SHE'D SAVED HIS LIFE AND NOW SHE OWNED HIM!
Lady Sara Fernstowe claimed as her due marriage with Richard Strode, the knight she'd rescued from death's icy embrace. For surely this marvel of a man could look past her scars to her warrior's heart and create both their lives anew!
RICHARD AWOKE MARRIED TO A STRANGER
and under royal command to stay that way! But 'twould be a marriage in name only, he swore. Though could he keep such a vow when his own pulsing desire marked Sara of Fernstowe the most valorous, exotic woman in England?
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"Our thanks for making his death more comfortable, Lady Sara," King Edward said softly, his blue eyes already misted with grief. "He looks to be at peace."
Sara of Fernstowe smiled as she rounded the sickbed with the basin containing the bloody rags and arrowhead.
"Your knight is not dead, sire," she assured him as she handed off the container to a maidservant and faced her king. "Nor will he die if I can bring him through the fever sure to take hold."
The handsome blond giant who ruled England abandoned his regal pose beside the bed and leaned over, his ear to the knight's lips, his large hand upon the uninjured shoulder. "'Tis true, he breathes! How is it that my physician declared this man beyond hope, and you have saved his life?"
Sara liked the king. When denied a thingsuch as having his knight's life sparedhowever, she imagined Edward III could be as fierce as his grandfather, the famous Longshanks.
She preceded her conjecture with a small laugh. "Mayhap your healer feared your wrath if he did not succeed in his efforts, my liege. You should not blame him. As you must know, few men do survive such a wound."
She continued, unafraid to state the truth. "There is a chance I, too, shall fail, but I think not. He weathered the cutting out of the point with hardly a grant of protest. Here is a strong fellow who bears a hurt well. I would say he has borne others in your service, judging by his scars."
The kingstraightened. "Ah, you do not know the half, my lady. Twice now Sir Richard has thrown himself betwixt me and disaster. The first time we were ladsI, but a fledgling king, and Richard, only a squire."
He continued, pride in his knight visible in the rapt expression he wore. It was as though he could see it all again, there in his mind. "Three assassins attacked me in our camp, intent upon my death. When Richard's overlord fell in the attempt to save me, this one took up the old earl's sword and slew the two remaining. Nearly died then from a sword cut to his thigh."
"Ah, a brave deed for a youth. So you took him into your own service then?"
"Fortunately, or I might lie here this very day and you would be tending me in his stead. Richard must have spied that archer poised to shoot and took the arrow meant for me. Then, wounded as he was, he chased the scoundrel down and cut him in half. What think you of that for strength and valor?"
Sara studied the figure lying on her bed. He nigh matched the mattress in length. Had he stood uptight, she knew he would rival the king's great height. If his chest had not that wealth of muscle, the arrow that struck him might have proved fatal, indeed. Aye, he was strong as he was brave.
And handsome. She noted the dark chestnut hair with its faint gleam of red in the candles' glow. His skin looked smooth and lightly browned by sun. His sensuous lips, slightly opened, revealed white, even teeth and his nose appeared straight and unbroken.
If only she could see his eyes, perhaps she could judge the kind of man he was. Sara found she really wanted to know, and so she asked, "What manner of man is he to withstand such hurts? Fierce? Gruff?"
The king sighed loud and long. "Nay, not Richard. Unless provoked, he tends toward gentleness and good humor. He is honorable to a fault. Son to a good father. Father to a fine son. A husband fiercely loyal to his poor, dead wife. Friend to me and mine. A knight who scorns rewards for his valiant doings." Sara noticed tears had formed in the king's eyes.
"Faith, my liege, but that does sound much like a eulogy! Have hope he will survive, for I do!"
That brought a smile, as she had thought it would. He brushed a hand over his eyes and then regarded her with a curiously amused expression. "And you, my lady, do you scorn rewards for good deeds?"
"I? Not for an instant, sire! Do you offer one?" Sara said, more in jest than serious question.
The king tilted his head and considered her for a moment, his arms folded across his mighty chest. "One of the matters I intended to resolve whilst in the North was to see you wed. With your father gone, you know you must marry to hold Fernstowe. Two men have petitioned me for your hand. I would give you a choice of husbands. How does that suit?"
Sara held off answering. She took advantage of the informality of the setting and paced for a few moments, tapping her lips with one finger.
She knew that Aelwyn of Berthold wanted her lands. They bordered his own and he had made no secret of his wish to gain hers, as well. He had been after her since she was a child of twelve. Failing to obtain her father's approval while he lived, and her own since then, Aelwyn must have written to the king.
"Lord Aelwyn of Berthold and who else, sire?" she asked, wondering if it could be Lord Bankwell, a distant neighbor here in Northumberland who had once asked for her. Bankwell was old, enough so that he'd courted her mother before her parents had wed. Likely it was not him. Once he'd met her, he had appeared disinterested and content with her father's refusal of his suit.
"Lord Clivedon of Kent. Do you know him?"
"Nay, I do not." And she did not want to. "You say I have the choice of husband?" She smiled up at the king, watched him nod his assent, and then cast her gaze toward the man on the bed. Did she dare? Why not be bold, since she had nothing to lose?
"By your grace, my liege, I choose this one," she announced, pointing toward the knight in her care.
If she had expected to shock King Edward with her demand, she saw she had not. He settled an assessing look upon her, then glanced at Sir Richard, his eyes narrowing with a certain craftiness. Sara prayed he would say yes.
After several tense moments of consideration, he smiled winningly. "Save him, Lady Sara, and you may have him, will he nill he! My word upon it."
"Good as done! Now I pray you will enjoy my humble hospitality, sire, and that you shall stay for the wedding."
King Edward frowned at that. "I regret I cannot, for I must be in York three days hence for a meeting. Richard is hardly likely to recover by the morrow when I must depart."
"Then, by your leave, may we wed this night?" she asked hopefully.
"How can you do so? The man is insensate," he argued. "'Twould not be legally done if he cannot say his vows."
"Never worry, we could rouse him enough to say aye when asked. May we use your priest, sire? Mine is two months dead and I've not yet replaced him."
Though the king still looked doubtful about the wisdom of rushing the match, he shrugged and agreed. He must realize how this knight of his would rail against this. But, obviously, he had also decided the union would serve England's needs by placing a trusted protector this far north.
Only when he left the sickroom to go below and drink with his men, did Sara abandon her wide smile and expel a huge breath of relief.
She could not have devised a better plan. That a solution to her problems had fallen directly at her feetwell, upon her property, anywayseemed an excellent omen.
For the past few months, Sara had feared another confrontation with that noxious hound, Lord Aelwyn. This marriage would eliminate that hazard for certain.
And there were the Scots, of course. Always the Scots. They had murdered her father, and since that foul deed, had been harrying Fernstowe, thieving her cattle and killing her people in the outlying settlements. Other estates along the border suffered also.
Sara strongly suspected that threat from the North had lent weight to the king's decision to grant her Sir Richard as husband. He surely had not done so to please her personally, no matter that he called it her reward. Someone needed to take matters in hand hereabout. King Edward needed the border secure as surely as did Sara and the other landholders.
That Lord Clivedon from Kent who had offered for her might have done well enough, but with lands to the south, he would not be present the year round. Sara had no desire to spend half her time in the south of England for the rest of her days.