Nothing will defeat his love... Unjustly accused, four daring Crusaders have banded together in the Medieval Holy Land to clear their names and protect a kingdom in peril. With their unique gifts, the Brotherhood of Fallen Angels Abbey are prepared to face any challenge. But are they ready for love? It is not the first time Roman Berg has escaped death, and it will likely not be the last. There is a price on his head, and his tall Nordic bearing makes him stand out in Damascus. The skilled builder has witnessed the destruction of his life’s work at Chastellet and the murder of innocent victims. But there is no question of retreat; he cannot rest until he rescues his allies and warns King Baldwin of a murderous plot against him. And he may need help from an unexpected ally . . . Isra Tak’Ahn is an uncommon beauty. Part Egyptian and part English, she is as brave as she is alluring. Like Roman, she has been marked for death by her enemies and her vendetta is fiercely personal. Driven into hiding, Isra joins Roman at Fallen Angels Abbey. Within the walls of the centuries-old sanctuary on the Danube, they plan their daring return to Jerusalem—and discover that their greatest asset may be each other. But passion has no place in these dangerous times, and Roman and Isra must fight their feelings while the future of the kingdom hangs in the balance . . . Praise for Heather Grothaus’s Valentine “Readers will enjoy getting to know these characters and look forward to finding out more about Valentine’s three friends in future installments.”— Library Journal
Release date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 284
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He paused on the steep hillside, one knee cocked to brace his sandaled foot against the slope, his palm pressing the jagged gray bark of an ocher-tinged cedar. He tilted his face up at the faded sky peeking through the tallest branches already stripped by the autumn storms and listened. The cry sounded behind him and Roman turned, scanning the islands of blue within the dark sea of the canopy. A quad-pointed shadow swooped diagonally overhead, soaring toward the river. Roman pushed away from the cedar and sidestepped down the hill to follow the falcon.
The dried leaves scraped and poked his instep, twigs trying to wriggle between his toes. He held out his arms for balance as he leaped over a small outcropping of gray rock, his monk’s robe snapping taut with the motion. He was smiling, but that was not unusual. Weren’t all criminals as happy with their lot? Roman thought they should be.
He paused against another tree, directing his labored breaths through his nose in order to listen more closely. There! The tinkling of the bells tied to Lou’s leg sifted like ghostly music through the breeze. The hunting falcon had landed. Roman turned and set off to the east through the trees, more quietly this time. He directed his gaze to the treetops as he stepped slowly, carefully; he loved to watch Lou at the hunt.
But the rustling of leaves sounded suddenly out of time with his own footsteps, and Roman stopped. There it was again: something rolling in the underbrush. It sounded as though it were being made by a creature too large for even the noble Lou to pursue. A person, then? Few from the village would wander up from the riverbank to scale the steep slope below Melk, and he couldn’t think of any of the brethren besides himself who would have reason or desire to take such a laborious stroll.
Perhaps Stan at one time would have, but the general was different since his wife and son had been killed; he had no interest in much of anything anymore. Adrian was continually occupied with his studies and duties, faithfully observing the hours of prayer while Maisie tended a stall in the village. Valentine spent most of his hours gazing rapturously at Mary or little Valentina, nearly four months old now.
The rustling erupted again, loud and frantic and fast this time, and accompanied by what sounded to Roman like gasps for air. Had he heard a word in those breathy gulps? He felt his brow crease and he cocked his head, listening, watching, in much the same manner as Lou. He flinched at the short, shrill scream that filled the humid space between the trees.
It sounded like a woman.
Lou chose that moment to cry out, from the same direction in which the scream had come, and so Roman began walking once more, although not so quietly this time; he didn’t want to be accused of being a voyeur should he happen upon two young people from the village seeking the wood for a romantic interlude. He saw a flash of white through the tree trunks ahead, and Roman leaned and weaved, trying to discern its origin. The sliver of brightness stuttered rhythmically and was now accompanied by smacking and thumping sounds.
If Roman hadn’t known better, he would have thought perhaps someone was doing a very good job of taking a sound beating.
Lou cried again, and Roman’s eyes instinctively went up. He saw the hunting falcon perched on the spindly pinnacle of a dead oak tree, bobbing in the air, the faint sounds of his bells now recognizable behind the rustling below. Lou stretched out his wings as if he was preparing to swoop down on the unseen quarry, but then flapped himself back into place, clutching the tree in an agitated manner before crying out again.
Roman’s frown deepened and he headed toward the sounds. “Hello there,” he called out, adopting his Brother Roman persona—which really wasn’t much different from his true personality. “Peace be upon you.”
He weaved through the trees, and the white form ahead grew more clear. It was a person, bent over in the underbrush, but Roman couldn’t yet tell if it was a man or a woman.
“Have you lost someth—” The friendly query broke as Roman’s feet stopped and the figure ahead raised fully.
It was a dark-skinned man—Saracen dark—wearing the flowing costume of his homeland, white except for the bright red splatters adorning its front. His head was wrapped in a close, dark turban and the slender face below it held wild eyes, a mouth pulled wide in either pleasure or fury. The man’s hands—slick with blood—went to the sash tied around his robe, where a woven scabbard dangled. In a blink, the man had drawn a curved scimitar and pointed its angled tip in Roman’s direction.
“This is none of your concern,” he said with a thick accent. “Go back the way you came, lest you wish this day to end very badly for you.”
Roman got a cold feeling in his chest and took a step closer to the man, peering into the brush at his feet. “No need to threaten me so—what have you there?” His eyes caught sight of a swath of lavender-colored silk; at least, it had at one time been lavender. Now it was mottled with dirt and leaves and wide, wet patches of black.
The Saracen stepped between Roman and whatever lay in the scrub, holding his scimitar in both hands now. “I told you, come no farther. I will kill you.”
Roman held out a supplicating hand. “Listen here, now; I mean you no harm. As you can see, I am but a simple monk, and you seem to have found your way onto abbey land. I have no intention of robbing you, so if there is aught I can do to direct you in the way you mean to go, I—”
“Help,” a choked voice called from behind the Saracen, and Roman was certain it was a woman. “Help me.”
Roman frowned and glanced at the cloth-wrapped bundle again before returning his eyes to the dark man. “What exactly are you doing here?”
Before the Saracen could answer, the voice from the bundle called out again. This time, the plea made his blood freeze in his veins.
“Roman.” His name bubbled and cracked in her throat as she gasped.
The robed man cocked his arms so that his weapon was raised near his right ear. “I warned you twice, false priest. Now I shall send you to your judgment and lay up my own reward.”
Roman raised his palm higher. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Put down your blade and step away from the woman.”
The Saracen rushed forward, drawing back the scimitar even farther.
Roman’s vision seemed to tremble, his peripheral sight blacking out until only two tiny pinpricks of light were available to him, both showing the robed man who now seemed to be impossibly small, impossibly far away, and moving so slowly he might be a statue.
The sound of his own breath was a roar in his ears; his arms and legs felt as though they had shimmered away into nothing, leaving only the growl in his head and the tiny vision of the man before him, who meant to end his life. Who had meant to end the life of the woman still lying in the brush, somewhere beyond the terrible thunder that deafened him.
He might just as well be in the Damascene dungeon again.
There should be no Saracens at Melk. Melk was safe. His friends were safe. If they were discovered, Roman’s happy existence was over.
He couldn’t let that happen.
His vision and hearing came back with a whoosh and the Saracen was upon him now. But it didn’t matter, as his hands had already reached out, his arms moving, lifting, twisting, as if of their own accord. The sizzle of cold along his biceps was barely noticed, the crunching sound of bone nothing more than a flinch and a whisper.
And then the Saracen fell to the brush at his feet with a crash of leaves and moved no more. Roman looked down at the man over the heaving cowl covering his chest and then nudged him over with a sandaled foot. Dark eyes stared, unseeing, at the tree canopy.
Ahead, Lou screamed, and Roman looked up to find his falcon still observing the scene below. His attention was drawn by a wet sensation on his hand, and when Roman lifted his right arm, he saw the streams of blood threading from his fingertips. His eyes traveled up to his right biceps, where the brown wool of his habit was slashed open, revealing the gash that split his pale skin from shoulder to elbow.
“This is bad,” he mused aloud. He ripped off the remainder of his sleeve and tied it as best he could around his arm, using his teeth to pull tight the knot. The blood coursing down his forearm barely slowed.
Roman stepped to the bundle of lavender silk, which had not moved or spoken again. He knelt, feeling the slight wobble in his knees, and pulled away a bloodied swath of fabric. His heart seemed to stop beating in his chest.
It was indeed a woman, her face a puffy sea of swollen bruises and trickling blood. Her nose was likely broken, her lips split and crusted, her eyelids fat and prickled with starburst patterns Roman knew would rapidly spread in a deep indigo over her skin like oil on water. Her arm was bent awkwardly behind her body, her bare feet torn and scarred, poking out from beneath the ragged hem of her robes. Roman touched her cheek and she whimpered.
This was not just any woman.
If Roman had thought her injuries dire the first and only time they’d met on that fateful eve in Damascus, her condition now was so much worse. The Saracen had nearly beaten her to death, likely would have achieved that very goal had Roman been a moment or two later in happening upon them.
Had Lou not cried out and led Roman to her.
For all Roman knew, she might yet die, even should he take her to the abbey for care. She was dangerous to the Brotherhood. If she had found them, it meant others could be right behind her—others, like the man who had seemed intent on killing her. Were they from Saladin’s camp?
Or Glayer Felsteppe’s?
How had she gotten there, and what did she want?
“This is very bad,” he corrected his earlier assessment of the situation as Lou screamed again from his perch.
The woman on the ground had obviously been hunted, chased, tortured. The very woman who had saved his three friends’ lives and, in essence, joined the Brotherhood together, for good or ill. Would he now repay her by leaving her to die?
The ground seemed to spin beneath him, and Roman dared a glance at his arm; his brown wool sleeve was now black, glistening. The leaves beneath his sandals were splashed with his own blood. If he didn’t do something now, they might both die here in the wood.
He gathered the nearly weightless woman in his arms and stumbled up the hill toward the abbey, one name throbbing in his mind, keeping time with the sloshing, sluggish heartbeat in his ears.
Stan. Stan. He must reach Constantine.
It seemed to take an age to gain the top of the steep slope, and then another still to walk along the lengthy and windowless curtain wall. Roman stumbled around the corner, his sandals no longer able to clear even the meanest pebbles as he dragged his feet along, and at last he saw the tall winged statues guarding the gates. They seemed to meet, trade places, and then multiply before his eyes as the world began to slowly tilt. The woman’s arm had fallen from across her stomach and now dangled and flopped as he staggered toward the opening, too weak now to shout, too desperate to stop. His knees were bowing in response to the crazy tilt of the ground.
Constantine . . .
He made it as far as the gates before he was at last spotted. In a slow, slowing heartbeat, a flood of robed monks rushed toward him from garden beds and dooryards. Roman crashed to his knees as—thanks be to God—Constantine pushed his way to the crest of the wave and was the first to join Roman in the cold dirt of the bailey.
So stupid. He was so stupid. Now everyone would see. Everyone would know. Victor would worry.
“Roman,” Stan said, giving him a shake. “What happened?”
Roman tried to focus on his friend’s face. No one could find out about the Saracen. No one could find out about them.
“Body,” Roman whispered, his nose nearly touching Stan’s. “In the wood.”
His world went dark then, and the ground rushed toward him over the woman’s limp form. Even in the darkness, he could feel strong hands take him up, could hear Lou crying as he circled overhead.
Isra came into consciousness with a sob. She hurt so badly—her face, her head, her arm; her lungs felt as though they were being shredded with each shallow breath. She tried to writhe onto her side, but a pair of hands on her shoulders stayed her, pushed her back onto the mattress.
“You canna turn over. Lie still now.”
Isra wanted to open her eyes, see the woman who owned the strange accent and who smelled of flowers, but her lids were so swollen that trying her hardest only rewarded her with a sliver of indistinguishable light. Her head screamed in protest and so she closed her eyes again and managed a thin whimper.
“I’m certain you’re in a great deal of pain. Perhaps he’ll bring you a draught.”
Who? Isra wanted to say. Who are you? Where am I?
The gurgle of water being wrung into a basin filtered through the terrible agony in her head, and a moment later a heavy, icy cloth was pressed to her swollen, throbbing eyes. Isra tried to turn away, but her strength was as that of a newborn babe’s against the steely fingertips that held her temples. She thought her mind must be playing tricks on her, for she was certain she heard a beastly roar from beyond the walls of her prison; a chattering; birdsong.
“Shh. Stop that now. I’m trying to help you.”
Isra tried to lie very still while the frigid sodden cloth seemed to push her eyeballs to the back of her skull. The throbbing steadied, but her stomach roiled. She tried to swallow down the pressure in her throat, but her muscles would not obey, and she knew she would choke to death should she vomit.
She’d seen it before, after all.
And just like that, it all came back. Huda’s small, broken body, her dusky skin covered in blood-smeared bruise points that would never fade. The bile on the side of her face, drying in her hair, the smell of sweaty men and spicy incense and fear.
They’d left her on the floor like rubbish.
Isra began to weep silently, the slight heaving of her chest enough to set off the bright starbursts of pain once more, but they paled in comparison to the misery she felt in her heart.
Perhaps a door opened; somewhere behind her there was a sound like wood against stone and, for a brief moment, a cacophony of squawking and growls. Isra didn’t care enough to call out, to try to pull the now lukewarm cloth from her eyes to see who had come into the room. It didn’t matter. Huda was still dead, and she had failed. Perhaps her mind had only been playing tricks on her on the hillside; she hadn’t found Roman Berg and she never would. They would find her and kill her, if they hadn’t done so already.
The woman must have lifted the cloth herself and was now wiping at her eyes. Isra could feel the crust taking many of her lashes as it was scraped free, slicing into the tender flesh of the corners. Isra tried to turn away.
Let me be, she tried to say. Just let me die. But all that came out was a pathetic whine.
“Stop that, I said,” the woman snipped. “I’m nae accustomed to playing nursemaid, so if you wish any care at all, you’ll be still.” The steely fingertips came back to the crown of her head as the rag was applied to her face more briskly.
And then, as if the woman was indeed speaking to someone who had entered the room, “She’s only been awake for a few moments. I doona think she can speak verra well.”
“English or at all?” a man asked in a low, emotionless voice.
“It was nae language I’ve heard before.” The hands left Isra and she heard a splash, as if the rag had been tossed into the basin. “I’ve done all I’m willing for now. How is Roman?”
Isra’s head swiveled at the mention of that name, and she strained to open her eyes, fought to raise the arm that wasn’t pinned to her side.
“Oh-man,” she called out as the light again pierced the slivers allowed by her swollen lids. The attempt at his name was strangled and nasally, her nose was completely blocked, the syllables zinging in her bones.
“That enlivened her,” the man said. Isra heard the scrape of chair legs and fought to focus her eyes through the blinding light. “Can you hear me well enough?” he asked near her ear. She felt him take her hand in his, and the touch of his skin made her stomach roil again. “Squeeze my hand if you can understand me.”
“Very well. Now try to tell me your name.”
“No. I need to know who you are. What is your name?” The man repeated the question in Arabic.
She turned her head away from him in answer.
The man sighed and seemed to speak over Isra’s body. “Could I trouble you for a cup of water?”
“Great gods. I may as well take off me shoes and don a cap while I’m about it.”
A moment later, Isra’s head was raised and a cup pressed to her lips. The water just wet her tongue when it was withdrawn. She tried to open her mouth and follow the cup, but it was taken away. The man’s voice was very close to her face now.
“What. Is. Your. Name?” he demanded.
Isra tried to lick her cracked lips. “Roman.”
He leaned so close now, Isra could feel his breath on her ear. If his proximity was not enough to set her insides to trembling, the dark sincerity of his next words nearly caused her to retreat once more into unconsciousness.
“Hear me now, woman: We have perhaps saved your life. But if you do not tell me now who you are and why you have come to this place with that name on your lips, come nightfall, I will carry your body to the river myself.” He paused, and the scant space between them was filled with only his breath in his nostrils. His whisper chilled her. “I will stand on the shore and watch you drown.”
Isra’s heart trilled in her chest. She could tell by the lack of emotion in the man’s voice that he was confident in what he said, and that he would not hesitate to follow through with his threat. That they knew of Roman Berg was clear; perhaps he was at this place even now.
But she could not determine if they knew him as trusted allies or as foes. Anything she told this stranger could put Roman in even greater danger.
If she said nothing, they were going to kill her.
Isra fought to open her eyes again, straining to focus until she could make out the shadowy image of a man’s face. He had leaned slightly back from her and was now studying her—not with pity for her condition, but with a wariness that made Isra’s skin crawl. She had no doubt that he would leave her to die; hadn’t she seen that very look of apathy, that hard-heartedness dulling the eyes of so many men before?
She swallowed several times to work open her airway enough to speak. The man leaned forward, turning his ear toward her mouth as if he understood she was preparing to form words. It was clear he was used to having his commands obeyed. Isra tried to raise her head to bring her lips even closer to his ear. She wanted to make sure he heard her.
“As you wish.”
He exploded from his seated position, and Isra could see his shadowed arm as it raised. She closed her eyes.
But no blow fell, only the sounds of wood against stone again and a confused shuffle of footsteps and movement.
“Stan? What are you doing?”
“You shouldn’t be up. And why didn’t you tell me he had woken?”
“I was coming to tell you now, yes? As you can plainly see, he would no do as I asked. Who is she?”
Footsteps came close to her, and Isra tried to force her eyes open once more, hoping against hope as the conversation carried on in the room without her.
“I don’t know,” her interrogator said. “But I’ve a feeling we’re about to find out.”
Isra felt her hand being taken up once more, in a grasp that was rougher, larger than the palm of the man who had threatened her, and yet this touch was gentle, protective. At last she could make out bright blue eyes and the impossibly blond hair that now curled around chiseled cheekbones. She felt the painful welling of tears in her eyes.
“How are you feeling?” Roman Berg asked.
Her throat convulsed and she had to swallow down the overwhelming emotion as best she could. “Your hair is long.” Her words were garbled, broken whispers, and yet she saw that he had understood her by his look of surprise and then the half grin that came over his lips.
“It’s been a while since last we met,” he conceded.
“Roman.” His name was spoken in warning by the man behind him who had threatened her.
His expression sobered. “I need to know your name. If I—we,” he corrected, “are to keep you safe, you must tell us how you found me, and why you are here.”
Isra tried to roll her eyes around the room and look at the two men and the red-haired woman who had come to stand behind Roman. It was not hard to determine that the man with the long auburn hair had been her inquisitor; his eyes were haunted, his face haggard even from several paces away. The dark-haired man could have been from her own country, and yet Isra surmised he was the infamous Spaniard of the group by the sound of his accent when he had spoken moments ago. All three men, including Roman, were wearing monk’s robes.
“Your friends?” she rasped.
Roman hesitated a moment before nodding his head.
He only stared at her, his lips in a line.
Isra understood. “My name,” she whispered, trying to command her swollen lips and tongue to enunciate clearly, “is Isra Tak’Ahn.” She paused to swallow. “I’ve come because you must return to Syria.”
Roman sat at his spot at the large table in Melk’s secret library, the silence so palpable it seemed to press against his throbbing arm. Someone—Valentine? he hadn’t thought to ask—had stitched his wound, and now the muscles beneath it screamed and burned. He judged that he had lost quite a lot of blood by the way his head swam and his stomach roiled. But he had refused Stan’s order to return to his cell and his bed.
Constantine sat in his usual chair, in his usual posture: forearms braced on the table, his hands linked, head down. He’d said nothing since he and Roman and Valentine had left Maisie Lindsey with Isra. Valentine sat to the right of Roman, attending his cuticles with a short blade while the three of them waited for Victor and Adrian to join them.
They entered through the door that led to the gatehouse, the skinny old abbot preceding Adrian, who carefully pushed the heavy door shut.
“My apologies for the delay, gentlemen,” Victor said, coming to take his seat on Roman’s left side. “The brethren have been set astir by the goings-on this afternoon.”
Adrian came around the far side of the library to deliberately pass behind Roman. He stopped near his chair and squeezed Roman’s left shoulder. “Doing well enough?”
Roman gave him a sideways nod but didn’t meet his eyes.
Adrian clapped his shoulder a pair of times before continuing around the table to his own seat, something Roman was still not used to, after so many long evenings of Adrian sitting removed from the group near the window, preferring his own misery for company. The red-haired woman caring for Isra had changed Adrian Hailsworth deeply.
“I was certain Brother Hilbert was going to follow us all the way into the gatehouse,” Adrian commented, adjusting his seat as he settled in.
“As was I,” Victor muttered. “Hilbert is a capable servant, but at times too exacting.” Victor looked around the table at each man in turn before settling on Roman. “Where is she?”
Roman opened his mouth, but it was Valentine who answered. “Below. In one of Wynn’s empty cells.”
Victor nodded. “And the . . . other?”
“Also below,” Valentine answered, holding forth his hand to examine his fingernails. “In one of the no empty cells.”
“There will be bones,” Adrian said. “The larger ones, any matter.”
The abbot inclined his head in acknowledgment. “They will be interred in the crypt for the indigent, God have mercy on his soul.” Victor crossed himself.
And then Roman knew what they were talking about. It seemed as though everything had been taken care of; he had been taken care of. Perhaps it was because he still felt so weak, but the idea of these men taking such pains for him this afternoon caused a lump in his throat.
He cleared it as quietly as possible before asking, “Has anyone seen Lou?”
Valentine was putting away his blade. “He had flown back to the mews and was crying to get in. I saw him as I was coming up from the river, so I pause a moment for him. You’re welcome.”
All eyes turned to the Spaniard, but it was Constantin. . .
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