Never Kiss a Stranger

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Nowhere in medieval England are three women so powerful--or adored--as the heiresses of Fallstowe Castle: Sybilla, the ruthless beauty, Cecily, the pure-hearted innocent. . . And Alys, the youngest sister, whose wild spirit has yet to be matched. . .

Lady Alys thinks everyone knows the legend: If a man and a woman meet at midnight within the ancient Foxe Ring ruins, they are as good as married. But when she finds a captivating stranger lurking ...

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Overview

Nowhere in medieval England are three women so powerful--or adored--as the heiresses of Fallstowe Castle: Sybilla, the ruthless beauty, Cecily, the pure-hearted innocent. . . And Alys, the youngest sister, whose wild spirit has yet to be matched. . .

Lady Alys thinks everyone knows the legend: If a man and a woman meet at midnight within the ancient Foxe Ring ruins, they are as good as married. But when she finds a captivating stranger lurking there in the middle of the night, she discovers the one man who is unaware.

It's a deadly pursuit that brings Piers Mallory to the Fallstowe lands. But now that fate has attached the alluring, and curiously insistent, Alys to his side, it may work to his advantage to play by her rules, at least for a time. Yet the danger Piers courts is no game--and the passion he and Alys share is all too real. . .

Praise for The Warrior. . .

"A spirited tale rich in intrigue, betrayal, ancient magic, and a love destined to overcome all odds." --Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author

"Grothaus definitely has talent and a true feel for the era." --Romantic Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781420112429
  • Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Never Kiss a Stranger


By Heather Grothaus

ZEBRA BOOKS

Copyright © 2011 Heather Grothaus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4201-1242-9


Chapter One

December 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.

(Continues...)



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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 20 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Fantastic Detail & Characters That will NOT Let You Down!

    Very rarely, in the romance genre set in Medieval England, does a book come along that offers a story not only filled with interesting characters from various backgrounds that readers will love, but also amazing locations that are written with such detail and beauty.

    In this book readers meet three sisters. They are the last of the Foxe family whose parents have gone to Heaven and have left behind a huge plantation to run - a plantation/castle that King Edward wants to get his hands on. The oldest sister who does all the work is named Sybilla. Smarter then most men, Sybilla lives a life that is full of responsibilities - one being that she is trying desperately to marry off her younger sister, Lady Alys. She wants with all her heart to join forces with a family of wealth and nobility to help her family stay on "top of the food chain" and to make sure that the King can not take their birthright away from them. Strong and unyielding, Sybilla decides to throw a winter party at Fallstowe Castle and try to "hook up" her youngest sister with a young man who has title to lands.

    Alys doesn't want to get married to anyone her sister has thrown at her. So she strikes a bargain the night of the party that she has one month to find her own beau that Sybilla will accept. To do this, Alys walks through the large Foxe property to the Ancient Foxe Ring. This location is a legend - that whatever woman stands in the center of the ring, a man will appear in the moonlight and that's the man who is her soul mate.the man she will marry. Sybilla doesn't believe in this ancient tradition, but Alys does - seeing as that their own parents met and fell in love inside the Ring.

    Off into the woods she goes with a monkey (yes, a monkey) who becomes her friend and ally throughout the story. Out of the blue, Alys is woken up by the sound of a monkey attack and sees a man - beaten, bruised and swollen - beside her in the Ring. The man's name is Piers Mallory, and is on his way to London to unveil his family secret to the King.

    Piers is the son of a landowner who fell in love and impregnated a commoner - Piers was the result. Unfortunately, his father married a horrific woman named Judith Angwedd and they had a son named Bevan. Judith wants nothing more than to track down Piers and wipe him from the face of the earth before he reaches the King and tries to take her son's supposed birthright away.

    The adventure that Piers and Alys go on is one of extreme fun. The people that they meet along the way - including the "wood people" who live far up in the trees away from man's world - are just one part of the riddle that was left behind by Piers' father on his deathbed, when he tried to convince his son that HE is the rightful heir of his property.

    Heartbreak laughter, romance, and an intriguing mystery is offered by this fantastic writer who stepped away from the run-o-the-mill English romance, and added fire to her remarkable story that will keep you interested to the very end.

    Until Next Time,
    Amy Lignor, Reviewer

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    This charming whimsical historical romance hooks the audience

    The three Foxe sisters rule Fallstowe Castle. However, being the oldest and most ruthless, Lady Sibylla rules over her two sisters Lady Cecily and Lady Alys. Thus she arranges for her flighty out of control youngest sibling Alys to wed uncomplicated Clement Cobb.

    On a wintry full moon night, Alys sneaks out to the nearby Foxe Ring stones hoping the legend will send her the right man for her to marry. On his way to London, Piers Mallory takes a shortcut crossing through the ring of stones. Alys believes he is her mate and tells the flabbergasted man that they are married IAW the legend. She insists she accompany him on his trek and be at his side when he pleads with the king to accept the proof of his birthright; though bewildered he agrees to her coming with him thinking a woman would help masquerade him from his murderous enemies.

    This charming whimsical historical romance hooks the audience from the moment that the believer in the legendary enchantment and the skeptical pragmatist meet inside the stones. Alys assumes they are fated while Piers sees an opportunity to disguise himself. On the trek as they argue, fuss, and kiss, he realizes he had no choice with his spunky companion. The first tale of the Foxe females is a fabulous fable.

    Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2011

    Not a lot of romance, but a lot of monkey

    This is the story of a rather tenacious 14 year old girl whom, after a tantrum that results in her taking away a pet monkey from her potential mother-in-law, runs away from her sisters' rule. Her sister is arranging a marriage that she doesn't like and so she runs to some sort of mythical "ring" where she coincidentally meets a man that she considers herself married to. There the story starts. The man (Piers) has his own problems, and doesn't want to be saddled with this 14 year old. Alys (the 14 year old) doesn't really care and latches on to Piers for his journey to London. The story is about the relationship developing between Piers and Alys and about their adventures both along the way to London and prior to getting to their meeting point.

    The story started out fast, then slowed tremendously, almost to the point of being boring, and then got rather exciting at a point where the couple came across "tree people" that helped them and then their climactic London arrival was exciting and satisfying as well. But, I found the ending to be rushed and the entire build up of the romance between Piers and Alys was a huge let down once they got down to the deed. There was no romance in this book except that so that was a let down for me as well.

    The story will continue with what I understand is to be a trilogy, I assume the story of the three sisters. I'm not sure if I will read the second installment. I don't know if I care enough.

    What I liked: I truly enjoyed the banter and dialogue in the book. It brought the characters to life for me in a way that not many authors are very good at. The writing itself was excellent and I would definitely read more from this author, perhaps outside of this series.

    What I disliked: The monkey. I wasn't really crazy for Alys either. She was an annoying 14 year old that was very much like your average 14 years old. When I thought of that, imagining her with Piers made it difficult for me. I think she needed to be older and wiser and then I might have been more apt to pull for her in the story.

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  • Posted May 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Extremely disappointed

    I cant even begin to say how disappointed I was in this book. I did not relate to the characters at all. The lead female was a spoiled, childish, unlikable brat and the lead male was spineless. I took me about 90 minutes to read this book because I skipped through most of it to the end. I believe this is a trilogy and I will not be reading the others. At this point, I dont even know if I will try another book by this author. I have been reading romance books for over 30 years and can easily say I have probably read over 1000 books. I keep the best of the books that I read. Most I have recycled and very few, around 4 have I literally thrown away because they were that bad. This is going in my throw away pile.

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  • Posted March 19, 2011

    A Great story, I look forward to the second part of this particular storyline.

    I found the characters to be well rounded and an overall sense that a lot of quality research was done in making me as a reader feel as if I was there in a sense and I was able to follow the story path very well. I found the development of the main characters to be palatable and very detailed. Overall this particular novel was well thought out well researched and thusly well written.

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  • Posted March 8, 2011

    AN EXCITING HISTORICAL ROMANCE FULL OF ADVENTURE AND MAGIC!!! NEVER KISS A STRANGER BY HEATHER GROTHAUS

    NEVER KISS A STRANGER by Heather Grothaus is an exciting historical romance set in 1276 England. It is fast paced,full of adventure,danger,and witty banter between the hero and heroine.This is the story of a commoner, Piers, who is actually a nobleman.He has been betrayed,his betters(his stepmother & stepbrother) after his father's death attempt to kill him,try to discredit him and hunt him down when they find out they did not kill him.For he is headed to see King Edward to claim his rightful place as the Lord of Gillwick.In route he meets young,beautiful, innocent Lady Alys,the youngest sister of the Fallstowe Castle sisters.She is determined to undermine her eldest sister who is the Queen of the Fallstowe Castle,since their mother's death.For Sybilla, has betrothed Alys to someone Alys hates. So Alys knows the legend of Foxe Ring ruins:If a unmarried man and woman meet at midnight within the ancient ruins,they are married. Rather by fate,legend or destiny Piers comes upon Alys sleeping within the ruins,yes with none other than an excited Monkey,who Alys rescued from her soon to be betroths mother.Who by the is rather hateful.Although,Alys and Piers have an usual adventure through the woods of England,being pursued by not only Alys,sister,who fears Alys is in danger,but also by the very people who tried to kill Piers.Together they find love,happiness and a great adventure.Piers,not only finds a family member he didn't know he had,his destiny,his rightful place as the Lord of Gillwick but he also finds his true love.Alys finds not only her true love,her place in the world,at her husband's side, but also that her sister,Sibilla,has only been looking out for her best interest.If you enjoy reading a story with witty banter between the hero and heroine from the beginning to the end and where the characters not only grow but also find themselves right in front of your eyes than this is definitely the story for you. This book was received for the purpose of review from the publisher and details can be find at Kensington Publishing Corp and My Book Addiction and More.

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