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Michelle Willingham

A Viking for the Viscountess

A Viking for the Viscountess

Series: Viking Voyagers - Book #1


Click here to read Chapter 1

He would die in an hour. Perhaps sooner, if the gods called to him.

Arik Thorgrim lay prone upon the deck of his ship, feeling his strength slipping away as the blood pooled beneath him. The battle-ax wound was too deep, and he’d already seen the grim looks upon the faces of his men. They knew, as he did, that his life was over and he would soon join his brother warriors in Valhalla.

The chill of the night air turned his skin cold, numbing him to the brutal pain. Though most men might fear death, he welcomed it. For this night he would claim immortality and leave behind the woman who had betrayed him.

He closed his eyes, trying to blot out the image of Svala’s face. Her long golden hair had flowed against her hips, her beauty tantalizing the dreams of any man. A smile from her was beyond price, worth every last piece of gold he possessed.

And then, as if to taunt him, he recalled her bare legs wrapped around Eyker’s waist, her head thrown back in mindless lust. Arik had stumbled upon them together when he’d returned to their camp after raiding the southern coast. He had believed Svala was a shy virgin, only to learn that she’d given herself to his enemy.

Her infidelity and lies had sliced deeper than any blade. But when he’d gone to murder Eyker, the man’s brother had struck him in the back with a battle-ax.

So be it. There was a place in the frost-laden depths of Hel for a coward without honor.

The waves of the sea grew rougher, and dimly, he heard the call of his böndr as the ship tossed. The men had sailed with him over the past few months, leaving behind their families and farms to seek wealth. His brother, Magnus, had built a settlement along the northeast coast of East Anglia, and Arik had asked his men to bring him there. He could not survive the journey to Rogaland to see his parents again—but he could reach his brother’s home within hours.

Magnus was his closest sibling, and if the gods willed it, he might look upon his brother’s face before he died. He wanted his body to be buried with honor.

Arik lay motionless, letting the sea take him. The ship rolled him to his back, and the searing pain nearly sent him into a void of darkness. He stared up at the clouded moon, while it transformed into an orange haze of blood. A dark shadow eclipsed the surface, and his vision wavered.

Would that I could have another chance at life.

The icy hand of Death beckoned closer, and he felt his body trembling with the last fight to live. Regrets flowed over him, but there was nothing that would change his fate.

He’d have made far different choices. He wouldn’t have left his father in reckless defiance to go a-viking. He would have taken a quiet woman as his wife. Then at least he’d have a son or daughter of his blood to live on. But now, only his brother remained.

When he blinked, there were no other clouds in the sky, and the night was clear. Strange for it to be so, while violent sea waves tossed his wooden vessel. He thought he spied another ship, a strange wooden boat that did not resemble anything he’d ever seen before. The mast towered over the deck, and he could only imagine how large the sails would be when they were unfurled. These men, too, were caught in the storm.

Although the ship lurched, Arik’s wounded body remained motionless, as if an invisible hand pinned him to the deck. The swells crashed against the side of the boat, and he feared it was Jörmungand, the serpent of Midgard, rising from the depths to devour them all. Amid the roar of the sea, he heard the shouts of terror from his men before they were swept under by the frigid waves, their lives claimed as sacrifice.

Silence cloaked the night, and the agony of his wound began to fade. Arik took a breath and saw that the blood upon his hands was gone. When he reached back to touch the ragged skin where the battle-ax had cut him down, he found that it had healed completely. A coldness drifted over his skin, but he refused to let the fear gain a foothold.

He was dead now. There was no other explanation for his wound disappearing. No doubt his body now rested on the bottom of the sea. He had to finish this journey to the afterworld alone, and he suspected he would soon see the spirits of those who had fallen before him.

Not yet, he heard a woman’s voice whisper upon the wind.

He blinked, wondering if he had only imagined the words. All was still now, and the sea had calmed. Arik rose to his feet, testing his strength to stand. At the front of the boat, he stared into the darkness, hoping for a glimpse of Asgard, where the gods dwelled. If there was land nearby, he couldn’t see it. He leaned back to look at the stars, trying to determine his whereabouts. The waves bobbed his ship, but the motion was gentle. With his hand upon the rudder, he questioned whether to steer or let the sea guide him. In the end, he surrendered command of the vessel, for he had no way of knowing where the gods would lead him.

As the sea shifted and blurred all around him, he suddenly spied the prone figure of a body in the water. Her golden hair streamed around her, and his heart seized up, not knowing if it was Svala. Had she joined him in death? Or had the gods sent her to him, as a gift?

Whether or not she was real, Arik didn’t hesitate as he dove from the ship to save her.

***

Norfolk, England

One thousand years later

Juliana Arthur, the Viscountess Hawthorne, tucked her son into bed, kissing his forehead. “Sleep well, Harry.” The boy smiled up at her and snuggled deeper into the threadbare sheets. She had dressed him in two nightshirts and woolen socks, as well as a cap to keep him warm. Often at night, he would slip out of his trundle bed and crawl inside her own bed, while the wind rattled the shutters of their small house.

“Will we go back to Hawthorne House in the morning?” he asked.

“We might, if your father returns.” She smoothed his hair and gave an encouraging smile. “Now close your eyes.”

As soon as he did, her smile faded. She had been telling Harry the lie for months now. They could not return to Hawthorne House, no matter how badly she wanted to. For the past six years it had been her sanctuary. She loved every blade of grass on the estate, and it had become her home after the viscount had abandoned her there.

Juliana supposed she ought to be devastated that her husband had gone traveling on the Continent without her. She did want William to come back—truly she did. But not because she loved him or because she missed him. No, she wanted him back to save them from this poverty.

God forgive her, she’d been so glad at first, when she’d heard the news that he might never return. She’d swept her infant son into her arms, hugging him with joy. No longer would William tell her how worthless she was, how fortunate she was to be with him. He wouldn’t give her orders on how to dress, what ladylike pursuits to indulge in, or how she should best please him in bed. Her son would never know his father, and nothing could have dimmed her elation at that moment.

But then, a solicitor had arrived at Hawthorne House six months ago, informing her that her marriage was invalid and she’d been nothing more than William’s mistress. Her husband’s brother, Marcus, had swiftly stripped her son of his inheritance and title, and though she’d tried to fight back, he would not allow it.

“You were never his wife,” Marcus said coldly. “His mistress, perhaps, but nothing more.”

“But I was,” she whispered. “We eloped in Scotland. I signed the registry.”

“There was no registry. And no written record of the marriage.” Marcus folded his hands, with not a trace of sympathy in his demeanor. “My brother deceived you into believing it, likely so you would share his bed.” When she started to argue again, he cut her off. “You’re a practical woman, Juliana. Why would a viscount wed a fisherman’s daughter?”

He made it sound as if she was no better than a scullery maid. Yes, her father had been a common man, but her mother was nobility.

“My grandfather is a baron,” she argued. “And William loved me.”

“Whether or not he loved you is beside the point. You were never married, and your son is a bastard.”

Her mouth moved to deny his words, but no sound came out. She clenched her knuckles hard, feeling as if she’d entered a nightmare from which she couldn’t wake up.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why he hid you away in the country, never bringing you to London? It was because he didn’t marry you at all.”

Deep inside, she feared Marcus was right. She’d spent months paying runners to search for a record of their elopement. And still, the search had come up with nothing.

Either her husband had lied to her, or Marcus was lying to prevent her son from inheriting. He’d escorted them out of Hawthorne House with hardly more than a trunk of clothes. To keep Harry from being afraid, she’d told him that they were going to visit his grandfather. She’d woven an elaborate tale of how they would spend a few months by the sea and he could build castles in the sand.

Her life had felt like that sand castle, crumbling to pieces all around her. Especially when her father had died a few weeks later, leaving her grief-stricken.

Quiet descended over the house, and her maid, Grelod, drew her chair closer to the fire beside the sleeping dog. The older woman had been with her ever since Juliana had been a little girl and spoke only a little English. She had sought work in London, after leaving Norway, and had found a position when the housekeeper took pity on her. Grelod had been a favorite servant of the baroness, Juliana’s grandmother, for she worked hard and said nothing.

Keeping her voice low, the old woman murmured in Norwegian, “It’s not right, the two of you living in a place such as this. It’s hardly fit for a beggar.”

“I have nowhere else to go, and you know this.”

“Your grandmother ought to have opened her doors to you.” Grelod picked up the mending and muttered to herself, as she threaded her needle. “They might have cut off your mother after she wed your father, but that was no fault of yours.”

“She did invite me to visit, but I would rather drown myself than accept help from her.” Juliana moved her own stool beside the fire, watching the flames in the hearth. “Lady Traveston is a horrid woman.”

“She did give you a Season,” her maid pointed out.

“Only because it was my mother’s last wish.” And because her grandmother had wanted to mold her into a lady. Juliana had mistakenly thought that it would be a wonderful chance to meet a husband. She shuddered at the memory. The baroness had drilled months’ worth of lessons and etiquette into her brain, as if she were preparing Juliana for war. And although she’d married a viscount, her grandmother had shown little satisfaction in the match. She’d never approved of William and had been aghast when they’d eloped.

A gust of wind blew through the crevices in the walls, and Juliana leaned over to bring the blanket up to Harry’s neck. A bleakness caught at her heart. She had to do something to get her son out of this place. Soon, she would have no choice but to seek help from her grandparents. Lord Traveston might have abandoned his daughter and granddaughter, but she believed Lady Traveston would find a place for them to stay if Juliana groveled enough.

It was still a last resort.

Restlessness flowed within her veins as she paced across the cottage, worrying over how to find the evidence of her marriage. “Go out and have a walk,” Grelod ordered. “You’ll feel better for it.”

“It’s too dark,” Juliana protested. “And I shouldn’t leave Harry.”

She started to walk toward the rocking chair, when Grelod caught her hand. “You’re troubled, and the night air will do you good. Go, and you’ll find the answers you’ve been seeking.”

“The moonlight won’t solve our problems, Grelod,” she argued. “Only William can put everything to rights.” If her husband returned, he could bring them back to Hawthorne House, admitting that their marriage had been valid.

“His ship might return,” Grelod admitted. “Give an offering to the gods, and see what happens.”

“An offering?” She hid a smile at the old woman’s superstitions. Grelod had always believed in magic and folklore. She had woven stories over the years at bedtime, legends that she was convinced were true, though Juliana now knew they had only been tales. Grelod’s beliefs were a part of her, and she fervently upheld the old Norse traditions. At night, she often told Harry stories about the goddess Freya and her children of the moon. Though Juliana didn’t believe in any of that, she saw no harm in indulging her maid.

“Give the gods a lock of your hair. Or a drop of your blood,” the woman suggested. “Perhaps it will conjure up the help you need.”

Juliana squeezed Grelod’s hand, knowing her maid was only trying to help. She did want a chance to be alone, and strolling outside might clear her wayward thoughts. “I’ll go for a walk. Watch over Harry and call out if he needs me.”

Behind her, she heard the woman muttering incantations and words she didn’t understand. Juliana sighed and reached for her cloak and bonnet.

The wind had stirred up, pulling the gray waves against the shore. She walked along the water’s edge, while a full orange moon bathed the shore in a shimmer of gold. One could almost believe that a night like this could hold a bit of magic.

She drew her cloak around her, holding fast to her bonnet as the night air buffeted it. Ahead, she spied her father’s boat, and a pang caught her heart. He’d been a fisherman all his life, and the battered wood seemed to draw her closer.

When she walked to the edge of the pier, she stepped inside the vessel, remembering the days when he’d taken her out to the sea, teaching her to fish. Being here, she could almost smell the familiar scent of tobacco. He’d been the most wonderful father, and she missed him dearly. Sometimes if she closed her eyes, she could remember the warmth of his embrace and his quiet love.

He’d been her steadfast rock, all her life—especially after her mother had died. A tightness clenched her gut as she stared up at the moon. What am I supposed to do now, Father? How can I support my son, when I don’t know if William is alive or dead?

The wind shifted, filling up the mainsail. Juliana frowned, for she hadn’t untied it. How had it come unfurled? It was almost as if an unseen presence had emerged.

Don’t be silly. There is no such thing as a ghost. She pushed back the thought, trying to find a logical explanation. The sail had been tied up when she’d climbed aboard the boat, but somehow, it must have broken free. She fought with the canvas and ropes, trying to bring it back down again, but another gust of wind made her stumble. The sail swung out, the wooden boom cracking against her forehead.

The vicious pain made her cry out, and she knelt down in the boat, lowering her head to fight the dizziness. She’d never expected a storm to be brewing, not when the night had been so calm.

A moment later, the vessel started to float away from the dock, though she couldn’t understand how. Without someone untying the ropes, there was no way it could break free of the moorings. But the wind strengthened, filling up the sail as if an invisible force were pulling her out into the open sea.

Juliana fumbled with the ropes, fighting to reverse her direction, but the wind was too strong. Even when she put her full weight against the sail, it didn’t move. Panic sharpened within her as the boat sailed farther away from the dock.

No. She couldn’t let this happen. She tore off her gloves, pulling with all her might. But even that wasn’t enough to bring her back.

Her head ached, swelling up from the wound. Terror wrapped around her heart, for the boat was taking her too far away from the shore. And then how could she return to Harry? Though she didn’t want to leave the safety of the boat, she saw no other choice but to swim back.

Steeling herself, Juliana slid both legs over the side of the boat, pushing herself into the frigid water. She strained with her feet to touch the bottom, but her head went underwater. What had happened? Now it seemed that the shore was twice as far away.

Impossible. She fought to swim back, though the weight of her clothes pulled her down. The waves sloshed against her face, and she began stripping away the layers, letting her cloak fall first. She tore off her bonnet and let it sink. The water was so cold, it froze her movements, making it harder to stay above the surface. As she struggled against the waves, the beach disappeared, leaving her alone on the sea.

Her heart was pounding with fear while her mind tried to make sense out of the impossible. Perhaps this was a dream and she was unconscious from the head injury. Dreams never made sense, and undoubtedly that was what this was.

The moon turned the color of blood, sliding back from behind a misty cloud. She tasted salt water, and her arms ached from swimming. But it did no good. The more she swam, the farther away land seemed.

It’s not real, she told herself. It can’t be.

The nightmare only worsened, and horror washed over her when she saw that the boat was now gone. If she didn’t get help soon, she was going to drown. She cried out, though it was hopeless to think that anyone would find her on a night like this.

Her arms grew heavy as she swam, her hair drenched against her face.

And when she saw the outline of another ship in the distance, she prayed to God that someone would save her.

***

Arik swam against the current, a rope tied to his waist. When he reached the woman, her hair obscured her face. He didn’t know if the gods had brought Svala to him, in spite of his death. Had she somehow crossed over, losing her own life? Her body was so cold, he didn’t know if she was alive or dead.

He pulled her into his arms, but she remained limp and motionless. He kicked hard to stay afloat as he swam back to his ship. It was a struggle to bring her on board, but he managed to get her to the deck. She coughed hard, her shoulders heaving. Tremors shook her body, and a strange gown clung to her. It was dull gray in color, but high-waisted, with a square neckline and a slender skirt.

The moon slid behind a cloud, shadowing her face. He couldn’t tell if it was Svala or not, but they were the same height and form. Her long blond hair was unmistakable. If he was on his journey to the afterlife, surely this was his reward. Eyker’s brother had offended the gods by striking a blow at his back, and Arik felt certain that Svala had been given to him as compensation.

She was cold, her body shivering violently from the icy water. He carried her to the back of the boat, away from the oars. Carefully, he stripped away her wet clothing, cutting the strange girdle that was tied tightly to her waist before removing his own garments. Body heat was the best way to warm both of them.

He laid her down upon a rough fur and covered her with his own flesh, cocooning her with another fur on top of himself. With her head tucked beneath his chin, he held her close, stroking her smooth skin.

Her hair smelled the same as he remembered, like crushed flowers and sweet herbs. He rested his face against her cheek, inhaling the sweetness of her. Desire roared through him, along with the pain of Svala’s betrayal. She’d given herself to Eyker, sharing his bed instead of Arik’s. She’d offered him words and promises, but never her body.

The grim rage festered within his mind, making Arik want to punish them both. He wanted to touch her, to bring her such raw need, she’d regret giving herself to another man. Her bare breasts rested against his chest, and the tight buds of her nipples aroused him. Odin’s blood, she smelled good.

In his jealousy, he wanted to show her what she’d spurned, that he was a man who would pleasure her in a way she would never forget. He lowered his mouth to the curve of her throat, kissing her. Then he filled his palms with her breasts and set to work on seducing the woman he’d yearned for.

***

Juliana tried to open her eyes, but dizziness and darkness clung to her senses. Her skin was warm. So very warm. Against her body, she felt the heat of a man’s skin.

Had William come back? Or was this a dream? She thought about screaming, but his hands were stroking her bare back. It felt so good to be in safe, strong arms.

Yes, it was most definitely a dream. Ships didn’t break free of knotted ropes, and land didn’t disappear within seconds. She snuggled deeper into the man’s arms and imagined that he was someone who adored her. Somehow she was safe within her own bed. The dreams of icy seawater and drowning were gone, and in their place was a fantasy she’d conjured in her mind.

The gentle touches moved from her spine to cup her breast. Against his palm, her nipples tightened, and she couldn’t suppress the catch of her breath. The dream had become erotic, and she allowed her imagination to pull her into a deeper pleasure.

You will forget everything about him when I have finished with you, came the man’s voice in a half-remembered language.

His words startled her. Was her dream man speaking of William? Juliana rather hoped so. She wanted to forget about her husband’s demanding nature and the way he’d visited her bed, expecting her to scream his name or some other nonsense. What was there to scream about?

Her imagination settled back, enjoying the skilled hands that caressed her breasts, drawing out an echo of sensation between her legs. She had never felt this way before, with arousing liquid desires that raced through her skin. She reached out, not knowing what was happening to her, but her phantom lover bent to her throat, his mouth kissing her pulse point while his hands threaded through her damp hair.

A warning resounded in her mind, something about the cool water. Something she should remember…

But she didn’t want to wake up from this dream. She wanted to see where it would lead and what her lover would do to her.

His mouth closed over her breast, wet and demanding. She arched hard, the exquisite pleasure tormenting her. He explored her flesh as if he wanted to taste every inch of her.

And God help her, she wanted him to. It had been six years since her husband had visited her bed, but William’s touches had been rough, never arousing like this. She kept her eyes closed, afraid this dream would vanish in the morning light, and all of it would end.

Juliana held his head to her breast as he suckled and teased, his other hand reaching over to caress her breast’s twin. Between her thighs, she grew wet, and was startled that it had happened so easily. On the nights William had come to her bed, she’d lain naked beneath the coverlet, struggling to feel something.

She’d even touched herself a time or two before his visit, hoping to arouse herself. Anything that would make the lovemaking more comfortable and prevent her husband from criticizing her. But this dream was breaking past her meager knowledge of sex, leading her into so much more.

Again, a part of her grew fearful. As if she had to awaken, right now.

The fur beneath her had grown so hot, perspiration beaded upon her skin. She struggled to pull off the outer coverlet, and felt instead the length of a male body. Conjured from her imagination, this man was firm, with taut muscles. Juliana traced his chest, her hands exploring by touch. Her lover was powerful, with broad shoulders that tapered down to a lean waist.

My, but her imagination had selected an excellent specimen.

His hips were hardened muscles, and she marveled as she learned his body in the darkness, moving her hands over his heavy thighs. His erection rested against her stomach, thick and hard. Out of curiosity, she took it in her hand, and he let out a low growl as if he liked it.

The dream shifted, and his mouth lowered from her breasts, down to her ribs. He tilted her hips up, kissing a path down to her intimate flesh.

She started to protest, for this was something she’d never imagined. She wasn’t at all sure he should—

Dear God above. His mouth feasted upon her, his tongue sliding within her moist entrance. Inside, her body shook with tremors, her breath seizing at the shocking sensations. She’d never imagined anything like this, and it took an effort to ignore the warnings in her mind.

She was shuddering, her fingers clenching at the fur while white-hot tendrils of desire drove her mad with need. He teased at the hooded flesh, provoking her toward the sensual pleasure she wanted so badly. And when she leaned into him, surrendering to her own needs, he suddenly pulled away.

Frustrated and upset, Juliana tried to bring him back, but instead, he replaced his mouth with the pressure of his fingers. The sensation was different, and when his mouth returned to her nipple, she felt the urgency roaring back.

Juliana leaned in, gripping his muscled shoulders as her body reveled in the glory of being touched this way. Instinctive tremors rocked her and she gripped his head as he forced her over the edge, a soaring heat of release pouring through her. Nothing in all the months of her marriage could have prepared her for the way her body craved his invasion.

Did Eyker touch you like this? he demanded.

Who was Eyker? Juliana struggled to open her eyes. The dark warning inside her was gaining momentum, urging her to wake up. Something was wrong.

It would have been like this between us, if you had allowed it.

He moved against her throat, speaking words she didn’t understand. Between her legs, she felt his blunt erection probing. Her body was wet, aching to be filled by this man. She wanted to forget everything, to lose herself in a dream of pleasure. Abruptly, she gasped as his slick heat filled her. This was what she’d wanted from William. This desperate need to be taken and to shatter the boundaries between them.

Though she couldn’t understand how her mind had created this fantasy, she wasn’t about to lie quietly and let the dream disappear. No, she gripped him hard, meeting his thrusts while she arched her hips to receive him. There was nothing polite or quiet about the lovemaking—it was carnal lust, almost savage in nature. She grew molten as he sheathed himself. A part of her half-expected this lover to be barbaric, to thrust in a rhythm that would hurt.

But instead, he seemed to know when to quicken the tempo and when to slow down. She was frantic for another climax, desperate to make this man shatter in the way she had. The boat was moving, and the rocking motion echoed the surges of his hips against hers.

Within her, she sensed him seeking his own release, and she wrapped her legs around his waist, holding fast as he rode her. A cry ripped from her mouth as he held her bottom and penetrated over and over. She was coming apart, her body shuddering against the rhythmic pleasure, until the release shot through her in mindless lust. When her nails scored the man’s back, he let out his own groan, his hard body growing slack against hers.

Juliana kept her eyes closed, stunned that she’d created such a vision in her mind. No doubt once she awakened, she would find herself back at home in her bed, with no man to share it.

It was a dream, and when dawn came, it would end.

***

Sparse rays of sunlight speared his eyes, and Arik blinked at the brightness. Although the morning air was cool against his bare skin, the woman in his arms was warm. His shaft hardened instantly, and he reached between her legs to prepare her, wanting the honeyed wetness against his fingertips. But when he rolled her over, his hands stilled upon her flesh. It wasn’t Svala he’d taken last night. It was a woman he’d never seen before.

Uneasiness slid through him, and Arik wondered what was happening. Was she a slave girl, sent by Freya to tempt him? Was this a part of the afterlife? With his knuckles, he gently touched her skin. It prickled with gooseflesh, and she murmured something in her sleep. He didn’t understand her words, and from the shape of her face, he guessed she was Anglo-Saxon. Yet the language was still foreign to his ears.

“Awaken,” he commanded.

Her gray eyes flew open, and she let out a scream of terror. Gripping the furs to cover her nakedness, she looked horrified.

She started speaking words in a language he couldn’t grasp, flustered words of panic and embarrassment. Her cheeks turned bright red, as if she’d suddenly remembered her actions from the night before. Arik folded his arms across his chest, waiting for her to speak words that made sense. When she gave none, he demanded, “Who are you?”

Her eyes narrowed, as if she’d suddenly understood his question. “You’re…not English,” she whispered. Her face furrowed as she spoke.

He didn’t know what she was talking about, but he reached for his fallen clothing and covered himself. “I am called Arik Thorgrim, a jarl from the Ryger tribe.”

“A what?”

”A jarl. I have lands in Rogaland, and my brother has settlements in East Anglia and Dubh Linn.“ He reached down and tossed her the discarded garment she’d worn the night before. It was a finely woven gown, one that spoke of her status. This woman was not a slave, but possibly a freewoman or a king’s daughter. And yet, she wore no jewelry, save a small gold ring upon one hand. There were no jeweled torques nor bracelets to show her rank. He frowned, trying to determine more about her.

“What is your name? And what happened to your ship?” he demanded. If her family was searching for her, he would see to it that she was returned to them.

“I am Juliana Arthur, the Viscountess Hawthorne,” she answered in his language, her eyes wide. “My father’s ship broke free of its moorings, and the wind carried me out to sea. It was my own fault for climbing inside the boat.”

“Then the gods did bring you to me.” He studied her. “Clothe yourself and then we will talk further.” Right now, he couldn’t grasp what had happened. Though she wasn’t Svala, her features were similar enough.

The sun had risen higher, casting light over the land nearby. It resembled the shores of East Anglia, but strange dwellings rested within the hills. He’d never seen anything like them, and more and more, he wondered if this was part of the afterlife.

There was no sign of Asgard, nor the Hall of Valhalla, as he’d expected. Arik sat upon one of the benches, resting his hands upon the oars. Was this a test? Since he’d been murdered instead of dying in battle, did he have to earn his place among the warriors?

Perhaps he truly had heard the words not yet. He didn’t understand any of it, and the gods weren’t known to explain themselves to mortals.

“Take me home,” Juliana pleaded. He turned and saw that her gray gown was still damp, the fabric outlining her slender body and rounded breasts. It reminded him of the night they’d spent together and the way she’d welcomed him into her arms.

She hadn’t been afraid of him then. He’d touched her, believing she was Svala. And though he didn’t know why this woman had allowed a stranger into her bed, nothing had been done against her will. He remembered the way she’d clenched his head, arching against him as he’d tasted her swollen flesh.

His body hardened at the memory, but he forced it back. Clearly, there were reasons why the woman had given herself but now held regrets.

She was shivering hard, the gown doing little to shield her from the wind. He returned to their sleeping place and brought out a heavy fur. When he advanced toward her, she took a step backward. He let her retreat, ignoring her fear as he wrapped the fur around her shoulders.

“You live there?” he questioned, pointing toward the land.

“Yes.” She held on to the edges of the fur, still staring at him.

“Then I will guide the ship to the shore. You will grant me food and shelter in return.”

Her gray eyes turned suspicious. “There’s no place for you at my house. I barely have a bed for my maid and my son.”

A tension pulled at him when she mentioned a boy. “Where is your husband?”

She reddened. “I haven’t seen him in six years. I think he’s dead.”

The traces of fear in her voice made him now understand her apprehension about the night they’d spent together. “And do you believe this?”

She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know what to believe. But last night I was asleep… I never meant to—“ Crestfallen, she stared at her feet, as if humiliated by what they’d done.

Arik took the fur covering with both hands, pulling her to stand closer to him. “I thought you were Svala, the woman who was promised as my bride.”

Guilt stained her cheeks, but she raised her eyes to his. “What I did was wrong, and it won’t happen again.”

In her voice, he heard the firm resolution, and it irritated him that she’d dismissed him like a mistake to be swept aside. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d brought her pleasure last night, and by the gods, he wasn’t without honor. He would never take a woman without her consent. But he wasn’t at all averse to tempting her.

“It might.” To remind her of it, he tilted her chin up and kissed her. It was a kiss of possession, to place a claim upon her. But when he tasted the softness of her lips, he gentled his mouth upon hers. Her hands dug into his shoulders, as if to protest. But he caught her against his chest, pulling her closer. And whether or not she wanted to kiss him, she yielded to him like a temptation she couldn’t have.

If her husband were alive, Arik would have understood her reluctance and honored it. But six years was too long to leave a woman like this behind. He had no doubt at all that her husband was dead.

Abruptly, she shoved him back, breaking the kiss. Her face flushed and she reminded him, “I have to go back to my son.” She moved as far away from him as she could, and he saw the way her hands were shaking.

Arik moved to adjust the mainsail, then returned to the rudder, turning the vessel to make use of the wind. “Come here, Juliana of Arthur. Hold this steady.”

She eyed him, but he stood firm on his order. He needed her help to steer the boat properly. After a moment, she climbed over the rows of benches until she reached the stern. Her face was pale, her lips swollen from his kiss. “You’ll keep your word to bring me home to my son?”

“Yes.” He stood and held out the rudder, guiding her hands. Juliana sat with her posture straight, not looking at him as she held the wood. She looked as lost as he felt. But he would bring her back to her home and learn whether or not she was telling the truth.

The path of his life had taken an unexpected turn. Never had he been given any reason to doubt his place in Valhalla. But…what if he wasn’t truly dead? What if there was another purpose for him now?

He took his place on the bench, rowing toward the shore. Behind him, she remained silent. He glanced at the woman, and her expression held worry before she flushed at the memory of last night. Unlike Svala, she seemed embarrassed, as if she’d never expected to feel pleasure.

The memory of her passionate moans, the fervid touch of her hands, made him want to toss the oars aside and claim her body once again. But he understood her need to return to her son.

“Who are you really?” she interrupted, when he continued his rowing. “Did Marcus send you?”

“I know of no man named Marcus.” He glanced back and saw the consternation lined upon her face.

“You’re dressed like no one I’ve seen before, and you’re speaking a language that I haven’t heard since my maid, Grelod, taught it to me.” Her fists curled at her hips. “What is it you want from me?”

He pulled the oars against the current, bringing them as close to the shore as he dared. “I might ask the same of you. You tempted me in your arms last night, trying to ensnare me before I could reach Valhalla in Asgard.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I nearly drowned last night.”

“Or the gods brought you to me.” He released the oars and stood before her. “Our fates are intertwined, so it seems.”

“No, they aren’t,” she argued. “I’ve been through enough without needing another man to make me into a fool.”

He sent her a dark look. “You should be grateful that I am willing to return you to your home instead of keeping you as my thrall.”

She frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but no man will keep me from my son.” There was a cool tone to her voice that held a warning.

Arik moved to the bow of his ship and dropped the anchor near the dock. Juliana let go of the rudder and stood with her shoulders back, walking toward him as if he were her slave instead of the other way around. She reminded him of a Norsewoman, strong in her demeanor.

But she was sorely mistaken if she believed he was going to let her go. Somehow, she was tied to his fate. And he wouldn’t rest, until he learned what his purpose was.

 

Summary:

Battle-axes don't belong in a ballroom. Or do they?

Juliana Arthur, the Viscountess Hawthorne, has been thrown out of her husband’s estate and her marriage declared invalid. With a small son to care for, she desperately needs a strong hero to rescue them from poverty and suffering. A Viking wasn’t quite what she had in mind.

Arik Thorgrim is caught between worlds. After dying from a battle wound, he expects to find the glory of Valhalla where he can dwell among the gods. Instead, he’s brought forward a thousand years in time, to a beautiful woman who tempts him beyond reason. Juliana doesn’t know what to do with this sinfully handsome Viking warrior who brings weapons into a ballroom and refuses to be tamed. Yet beneath his barbaric ways is a man of honor, a man who vows to face down her enemies and fight for her son’s future.

But as Arik wages a battle against her heart, Juliana is afraid of loving a man whose time has already run out…
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