The Crusader’s Vow

The Crusader's Vow, book four of the Champions of St. Euphemia series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix

Fergus’ heart was broken forever—until Leila tempted him to love again…

Returning home to Scotland triumphant and entrusted with the precious relic of the Templars, Fergus is stunned to learn that his beloved Isobel has wed another man. He knows he will never love again, so a marriage of convenience to his friend and comrade, Leila, seems a fitting compromise. At least it will give Leila the security of a home and husband, even if it offers far less than Fergus desired of marriage…

Leila fears her past will pursue her, compelling to return to her former life, until Fergus offers the ideal solution. She yearns for more than a practical match with the valiant Highlander, but hopes to win his heart before revealing the love she has kept secret from him. All might end well, if Fergus’ former betrothed would just relinquish her hold upon him…

When those who hunt the Templar treasure in Fergus’ possession identify its location, both Fergus and Leila could lose far more than their marriage. Will they triumph over the past and trust each other in time to find happiness together?

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The Crusader's Vow, book four of the Champions of St. Euphemia series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix

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An excerpt from The Crusader’s Vow:

Haynesdale—April, 1188

It seemed that all was right with his fellows. Fergus would never have anticipated such a happy conclusion to events when they had left Jerusalem the previous summer. But on this fine spring evening, Bartholomew and Anna were returned, the signet ring of Haynesdale placed upon Bartholomew’s finger by King Henry himself and the seal in Bartholomew’s purse. The new couple had a license to hold an annual fair and—thanks to the efforts led by Fergus—had returned to find the old keep of Haynesdale taking shape once more. Bartholomew had brought grain in York and the mill was turning even now, grinding flour from some of it while the rest would be sown in the fields that had already been plowed.

Fergus was glad that his friend and comrade had found happiness, and also that he had been able to help while Bartholomew and Anna sought the king’s favor.

His thoughts inevitably turned to his own future. Now, Fergus could return home to Isobel. It had been four years since his departure, and he was eager to see his beloved again. He left the festivities in the great hall when the dancing began and stepped out into the night. The moon was full and the sky was clear.

Fergus smiled as he stared up at the glittering stars. Killairic—home—was so close, and there, every dream he yearned to fulfill. He wished, not for the first time, that his gift for foresight included his own future. He saw happiness for Bartholomew and Anna, just as he had seen it for Wulfe and Christina, and Gaston and Ysmaine. He saw babies in the futures of each of the couples, a number of children, their eyes filled with joy and mischief. He even could see his companion Duncan cradling a dark-haired child. But for himself? There was no glimmer of what the future held for him.

There was only that persistent sense of foreboding, the one that had plagued him since their departure from Jerusalem. He had assumed thus far that the shadow had been about the future of his companions or the fate of the reliquary they secretly carried, but on this night, Fergus wondered what he would find when he arrived home. He hoped his father was well as yet, for he wanted days by the fire to tell the older man of all he had seen. He could not imagine his welcome from Isobel, who surely had been as impatient for his return as he had been. He wondered how Killairic itself had changed, if it had changed at all. There would have been births and deaths in the village during such a long time, but he hoped that those he wished most to see were hale. Had there been battles? He imagined as much, for there was often strife in Galloway, and hoped that Killairic had fared well.

The sense of dread persisted, though. Fergus decided it was impatience, no more than that, and strode toward the village. If he walked, he might sleep. Perhaps he would ride forth the next morning, since Bartholomew was returned.

His heart fluttered at the promise of that, and he resolved it would be so. He would see his fellows again at his own nuptials, to be sure, for they had pledged to come to Scotland. It could not be long before he and Isobel exchanged their vows.

A slight movement caught his eye, and Fergus realized that he was not the only one to have left the celebration. Leila sat by the river, staring up at the sky. It still surprised him to see her in women’s garb, though on this night, she wore no veil. Her dark hair gleamed in the moonlight. Her face was tipped up to the moon, and its light touched her features with silver. His heart contracted at the sight of her, for he had missed her as much as any of the party who had ridden to France. She did not seem to be aware of his presence, so he cleared his throat as he approached.

“You are missing the dancing,” he said when she glanced his way.

Leila smiled and moved along the log where she was seated, making room for him. “I do not know your dances.”

“You could learn. I could teach you.”

She chuckled. “And what will your betrothed think, if you arrive home not only with a Saracen woman in your company but one you have taught to dance?”

Fergus was startled. “I had not thought of it.”

“She will believe you have brought home your whore,” Leila said with conviction. “There is no need to reinforce that conclusion.”

Fergus leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and looked at her. “You have been thinking of this.”

“I have been thinking of many things.” She gestured to the moon. “It is full, the tenth full moon since we left Jerusalem.”

“I suppose it is.”

“I know it is. I have counted them.”

He eyed her, hearing the sadness in her tone. “What does that mean, Leila?”

“It means that my cousin’s son is a year old.” She fell silent then.

“You miss your cousin?”

“Of course! We grew up together. She was the one whose hair I learned to braid and arrange.” Leila sighed. “I grew up in my uncle’s home after the death of my parents. We might have been sisters, almost twin sisters, for we were born the same month.”

As he listened, Fergus realized how little he knew about the woman who had joined their company in Jerusalem. “When did your parents die?”

“When I was an infant.”

He saw the tear glisten on her cheek and wished he had the right to brush it away. “I would take you back to Outremer, if you wish it,” he found himself saying. The offer was impulsive, but as soon as the words were uttered, Fergus knew it was true. What if Leila did return to the east? He would regret the lost opportunity to learn more about her, to be sure. He could not imagine a future in which he never saw her again, yet realized in this moment, that it might well come to be.

Fergus had assumed she would stay, but had never thought of what she would do.

Leila wiped her tears and touched the back of his hand with her fingertips. “I thank you for that, for you know the price of what you offer. But I cannot go back.”

“Not even to see your cousin?”

“Especially not. It was my uncle who arranged my marriage.”

Fergus dared to acknowledge his own relief, even as he realized it was selfish. How would he feel when she wed another man? It was strange to admit that a possessiveness lurked within him, for he had no right to make any claim upon her. Perhaps it was only that he wished to see her happy, and he doubted that a match Leila had fled had any power to make her so.

The notion that others would see her as his whore was both troubling and titillating. It was all too easy to imagine a night of exploring Leila’s charms. He liked her throaty laughter and found her smile to be both shy and knowing.

Clearly, he had been too long without Isobel’s sweet touch.

He cleared his throat again. “Bartholomew said you were to be wed against your will, and that was why you wanted to leave Jerusalem.”

Leila nodded and spoke mildly. “A marriage had been arranged.”

“That happens to many.”

“It does, and if I had known naught of the man, I would have accepted my uncle’s word. But I had heard rumors of his violence.”

That she might have been wed to a man who might treat her with less than adoration sent fire through Fergus. “You should have told your uncle,” he said, hearing his outrage.

“I did! But the alliance from the marriage was good for both families. Like a good comrade, my uncle dismissed the rumors that he believed to be malicious.”

“You did not.”

She turned to face him, her dark eyes filled with conviction. “Women do not lie to each other about such matters. All the same, I could not prove what I had heard.”

This was intriguing. Leila had pretended to be a boy in order to tend horses at the Templar stables. It seemed that she had defied expectation in other ways. Fergus wanted to know more. “Who told you?”

“It does not matter now. I believed her, and so I fled.”

“Did your cousin know of your plan?”

Leila smiled. “Aziza suggested it. She knew I went to the Temple to help with the horses, because my uncle would not have approved and she helped to disguise my absences. She told me to find a knight there to aid me, preferably one who was leaving Jerusalem soon.” She watched her own fingers as she pleated the fabric of her kirtle, and he knew she was reliving her fears in that moment. He wanted to draw her close and console her, but fought the urge for it was inappropriate. “But I only knew Bartholomew. He was not inclined to help me.”

“But fortunately, I overheard you.”

“You did.” Leila met his gaze once more. “Thank you.” She smiled at him and flushed a little, her eyes seeming to glow. Her lips parted and he found himself desiring a kiss.

Just one.

Though it was not his to take.

Leila did not avert her gaze and the air seemed to heat between them. Fergus felt keenly aware of Leila as a woman. He noted the ripe curve of her lips, the thick waves of her dark hair, the luminosity of her eyes, the sweet curve of her throat. She was tiny compared to him and delicately wrought, but achingly feminine. He had an urge to protect her, even as he was aware of her strength and resolve. It was a marvel what strong bonds grew between fellow travelers on a journey such as theirs had been.

Fergus recognized that it had not been impulse alone, or even a need to do what was right, that had prompted his offer in Jerusalem to hide Leila in their party. She was both resilient and vulnerable, beautiful and strong, mysterious yet forthright. He had been intrigued with her when he had overheard that conversation, and more so when first he had glimpsed her. She had proven to be an asset to their party more than once, gave much and asked for little, yet as her hair lifted in the breeze, he wanted more for her.

Far more.

It was not good enough for her to be considered any man’s whore.

She should be a queen.

“Any regrets?” Fergus asked, his own voice husky.

“Only for what can never be,” Leila admitted softly. “I would see my cousin again, but not return to Palestine. I would play with her son, but not risk my own future. I would wed, with my uncle’s blessing, but not to the man he chose.” She blinked quickly and shook her head once more. “I want the impossible, and so I fear that there is only disappointment ahead for me.”

“Nay, not that.” Fergus had his arm around her waist before he realized what he did, and once her soft warmth was against him, he could not pull away.

“What do you see in my future days?” she asked. “Duncan says you can see what will come.”

“Not on command. Only in dreams and glimpses.”

She cast him a quick smile. “Do you lie because you have seen sorrow in my future, or is my future veiled?”

“I would never lie to you, Leila.” He spoke with conviction, because it was true.

“Not even out of kindness?”

“Not even then.” Fergus took a breath and confessed the truth. “I have not had any glimpse of your future.” He did not admit that he believed that might be because she would return to the east.

He would not consider that she had no future, only that it was not within his world.

“No future for me,” she echoed, a bit of sadness in her voice.

“Just because I cannot see it does not mean as much. I never see my own.”

“Then perhaps our future days are bound together,” she whispered, making the opposite conclusion to his own.

Fergus did not know what to say.

Leila looked up at him, then, and her gaze lingered on his mouth. She ran the tip of her own tongue across her bottom lip, as if she hungered for more than he had any right to give, then she took a deep breath and dropped her gaze, hiding her thoughts from him.

Fergus felt immediately bereft. “What will you do?” He lifted one hand when she did not reply. “Will you stay here at Haynesdale with Bartholomew and Anna? I know they would welcome you.”

Leila shook her head.

“Will you continue to Killairic with Duncan and me?”

“And face the wrath of your betrothed?” she suggested, a smile in her voice.

“Isobel might not make the conclusion you expect.”

“Then she is a fool,” she said hotly and straightened beside him. “For any woman with blood in her veins would desire a man so loyal of heart as you, even if he were not wrought so tall and fine, nor possessed of such valor.”

“Leila!” Fergus protested, surprised by her endorsement. “You know little of me…”

“After eleven months in each other’s company, I know much of you, and all of it has merit.” She looked up at him, her eyes flashing. “I admire you, Fergus. You are the manner of man to whom I should like to pledge my troth.” Her gaze clung to his, her desire so easily read that Fergus was shocked.

Indeed, her confession made his heart leap, and he wished it had not.

Leila must have seen his expression change, for she smiled ruefully. “You need not fear that I will act upon this, or that I will be more than your faithful companion,” she continued more quietly. “But if the lady Isobel fails to see your merit, or dares to doubt your integrity, she will answer to me.”

Fergus’s answering smile faded when Leila’s hand landed on his thigh and any words died on his lips. His entire body went taut as an unruly desire rolled through him.

He had been chaste too long, to be sure.

Leila’s eyes were so dark as to be fathomless. Fergus could not tear his gaze away from her. When she spoke, her voice dropped low with intent. “And if there is ever any deed you would desire of me, Fergus, you have only to ask.”

Fergus was honored and might have admitted as much, but he had no chance. For Leila caught her breath, then stretched up and touched her lips to his. He knew it was intended to be a chaste kiss, perhaps the sole one they would ever exchange, but her caress fed that newfound fire within him.

He found himself bending closer, unable to resist what she offered so freely. He cupped her nape in his hand and deepened their kiss, tasting her sweetness and wanting more.

When she opened her mouth to him, surrendering to their embrace, Fergus realized that Leila was not the only one who wished for the impossible.

The Crusader’s Vow by Claire Delacroix Copyright ©2017 Deborah A. Cooke