An orphan and a man who has fought for his own survival, Wulfe is a Templar knight sworn to the order for life. He will defend the order and his brethren to his last, but protests when he is included in a mission to deliver a package to Paris on the cusp of an attack on Jerusalem. The assignment so vexes him so that he seeks distraction in a Venetian brothel. Wulfe does not expect to encounter a courtesan of beauty and wit, her appeal for his assistance—much less his own desire to fulfill her request…
Christina recognizes immediately that the grim knight offers the chance to escape a despised life and reclaim her legacy. All she has to do is convince Wulfe to accompany her out of the city, a challenge that demands more than the power of her touch—when Wulfe is attacked, she seizes the opportunity to prove her value to him and his quest, uncertain whether her wits will be sufficient.
As attacks mount and danger engulfs the small company, Christina is the one who guesses the contents of the Templar package—and holds the key to its successful delivery. Wulfe is shocked to realize that she has awakened the heart he forgot he possessed—and when she risks herself to see his mission completed, he must choose between his duty and his newfound love…
Excerpt from The Crusader’s Heart ©2015 Deborah A. Cooke
Wulfe could not believe his ill fortune. The list of his woes was long indeed, and he ground his teeth as he marched through the twisted streets of Venice in search of relief.
First, he had been compelled to leave Jerusalem just when that city was doomed to face a challenge to its survival as a crusader holding. As a knight and a Templar, he knew his blade should be raised in defense of the Temple, not undertaking some errand that could have been managed by a clerk or lay brother.
Worse, this duty demanded that he ride all the way to Paris to deliver said missive, which meant that by the time he returned to Outremer, any battle might be completed. He might miss the opportunity to defend what he loved best, which was an abomination by any accounting.
Thirdly, he had only the appearance of leadership of the party that traveled with him. In reality, he had to cede to the dictate of Gaston, a former brother of the Temple who secretly was in command of this quest. That a knight who had left the order was more trusted than Wulfe was salt in the wound.
That Gaston made choices Wulfe would never have made, and Wulfe had to present them as his own notions, was galling. It was Gaston’s fault that the mission had so nearly failed at Acre, for Gaston had insisted upon riding for that port instead of departing more quickly from the closer port of Jaffa. Wulfe snarled that he should be blamed for such a close call.
Though it was somewhat mollifying that Gaston had defended the party alone when they had been attacked and might have paid for his error with his own life.
Still, had the choice been Wulfe’s, no one would have been compelled to render any price at Acre.
The final straw was that Wulfe had been saddled with the most vexing company imaginable for the journey to Paris. A fortnight trapped on a ship with them all had left him nigh murderous.
There was Gaston, so calm and deliberate, so unshakeable in his confidence, that Wulfe was tempted to challenge him to a fight. He wanted to see Gaston riled over some matter or another. There was Gaston’s wife, Ysmaine, a beauty who, like all women, should neither be trusted nor riding with knights on an errand. Indeed, she had evidently acquired toxins and brought them along. Such irresponsibility was yet another source of annoyance to Wulfe.
There was Gaston’s squire, Bartholomew, a man of such an age that he should long ago have been knighted himself. Wulfe had no patience for men with little ambition. Although the younger man did not appear to be lazy, Wulfe could not understand why he did not aspire for more. It was unnatural to be content with one’s lot.
Another former Templar, Fergus, had completed his military service and returned to Scotland to wed his betrothed. Wulfe could not comprehend why he would stick to the date of his planned departure when the Holy City was likely to be besieged. Indeed, he could make no sense in the decision of any of these men to abandon Jerusalem in its moment of need.
That the secret treasure they carried in trust for the Temple in Jerusalem was entrusted to the care of Fergus, another brother who had left the order, and not himself, made Wulfe’s blood fairly boil. He did not even know what the prize was!
There was also the merchant, Joscelin de Provins, as soft as a grub and rightly fearful of his survival in any trouble. It was perfectly reasonable that such a plump man, so concerned with the value of his goods, would wish to be away from war. Wulfe neither liked nor respected Joscelin, but it was the sworn task of the order to defend pilgrims and he would do as much.
There was the knight, Everard, who apparently abandoned a holding in the Latin Kingdoms to visit the deathbed of his father in France. Wulfe was incredulous that any man would abandon his wealth over sentimentality. He had little patience for men who squandered the gifts granted to them, and less for those who forsook opportunity, as this one surely did. It seemed to him that Everard made a poor choice in leaving Outremer and his holding. Perhaps he was a coward.
As a man who had been given few gifts in this life, and who had labored hard for all he had won to his own hand, Wulfe knew he was a harsh judge of others. He found much of mankind wanting, but was protective of those for whom he took responsibility. He would have laid down his own life in defense of either of his squires, for example, and had taken blows intended for his destrier. In return, the loyalty of those beings—Stephen, Simon, and Teufel—was complete.
He also was a man who knew how best to manage his own passions. By the time the party reached Venice, disembarked, saw to the care of an injured squire, and found accommodation, he knew his temper was incendiary. How could such simple feats consume so much time? Contrary to his expectation that they would take a single night to fortify themselves before riding out, Gaston was resolved to await the three days decreed by the apothecary as being necessary rest for the injured squire.
For a squire, who was sufficiently clumsy to have inflicted his own injury.
Wulfe could bear their company no longer. He had left the rented house, knowing that he had need of a war or a whore. The only way to control his escalating frustration was to expend passion in one feat or the other. Venice was at peace, its laws against violence and its courts known to be harsh.
Its courtesans were also highly reputed.
The choice was an easy one.
Stephen and Simon hastened behind him, undoubtedly guessing his intent. They would ensure that he was neither robbed nor injured on this quest, though more than once a whore had found their presence unsettling. Wulfe did not care what such women thought. They were paid and paid well, and he knew himself to be a considerate lover, if a passionate one.
He was demanding in this pursuit as in all others.
He would choose a young and vigorous woman on this night.
Doubtless she would never forget him. The prospect made Wulfe smile.
The best house of courtesans was located with relative ease, for Wulfe asked in the marketplace. The boys, too, sought information, and by the time they conferred in the mid-afternoon, one answer was clear.
The canals and bridges were confounding, and the directions less clear than might have been ideal. Wulfe became convinced that Venice was a burg designed to aid the trade of thieves, for it seemed a warren of crooked streets that ended abruptly with a wall or a canal. The houses were shuttered tightly on the street level, and he glimpsed that the lowest floor of the richest ones sheltered docks on the bigger canals. They all had at least two stories overhead, often with high arching windows, and he imagined that people preferred to be away from the water.
It did have a foul smell when the breeze stilled.
They finally located the house in question and were questioned before the heavy door was unbolted. The patroness came halfway down the flight of stairs on the far side of the foyer, her garb appearing as rich as the men in her employ looked dangerous. She was shrewd-eyed but well-mannered, and the house was in good repair. Wulfe could see that once she had been a beauty and wondered whether she had labored upon her back in this house in her youth. She certainly was direct. A short conversation ensured his preferences were made clear, then the patroness gestured that he should follow her up the stairs.
Wulfe was astounded by the generous proportions and richness of the room that filled second floor of the house. Sunlight shone through high arched windows and there was a view of the harbor, the sea sparkling blue. A long table was laid with fine clothes and rich fare, and boys poured generous goblets of wine. The women were both numerous and beautiful. They did not look to be starved or bruised, and he decided that, in this case, rumor had provided the truth.
Indeed, his mood improved by the moment.
“A maiden?” the patroness suggested, gesturing to a pair of young girls. Wulfe did not doubt that their maidenhead had already been sold at least once.
“I have little fondness for innocence,” he said, for it was true. He liked to be with a woman who knew her body and her desires, as well as one who could anticipate his own. “Teaching is not a pastime I care to pursue abed,” he clarified, and the patroness gave a throaty chuckle.
“Ah! A tigress, then,” she countered, gesturing to a woman who might have seen thirty summers. There was a slyness in her expression that Wulfe did not find alluring. The patroness noted how his gaze slid past her suggestion and snapped her fingers for other women to come forward. “You are early this day, sir, which gives you the finest choice. Of course, given the time, I must assume that you desire companionship only for the afternoon.” She clapped her hands when the women did not move quickly enough for her taste, and Wulfe caught a glimpse of one at the far end of the room.
She was exquisitely beautiful, her hair like russet silk. She wore it loose and the length of it gleamed, falling as it did to her hips. The color of her hair was rare in this city, where most of the other women had tresses of dark brown or black. She was taller than the other women, as well, slender and elegant in the way that Wulfe preferred. She was dressed in gold and green, the richness of her garb not unlike that of a noblewoman. Wulfe knew that the neckline was more revealing than would have been the choice of any aristocrat, but as she walked toward him, he could imagine that a queen approached him.
There was a reluctance in her manner that he admired as well. Not for him the harlot who threw herself at his feet, willing and eager for his touch and his coin. Perhaps she merely took her time. Perhaps she had the confidence that once a man looked upon her, he would wait. Wulfe did not care. He was entranced by her grace, by her wariness, by his own impression that she might have been a noblewoman.
He supposed the rich garb revealed that she earned well for her patroness, but preferred to not consider that. Her full lips tightened slightly, as she followed the other women. He thought he spied both defiance and resignation in her expression, but then she lifted her head and smiled.
And there was the key. Hers was not a genuine smile, for its light did not reach her eyes. Her lips curved in sensuous welcome, but her gaze remained wary, another hint of that reluctance.
Wulfe understood immediately that this life was not her choice, and his decision was made. He knew what it was to put aside one’s own desires to serve those of another. He knew what it was to feel trapped, and to have few choices. He knew what it was to make the best of one’s circumstance, regardless of the price.
And he knew what it was to await a better choice, with as much patience as could be mustered.
“This one,” he said, gesturing to the temptress who had claimed his attention. He did not care that he was interrupting the patroness as she listed the charms of her women.
“Ah, Christina is a popular choice,” she acknowledged, even as the woman’s gaze rose to meet Wulfe’s own. Her eyes were a bewitching shade of green, thickly lashed and not without intelligence. At the impatient summons of her patroness, she halted before him, more gracious and lovely than any woman he had ever seen. The old woman looked between them, and Wulfe thought she smiled. “You may find her price high,” she warned.
Christina held his gaze boldly, knowing her own worth and perhaps not expecting him to pay it. Aye, there were shadows in those wondrous eyes, shadows that told of disappointment.
Perhaps from men.
Perhaps from a man.
Wulfe felt an unexpected valor rise within him and heighten his need.
“Name it,” he said, unable to imagine what she had seen of men. He doubted it had all been good and wished to surprise her.
If only to see the resignation leave her gaze.
The patroness did as much, clearly expecting Wulfe to haggle. He did not, though, for he never tainted the acquisition of any desire with such mean bargaining. He earned a good wage at the Temple, even as his basic needs were supplied.
“That, of course, is only for the afternoon,” the patroness added slyly.
“And for the night as well?”
A flicker of interest made Christina consider him anew. When their gazes locked and held, he felt they shared a secret.
“Triple,” the older woman said crisply. “For there are ships in the harbor.”
Christina lowered her gaze, evidently anticipating his refusal.
“Triple,” Wulfe agreed so readily that he was certain the patroness regretted not asking for more. He cared only for the way Christina’s gaze flew to his face again. She was surprised, and he was glad. He smiled outright at her, paid the patroness, then offered his hand to the lady he so desired. He kissed her hand and saw her eyes narrow slightly. “I assume you have a private chamber where our pleasure might be pursued?”
“Of course, sir,” she said, and he liked that her voice was both rich and husky. She spoke in the same Venetian dialect as her patroness, but not so fluidly as one born in this city of cities. Where was she from? What had brought her to this house? Wulfe was surprised by how much he wished to know.
Indeed, his frustrations faded already, and the pursuit of pleasure had not yet begun.
Christina did not believe for a moment that the Templar was truly different from any of the other men who visited Costanzia’s house, but it was harmless to imagine otherwise. She had not yet bedded a Templar, after all, and there was something intriguing about his determination to have her for both day and night. He had no shortage of coin—at least, he had not before his arrival in this place—and there was a resolve about him that she admired. He was easy to look upon, a man who clearly earned his way with hard labor. He was broad and tall, fair of hair and resolute in every way. His manner was crisp and he did not linger over his choices. Christina admired decisive men.
Indeed, if either her father or her husband had been more decisive, she might not have found herself in her current circumstance.
But there was naught to be gained by regret, or by bitterness.
“Would you not partake of a meal?” she asked, guiding him to the table as she had been instructed. “Some wine? Or ale? Meat and bread?” Perhaps she could see him drunken in the passing of a day and a night, then slip out of the house with his fat purse. It would be a poor reward for him, but what manner of Templar frequented brothels?
He could not have as much merit as she could hope.
“I have only the appetite for one feast in this moment,” he said smoothly, and Christina forced herself to smile. She was always fearful at first, for one never knew what to expect of a man. It was easier if they had at least one cup of wine, for it evened the odds should she have to fight for her survival.
Two boys followed behind them, and she guessed they were his squires.
“At least savor one cup of wine,” she urged. “My patroness is most proud of the vintages she acquires.”
He accepted a cup then and let her fill it, but barely let the wine touch his lips when he sipped. “The room?” he asked, evidently determined to have his desire sooner rather than later.
Christina beckoned to a servant, but one of the knight’s squires took the chalice and pitcher. She eyed the boys, wondering whether the knight meant for them to watch. There was a flutter within her, for the oldest boy was not so small as that. They would be three. “The boys can remain here in the hall…”
The knight shook his head with such resolve that she fell silent. “They will accompany me. You need not fear their intervention. They merely protect me and my purse.” He smiled. “They will practice their chess.”
Christina glanced toward the boys, not at all reassured.
Costanzia gave her a hard look from the far side of the chamber, and Christina bit back any argument she might have made. In this moment, the streets seemed meaner than the knight before her.
Although she might be mistaken about that.
“Have you been long sworn to the order, then?” she asked, dutifully turning her steps toward the stairs. The boys followed.
She saw his fleeting frown. “Of what import is that?”
“I thought perhaps your appetite was whetted by a hunger unsatisfied.”
The knight laughed then, and it was not forced. Indeed, his eyes twinkled. “It is my challenge to uphold the pledge of chastity,” he admitted.
Christina did not like the sound of that. “Then you often pay for satisfaction?”
“Not often,” he said. “But there are times when a man has need of a woman’s caress.”
“And you find yourself in such a time,” she said. It was easier if they talked about themselves, if she learned more of their needs and desires before reaching the bed. “Are such times predictable?”
“Only in their link with frustration in other arenas.” He grimaced when she glanced his way. “I endeavor to be temperate. You need not fear you will be granted a pox by me. I am not so lusty as to have earned that doom.” Christina was relieved and hoped he told the truth. “But there are moments when I know myself to be vexed. If I cannot change my situation, I must endeavor to find release in other ways, lest my abilities be compromised by my mood.” He flicked her an intent glance. “I will not permit annoyance to compromise my fighting skills, and so, the lesser evil must have its day.”
Christina could understand that well enough. “What manner of situation could cause such a state?” They reached the next floor, and she guided him toward the end of the corridor.
“An assignment that proves annoying to fulfill.” He heaved a sigh. “Indeed, I fear this one may not be completed with anything like timeliness, and that vexes me beyond all.”
“Why? Surely the Temple ensures your comfort regardless of your task?”
Consideration and perhaps humor lit his eyes. “As this place ensures yours?”
Christina found herself flushing. “There is food and a roof.”
“Aye, there is food and a roof. Do you not ever aspire to more?”
“Of course.” He shook his head. “But aspirations do not ensure food and a roof, so choices must be made. Perhaps compromises must be made.” Christina was shocked that his reasoning was so close to her own. He flicked a glance over her and his eyes narrowed slightly. “How came you to this place?”
“Does it matter?”
“Nay, save that I would wager that you made a similar choice.”
“You would win that wager,” she admitted, then wished she had not. He watched her more closely, curious, but Christina dared not confide any more.
Would he help her if she asked him to do so? Nay, he could not. Costanzia would empty his purse and demand yet more. And he was a knight sworn to the service of an order, not a man who could wed—or even keep a mistress.
Nay, she would have to trick him, or find another way.
The silence between them seemed fraught as she led him to the richest of the rooms reserved for clients. It boasted a pillared bed draped in red silk, the dark wood gilded splendidly. It was the largest room, with the finest view over the Adriatic. Also, the bed was curtained and the door could be locked.
She was not truly surprised when the knight locked the portal. Indeed, she felt a little frisson of fear. To her amazement, he surrendered the key to her with a gallant bow.
While she struggled to think of something to say, he gestured the boys toward a low divan on the far side of the room. “I would see a fire lit for the lady’s comfort,” he instructed. “Then the two of you will watch it closely and tend it while you play chess.”
“Aye, sir,” the boys agreed in unison, hastening to do his bidding.
The knight pulled the curtains on the bed on the side of the door, then across the foot. His choice would ensure that the boys could not see them coupling, and that they would have a view only of the sea. Christina dared to be relieved.
He faced her, his gaze assessing. “And so they call you Christina?”
She nodded. “They do.”
“They call me Wulfe,” he said. “Sometimes even Wulfe Stürmer.”
“Fighting wolf,” she translated easily, believing he likely was a fearsome foe.
“Just so.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice, amusement lifting the corner of his lips. “But neither is really my name.” His eyes sparkled in a most enticing way. “Do we have something else in common?”
Christina fought the urge to smile. Instead she held his gaze and lied. “I am Christina.” She was Christina, now, and in this place.
“I do not believe you were always Christina,” Wulfe said, his hands dropping to the fastening of her girdle. “Just as I do not believe that Venetian is your mother tongue.”
Christina dropped her gaze to his hands, fighting the urge to step away. “Why ever not?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light. He had fine strong hands, tanned hands, and though he could have overwhelmed her readily, he untied the knot slowly.
“You understood my nickname.”
“Many women in my trade understand more than one language.”
“And many were not born in this city. Where did your journey begin, Christina?”
This would not do. She owed him no tales of her past and no confessions. Her body might have been sold, but her thoughts and her history were her own. She met his gaze steadily, intent on halting his questions but doubting he would be easily deterred. “Of what import is that?” She smiled, seeing how he watched her mouth. “I am here now, as are you.” She ran a hand across his chest, hoping that a caress would distract him from such queries.
Christina touched her lips to this throat, for good measure. He had shaved, which she liked well. He smelled clean, and as a man should. Not perfumed or touched with the scent of another woman. She heard him catch his breath as she let her lips linger against his skin and felt him swallow. When she might have drawn back, he bent and pressed a kiss to her neck below her ear. His lips were warm, his kiss gentle, and Christina was startled that he should be so gentle.
He pulled back slightly and considered her, his eyes glinting. “Not always Christina and not always a whore,” he said with resolve.
She shook her head. “You mistake my history, sir.”
But Wulfe only smiled and kissed her earlobe, his hands locking around her waist. When he whispered in her ear, Christina shivered, both at his touch and his pledge. “Let us see if I can convince you to confide the truth in me,” he murmured. “I have all the day and all the night to win this challenge. I assure you that I shall make the quest worth your while.”
Before she could protest or reply, Wulfe cupped her nape in one hand, pulled her closer and kissed her fully. It was a sweet potent kiss, one intended to make her lose her reservations and her restraint, and it came very close to succeeding.
Of course, it was only the beginning of Wulfe’s amorous assault.