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** Extrait offert par Kinley MacGregor **

Adara spent the night in Corryn’s tent, far away from her husband who might wish to exercise his marital rights. Truly, it was the last thing she wanted.

So she and Corryn had spent an interesting night getting to know each other. She’d been more than a little dismayed when the young woman had confided her gender to her.

She couldn’t believe she’d been fooled so easily. But then Corryn wasn’t the most feminine of women. Still, she was kind and amusing, and Adara liked her a great deal.

They had arisen early and broken their fast, then set about packing up Corryn’s tent while the men in the camp did the same.

“Don’t lift that,” Corryn said as she rushed to Adara’s side to stop her from moving one of the arcs by her cot. “We’ll make Ioan do it.” She winked at her.

Adara laughed. “You enjoy abusing your brother, don’t you?”

Corryn shrugged. “All women need a man to lovingly abuse and I’m lucky to have a whole camp full of them. It keeps them on their toes.”

She handed Adara a large, leather-bound book. “If you would like something to do, Majesty. Please carry this to Ioan in his tent. ‘Tis a list of the men and their pay and he gets rather upset if I keep it too long.”

Adara studied the thick ledger. “Why do you have it?”

“I was adding new names to it. We picked up three new archers while we were here. Ioan is in charge of his knights while I oversee the rest.”

That made sense to her.

A bit apprehensive about the prospect of seeing her husband again, Adara left Corryn’s tent to cross the way to Ioan’s.

She expected to see Christian or Ioan in the tent, but neither was there. Frowning, she went to the bed where she found Christian’s robe discarded.

Was he walking about naked?

Surely not. But what else did he have to wear? She’d never seen her husband in anything but his monk’s garb. Could something have happened to him? Surely the Sesari hadn’t found them.

Placing the ledger on Ioan’s desk, she left the tent in search of him.

She found Phantom and Ioan who were helping to load a wagon of weaponry. “Have you seen Christian?” she asked them.

“Last I saw he was in the tent with the physician,” Phantom said.

“Is anything amiss?” Ioan asked after he loaded one large trunk.

“Nay. He wasn’t in the bed. I was but curious.” She looked around the men and noticed that Lutian had vanished as well. “Have you seen my fool?”

“I already said I know not where Christian is,” Phantom said.

Adara gave him a droll stare.

“Oh,” Phantom teased, “you meant Lutian. The other fool who does your bidding.”

“Aye.”

Ioan laughed at them. “I sent him off to aid in packing the spare tack, my lady.”

“Thank you, Ioan.”

Adara left them to find Lutian, but he wasn’t with the others who were packing the tack and none could tell her where he’d gone.

A bad feeling went through her. Surely Lutian hadn’t challenged Christian. Had he? Her mind ran away with ideas of her friend doing something profoundly dangerous where Christian was concerned.

“Oh please, Lutian, please don’t get yourself killed.”

###

“I’m going to kill you for this, Lutian,” Christian snarled as he looked at himself in the polished steel mirror. His face was clean-shaven, his hair trimmed and styled by a hired razor. Good God, he’d even allowed the man to curl his hair and for what?

He looked like a stranger.

“You asked me what she wanted, my lord, and that is what she dreams of.”

Christian grimaced at his reflection as he stroked his smooth and oiled cheeks. He looked like a bloody woman. How could any female find this attractive?

Sighing, he got up and paid the man who had shaved him.

He felt like a complete and utter ass and he still wasn’t sure why he was doing this to please a woman he’d only just met. A woman he had inadvertently made cry.

He’d bathed in scented water, had bought a new mail hauberk, gloves and horse. He’d even dragged out his court clothes which he hadn’t worn since Stryder’s wedding.

“Have you memorized the poetry yet?” Lutian asked as they left the small shop.

“Of course I have.” Sentimental slop that it was. The entire piece was an ode to a woman’s beauty. “You are certain that this is what a prince does?”

“Aye. All women dream of a golden knight who plies them with gifts and words of beauty.”

Christian reached up to brush his hand through his hair only to have Lutian slap his hand away. He glowered at the fool.

“It has taken us hours to make you presentable, my prince. Don’t undo it on a whim.”

Christian tightened his grip on his sword as he fought an urge to pull it out and skewer the man. This had best please Adara or he would indeed skewer him.

A group of women watched him as they passed by, then burst into giggles as they stared at him with lust in their eyes.

Christian smiled devilishly.

Mayhap he didn’t look so imbecilic after all. But he wouldn’t bet his life or his soul upon it. He only hoped his wife appreciated his efforts. If not, her fool would be hanged by nightfall.

###

“Oh saints preserve me. Who is that fine specimen of manhood? I know he’s not one of ours. But with any luck, that might change.”

Adara turned at the sound of Corryn’s lust-filled words to see a knight riding down the pathway between the tents. She couldn’t see his face, but the setting sun glinted off his form, making him appear to be golden fair, like an angel with a halo.

His stallion was white with a black and gold drape that matched the surcoat of the knight on his back. A golden rampant phoenix was embroidered on his chest and painted on the black shield that hung from his saddle. He carried a rippling black banner embroidered with the same symbol in his hand. He posed a fearsome sight.

Adara furrowed her brow as she continued to watch him. She knew those arms, but couldn’t remember where she had seen them before.

“I’ll be buggered,” an older knight said from her right as he paused his own packing. “I haven’t seen the arms of Michel de Chelrienne in years.”

“Michel de Chelrienne?” Adara asked.

“Christian’s father,” Corryn answered as she cast a new look to the knight. “His father was the son of the duc there.”

Adara felt her jaw go slack as she turned back to look more closely at the approaching warrior. That was her husband?

Mercy, the man needed to discard his monk’s robes more often.

She didn’t fully believe it until he reined his horse before her and his blue eyes seared her with heat. She’d known her husband was a handsome man, but this…

This was unbelievable.

He buried his banner into the ground beside his horse. His gaze never wavering from hers, he slung one long, well muscled leg over his steed before he slid to the ground. She didn’t move as he approached her. She couldn’t. The sight of him had her completely riveted to this spot on the ground.

Adara wasn’t sure what he had planned, but when he dropped to his knee before her, she was dumbfounded.

He struck himself on his left shoulder with his fist as a salute to her, then bowed his head. “My sword is ever at your disposal, my lady.”

Laughter rang out from the men around her.

“As is mine,” someone called out.

Christian ignored them as he looked up at her like something out of her dreams. The moment seemed surreal. Truly, it was a fantasy come to life.

“What has possessed you, Christian?” she asked.

“Your beauty. It has…” he paused as if searching for the words. “Your great beauty has possessed my soul and…”

More laughter and taunts rang out.

Her husband’s eyes flashed angrily, but still he stayed there. “I would be your champion, Adara, and–”

“Simpering milksop,” one of the knights finished for him.

Christian dropped his head and shook it. “This is not who or what I am,” he muttered before he looked up at her again. “I’m sorry, Adara.”

“For what?”

His answer came as he rose to his feet. With a determined stride, he went to the men who had been tormenting him. He struck the first man he reached so hard that he was knocked off his feet, to the ground.

“Milksop with an iron fist,” he snarled. “And you’d best remember that.”

The knights attacked. Even wounded, Christian fought them off, then drew his sword to keep them back.

“Cease!” Ioan’s Welsh accent cut through them all. He pushed his way through his men to see Christian in his finery. Ioan looked at him, blinked, then burst out laughing. “Abbot? Since when do you dress like a woman?”

His expression stone, Christian tossed his sword into the air where it twirled around. He caught the hilt upside down in his fist and in one smooth motion sheathed it.

He paused beside Ioan and glared at him. “Be glad I carried you out of the Holy Land on my back. That fact, and that alone, is all that precludes me from hurting you. For both our sakes, don’t try my patience and make me kill you after such a sacrifice.”

Ioan’s eyes twinkled in merriment. He leaned forward and sniffed. “My God, you even smile like one. What happened to you?”

Christian let out a tired breath and headed for the tent they had pitched for him.

Phantom tsked in her ear as soon as Christian was out of his hearing range. “Only a woman can make a man sacrifice his dignity on the altar of humility. Tell me, Adara, did Christian just sacrifice his for naught?”

Nay, he didn’t.

Adara did something she hadn’t done since she was a child. She ran toward his tent, then drew up short as she saw Christian angrily unbuckling his sword and tossing it to the cot. The anger from his was tangible.

“Bloody damn fool,” he growled under his breath. “I should have known better.”

“Was that for my benefit?”

He turned sharply to face her and grimaced. “Well, I most certainly wasn’t trying to turn Ioan’s head in my direction, now was I?”

She squelched her smile at his dour words. “I surely hope not. If you were, I would say it didn’t turn out well.”

Her words didn’t seem to have the lightening effect on his mood that she had hoped. If anything he appeared even angrier. “I’ve been mocked enough this day, Adara. If you wish to laugh at me, then join the others outside of my hearing.”

She approached him slowly. “I’m not mocking you, Christian. I think you look noble. Kingly.” She reached up to cup his smooth cheek. “You even shaved.”

Christian held his breath as she stood up on her tiptoes and placed a chaste kiss to his cheek. Her warm lips were softer than silk and they made his skin burn, especially as he recalled even softer areas of her body. Her breath caressed his flesh as she nuzzled her cheek to his. The tenderest of chills went through him.

“I think you smell wonderfully manly. I could inhale you all day.”

He hardened at her words and fought the urge to crush her in his arms and make love to her again. “I’m not the man you dreamed of, Adara. I am coarse and used to doing for myself. I know nothing of royal manners or decorum or even how to dance. I have spent my entire life either confined in cells in the company of men or on the battlefield. I’m not the cultured knight my father was. In truth, I feel like some sort of pretender in his clothes. How can a man such as I ever be king or husband?”

Those words set her heart to pounding as she pulled away. “I can teach you anything you need to know about royal etiquette. ‘Tis far simpler than swordplay or battle strategy.”

Christian was captivated by her dark gaze, by the flecks of gold in her eyes as she stared up at him with an adoring gaze that somehow erased all the embarrassment he’d suffered outside. He laid his hand against her cheek so that he could feel more of her softness. “I thought you would hate me after I hurt you.”

“I was confused by it, but then Lutian told me that when a man knows what he’s doing–”

He cringed and cursed at her words. “You spoke to Lutian about it?”

“Was that wrong?”

“My humiliation knows no boundaries.”

“You are overreacting, Christian. Lutian explained that it is oft times painful for a woman her first time, but that afterwards it is better.”

Christian wanted to kill both her and Lutian over this. “You shouldn’t be speaking to another man about such matters! ‘Tis indecent.”

That set her temper off. “Don’t you dare call me indecent. I have done nothing wrong.”

Aye, but she had. “You have unmanned me before your fool and I have unmanned myself before the rest. I should have known better.” Cursing, he snatched his surcoat off and would have burned it if it hadn’t belonged to his father. “I shall never dress like this again,” he snarled under his breath.

“Why did you dress yourself like this?”

“Because, I…” Christian stopped himself before he told her the answer. It would serve no other purpose than to give her and Lutian more room to mock him.

“Because why?”

“Just leave me.”

“Nay, not until you answer.”

He turned to leave only to have her block his way. “I will not allow you to flee until you answer me.”

“I will give you no more reason to mock me.”

“I don’t want a reason to mock you, Christian. I want a reason to love you.”

Christian went ramrod stiff at that. His heart leapt at her words that both terrified and elated him. “You don’t want love. You want a king. You said it yourself.”

“Everyone wants love, Christian, especially those of us who have never had it. Have you ever loved anyone?”

He glanced away from her as he shook his head nay.

“I have,” she whispered tenderly as she reached out to run her hand along his arm. “He was a little boy with a generous smile who laughed with my brother as they ran in play. Since that day I have dreamed of having a house full of golden-haired children who aren’t afraid of me while I’ve been tormented with dreams of them one day trying to kill me in my sleep. I, too, am scared of marriage. I’m scared of being used. But I am willing to accept you, my lord. To trust that you won’t kill me or imprison me.”

Her words tore through him. She was laying herself bare to him and it made him ache. “It seems to me, Adara, that you and I are both haunted by the same image.”

“And that is?”

“My parents’ love.”

“Aye,” she whispered. “They were beautiful together. I never knew anyone could be so happy as they were together and with you. I always yearned for my father to look at me just once the way your father looked at you, with pride and love shining in his eyes. For my mother to brush her hand through my hair and kiss my cheek as your mother did you.”

No one had ever loved him since. There had never been another tender touch or words of praise.

In truth he missed it more than he ever allowed himself to admit.

“Let me love you, Christian. Let me give you the comfort of home and wife.”

“Why do you wish to give me that?”

“Because I know that you are capable of the same love that your parents shared. The little boy in my palace glowed from the fire of it and I know that it still exists somewhere inside you.”

He met her gaze levelly and hoped he could make her understand the truth of him. “That boy died a long time ago, Adara. They locked him inside a cold, dismal hell that extinguished that light. He is barren now. The embers are long dead. There is nothing left to spark that flame. Nothing.”

She gestured toward the cot where his surcoat lay. “Then why has that man forsaken his robes for his father’s finery to please the bride he denies?”

“Because he is trying to atone for what he did to you.” He locked gazes with her. “I don’t want love, Adara. I don’t. Ever. What I had with my parents was paradise and I loved the life we had together. It has haunted me every day of my life. I still remember when they left me at the monastery. They promised that they would only be gone until morning and they never returned. In the blink of an eye, everything I knew, everything I had was stolen from me and I was cast out into a cold hell where there was nothing for me but pain.”

He looked away as he let the pain of that moment wash through him anew. “I don’t ever want to hurt that badly again. All I suffered at the hands of the monks, at the hands of my enemy was nothing compared to the way my heart shriveled and died with them. I will not allow anything to hurt me like that again. You yearn to have what you have never known, but take my word for it, you are far better off not knowing the beauty and then the horror. I refuse to lose something like that again. Do you understand?”

Adara’s throat tightened in sympathetic agony for him. “You would deny yourself love because you’re afraid of being hurt?”

“Nay. I deny myself nothing but more pain to be had. I am tired of hurting and of grieving. I only want peace from my past.”

Adara placed her hand to his lips. “Let me inside you, Christian and I will give you the peace you crave.”

He shook his head before he stepped back, away from her touch and donned his monk’s robe. “I took your virginity and your choice. For that I am sorry. I will try and be a good king for you, but I will never allow you to love me, Adara. Nor will I ever love you.”

And with that, he turned and left the tent.

Adara wanted to scream out in frustration. She went to the opening and watched as he made his way through the men who had returned to work.

A few cast an amused look to him which his grimace and growl effectively quelled.

Without looking back, he seized his banner and jerked it from the ground. And as he did so, a realization came to her. He had agreed to stay and be her husband, but not to love her.

Adara’s mind raced with that. He had budged a little in their war.

Smiling, she watched as he headed for Ioan’s tent. “I’m going to make you love me, Christian of Acre. Mark my words and heed them well.”

She wasn’t sure how. Not yet. But someway she was going to find the way into his heart and make it beat for her.

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