King Richard’s congratulations almost leapt off the page, written in his own forceful hand. He even went so far as to praise the wisdom of God in ordaining the twist of fate that gave to the Holy Land a leader of greater merit than either Montferrat or Lusignan. Henri was a little overwhelmed and flattered by the strength of his uncle’s support—but on second thought, he wondered how much of it was dictated by Richard’s desire to return home. Was the English King just grasping at straws? After all, he’d been willing to back Montferrat, too. Was there anyone Richard would not have accepted? Well, maybe Burgundy, Henri thought whimsically, and then picked up the letter to read to the end. King Richard wrote: “Of course, Toron is still alive, so if my cousin’s marriage to Montferrat was bigamous, then so would be her marriage to you.”
Henri winced inwardly. He hadn’t even thought of that. He folded the letter together again, lost in thought, taking no note of the commotion in the street out front. As he turned back into the room, Sidon and Ibelin were both looking at him expectantly.
“He approves,” he informed them simply.
It was rare for expressions to change so rapidly from wary dread to unfettered elation, and rare, too, for two grizzled barons to be so openly delighted. Grinning with relief, they came forward with outstretched hands to clap him on the back. Sidon suggested it would be more appropriate to kneel in homage, and Henri protested vigorously, “Good heavens! Not yet! I’ve told you I won’t go through with this unless Queen Isabella is in agreement. All this does is—” He was struck dumb by the figure standing in the doorway from the great hall.
Isabella was still in mourning, her gown one of thick and impenetrable black Mosel cotton, but the overgown was of sheer purple silk, and so were the veils covering her head and encasing her throat. A circlet of gold crowned her forehead. She was stunningly beautiful, and she was looking straight at him.
Mortified by the fact that he’d been stunned into staring at her, Henri hastened forward to bow deeply over her hand, stammering, “My lady, I came to offer my condolences as soon as I heard the dreadful news, but I was not admitted—not that I’m complaining. I completely understand that you had no wish for visitors—strangers—at such a time, but please accept my deepest, deepest sympathy.”
“Your condolences were conveyed to me and were much appreciated,” Isabella told him with a faint smile, and then she turned to the others standing or sitting in the solar, all of whom were watching with expressions ranging from shock to amusement. “I would like to be alone with the Count of Champagne,” she announced.
Ernoul and Alys scuttled for the great hall, while Helvis and her aunt Eloise dutifully left their spinning—though not without a backward glance from Helvis, who was only persuaded to continue by a firm hand from her betrothed. Ibelin was the last to leave, shepherding the others out and then standing with his back to the solar to make sure no one re-entered.
Isabella advanced deeper into the room, gesturing toward the window niche Henri had just left. “Shall we sit, my lord?”
“My lady!” Henri gestured for her to precede him.
She stepped up into the window niche and sat on the stone bench. He followed her, taking the seat opposite. “My lord, forgive me for taking you by surprise,” she opened. “My mother told me that you have been selected by the High Court—”
“Not yet,” Henri hastened to assure her. “The full High Court has not yet given their consent to your stepfather’s suggestion, and I have told them repeatedly that . . .” He broke off, because Isabella was smiling at him. It wasn’t a radiant smile. The strains and horrors of the last week still sat heavy on her face and shoulders; her eyelids sagged from too much crying. Yet a smile from the heart spilled out of her eyes nevertheless, and it took his breath away. In fact, he lost his train of thought entirely.
When he fell silent in sheer uncertainty and embarrassment, she noted gently, “I heard what you were saying as I entered, my lord, and my mother had already reported your hesitation to take on a wife who was unwilling and resentful. We both remember too acutely how we first met to want to endure a repeat of that night.”
If he had been tongue-tied before, he was speechless now. The reference to that night in Acre conjured up the image of Isabella in her nightdress with her hair cascading down around her—an image best saved for a woman’s husband. At the time he had only been shocked by the rude manner in which the Bishop of Beauvais had proceeded, and the sight had sparked his pity and protectiveness. Now, with the prospect of becoming that husband, the image ignited desire as well. She was a very desirable woman.
“I came here to assure you that I am not being forced into this marriage against my will—any more than I was forced to marry Montferrat. I wish that the illegal nature of my marriage to Humphrey had been established without the drama of that night in Acre, but I no longer doubt that it was not a valid marriage in the eyes of God. I married the Marquis de Montferrat in accordance with the constitution and for the benefit of my kingdom. I was, and am, determined not to follow in the footsteps of my elder sister, who by her willfulness and selfishness forced upon the barons of Jerusalem a man unworthy of the crown.”
That much Isabella had prepared in advance and memorized on her way here. But Henri was gazing at her with such lovely, soft eyes that she was completely flustered. Neither Humphrey nor Conrad had ever looked at her like this. Humphrey had been too much a brother, and Conrad too predatory. She fell silent in confusion.
Henri reached out, grasped both her hands, and led them to his lips. “You have my utmost respect, Madame—respect and admiration. My grandmother always put Aquitaine first. That’s why she married Henry Plantagenet, though God knows it brought her great grief and sorrow. I would not want to be the cause of either. Truly, I would not,” he assured fervently and sincerely.
Isabella was more flustered than ever. She had not removed her hands from his, and it felt good that way. His hands were dry but warm, firm but gentle. And then she remembered her baby and drew back with an intake of breath. “My lord . . .”
He waited anxiously. He no longer doubted that he very much wanted to marry Isabella—even if it were a bigamous marriage and it meant he had to stay here forever.
“My lord, have they told you—that—that I am with child?” The look in her eyes was so frightened that he wanted to pull her into his arms and comfort her.
“Of course!” he assured her with a smile to calm her fears.
“And you don’t mind?” she asked hopefully.
“My uncle Richard thinks that God sent me here to unite the crusaders and lead us to victory over Salah ad-Din, while he returns to secure his heritage. My destiny, he says, is to save your kingdom now. That is more than enough for me, my lady. I do not need to found a dynasty. I am content to be Count of Champagne and your consort, Isabella, if you so wish.” He meant every word he said, and Isabella believed him.
It was her turn to lift his hands, still clasping hers, to her lips and kiss them. “I do so wish, Henri. I want nothing more in the world than to have you as my husband and consort in the very difficult days, months, and years ahead.”
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