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First came the erotic dream, so vivid it took her breath away. Then came the fierce Viking warrior who kidnapped her from Antwerp and swept her away to an enchanted island. Against her will, Lady Avril de Varennes wed her steely-armed captor, Hauk Valbrand. She vowed to escape even as he swore there was no escape from Asgard Island--a mist-shrouded land with a mysterious secret...
First came the erotic dream, so vivid it took her breath away. Then came the fierce Viking warrior who kidnapped her from Antwerp and swept her away to an enchanted island. Against her will, Lady Avril de Varennes wed her steely-armed captor, Hauk Valbrand. She vowed to escape even as he swore there was no escape from Asgard Island--a mist-shrouded land with a mysterious secret of its own. But why did he seem so familiar? Suddenly she knew. Hauk Valbrand was the passionate stranger of her dream come dangerously to life.
Avril was as tempestuous as the season for which she was named, trouble for a man with something to hide, a kingdom to protect. To save her from an evil kinsman who threatened her life, Hauk Valbrand claimed the fiery beauty who divined his true identity, but not the secret that held her in his thrall forevermore. Hauk thought he was lost to love...until Avril awakened a passion so strong it brought him to his knees, forcing him to choose: between love and honor, between duty and desire, between now and forever.
But like a mischievous dragon, the rough northern seas carried their longship to a hidden island instead, a place cloaked in mists and mystery, set apart from the world for centuries, untouched by time.
There they found bountiful fields and deep, cool forests, vast meadows, cascading waterfalls, and midsummer warmth that knew no season. Enchanted, the twenty Norsemen decided to claim the island as their home, naming this newfound paradise Asgard, after the legendary realm of the gods said to float above the earth, invisible to the eyes of men.
True to the daring spirit of their age, the warriors went a-viking, raiding, to seek brides to share their new home--and they soon discovered that Asgard offered much more than natural beauty. The island held a special magic unknown elsewhere in the world, a gift that has been enjoyed by their sons and daughters generation after generation.
Over the centuries, the people of Asgard have kept the island's secret, protecting it from those who would wage war to possess it. Yet the gift also carries a price...
Asgard Island, 1303
'Twas a dangerous task, stealing women.
A man needed guile, strength, blade-skill, and boldness to find a fair maiden, pluck her from the bosom of her family like ripe fruit from a bough, carry her off--and live long enough to enjoy his prize.
Hauk Valbrand frowned, seated in the stern of the longboat as it pierced the fog and glided across the glassy, night-black sea. Studying the twelve warriors straining at the oars, their sweaty, angular faces illuminated by an oil lantern dangling from the prow, he knew that only seven or eight possessed the qualities needed to survive. The young fools should have listened to him when he argued against taking this risk.
Despite the battle-axes strapped across their backs and the swords at their waists, some of his traveling companions would lose their lives before this voyage was done.
He clenched his jaw and looked back over his shoulder at the distant beach, now a mere ribbon of silver in the moonlight. A brine-scented breeze made the fog shift and dance, while the rhythmic dipping ofthe oars through the water made the only sound in the stillness. All revelry and bawdy jests had ended when they left shore.
As soon as the young raiders had donned their brown homespun garments and pushed the square-sailed ship into the mist that cloaked their island home, each seemed to realize the seriousness of the dangers ahead.
But neither Hauk's logic nor the threat of facing an outraged father or brother or kinsman had been enough to sway them from their purpose. The ancient drives were too strong, the temptation too powerful.
Had he not felt the same fire in his blood years ago, his first time? Had he not lived to enjoy his pretty prize?
Ja, and he had also lived to regret ever setting eyes on her.
"Still having doubts, old friend?"
Hauk glanced at the man beside him, who had one arm slung across the tiller. "Nei. Nay," he replied tightly. "Merely wondering which of us will not survive to return home, Kel."
"I am certain we will all return home." Keldan pushed back the hood of his cloak, revealing thick dark hair, a confident smile, and a face that always made females swoon at his feet in annoying numbers. "You have trained us well, Hauk. Nils is now better with a blade than any man on Asgard--other than you, of course. And Bjarn has become an expert with that odd weapon that fires short arrows--"
"A crossbow." Keldan shrugged as if the name did not matter. "And we have spent six months planning every detail of this journey--"
"And most of you have never left the island before. Even the best among you is little better than a green lad."
Keldan wrinkled his nose in offense. "Inexperienced we may be, but the Claiming voyage is an honored tradition--and even you cannot fight tradition, Hauk."
"Stolen fruit tastes the sweetest," one of the other would-be warriors said, quoting the centuries-old saying among the inhabitants of Asgard Island.
Hauk slanted the eager young whelp a quelling look. "If we are to survive, we must change some of the old traditions." It seemed he had been saying that every day of late. He sighed, rubbing at his eyes, running a weary hand through his tangled blond hair. "The Claiming voyage was necessary for survival in the early days, but that is no longer true. In these times it is dangerous not only to us but to everyone we leave behind. There are seven hundred lives on that island, and I am responsible for keeping them safe--"
"Mayhap you should have stayed behind with them, Valbrand," another raider commented, his voice laced with undisguised hostility. "We do not need you hovering over us like some overgrown nursemaid."
Hauk sliced his old nemesis with a glare. "I am here by order of the elders, Thorolf. Someone had to ensure that you hot-blooded raiders remember our laws and do not bring a world of trouble down upon us." Leaning back against the bulwark, he rested one arm along the boat's railing, letting his cloak fall open to display the longsword gleaming at his waist. Won in battle by his grandfather, it was named Forsvar. Defender. "I will be keeping watch over you most of all."
Staring at the weapon, with its silver hilt and mystical runes inscribed on the blade, Thorolf fell silent, broad shoulders bulging as he hauled on his oar. Hauk still did not understand why the hulking knave had insisted on taking part in this voyage. Older than the others, older than Hauk himself, Thorolf had a heart as black as ocean depths at midnight--and a habit of making trouble purely for his own amusement. He was not the sort to pine away for female companionship or a family.
And that was the true purpose of this voyage; like their ancestors, those men of Asgard who wished to have families had to risk venturing forth into the outside world in search of brides--for the women of Asgard could not bear children.
Thorolf's thick lips curled in a sneer. "I have as much right to be here as any man. The ancient law--"
"During this journey, I am the law," Hauk warned silkily. "You will either follow my commands or pay the price." He shifted to a tone that some women had told him was even icier than his blue eyes. "You know from experience that I do not make idle threats."
Thorolf held his stare, gaze glittering with a lifetime of hatred, before he looked away uncomfortably.
"All will be well," Keldan said in a soft voice, trying to make peace, as usual. "We will follow your orders, Hauk, as we promised. But even if one of us is captured or killed, there is no chance that our secret could be discovered."
Hauk fingered the rough fabric of his cloak, hoping that was true. They had taken pains to appear unremarkable. Uninteresting. Unworthy of attention. They had removed their gold armbands and jeweled torques, shaved their beards, donned the tunics and leggings favored by common European traders. Hauk had left all mark of his rank and office behind--except for his sword.
Even their ancient ship had been carefully disguised, its name sanded away, the carved dragon's head removed from the prow. Stripped of its finery, the weathered longboat looked like a derelict left over from another age, battered but still fierce.
The thought made Hauk's lips curve in a rueful half smile. The same could be said about him.
Shaking his head, he stared off into the fog. "Every time we set foot in their world," he said quietly, "we risk exposing our secret."
"But we have taken every precaution. Looking at us, no one could tell us apart from ordinary men--"
"Keldan, we are not ordinary men."
His young friend fell silent for a moment. "In every way that matters, we are," he insisted stubbornly. "We feel joy and pain, we eat and sleep and laugh and bleed. We want what any man wants, to have a wife and a family--"
"But we are not ordinary men," Hauk repeated, fixing him with a hard stare. "We are different, Kel. Someday you will learn to accept that."
Keldan's brown eyes held a hint of sadness. But then he waved a hand as if to brush the subject away, grinning. "Well, I for one intend to enjoy every second of this journey. And if aught goes awry..." His smile widened. "Who wants to live forever?"
Hauk arched one brow. "You may not find that so funny two days hence when we land at Antwerp."
"I expect I shall have far more pleasant things to think about in Antwerp. This trade fair should offer a great variety of women from all over the continent." He looked as excited as a boy choosing among a shiny array of new playthings. "I want an exotic beauty--a Moorish girl, or a dark-eyed firebrand from Tuscany, or a Scottish lass with red hair and freckles like Rolf's wife." His smile fading a bit, he lowered his voice, speaking for Hauk's ears alone. "You might find a new bride for yourself, my friend...have you considered that?"
Hauk swallowed hard and glanced away. Nei, he had not considered it. Not for a moment. He had lost his first wife in childbirth, and his second...
He had outlived his second.
"Never again, Kel," he said bitterly. "Never. I am here to watch over you and the others, that is all." Under his breath, he added, "A man can get used to living alone."
Even as he whispered those words, the last of the fog parted before the ship's prow, a west-born wind filled the sail, and the longboat swept into the open sea.