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Spring had not yet arrived. Icicles hung by the river and the horses’ breath formed frosty clouds upon the air as the two young riders playfully raced the last hundred yards before reaching the stables.
Inside, the warmth enveloped them and the tang of horse, leather, and hay heightened all their senses in a most disturbing fashion. The young man, so fair, took both hands of the vibrant beauty into his own and drew her toward him. He knew he must taste her or go mad. “Sara.” He breathed her name raggedly against her lips, before covering them in the kiss they had both been anticipating for weeks.
Now that they were finally fused, they had no strength to pull apart. Her arms were lovingly entwined about his neck and his hands caressed her back and slowly moved to cup and fondle her breasts. He moaned low in his throat and sank down into the hay, pulling his beautiful tormentor with him.
Sara was tempted, tempted badly. She had never felt like this before. It was as if her bones wanted to melt with the delicious languor that was stealing over her. “Andrew, no, we cannot.”
“Please, Sara, please. I’m going to offer for you.” And once more he covered her protesting mouth and fumbled with the buttons of her riding dress. He had managed to undo three before she found the strength to tear herself away from him.
It wasn’t that she didn’t believe him. She knew he was as good as his word and that he would certainly offer for her. But others had offered for her and nothing had ever come of it. Now she held his hands firmly to keep them in check. She laughed up at him lovingly. “You haven’t even proposed to me yet!”
“Sara, darling, will you marry me?”
She heard the words echoing in her mind, then the scene dissolved in a shimmer as she gazed through the window, unseeing. She forced back unshed, unwanted tears before anyone ever suspected she was crying. She would rather die!
Witches! thought Sara Bishop, barely hanging on to her infamous temper. She set her teeth and faced her four half sisters in the beautifully appointed family room. The two older ones from her mother’s first marriage were dark, sleek, almost smug from their secure position in the family hierarchy. The pair younger than herself, from her mother’s third and present marriage, were pretty and blond, spoiled and selfish to the core.
They had gathered to organize the details of the upcoming wedding—to make lists of potential guests, to word the actual invitations, and to choose material for their gowns. Their gently bred mother, Mary Bishop, had already retired with a headache; never had she been capable of coping with her daughters en masse.
“’Tis a conspiracy!” Sara stormed, and her hair, the color of pale molten copper, flew about her shoulders. “You know damned well that deep rose pink makes me look hideous, and ’tis precisely why you always choose it.”
“Sabre Wilde, stop that swearing instantly,” hissed Jane, who at twenty-two was the eldest.
“Don’t you dare to call me Sabre Wilde! You lot are enough to make a saint swear,” shouted Sara in exasperation.
“Saint?” They hooted with laughter.
“Saint?” echoed Jane. “Devil’s spawn, more likely, Sabre Wilde.” She emphasized the name derisively.
“You earned the nickname for yourself,” smirked Ann, the youngest. “Jane, is it true that when her father died she trailed his sabre about the house for weeks and even insisted on sleeping with it?”
“’Tis true, and she was only four years old. She had such a dangerous temper, she ruled the household, terrorized poor Mother, and was so willful she attempted to wound the servants with that sabre.”
“I’ll go and fetch the bloody thing now if you don’t shut up!” Sara threatened.
“If you swear again, I shall report you to father,” Jane threatened as she rose from the writing desk now littered with the forgotten lists.
The room seemed stifling to Sara. The spring weather had been unusually sticky and oppressive, and now that her blood was up, her cheeks flushed and she tried to breathe deeply to calm herself. Her beautiful high, round breasts quivered with her great agitation and her older sister Margaret eyed them enviously and said with great malice, “The color of Sabre’s hair screams so loudly, she would be a disaster in any shade we chose. We all know ’tis not the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses that has angered her, but the fact that sweet little Beth has received an offer of marriage and she has not.”
“’Tis not fair!” cried Sara. “Andrew was supposed to be my husband. After Jane and Margaret were married, I was supposed to be next. I’m almost twenty years old! Beth is only fifteen.”
The sisters were greatly amused at this. “You are living in a fantasy, Sabre Wilde. You will never receive an offer of marriage. Your Irish father left you without a dowry and everyone for miles about knows you for an eccentric,” Jane pointed out.
Reverend Bishop threw open the door of his study, where he had been trying to compose a biting sermon for next Sunday. The girl was causing trouble again. She had been the only thorn in his side in an otherwise perfect marriage. His tall shadow fell across the doorway just as Sara shouted, “My Irish father, let me point out, was the only one of her husbands my mother married for love! The first she married for money, the last she married for respectability. You are four jealous witches!”
The girls’ father issued a one-word command. “Apologize!”
Sara spun about with fear in her eyes. Then, determined to defy him, she drew herself up to her full height and said softly, “I’m sorry…. I’m sorry they are jealous witches.”
His mouth curved downward cruelly and he issued his orders without hesitation. “Fetch her in here. Put her across the table.”
She was livid to be handled so and would have successfully fought off her two older sisters, but their father cruelly clamped a hand to the back of her neck and reached for his cane. They held her down gleefully to receive the beating they had never had to endure. The thin cotton of Sara’s gown and petticoat was scant protection against the sting of the cane wielded so heavily by the reverend. She felt the blood rush to her head but she would be damned if she’d give them the satisfaction of seeing her faint.
“Go to your room, mistress,” the reverend finally ordered. “She has the devil’s mark upon her.” The words followed Sara up the stairs and were like a spark to gunpowder as her temper exploded and she swore to be even with them all.
Sara slammed her chamber door and without stopping opened her window, climbed down the huge hawthorn tree, and ran for the stables. She grabbed a bridle, didn’t waste time with a saddle but mounted Sabbath and, bending low over her palfrey’s neck to protect her sore bottom, rode off toward the beautiful Cotswolds like the wind. She usually took great pleasure in the flowering trees and gamboling spring lambs, but today tears blinded her to the beauties of the countryside.
She rode a direct path through the woods, which were carpeted with bluebells, to the edge of the small secluded lake. Slipping down from its back she tethered her horse where it could reach the sweet green grass and stroked its muzzle lovingly. It had pleased her stepfather when she had called the colt Sabbath. The corners of her mouth went up in a secret smile. How furious he would be if he knew the animal’s full name was Black Sabbath.
As she knelt by the edge of the lake and bent down to cup a handful of cooling water to bathe her face, she caught sight of her reflection. “I’m not ugly,” she said defiantly, then sighed as she thought of her half sisters’ beauty.
In reality she was far more fair of face and figure than they, but years of being disparaged had taken their toll. While her sisters were attractive, by comparison she was exquisite. Her hair was all molten flames and fire, her mouth voluptuously curved, and her green eyes were highlighted by dark brows and long dark lashes. Beside her left eye, on the very tip of her cheekbone, was a beauty spot. Tentatively she put her finger on the tiny black mole her family referred to as the mark of the devil, then obeying an impulse that was as old as Eve, she undressed quickly and slipped naked into the cool, soothing water.
She smiled as a pair of ducks paddled madly away to the safety of the reeds, and as her body and temper cooled and relaxed, her attention was caught by the iridescent colors of the hovering dragonflies. Mayhap she was wicked, she mused. Hadn’t she forged a letter in her mother’s hand to Lady Katherine Ashford at the queen’s court? Kate was sister to her mother’s first husband. She had made a brilliant marriage with Lord Ashford ten years ago and now held the lofty title of mistress of the queen’s robes. She moved in heady circles indeed! Sara, pretending to be her mother, had written reminding Kate that she was the mother of five lovely daughters and was begging for a position at court for one of them, no matter how lowly. She intimated how difficult it was to find suitable husbands for them all and hinted that surely among Elizabeth’s court of sixteen hundred gentlemen a husband might be found for just one of her sweet, pretty-mannered girls.
It had been over two months since Sara had sent off the letter and she would have to keep a sharp watch to intercept an answering message from Lady Ashford.