Returning home to Scotland triumphant after his military service, and entrusted with the precious relic of the Templars, Fergus is more than ready to wed his beloved Isobel and begin their life together. To his dismay, Isobel has wed another in his absence, and he believes all of merit is stolen from his life—until Leila resolves to win the valiant highlander’s heart for her own. She is convinced of her own success, until Isobel tempts Fergus anew.
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An excerpt from The Crusader’s Vow:
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 his purse. They had a license to hold an annual fair and had returned to find the old keep of Haynesdale taking shape once more. Bartholomew had bought 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.
And now he returned home to Isobel. It would be four years since his departure, and Fergus was anxious 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 could even see his companion Duncan cradling a dark-haired child. But for himself? There was no glimmer of what the future held for him.
It had never concerned him before, 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.
Something troubled him, though he could not name it. Fergus decided it was impatience, no more than that, and strode toward the village. If he walked, he might sleep. Perhaps he might ride forth the next morning, since Bartholomew was returned.
His heart fluttered at the possibility and he resolved it would be so. He would see his fellows again at his own nuptials, to be sure, for they had vowed 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 moon. It still surprised him to see her in women’s garb, though on this night, she wore no veil. Her dark hair had grown a little more since she had cut it shorter in Jerusalem and now it reached her chin. It shone like polished ebony in the moonlight. Her face was tipped up to the moon, and its light touched her features with silver. She did not seem to be aware of his presence, so he cleared his throat as he approached.
“You miss 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 eleventh 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. “We lived in the same household, my uncle’s home, after the death of my father. 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 father die?”
“When I was two summers of age.” She took a shaking breath. “My mother died a year ago.”
He saw the tear glisten on her cheek and wished he had the right to brush it away. “I would take you back to Palestine, if you wish to see your cousin again,” 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 miss the opportunity he had lost in not learning 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 once they reached Killairic, but had never considered what she would do there. He did not want anyone to think of her as a whore, though he saw the plausibility of that. It was not common for Fergus to feel like a fool, but in this moment, he did so.
He also felt as if he had failed the woman who had trusted him and served him loyally. His chest tightened and he did not know what to say to her, much less how he could make matters right.
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?”
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 this possessiveness lurked within him, for he had no right to make any claim upon her.
Her conviction 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, her throaty laughter and that smile that was 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 knew him well and had heard much 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 own outrage.
“I did! But the man in question was my second cousin and the alliance from the marriage was good for both families. Like the good man he is, my uncle dismissed the rumors that he believed to be malicious.”
“You did not.”
“He is fond of my cousin and has seen only his best.” She turned to face him, her dark eyes filled with conviction. “But women do not lie to each other about such matters. The fact was I should not have known and 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, for once I had heard her tale, I also glimpsed the shadow in him.”
“You knew to look.”
She nodded. “And so I fled.”
“Did your cousin with the infant boy know of your plan?”
Leila smiled. “She suggested it after my mother died. 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 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.
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 luster 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.
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 open. He had been intrigued by 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 their gazes clung, he wanted to give her more.
“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 Outremer. 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.” He 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.”
She looked up at him, and her gaze lingered on his mouth. She ran the tip of her own tongue across her bottom lip, as if she hungered for his touch, 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.”
“I pledged to return to Killairic with you and I will keep my word.” A smile touched her lips. “Even though I might well face the wrath of your betrothed.”
“Isobel might not make the conclusion you expect.”
“Then she is a fool,” Leila 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, my lord Fergus. You are the manner of man to whom I should like to pledge my troth.”
Her confession made his heart leap and she must have seen his expression change.
She smiled ruefully. “You need not fear that I will act upon this, or that I will be more than your faithful servant,” 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 smiled at her ferocity, then his smile faded when Leila’s hand landed on his thigh. His entire body went taut and desire rolled through him.
Leila’s voice dropped low and her eyes were so dark as to be fathomless. “And if there is ever any deed you would desire of me, you have only to ask.”
Fergus was honored and might have said 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 kindled a new fire within him. He found himself bending closer, unable to resist what she offered so freely. He cupped her nape in his hand and deepening their kiss.
When she opened her mouth to him, surrendering to their embrace, Fergus realized that Leila was not the sole one who wanted the impossible.
Excerpt from The Crusader’s Vow ©2016 Deborah A. Cooke.