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Wicked, Sinful Nights
by Julia Latham
Reckless Sir Robert Hilliard has one last chance to remain a member of the League of the Blade, the daring fraternity of elite knights that secretly raised him. A Bladesman has been poisoned, and Robert must uncover enough evidence to hang the murderess. It seems quite simple, really...until he meets the red-haired beauty and falls hopelessly under her spell.
He may be handsome, but Sarah Audley quickly discovers that Robert's no knight in shining armor. He's out to convict her for murder! Though Sarah vows her innocence, forces beyond her control are gathering against her. Even worse, she cannot deny her own flaming desire for this man who's so dangerous...and so irresistible.
To satisfy their burgeoning passion, Robert may have to sacrifice his only dream. But he'll gain something even more precious--Sarah's undying love.
The second book in the "Raised To Be Bladesmen" Trilogy!
(the books don't have to be read in any order)
"...a sensual read."
RT Bookreviews Magazine
"...a well-crafted novel."
(The following is the property of the author and Avon Books, and cannot be copied or reprinted without permission.)
She was brazen, for a murderer.
From horseback on a nearby hill, Sir Robert Hilliard looked down upon Drayton Hall, where nursemaid Sarah Audley walked hand-in-hand with her charge, five-year-old Francis Drayton, whom she’d made a viscount by killing his father.
No one suspected the truth but the League of the Blade, the secret society born long ago in a time of darkness to bring justice to innocent victims. Robert was a member, although not by the usual methods.
Viscount Drayton, the murder victim, had once been a Bladesman, too, Robert’s mentor, and had risen to the Council of Elders. Such a man’s death would always be scrutinized. The symptoms of slow arsenic poisoning could look like many other illnesses to the innocent, which explained why it was often employed. But the League was not easily misled, and they had informed King Henry, who’d agreed that a nobleman of his court must be avenged, in court if possible, but if not, Robert knew where his duty lay.
“Do not be misled by Sarah Audley’s beauty.” Sir Walter, Robert’s partner, gave him a penetrating glance.
Like all typical Bladesman, Walter’s last name was a secret. He was a veteran of the League, of average height but impressive strength, his whiskered face lined with care and duty, his gray hair cut short.
“Beauty often disguises ugliness,” Walter continued. “Her beauty was an enticement to Lord Drayton, who could not resist taking her as his mistress. ’Twas a fatal mistake.”
Robert knew why Walter would feel the need to instruct him in even life’s most basic lessons. Robert’s last mission hadn’t begun as a sanctioned League assignment. The fact that it had restored Robert’s brother, Adam, to the earldom of Keswick, gave it credibility. But the League seemed to have forgotten that success, as well as Robert’s previous accomplishments as a Bladesman. Now they only cared about his behavior during the last year. They should not blame him for enjoying himself, when the League was the reason he’d known so little of his own heritage and the pleasures of the outside world. He’d been revealed as the brother of an earl, with money to spend. Women had flocked to him, men had enjoyed his company, and there had been more than one wild night of impropriety.
But now he was on probation, expected to prove himself, when he’d spent his life doing everything the League asked of him. Anger simmered within him, and he wasn’t used to feeling that way toward the League, which had saved and molded his life.
Robert squinted, noticing that Sarah’s red hair was bared to the late spring sun. She was holding hands with the little boy, dancing in a circle. “I cannot tell if she’s beautiful,” he said to Walter with practiced ease. “And ’twill not matter to me. Viscount Drayton was a man who took interest in my education and in my well being. I will not allow a woman to sway my purpose. She will pay for her crimes.”
“As we gather proof against her, you may instruct me as you see fit.”
Robert shot a glance at Walter.
“You are in command of this mission, Sir Robert.”
Robert met the man’s gaze, and if he saw a hint of irony, it was faint. “So the League has decided to evaluate me?”
“We are all evaluated on occasion, Sir Robert. There is no shame in that.”
Robert’s eyes narrowed as he studied his partner. Did Walter approve of the League’s plan—or not? There was no way to tell if he was an ally or an enemy. Which meant Robert could only rely on himself. It had always been that way. The Hilliard brothers were alone in the world, after all.
As he straightened in the saddle, his horse Dragon gave a whinny and tossed its head. “Do your best, Sir Walter. There will only be impressive things to say about me.” Robert gave him a carefree smile. It came naturally, and could hide so much. He remembered the way Drayton had sought him out whenever he had visited the League fortress. He’d shown an interest in Robert’s studies and training when others only wanted to examine him as an experiment. Robert would never forget the nobleman’s kindness.
“Both the League and I want to trust you in all things,” Walter said. “But I feel you need to know that I did not approve of the League’s experiment with you and your brothers when you were children.”
“I appreciate your honesty.”
“Then we understand each other,” Walter said.
For several minutes, silence reigned between them as Robert considered his position as commander of this mission. Sarah Audley and the young viscount were now kneeling, looking at something on the ground. She touched the boy’s shoulder gently, with obvious fondness.
“We will be hiding our purpose here,” Robert decided.
Walter only nodded his agreement.
Robert grinned. “Then follow my lead.” He urged his horse down the hill, trotting toward the woman who would be defining the next few days—perhaps weeks—of his life.
She looked up as they neared, and he watched her pleasant expression change into curiosity. She rose to her feet with a natural grace, and he let his gaze drift down her body. She was short and sweetly plump, with rounded, feminine curves meant to make a man feel well comforted in bed. Her gown was plain and unadorned, as befitted a servant rather than a lady. That red hair he’d noticed from afar was pulled back with a simple ribbon, not hidden by a headdress or wimple. He could see the curls she’d attempted to train into submission, but imagined that if she loosened the ribbon, her hair would be wild and untamed.
And then he realized that he was evaluating her as a potential bed partner rather than a murder suspect, the same way he’d evaluated every woman he’d met since he’d been allowed to see women. Though the League thought they’d prepared him for everything, he was unprepared for—her.
Her face was as petite as the rest of her, faint freckles scattered across her upturned nose. She was a woman who did not hide herself from the sun. Lips as deliciously plump as her body were already forming into a generous, though polite, smile. Her eyes were brown, warm in the golden afternoon, almost too large for her face. They should either be cold with death, or veiled to hide her true thoughts. Instead he saw a wealth of sadness, determination, and intelligence. He usually allied himself with uncomplicated women, who were full of joy and seeking pleasure. But Sarah Audley was an enigma, a widow, and already he found himself distracted from what he knew her to be. Was this how she had seduced Drayton? She would not find him so easy a target.
While her brilliant eyes assessed both men in return, she put her hand on the boy’s shoulder as if she could protect him from the world—when she was the one who’d made him an orphan.
He deliberately gave her the appreciative smile he always offered a beautiful woman, ignoring Walter’s curious glance at him.
“Good afternoon, mistress,” Robert said, letting pleasure ripple through his voice. “Tell me we have come to Drayton Hall, for it has been a long day of traveling.”
“Aye, you have, good sir.”
Sarah Audley felt the spell of the stranger’s voice almost immediately. It was deep and soothing, carrying hints of laughter and secret amusement, well cultured and polite, the voice of an educated man.
But she knew a voice could easily hide the truth of a man.
He was a knight at the very least, although surely not much higher, by the plain, functional brigandine he wore over his tunic to protect his torso, and the woolen breeches that covered his legs. He had the broad, muscular body of a man well trained. He was but a knight—so why did she feel a touch of unease?
And then she realized that she was still staring at his body. She quickly lifted her gaze to his lean, angular face, with its square jaw imprinted with a cleft in the middle. He had black, wavy hair cut to just below his ears. His eyes were as bright blue as cornflowers, and regarded her lightly, teasingly, with a hint of admiration, she thought with disbelief. She almost looked over her shoulder. He could not possibly be focusing that look on her. Men did not look at her with possibilities in their minds, as if they could sense all the ways she was a failure as a woman.
But this man didn’t know her. She lifted her chin, her hand still on Francis’s shoulder; the little boy often forgot caution when he could be near a new horse.
Or at least he used to, before grief had claimed his spirit.
“I am Mistress Sarah Audley of Drayton Hall,” she said. Feeling a bit vulnerable, she was not ready to reveal to strangers that the boy with her was the young viscount. “We welcome weary travelers. Unless you have business here that I may help you with?”
“I am Sir Robert Burcot, late of the king’s court,” the younger man said, his smile so warm and knowing.
“And I am Sir Walter Gravesend.” The older man nodded, his face grizzled even as his body displayed that he was yet a warrior.
Sir Robert looked from his companion to her. “We are traveling on the king’s business, so we welcome your generosity.”
She withheld a shiver. The king’s business.
Sir Robert’s too intelligent gaze dropped to the boy, and Sarah resisted the need to pull him closer.
“And who is this fine young man?”
Francis giggled, even as Sarah knew she could not keep his identity from such men. “He is my charge, Francis, Viscount Drayton.”
To her surprise, Sir Robert dismounted and while holding onto the reins, bowed before Francis. “’Tis indeed a pleasure to meet you, my lord.”
Francis covered his mouth against another giggle. He had curly brown hair and more freckles than she did. It was good to see laughter in his eyes rather than sadness. He missed his father terribly. He didn’t remember his mother so well after a year, but the grief from his father’s death weeks before was yet fresh. He had taken to hours of long silences, when he would look at her with his great wounded eyes. It was difficult for her lately to capture his interest and distract him.
Yet she understood him well, for once upon a time she’d suffered through her own grief.
Sir Walter dismounted as well, his face grave as he regarded the boy. “We heard of the viscount’s passing. You have our sympathies.”
She nodded, then found her gaze on Sir Robert again. “Sir Anthony Ramsey, the viscount’s guardian, is not in residence at present.”
“’Tis a shame,” Sir Robert said. “I had heard of him at court, and looked forward to an introduction.”
“You can come in,” Francis suddenly said.
Sarah gaped down at the little boy, and she knew that the two men might misinterpret her expression. But how could she explain her shock at Francis’s ease of speaking?
Sir Robert’s smile was blinding in the sunlight. “You are gracious, my lord. I accept your offer.”
Before she knew it, she and Francis were leading the way through the gatehouse. Inside, the courtyard opened up, surrounded by lodgings built into the castle walls, along with shops and sheds for the various craftsmen. The old keep rose before them, with its high turrets, which had been keeping watch over the castle for centuries. There were windows cut into it now, an attempt to make it more modern, but it still looked forbidding to her—yet safe. She’d so wanted to be safe there, and she had been, until Lord Drayton’s death.
The houndsman nodded to her as he led his dogs toward the gatehouse in a happy pack. Knights continued their practice on the small tiltyard near the barracks, the sound of their swords ringing in the air. Laundry women carried baskets from the main keep and away from the courtyard, where chickens scratched in the dirt and fluttered out of everyone’s way.
“’Tis a fine castle,” Sir Robert said, coming up beside her.
“Aye. ’Twas a welcome place for me when I arrived.” She almost winced. Why was she rambling about something that was not this stranger’s business?
“You have not spent your life here?”
“Nay, I was raised elsewhere.” She said nothing else, hoping he would understand that she considered her life private.
“So you must have come here to be the boy’s nursemaid.”
She was surprised to find him watching her with such interest. Sir Walter behaved as other men usually did, staring about the courtyard as the servants and craftsmen attended to their duties. Francis only let his gaze wander back and forth between the newcomers.
“I do not remember telling you my position,” she said, hoping to dissuade his unsettling interest.
“You called the boy your charge,” he said, shrugging. “I pay attention to everything a beautiful woman says.”
She almost snorted with amusement at that. Even Sir Walter looked away, as if he couldn’t watch. Did Sir Robert make a habit of charming women wherever he went? And it must work, if he continued to employ it. But she was not a woman used to succumbing to a man’s charms—my goodness, men seldom tried.
There was Sir Simon Chapman, she amended guiltily, remembering the knight from Sir Anthony’s household. He had been paying sweet attention to her in the last few weeks, and lately he’d begun to touch her, taking her hand or putting an arm around her waist. She had flinched the first few times he’d done so, embarrassing herself and him. She wanted to be past the memory of her husband’s cruelty and the way it had touched her for too many years.
She didn’t know if she should respond to Sir Simon’s courtship or not. Would Sir Anthony release her from service, now that Francis was his ward? She tried not to shudder at the thought, reminding herself that he seemed in no hurry to lose her. But Francis would grow older, of course, and someday soon would no longer need a nurse. Would she be an outcast, alone and friendless again?
“’Tis late in the afternoon,” she said. “Shall I show you to lodgings for the night? You would be welcome to join us in the great hall for supper.”
“That is gracious of you, mistress,” Sir Robert said, sweeping his cap from his head.
“I will tell Cook,” Francis suddenly said, then raced off toward the keep.
Sarah hesitated, then glanced at Sir Walter before saying, “Forgive my surprise a moment ago, when the young lord invited you inside. My expression had nothing to do with either of you. It is just that…he has spoken little since his father died, and with your arrival, he has said more in an hour than he has in a day of late.”
Sir Robert smiled. “You have my thanks for the explanation.”
She gestured for a groom to come tend their horses, then led them to the guest lodgings built into the curtain wall, where several stone staircases led up to the first floor of each lodgings.
“There is an inner and outer chamber on the first floor,” she said, gesturing within to the room sparsely furnished with a table and benches, a cupboard and a chest. “There are two bedchambers above this. If you take the interior stairs to the ground floor, you can follow the passage into the keep itself, rather than walk outdoors on a stormy day. I will send chambermaids to see that your rooms are aired and well supplied with linens. Supper is at five of the clock,” she added, gesturing to the clock on the mantel. She curtsied and departed.
Sarah hurried across the courtyard, smiling at servants and friends, shrugging at their questions about the new guests. She resisted the temptation to look back where she’d left Sir Robert and Sir Walter. Besides their names, she didn’t know who these men were, or what business they were about for the king.
But they’d looked at her too closely. She was a woman many men treated as almost invisible. Why did she suddenly merit notice?
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