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Never Kiss a Stranger
By Heather Grothaus
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Heather Grothaus
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDecember 1276 Fallstowe Castle, England
The monkey ruined the feast.
Outside of the king's own court, Fallstowe's winter feast was the most lavish affair in all of England, and had been since before Alys Foxe was born. Every nobleman in the land coveted the yearly invitation, and most spent the summer and autumn months leading up to the celebration wracked with worry that they would be passed over. Alys had to admit that her eldest sister had outdone herself this year.
Yards and yards of shimmering, ivory fabric billowed down from the domed ceiling of the great hall, gathered to the side walls by evergreen ropes festooned with bunches of bold holly and deer antlers, giving the cavernous room the appearance of some rich, fantastical tent. The north balcony was peopled with no fewer than twenty musicians, the swelling sounds from their strings and percussion overflowing the granite railing into the stone receptacle below, drowning attendees who clutched at each other, bobbing and spinning within its seductive, melodic tide-beautiful ladies in exquisite striped brocades and long veils, powerful noblemen sporting their finest velvets and woolen hose. Balladeers meandered through the guests, strumming lutes along with the symphony above, and adding their voices in perfect, ringing tenor harmonies.
The rich perfume of melting beeswax and smoke from the hundreds of lit candles warmed and scented the air like the prelude to a storm. Endless trays of food boasted openly of the decadence of both the occasion and its hostess. It came from every corner of England—fish, quail, venison dressed with sage and onion; and far beyond—pork with oranges and lemons, goose with saffron and pomegranates. There were thick custards bejeweled with coarse, sparkling sugar, apples studded with cloves. Wine of every shade and fortitude from the most costly casks Bordeaux produced, ales and meads, and the most noxious spirits ran like streams, like bawdy rivers.
So although there were no doubt countless men gnashing their teeth in jealousy in their own plain halls this night, Alys wished most sincerely that her eldest sister would have forgotten to include her in the winter feast. She was bored to tears, not at all interested in dancing or drinking herself into a simpering, giggling fool like most of the other young ladies in attendance.
Her rich blue gown, made of the finest perse directly from Provence and commissioned specifically for the event upon Sybilla's direct command was quite lovely and made Alys the envy of many of the women, but she took no pride or enjoyment from it. Even when Sybilla herself had said that the shade of blue against Alys's pale skin and blond hair would cause many to mistake her for an angel, and Sybilla was never, ever coy. Alys would have been more comfortable in her plain woolen overdress and leather slippers.
She cared not a fig for the prancing young men who trailed her, obnoxiously proclaiming—and inflating—their family's importance to King Edward in hopes of winning Sybilla's approval as a match for one of the wealthy and notorious Foxe sisters. Since Mother's death more than a year ago, it seemed Sybilla's most fervent wish was to see Alys married as soon as possible, likely so that she could be quit of the devilment that was the youngest lady of Fallstowe. She'd even gone so far this night as to pointedly introduce Alys to Lord John Hart, a paunchy, somber widower who was three score if he was a day.
But marriage—especially to a wealthy, spotted adolescent, or wealthy, senile old lecher—held not the appeal that perhaps it should have since she had turned eighteen. Alys sensed she would never find a husband to suit her within the circle of Sybilla's rich and boring contemporaries.
Thus, Alys would have happily forgone the entire feast in favor of following grumpy old Graves though Fallstowe, rousting would-be lovers from the darkened stairwells, or playing with the foals in the stables, or spending the evening in the corridor outside of the garrison, listening to the soldiers curse and tell lurid tales of sex and murder.
Until the arrival of the monkey, of course. And then the evening had become immensely more interesting.
It caused a delighted commotion among the guests as it accompanied Etheldred Cobb, Lady of Blodshire, into the hall, riding on the old widow's fat, rounded shoulder. A small, grayish-brown animal with a pink face, it wore a ridiculous skirt about its waist, which seemed to be fashioned from several sheer, colored scarves, and was yoked to the old woman by a long, fine lead of hammered gold attached to a leather collar. Lady Blodshire's entourage followed meekly: her son, Clement, and her personal maid, who Alys had always fancied looked more like a man than did young Lord Clement himself. It was common knowledge, although never spoken aloud, that Lady Blodshire had carried on a raging love affair with the masculine maid Mary since Lord Blodshire had fallen ill and died a handful of years ago.
Alys had no love for her mother's acquaintance, Etheldred Cobb, especially since her son, the pale and winsome Clement, had taken more than a passing interest in Alys. But the monkey was drawing her—along with everyone else in the hall—to the mustachioed old woman like beggars to a fallen purse. Because Fallstowe was her home, the crowd reluctantly gave Alys passage at her impatient "Pardon me, excuse me."
"Yes, she's quite keen," the old woman was saying in her gravelly voice, and pivoting her rotund body so that all gathered around her could admire her pet. "A gift from one of our valiant knights upon his return from Crusade." She craned her neck awkwardly to look up at the monkey and waggled a finger toward it with a cracking coo. "You're keen, aren't you? Make your bow, now. Go on."
As Alys neared, she saw the monkey flinch and move its pink face away from Etheldred's finger warily, small teeth flashing for an instant.
"She has yet to be properly trained, of course," Etheldred sniffed, her lips settling into a habitual knot. "Still quite wild, I'm afraid, even with my firm hand." She forced her face around to look at the animal once more. "Bow, Monkey. Bow!" She jerked sharply on the golden leash and the animal tumbled to the stones. It scrambled to its feet and gave a halting bow, cowering and casting its eyes up Lady Blodshire's skirt warily.
The crowd broke out in applause and admiring "ooh's."
Alys's footsteps hesitated for in instant at the harsh treatment, and 'twas then that she noticed the slender, golden switch in the old woman's other hand. Alys stepped before Etheldred Cobb.
"Lady Blodshire," Alys said and lay a bright smile over her grimace. "Welcome to Fallstowe. I daresay we have been too long without your company. Sybilla will be so pleased."
Etheldred's eyelids lowered in a mass of folds as she attempted to look down her nose at Alys, and Alys felt a pinch of gratitude toward her sister for the blue perse gown she now wore, as she caught Lady Blodshire's quick appraisal of it.
"Lady Alys. You seem a bit more grown since last we met, true. At least you are dressed appropriately, although I cannot say that particular hue suits you at all. And I'm quite certain Sybilla should be pleased with a visit from her poor, dead mother's oldest friend."
"Yes, you were Mother's oldest friend, by far," Alys quipped the emphasis and then looked quickly to the floor, dismissing the dumpy beast's sly insults. "It seems we have a unique guest at Fallstowe's winter feast—is it a female?"
"It is. And what horrid manners you possess, child—Amicia weeps," Etheldred sneered and then jerked the monkey's leash once more. "Monkey, up!" She raised a nonexistent eyebrow at Alys. "Did you not notice Clement?"
"Of course I did, my lady. Forgive me." Alys wanted to kick at the old woman's shin, but instead turned to the pale young man hovering at his mother's shoulder, a dreamy expression on his thin face. "Good eventide, Lord Blodshire. It is certainly a pleasure to host your delightful family once more."
"Lady Alys," he said in a disappointed whisper. "Have we only just met? Please, I must impress upon you once more how 'twould thrill my very heart were you to address me as Clement." Alys was forced to surrender her fingers to his outstretched palm and he leaned over her hand and pressed his dry, cold lips to her skin, where they lingered. "Fallstowe's gay ornamentation wilts next to your sweet beauty! 'Tis as if I am in the presence of an angel!"
Alys pulled her hand free to dip into a shallow curtsey. An angel? Oh, yes, thank you, Sybilla. "You are too kind, Lord Blodshire."
"Monkey, up!" Etheldred screeched and stamped her wide foot.
But the monkey only screeched in kind reply, sounding very much like its mistress, and tried to bolt from the leash. The crowd had drifted away as Alys was welcoming the Blodshire trio, but now those closest to the old woman glanced over once more with bemused and indulgent smiles for the unruly pet.
"You devil's animal," Etheldred hissed and brought up the gold, corded switch. She swung it with a whicker of air before Alys could stop her, but instead of landing on the monkey who now hunched near the stones, the switch broke against the length of golden links, pulling the leash from Etheldred's fat fingers.
Alys squealed as, in the next instant, the monkey clambered swiftly up her own skirt and scrambled over her back to perch on the shoulder farthest away from Etheldred Cobb. She could feel the animal's tiny fingers in her hair as it clutched at her circlet and the flicking vibration of its heartbeat through its feet. Alys brought up a hand to steady the small creature. Its hair was soft and radiating heat, its limbs feeling both delicate and powerful beneath her palm.
"Come here, you little bitch," Etheldred growled and made to grab the monkey from Alys's shoulder.
Alys instinctively stepped back, steadying the monkey with her hand, her fingers wrapping protectively around its slight forearm.
Lady Blodshire's eyes narrowed to slits. "Mary?"
The mule-faced maid, heretofore nearly forgotten by Alys, stepped from behind Etheldred and toward Alys with outstretched—and bandaged, Alys noticed—hands. "Be still, my lady, lest it bite you."
Alys was not certain whether the maid meant the monkey or Etheldred Cobb, and it took a mustering of all her decorum to not turn from the Blodshire group and flee with the monkey. She could feel the animal's trembling increase in the instant before the maid's hands claimed it. Alys was forced to assist the maid by prying the monkey's fingers from her circlet, lest she lose a goodly portion of her hair along with the small animal.
"It is beyond my understanding," Etheldred began when Mary had stepped behind her once more, "why my son thinks you worth a moment of his time, as forward and gauche as you are. Amicia spoiled you to ruination, I daresay."
"Mother," Clement whispered, his thin brows lowering.
Alys's stomach clenched. "Do not trouble yourself over Clement's affections, my lady—I'm certain it is only Fallstowe's wealth he admires. 'Tis most costly to outfit as many knights for Crusade as Blodshire has so piously promised. Perhaps someone fears for her soul?" Alys let her eyes go deliberately to the homely maid over Etheldred's shoulder, and Mary dropped her gaze while her face flushed scarlet. Alys looked boldly once more to Etheldred, and noticed that the group held the other guests' attention once more.
"How dare you slander me so, you little heathen!" Lady Blodshire quivered with rage. "I should strike you where you stand."
"Oh, do allow me to have a stool fetched for you so that you might reach me properly, you fattened old—"
"Lady Blodshire, I thought it must be you when the guests gathered into such a knot. Welcome to Fallstowe."
Alys's words were cut off not only by Sybilla's gracious welcome, but by the sharpened points of her fingernails digging into Alys's tender upper arm.
"That ... girl," Etheldred sputtered, and pointed a gnarled finger at Alys.
"Is young and foolish," Sybilla supplied.
Alys jerked her arm free and looked up at her sister, the sparkling-cold, beautiful Sybilla. "She is cruel to that animal, Sybilla. The poor thing is terrified of her!"
Sybilla flicked her ice-blue eyes—so unlike Alys's own rich brown—toward the monkey, and then returned her disapproving stare to Alys with a cool blink. "Should you one day possess a monkey of your own, you may treat it however you like. Until then, you will do well to remember that others' possessions are of no concern to you. Apologize to Lady Blodshire. Please," Sybilla added quietly, and Alys heard the dire warning in her outwardly benign tone as if her dark-haired sister had screamed it.
Alys swallowed. She was a grown woman. And Sybilla seemed to forget of late that she was not their mother. "I will not," Alys said, lifting her chin and telling herself her voice sounded strong and sure. "She flung the first barb, and this is my home, too, Sybilla. I'll not allow for such disrespect."
"The only lady at Fallstowe owed respect is its head, which is me," Sybilla said calmly, quietly, with a smile, even. Alys knew she was as good as dead. "And you will allow for whatever I deem appropriate. I'll not have our guests ridiculed."
"Heavens, what are you two about?" The middle sister, Cecily, now joined the group. Dark-haired like Sybilla, but sharing Alys's brown eyes, Cecily was the anomaly of the Foxe family, meek, sweet, and more devoted to God than any young woman had reason to be, in Alys's opinion. She dressed plainer than even Alys did, although her beauty was as striking as Sybilla's, even with her own rich hair hidden beneath a drab, shortened veil.
"Apologize, Alys," Sybilla repeated, ignoring Cecily's arrival. "Or be gone to your rooms for the remainder of the feast."
Cecily sighed. "Oh, Alys, what have you done now?"
Alys felt her chin flinch, and her eyes flicked to the scores of people staring at her. She was humiliated yet again before the all-powerful matriarch of Fallstowe, Sybilla. Even silly Clement Cobb now looked at her with uncomfortable pity in his watery blue eyes. She had never missed her mother so desperately.
"I will not apologize," Alys said quietly. And then, louder, "I will not! Clement, you are a dear man, and I am sorry for any embarrassment this may cause you, but I will not apologize to a vain old harridan who belittles others and boasts of her piety out one side of her mouth and then kisses her own maid with the other side!"
The crowd gave a collective gasp and Sybilla's already pale face went cloud white. Even the musicians and servants had quit their work.
Lady Etheldred sagged toward Mary, and the monkey leapt free as the maid's arms came around the old woman.
"My sweet Etheldred!" Mary cried.
Clement whispered, "Mother!" before falling to his knees at her side. "Are you dead?" Alys couldn't help but think she heard a note of longing hope in his voice.
The monkey clambered over the pile of bodies on the floor and launched itself at Alys, who caught it by the arms and swung it up on her shoulder as if she'd performed the action a hundred times before.
"Leave the animal," Sybilla said in a low, deadly voice, "and go to your rooms. I will join you after I have returned the feast to some sense of order."
"The monkey stays with me." She was already in enough trouble—why not add thievery to her list of supposed transgressions? Alys was certain God would forgive her even if Sybilla did not.
The Foxe matriarch's perfect, slender nostrils flared. "Go. I will fetch it when I come, so be prepared to say your good-bye then."
"Come, Alys." Cecily took the arm opposite the monkey, and her grip was firm, but so much more gentle than Sybilla's had been. She leaned in close to Alys's ear. "Please, darling—'twill only be so much more the worse for you if you struggle against her, and I wonder already what she might do."
Cecily was right. Alys had defied Queen Sybilla and now she would pay. Her oldest sister thought her a child still, and cared naught that she had just humiliated Alys before half the English nobility. There was no foretelling the lengths of the punishment that was to come.
Excerpted from Never Kiss a Stranger by Heather Grothaus Copyright © 2011 by Heather Grothaus. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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