A snicker sounded behind her. Sara turned around to glare at the customer. "Drink your refreshment, sir, and stay out of this." She whirled back to her uncle only after the stranger turned his gaze to his goblet. "You're lying about my father," she stated. "He would never be a party to such cruelty. As for striking me, do so and suffer my husband's wrath. I'll tell him," she threatened with a nod.
Sara had hoped that since her empty threat about her husband's retaliatory methods had been so successful with the hired servant Clifford, the same bluff might work on her sotted relative.
It was a vain hope. Henry didn't look at all intimidated. He let out a loud snort. "You're as crazed as Nora if you believe a St. James would ever come to your defense. Why, I could beat you good, Sara, and no one would give a notice, least of all your husband."
Sara stood her ground. She was determined to gain her uncle's promise to leave Nora alone before she left the foul-smelling tavern. Her fear was that he or one of his brothers would send someone after her aunt and drag her back to England. Nora's inheritance from her father's estate was sizable enough to make the journey worth the nuisance.
She was so incensed with her uncle, she didn't notice that some of the customers were slowly edging their way toward her. Nathan noticed. One man he judged to be the leader of the pack actually licked his lips in apparent anticipation of the morsel he thought he would soon get to devour.
Sara suddenly realized the futility of her plan. "Do you know, Uncle Henry, I've been trying to find a way to get you to promise to leave Nora alone, but I now realize my own foolishness. Only a man of honor would keep his promise. You're too much of a swine to keep your word. I'm wasting my time here."
Her uncle reached up to slap her. Sara easily dodged him. She stopped backing away when she bumped into something quite solid, turned around, and found herself surrounded by several disreputable-looking men. All of them, she immediately noticed, were in desperate need of a bath.
Everyone was so mesmerized by the beautiful lady they never noticed Nathan. He thought they might be too consumed with lust to think about caution. In time they would realize that error, of course. Nathan leaned back against the closed door in the corner and waited for the first provocation.
It came with lightning speed. When the first infidel grabbed hold of Sara's arm Nathan let out a roar of outrage. The sound was deep, guttural, deafening. Effective, too. Everyone in the tavern froze—everyone but Sara. She jumped a good foot, then whirled around toward the sound.
She would have screamed if her throat hadn't closed up on her. In truth, she was having difficulty catching her breath. Her knees buckled when she spotted the big man standing in front of the door. Sara grabbed hold of the table to keep herself from falling down. Her heart was slamming inside her chest, and she was certain she was about to die of sheer fright.
What in God's name was he? No, not what, she corrected herself, but who. She was nearly frantic. He was a man—yes, a man—but the biggest, the most dangerous-looking, the most… oh, God, he was staring at her.
He motioned to her with the crook of his finger.
She shook her head.
The room began to spin. She simply had to get hold of her wits again. She desperately tried to find something about the giant that wasn't so horribly terrifying. She realized then that someone was clutching her arm. Without taking her gaze away from the big man trying to stare her into a faint she slapped the hand away.
The giant looked as if he bathed. There was that much. His hair appeared to be clean, too. It was a dark bronze in color, as bronzed as his face and arms. Dear Lord, she thought, his upper arms and shoulders were so… muscular. So were his thighs. She could see the sleek bulge of steel indecently outlined by his snug britches. But they were clean britches, she told herself. Villains usually wore only crumpled, smelly garments, didn't they? Therefore, she reasoned illogically, he couldn't be a villain. That conclusion made her feel better. She was actually able to take a breath. All right, she thought to herself, he isn't a villain; he's just a warlord, she decided when she'd finished her thorough inspection, perhaps even a Viking warrior from the length of his hair. Yes, he was simply a barbarian who had somehow transported himself across time.
Her mind had snapped, she concluded then. The green-eyed warlord motioned to her to come to him again. She looked behind her to make certain he wasn't motioning to someone else. There wasn't anyone there.
He meant her, all right. Her stomach lurched. She blinked. He didn't disappear. She shook her head in a bid to clear her mind of the vision from hell.
He crooked his finger at her again. "Come to me."
His voice was deep, commanding, arrogant. God help her, she started walking toward him.
And then all hell broke loose. The sound of the whip cracking in the air, the scream of pain from the fool who tried to touch her as she moved past him echoed in Sara's ears. She never looked toward the commotion. Her gaze was locked on the man who was methodically destroying the tavern.
He made it look so easy. A simple flip of his wrist that didn't seem to cost him the least amount of effort made such a lasting impression on his audience.
She also noticed that the closer she got to him, the deeper his scowl became.
The warlord obviously wasn't in a good mood. She decided to humor him until she could regain her composure. Then she was going to run outside, jump into the hack with Nora, and race to the waterfront.
It was a fine plan, she told herself. The problem, of course, was getting the Viking away from the door first.
She realized she'd stopped to stare at him again when he motioned for her to move. She felt a restraining hand on her shoulder, glanced down at it, then heard the crack of the whip.
Sara was suddenly in full flight. She ran to him, determined to get there before her heart completely failed her.
She came to a swaying stop directly in front of him, tilted her head back, and stared up at those piercing green eyes until he finally looked down at her. On impulse she reached out and pinched his arm just to make certain he really wasn't a figment of her imagination.
He was real, all right. His skin felt like steel, but warm steel. The look in those beautiful eyes saved her from insanity, though. The color was hypnotizing, intense.
Odd, but the longer she stared at him, the safer she felt. She smiled with acute relief. He raised an eyebrow in reaction. "I knew you weren't a villain, Viking."
Sara was suddenly weightless. She felt as though she were floating through a dark tunnel and on her way toward the bronzed Viking standing in the sun.
Nathan caught her before she hit the floor. His bride was in a full faint when he tossed her over his shoulder. He scanned the tavern for any leftovers he might have missed. There were bodies all over the wooden floor. That wasn't good enough, he thought. He had an almost overwhelming urge to mark the bastard uncle who was cowering under the table. He could hear the choked sobs coming from the man.
Nathan kicked the table across the room in order to see his prey. "Do you know who I am, Winchester?"
Henry was locked in fetal position. When he shook his head his jowls rubbed back and forth against the floorboards.
"Look at me, bastard."
His voice sounded like thunder. Henry looked up. "I'm the marquess of St. James. If you ever come near my wife or that old woman, I'll kill you. Do we understand each other?"
The bile had risen in Henry's throat, making speech nearly impossible. He started gagging. Nathan gave him a sound shove with the tip of his boot, then turned and walked out of the tavern.
The barkeep peeked out from his hiding place behind the grill and looked at the devastation around him. There wouldn't be any more ale purchased that dark night, for nary a one of his customers was in any condition to drink. They covered his floor like discarded peanut shells. It was a sight he wouldn't soon forget. He wanted to remember every single detail so he could relate the happening to his friends.
He already knew how he was going to tell the ending, too. The Winchester dandy crying like an infant would provide a good, hearty laugh for his future customers. The sound of gagging pulled the barkeep from his musings. The high and mighty Winchester was puking all over his floor.
The tavern owner's shout of anger mingled with Aunt Nora's gasp of fear. When she saw her niece draped over the stranger's shoulder her hand flew to her bosom.
"Is Sara hurt?" she cried out. Her mind was already picturing the worst.
Nathan shook his head. He opened the door of the carriage, then paused to grin at the old woman. "She fainted."
Nora was too relieved at that news to take exception to the fact that the man was amused over her niece's condition. She moved over to make room for Sara. Nathan placed his bride on the opposite seat, however. Nora gave her niece a quick once-over to make certain she was still breathing, then turned to look at their savior again. She watched him recoil the whip and hook it to his belt.
Nora hadn't expected him to join them inside the vehicle. When he did so she squeezed herself into the far corner. "Sara can sit next to me," she offered.
He didn't bother to answer her. He did, however, take up all the space across from her. Then he lifted Sara onto his lap. Nora noticed how very gentle he was when he touched her niece. His hand lingered on the side of Sara's cheek when he pressed her face into the crook of his neck. Sara let out a little sigh.
Nora didn't know what to make of the man. The carriage was in full motion before she tried to engage him in conversation.
"Young man, my name's Nora Bettleman. The dear lady you just saved is my niece. Her name is Sara Winchester."
"No," he said in a hard voice. "Her name is Lady St. James."
After making that emphatic statement he turned his gaze to the window. Nora continued to stare at him. The man had a nice, strong profile. "Why are you helping us?" she asked. "You won't convince me you're in the employ of the Winchester family," she added with a firm nod. "Could one of the St. James men have hired you?"
He didn't answer her. Nora let out a sigh before turning her attention to her niece. She wished Sara would hurry up and finish with her swoon so she could sort out the confusion.
"I've come to depend upon the child you're cradling in your arms, sir. I cannot abide the thought of anything ill happening to her."
"She isn't a child," he contradicted.
Nora smiled. "No, but I still consider her such," she admitted. "Sara's such an innocent, trusting soul. She takes after her mother's side of the family."
"You aren't a Winchester, are you?"
Nora was so pleased that he was finally conversing with her, she smiled again. "No," she answered. "I'm Sara's aunt on her mother's side. I was a Turner before I married my Johnny and took his name."
She glanced over to look at Sara again. "I don't believe she's ever fainted before. Of course, the last two weeks must have been a terrible strain on her. There are shadows under her eyes. She obviously hasn't been sleeping well. The worry about me, you see," she added with a little wheeze. "Still, she must have seen something quite frightening to make her swoon. What do you suppose…"
She quit her speculation when she caught his grin. The man was certainly on the peculiar side, for he smiled over the oddest remarks.
And then he explained himself. "She saw me."
Sara started to stir. She felt dizzy still, disoriented, yet wonderfully warm. She rubbed her nose against the heat, inhaled the clean, masculine scent, and let out a sigh of contentment.
"I do believe she's coming around," Nora whispered. "Thank the Lord."
Sara slowly tuny her gaze to her aunt "Coming around?" she asked with an unladylike yawn.
"You swooned, dear."
"I didn't," Sara whispered, clearly appalled. "I never faint. I…" She stopped her explanation when she realized she was sitting on someone's lap. Not someone, she realized. His lap. The color drained from her face. Memory was fully restored.
Nora reached over to pat her hand. "It's all right, Sara. This kind gentleman saved you."
"The one with the whip?" Sara whispered, praying she was wrong.
Nora nodded. "Yes, dear, the one with the whip. You must give him your appreciation, and for heaven's sake, Sara, don't faint again. I don't have my smelling salts with me."
Sara nodded. "I won't faint again," she said. To insure that promise she decided she'd better not look at him again. She tried to move off his lap without his noticing, but as soon as she started to scoot away he increased his grip around her waist.
She leaned forward just a little. "Who is he?" she whispered to Nora.
Her aunt lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "He hasn't told me yet," she explained. "Perhaps, dear—if you tell him how thankful you are—well, then he just might give us his name."
Sara knew it was rude to talk about the man as though he weren't even there. She braced herself before she slowly turned to look at his face. She deliberately stared at his chin when she said, "Thank you, sir, for coming to my defense inside the tavern. I shall be in your debt forever."
He nudged her chin up with his thumb. His gaze was inscrutable. "You owe me more than gratitude, Sara."
Her eyes widened in alarm. "You know who I am?"
"I told him, dear," Nora interjected.
"I don't have any coins left," Sara said then. "I used all I had to book passage for our journey. Are you taking us to the harbor?"
"I do have a gold chain, sir. Will that be payment enough?"
The abruptness in his answer irritated her. She gave him a disgruntled look for being so ungallant. "But I don't have anything more to offer you," she announced.
The hack came to a stop. Nathan opened the door. He moved with incredible speed for such a big man. He was outside the carriage and assisting Nora to the ground before Sara had straightened her gown. The man had all but tossed her into the corner of the hack.
His arms were suddenly around her waist again. Sara had only enough time to grab her reticule and her gloves before she was hauled out of the carriage like a sack of feed. He dared to put his arm around her shoulders and pull her up against his side. Sara immediately protested that liberty. "Sir, I happen to be a married woman. Do remove your arm. It isn't decent."