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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

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BOOK: No Price Too High
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His jaw clenched. Melisande's brother would have been avenged today if all had gone as planned. As
had planned. Sending her into Abd al Qadir's village with this glorious hair visible in a braid falling along her back had been guaranteed to create an uproar. Then he finally would have seen an end to the hill bandits' attacks on unarmed villages and discovered who was providing Abd al Qadir with men and weapons.

Everything had gone as he had hoped … until he realized Melisande's captor was not taking her to Abd al Qadir. Instead of continuing to fight, Gabriel had gone to keep the bandit from raping her. Needlessly, for she had saved herself, and the leader of the hill bandits had escaped.

He released her hair and stood. Walking out of the tent, he saw Shakir watching him. He did not need to see the reproach on his friend's face. He heard every accusation in his head. A red-haired temptress had kept him from fulfilling his oath to protect those of these hills.

It would never happen again.
was an oath he would not break.

The sun burned Melisande's eyes as she stepped out of the tent. The stench of smoke hung in the air, but she did not look down at the plain. Gabriel's men had burned the buildings after the women had taken out their few possessions. Now the hill bandits must seek another lair.

She held her head high as Gabriel walked toward her, his white robes flowing like the clouds overhead. Behind him, his men were tying cases to the back of horses. She guessed they contained what Abd al Qadir had stolen. Now Gabriel had taken it from him. What would Gabriel do with it?

No hint of a smile eased his stern expression as he said, “We leave.”

“Where are we going?”

He lifted one of her braids, which was as wide as her wrist, and rubbed it between his fingers. Slowly his hand moved up the thick strands to reach her ear, which he caressed with the same slow stroke. “We are going to where we are going.”

“That is no answer.” Her eyes strained to watch his finger as it moved along her neck. It gently followed her jaw and traced her chin. She gasped when he gripped her chin, tilting it back sharply. Too many watched them, but she could not pull her gaze from his eyes. They were devoid of compassion. She stiffened her shoulders against the shiver aching up her back. Had the sparse kindness he had shown her been as much a pretense as their alliance?

“You should not be outside the tent dressed like this,” he said in a voice as cool as his gaze.

“You were the one to undress me to this state.” Her face became as heated as when she rode across the desert plain. “If you will return my surcoat to me, we—”

“You know that is not what I mean.”

Stepping closer, he overwhelmed her with shoulders that appeared even broader beneath his bleached cloak. When she started to reply, he shouted something she could not understand.

The old woman rushed forward with more of the black wool.

Melisande frowned. “Gabriel, I—”

“Will do as I wish you to.”

She shook her head. “I vowed to obey you only as long as our alliance lasted.”

“But it never existed and you obeyed me.” He whipped the material around her. Before she could shrug it off, his hands clamped on her shoulders. Heat swept through her from beneath his fingers at the same time something flickered in his eyes. The same warmth that taunted her? That frightening thought turned the fire to ice.

Swiftly he wrapped the shorter section around her head and secured the end across her face. The thick scent of wool suffocated her, and she jerked it away.

“I do not wish to wear this ridiculous costume.” She focused her fury at her unwanted reaction on him.

“You will wear it.” His clipped words warned that he was as unsettled as she. With fury or with the unwanted desire? “Do not argue with me on this, for this argument you will not win, Melisande.”

She drew the wool up over her face, glad to let it hide her expression. She hoped it would hide that she was a fool to crave the touch of this man who had betrayed her.

Gabriel held out his hand in an unuttered order. She placed hers on his hard palm and followed him as he walked toward his horse. She looked about and scowled again when she saw that the gray horse she had ridden now had bags stacked on its back.

“If we are riding, I shall need my horse.”

He put his hand on his horse's bridle. “You fret about the wrong things, milady. This is
, whose name means devil in Frankish. He's fleet enough to evade the evil one, even when he carries both of us.”

“You expect me to ride with you?” She backed away, although she had no place to go. “I can assure you that I'm quite capable of managing my own mount, even in these rough hills.”

“I know you ride very well, Melisande.” He stepped easily into the intricately stitched saddle and again held out his hand. “And that is the reason you will ride with me. We wouldn't want you to become lost in these unfamiliar hills.”

“I never get lost.”

“I have no wish to prove you wrong, milady.”

She ignored the hand proffered in front of her face. Scanning the hilltop, she knew she had no allies here. The old woman had disappeared into the shimmering waves of heat bubbling up from the ground. Gabriel's men were mounting their own horses. If she ran … Gabriel might kill her if she did not obey him.

Slowly she clasped his wrist with both hands. Many times she had mounted like this when she had ridden with her brother. When Gabriel tugged her to sit across his lap, she gasped.

When she started to push herself off his legs, his arm tightened around her waist, surrounding her with his strength. Coldly, she said, “It would be more comfortable for me to ride pillion.”

“What would keep you from sliding off the back of the horse and scurrying away?” He laughed as he forced her back against him until she had to crane her neck to an awkward angle to see his smile. “And think how much more pleasant it is to ride like this.”

“I don't find this pleasant.”

“Odd.” He added nothing else to her as he called out to his men.

The horse beneath them leaped forward at his command, and he pulled the cloth across his face to protect himself from the dust.

She looked away. He was holding her so intimately to show her, yet again, how easily he could control her. He did not have to show her. She knew. Through the night, her dreams had been haunted with terror of what might happen now. She had been too desperate to repay Abd al Qadir, and Gabriel had taken advantage of that. Now … she could not guess what might happen, because she had no idea who or what this man truly was.

The wind blew into her face as they traveled toward the rising sun. Her heart lurched. They rode farther from the lands held by the Crusaders. Every mile they traveled made it more impossible for her to return to Tyre on foot.

Dust burned in her eyes. The hot breath of the wind scored her face with dirt. She drew up the black wool and realized Gabriel had done her a favor by insisting she wear this accursed
. She could breathe without tasting grit.

She choked back her gasp when Gabriel released her. She grasped the front of his robes before she could be bounced off his legs.

“Here,” he said, amusement in his voice.

Melisande's fingers quivered as she reached for the leather bladder Gabriel held out to her. She lifted it beneath the flap of the
and drank. The water washed away the dust irritating her throat. Although she was tempted to take another drink, she was not sure how long it would be before they could find more water in these wastes.

Capping the battered bladder, she whispered, “Thank you.”

“You will become accustomed to the heat.”

“I doubt that. I shan't remain here long enough to become inured to the heat.”

“Mayhap you are right.”

Startled by his abrupt agreement, she looked up at him. Once again, he released her. As the horse shifted, she clutched onto his robes. His heart did not beat as furiously as hers as he wrapped his cloak around her.

He bent so his face brushed the side of hers when he whispered, “I doubt anyone would want to become accustomed to this sweet fire that burns between us, milady.”

“There is nothing between us.”

“I would that that were so, especially when I look into your eyes that are the color of
, which is the shade of the midmorning sky.” His fingertip outlined the fullness of her lower lip as tenderly as a spring zephyr.

A silent shriek of warning rang through her head, telling her to turn her face aside from this man who deserved the name
more than his horse did, but she slipped her arms beneath his cloak and over his firm shoulders. At her touch, he pressed her even closer to him. He whispered her name as his mouth lowered toward hers.

With what might have been a curse or an insult tossed at her, he drew back. His shoulders became rigid, and she pulled her arms away. Again he wore no more expression than the rocks around them.

She opened her mouth to ask a question, then closed it. Did she really want to know the truth? If he had meant only to humiliate her by forcing her to see her longing for his kisses, he had succeeded. But, if he had been as beguiled as she by the desire that should not exist between them, then being the captive of
Renard du Vent
offered more dangers than she had dared to consider.

Gabriel rubbed his shoulder as he entered the tent that had been raised as soon as he called an end to the day's travel. He had not dared to ease his guard on Melisande for a moment. Even though fleeing would be fatal now when she was so far from her allies, he suspected she would try.

She came to her feet, her chin high, although he saw fear in her eyes. She was right to be frightened among those who had no love for her Crusaders. He had thought she would see that his battle was not with the
. 'Twas with himself when he looked at her glorious hair falling about her like a silken sunset.

He smiled as he saw the determination in her eyes. How swiftly she bristled at every word he spoke! He had been warned how the
allowed their women to speak their minds, and she had proven that rumor right.

His greeting went unspoken as he realized all the red along her arm was not from her hair sweeping across her. Why had she kept silent about being wounded? He cursed under his breath as he took her arm gently.

“Oh …” she breathed, and he knew even that slight touch hurt her.

“You should sit, milady, while this is tended to.”

“I have tended to it. I'm a Hospitaller. It is my obligation and honor to treat the wounds of the Crusaders.” Her voice grew weaker on each word, but rallied as she added, “And I am a Crusader.”

“You will do yourself or others little good if this is the extent of your medical skills.”

“I learned in the stillroom at Heathwyre how to help wounds heal.”

He knelt, drawing her down into the pillows. When she offered little resistance, he guessed she must be in more pain than she wished him to guess. He understood her reticence. To let an enemy see any weakness was unwise. As he untied the cloth wrapped crudely around her upper arm, he scowled. The wound had not been cleaned and soon would fester.

Standing, he threw open the tent flap. “Shakir, you are needed here.”

“Do you have to call
?” she asked, drawing his gaze back to her face, which had lost every bit of color.

“Shakir is my most trusted ally.” He smiled coolly. “He will see that your arm is treated, although he would prefer to see you dead.”

Melisande flinched at Gabriel's words. He spoke them in such a commonplace tone he could have been speaking as well of the weather or the evening meal. She bit her lip to silence her answer as the short man came into the tent.

“Shakir,” Gabriel said, still in Frankish, “Melisande has injured her arm.” He looked past Shakir to her. Again she could not read the emotions searing her from his eyes, but she understood the command he did not speak.

“A sword glanced off it in Abd al Qadir's village,” she said in a tight whisper. “I have bound it. It should heal.”

Shakir muttered something as he crossed the tent. She was amazed that his hands were gentle when he took her arm and examined it. His voice was far from gentle when he growled, “This will never heal like this. You
are fools.” He smiled at Gabriel. “You can see that for yourself.”

“Shakir, tend to this while I tend to”—he glanced at Melisande with the same hooded expression—“while I tend to other matters.”

She started to stand, then shrank back as her aching arm brushed one of the pillows. Gabriel did not look at her again as he walked through the low door. Shakir followed, then returned with a gray bag. He opened it and drew out a pair of jars. From one he poured water. He dabbed at the cut in her arm. When she took a deep breath to swallow her moan, he frowned. Did he want her to shriek with agony? She held her breath again when he dipped his fingers into a salve in the other jar. He lathered it generously over the cleansed skin.

A coolness flowed out from it, diminishing the fire that had burned there since the sword had sliced through her sleeve. As he wrapped it in clean cloths, she asked, “Are you a healer?”

He gave a derisive laugh. “No.”

“But this salve is—”

“A miracle?”

She flushed, knowing he had heard her amazement with the glass-and-leather tube that let her see such distant things. “I wish only to learn.”

“So you can share our knowledge with the
?” He closed the bag and stood. “You need be in no hurry to gather all our learning to take back to your allies, milady.”

“I shall not remain a prisoner.”

“You will until your father sends the ransom the
shall demand of him.”

BOOK: No Price Too High
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