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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

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BOOK: No Price Too High
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“You need not leave.”

“Yes, I must.” She went into the bedroom and drew her sword out from beneath the bed. Running her fingers along the hilt, she said, “This is the sword of a Hospitaller. It must be used to keep evil from this land. Nothing can change that—not desire, not delight … not love.”

Gabriel started to reply, then heard raised voices beyond the door leading to the
mabeyin
. He glanced from the door to Melisande. He wanted to rid her of the sadness that stole the glitter from her eyes.

“Go,” she said softly.

“I will return to you as soon as I can. There is much to be said between us.” He brushed his fingers along her downy cheek. “There is much you must know.”

“All I know is all that matters. You cannot free me from my oath to serve the Crusade.”

He ached to kiss her lips that trembled with her grief, but he dared not. To be satisfied with a single kiss was impossible. He would tend to whatever matter was causing the noise in the
mabeyin;
then he would return to her.

As he opened the door, he looked back to see her walking out to the garden. She was taking the sword with her, ready to do battle with any who stood in the way of fulfilling her oath. He had to admire that determination, even while he did everything he could to be certain she failed.

“Let me go,
shaykh
.” As he stood, Shakir's eyes burned with blood-lust. “I know those passages through the hills as well as you know your
ikbal
.”

Beside Gabriel at the table, the caliph cleared his throat. Gabriel paid him no mind as he leaned forward to look at the crude map drawn on the back of a goatskin. Tracing a line with his finger, he smiled. This pass was seldom traveled. Abd al Qadir had chosen his hiding place well, but not well enough.

“We will ride with the sunset,” he said, picking up the map. “Do you come with us, caliph?”

“This is your problem, de la Rive. You do not need me to help you deal with it.”

Gabriel nodded. When he saw Shakir's frown, he shot a silent warning at his friend to hold his tongue until the caliph had taken his leave of the hall with its row of tiled columns.

As soon as the old man had gone to have Falla brought to him, Gabriel filled two goblets. He handed one to Shakir. “Do not let him trouble you, my friend. He is obsessed with the one I have given him.”

“The
Franj
woman?”

“No.”

“I had heard that she—”

“Such a topic is not worthy of warriors about to snare the beast.” He sipped from his drinking vessel. “We will ride with no more than a score of men. Greater numbers might be difficult to conceal along that pass.”

“We shall have him tonight,
shaykh
.”

“Alive.”

Shakir scowled. “Trying to take him alive has allowed him to escape us before.”

“If Abd al Qadir is dead before I can question him about who has given him help in his heinous work, you can be certain another will be set up to take his place without delay. Then the villages and the plains will be bright with blood once more.”

“The plains need not concern us.” He spat on the floor. “Let the
Franj
die for the pleasure of the hill bandits.”

“And when they do, the hill bandits will have their weapons and mounts to use against those we protect. We must protect the
Franj
, whether we wish to or not.”

“They do not need our protection.” He began to grumble about the siege at Acre.

Gabriel let him continue as he swirled his juice in his goblet. On this, he would not be swayed. Melisande had never mentioned how much gold her brother had been carrying with him across the plains. She did not need to tell him. The name of Lord Beornet was known beyond Tyre as a successful merchant and trader. That he had been willing to give up that comfortable life to abide by an oath to the Crusade amazed Gabriel. Mayhap the lord had more honor than rumor suggested, not wanting his sister to travel the dangerous wastes without his sword arm.

Yet she had survived the attack, and Lord Beornet had been one of the first slain. Gabriel refilled his cup as he remembered standing on the outcropping where he could see the hill bandits enter his trap. They had not, for Abd al Qadir and his men had been waiting for the small group of travelers to emerge from the narrow cut through the cliffs. It was not like the hill bandits to track their prey. They simply attacked swiftly, killing and stealing and slinking back into their lair.

This time had been different. Finding out why was one of the reasons he wanted Abd al Qadir alive. What had been unique about the group of
Franj
… other than Melisande?

Like the hill bandits, he had been astonished by how well she wielded her sword. And like them, he had been adamant that she would survive the attack. As he had lifted her senseless form away from the rockslide, he had known that he must bring her here and teach her of the desires that had taunted him even then. He might have miscalculated the trap for the hill bandits, but about Melisande, he had been right. She brought him a rapture he wanted to share again and again and again.

“You are smiling,
shaykh
,” Shakir said with a chuckle. “Do you suspect you know his ally?”

For now, he must concentrate on the capture of Abd al Qadir and the solution to the puzzle that taunted him. “I do not know his ally's name, nor do I know if there is more than one.” He held up his cup. “I do know that the time is coming when anyone who is allied with the hill bandits will come to regret that.”

“Does
she
come with us?” Shakir asked instead of drinking.

“She? Melisande?” He frowned. “Why would I have her brought with us?”

“The closest we have come to ensnaring Abd al Qadir has been when she was involved.”

“She stays here.”


Shaykh
, I believe she is the way to lure them out of their hiding place.”

He shook his head. “We tried that once, and it failed.”

“No, it didn't. It would have worked perfectly if the bandit had been given a chance to—”

“What?” He set his goblet on the table with a crash that rang through the hall. “A chance to rape her? A chance to kill her?”

“He would not have killed her. He would have taken her to Abd al Qadir.” He lowered his eyes. “Eventually.”

“Melisande stays in the
harim
.”

“You have let this
Franj
woman touch your heart.” He grimaced. “
Shaykh
, she may be our best hope to draw out the hill bandits.”

“She stays here.”

“She is more important to you than your duty to stop these men?”

Gabriel clenched his teeth. Why did Shakir's voice have to echo Melisande's when she spoke of her accursed oath? Mayhap because he knew they both were right. Nothing could change what Melisande was and what he was. The obligations they had assumed before she rode into his life could not be shunted aside.

He turned on his heel. “Have the men prepared to ride at sunset.”

There must be a way to stop Abd al Qadir without sacrificing Melisande. Some way, although he was not sure how.

FOURTEEN

Melisande ran the comb through her hair and fought to hide her yawn. Last night, she had found no more sleep than the previous nights. But, last night, Gabriel had not been beside her, thrilling her with his touch. Although Karim Pasa had told her only that the
shaykh
was busy elsewhere in the stronghold, she suspected Gabriel was beyond its walls, trying once more to stop the hill bandits. There would be no other reason why he would have been called away so abruptly. Another village or group of travelers must have fallen prey to Abd al Qadir.

With a laugh, Kalinin said, “There is no use pretending, Melisande. Do you think I failed to notice that you disappeared the day the
shaykh
returned home last time?” She smiled. “That both of you disappeared and that Karim Pasa stood guard over your rooms to let no one enter.”

“He did that?” She was sure her face must be crimson, for heat swarmed over her. Standing, she put her comb on a table.

“Are you happy?”

“Yes.”

Kalinin frowned. “That answer does not sound too joyous.”

“I am happy when I am with Gabriel.”

“He has duties that call him away, Melisande.”

She crossed her arms and nodded, not irritated with her friend, but with herself. “I understand that. His duties must be similar to my father's, dangerous ones that mean he may never return.”

“You are a warrior's daughter. You know the peril of giving your heart to a warrior.”

“You speak as if I had a choice. My heart does not heed me.” She sighed. “My head knows it is wrong for a woman like me to love him, but that makes no difference.”

“A woman like you?”

She looked down at her gold breeches and jacket. “It is not easy when he is near to remember that I am sworn to my duties as a Hospitaller. I fear I have become accustomed to these clothes.”

“And to being with him?”

“Yes.”

Kalinin bit her lower lip, then whispered, “Will you return to the
Franj
?”

“I have no choice on that either. I swore an oath to serve.”

“But if you go, you know you cannot return here.”

She swallowed hard. “I know.”

“And that is why you are not filled with joy?”

How she wished she could say yes—that was the only reason. But she knew it was not. When she was not in Gabriel's arms, enthralled by his skin caressing hers, she had realized his answers about the rooms she had discovered were not as simple as she had wanted to believe. The weapons were to protect this oasis amid the chaos of war; but if the Crusaders captured Acre and brought the war here, he would not hesitate to use those weapons to repel her fellow warriors in the cross … and her father.

“Come,” Kalinin said. “Let us go and visit Lysias. You know she warms your heart.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “And she has been very, very anxious to speak with you.”

She chuckled. “I am sure.”

“You cannot fault her. She has been very eager to see you and the
shaykh
become lovers since the day he brought you here.”

Again Melisande looked away. She doubted if she would ever become inured to the candid discussion of the most private matters. What she shared with Gabriel was too precious to speak of like this.

“Come with me,” Kalinin said quietly.

Nodding, she went with her friend out into the gardens surrounding the lake. She had to be grateful. Kalinin was trying to understand Melisande's ways, even though she could not.

Melisande stiffened when she heard a twittering voice. She knew she was not mistaken when Kalinin put a warning hand on her arm. Looking across the garden, she saw Falla standing among some of the women. She was showing off a new bangle.

Kalinin whispered, “Let's go a different way.” With unusual fervor, she grasped Melisande's hand and tugged her toward a door.

“Don't you want to see my gift from the caliph, Melisande?” Falla called.

“Not really,” Melisande said under her breath as Falla walked toward them.

She did not waste her graceful, sensual motions on them. A sly smile oozed across her lips as she smoothed her robes against her and murmured, “How wonderfully rested you appear, Melisande.”

“Thank you.”

“I heard you have been sleeping away your life while you were waiting for the
shaykh
to return. Lysias had Karim Pasa give you one of her potions. Why? Because you actually have emotion in that unfeeling body of yours? Could it be you were aroused by the touch of the caliph and longed to replace me in his bed?” She raised her wrist, which was decorated with the wide band of etched gold. “If you were as wise as you claim to be instead of silly, you would have seen that the rewards of sharing his bed are many.”

She glanced at Kalinin. Falla clearly had not been told that Gabriel had come back to
Mukhdarr
to spirit Melisande away to his secret grotto. Had Lysias been able to keep it a secret from the rest of the
harim
? No, she realized as she saw heads bend to whisper among the women. They must be frightened to tell Falla the truth.

Quietly Melisande said, “I am glad you have found your time with the caliph to be more rewarding than you expected. If you will excuse me …”

“No! I do not excuse you.” When Melisande started to walk past her, Falla grasped her arm. “You will stay. I am the
ikbal
. I am premier among all the women in this
harim
, and you will obey me.”

“As the
shaykh's
mother, Lysias is premier in this
harim
,” Kalinin interjected.

Falla scowled at her. “Silence.”

“I am not a member of Gabriel's
harim
,” Melisande said, struggling to keep herself calm. If she spoke the truth now, it would humiliate Falla even more. She was not sure what Falla would do then to seek vengeance. “Fortunately for me, I do not have to heed your commands.”

“Oh, I forget. You say you have no interest in the
shaykh
. Or could be he has no interest in you?”

“Falla?” called one of the other women. “You should know that—”

“I am speaking with this
Franj
.” Flicking her fingers against the golden band around her arm, Falla chuckled. “You say he means nothing to you, but your eyes light when you speak his name. If he orders you to his bed, Melisande, although I do not know why he would, be sure to come to me. I can tell you exactly how to please him.”

“I do not think asking you will be necessary.”

When Kalinin giggled, Falla glared at her and walked away.

“I am sorry, Melisande,” Kalinin said through her laughter as Melisande pushed her toward the door leading to Lysias's rooms. “I tried to stop myself, but I could not. As if you need
her
help in pleasing the
shaykh
. He must be greatly pleased with you to spend so much time with you.”

BOOK: No Price Too High
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