I’m back from Florida…to cold, rain, and wind. Blah. Not unpacked yet, probably won’t do that for a couple of days *snort* and I have 121 recorded TV shows to catch up on. However, Sample Sunday is alive and well and my guest blogger for today is Cynthia Wright with a cool excerpt to follow. Enjoy!
How fun to be here on Marsha’s blog, which I enjoy reading so much. (Thanks for having me here, Marsha!) Many of you may remember me from a few years back – I wrote 13 historical romances for Ballantine Books, including CAROLINE and SILVER
STORM. I’m having a ball bringing them back as eBooks and reconnecting with readers!
I’m going to share YOU & NO OTHER, my latest e-book release. It’s set in enchanted Renaissance France and
stars one of my very favorite couples – in fact, readers tell me that St. Briac is their favorite historical romance hero!
I love this book and am delighted that it’s back, all freshened up with a fabulous new cover. If you like a hero
with a twinkle in his eye and an ability to face life with humor, you’ll love YOU & NO OTHER.
The book opens in 1526, as King Francois I is returning toFranceafter a year’s imprisonment by Emperor Charles V. One of the many people waiting for him is his childhood friend and favorite knight, Thomas Mardouet, seigneur deSt.Briac. They go off with the rest of the court to the king’s hunting lodge in the forests of Nieui where this excerpt begins, as free-spirited Aimee de Fleurance is resting in the grass and reading poetry…
Less than a quarter hour passed, during which the only sounds were her bites of crisp bread. Thus, when other distant noises reached Aimée’s ears, she paused to listen. From deep in the woods the crashing drew nearer, until suddenly a magnificent stag vaulted in a high arc across the clearing. Pieces of parchment and cheese scattered as Aimée scrambled to her feet in alarm, just in time to avoid being run down by a half dozen barking hounds that thundered through the clearing in pursuit of the stag. Horrified to realize that someone meant to kill one of the most splendid creatures in her woods, she didn’t hesitate for a moment when the two hunters galloped into the clearing.
“Monsieurs. Arretez! I beg you to halt.”
Somehow the men were able to rein in their horses quickly. The nearer hunter turned in his saddle and bowed from the waist, sweeping off a soft velvet cap with a frothy plume.
“We are at your service, mademoiselle. How may we assist you?”
Aimée had been appraising the situation. Obviously, the men were not of noble birth, since they rode without the usual accompaniment of grooms, huntsmen, and pages. Still, the man who spoke was richly garbed in a slashed doublet and haut-de-chausses of forest green velvet. His blue jerkin was trimmed with sable and set with emeralds. The eyes that regarded her with a mixture of concern and impatience were hazel, slanting upward slightly at the corners as though prone to laughter. The man’s face was hardly handsome yet arresting all the same. Aimée thought she had never seen a nose quite so large; it grew like a pale zucchini nearly down to the poor fellow’s mouth. All the same, he gave off an air of bold confidence.
“Did you understand me, mademoiselle?” the hunter prompted. Glancing over at his companion, he touched a finger to the side of his neatly bearded chin and sighed.
“Yes, m’sieur, I understood. I was just waiting to reply until I was certain the stag was safely away. Pray forgive me for spoiling your sport, but I couldn’t allow you to kill him.”
The green-garbed hunter stared thunderstruck. “You couldn’t allow me?” He swiveled in his saddle to address the other man. “Did you hear that? Did you? This girl couldn’t allow me to kill a stag!”
“My friend, do not misplace your ready wit. After all, this could have been an ordinary day like any other, but instead we have encountered a lovely wood sprite who bravely protects the creatures in her forest.” St. Briac gave Francois a carefree grin.
“Hmm.” The king glanced back at Aimée. A burnished sunbeam poured over her gleaming ebony curls, thick-lashed green eyes, rosy lips, and softly curving figure. “I see your point, St. Briac. No doubt such a compassionate maiden would offer comfort to disappointed hunters as well?”
Aimée was flooded with relief. “Oh, yes. If only you will not be angry with me.”
The men exchanged grins and swung down from their horses. Watching them approach, Aimée experienced a tiny pang of apprehension. The man with the large nose was very tall, with a strong body, yet his companion was even taller and stronger. She regarded him closely and could scarcely believe what she saw. He was astonishingly handsome, with crisply curling dark hair and a rakish close-trimmed beard, dark turquoise eyes that crinkled with humor, sculpted cheekbones, a slightly aquiline nose, and a compelling smile. He wore a simple yet rich doublet and snug breeches of gray velvet set off by ivory linen revealed through the slashings. His hunting boots were of the finest leather.
Suddenly Aimée realized that she had been staring, and she looked quickly toward the other man. “I will be glad to provide what comfort I can, m’sieur, but I fear that all I have to offer is some wine, bread, and cheese… and the soft green grass upon which you may relax.”
The king turned to St. Briac. “My friend, I put this situation in your hands,” he murmured evenly.
“You are too kind,” came the ironic reply. For a long moment he regarded the enchanting girl, wondering what her game might be. It was obvious that she was of simple birth and surely old enough to have mated, probably married. Was it for gold that she teased them? “I suggest that we sample the wine and cheese and explore this matter further.”
Uneasily, Aimée wondered at the man’s air of mischief. She watched the two men settle themselves in the grove of birch and then brought them her basket. When she bent over, two pairs of male eyes burned the creamy swell of her bosom, sending a hot flush through Aimée’s cheeks. Something was wrong.
“I apologize for the simplicity of these refreshments,” she murmured. “I hope you will not object to sharing a cup.”
Francois could barely conceal his distaste. Watching her fill the pewter cup with what was doubtless some sour peasant wine, he thought longingly of the elaborate repast that waited for him at his hunting lodge. St. Briac appeared to be amused by this ridiculous farce, yet the girl hardly seemed on the verge of shedding her dress so that the three of them might frolic together, and he would never resort to force.
Aimée had reluctantly taken the place indicated by the handsome man and now found herself bracketed by two pairs of wide shoulders. By the time the food and wine were gone, she was feelng anxious.
“You seem nervous, my sweet,” the long-nosed man remarked with what sounded like impatience. “Don’t you like men?”
“I—” She swallowed. “I suppose that some men are rather agreeable.”
The king raised his eyes to meet St. Briac’s over her head. Thomas realized that bolder measures were called for. “What about the king? Surely you have heard that he is delivered from his captivity inSpain? What would you think were your path to cross his?”
At last a topic of conversation that Aimée could sink her teeth into! “I have no use for the king! I understand that his charm is great, but I have seen so many poor, suffering people that I can feel only disdain for a monarch who could waste so much time on extravagant, frivolous pursuits.”
St. Briac had gone pale under his tan, and Francois could only gape. Fearing for the foolish girl’s life, St. Briac made a valiant attempt to smooth things over. “Are you not aware that our king has spent many years at war? His courage is legendary. In fact, he was in the thick of battle atPaviawhen taken prisoner.”
Aimée rolled her eyes and made a gesture of dismissal with one pretty hand. “His involvement ofFrancein these silly wars is proof of our king’s childish male vanity. Why does he not concentrate on improving the lot of his own country instead of always attempting to take someone else’s away? The poor man’s character is obviously hopelessly shallow.”
Francois had begun to cough and then choke, and Aimée turned worried eyes on him. “Oh, dear. Are you all right?”
When he could breathe again, the king said hoarsely, “That will teach me to eat the stale bread of a peasant wench!”
She straightened slim shoulders. “I beg your pardon, m’sieur!”
St. Briac was torn between amusement at this scene and concern for what it might lead to. Fortunately, he was spared further involvement by the far-off sound of his huntsman’s horn. “There’s Perot, my friend! Let’s be away to join the others.”
The king was already rising. “No, no, St. Briac. I insist that you remain and accept all the comfort from this charming wood sprite. I for one have had my fill.” He gave them both a terse bow, mounted his horse, and galloped off through the woods.
Cringing, Thomas lay back in the lush grass, closed his eyes, and then let the laughter rise irrepressibly in his chest.
“Your friend’s behavior was quite odd,” Aimée observed. She reached for the basket and began to replace flask, cup, and linen serviette. “Has he some special regard for the king?”
“You might say that.” The smile that curved St. Briac’s mouth was at once that of a devil and a little boy. Slowly he began to laugh, remembering all that had happened.
Aimée looked on in consternation. Obviously both men had been lost in the woods for too long. Still, she couldn’t deny that this tall fellow stirred confusing feelings within her, feelings she had believed to exist only in poetry or in her sister’s romantic fantasies. She stared at him. The thick gray velvet of his doublet was tailored so that it stretched taut across his broad shoulders, strong tapering chest, and flat belly as he continued to lie back in the grass, helpless with laughter. Finally he raised one hand to brush tears from his sparkling eyes and sought to regain some composure. Aimée noticed that his fingers were long, clean, and aristocratic yet sun-darkened like those of a peasant who had no use for gloves. Glancing over, she discovered that he was watching her. Curiosity mixed with humor in his gaze.
“I apologize, mademoiselle,” St. Briac said softly. “You must think that my friend and I are quite mad.”
“The idea has occurred to me,” she admitted. When he chuckled again, she couldn’t help smiling in response. The man exuded something much more potent than charm. “Why were you laughing so? Don’t you share the regard your large-nosed companion feels for our monarch?”
St. Briac stared in delight and then put a hand over his eyes and shook his head in an effort to contain his mirth. “Large-nosed companion?” he echoed. “My little wood sprite, you are wonderful. Tell me your name.”
“I am Aimée de Fleurance, m’sieur.”
“It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Aimée. To answer your question, I do in truth feel real affection and respect for King Francois, but at the same time I see the truth in much of what you said.” He found himself fascinated by this piquant, outrageous girl and couldn’t help wondering whether he had fallen from his horse and was dreaming this entire episode. Never had St. Briac seen eyes as green as the spring leaves or such thick, feathery black lashes. Her eyebrows arched delicately, betraying a quick intelligence, yet the minx was spellbindingly feminine. Flushed cheeks bespoke her awareness of him as a man.
Aimée dropped her eyes under St. Briac’s open regard. When he lifted her chin with a long finger, she shivered.
“You are very lovely, mademoiselle,” he murmured. He was seized with a longing to hold her in his arms in the fragrant grass, to taste her sweet mouth and creamy skin.
Aimée felt chilled and then burningly hot. Frightened, she drew back, her eyes wide as a fawn’s. “I, I—” In horror, she realized that the peaks of her breasts were outlined against her thin bodice and that St. Briac’s eyes were on them like a brand. “I have to be getting home. I’m quite late as it is.”
He realized then that Aimée was completely innocent; they had misjudged her. Sighing, he helped her rise.
“Merci,” Aimée whispered. “Again, I am sorry about the stag, at least I am sorry if I spoiled the afternoon for you and your companion. Also, I would appreciate it if you would convey my regrets to him. I did not realize that my opinion of our king would upset the poor man so.”
St. Briac grinned again, his eyes crinkling. “Think nothing of it. My large-nosed friend is oversensitive.”
“Well, adieu,” she said primly, and extended delicate fingers. They were lost in his strong, dark hand.
“Mademoiselle de Fleurance, I beg you grant me one favor before you leave.” St. Briac’s eyes were soft, melting her resistance. “I never met a wood sprite before today, and I crave a kiss to remember her by.”
She opened her mouth but could summon neither words nor breath. Gently, the man was drawing her into his embrace. For a moment he held her against his chest, one hand caressing her small back as if to soothe her fears. Aimée was conscious of steely muscles against her cheek but also of warmth. A faint, pleasantly masculine scent assailed her senses from the velvet doublet, and she heard the slow thump of his heart.
“Fear not, miette,” St. Briac whispered, tilting her chin up so that he could search her wide leaf-green eyes. When his lips touched her own, Aimée thought wonderingly that they too were hard yet warm, but then she forgot all else as his arms tightened, crushing her breasts against him, and his mouth slanted over hers. A wave of delicious sensations broke over her body. His lips had parted, demanding that she reply, and she tasted his tongue. She was shocked yet exhilarated. One of his arms encircled her waist like a steel band, while his free hand slid into her glossy curls. Through her simple frock and petticoat she was suddenly aware of something rigid pressing against the unfamiliar ache between her thighs.
A horse whinnied and stamped behind them, followed by an exasperated voice. “God’s teeth! It would seem that I cannot leave you alone for a moment.”
Aimée broke free and whirled around to glimpse a small, thin man with white hair. He was clad all in black and sat astride a restless dappled horse. Humiliated and confused, she instantly scrambled across the clearing to snatch up her basket; then she lifted her skirts and disappeared into the woods without a backward glance.
St. Briac stared after her and then pivoted to confront his manservant. “Gaspard, you fat wit! When will you learn some manners? Have you no sense at all?”
“More than you, I think,” Gaspard LeFait replied calmly. “The king will have your head for consorting with a treasonous female if you are not at the hunting lodge in time to dress for tonight’s festivities.”
St. Briac grimaced. “The maiden is no traitor. She didn’t realize she spoke to the king himself.” Remembering, he tried to repress a smile. “Has the king told everyone what happened?”
“No, he’s far too embarrassed. He related the story of your lost stag to the rest of the hunting party, but only I heard of the insults that chit heaped upon his royal head.” Gaspard’s lips twitched. “When you didn’t follow him immediately, he bade me save you from the madwoman.”
Swinging into his saddle, St. Briac gave a snort of wry laughter. “More likely he was imagining what he was missing.”
Before turning Sebastien in the direction of the hunting lodge, he glanced once more at the empty clearing and felt a surprising pang of regret.
I hope you’ll visit my website/blog at http://cynthia-wright.com/ I did a special post about the story behind
YOU & NO OTHER, with photos of my research trip inFrance.
And I’d love to see you on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/cynthiawrightauthor