When the Templar knight Gaston unexpectedly inherits his family estate, he knows he needs a wife and heir. A marriage of convenience to a widow in need of assistance is a practical solution and the newly-wed pair leave Jerusalem, entrusted with the delivery of a package for the Templars. Away from the life he has known for years, Gaston quickly realizes that little is following his plan—especially his mysterious wife, whose presence awakens an unexpected fire…
Twice widowed, Ysmaine doubts she will ever wed again, let alone have a marriage of merit—until she is charmed by the gruff knight intent upon defending her. Ysmaine weds again, not only by her own choice but to a warrior whose honor she admires. She is determined to show Gaston that marriage has more to offer them both than an heir, but first she must win the trust of the wary man she has impulsively wed…
Neither realize that Gaston has been entrusted with the treasure of the Templars—much less that someone in their small party is intent upon claiming the prize at any cost. In a company of strangers with secrets, can Gaston dare to trust his new bride? Can Ysmaine convince Gaston to confide what he knows? Can they solve the riddle together before the villain’s plan comes to fruition and all is lost?
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An excerpt from The Crusader’s Bride Copyright 2015 Deborah A. Cooke
Ysmaine de Valeroy knelt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and prayed yet again. She prayed with a fervor unusual to her, her heart in her entreaty as it had never been before. Indeed, there had been a time when she had been outspoken and rebellious, not devout at all. Two short marriages had compelled her to change her ways.
It was not easy. She had tried to atone for her sins, though she feared she had little aptitude for penance. She had donated every item of value she owned. She had given alms and made offerings. She had undertaken a pilgrimage to this most holy of shrines, and she had walked most of the way, letting her maid Radegunde ride the mare. She was certain she had lit a thousand candles, many for her husbands’ souls, many for her own. The leather of her shoes was worn through. Her clothes had faded and were filled with dust. She had been hungry for so long that she had become accustomed to the feel of a hollow belly.
But still the challenges mounted before her.
Perhaps she was simply doomed.
Perhaps she was cursed because she did not believe in her guilt. Perhaps she should accept that it was her responsibility that her husbands had died, instead of believing it a trick of fate.
But Ysmaine could not. There was the mark of her stubborn pride again.
It was not uncommon for a young bride to bury an old spouse, and only slightly less uncommon for an aged man to become overly excited at the prospect of consummating his nuptials. One did hear tales of men dying on their wedding night, so the death of Ysmaine’s first spouse had been unfortunate, but not that remarkable.
At least to those other than Ysmaine. She would never forget being trapped beneath Richard’s corpse for the duration of the night, feeling his body grow cold even as she was helpless to shift his considerable weight. She would never forget the indignity of being released by four servants the following morning, nor the smell of that bed. She had not known whether to consider herself fortunate or not that Richard had not commenced upon the deed, the anticipation alone having overwhelmed him. To have lain naked beneath a man all the night long yet still be a virgin incited curiosity, if not more.
The whispers had begun then, though she and her family had turned a deaf ear to them. Ysmaine did not believe that her bold nature invited such punishment. She did not believe that her merry manner required discipline by any authority. She simply regretted that her father’s good intentions had not borne fruit.
Her father had not been deterred, although his second match had been less brilliant.
All had known Henrik to be fond of his wine, so some were not surprised that he stumbled upon the stairs on his nuptial night and fell to his death without reaching the bed where Ysmaine awaited his amorous attention.
Others, though, began to whisper that Ysmaine had pledged her chastity to God, or worse, that she was a witch determined to never let a man between her thighs. The tales had grown over the Yule, taking on a vehemence that had confounded her father’s every effort to make a third match.
He had not even been able to find matches for her younger sisters.
Believing the fault was her own and that the remedy must be her responsibility, Ysmaine had resolved to depart on a pilgrimage. There could be no half-measures with a curse of such magnitude so she had decided to go to Jerusalem itself. Her parents had initially protested, for her mother had been fearful of Ysmaine traveling so far. Seeing his daughter’s resolve and his wife’s fears, Ysmaine’s father had dispatched her with a party of defenders and much gold coin to ensure her safe passage.
Perhaps too much gold coin.
But a fortnight from home, Ysmaine and Radegunde had been robbed by the men hired to defend them. Ysmaine had been certain it was but a test, and that if she could make it to Jerusalem, all would be well. They had been compelled to beg for charity and sell every trinket remaining to them, but they had reached the Holy City.
And now, cruelest of cruelties, Radegunde lay sick with fever. Sweet, faithful Radegunde, the maid compelled to join her mistress on pilgrimage, the maid driven on by her mistress’s insistence, would pay the price of Ysmaine’s curse.
There was no coin for the apothecary’s cure.
There was nothing left to sell to raise the coin.
And Ysmaine feared it was her fault. She wept at her own failures even as she prayed for divine intervention. There was no more lowly sinner than she, and no one less likely to deserve compassion, yet Ysmaine hoped for it all the same. She knelt before the altar of the Virgin, for she expected no mercy from men. Mary the intercessor was her only hope. Surely Mary would see the repentance in Ysmaine’s heart and have mercy.
Just spare Radegunde, Ysmaine prayed. Just let me help her, and I will never desire any other thing in all my days. She was dizzy with hunger, her hands clenched tightly before herself as she prayed with all her might. She cared naught for her own discomfort. If Radegunde died, Ysmaine feared her own soul would be lost forever.
At the very least, she would go mad with guilt.
Despite her concentration on her prayer, Ysmaine was aware that someone watched her. Surely not another predator? A shiver ran down her spine, and she completed her entreaty, then raised her head to look.
It was a knight.
Ysmaine was slightly relieved, for all knew such men to be honorable.
The knight stood to one side of the chapel, his gaze fixed upon her, his arms folded across his chest. He made no effort to hide his interest in her. There was something appealing about a man who had no desire to disguise his deeds. Ysmaine noted that the others in the chapel were aware of his perusal, and only then understood the space around her on this day.
People believed him to be her protector.
His surplice was white, graced with the red cross of the Templar order, and it fell to his knees. He was tall and broad of shoulder, his eyes narrowed with a skepticism Ysmaine had seen often on the faces of those who served. The knights in the Holy Land seemed more hardened in comparison to those fighting men she had encountered at home, to the point of appearing emotionless and cold. She was certain they had witnessed much of the weakness of mortal men, and perhaps observing such shortcomings in this holy place pained them.
This one’s scrutiny was disconcerting, though. His hair was as dark as ebony and his face was tanned from the sun. His chain mail gleamed, the mark of an attentive squire, and his boots were dark. There were leather gloves tucked into his belt, and both a knife and sword were in scabbards hanging from it. A mail coif had fallen back on his neck. He appeared to be ready to ride to war at any moment, and Ysmaine wondered how close his destrier was.
She felt a flush rise over her cheeks at his steady perusal and wondered if he thought her a thief. The Knights Templar guarded the sacred shrines, after all, and accompanied pilgrims on the treacherous length of road between the ports and Jerusalem itself.
She stood, genuflected, then made to return to Radegunde, hoping against hope that her prayers had made some difference. There was little else she could do. How she hated the powerlessness of her situation, this new inability to reach into her purse for a coin to make matters better. It was humbling.
Ysmaine would not surrender, no matter how dire all appeared to be. She was the daughter of a line of aristocrats with valiant hearts. Somehow, she would find a way to make all come aright. Somehow, she would dispel this curse, see Radegunde healed, and return home with a scheme for her younger sisters to wed well. The challenges before her were daunting when gathered into a list, but Ysmaine had been born with a will of iron.
Only now, she could see that she would have need of it. Her pride would be her salvation, not her curse.
She started when she heard a step beside her, then glanced down to see a silver penny offered on a man’s lined palm. She looked up to find the Templar beside her, his gaze watchful and more potent with proximity. His eyes were a startling blue that made her think of twilight skies at home. A lump rose in her throat, for she was not certain she would ever see that holding or those beloved faces again.
“You mistake my trade, sir,” she said stiffly. She averted her gaze, her heart thumping, and hastened out of the church.
He followed her, undeterred, his heavy footfalls audible. He stepped into her path, compelling her to confront him, and offered the coin again. He was taller than she had realized, tall enough that he towered over her. His eyes were yet narrowed, but his expression was not unkind.
“I give alms in a sacred place,” he insisted, his voice a low rumble that was uncommonly pleasing. He offered the coin again. “But I would forgo the complication of making my offering through the priests.”
Ysmaine found she could not look away from this intent knight. His accent was familiar, and she seized the excuse to study him, wondering whether they had once met. She did not recognize him, though. “Why?” she asked, thinking he might confess to being the son of one of her father’s neighbors.
“You are hungry,” he said, his tone practical. “It is not uncommon for pilgrims to arrive in this place with no coin left to their names.” He took her hand in his, his touch both warm and gentle.
She knew it was only because she was so surprised by his move that he managed to capture her hand. The warmth of his hand folded around hers, making her feel small and delicate, though she was a comparatively tall woman.
He pressed that silver penny into her palm with a heavy fingertip as she watched his hands, his determination evident. “I believe it is the task of men to make a difference in this world, while they yet can. Fortify yourself.” He curled her fingers over the coin, then released her, stepping back out of her path, still observing her.
Ysmaine opened her hand, halfway thinking this gift would have disappeared. It might be a mirage, a trick of hunger and of the heat. But the coin was still there, nestled coolly in her own palm. Salvation glinted silver in the sunlight, and even when she blinked, it remained.
“You cannot do this,” she protested. “Alms must be given to the church, then dispensed…”
“I can give my charity where I so choose,” he corrected, interrupting her with a confidence that she had once shared.
Ysmaine heard her father’s warning in her thoughts. Any offer that appears too good to be true must not be true. Doubtless this gift had a price, and she could guess what it would be. Ysmaine was not prepared to surrender her sole surviving asset, not for one silver penny. She stretched out her hand. “I cannot accept such a gift.”
“Why not?” The knight seemed genuinely curious, as if it had not occurred to him that she might decline.
Ysmaine saw no reason to mince words. “Because you will have expectations of me, and I tell you now that I will not fulfill them for a single penny, nor for even a king’s ransom.”
His smile flashed, softening his features unexpectedly. “I do have an expectation, ’tis true, but not the one you anticipate.”
His smile weakened her resolve, which frightened her. Ysmaine pushed the coin toward him again. “I cannot accept your charity.”
The knight shook his head. “Yet I will not accept its return.” He indicated the people all around them with a smooth gesture. “Drop the coin, if you like. Another will seize it, upon that you can rely.”
Ysmaine knew he was right, and a measure of her former boldness returned to her. What harm could come of asking him for the truth? “What expectation do you have of me, then?” she asked, lifting her chin. “Is it too much to ask for the sum of the tale?”
“Indeed not. I have the same expectation of you as of any other person to whom I would surrender a coin.” He leaned closer and dropped his voice low, his eyes glinting as if they shared a secret. “That how you spend it will reveal the truth of your nature.”
Ysmaine was intrigued by this confession. “Why should you care?”
He arched a dark brow. “I am curious.” She sensed that there was yet more than he admitted, but the longer she held the coin, the less readily she could surrender it. He spread his hands, his eyes twinkling in a way that lightened Ysmaine’s heart. “And this curiosity is my burden to bear.”
“Are you frequently curious?” she asked, unable to stop herself.
“Does it matter?”
“Only that curiosity at this price at frequent intervals could see you in my place. You should take care not to expend too much coin on your burden.”
His smile was quick, as if she had surprised him, and faded all too soon. He looked ten years younger when he smiled. “I show marked care with coin, my lady,” he assured her, his salute making her heart skip. “You need not fear otherwise.”
“You have come daily to pray for intercession. I would grant your request.”
“I did.” There was a shrewdness in his expression then. “In these lands, in my trade, a man who fails to be observant does not survive overlong.”
It was easy to believe that this knight had cheated death and deceit, for she doubted he missed any detail. Even as she spoke with him, she was aware that his gaze swept over the area at regular intervals. She did not doubt that he could provide a full description of each person who had arrived and departed while he was there.
Ysmaine looked down at the coin. If this was divine intercession, she would not spurn it. She squared her shoulders and looked up at her benefactor. “Will you tell me where I can find the best apothecary?”
The knight was visibly surprised. “Are you ill?”
“My maid lies abed with a fever.” Ysmaine shook her head at her own role in this. “It would be beyond unkind for her to die, a foul reward for her loyalty and devotion.”
“But you are hungry.” If he had been watchful before, he was doubly so with this revelation.
“And Radegunde is in need of a cure.” Ysmaine spoke firmly even as she met his gaze. “If any should die on this pilgrimage, it should be me.” He looked startled by her vehemence, but Ysmaine continued. “You are of the Temple. You must abide in this city. Tell me, sir, where I can find the best apothecary, I beg of you.”
He nodded once, and she had the sense that he was satisfied with her reply. “Better,” he said in that rumbling low voice. “I shall take you there.” His fingertips were beneath her elbow then, his touch helpful but chivalrous.
He fairly cut a path through the crowd, his stature and the mark of his order making the people in the street fall back to let him pass. Ysmaine felt a heady sense that she no longer battled against her fate alone and was grateful. Even if this man was her ally solely in obtaining an apothecary’s potion, it was more, far more, than she had come to expect of the world.
It was only as they walked that she noted his slight limp. But then, he was a knight and a crusader. Of course, he had been injured. If a limp was the worst of it, he had been more fortunate than many others. She admired that he did not slow his pace or look for sympathy. It said much good of his nature, in her opinion, that he simply carried on without complaint.
Perhaps the injury to his leg was why he knew the best apothecary.
Ysmaine wondered what exactly was wrong with his leg, and if the apothecaries in this city were as competent as those she had known at home. If not, she might be able to suggest some means of relief to this unexpected benefactor. Her grandmother had taught her a few remedies and it seemed only fitting that she offer advice in return for his aid.
Assuming, of course, that he truly took her to an apothecary. Ysmaine reminded herself to be skeptical until his intent was proven and hastened alongside the knight to a destination unknown.
Gaston had noticed the noblewoman several days before. She was slender and feminine, undoubtedly more slender than once for her cheeks showed that she had recently lost weight. He could see that her hair was as gold as sunlight beneath her veil and her thickly lashed eyes were a fine clear green. The striking combination was one to which he was particularly susceptible, never mind when the woman in question was as pretty as this lady.
Word had come that Saladin had crossed the Jordan River the day before, and Gaston feared the portent of that. Reginald of Châtillon might have provoked the Saracen leader for the last time. That man, as Lord of Karak by the Dead Sea, had a dangerous habit of attacking Saracen pilgrims on their way to their holy city of Mecca and plundering their wealth. Each time Reginald swore a treaty with Saladin, he broke it again. The previous year, he had broken an oath and captured a caravan with one of the sultan’s own sisters. Saladin had vowed to kill Reginald with his own hand. Gaston knew enough of Saladin from his own past duties as a negotiator to fear that the retaliation would be swift and sure.
And so it had been. In March, Saladin had marched toward Karak to defend pilgrims and laid waste to Reginald’s territories. Instead of uniting in their own defense, the Christians were at odds over who should claim the throne of Jerusalem. Reginald had allied with Gerard de Ridefort, Master of the Temple, and others to enthrone Sibylla, the older daughter of the previous king Amalric. Sibylla, in her turn, had crowned her husband, Guy de Lusignan, king of Jerusalem. Raymond of Tripoli, however, supported a rival king, Humphrey of Toron, the husband of Amalric’s younger daughter, Isabella.
In the spring, the Masters of the Temple and the Hospital had ridden to Tiberias to negotiate with Raymond, hoping to persuade him to accept Guy as king. Raymond, however, had hoped to win Saladin’s support for his side, so had allowed Saladin’s troops to pass through his lands at Tiberias to avenge the caravan attacks made by Reginald. Although Raymond declared he had warned the Christians, the Grand Master of the Temple insisted they had not known of the safe passage granted to Saladin’s forces. The two forces had engaged at the springs of Cresson on the first of May. The Christians had been soundly defeated, with forty knights and Roger de Moulins, Master of the Hospitaliers, killed.
Although Raymond had pled his own innocence and returned to Jerusalem with the retreating Master of the Temple, prepared to support Guy as king, Gerard de Ridefort was not alone in believing him to be a traitor. And so, the Christians were distracted while Gaston gathered impressions of a Saracen force mustering just beyond their borders. Hard details were difficult to obtain, but he knew this region and these personalities well enough to anticipate that Saladin’s reckoning had begun.
The King of Jerusalem had ridden out to confront Saladin, the Grand Masters of both the Temple and the Hospital accompanying him. The majority of the Templar knights in Jerusalem had joined the party, and triumph was expected. After all, the Christians had mustered a force of thousands, both knights and foot soldiers. The fortification at La Saphorie was a perfect site to defend, and also the location of a spring sufficiently reliable to ensure that such an army had enough water. Gaston, his departure eminent and his vows dissolved, had been left behind as one of the few knights in the Temple. He was not the only one who expected to have departed by their inevitable return.
At this point, there was little that could be accomplished with diplomacy.
If Saladin had crossed the Jordon, he would come eventually to Jerusalem. It was time to leave the Holy City, if Gaston meant to do so.
It was time to choose a bride, and he would have this one.
The lady was a pilgrim, and he admired how diligently she came to pray. He found her in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times a day, always kneeling penitent before the altar of the Virgin. She did not follow the pilgrim’s path to pray at the Holy Sepulchre itself, much less the Way of the Cross from the Chapel of the Repose, and her routine did not vary.
Gaston admired her resolve. He was more likely to trust people who were constant and consistent, as well as those who did not accept defeat readily.
Her kirtle had once been crimson, a costly hue, but had faded to a pale rose. He could see the true color along the seams. The embroidery on the hem had been golden and rich, but now was brown and dusty. He was no good judge of women’s clothing but he recalled his father’s enumerations of the expenses of a wife well enough.
This woman’s cloak, too, had once been richest purple, another costly dyestuff, and looked as if the fur lining had been cut out of it. Perhaps she had sold it en route to finance her journey. She held up her chin and did not cast her eyes downward, a mark of her aristocratic status that could not be disguised by grime.
He liked her humility, and that she traveled as a true pilgrim. He admired the vigor of her faith and the strength of her devotion to Mary. He respected that she held her chin high, though clearly she faced many challenges. She wore no wedding ring, but kept her head covered, even when she left the church. She had been married then, but was no longer. There was something about her that snared his attention, a blend of vulnerability and strength, perhaps.
By this, the third day he had seen her, Gaston was resolved that she was a logical choice of bride.
When she rose from her prayers and wavered, apparently so hungry as to be faint, he knew it was time to speak to her.
Within moments, she had surprised him thrice: by her conviction that he sought a whore’s favors; by her apparent resolve to decline the coin she so clearly needed; and finally by her request for an apothecary. She thought of her maid before herself, which was both rare and admirable.
Indeed, a clever and compassionate wife would suit Gaston well.