Excerpt from Never Seduce A Scoundrel
February 2, 1277 Fallstowe Castle, England
Cecily Foxe was fairly certain she was going to hell.
She had been standing alone for the better part of two hours following the lavish supper, struggling to maintain a serene expression while she watched the revelers and their atrocious behavior. It was proving increasingly difficult. Men drank so heartily and hastily that the fronts of their tunics were dark with wine, and most women recklessly attempted to keep pace with them. Unmarried couples danced, alÂthough the lewd displays of bodies touching so intiÂmately could hardly be defined as a supposedly innocent activity.
Cecily bristled as she watched even the least of the nobility, the humble, the homely, the meek, carry on with members of the opposite sex. Even poor Lady Angelica, who had a lazy eye and spat upon anyone unfortunate enough to be engaged in conversation with her, was being twirled about Fallstoweâ€™s great hall with sordid abandon. Cecily had clearly seen the young man currently in possession of Lady AnÂgelica unabashedly grasp the womanâ€™s breast.
Only Cecily stood alone.
No one had asked her to dance. No young lord dared come near and whisper lurid suggestions to her, proposing they steal away from the hall for an hour of private sin. She was a lady of Fallstowe, wealthy beyond comprehension, powerful by her connection to Sybilla, perhaps even wanted as a criminal by the Crown. Unmarried. Both her eyes pointed in the same direction and she kept her saliva properly in her mouth when speaking.
And yet they all simply pretended she wasnâ€™t there.
To everyone who knew herâ€”nay, even knew of herâ€”she was Saint Cecily. Middle daughter of Amicia and Morys Foxe. Slated for a life of quiet, gentle sacrifice. Although she had yet to formally commit to the convent, Cecily already fulfilled many of the obligations put upon one under holy orders. Up to even the wee hours of that very morn, she had assisted Father Perry in the countless and tedious preparations for the Candlemas feast; and in general, she looked over Fallstoweâ€™s charitable responsibilities, tended the ill and dying, duteously prayed the liturgy of the hours.
Most of them, any matter.
She seldom raised her voice in a passion of any nature. She did not lie, nor indulge in gossip. She was obedient to her older sister, Sybilla, the head of the family now that both of their parents were dead. She was not ostentatious in either dress or temperaÂment, preferring to wear costumes so closely akin to the habits of the committed that strangers to the hold often greeted her with a deferential incline of their heads and a murmured, â€œGodâ€™s blessing upon you, Sister.â€
Cecily knew she was admired and even revered for her restraint and decorum. She was not outÂwardly bold, like young Alys, seen now dancing gaily with her new husband in the middle of the crush of guests. She was not obviously ambitious like the eldest, Sybilla, who ruled Fallstowe with a delicate iron fist. Cecily had spent the greater part of her score and two years carefully cultivating her gentle qualities. Molding herself to them.
And yet, at that very moment, her supposedly meek heart was so full of discord, she was quite surÂprised that she had not already burst into flames where she stood.
The dancers continued to whirl past, little carousels of gaiety and color around massive iron cauldrons that blazed with fires fed by the brown and brittle swags of evergreen and holly that had festooned FallÂstoweâ€™s great hall since Christmas. Although the blessed candles burned in their posts, the remainder of the celebration was largely pagan, bidding farewell to the barren winter while at once beckoning to the fertile light of spring. Cecily knew that her elder sister had purposefully sought to emphasize the heathen aspect of the celebrationâ€”unfortunately, Sybilla seemed to thrive on wicked rumor.
The Foxe matriarch herself weaved through the crowd now, both adoration and jealousy following close at her heels as she made her way toward Cecily. The men hungered for Sybillaâ€”those few whoâ€™d once held her let their eyes blatantly show the aching memories of their hearts, and the many who had not been honored with the privilege of her bed pursued her without a care for their pride. Sybilla was powerful, desirable; Cecily was not.
As if to emphasize this point, Cecily again caught a glimpse of the primary object of her bitterness.
He could have been your husband, a wicked little voice whispered in her ear.
â€œHello, darling.â€ Sybilla had at last fought her way through the pulsating throng to stand at Cecilyâ€™s side, her slender arm pulling the two sisters together at the hip. â€œI would have thought you to be abed an hour ago.â€
Cecily was careful to keep her tone light. â€œThis may well be my last feast at Fallstowe, Sybilla. I would remember it.â€
Sybilla gave her sisterâ€™s waist a gentle squeeze, but did not comment on Cecilyâ€™s reference to HalÂlowshire Abbey. The two women observed the deÂbauchery that ruled the supposedly holy day feast in silence for several moments. Then Oliver BelleÂcote whirled past once more, causing Cecily to lose control of her suddenly wicked tongue.
â€œI am quite surprised to see him,â€ she said, thankÂful that, at least, her tone was casual.
â€œWho? Oliver?â€ Cecily felt more than saw Sybillaâ€™s shrug. After a moment, she said quietly, â€œI suppose I must call him Lord Bellecote now.â€
Cecilyâ€™s heart thudded faster in her chest, and her indignation made pulling in her next breath diffiÂcult. â€œAugust has not been dead a month, and yet he is hereâ€”still behaving as if he hasnâ€™t a care in the world or one whit of responsibility. Itâ€™s indecent and disrespectful. To his brother and to you.â€
Sybilla drew away slightly, and Cecily could feel her sisterâ€™s frosty blue gaze light the side of her face. Cecilyâ€™s ear practically tingled. She hadnâ€™t meant for her comment to come out that way at all. â€œI am not offended by Oliverâ€™s presence, Cee, nor by him enjoying himself at Fallstowe. Although â€™tis no secret that Oliver oft exasperated him, August loved his younger brother. And Oliver loved August.â€
Cecily turned to look at Sybilla, the question out before she could restrain herself. â€œDid you love August?â€
For the briefest instant, Sybillaâ€™s lips thinned and a fleeting fire came into her eyes. But then it was gone, replaced by a washedÂout melancholy that wrenched at Cecilyâ€™s heart.
â€œNo, Cee. I did not,â€ she admitted as she turned her attention back to the crowd, now dispersing from the center of the hall as the music came to an end. The guests seemed only able to communicate in shouts and shrill laughter that sounded to Cecily like tortured screams. Yet she heard her sisterâ€™s low murmurs as if the two women stood alone in a cupÂboard. â€œIâ€™m certain you pity me now.â€
â€œNo, not pity,â€ Cecily insisted. â€œI only worry for you. I was with the two of you the last time August was at Fallstowe, Sybillaâ€”I remember.â€ â€œAs do I.â€ Sybillaâ€™s eyes scanned the crowd disinÂterestedly. â€œI told him not to come back.â€
â€œYou didnâ€™t mean it, though.â€
â€œOh, but I did,â€ Sybilla argued, quickly but with her signature coolness. â€œAnd now he never will come back. Now Oliver is Lord of Bellemont, a position I know from his brother that he never wanted, and is perhaps illÂequipped to fill. Oliver deserves a final farewell to his carefree existence before he truly dons the mantle of responsibility over such a large hold. Perhaps heâ€™ll marry Lady Joan Barleg nowâ€” Bellemont needs heirs.â€ She paused as if thinking, and when she again spoke her voice was low. â€œIt gladÂdens me to see him at Fallstowe.â€
â€œIt wasnâ€™t your fault, Sybilla.â€ Cecily had forgotten her selfish pity at the thought that she had caused her sister to relive such sad memories. â€œYou did nothÂing to cause Augustâ€™s death. â€™Twas a terrible acciÂdent, and that is all.â€
â€œHmm. Well, perhaps you should pray for my soul, any matter.â€
Cecily tore her gaze away from her sisterâ€™s pale, enigmatic profile as the dancers reformed at the opening notes of the next piece. â€œI do hope he does marry Lady Joan,â€ she said abruptly. â€œHeâ€™s been toying about with the poor girl for the past two years. She must be completely humiliated. Are they already betrothed?â€
Sybilla chuckled. â€œOliver took nothing from Joan Barleg that she didnâ€™t freely offer him, and now that heâ€™s Lord of Bellemont, she has the chance to better her station immensely. Had Oliver been firstÂborn instead of August, Lady Joan would have had little chance of winning him.â€ A faint smile reÂmained on her lips. â€œYou likely donâ€™t remember, but there was talk of a betrothal between you and Oliver when you were children.â€ Cecily indeed remembered, but she gripped her tongue between her teeth painfully. Should Sybilla continue to goad her so, Cecily would end up as Lady Angelica, spitting her words rather than speakÂing them.
Sybilla continued in a bored tone when Cecily gave no comment. â€œIt would be quite the coup dâ€™Ã©tat for Joan. But I have heard no formal announcement from either of them as of yet, so who can know?â€
As if their talk had summoned him, Oliver BelleÂcote himself slid between a pair of dancers, becomÂing momentarily entangled in their arms. The three shared a raucous laugh as he extracted himÂself with a lewd pinch to the womanâ€™s buttock, his chalice held high above his head to preserve the wine contained within. Cecily felt her diaphragm shrivel up uncomfortably at his approach.
Then he was before them both, bowing drunkÂenly, his lips crooked in a cocky grin beneath the close shadow on his face. His brown eyes were like muddy pools powdered with gold dustâ€”dark and dirty and deep, the bright sparkle hiding what lay beneath. His thick black lashes clustered like reedy sentries, both beckoning and guarding at once.
â€œLady Sybilla,â€ he sighed, drawing up Sybillaâ€™s hand beneath his face and kissing the back of her palm loudly three times.
Cecily rolled her eyes and sighed. Sybilla only laughed. â€œLord Bellecote, you flatÂter me.â€
He should have risen then. Instead, he dropped to one knee, pulling Sybillaâ€™s hand to his bosom and then lowering his chin awkwardly to kiss her fingers once more before raising his slender, strikingly handsome face to gaze adoringly at Cecilyâ€™s sister.
â€œLady Sybilla Foxe, my most gorgeous, tempting hostess! Wonâ€™t you marry me?â€
Sybilla threw back her head and laughed even louder, and although it was likely only the candleÂlight and smoke, Cecily thought she saw a glistenÂing of tears in Sybillaâ€™s eyes.
â€œIs that a no?â€ Oliver asked, feigning shock.
â€œGuard your honor well, Lady Sybilla!â€ a femaleâ€™s gay shout rang out, and Cecily looked up in time to see the comely Joan Barleg skip past them in the arms of her dance partner, her golden curls spilling reckÂlessly from her simple crispinette. She looked so careÂfree and . . . at ease. Cecilyâ€™s spine stiffened further.
Sybilla gave the woman a wink and raised a palm in acknowledgment. She then looked back down at the stillÂkneeling Oliver Bellecote.
â€œIt is a no,â€ she affirmed.
To Cecilyâ€™s horror, Oliver Bellecote gave a horrenÂdous wailâ€”as if heâ€™d been shot with an arrowâ€”and then collapsed fully onto his back, the drink inside his chalice still miraculously maintaining the level.
â€œI am crushed! Defeated!â€ he shouted in mock agony. Several guests were now pointing and laughÂing at the display he presented on the stones. He raised his head abruptly, took a noisy swallow, and then looked at Sybilla. â€œWill you at least sleep with me then? Completely inappropriate, I know, considering our very slight degree of separation, but I fear I am now considered quite eligible.â€
â€œOh, this is truly too much,â€ Cecily gritted out from between her teeth. Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire.
Sybilla cocked her head and gave him a sympaÂthetic smile. â€œSorry, Oliver.â€
His forehead wrinkled, giving him the appearÂance of a chastised pup. â€œDamn my slothly feetâ€” youâ€™re already spoken for.â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid so,â€ Sybilla answered.
â€œSybilla!â€ Cecily hissed, outraged that her sister would have such an inappropriate conversationâ€” even in jestâ€”with this man where any could overÂhear their lewd banter. This man in particular.
â€œForgive me, Cee,â€ Sybilla conceded, turning amused eyes to her sister while Lord Bellecote stagÂgered to his feet.
Cecily squared her shoulders, somewhat plaÂcated that Sybilla had at last remembered both her station and her very public venue.
â€œHow thoughtless of me,â€ Sybilla continued. â€œLord Bellecote, I am engaged with other business this night, but I believe Lady Cecily, however, is thus far unattended.â€
Cecilyâ€™s entire body went ice cold. She was unsure whether she would cry or throw up.
Oliver Bellecote had tardily gained his feet, brushing at his pants with his free hand. Sybillaâ€™s flip invitation caused his movements to freeze. He slowly raised his face until his eyes met Cecilyâ€™s.
She would have gasped had she been able to draw breath. His direct gaze was like witnessing lightning striking the ocean. The first thought that came into her mind was, Why, heâ€™s as lonely as I am. Her stomach hardened into a pained little stone. She wanted to scream at him to stop looking at her, wanted to turn and berate Sybilla for drawing her into such an indecent exhibitionâ€” â€”she wanted Oliver Bellecote to suggest someÂthing inappropriate to her so that she might agree.
Oliverâ€™s eyes flicked to Sybillaâ€™s and in that next instant, both the notorious nobleman and Cecilyâ€™s sister burst out in peals of laughter. â€œI am sorry to tease you so, Oliver,â€ Sybilla chuckÂled, drawing her arm back around Cecilyâ€™s middle, and Cecily hung a brittle, fragile smile on her numb lips. â€œMy dearest sister would not have the likes of you wrapped up in the holy shroud itself.â€
â€œNor should she,â€ Oliver agreed with a naughty grin and deep bow in Cecilyâ€™s direction, although his eyes did not look at her directly again. â€œAlas, I am not worthy of such a gentle ladyâ€™s attention, as our wise parents decided so long ago.â€
Sybilla quirked an eyebrow. â€œYet you are worthy of my attention?â€
The rogue winked at Cecilyâ€™s sister. â€œOne must never cease to aspire to the heights of oneâ€™s potenÂtial.â€ He bowed again. â€œLadies.â€ And then he slipped back into the writhing crowd with all the grace of a serpent in the garden.
Cecily felt her eyes swelling with tears, and she swallowed hard. Sybilla sighed. â€œPerhaps heâ€” Cee? Cee, are you all right?â€ â€œOf course, Sybilla. Iâ€™m fine.â€