Excerpt: A Warrior's Taking
Book One: The Warriors
The rugged North Cumbria coast. Summer, 1813
Lost in thought, Sarah Granger followed Margaret and Jane Barstow across the beach, picking up all the cockles they could find, placing them in heavy canvas sacks, then carrying the sacks to their rickety pony cart. So preoccupied was she with the news she’d received from Captain Barstow’s solicitor in nearby Craggleton, she scarcely noticed the children or their gamboling cat, Brownie.
She’d had a strong premonition of changes to come, but never this.
“Miss Granger, look!” cried Jane, a year younger than her sister at age six. She pointed to a bit of indigo color caught in the surf near the rocks ahead.
“‘Tis naught but a clump of rags, Jane,” Sarah replied absently, but the child scampered ahead, roused by the possibility of treasure to be found.
“Look at her,” Margaret added, “with her torn stockings and her tangled hair.”
It was true: no matter how clean and well-dressed the child was at breakfast, she managed to look like a homeless urchin by noon. But Margaret was the picture of good breeding, with her tidy clothes and neat braids. If not for their similar features and pale blond hair, no one would guess they were sisters.
Sarah rarely took Jane into Craggleton, for she did not wish to subject the child to the same kind of ridicule Sarah had felt after the death of her own father. Her peers had been cruel, mocking her for her father’s descent into drunkenness, his failure to earn a decent living, and the charity on which Sarah had been dependent after his death. She’d moved from household to household in the parish after his death, working for her keep, lamenting the futility of all her dreams.
She hadn’t ever belonged anywhere, not until Captain Barstow had brought her to Ravenfield.
How she loved the place.
“What does Jane think?” Margaret scoffed. “That she’ll find something of value on this empty beach?” The child’s sober view of life was anything but childlike and had only gotten worse since they’d received news of Captain Barstow’s death in battle.
“Ah, but we know Jane, don’t we?” Sarah said fondly as she caressed Margaret’s head. “She probably hopes a ship was wrecked out at sea and there will be-“
“She dreams such rot,” Margaret interjected, cynical beyond her years. She needed much more loving attention than her sister, and Sarah was happy to provide it. Sarah and their housekeeper, Maud, were the only family the girls had.
Except for Charles Ridley, the distant cousin Sarah had just learned of.
Jane screamed suddenly, her cries loud above the crash of the surf on the rocks. “Miss Granger! Margaret! Come quickly!”
Sarah dropped her sack of cockles, shouting as she ran. “Don’t go into the water, Jane!” But the girl ignored her, stepping into the waves.
When Sarah saw what it was, she, too, wasted no time, and dashed into the sea to get to him. It was a man, waterlogged and unconscious, perhaps even dead.
“Go back to the shore!” Sarah ordered Jane, taking hold of the man’s arms.
Jane scampered out of the water while Sarah struggled to drag the man out of the sea. She hardly noticed that he was naked, or nearly so, with only a shimmering violet cloth covering his buttocks.
They could drag him no farther than the sand, and when he started to cough and choke, his wide shoulders flexing and contracting as he struggled for breath, Sarah sank to her knees beside him and pressed her hands soundly against his back.
“That’s it,” she said under her breath. “Breathe.”
“Is he a Persian pasha?” asked Jane, pointing to the wide copper torque that encircled the thick muscle of his upper arm.
“Don’t be stupid, Jane,” said Margaret. She turned to Sarah. “Is he?”
Sarah had never before seen a man with long, raven-black hair, or cloth such as the indigo scrap that covered his private parts. She could not imagine who he was or how he happened to wash up on their shore.
“Girls, go back to the pony cart and wait for me there.”
“But Miss Granger,” Jane whined, “I’m the one who-“
“No arguments, love. Go.” She spoke the words without taking her eyes from the young man who lay so still and pale, so beautiful with his hair slicked back from his face. He lay prone with his head turned to the side, so all Sarah could see of his face was his strong profile, his dark brows and the thick black lashes that curved over his cheek. He was definitely a stranger to the parish, and Sarah wondered if there had been a shipwreck overnight. Maud had mentioned seeing some strange lights the night before .
She quickly discounted that thought, for there would be much more debris on the beach, and Maud’s eyesight was failing. The man must have fallen overboard, or been caught unaware by the tide. Gingerly, she placed the backs of her fingers on his cheek, and found his skin icy cold.
Ignoring her sodden clothes and ruined shoes, Sarah ran her hands down his tapering torso, then back up, vigorously rubbing his bronzed skin, warming him as much as she was able. “Wake up! You must awaken, sir!”
“Look, Miss Granger!” cried Jane with excitement. In true form, the child had strayed from the cart and was clambering among the rocks nearby while Margaret stood dutifully beside the pony cart. “A satchel! It matches his . his . drawers.”
Caught in the rocks was a pack constructed of the same violet material that was draped about his hips. “Put it in the cart,” Sarah said, without letting up her efforts to revive the man. “Then run home and get Maud, both of you.”
The girls quickly turned to do her bidding.
“And bring blankets!” Sarah called after them.
The young man coughed again, sputtering enough sea water to drown two men. Coming to awareness, he pushed himself onto his hands and shook his head, tossing droplets of water from his hair, just as a wild animal might do. The bulging muscles in his arms gave Sarah pause, and her heart fluttered a bit faster in her chest. The air seemed to shimmer around him, and she was certain she’d seen no English farmer who possessed such raw masculine beauty. And she’d certainly never seen so much exposed male flesh.
Maybe he was some foreign potentate.
He turned and fell onto his back, then raised one arm to cover his eyes, unaware of Sarah’s presence. Sarah was astonished and fascinated by the whorls of dark hair that covered his chest and arrowed down the rippled plain of his belly to disappear beneath the cloth that covered him.
His groans startled Sarah’s attention back to his face.
“Hello?” she said. It was only right to alert him to her presence.
He dropped his arm and looked sharply at her, his eyes the same startling color as the cloth that covered him.
“You, uh .” She gestured toward the water, feeling unsettled by his gaze. “You seem to have washed ashore, sir. What happened to you?”
Hardly acknowledging her presence, the man turned to glance at the sea while Sarah averted her eyes from the virile expanse of his body. Even his legs were densely muscled, and she wondered at the physical power that must be leashed within him. While she knelt shivering in the sand from the cold of the water, he did not even recoil when the surf washed up to drench him again.
“Wha’ place is this?” he demanded, his voice deep and raspy, his accent distinctly different from any she’d ever heard before.
He seemed barely civilized, the absolute opposite of Squire John Crowell, the handsome gentleman who’d owned Sarah’s heart ever since she’d first seen him in Craggleton, a youth not much older than herself. On the few occasions when they’d crossed paths, he’d given her a polite nod and gone on his way, never making her feel like the misfit she was.
Sarah had entertained any number of foolish fantasies about the squire since then, but knew he’d never really noticed her, a destitute orphan who was compelled to work in Craggleton’s better homes for her survival. Besides, there were any number of beautiful, dowered young ladies in Craggleton who were far above Sarah’s station.
Sarah turned her attention to the stranger. Now was not the time to dwell on her impractical dreams of the unattainable Squire Crowell. If nothing else, Sarah had learned to be a practical woman. “Are you a Scot, sir?”
He shuddered and pushed himself onto his elbows, ignoring her question. “I am weaker than I anticipated. Move aside, lass.”
Scot or not, he was arrogant, if not outright rude. He would soon learn she was no one’s lass. She was twenty-two years old and held a position of some responsibility as nurse and governess to the daughters of the late Captain Barstow. She had managed the house and estate without help in the months since they’d learned of his death.
The man glanced around. “My satchel. Did ye see it?”
“The children took it when they left to get help,” she replied. “Who are you, sir?”
Without answering the question, he levered himself up from the sand and came to his feet. “I need no further help,” he said in a condescending manner, his unsteadiness belying his words.
“I think you do, sir. Wait. Let me-“
He started to fall. Sarah moved to support him, but their arms tangled and they both fell to the ground.