. He grabbed his wine and gulped a mouthful. It tasted like sand.
What insanity had possessed him to grant the eager-to-please steward full control over the eve's entertainment?
He should send the dancer away. Immediately. But others in the hall had already noticed her. If he dismissed her now, even discreetly, he implied displeasure, disastrous for a woman who earned her livelihood through recommendations of her good performance. The poor wench probably depended on this eve's coin to put food in her belly and feed her children.
Nay, God help him, he could not send her away.
Beside him, Darwell blew a sigh, then squinted at the left side of the hall. "I have not seen young Rudd Villeaux yet this eve. Did he not plan to attend?"
Dragging his gaze from the dancer who hesitated in the shadows, fingering her veil, Fane wiped his lips with his thumb. "I received word from him earlier this eve. He cannot come. Pressing matters of estate."
"A pity, his parents' deaths. He is young to have the responsibilities of lord."
"They died recently?" Out of the corner of his eye, Fane watched the dancer stretch her slender arms over her head, preparing her body to perform. The men at the tables behind her grinned, pointing to her navel, and he bit back an inexplicable pang of annoyance.
"The earl and his wife were buried six sennights ago. Both killed by sickness." Pouring more wine from a silver jug, Darwell said, "Did you know the Villeaux's are distant cousins of the king? No purer blood in England. The son is a handsome enough lad, but the daughter-"
"Daughter?" Fane murmured. The dancer rubbed her arms with her hands. Was she chilled from standing in one of the drafts wafting through the hall? Or, was she anxious about performing before him? His mouth curled into a bitter smile. Had she heard the subversive gossip that called Fane the failed son of a once-powerful earl? That named him a ruthless infidel? Regrettable, that some of it was true.
"Her name is Rexana." The name tumbled off Darwell's tongue with undisguised appreciation. "Exquisite. Fair of face with breasts like-"
Fane tipped his head to the nearby fruit bowl. "Oranges?"
With a chuckle, Darwell uncurled his hands. "Finer than your costly oranges." He shook his graying head. "I am a fool to speak so, when I pray my son Garmonn will marry her. 'Tis Garmonn who is friends with Rudd Villeaux and who went on crusade," he added with a sly smile. "Mayhap you will speak favorably of my son when I petition the crown for the marriage?"
"Mayhap." Pushing aside his goblet, Fane reached for the bowl and speared a dried fig with his eating dagger.
"Wedding Lady Rexana will permit Garmonn into the most respected court circles," Darwell said eagerly. "'Twould be a great honor. What father would not want the best for his son?"
Resentment stung the back of Fane's throat, but he quickly cleared away the foolish emotion. Years ago, he had vowed not to feel even an inkling of remorse for the final, bitter confrontation with his sire. Futile, to wish that dark day had been different. The old tyrant was long dead.
Keeping his tone noncommittal, Fane said, "I will consider your request. Though she sounds so exceptional"-he plucked the fig from his dagger-"I am tempted to wed her myself."
Disappointment clouded Darwell's eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but a tabor's strident hammering curtailed his words.
Fane glanced up. He froze.
Lifting her hands high in the air, fingers curved outward in invitation, the dancer slunk between the rows of tables. She twirled into the open space in the hall's center.
With slow, sinuous movements, she began to dance.
Each step brought Rexana closer to the dais. To the dark skinned man with wild black hair and eyes that glittered with frightening intensity. To the barbarian Sheriff Linford, who held her brother's fate like the fig caught between his fingers.
She silently cursed her stiff limbs. Her body was no stranger to creative expression. Yet, when she danced in the meadow, she had only the birds, still water, and ancient willows watching. There, she danced for herself.
Never for a man.
A shiver tore through her. She must focus, draw upon her heightened emotions, use her anxiety, sorrow and fears to enhance her performance.
She must not fail.
Ignoring the appreciative stares of the noblemen around her, she whirled across the space directly before the sheriff. Dry rushes scratched against her feet, an odd sensation. The pungent scents of dried basil, fennel, and rosemary floated up from the floorboards. Cool air brushed against her naked stomach. She fought the urge to cover herself.
Raising her lashes a fraction, she glanced at Linford. He was not watching! He conversed with Lord Darwell whose tongue, as she well knew from past feasts at Ickleton, always loosened after a few goblets of wine.
Disquiet swirled inside her. Curse Linford! Did the rumors not claim that he enjoyed eastern courtesans? Why, then, did he ignore her?
She spun in a graceful turn. Still, he did not watch.
Frustration bubbled in her throat. By the saints, she must distract him, otherwise Henry would not be able to slip into the sheriff's solar to find the missive.
Too many lives depended on her. Most of all Rudd's.
Rexana cast the musicians an urgent glance. Faster, her mind cried. As though sensing her urgency, the drummer nodded, quickening the pace. She threw out her arms and stamped her feet. The tiny bells at her ankles chimed.
Whirling even nearer the lord's table, she thanked the holy saints that the poor lighting and dark cosmetics would hinder Darwell from recognizing her. As would the veil and head covering, she silently reminded herself. The musicians had commented earlier how thoroughly all her features, except her eyes, were concealed.
Spurred by a burst of confidence, she drew close enough to distinguish the sheriff's deep, slightly rough voice. Close enough to see the tanned plane of his cheek and the hard, sensual curve of his mouth. Close enough to speak to him, if she dared.
"Look at me," she whispered, "Look at me."
Linford glanced up. Over the floating veil, she caught his gaze. His eyes were brown and shadowed by wickedly long, black lashes. His wary, perceptive gaze slashed into her with stunning force.
She stumbled, caught herself, and disguised her falter with elaborate turns. As she spun back to face the dais, she saw Henry edging his way to the stairwell.
Fear sharpened her breaths. Her gaze shot to Linford. He had not seen Henry. Laughing at a comment from Darwell, Linford turned the fig slowly in his fingertips. The sapphire ring on his hand glinted as he tossed the fruit into his mouth, then stared directly at her.
So, she had captured his attention.
A spark of satisfaction warmed her. With a smooth swivel of her hips, she dropped to the rushes. The drummer faltered, then resumed his frantic pace. Do not fail me, she prayed.
With catlike movements, she crawled across the coarse rushes. The tang of crushed herbs, rotting food scraps, and mildew filled her nostrils. Never in all her years had she been this close to a hall floor. Her mother would have swooned with horror to hear of such an occurrence.
A blush stung Rexana's cheeks. Resisting the urge to scramble to her feet, she rose up on her knees, arching her spine to flaunt her bare skin. She must focus on her goal, not her fear. No one recognized her. No one would ever know of this incident. Once Henry had the missive, she could forget all about this eve.
Curving her arms in an elegant move, she straightened and rose to her feet. She peeked at Linford through her splayed fingers. His gaze met hers. He slid another fig between his teeth, chewed, then licked his bottom lip.
She glided toward him.
Excerpted from Dance of Desire by Catherine Kean Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Kean. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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