A valiant warrior sworn to the order of the Knights Templar for life, Wulfe resents being dispatched on a quest to Paris just when the Latin Kingdoms are at their most vulnerable. He is determined to fulfill his duty as quickly as possible and return to fight for justice—but the courtesan he defends in Venice is resolved to remain at his side. The alluring and perceptive Christina will not be left behind, and soon Wulfe finds himself forced to choose between his vows and his heart…
An excerpt from The Crusader’s Heart:
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 left 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.
* * *
And worse, another night.
Christina turned from her prayers to survey the large room where the women slept together. The draughty room took up most of the top floor of the house and was roughly finished. The roof leaked and the wind was always cold, just as the blankets were always too thin. The door was locked each night from the outside and in all of Christina’s time at the house, only one woman had been brave enough to try to escape from the window. She had slipped and her cries had awakened the entire house as she fell.
The silence after she had struck the stone road below had been chilling.
It was yet more troubling that Christina sometimes found appeal in that woman’s choice.
The attic’s sole redeeming feature was the view. Christina knelt each morning at the window that faced east, praying toward distant Jerusalem. Though it had been her destination years before, Venice was as far as she had journeyed before tragedy struck.
Every morning she recalled Gunther’s routine jest that she prayed like a heathen, and missed him all the more.
She surreptitiously kissed the ring that he had put upon her finger one fine day that might have been an eternity before, then secreted it once again from view. On some days, it was impossible to believe that she had ever been young, filled with hope and love, affluent and treasured. The ring with its blue stone slid into the pocket she had created for it in the hem of her chemise, perfectly disguised from view. She had sewn a tiny pocket into the hem of every garment she owned to ensure that Gunther’s ring was never separated from her. Losing the sole token that remained of her previous life would ensure that she lost hope of ever escaping this place.
She rose from her prayers and stretched, looking down into the city. The wind was crisp and there were new ships in the harbor. The rain at least had ceased. There were a few people abroad in the cobbled streets below, and several small craft plied the canals. Vendors making deliveries, to be sure. More than one would halt at Costanzia’s abode.
The house was on a corner, the main entrance on a broad canal where guests disembarked each night. Once inside the building, there was a pretty stone courtyard with a fountain and gardens that could be used by the guests in afternoons or evenings. A guest would see only the lavish luxury of the public rooms, perhaps the fine bedrooms above the mezzanine where music played and appetites were encouraged.
The attic was part of the hidden side of the house. From this vantage point, Christina could see small courtyard behind the kitchens, a meaner, simpler space than the garden courtyard. Here chickens were kept and herbs grew. A door in the rear wall led to the dock on that smaller canal. Deliveries were made there, and vendors sometimes tried to peer into the windows above, seeking a glimpse of Costanzia’s beauties.
Costanzia was already arguing with someone, her voice rising shrilly from below. Christina couldn’t distinguish the words of her patroness, though she guessed that the older woman was swearing at a vendor in the local Venetian dialect. Though Christina could make a fair job of sounding Venetian, when Costanzia spoke quickly and with vulgarity, she often could not follow the words.
The meaning, however, was always clear.
Next, Costanzia would be swearing at the women.
Christina sighed. Another day began as all the others. Costanzia’s routine was as relentless as her will. Yet another day when the girdle of orange stones fastened around her waist seemed so much more weighty than it was in truth.
A large tub had been set in the smaller courtyard and maids were pouring hot water into it. Christina heard footfalls on the stairs and knew there would soon be a pounding upon the door. Then the key would turn in the lock, and the women would all be marched down to the courtyard to bathe, in order of Costanzia’s preference.
Christina had not entertained a man the night before, which suited her well but had not pleased her patroness. She would be one of the last to bathe, no doubt. She did not care. She had not liked the look of the one man who had approached her, a gleam in his eye that hinted at violence. She had lied—again—about her courses.
There was a delicate balance to be managed between her ethics and her safety, and not for the first time, Christina wished she had other options. For years, she had had two: stay in this bordello or flee, to starve in the streets or be hunted by Costanzia’s enforcers. They were brutal and quick with their knives. Any escaped woman caught by them would be so scarred that she could never work as a whore again.
Then she would starve. Christina shivered and wrapped her arms around herself as she turned from the window. The current favorite, Lucrezia, was snoring softly on her pallet when Christina returned to hers. She watched the other woman sleep, admiring her beauty. Lucrezia’s ebony hair cast over the pillow and her lips were parted, as if in invitation even while she slumbered. The woman was luscious and bold, nigh irresistible to the patrons of the house.
She deserved her slumber. Lucrezia had an audacity about her that Christina tried to emulate. It was a kind of armor to laugh at disapproval, to flaunt one’s charms, to even cultivate a reputation.
Christina and Lucrezia were of an age, and often displayed together for contrast. Lucrezia, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with her red lips and lush curves, drew the attention of many men. Christina, auburn-haired and green-eyed, more slender but of a similar height, attracted others. Lucrezia was bold and daring, challenging men outright, while Christina was more demure, perhaps appearing to have a dozen secrets. When they stood together, it seemed no man could keep himself from staring. Costanzia profited mightily from the view.
At least she did as much when Christina did not lie.
The two women were different in more than coloring, though. Christina was a reluctant member of this household, and one who would never find comfort in its many pleasures. Whoring was better than starving to death in the street, but only by a narrow margin. There had been nights when she would have argued the other choice. Lucrezia, in contrast, had sought out this life, determined as she was to make her own decisions without marrying. She swore she would never be beholden to man and intended to establish her own house. Her ambition had already intrigued Costanzia, who without a daughter of her own, might well be seeking an heir.
Christina, in contrast, sought an escape.
The lock was turned, a fist hammered upon the door as it was opened, and Costanzia herself strode into the chamber. “Up, all of you!” she cried and the sleeping women who awakened with a jolt. “Lucrezia, you are first to the bath, my beauty,” Costanzia continued in a coo, tickling Lucrezia under the chin. She rapped a younger girl on the shoulder. “Teresa, if you do not yet have your courses, you will see Raoul for a potion.”
Christina prayed that she would not be singled out. Costanzia strode up and down between the pallets, dispatching directions, praising the lusty and the profitable, scolding the old and the unchosen. Christina’s heart beat loudly as the older woman approached.
It sank to her toes when Costanzia paused directly before her. “And you,” the patroness said softly. Her tone sounded threatening, and Christina dared to peek at her face, only to find those dark eyes narrowed. “You have forgotten your very good fortune, my dear,” Costanzia said, her voice as hard as her gaze. “I do not need mouths to feed who do not bring in coin.”
“I cannot help that he chose another…”
“Can you not?” Costanzia mused, and Christina wondered what she had heard. “On this night, you will ensure that you are chosen. I do not care what you have to do to see it done.”
Christina knotted her hands together. “Of course.”
“In fact, you will be occupied the entire night, or in the morning, you will be on the streets. There are nights for which you have not yet earned your keep.”
Christina’s lips parted in dismay. The entire night?
“Are we understood?”
Christina nodded and bowed her head in agreement, as much to disguise her anger as to feign compliance. By all that was holy, there had to be a way out of this hell.
She had but one day to find it.
* * *
The best house of courtesans was located with relative ease, for Wulfe asked in the marketplace by the port. Sailors always knew where to find whores. The boys, too, sought information, and by the time they conferred in the mid-afternoon, one answer was clear.
He should seek the establishment of one Costanzia.
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 with a hundred places for a villain to hide and await his prey. Worse, many of those alleys 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 what he could see of 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 her youth. She certainly was direct. A short conversation ensured his preferences were made clear and his coin was good, 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 nigh filled second floor of the house. Sunlight shone through high arched windows and there was a view of the harbor, the sea sparkling blue. Velvet draperies hung alongside those windows, their dark hue unmistakably costly. A long table was laid with fine cloths and rich fare, and young boys poured generous goblets of wine. The women were both numerous and beautiful. Some stood and chatted with each other, several played lutes, more than one lounged and granted him encouraging smiles. They did not look to be starved or bruised, and he decided that, in this case, rumor had provided the truth. They all wore girdles of stones that were clearly not gems, their hues revealing that they must be wrought of glass. Was this jeweled belt a mark of the house?
In truth, Wulfe did not care.
Indeed, his mood improved by the moment. It must be that the company was amiable, for he had no taste for luxury.
“A maiden?” the patroness suggested, gesturing to a pair of young girls. They flushed and dropped their gazes as if shy, but 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,” this Costanzia countered, gesturing to a woman who might have seen thirty summers. “Lucrezia will make you roar!” There was a slyness in Lucrezia’s expression that Wulfe did not find alluring. Her hair was dark and her smile was knowing, and truly she had curves enough to tempt any man.
But not Wulfe.
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 red-gold 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 at her mistress’ summons, 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 his own impression that she might have been a noblewoman.
By the way her smile hinted at mysteries that would not be confessed.
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 with that realization, his own decision was made. Indeed, he felt a strange affinity with this woman, though he did not know even her name as yet. 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 options. He knew what it was to make the best of one’s circumstance, regardless of the price. Indeed, he did that hourly on this quest.
Wulfe also 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. She halted before Wulfe, more gracious and lovely than any woman he had ever seen. He liked that he could not discern her thoughts, that she kept some part of herself in reserve.
He understood that inclination, as well.
Costanzia looked between them. “You may find her price high,” she warned, more than a little gleeful.
Wulfe cared only for the lady he had chosen. Christina held his gaze, as if 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 Christina had seen of the world. He doubted it had all been good, and wished to surprise her.
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. His purse was not so light as that. He exercised restraint and saved his coin, so when he indulged, he could acquire the woman he desired most.
“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.
“Triple,” the older woman said crisply. “For there are ships in the harbor.”
Christina lowered her lashes, 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.
“Wulfe,” he corrected and she nodded acquiescence.
“Wulfe,” she said, smiling ever so slightly as she gripped his fingers, turned and led him toward the display of food and drink. The patroness stood back, smiling with satisfaction, but Wulfe was interested only in the alluring Christina.
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.
Excerpt from The Crusader’s Heart ©2015 Deborah A. Cooke