The Horse Tamer's Bride
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by Kate Hill
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: After two years Derek is ready to marry his beloved Sonja when he's called back to Scotland and disappears without a word. Just when Sonja is about to give up on him completely, he returns after being held prisoner by enemies of his family. They're certain the worst of their problems are behind them when their friend, Sir William, is nearly murdered, Sonja's brother, Wyborn, is attacked, and Derek receives news of more trouble in his homeland. The only way for Derek to protect his loved ones is to travel back to Scotland and confront his enemies, but Sonja isn't about to let him face such danger alone. Rating: Sensual/Spicy. Contains sexual situations and violence.
eBook Publisher: New Concepts Publishing, 2008
eBookwise Release Date: June 2008
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [312 KB]
Reading time: 195-274 min.
Sonja laughed, her eyes blurred with tears from the snapping wind as she urged her galloping black mare toward the brook in the field ahead. Behind her, came the throaty shouts of Derek, her betrothed, who rode his own stallion at a break-neck pace to catch up to her.
It had been Sonja's idea to race that morning during their journey to Aubrey manor where they'd be visiting friends who were building a hospice. After several moments of goading, Sonja had convinced the handsome half Scot that they should race. He had agreed only to silence her boasts that not only was she a far better rider than he was, but she had the faster horse.
"Come on, Greta!" Sonja called to her lanky mount. "Let's show him that a Norse mare is far better than a Scots stallion any day!"
She heard Derek's stallion snorting close to Greta's flank then felt the animal's breath blowing against her leg. Soon the horses raced neck to neck.
She heard Derek's deep chuckle as his horse moved a nose, then a neck, past Greta's. With a final leap, the war stallion's pounding rear and lashing tail were several lengths ahead. She cursed softy and slowed Greta to a walk alongside Derek's horse who plodded along the brook's muddy bank.
"It's all right, Greta." Sonja patted the mare's sweaty neck. "If there was any real distance to this race, we'd have won. That horse is too bulky to have any stamina."
Derek laughed louder and said in his rich, rolling accent, "You can never admit losing to anybody, can you, lass?"
Sonja shot him a murderous glance but the shimmer in her eyes belied her true feelings for the Scotsman.
She shifted her gaze ahead, but from the corner of her eye admired his tall, rangy build beneath his billowy shirt and tunic which exposed part of his hairy, muscular thigh and knee. They'd met about a year ago, when Sonja had traveled from her homeland to live with her oldest brother Wyborn who had been awarded the village of Ravenhill in Northumbria. Derek had served Ravenhill's previous master, but he and Wyborn took an immediate liking to one another so Derek had remained as one of Wyborn's most trusted men. He'd proved his courage and loyalty by launching a daring rescue of Wyborn and his and Sonja's younger brother, when they'd been abducted by enemies. In spite of many arguments which hadn't lessened a bit over the past year, Sonja and Derek had fallen in love and their wedding would take place in less than two weeks. They planned to cultivate a plot of land outside of Ravenhill, expanding the village while remaining part of it. Wyborn and his wife, Marion, were thrilled that the couple would be living so close. Both Marion and Sonja were healers and the women shared the workload of tending the sick, caring for the wounded during wartime, and delivering babies.
"I admit you won this time." Sonja cast him a haughty glance and added, "But you had a head start."
Derek's green eyes widened with shock. "The Lord show mercy on your lying tongue! You shouted 'Go!' before I so much as had my foot in the stirrup!"
"I just hope you're not as clumsy on our wedding night as you are mounting horses."
Derek laughed. "Don't concern yourself there. That's one race where my stamina will outlast yours, love."
"Oh really?" Sonja's smiled faded and she lifted an eyebrow.
"No, no." Derek held up a hand in defense. "I'll not make wagers about the sport in our bedroom."
Sonja tugged a fistful of blond hair from her face and murmured to herself, "We'll see about that."
* * * *
Sonja and Derek reached Aubrey by early afternoon. Twenty years ago, Aubrey had been a small, flourishing village before Norse raiders had sacked it, leaving only one survivor--five-year-old William Blackridge. Now a man, William was rebuilding it with his wife, Elaine.
On the ride to the partially restored manor house, Derek thought back to a year ago when he'd led his brother-in-law's army to Aubrey to destroy the evil knight, Sir William Blackridge, and his raiders who had been terrorizing the countryside. So much had happened since those days when Sir William was the sworn enemy of Ravenhill. The knight had met his wife Elaine and everything had changed. He'd since fought alongside Wyborn and Derek and the three men had gone from being hated enemies to inseparable friends. Since meeting Sonja, Derek well understood how much the true love of a good woman could change a man's life.
Before Sonja, he'd rarely thought of marriage. He was the middle son of a Scots chieftain. When his father died, his brother would inherit his land and most of his wealth, so Derek had always been free to live the mercenary life he preferred. He'd wandered for several years before coming to Ravenhill where he earned a reputation as a strategic leader in battle. Even before Sonja's brother, Wyborn, had taken over, Ravenhill had been populated by Norsemen. Derek had fit in amongst them well, since his own mother was Norse. He was proud of the feisty blood which ran through his veins on both his parents' sides. Though he spoke and dressed as a Scot, he'd inherited the height of his Norse forefathers as well as their lust for adventure. From the moment he'd met Sonja, seen her breathtaking curves and lovely face with its glowing complexion and dark blue eyes, he'd been captivated. She was far more than a creature of beauty, however. In his first attempts to court her, more often than not he'd found himself at the brunt of her vicious tongue and rugged sense of humor. She was no calm lady to be locked away in marriage. She was a lusty, intelligent woman who would share and stir his entire life. Rather than pushing him away, her strength had drawn him to her until she'd invaded his thoughts and his dreams. Finally he'd summoned the nerve to ask for her hand, wondering if the bold Norse woman would slap him, laugh in his face, or surrender to the love he knew they felt for each other. She'd surrendered to--or should he say accepted--his offer. He should have known better than to think she would surrender to anyone.
"The manor house is looking wonderful." Sonja squinted against the sunlight to better see the yet unfinished home. Only half a ruin had remained since the raid, but already new walls stood.
Derek tore his gaze from the delicious curve of her leg wrapped against the saddle in her long, tunic-style dress and looked to the house. "Aye. Goes to show you what working night and day can do. They've only been there a couple of weeks."
The sound of hammering and sawing resonated from behind the house. They dismounted and walked their horses to where Wyborn and Sir William worked.
Sonja noted that both men, one blond, one black-haired, were extremely tall but not as tall as Derek. Sonja was glad of Derek's height since she towered over most men. To meet the Scotsman's gaze, she had to look up and stand on tiptoe for a kiss.
Her brother, one of the last Viking conquerors, was more thickly built than both Derek and Sir William and he looked every bit a chieftain with the muscle of a draft horse, scowling face, and long blond hair. It amazed Sonja that he and Marion, her tiny, well-mannered sister-in-law, had fallen so passionately in love, but she'd been glad of it. In spite of his harsh ways, Wyborn was a caring man. He'd raised her since she was ten years old. Though stern, he had allowed her the freedom to explore her interest in weapons and hunting and had permitted her to choose her own husband. It hadn't even alarmed him that she had waited until years past the traditional age of betrothal to do so. She smiled inwardly. If it hadn't been for Wyborn's leniency, she never would have met Derek.
Her gaze moved to Sir William as he and Wyborn adjusted a log to a better angle for sawing. William Blackridge was the same height as Wyborn, but lean, without the slightest bit of extra weight over his sleek frame. His had pale blue eyes, a carefully-cut black beard and a tendency to smile often. When Sonja looked at her brother and the knight working together, she could scarcely believe it.
A year ago, William, a man deeply scarred by a hideously abusive past, had abducted Sonja and Wyborn's brother, Sven, and Lady Marion. William had nearly killed Wyborn by poisoning him with Red Squill. Though her brothers had escaped, William's men had chased them down and if not for Derek's rescue, would have lost their lives. The Scotsman hadn't believed the lies of the traitor who'd come to Ravenhill with the false stories of Wyborn's death. He'd forced Olav, one of Wyborn's own men, to tell the truth that Wyborn and Sven were still alive and held prisoner in the ruins of Aubrey. Derek, furious and disgusted with Olav, had planned to punish the man for his disloyalty once Wyborn and Sven were rescued, but Olav had run off. He must have realized that if Derek didn't kill him, Wyborn would.
It had come as a shock to them all when several months ago, William Blackridge had marched into Ravenhill along with Elaine and her army from Rockland. They had begged assistance to stop a raider who had planned to take over Britain. Reluctantly, Wyborn had agreed to join with him, but only until after the battle when Wyborn swore to kill the knight for his crimes. Quite by chance, William had risked his life to rescue Wyborn and Marion's infant twins from a fire. Later he even saved Wyborn himself in battle. Though William Blackridge still showed signs of the madness that had plagued him all his life, he'd turned his ferocity toward good causes, such as the hospice he and Elaine were building.
When Derek and Sonja settled, their home would be located between Aubrey and Ravenhill, and Sonja planned on acting as midwife to both places while Derek bred and trained horses.
"So you finally got here," Wyborn called to Derek.
"The ship repairs took longer than expected this morning," Derek told him. He tethered his horse, discarded his shirt, and walked toward the men to help with the building.
Sonja studied Derek's tall, muscled body as he lumbered over the grass and picked up one end of a long saw while Sir William grasped the other. When they began to work, Wyborn and the knight disappeared to Sonja, and her gaze fixed on Derek's broad back and long, sinewy arms, the muscles bulging and releasing as he sawed. His thick, chestnut curls lashed from side to side across his shoulders, and his legs, partially bare beneath his tunic, remained firmly planted in the earth.
"God, I can't wait for my wedding night," Sonja murmured before she tethered her horse and went inside to find Elaine.
Elaine knelt in the middle of the spacious floor of the great hall hammering a chair she was building. Unlike most women of her time, Elaine had completely turned her back on the feminine side of life. As a young girl, she'd run away from home, dressed as a man, and joined a band of mercenaries where she learned the fighting arts. When she'd finally returned to her village of Rockland, she'd ruled alongside her brother, Sir Ezekiel, until she and William had married.
Sonja admired William and Elaine's union. Elaine loved William completely in spite of his violent past and touch of madness. In turn, William accepted and respected Elaine as a woman and a warrior. Their relationship often reminded Sonja of her own and Derek's. The half Scot had never asked her to be a demure homebody, and she loved the stubborn determination that had made him her brother's finest warrior.
"Sonja!" Elaine smiled broadly, looking up from her work. "I could use some help about now."
Sonja immediately stooped to hold the chair while Elaine hammered, and once they'd finished, the women stood, brushing their dusty hands on their clothes.
"How are you feeling?" Sonja asked.
Elaine touched a hand to her stomach which would soon reveal the child she carried. It would be her and William's first, and the couple was looking forward to its birth. They had already asked Sonja to act as midwife and she'd happily agreed, though she hoped her sister-in-law Marion would not deliver on the same day. Marion and Wyborn were expecting their third child at around the same time as Elaine's was to be born, and Sonja wanted to deliver both.
"I feel wonderful," Elaine said. "Glad to say I haven't had a bit of sickness. I want to do as much of the heavy work as I can over the next few months. After that I won't be able to. As it is William argues with me every day for doing too much. I keep telling him a woman with child is not the same as a woman who is ill, but you know how men can be."
Sonja laughed. "Many expectant fathers are like that. When Marion was awaiting the twins, I thought she was going to kill Wyborn several times for trying to keep her in the house all day long. I used to tell Derek to call him with non-existent problems about ship repairs and other such nonsense just to give her a few hours of fresh air outside."
Elaine smiled. "You're lucky. Being a midwife, Derek might believe you when you tell him how to act."
"Derek? Listen to me about anything?" Sonja raised her eyes to the heavens and both women laughed.
* * * *
At dusk, Sonja, Derek, and Wyborn rode into the stable at Ravenhill. After caring for the horses, Wyborn joined his wife in the great hall while Sonja and Derek decided to spend a few moments alone before supper.
"Looking at Aubrey makes me eager to move into our own home," Sonja said, sinking into a pile of hay and blowing a random lock of golden hair from her face.
"I couldn't agree more." Derek dropped down beside her, leaned back on his elbows and crossed his ankles. "I'm glad I finished building our house last month. All that's left is a fence for those cows Wyborn gave as part of your dowry."
"He was generous, wasn't he?"
"Aye. Still, if I had a sister as old as you under my care, I'd be thrilled to finally unload her myself," Derek teased. His eyes gleamed with amusement and Sonja shoved him hard into the hay.
She grasped the front of his shirt in her fist and leaned forward so they were nose to nose. "You should be lucky he gave his consent to this marriage, you being such a clod."
"That's what I love about you, lass, your sweet voice and gentle touch." Derek laughed and swiftly pinned her beneath him. Her jaw clenched in anger before he kissed her. Any feelings of annoyance melted when faced with her desire and love for him.
His lips were soft, tenderly prying. She relaxed and he released her hands, which she slid up his back. When she reached the thick hair at his nape, she threaded her fingers through it, relishing the feel of it against her hands.
Derek traced the shape of her full lips with his tongue, paying careful attention to the sharply pronounced V of her upper lip. A soft, hungry moan escaped Sonja's throat. His hard chest pressed against her breasts and her long dress had lifted slightly so her bare legs rubbed against his hair-roughed ones that were partially exposed beneath his short tunic.
"I don't know if I can wait another two weeks, Derek," she whispered once he'd reluctantly broken their kiss.
He chuckled softly. "I've been telling myself that every day for over a year, love. You'd best be prepared not to get a moment's sleep on our wedding night."
"You'd best be prepared." She smiled coquettishly and tightened her grip on his hair. "We have a wager as to which one of us will outlast the other."
His eyes glistened with humor. "I agreed to no such wager."
"Are you afraid this time I'll really win?"
He growled and nipped her ear lobe before standing and offering her his hand. "We'd best get to the hall."
Sonja stared up at him, noting the straw which stuck in his hair, the beauty of his large green eyes, and the dusting of his dark beard shadowing his jaw line. To her, he was the most handsome man in the world.
She slipped her hand into his and stood. His arm wrapped snugly around her and they walked to the manor house.
* * * *
The following morning, Derek and Wyborn were inspecting the repairs on several ships in Wyborn's fleet when a man approached on horseback with a message for Derek.
The frail parchment crinkled in his hands as he broke the wax seal and began to read. Glancing at Wyborn, he said, "A message from home."
He continued to read, his emotions darkening with every line. When he'd finished, he crumpled the page in his fist.
"Something wrong?" Wyborn asked.
"Aye. My father's died. I have to go back to Scotland to see to the arrangements with my brothers."
"Will you be back in time for the wedding or should we postpone it?"
"I hate to tell you to do so, but it might be a wise idea. I shouldn't be too long in Scotland but I wouldn't want to miss my own wedding."
"I'll speak with Marion tonight and when you get back from Scotland you and Sonja can decide on another date."
"I'm sorry to put you through all this trouble."
Wyborn waved his hand. "No trouble. I'm sorry about your father. He sounded like a good man."
"Aye," Derek murmured. Keeping control of his sadness was more difficult than he wanted to admit. Though he had been away from home for a long time, he had fond memories of his father and felt a great sense of loss. "He was. I'm going to find Sonja and let her know. Best if she gets angry with me now for postponing the wedding."
* * * *
"Angry about postponing the wedding?" Sonja looked aghast. She flung her arms around him and stroked his back. "Don't be silly. I'm so sorry about your father."
Derek buried his face in Sonja's neck and closed his eyes, absorbing the warmth and comfort of her embrace. His father had never met her, but Derek wished he had. He was certain the gruff old chieftain would have loved Sonja and her wild ways. She was much like Derek's mother, both of Norse origin with quick tempers and loyal hearts.
"Are you sure you don't want me to go to Scotland with you?" Sonja asked. "I know you have to travel quickly and that doesn't bother me. I want to be with you."
He pulled back slightly to drop a chaste kiss on her mouth. "I want to be with you too, lass, but according to my brother's letter, there's much fighting going on. My father's land was located between enemies, and there have been several Viking raids. Men from all corners are trying to take over our family's land and overthrow my brother Kennan as chieftain. I will not bring you into the middle of a battle."
"But I'm not afraid, and maybe my healing skills could be of use...."
"No!" Derek spoke sharply, then kissed her when he saw anger flash through her sapphire eyes. "I love you too much to bring you there right now. I wouldn't be of use to anyone if I was constantly worrying about you. If I go now, I should return within the month. Then we can marry and settle down for the rest of our lives. Besides, you're the finest midwife in Ravenhill and there are several women who will need your skills any day now, are there not?"
"Marion and her maid Brenna are just as skilled as I am. They can tend...."
"Please don't fight me on this." Derek clasped her hands in his, bent his forehead over them, and closed his eyes. "I feel torn enough as it is. Give me the peace of knowing you're safe and waiting for me when I return."
Sonja wanted to argue with every fiber of her being. She hated being told what to do, but the sadness etched on her beloved's face stopped her from protesting. She merely kissed his forehead and whispered, "Just be safe."
"When are you leaving?"
Though his haste was to be expected, she didn't have to like the idea of being parted from him, even for a short time. Still this was harder on him than it was on her. He was the one who'd just lost his father. Having lost both parents when she was very young, she understood his pain.
"I'll help you pack," she offered.
They walked to his chamber where she rolled up several clean shirts and packed them in a leather bag. He gathered daggers, a razor, a small pouch of coins, and a few other belongings. Then they went to the stable where one of Wyborn's men had Derek's horse saddled and waiting.
"I'll miss you so much," Sonja said, squeezing his neck. Derek swept her into his arms, his embrace so tight she could scarcely breathe, but she didn't care. Her throat ached with unshed tears at the thought of their separation and she wished they could remain locked together forever in that fierce embrace.
Reluctantly, he let her go. She slipped a bronze cuff bearing a detailed Norse design off her upper arm, pressed into his hand, and said, "Keep this with you."
"Aye," he whispered. "Though I need no trinket to keep you in my mind. You're always with me, lass. You're in my heart and soul."
She ran the back of her hand over his cheek. "I love you, Derek."
"I love you." He kissed her deeply before mounting his horse.
As he rode out of Ravenhill, he glanced back over his shoulder. Sonja lifted her hand and waved, forcing a smile. Once he'd gone, she fled to her room where she lay on her bed and cried.
Moments later, a knock sounded on her door, and she sat up, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as Marion stepped inside.
"Sonja," Marion walked to the bed and sat on the edge of it. "Wyborn told me about Derek returning to Scotland."
Marion, a small young woman with dark hair and eyes, was not only Sonja's sister-in-law, but her closest friend. The two had taken to each other instantly and confided in one another regarding almost everything.
Marion placed a hand on Sonja's hair. "He'll be back. It'll only be a little longer until you're married."
Sonja shook her head. "It's not the postponement that concerns me. I'm worried about Derek. There's so much fighting going on in his homeland and I know he must be upset about his father dying. I hate to think of him traveling there alone, but he didn't want me with him."
"I don't blame him," Marion said. "But I understand how you feel. If it was Wyborn, I'd want to be with him as well. While he's away, you and I can finish decorating your house. When he comes back, he'll be glad to see it finished."
Sonja drew a deep breath and wiped away the last of her tears. "You're right. I'm sorry for carrying on like a child."
Marion smiled and shook her head. "I've shed plenty of tears over Wyborn for sillier reasons than this."
"Before we start on my house, let's finish those blankets we're making for your new baby," suggested Sonja.
Marion's eyes glowed at the mention of her forthcoming child. Her twins were almost a year old and still a handful, but she loved children and was greatly looking forward to another addition to her family.
"Just think, this time next year we'll probably be making blankets for your children," Marion said.
Sonja smiled. The thought of having Derek's sons and daughters made her heart leap. "I'm looking forward to it. Tomorrow we should ride down to Aubrey and bring Elaine the baby clothes we made for her. She'll be so surprised. You know how she hates to sew."
Marion laughed. "Elaine had better learn how to divide her time between the training field and the home."
"But she's such a good fighter, it would be a waste not to have her on the field. She's given me some wonderful advice with my bow and arrow."
"And taught me a few things about swordplay." Marion touched the small sword sheathed at her side. It had been the first gift Wyborn had given her and she was never without it.
Though Sonja admired swordplay, she preferred practicing with her bow and arrow. She and Derek spent many hours hunting together in the woods behind Ravenhill, and already she missed his companionship.
"Let's go." Marion took Sonja's hand and tugged her toward the door.
Sonja smiled at her sister-in-law, but her heart remained with her Derek. Be safe, my love, she thought. Soon we'll be together for the rest of our lives....