His dream of becoming a knight achieved, Bartholomew heads home to avenge his parents—only to find himself hunted and in need of the assistance of a most unlikely and unpredictable ally. Anna seeks justice with a disregard for the law that shocks Bartholomew, but the bold maiden’s tactics are as effective as her kisses are seductive. Does she truly wish to aid him in regaining his legacy, or is she using him as a pawn in some scheme of her own?
An excerpt from The Crusader’s Kiss:
Anna was on her belly in the snow, watching the party that camped in the forest she knew as well as the lines in her own hand. She was perfectly still, her crossbow loaded and hidden beneath the sheepskin pelt that disguised her figure from view. She might have been chilled, if her heart had not been pounding so hard in anticipation. Little Percy was nestled beside and partly beneath her, his eyes bright as he awaited her instruction.
They were both dressed in simple dark garb that would blend with the shadows. Anna had bound her long hair beneath a cap and wore a man’s chausses and boots. She liked that she could run more quickly in such garb, and that she oft gained liberties when perceived to be a boy that might be denied her as a woman.
It had been months since a party had ventured along this road, and longer yet since one had been fool enough to take their rest within the forest. It had been a hard winter and would likely be a harder spring. There were rumors of new taxes and tithes, though the harvest had not been a good one, and Anna would not be the sole one hungry.
In truth, they had expected a party to ride in the other direction, away from Haynesdale keep, for the baron always paid his taxes to the king after the Yule. Well aware of the thieves in his forests, Sir Royce always sent out scouts the day before the wagon laden with coin left for the king’s hall. Anna and Percy were watching for that sign.
Instead, they had discovered a party of knights riding towards Haynesdale. It was most unusual. Sir Royce was not a frequent host. Anna debated the merit of summoning some of the others, but decided she and Percy could manage alone.
This party’s wealth was clearly considerable. Their horses were remarkable beasts, so fine that Anna knew they would be readily recognized in any town’s market she might try to sell them—or even en route to those towns. She would have to forgo the temptation of the horses. Fortunately the palfreys were heavily burdened with saddle bags and parcels.
What did these men carry?
The men were armed more heavily and more richly than was typical in this corner of Christendom. They wore mail, each and every one of them, not merely boiled leather jerkins. Their boots were tall and polished, and they had helmets of fine design.
Who were they?
There were two Templar knights in the party, their white tabards adorned with red crosses that identified their order. Both of them had a squire, and both squires slept atop their knight’s belongings. Anna had little interest in them. They would have good swords and sturdy hauberks, but would have to be killed to be parted from those prizes. Beyond that, the wealth of a Templar was in his destrier, and she had already decided against taking the horses.
There were two other knights, who appeared to be of an age with each other. Both were handsome enough, if she had possessed an affection for their kind. One had russet hair and had a pair of squires himself. Anna had heard snippets of conversation and enough of his words to conclude that he was from the north and returning home to Scotland from a voyage afar. The majority of the bundles belonged to him, by all appearances, and he had spoken of his betrothed.
Gifts for a lady, then. Anna would guess he brought cloth for rich garments, as the packages were too numerous to all contain jewels. If there were jewels, they would likely be hidden on his person. He looked young and virile, and she was not certain she could best him in a fight.
It would be harder to sell jewels than horses, to be sure. What she wanted was coin, and food.
The other knight had darker hair and was more quiet than his fellows. He alone had a short beard, which gave him a rakish air. Indeed, Anna had feared more than once that he had discerned her in the shadows, though she knew it could not be so. There was something more intense and alert about him, to be sure, and Anna trusted her instinct to leave him and his squire be.
Finally, there was one more warrior, an older man with a little silver at his temples. A Scotsman, for he wore the plaid wool so favored by his kind. He carried two saddlebags and Anna had noticed that he kept a hand upon one of them.
There was something of merit in that bag, she knew it well.
She thought she could outrun him, if not outwit him.
Anna had chosen a spot close to the Scotsman but downwind of him. She pointed to the bag in question and Percy nodded, biting his lip.
The moon was setting, the forest as still as it would be in the night. Since the sky was clear, Anna waited for the moon to dip below the uppermost branches of the trees, for then, the small camp would be cast into shadow. The wild growth of the forest beyond the road would be her friend, then, for she knew a path through it that no stranger would be able to discern in the night. She and Percy would part ways and her brother would run quickly and quietly to the cavern, while she led the hunt astray.
If there was one.
It would work perfectly.
The Scotsman had been keeping the watch, but he dozed. The horses dozed. The squires slept. One Templar snored. The Scottish knight murmured in his slumber. The moon slipped ever lower and the men’s camp fell into shadow.
It was time.
Anna touched Percy’s shoulder and the boy eased forward. She gripped her crossbow and aimed at the Scotsman, in case he awakened and tried to stop the boy. Percy showed uncommon stealth for a boy of his age and could move with a silence that impressed Anna every time she watched him.
Her brother might have been born to be a thief. Percy inched toward the sleeping man, silent and sure. Finally, he reached out and touched the saddlebag, resting his hand there for a moment to ensure the Scotsman did not react. Anna sighted her bow, her heart thundering as she watched and waited.
Percy eased the bag away from the Scotsman’s side, slowly at first. The man murmured in his sleep and shook his head, but did not seem to be aware of the boy. Percy tugged the bag more quickly, sliding backward across the surface of the snow in silence.
He was almost at Anna’s side, and cast her a triumphant glance, his eyes dancing with his usual mischief. It was but a game to him, and one at which he often won. She might have given a nod, but the Scotsman snorted in that moment. He rolled over, reached for the saddlebag and his eyes flew open at the realization that it was gone. “Hoy!” he cried and his party stirred.
Anna fired her crossbow and the bolt would have gone through the Scotsman’s hand if he had not bounded to his feet in that same moment.
“Thief!” He roared in outrage, pointing after Percy, and the entire company was alerted. The quiet knight leapt from his bed and lunged into the forest. Anna thought to lie low and let him try to chase Percy, but he headed straight for her.
She had been seen! Anna clutched her crossbow and ran, taking a different direction from Percy and abandoning the sheepskin. The knight was closing fast behind her, so noisy that she had no doubt of his location. She guessed that he was a good foot taller than her, and that height gave him an advantage. She was taking three strides for his two, after all.
Percy’s escape was of greatest importance, she told herself. This man was a knight, pledged to defend women and orphans, of which she was both.
On the other hand, Anna had witnessed how readily a knight could disregard those vows. Her heart was racing and not just from her flight.
“Stop!” he cried. “Thief!”
Anna ducked beneath a branch, hoping it was too low for him. She could not hear Percy and hoped he was safely away. Anna ran in the opposite direction of the cavern, ducking branches, taking a labyrinthine course, dodging around shrubs, and diving through the bracken. The knight was not deterred. He was cursed quick, too, even though he wore his hauberk. The sound of his boots on the dead undergrowth was louder and closer. The darkness did not seem to be aiding her.
If she could shake him from her trail and reach the haven of the cave, he would never find her.
Anna doubled back and crossed a small stream. Her boots slipped on the wet rocks because she moved too quickly. Though the stream was not wide, it was cold and deep. She flailed her arms for a moment to regain her balance and was certain the knight would emerge from the forest and spot her. To her great good fortune, he did not. In fact, she heard a thump and a muttered oath. Ha! She found her footing and leapt into the undergrowth on the opposing bank, then paused.
There was no sound of pursuit.
Had he abandoned the chase?
Had he fallen and injured himself?
She stood motionless, halfway certain the sound of her heart would reveal her, then slowly smiled. There were fading footsteps, then the forest was silent again. Anna waited a long while, listening, but there was no sound of the knight.
They had succeeded again! The knight had been deceived by her turning back and had continued in the same direction. He might make the keep by daybreak, or spend the rest of the night wandering through the forest, lost.
Anna spun, intending to find Percy, only to discover the dark-haired knight standing behind her, his arms folded across his chest. He had moved as silently as Percy could. He was patient as no man tended to be.
“Where is the boy?” he demanded.
Anna caught her breath and made to run, but the knight seized her around the waist, lifting her feet from her ground. She aimed a kick at him, but he anticipated the move. Her fear rose that she was at his mercy.
To her surprise, he wrestled the crossbow from her grip, then flung her aside. He took a bolt from his own belt and cocked the bow, moving with such surety that his gaze never wavered from hers. Too late she saw that there was a hook on his belt and realized that he was an archer himself. He aimed it at her—her own bow—then smiled with wretched confidence in his own skills.
“Where?” he murmured, the single word hanging in the air between them on a breath of vapor.
“I will never tell,” she growled and took a step back even as her thoughts flew. She could dive into the river and swim to the cave. If he shot at her, he might miss, and it would take time for him to load another bolt.
She met his gaze and saw the resolve in his eyes. His thumb was on the release. “I do not want to kill you, boy,” he said softly. “But I want Duncan’s property returned.”
Boy. He thought she was a boy. Of course. If he knew her sex, would he spare her?
Or would he abuse her? Fear quivered in Anna’s belly.
The surprise might slow his reaction. She had to gamble upon that.
“Boy?” Anna echoed in challenge and saw his confusion. She smiled at him as she reached up and tugged off her hood, shaking out her hair so that it fell over her shoulders. She saw his eyes light with surprise, but did not give him time to recover.
It was a fleeting advantage, after all.
Instead, she dove into the pool of the river beyond the rocks and let herself sink below the surface. She could hold her breath a long time, and though the water was fiercely cold, she did just that. Anna swam into the hollow by the opposite bank, where she had hidden to surprise Percy the previous summer and waited. When her chest felt fit to burst for lack of air, she slowly rose to the surface, knowing she would be concealed behind the ice at the banks.
There was no sign of the knight on the opposite side of the stream.
Anna had learned to be wary of him, though. He was stealthy and possessed of a rare cunning. She remained still and watchful, certain he had not abandoned the chase. He would reveal himself, she was certain, and if it was a question of patience as to who was revealed first, she could wait him out.
He was noble and a knight, after all, and Anna knew such men had naught of merit in their veins.
* * *
She was gone, as surely as if she had vanished into the air.
Bartholomew knew better. He stood silently and waited. No person could vanish. No person could hold their breath forever. Sooner or later, the surface of the stream would ripple and he would spy his prey.
While he waited, he marveled.
He had been convinced that he pursued a boy.
His prey had been quick, that was for certain, and agile as well. Bartholomew was fast on his feet, but he had been hard-pressed to close the distance between them. The boy clearly knew the forest well, and all its hidden pathways. If not for the snow and the contrast of the boy’s dark clothing against it, Bartholomew might have lost him completely. Where the snow had been blown aside or melted into mud, it was a challenge to keep sight of him. He ran quietly, too, making little sound even on the dried leaves underfoot.
There was no doubt about it: this boy and his companion had stolen before and were well practiced in their trade. Bartholomew might have felt sorry for them, if they had stolen out of hunger, or even granted them coin out of compassion, but they could not abscond with the precious reliquary entrusted to the party.
He had to retrieve Duncan’s saddlebag.
When the boy had started to cross the river, Bartholomew had anticipated his destination, doubled back and reached that point before his prey. He had not expected an easy triumph, but neither had he expected to be so surprised by the boy’s removal of his cap.
And the spilling of long chestnut hair. The sight of that gleaming curtain of hair had changed his perception immediately. In that moment, Bartholomew saw how slender the “boy” was, how finely boned the hands and face. He could explain the curve he had felt upon seizing his prey, for it was not some bundle as he had anticipated.
It had been her breast.
She had clearly delighted in his astonishment, then taken advantage of either that or his chivalry to escape anew. Diving into the stream was folly in this season, to be sure, and Bartholomew knew he would have to ensure that she was warm and dry when she finally emerged. His reaction to her became protective, courtesy of that glimpse, and he realized that he was prepared to give greater heed to her side of the story.
It was shocking to realize how a pretty face, even a dirty one, could so affect his thinking.
Still there was no sign of her. He crouched and scanned the surface again, cursing that the moon was too low to grant much illumination.
She might have planned as much. Why else wait until this hour to strike? Certainly, she and her accomplice had not just happened upon his party.
Had they been followed for long? Bartholomew could not credit it, though he knew that Duncan had been convinced all the way from Paris that some soul pursued them. She had looked too poor and too much a resident of the forest to have followed them from much distance. Also she had no steed.
At least not one he could see. Who was to say where she had hidden her various treasures away? And who was the other one? Was he truly a boy? Where had he gone with the saddlebag? Bartholomew frowned, convinced as he was that this one knew the other’s destination. He would wait.
Was that a ripple on the surface on the far side of the stream? The bank overshadowed the water there, but it seemed to Bartholomew that that the ice was disturbed. It was too dark to be certain. He eased closer, watching.
She emerged suddenly and took a gasping breath, her horror clear in her expression when she spied him. She made to climb the opposite bank, her movements slow given the weight of her wet garb. Her agitation was so obvious that Bartholomew felt some compassion for her.
But not enough to let her evade him. He leapt the stream and seized her, hauling her out of the water. He shed his cloak and wrapped it around her tightly, seeing that her complexion was already pale. “Where has he gone?” he demanded.
She glanced over her shoulder, clearly considering the merit of making a confession. He was glad she did not dwell on the matter overlong. “Where is my bow?”
“There. And it is mine now.”
“Yours?” Her eyes snapped in outrage. “You have no right…”
“Just as you had no right to take Duncan’s saddlebag.”
Her eyes narrowed as she assessed him, and Bartholomew held tightly to her upper arms. “I will trade you,” she offered with a boldness he thought undeserved.
“Trade me?” Bartholomew echoed. “You have stolen from me, yet I have just ensured that you will survive this night. You owe me and twice over. I see no reason to return your bow, for you have little to offer in exchange.”
“I did not steal from you…”
“But the boy did and you are allied together.”
Her lips thinned and her gaze turned mutinous. “You did not save me…” she began with scorn.
“You had trouble making the bank, and you are chilled to your marrow. Without this cloak, you would catch a chill and that might be fatal.” He arched a brow and did not loosen his grip upon her upper arms. “Indeed you might still fall ill.”
“My disposition is most strong,” she said hotly. “I owe naught to you and your kind…”
“Then I will take my cloak back and leave you to yourself.”
She clutched it tightly and glared at him. “It is warm.”
“And you should thank me for so graciously sharing it with you.”
“Graciously?” She laughed, as if she would have preferred not to do so. “A knight is never gracious to a person of the woods.”
At that, Bartholomew spun her out of his cloak, tripped her, and let her fall back into the stream. He knew the water was not deep, and he guessed that naught would be injured but her pride. If she wanted to be without him, the matter could be arranged. He leapt over the stream again and picked up the crossbow, acting as if he meant to leave her. She came up sputtering, looking fit to shred him from his bones.
“It is mine!” she cried.
“It is forfeit,” Bartholomew replied. He waved to her. “Since you have such a strong disposition, I will leave you now.”
“Where are you going?”
“To retrieve what was stolen, of course.” He made to stride away, hearing her labor to climb to the banks again.
“Cursed wretch,” she muttered and he glanced back to see her shake like a dog. With her garb wet, Bartholomew could see that she was a woman in truth, though slight of stature. She wrung out the hem of her tabard and glared at him anew. Then she sneezed and shivered convulsively. That did not stop her from marching after him, fire in her eyes. “I will trade you the bow for Percy’s location,” she offered again, a challenge in her tone.
Bartholomew laughed. “Because he is already rid of the prize. I would be a fool indeed to give you the ability to dispatch me when you clearly hold me in such affection.”
She snorted, in a most unfeminine way. “It is not yours.” The way her gaze lingered on the crossbow told Bartholomew how important it was to her.
Why? It was not common for women to have proficiency with the weapon.
“You shot at Duncan,” he recalled, deliberately taunting her because she seemed inclined to reveal more when she was irked. “Or maybe I should say that you missed Duncan? Perhaps your skill is not very great. Perhaps you stole this weapon and have no skill with it.”
Her eyes flashed anew and she spat at the ground, before shuddering again. “Luck favored him. The miss was no mark of my incompetence.” She was proud of her skill, to be sure, and he wondered whether her pride was warranted.
He provoked her anew. “Perhaps I would take no risk in returning it to you. Perhaps you could never fell me.”
She blinked, battled with her reaction to the insult, then smiled and extended a hand. “Perhaps not.”
Her sudden smile made Bartholomew blink, for she was even more pretty than he had realized. He had seen the war of her thoughts in her eyes and had the instinct to trust her. She was not witless, but she was a thief without guile.
What an intriguing woman.
“But what need has a woman of such a weapon?” He let his voice fill with derision. “Should you not leave your defense to a man? Your husband or father?”
“I have neither,” she declared and snatched for the bow.
Bartholomew easily held it out of her reach.
She sneezed again, then considered him with displeasure. “I might die of this chill, as you say,” she declared. “And then your path to Percy would be lost forever.” She put out her hand, ever optimistic.
“If there is a wager, it must be on my terms,” Bartholomew said, finding remarkable enjoyment in this discussion.
She scoffed. “Doubtless they will be enticing.”
“What do you expect?”
She took a deep breath of forbearance. “You will want to bed me, as well as have the saddlebag returned, and then you will cheat me of the crossbow, for you will declare it unfitting for a mere woman to hold such a weapon. You will leave me soiled and bereft of all I value.” Her lip curled in disdain. “I know how your kind wagers.”
Bartholomew was astonished that she could think so poorly of a stranger and a knight. He looked past the mire and the grubby clothing to the shape of her face and lips, the narrow indent of her waist, and the beguiling flash in her eyes. She had an appeal, to be sure.
But he would prove her assumptions about his nature to be wrong first.
“Here is the trade I will make with you,” he said, keeping his tone reasonable. “I will return the crossbow to you when I have Duncan’s saddlebag returned to me, its contents intact.”
Her lips set. “So, we would have taken the risk for naught at all. Would you not sweeten the offer with a coin or six?”
He eyed the crossbow. “Even in the darkness, I know this is a fine weapon, and it would fetch a good price. Perhaps I should take it to York and sell it.”
“You would not get your bag back then.”
“It sounds as if I will not get it back at any rate. You have drawn out this conversation to ensure that Percy has had plenty of time to reach some refuge.”
Her smile flashed. “I did not think you had the wits to notice.”
“I think you have sufficient wits to know that not all men are the same as the one who taught you such distrust.”
For the first time, she looked both surprised and a little bit uncertain. She eyed Bartholomew with new interest, and her lips parted. He took a step closer, snared by her gaze yet wary of her intent. She stretched out a hand. “Might I borrow your cloak, sir? You were so gracious to lend it to me earlier, and it was warm.”
Bartholomew smiled. “Are you only charming when you desire something?”
She smiled back at him. “Perhaps I have learned one thing from your kind.” She sneezed again, most violently. Bartholomew could not risk her welfare. He swung the cloak from his shoulders and dropped it over hers. She clutched it and shivered beneath its weight. She spared a glance at its fur lining, then eyed him anew. “Are you rich?”
Bartholomew shook his head. “I have a generous friend.”
She cast him a coy glance and might have spoken again. Indeed Bartholomew found himself leaning closer to better hear whatever she might utter.
Then a child screamed in the distance.
They both straightened and stared into the shadows of the forest. Bartholomew noted that his companion was stricken. “Percy!” she whispered, and then she ran in pursuit of the cry.
With his cloak yet upon her back.
Once again she fled, and once again, Bartholomew chased her through the shadows and bracken of the forest. Was this a feint to see him robbed anew? Or was Percy truly in peril?
And what had happened to Duncan’s saddlebag? If any soul looked within it, Bartholomew doubted he would retrieve the relic readily.
If at all.
He could not so betray the trust of Gaston and of the order of the Temple. He had to recapture that bag, no matter what the price.
Even if this defiant wretch of a maiden held the key.
Excerpt from The Crusader’s Kiss ©2016 Deborah A. Cooke