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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

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BOOK: No Price Too High
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Shaykh
?” She recognized that title which was revered as highly here as her father's was in England.

Shakir laughed again. “You didn't think Gabriel de la Rive was a hill bandit, too, did you?”

“De la Rive?” she gasped. “That's a Frankish name!”

“Yes, it is.” He paused by the door. “He knows the ways of the
Franj
well, so do not expect that you can baffle him.”

“But I don't understand.” She struggled to her feet again, ignoring the resurgence of pain along her arm. “If he is a Frank, what is he doing here?”

“The
shaykh
protects the people of these hills as his father did before him.” He pushed aside the flap. “Just now, he rides to return to them what the bandits stole.”

Although she wanted to find out more about Gabriel's kindness to those who looked to him for protection, only one question emerged from her lips. “But if he is a
Franj
, then why—”

He did not let her finish. “The blood of the
Franj
may be within him, but this land alone holds his heart.” He turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder. “Forget that, milady, and he may decide you are not worth any amount of ransom. Then you will die.”

The hours passed with dreadful monotony as they rode across the never-changing plains. Melisande grew numb with an ache that reached to the depths of her bones. With every step of the horse, she rocked as if her head had become too heavy. Her eyes burned with exhaustion, for sleep had been impossible last night. How could she sleep when Shakir's words echoed in her head like a screech against the cliffs? Gabriel was a
Franj
. Gabriel de la Rive was a
shaykh
. How could he be both? She might have asked him today, but he had silenced her each time she tried to speak.

She closed her eyes. Memories of sunlit summer escapades on the grasslands beyond the manor house at Heathwyre and along the strand took on the tempo of the hoofbeats on the rocks. In her memories, Geoffrey was alive as he chased her to pelt her with sand. It was a simpler time when vows of love and honor were not something to be taken lightly.

The horse halted, and Gabriel's arm tightened around her. His other hand pointed at a hint of green shimmering in the distance. “There is our destination.”

“An oasis?”

“A paradise on earth. We will be there within the hour.”

Melisande's sleepiness vanished. Between them and the greenery was a mountain ridge as sharp as a knight's sword. It would take hours to traverse it. She sighed. “An hour? That is impossible!”

He smiled. “Don't sound so assured when you have yet to learn the secrets of this land.”

She glared at him, but he continued to smile. She did not retort. Every time she opened her mouth, he reminded her of her ignorance.

He led the way down a treacherous path to the base of the ridge. More than once, the horse's hoofs slipped. When Gabriel's arm moved, she clutched it.

“Hold tight,” he ordered. “I need both hands to guide
Shetan
.”

She locked her hands behind his shoulders. When he winced, she asked, “Is there something wrong?”

He did not reply as he guided
Shetan
on the path between serrated spires of rock. She gazed at the waterless riverbed below them. Whether water or wind had sculptured it into these dead eddies was impossible to guess. The desert solitude had swallowed that answer as it had so many others.

As it would Melisande of Heathwyre.

When Gabriel turned his horse toward the cliff face, she saw a cut through the rocks. It was so well-hidden, only the most observant eye could find it.

“As I said, Melisande, nothing is impossible here.”

“If this is the only way in, you have a nearly impenetrable stronghold.” She did not hide her admiration.

“Exactly.” Pride glowed in his voice. “Shall we?”

She did not bother to answer, for he already had given the command to enter. The narrow tunnel was barely tall and wide enough to accommodate a horse and rider. When Gabriel held her securely against him, she did not protest, fearful any sound louder than the horses' hoofs might send the mountain crashing down upon them. Only the wind whistling through the opening and singing in the crevices intruded.

On and on and on, they rode. Scanning the rocks, she wondered how long it had taken to carve out this tunnel. An army of men could work a lifetime and not complete it. It became darker as they left the sun behind, but just as she feared they would lose the light totally, she could see a brightness in front of them.

When they neared the exit, she stared. After days of traveling through the wastes, this beauty caressed her senses. Palm fronds rustled overhead and smaller plants clustered in their sparse shadow.

“How is this possible?” she asked.

Gabriel pushed his cloak back over his shoulders and took a deep breath. “A spring rises within these mountains. It gives life to this valley.”

“How did you find it?”

His eyes twinkled. “It found me. I was born here.”

“But your name is Frankish.”

“Your questions will be answered, milady, but not now.”

“Why not now?” She could imagine no reason why he would not be honest with her about this.

He put his hand on her head. “Beware, milady.”

Melisande saw the roof dropped toward the exit. She tried to make herself small against him as he bent over her. The heat from his robes and the scent of his skin was intoxicating. She must not succumb to its forbidden pleasure. She was his captive. That she must always remember.

As they rode out of the tunnel and beneath the palms, the men began to talk, their voices light with the pleasure of homecoming. Home. Heathwyre was home, and she wondered when she would ever see its craggy walls again. The leas and greenwoods were nothing like this alien place.

The stone walls in front of her here would be her prison. There were no breaks in the walls except for arrow slots high in the towers guarding the corners. It resembled the forbidding face of her father's manor, and longing for Heathwyre washed over her anew.

The gateway was open, its portcullis raised to allow them underneath its mighty teeth. Within, as she had expected, was the world belonging to Gabriel de la Rive.

Gabriel did not pause in the outer courtyard. He gave orders to his men, then rode into another courtyard. A heavy door clanged shut behind them. Even before the echo vanished, he lowered her to the ground.

“Wait here.” He swung down and went to an oddly shaped door that resembled a pointed arch. She put her hand against her sore arm. The pain was returning after the long ride which had been broken by stops in several villages. They all had looked like the one where Abd al Qadir had hidden. In each, Gabriel had been welcomed with cheers and pledges of fealty. The people had bowed deeply, but greeted him with warmth.

A dark form emerged from the door, then fell to the stones, arms outstretched in obedience. Gabriel looked from the person in black to her. Melisande arched her brow. If he thought she would ever show him such subservience, he was mistaken. He motioned, and the veiled woman stood. Holding out his hand, he turned to Melisande.

Her fingers rose to settle on his before she could halt them. As he gathered them within his broader fingers, she became lost once more in the ebony firestorm in his eyes. He drew her into the shadows by the door. Slowly he loosened the dusty fabric that stretched across her face. No sound intruded as she waited for him to speak. When he did, they would be enemies once more. But, for this second stolen from time, they were … something else.

“Go with Zenobia, milady,” he said, pointing to the woman, who held out a gnarled hand.

“Is she my jailor?”

“Jailor?” Gabriel's fingers slipped beneath the fabric to stroke her hair. “No, she isn't your jailor. She will escort you to those who can help you recover from your travels and find you clean clothes. In the
harim
—”


Harim
?” She jerked her hand out of his. “Are you mad? I am not going to be a part of your private brothel. I am an earl's daughter, not a concubine.”

“You would prefer a prison cell?” His hand edged around her head as he brought her face back toward him.

“If that is my only other choice.”

He continued to stare at her as he spoke a few words to the woman, who nodded and scurried away. In Frankish, he added, “I have never met a woman as stubborn as you, milady.”

“You would not toss another Hospitaller into your
harim
.”

A smile played on his lips. “No.” His brows lowered. “But I also might not have suffered another Hospitaller to live long enough to come here.”

She tried to step away, but he halted her. “Release me. I am your prisoner. Nothing else.”

“No one else I have encountered has been so eager to be banished to a prison cell.” He arched a brow. “You are an endless surprise.”

“Mayhap you would not be surprised if you would offer me the respect that you would my fellow Crusaders.”

His countenance hardened. “For them, I have no respect.” Before she could answer, he motioned toward the door. “Welcome to my house, milady.”

Melisande hesitated. “I said I would not go into your
harim
.”

“And I will not give the rats a treat by putting you in a cell deep in the mountain where the sun never reaches.” His bow was as graceful as all his motions. “Milady, if you please.”

She wanted to whirl away and snatch a horse and ride hard and without a stop until she reached Tyre. That city which had seemed so strange now offered the only connection she had with the world she had known.

When she stepped through the door, cool draped over her like a welcome shower after a drought. She stared at the tiles on the walls. They were as intricate as one of the tapestries hanging in Heathwyre, but in patterns that led her eye from one section to the next. Reaching up, she started to draw back the
tcharchaf
so it did not droop over her eyes.

Gabriel's hand halted her. “Not here in the hallway, milady.”

“This is absurd.”

“It is one of the rules you must obey.”

“Are there many others?”

“Following the rules of
Mukhdarr
will make your stay here more pleasant.”

“The rules of whom?”

He chuckled. “
Mukhdarr
is the name of my home. It means covered with greenery.” He opened a door. “As you will see if you enter here.”

“What's in there?”

“Your rooms, if you will accept them.”

Melisande inched toward the door and peered in. Her breath caught as she stared at the light-green silken curtains fluttering in a breeze that must have come from another door beyond them. A pair of simple chairs were on either side of a table set next to a bed that was draped in the same silk. Through the billowing silk, she saw sunshine and the muted shapes of bushes. There must be a garden on its far side.

“Do you think it will be satisfactory for the daughter of an earl, milady?”

Heat struck her face, but not from the desert sun. She should have been embarrassed that she had spoken so rudely when she had demanded respect from him. In a near whisper, she said, “It is quite satisfactory.”

“Then I leave you to rest from your long journey.”

She went into the room, then paused, her hand on the door. “Will we meet again before my father sends my ransom?”

“Ransom?”

“Shakir spoke of it to me.”

He nodded, but lines of his face grew taut. “It appears that Shakir spoke of many things to you that I would wish he had not. Why do you ask, Melisande?”

“If we aren't to meet again, I wish to thank you now for your kindnesses.”

“We shall meet again.” He smiled with a warmth which made her glad, for once, that she wore the concealing cloak. Her lips wanted to turn up in response to his eyes' sparkling enticement.

She turned away and closed the door. Leaning back against it, she knew her greatest danger might lie ahead of her, hidden in Gabriel's smile.

SIX

Melisande walked slowly away from the door and ran her fingers along the silk drapes surrounding the bed. How foolish she had been! Until Father sent to England for the gold to buy her release, which could take more than a year, she would be Gabriel's prisoner. By the time she was free, the Hospitallers and their allies might have taken Jerusalem or been swept back into the sea.

Hearing soft sounds, she went to the drapes that were dancing in the breeze that seemed more balmy when she was not soaked with sunlight. Her eyes widened as she drew them aside. She had not expected to see so many lush flowers and trees in this land where so little grew. Staring at the incredible crimson of a clump of anemone, she listened to the singing fountains.

She froze when she heard voices. Shrill voices and a child's cry. Stepping around the bushes, she discovered an opulence beyond her imagination. Women of all ages lounged on pillows on both floors of a building that curved around the lake set in the middle of the grand courtyard. More sat on an island at its center. Ostrich-feather fans were wafted over the women who wore a strange assortment of loose robes or short jackets and long breeches. None of them was veiled. Children played among the flowers.

“No!” she choked, backing away. The hangings tangled around her. She fought them. Material ripped as she freed herself.

Gabriel had promised he would not send her to his
harim
. He had promised! She had not thought he would break a vow so casually.

She tugged on the door. It refused to open. She pounded on the raised panels. “Let me out! Someone come and let me out!”

Laughter from behind her halted her. Turning, she saw the women staring at her as if she were the queerest creature they had ever seen. When a child pointed to Melisande's braids and shrieked, she realized every woman in the garden had hair as dark as Gabriel's.

BOOK: No Price Too High
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