Authors: Christine Merrill
He sat up and saw that Aisling was seated, no longer sleeping. All senses went on alert, for he knew nothing of her intent.
When he dropped to one knee before her, she didn’t raise her face to his. She’d been weeping. Her reddened eyes and quiet demeanor gave the evidence.
“Did you kill them?” she asked quietly.
“My brothers.” She closed her eyes, refusing to look at him. “Kieran and Egan.”
“Many tribesmen were taken,” he answered. “Most were sold into slavery. Your brothers might have been among them.”
“If they aren’t dead,” she finished. Her posture remained downtrodden, her voice dull. “I want to know what happened to them.”
He reached out and tipped her chin to look at him. “No one is going to rescue you, Aisling. Your fate rests in the hands of King Magnus now.”
“No,” she whispered. “My fate rests in your hands.” Her voice pleaded with him, while she covered his palms with her own.
“You want me to let you go.”
“Yes.” She laced her fingers with his. “I want to believe that you possess honor. That somewhere beneath your heritage lies a man who will do the right thing.”
She didn’t know. Couldn’t know that he had no choice. He owed her no explanations, for she was nothing but a captive.
He jerked his hands from hers. “I’m not a man of honor. I kill when my king commands it. I seize whatever I can find upon the battlefield, for that is a warrior’s right.” He rose and tossed her a pair of battered shoes that had once belonged to Jóra. “Nothing you say will change your fate. Prepare yourself, Aisling. For today I will give you over to the king.”
Aisling voiced silent prayers throughout each mile of the journey. As soon as they stopped to let the horses drink, she would have to make her escape.
But how? Every plan seemed foolish. Even if she did manage to get away from Tharand, she didn’t know her surroundings. They were north of Dubh Linn, and she had never traveled this far before. The freezing weather made it even more impossible, for there was no shelter.
You have to stay with him,
her mind reasoned.
You’ll die if you don’t
Was death worse than surrendering to a man’s pleasure?
Embarrassment flooded her at the memory of Tharand’s touch. She had wanted him to kiss her, wanted his touch. Even now, she could not forget the way he’d touched her upon horseback. He attracted her in a way she’d never anticipated. Her body had responded to him, bowing beneath his rigid strength and evoking unwanted yearnings.
She rubbed her hands together, struggling to get them warm. “What can I do to win my freedom?”
“There is nothing.” Like ancient standing stones, he would not be moved.
“I don’t believe you.”
He didn’t spare her a glance. “Believe what you will. You will be given to him.” But the sharp tone in his voice suggested that there was another reason. He stopped the horse and dismounted, lifting her down.
“You’re getting something in return,” she predicted. When he still kept his eyes averted, another truth dawned. “
At that, his blue eyes pierced her with certainty. “As I’ve said. There is no other choice.”
Her mind turned over the situation, searching for a way out. The tension in his muscles, the unyielding cast to his face, made her feel even more helpless.
“Is it a woman?” She took a hesitant step toward him, unsure of how to read his expression. Was he truly a man who intended to use her to his advantage? Or was he trapped, just as she was?
From the stoic lines in his eyes, the bitterness, she almost stopped short. Tharand’s silence confirmed his answer. A
strange heaviness weighed down upon her, to think of him riding this far for another woman.
Her face flushed, for he’d touched her intimately. The thought of him caressing another woman made her insides twist.
Why should you care?
her mind demanded.
He is nothing but a thief and a murderer. A man who cares only for himself.
But if that were true, why had he not forced her into his bed? She couldn’t see past the cloak of his silence.
He moved toward her, watching her like a predator. Aisling almost fled backwards, but at the last moment managed to stand her ground. “What do you want?”
“I think you know.”
A heartbeat later, his mouth crashed down upon hers. And Danu, his kiss eradicated every thought in her mind. His hands slid up to capture her nape, his lips plundering hers. No longer did she feel the winter’s cold as the heat of his body burned against her own.
He kissed her as though he didn’t want to give her up, as though she meant something to him, more than just a slave.
She let him take from her, and before she could realize what was happening, she was kissing him back. She ignored the panicked voices that warned her not to do this. Palming his shoulders, she trailed her fingertips over his muscles, down to the runes tattooed on his wrists.
His hard erection moved against the juncture of her hips, and she parted her legs slightly. The thick length rubbed her, tempting her to surrender to him.
Tharand never stopped kissing her, and when his tongue probed the entrance to her mouth, she let him inside. The wet heat mimicked the sensation of joining with a man.
“You were watching me,” he murmured against her lips. “And I wondered what the taste of you would be like.”
Aisling’s legs stumbled beneath her, and she clung to him for support. Before she could ask what he meant, he lowered the shoulder of her
. In the snowy chill, her skin puckered, her nipples tightening.
“You’re cold,” he said huskily. “And I haven’t tasted all of you yet.” He bared her breast, stroking the nipple with his thumb. Hot blood rushed to her face, and her palm closed over the dagger strapped to her thigh.
Without taking his gaze off her face, he trapped her hand in place, lowering his mouth to her breast. Warm heat enclosed the nipple, and the sensation made her wet.
She yearned to be filled with him, to know the weight of his body upon hers. As he suckled, her hands fisted in his hair, the dagger forgotten.
All of her willpower disappeared, like a snowflake upon warm skin. She wanted him. God help her, she sensed that it would not be like this with another man. Perhaps it was the forbidden nature of being a raider’s captive. Or perhaps she was losing her sense of reason the longer she stayed with him. Whatever the cause, she yearned to feel him inside.
His hand moved beneath her skirts, and he unsheathed the dagger, dropping it into the snow. A rough palm cupped her center. Using his thumb, he stroked her until a rush of wetness coated his hand.
“Don’t,” she pleaded. She didn’t want to desire him, and she loathed herself for even thinking of letting him do whatever he wanted.
Tharand parted her, sliding his finger inside her warmth. Then another finger, until he gently stretched her open. He penetrated her with his fingers, while he conquered her mouth once again.
The shallow strokes tortured her with the promise of a joining.
“Your body is awakening,” he whispered, flicking his thumb against her swollen cleft. A jolt of fire permeated her, making her moan against his mouth. His wicked hands were making her ready for him, until she trembled.
“You are cruel.” Shaking with need, she tried to block out the rising frustration.
“Yes.” He withdrew his hand, letting her skirt fall back into place. Gruffly, he added, “But you will please the king. That is all that matters.”
“My feelings don’t matter.” She threw the words back at him, wishing he had never touched her.
Tharand reached down and handed her the dagger, hilt first. “You might need this, as protection against Magnus’s men.”
Aisling hid her face as she replaced the weapon. Her mood only darkened as he lifted her upon the horse. Deeply aroused, Tharand had taught her a lesson she’d not soon forget. It was best to shield herself from this
, to pretend that he did not even exist.
For she meant nothing to him.
harand’s own mood had soured. Over and over, he reminded himself that Aisling Ó Brannon was a slave, a woman no different from the others he’d captured. And though none could compare to her beauty, he could not lose sight of his purpose.
Time and again, she’d surprised him. The sweetness of her arousal, the driving need to watch her come apart, was slowly stealing away his mind.
And when he’d kissed her…
Odin’s bones, she had a mouth that was made to be savored. When she’d kissed him back, he’d caught a sense of what it would be like to have her willing. And if he didn’t keep his hands off her, he would break his own vow not to get involved. It would only make it harder to give her up.
Abruptly, he stopped the horse. He couldn’t say why, but they would arrive at the king’s estate by nightfall. Once he gave her into Magnus’s custody, he could no longer protect her. The thought of other men bruising her fair skin made his fist tighten.
“Why did you stop?” she asked.
Without answering, he lifted her down and led her
toward a small grove of trees. “You don’t know how to use a knife, do you?”
She eyed him with distrust. “Why would you think that?”
He held out his hand. “Give me the blade.”
“Because I want to show you how to defend yourself with it.”
“My brothers taught me,” she argued, keeping her hand upon the outline of the weapon beneath her skirt.
Tharand kept his hand outstretched, waiting for her to acquiesce. He couldn’t let her go to Magnus without a means of defense. Even if he stayed with her, he could not be with her at all times.
“Show me what you know,” he asked. As she withdrew the blade, he fell into a defensive stance. “Try to stab me.”
Aisling shook her head. “That isn’t really what I—”
“Do it,” he ordered, adjusting his stance so that his foot was anchored against one of the oak trees.
She reached beneath her skirt, giving him a quick view of a long bare leg. He tried to ignore the distraction, focusing on the weapon she held.
“Now aim for my heart.”
“And as I said before. You don’t have one.”
Didn’t she realize he was trying to help her? Damn it, didn’t she know what kind of men served Magnus? They would dishonor her in an instant, unless she made it clear that she belonged only to the king.
Tharand waited for her to make a move. He needed to see her technique before he could correct her.
The last thing he expected was to be pinned against the tree, the dagger embedded in his tunic. Aisling crossed her arms and regarded him. “You know that I could have killed you. I suppose I should have.”
He gaped at her, understanding that she was trained to throw the weapon, not to stab with it.
“Perhaps I should leave you here,” she mused, taking a step backwards, toward his horse. “You’d be warm enough with your cloak. Someone would come along eventually and free you.”
He reached over and wrenched the dagger from the wood, tearing the fabric. Holding the weapon, he stared at her. “Who taught you to throw a knife like that?”
“My brother Kieran.”
“Show me again.” He used the blade to peel off a small fraction of bark. Handing her the knife, he stepped back to watch. She couldn’t possibly hit such a tiny target. None of his own men were trained to do so, and they practiced daily with their blades.
With the flick of her wrist, she embedded the knife exactly in the tiny space.
Odin’s blood. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Once more.”
And she did, without hesitation.
“Kieran wanted me to be able to protect myself.” Aisling withdrew the knife from the wood, strapping it to her thigh once again.
“You’re good,” he acceded. That was when it struck him. He’d completely misjudged her. She wasn’t a helpless maiden at all. Time and again, she could have used the blade against him. He could be dead right now. Why hadn’t she tried to kill him?
The questions ate at him until finally he took her hand. He held it lightly, unsure of why he was touching her. “You had the chance, just now, to take my life. Why didn’t you?”
She raised soft brown eyes to his. “I should have.”
Tentatively, she touched his cheek, her fingertips moving down his jaw. The gentleness startled him. Snowflakes came down from the clouded sky, lighting upon his mouth.
Her hands moved down to his shoulders, as though she were healing each part of him she touched. He didn’t move, his pulse beating beneath his skin.
“You’re killing me now,” he murmured, and was rewarded with a seductive smile.
Her hands slipped beneath his tunic, and at the touch of her icy fingertips, he yelped. A throaty laugh wound around him, seductive and rich.
The snow fell thicker, and he ignored it as he leaned down to kiss her. This time, it wasn’t meant to subdue her, only to give in to his own longing.
He tasted her victory and his own regret. He hadn’t expected to admire her, nor to want her for his own. The kiss warmed him in a way nothing else had.
Her arms wrapped around his waist, her cool hands moving up his bare back. He winced as goose flesh rose up. “You’re still cold.”
He nodded. “Let me warm you.”
In answer, she pulled his mouth down to hers. He took from her, transforming the kiss into the desire he felt. He’d not expected her to reach out to him, and his sense of honor went on alert.
She didn’t mean this. She didn’t truly want him. It was about negotiating, trying to coerce him into letting her go. And though it was the hardest thing in the world to do, he broke away from her.
“We have to go.” He lifted her into his arms, walking toward the horse. When he raised her onto the horse and then swung on behind her, he was careful not to get too close. It didn’t matter. He breathed in the scent of her hair, like a cool May morning.
Innocent, she was. And he was about to give her over to the king. Magnus would not hesitate to accept the beautiful slave.
If Aisling did not please him, Magnus would give her to his men. He suspected that she would not hesitate to kill any man who threatened her. She would lose her life, if she did.
Strands of her hair whipped against his face, and he pressed them gently away. A sense of unease came over him, at the thought of her coming to harm.
His arms curled around her while they rode, and the fit of her body to his felt right. Against the snowy whiteness, the black runes upon his forearms stood out. Would Aisling’s life be marked by one of them? He tightened his hold upon her.
Though it went against his duty, he no longer wanted to surrender her to the king. And Odin help him, he didn’t know what he could do about it. She was here only as an offering, a gift to secure his sister’s safe return.
He had tried on numerous occasions to talk Magnus into letting Jóra go, even offering gold as a ransom. But the king wanted her with an unnatural longing. Already he might have defiled her.
Tharand quickened the pace of his stallion. They needed shelter before the snow grew too deep for travel. With each mile, his guilt intensified.
Hours later, just as the sun began to sink into the hills, the
stood before them. It was one of many estates conquered by King Magnus, taken from the Irish who had dwelled there before him. The stronghold was meant to defend the eastern coast of Erin. Already there were murmurings of a war brewing north of Dubh Linn.
When they arrived, Tharand gave his horse over to a slave
and drew Aisling to his side. He kept his arm around her, in an unspoken message that she was not to be touched by any man.
Any man, save the king.
Jealousy snaked through his gut, strangling his good sense. But though he turned over different possibilities in his mind, none of them would save Aisling.
The slave led him to the visitor’s quarters, and after a repast of wine and venison, they were given a small pallet for sleeping. The room had no privacy, with several couples sharing the space.
Aisling folded back the coverlet and slid beneath it. She propped her face up on one elbow, waiting for him to join her. He half expected her to keep the blade in her hand, as a warning. Instead, she met his gaze with a steadiness.
“You may sleep alone.” He sat up against the wooden walls, his hand resting upon the handle of a bronze battle-ax. It was easier to guard her this way. For this night, he would keep her safe from harm.
And after that, he’d have to let her go.
Aisling tried to sleep, but her mind wouldn’t allow it. She watched Tharand keeping guard, knowing that he had no intention of sleeping.
Such a paradox, it was. He’d brought her here as his prisoner. And yet he’d never treated her in that way.
She closed her eyes, remembering how he’d defended her from one of his own men. He’d given her the coverlet from his bed the night before, the wool still warm from his body. He’d held her close while riding, teaching her what it meant to feel desire.
When he’d kissed her, it shattered every image she held. It wasn’t the kiss of a lover, but of a man starving for a woman’s
touch. This afternoon when she’d reached out to him, the ground beneath her had shifted. She wanted to kiss him, though it was wrong. He was her captor and a man she should despise.
Instead, he seemed ready to surrender his life for hers. He watched every man as though anticipating a threat. As though she were a treasure to be guarded instead of a slave.
The empty void stretching inside startled her. She wasn’t supposed to feel anything for him, this stranger who had stolen her away. Especially not the unfamiliar sensitivity, the longing to kiss him again.
Aisling drew her legs together, crossing her ankles. The motion tightened the aching within her woman’s flesh. Sinful, wanton thoughts poured through her as she imagined his strong body moving upon her. His hips driving against hers as he filled her.
Her breath caught and she fisted the coverlet. In the morning, he would leave. She’d not lay eyes upon him again.
But there was still tonight. A chance to quench this thirst, to understand him.
He possessed a deep sense of honor, despite his
heritage. And even when he’d taken her body to an ecstasy she’d never known, despite her unwillingness, he’d wanted to please her.
That, perhaps, was why she hadn’t used the knife against him.
Aisling sat up and drew her knees forward, resting her wrists upon them.
Look at me,
she bade him. For in his eyes, she would find her answer.
His gaze snapped toward her. The raw need was almost savage in its nature. He did not relinquish the sight of her, and she unbound her hair for him while he watched.
“What are you doing, Aisling?”
She stood and held out her hand. Like a stranger inside her
own body, she hardly knew herself. But right now, she wanted a night with no regrets.
Tharand rose and followed her outside, his large hand covering hers. The storm had ceased, but the frozen earth held a light dusting of snow.
“I want to be alone with you.”
He cupped her nape, resting his forehead upon hers. “You don’t belong to me.”
The reluctance in his voice had nothing to do with lack of desire, she realized. It gave her a measure of hope. “I won’t see you again, after this night.”
“No,” he answered.
She rested her arms around his shoulders, leaning in to touch him. “Who is she, Tharand? This woman you seek.”
He hesitated, but when she kissed his mouth, he answered against her lips, “My sister.”
“Is she the king’s lover?”
“She is his hostage. And only fifteen.” Tharand hissed when she pressed her body to his, cradling his length against her softness.
“You’re trying to save her. By sending me in her place.”
His shoulders lowered, and she had the answer she needed.
“You could save us both,” she ventured. “Let me help you.” She refused to believe that he would discard her so easily, that there was no hope.
He pulled her into a tight embrace, his breath warm against her cheek. “Would to the gods it were possible. But I am commander of the soldiers at Vedrarfjord. Magnus would not take kindly to a betrayal.”
“Could you free your sister without his knowledge?”
“I have already tried.” The dark, haunted look in his eyes returned.
“Tomorrow,” she whispered, touching his upper arms. “We will free her tomorrow.” She slid her hands down his muscles to the dark tattoos upon his forearms. From his stance, she sensed him starting to pull away. “Why haven’t you given me to the king already?”
He ran his thumb over her mouth. “Because I am weak.”
Aisling took his hand again, but this time, he gripped her wrist in return. “You should go back inside. Sleep.”
“Is that what you want?”
His eyes raked over hers, leaving no doubt of his need. “If you don’t go now—”
“You’ll touch me in the way I want you to?” she whispered. At the disbelief in his blue eyes, she wound her arms around his neck. “One night, Tharand. Give me a memory to hold.”
He cursed beneath his breath, lifting her into his arms. Aisling held tight, as though he were her shield in the midst of a battle.
She needed him, if for only a few hours.
He picked up a torch and led her down to one of the underground cellars used for storing food. Though the temperature was freezing, Aisling felt none of the cold.
Tharand set the torch into an iron sconce and regarded her. In the flickering light, his dark-gold hair gleamed. His eyes pierced her with disbelief. “Why?” he demanded. “I am your enemy.”
She touched her hand to his, not at all certain of what she felt for him. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
“Then you are a fool.”
“As you say.” Aisling took the lead, bringing his hands around her waist. Leaning in, she kissed him. Against his mouth, she felt his reluctance. Did he no longer want her? She shivered in the cool air, wondering if she’d made a mistake. “Shall I stop?”
He responded with words in the Norse tongue, endearments that made her blush. He kissed her temple, cradling her face in his hands. “I will try,” he swore, “to get both of you out.”