A pilgrimage to Jerusalem with her mistress has left the maid Radegunde determined to live every moment to the fullest. She dreads the return to routine and her inevitable marriage to a reliable man, so convinces the warrior Duncan to make merry with her while their respective masters linger in Paris. Dancing and singing are not the sole revels in Radegunde’s plans, for she means to taste passion with this man who snared her attention in Venice. Duncan is convinced his own heart is lost forever, but Radegunde’s allure cannot be denied. When he surrenders to her seduction, Duncan suggests a handfast, knowing that even this honor is far less than she deserves. Radegunde, however, is not interested in half-measures, and resolves to win Duncan’s love, no matter what the cost. Will she succeed in her quest? Or will their paths part forever, and do as much too soon?
Radegunde discovers that her admiration is returned when she and Duncan share a celebratory night in Paris after the treasure is safely delivered to the Temple. But their kisses remind Duncan of his obligations, and his choice prompts Radegunde to share her thoughts in a most emphatic way.
An excerpt from The Crusader’s Handfast: Part One.
Radegunde leaned back against the wooden door to her lady’s chamber, listening to the laughter from within the room. Lady Ysmaine’s merriment was followed by the rumble of her lord husband’s chuckle, and the combination made Radegunde smile.
She was fiercely glad that her lady had found happiness after all the trials she had endured. Widowed twice, still a maiden, Ysmaine had embarked upon a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Radegunde by her side, only to be robbed by the men hired to defend her and left impoverished. Such was the lady’s will that they had continued to the Holy City. Though it had been an arduous journey, they had arrived there after a year of hardship.
Radegunde had to believe that the pilgrimage had achieved its objective, for Lady Ysmaine had been lifted from her knees in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Gaston, a Templar knight who left the order to return to France and claim his inherited holding. Radegunde had liked the knight from the outset, for he saw Lady Ysmaine’s merit even when she was at her lowest spirits. He had been kind, and though Radegunde had been vexed with his refusal to consult with his wife on their journey west, all had come right in the end. It was clear to Radegunde on this night that the pair shared an affectionate match, and one that could only grow more ardent over the years to come.
While she was happy for her lady, there could be no more stark contrast with her own life than this. Radegunde had no man and no prospect of true love. Worse, almost two years of adventure had made her former life pale in comparison. While Lady Ysmaine embarked upon the challenge of the life she had been raised to have and did so with enthusiasm, Radegunde had little enthusiasm for her inevitable fate.
She knew her duty was to escort her lady to her new abode and that there she would undoubtedly be wed to some alemaker or other peasant perceived by her lord to be a good man. Radegunde had no doubt that Lord Gaston would take a man’s measure correctly, but the remainder of her life would be spent within miles of her birthplace. Instead of adventure and travel, her life would become monotonous, as it had been before the Lady Ysmaine had resolved to visit Jerusalem. She doubted that love was in her future, merely duty and perhaps, comfort.
She supposed that Châmont-sur-Maine was slightly different from Valeroy, but not enough to satisfy her. She could return to her family home instead of continuing to serve Ysmaine, but that had even less appeal. In Valeroy, she would be at the command of her mother and brothers, and her destiny would not be much different than with Lady Ysmaine.
She would not be in command of her own future, either way. Once a comfortable life wedded to a good man would have pleased her well.
Now Radegunde yearned for more. Far more. She might have died several times over on their pilgrimage, which only increased her resolve to savor each and every moment of her life, however long it might be. She wished to journey afar, even though she had fallen so ill in Jerusalem. She wished to dance and fall in love with a man similarly discontent with a routine life. She also wished to find that joy abed that her lady seemed to enjoy with her husband, or even shout with pleasure as the courtesan Christina had done in Venice. She wished to awaken each day, alive to the promise of new experience.
On this night, she felt particularly restless. It had been a day to remember, to be sure. Radegunde had aided in saving the sacred reliquary of Saint Euphemia! In the last moment, the prize had nigh been snatched away. She had ridden with all speed through the streets of Paris, entrusted with the priceless treasure herself, to see their party’s goal achieved. She had ridden like the wind, fast by the side of the Templar Wulfe on his enormous destrier as he shouted for the road to clear. It had been more thrilling than any deed she had ever done, a feat fit for inclusion in a jongleur’s tale.
Then she had been allowed to kiss the reliquary during the mass at the Paris Temple.
To retire contentedly now was impossible. Indeed, her lord and lady celebrated triumph in a most intimate way. Radegunde did not wish to quietly sleep outside their door. Not on this night! She yearned for revels and celebration.
A stolen kiss.
Some reckless deed committed in the company of an alluring man.
She closed her eyes, knowing precisely which man she would choose. Aye, the knight Fergus had a stalwart companion, one Duncan MacDonald, a warrior whose blade swung true and who was well wrought. Duncan missed little, and his eyes oft gleamed with humor. Radegunde liked how he smiled, how there was a little silver at his temples, how he kept his counsel and seemed always to anticipate what surprised others.
There was a man accustomed to adventure, and one who would make an excellent companion when facing any such peril.
Sadly, he had appeared to be smitten with Christina, the courtesan who had joined their party in Venice but had abandoned them earlier in Paris. Lady Ysmaine insisted that Christina and the Templar Wulfe must be together this night, and Radegunde had not been able to discern Duncan’s reaction to that.
Would she see Duncan again? Radegunde supposed not and was disappointed by the realization. Fergus rode home to Scotland for his own nuptials, and surely Duncan would continue with him. Fergus had remained at the Temple this night, and doubtless all of his party was also there.
Indeed, Radegunde did not have to wait for her life to become dull again. It already had.
Still, she could not and would not sit alone.
Gaston’s squire Bartholomew was in the stables of the inn along with the steeds. Perhaps he would talk with her. Perhaps he would tell her more of Châmont-sur-Maine.
And its alemakers.
She wrinkled her nose, knowing a compromise when she heard it. Although Bartholomew was more taciturn than most of the men, he was better company than none at all.
The hour was not so late, although it was dark. Radegunde had smelled winter in the coolness of the evening air. Even though they stayed in an inn and Paris was said to be filled with vice, she had her small eating knife and was not afraid to defend herself. She pulled the knife from her belt and descended the shadowed stairs warily, though she doubted that many were awake. The inn catered to travelers and she knew well enough that after a day’s ride and a hot meal, a warm pallet could be most enticing.
Radegunde was on the last flight of stairs, when she realized that someone was yet awake in the darkened kitchen. The doorway to that room was at the base of the stairs and to the right. There was a door opposite the stairs and she knew that portal led to the small courtyard between the inn and its stables.
She gripped the hilt of her knife, watchful, but proceeded at the same steady pace. There was little to be gained by letting whoever it was know that she was aware of his or her presence. After all, there was no light in the kitchen. It seemed whoever lurked there did not wish to be discovered.
Radegunde’s heart skipped a little when she reached the second to last stair. Could she hear the breath of another? Was she being watched?
She supposed she was having the adventure she desired.
Radegunde descended the last steps boldly and reached for the door handle with her free hand. She managed only to lift the latch before she heard movement. A man seized her from behind even as she tried to spin in his grasp and shout.
She managed to emit only a small sound before he clapped a meaty hand over her mouth to silence her. He locked his other arm around her, trapping her arms against her side. When she writhed in his grip, he lifted her bodily from the floor. To her dismay, he was much larger and stronger than she.
And she could feel his erection against her buttocks.
Aye, she knew his intent well enough, but he would not find her to be easy prey. Radegunde deliberately shuddered, as if terrified, and let herself go limp. Let him think himself triumphant.
“Good fortune is mine this night,” he whispered into her ear, his tone gloating. “For the finest prize fairly steps into my embrace.” He chuckled even as his grip loosened slightly. Radegunde hoped he would become even more careless. She felt his fingers caress her cheek. “Perhaps our thoughts are as one. Perhaps you came to seek me out.”
Radegunde stifled her revulsion. He smelled dirty and there was ale on his breath. She guessed that he was the man who had watched her from the shadows of the stables when their party arrived, for she had not liked the look of him even then.
“You need not fear that you will be sleepless once we have savored each other,” he promised and made to haul her toward the kitchen.
But Radegunde had heard sufficient of his plans.
She bit his hand in the same moment that she drove her heel upward and into his groin. She stabbed backward with the knife and though it was small, she buried it into his torso hard enough that he howled in pain. He loosed his grip as he stumbled back into the kitchen. Radegunde twisted the knife as she spun out of his grasp.
“Bitch!” he cried, evidently shocked that she might spurn his charms.
Radegunde hauled open the door to the courtyard. Before she could step through it, her attacker roared and lunged after her. She spun to face him and lifted her knife again, more than ready to mar his face for so abusing her. Instead, she was seized from behind again. Someone grabbed a fistful of her kirtle and flung her bodily into the courtyard.
It was Duncan!
Radegunde nearly shouted in her delight. There was no other man she would have been more gladdened to see. Aye, there was something about Duncan, about his level green gaze, that sent a thrill through Radegunde and doubly so in this situation.
Duncan punched the astonished offender in the face, and Radegunde was most pleased to see blood spurt from that man’s nose. He leapt toward Duncan with outrage in his eyes, but Duncan nimbly kicked the man’s feet out from beneath him. The assailant fell heavily to the ground, hitting his head hard on the stone threshold. By the time he opened his eyes, Duncan was sitting upon his chest, a blade at his throat.
He was as quick as she had believed, and as unafraid to do what had to be done.
Radegunde decided she owed Duncan a kiss for his gallantry on this night.
If not more.
“Step aside,” her attacker snarled. “The wench is mine. I saw her first.”
Duncan laughed. “You should wish it to be so. This lass has been mine these three months, since first I glimpsed her in Outremer.”
Radegunde’s lips parted in shock and her heart skipped with delight. Truly? Their thoughts were as one?
Before she could hope overmuch, Duncan cast her a quick glance that might have been conspiratorial. Aye, she saw his argument. A man like this would never believe that a woman had any right to be unmolested much less to choose her lover. He would only abandon her if he believed she was already claimed by another.
Radegunde said naught.
For the moment.
Her heart skipped a beat at just the possibility of there being truth in Duncan’s words.
Could she make it so?
“She came to meet me,” the villain insisted.
“She came to meet me,” Duncan corrected. “As arranged.”
The man’s eyes had widened at Duncan’s words, but they widened yet more when Duncan cut a fine line across his throat.
“I would advise you not to touch what is mine,” Duncan murmured as he moved the knife with infinite slowness. His blade must have been sharp. The wound was not deep yet it bled readily, leaving a line of red drops across the assailant’s flesh.
It was clear that the lout had lost all his courage for he begged incoherently for mercy.
“If you so much as look at her again, you will taste my blade truly,” Duncan vowed, danger in his tone. The other man nodded slightly, then Duncan stood. He looked down at the fallen villain, who caught his breath and glared at Radegunde.
Duncan kicked him in the groin again, then heaved him back into the kitchen.
Radegunde wanted to cheer. That man would molest no other woman this night. Duncan strode to Radegunde, his eyes glinting with such satisfaction that her heart thundered. He wiped the blade of his knife upon his tabard, put it into the scabbard and offered his hand to her.
“Well met, lass,” he said in loud voice. “I am glad that you came to me this night.”
“As am I,” Radegunde agreed, though she did not speak for the benefit of the fallen man. She placed Duncan’s hand upon her waist and closed the distance between him, seeing surprise light his eyes. “I thank you for your aid,” she whispered, then stretched to her toes and kissed him full on the lips.
This night, she would have her every desire.
It would have to suffice for the rest of her days and nights.
This night, she would have Duncan MacDonald.
Radegunde tasted Duncan’s surprise and wished she possessed the skill of the courtesan Christina to entice a man. Enthusiasm would have to suffice. She locked her hands in Duncan’s hair, leaned against him and slanted her mouth over his.
When he froze, she feared that he would deny her touch and step away. She feared that he truly had desired only Christina and that her charms were insufficient. But then he made a sound in his throat not unlike a growl of satisfaction, caught her close, and kissed her deeply. Radegunde’s heart thundered with pleasure.
Duncan’s kiss was fine, more splendid even than she had hoped, which was saying a great deal indeed.
Excerpt from The Crusader’s Handfast ©2015 Deborah A. Cooke.