Off the coast of Cyprus
April 12, 1191
Liam MacEgan hated ships. Though he’d spent many years of his life exploring the waters of his native Ã‰ireann, being trapped aboard a wooden vessel for months was somewhere between purgatory and hellfire.
It was your idea to go on Crusade, he reminded himself. He’d believed he was embarking on an adventure, to see the Holy Land and fight to free Jerusalem. His family had been firmly opposed to it. His father, King Patrick of Laochre, had demanded that he face his responsibilities as a future provincial king.
But he’d needed an escape from his homeland. He’d grown up listening to the stories of distant lands, told to him by his uncle Trahern. He longed to see the glittering foreign cities and taste new foods. He needed this last chance to see the worlds that were forbidden to him . . . to feel the sting of desert sand against his face . . . to learn the secrets of exotic women.
And so, defying his family’s wishes, he’d slipped out one night and arranged passage to France, to join in the service of the King Richard, Coeur de Lion.
Liam stared out at the fierce blue of the Mediterranean, and a bittersweet tang of homesickness caught him. The sky was a dark gray, and clouds rolled in the distance. He was dimly aware of a woman moving along the side of the boat, just behind the oarsmen. Her long dark hair was covered by a veil, but the length of it stirred in the sea winds.
Adriana, daughter of the Vicomte de Manzano, was one of the Princess Berengaria’s ladies. She was a dark beauty, with olive skin and raven hair. Her hands curved over the wood of the ship, and she turned back to stare at the waves.
He wanted to go and talk to her, but he sensed it would be an intrusion of her time alone. Her eyes lifted to the darkening skies, as though she were afraid.
Instinct made him glance behind him, and he spied the Count of Berduria staring at the young woman. The unrestrained lust on his face made Liam cross over to Lady Adriana’s side. Though she shied away from him, he said in a low voice, “Don’t be afraid. I came to offer my protection, not to disturb you.”
When she sent him a confused look, he added, “The Count is watching.” At that, Lady Adriana settled her gaze back upon the sea. Liam wasn’t certain whether or not she wanted him to stay. “Would you rather I left you alone with him?”
“Stay,” she whispered. “Unless your intent is the same as his.” She shivered in the wind, rubbing her shoulders. Liam unfastened his cloak and settled it around her shoulders. It was meant to offer her warmth, but it also sent an unmistakable message to the Count.
She pulled the cloak around her. “You’re one of King Richard’s men, aren’t you?”
“I chose to fight at his side, aye. But I am not his vassal.” He refrained from mentioning anything further, not wanting to admit his own rank. During this journey, he’d told no one that he was an Irish prince, save King Richard. He wanted to experience life as a common man, as a soldier. It had meant giving up the luxuries he’d come to enjoy, but in return, he’d seen a side of life that his family had tried to protect him from.
“Has King Richard spoken of the princess?” Adriana asked. “My lady Berengaria worries that he seems so . . . distant, ever since the new betrothal.”
Liam shrugged. “His Majesty is preoccupied with the journey to the Holy Land. He’s eager to fight for Jerusalem.”
“What of the Princess Alys? He broke his betrothal to her only a few months ago. Does he desire to reconcile-”
“Given that his father took Alys as his mistress and she bore him a daughter, rest assured, King Richard had little desire to take her to wife.” Liam sent her a sidelong glance. “Berengaria didn’t tell you?”
Adriana shook her head. “She didn’t know. Queen Eleanor never spoke of why the betrothal was broken, but it was she who brought Berengaria to become the King’s bride.”
“And what of you?” Liam asked. “You intend to travel wherever the Princess wishes to go? Even to the Holy Land?”
She nodded. “She has no choice, any more than I do.” The young woman clasped her hands together.
“You could marry or return to your family,” he suggested. “Jerusalem is dangerous for a woman.”
“Not for me.”
He stared at her, and she sent him a confident smile. “I have four brothers. I know ways to protect myself.”
“How?” He moved closer, until his knee brushed the edge of her silk gown.
The tip of a knife touched the soft skin above his throat. “Like this.” Adriana’s dark brown eyes were dancing with amusement. “You wouldn’t be likely to harm me now, would you?” She removed the blade and offered it back to him.
Son of Belenus, it was his own blade. She’d somehow stolen it from his belt without him even sensing her.
“How did you do that?”
Her face transformed with a knowing smile. “You should know better than to underestimate a stranger. I am one of the princess’s guards, just as you protect His Majesty.”
It was rare for a woman to surprise him, but he found himself fascinated by Adriana. Her full mouth drew his attention, and her scent reminded him of aromatic spices, like a heady mulled wine.
“Men are often distracted by a woman,” she said. “Just as you were.”
“You are a distraction,” he agreed. Her expression shifted, and he saw the wariness in her eyes. She wanted nothing from him; that much was evident.
Stepping back, he asked, “What if your enemy overpowered you? Your strength would be no match for an attacker’s.”
“I rely on myself. And I protect the princess when there is need of my blade.” She squared her shoulders and removed his cloak. “Take this back. You’ll be cold.”
“It’s far colder than this in my homeland. I’m accustomed to it.” He nodded toward the aft side of the ship. “Are you wanting me to escort you back to the princess?”
“Not yet.” Lady Adriana took a deep breath. “She gave me leave to do as I please for the next hour. I’ll go back soon enough.” She donned his cloak once more, and the wind buffeted the sails, the sky turning ominous. Within minutes, the rain began to fall. The change in the weather was enough to send the Count away from his pursuit. The Lady lifted her face to the droplets, smiling wryly. “Isn’t it my ill luck to have rain during the only moments of freedom I’ve had?”
Liam ignored the rain and studied the waves. The sea water reflected the gray skies, and as they continued eastward, the waves were rising. “You should go below, a chara. The storm is going to get worse.” Already the oarsmen were fighting the winds, their arms straining to keep control of the ship.
As if in response to his warning, the vessel lurched, and Adriana went flying. Liam caught her before her head could hit the deck, and he steadied her on her feet. “Are you all right?” She nodded, but he kept her hands at her waist for balance. “You need to go back to the princess. I wouldn’t want you to be swept overboard.”
Her face had gone pale, and she glanced out at the waves. “How far are we from land?”
“Don’t think about that now.” Aye, it was likely that if the ship capsized, they might drown. Liam was a fair enough swimmer, but it was spring and the water would be uncomfortably cold.
Adriana removed his cloak and handed it to him. “Take me back to the princess.” Liam donned the garment and walked behind her as she returned to the princess’s tiny chamber.
“Stay with Her Royal Highness,” Liam said. “And tell her not to be afraid.” Even as he spoke the words, he knew they were unconvincing. He was struggling to remain on his feet, and when the ship tossed again, Adriana struck the wall hard.
She rubbed her shoulders, wincing at the pain. “I’ll be all right,” she said, before he could ask. “But promise me something.”
Liam rested his hand against the wall for balance. Adriana stood only inches away, her dark hair resting over the shoulder of her crimson gown. He waited for her to speak, though his gaze was caught by her lips and soft skin.
“If the ship is going to sink, I want to know. We may lose the king’s treasure for the Crusade, but I don’t want him to lose his bride.” She knew, as he did, that this ship was one of two that held the king’s gold and treasure to fund the Crusade.
“If the storm seizes the ship, I’ll do what I can to help the sailors,” he said.
Adriana lowered her head in a silent nod. “What is your name?”
She studied him, and her expression held doubt. “You’re not like the other men I’ve seen aboard this ship.”
“You don’t behave as though you serve the king. You carry yourself like an equal.”
“Perhaps I am his equal,” he said in a low voice.
Though her gaze said she didn’t quite believe him, there was enough hesitancy in her face to suggest that she knew he was not as he seemed to be.
“I’ll come for you if the storm worsens,” he promised. Lifting her gloved hand, he pressed his mouth upon it. “Guard your princess. And I’ll guard you.”
But the worry didn’t dim in her eyes. If the storm worsened, as he suspected it would, there was a very real chance that all of them would die.
From the story “Lionheart’s Bride”
Copyright Â© 2011 by Michelle Willingham
Â® and â„¢ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information go to: http://www.eHarlequin.com/