The moment Merewyn sets eyes on the warrior standing atop a Viking raiding ship, something inside her stirs. By all rights, she should fear him, should run from him, yet she cannot help but be drawn to him.
Eirik has never before taken a woman captive, yet Merewyn inspires a longing that calls to the darkness within him. He takes her back to his homeland as his slave, where they finally succumb to passion. And as the lines between captor and captive blur, Eirik realizes they have crossed into dangerous territory
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She lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and two young children. Visit her website: www.harperstgeorge.com.
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Eirik had never taken a eaptrve before, but the rdea that she eould be his was nearly overpowering. He closed his eyes in an attempt to fight back the dark thought, but when he opened them and she still hadn't seen their boats, his heartbeat quickened. The longing sent his blood thrumming through his body so that it roared in his ears and blocked out almost everything else except his awareness of her.
For two years he'd been the leader of this fleet of longships. Even before that, he'd travelled under his father's command to far-reaching ends of the world. He'd become adept at reading signs, at picking up on cues that would go unnoticed by most, at trusting his instincts. It was why his men trusted him so explicitly. And now his instincts were telling him to take her.
She should have noticed them by nowafter all, he could see her through the fog, so she should be able to see them. But she twirled in the dark mist as if she hadn't a care in her world. Perhaps the gods had left her there just for him. He blinked and banished the thought, his warrior's instinct taking over. There were no signal fires along the beach. Either the guards were asleep or there were no guards. Someone should be out walking with the girl, but she danced alone, a gift to be plucked from the desolate shores and taken home.
Eirik looked up and down the beach, searching for signs of an ambush, some shape that would emerge from the gloom and reveal itself to be an army of Saxons. Perhaps the girl had been planted as an enticement. Or perhaps something more sinister was at play. He'd heard tales of sirens who lured men to their deaths. They usually inhabited mythical islands that the sea swallowed up again, but it was possible the Northumbrian coast offered its own sirens. But the beach was empty and a quick look at the men rowing assured him that no one else had been enthralled by her as he had. Perhaps she was his own personal siren.
Her lithe form swayed as she twirled, luxuriating in abandon and unrestraint. The spell she wove pulled at him, promising freedom from the bonds of duty and the shadows of his past that had always held him in such rigid control. He wanted to join her and was struck by the absurdity of the thought. She was just a girl, like any other he'd seen in his travels, but he could name the exact moment she'd picked his shape out of the dense fog. Her gaze ignited small flares of awareness, and when it met his, he was struck by a strange shock of recognition. He'd never seen her before, never been this far north on these shores, but the feeling that she was his was there all the same.
The fleet's approach had been planned to coincide with the veil of the approaching dawn and his men were carefully trained in the art of stealth. It would be easy to take her. The terrible anticipation clenched tight in his gut. But he pushed it away and reminded himself that their journey up the coast was a scouting mission. There would be no captives.
Finally understanding the danger coming towards her, she turned to run. Blood rushed through him, powered by the need to stop her before she warned everyone. His booted feet splashed in the water and his men followed, dropping their oars and disembarking to pull the ship onto the shore.
It had stormed the previous night, but that didn't stop Merewyn from her morning ritual of walking on the beach. If her older brother's repeated threats on the matter hadn't deterred her, a little rain wasn't going to stand in her way. She lived for her mornings away from the manor, when she could be alone with the sunrise. It was probably silly, but in those brief moments she felt like anything was possible. That with the new day, the drudgery of her life could become something more than caring for her brother's children and being relegated to performing the household tasks of a servant.
She loved the children dearly, but they weren't hers. Blythe made sure that she remembered who had borne them, who was really in charge of the household. And she was right. As his wife, she should be in charge, but Merewyn couldn't help feeling slighted. On the beach, though, all of that fell away. She was free. She was happy. Her life was her own.
She smiled as she twirled in the mist, letting the moisture collect like tiny diamonds shining in the dark strands of her hair. Despite the cold, she put her arms up high and held the fur wrap aloft to catch the breeze. The salty wind made her think of freedom. She adored it.
But in the next moment, she saw the ship cutting through the surf, saw the wooden dragon's head set atop the prow and knew that freedom would never be hers again. The beast was so close she could have counted each of his pointed teeth where they protruded from the curve of his grotesque smile, promising death and suffering. She could have if she hadn't already noticed the other ships accompanying the first one, each drawing her attention as they emerged from the shroud of mist. The boats spread out wide before her, creating the illusion of dark wings, like a giant beast taking flight in search of its prey.
The beach was a long, flat stretch of sand that gave way to gentle, rolling grassland. Her figure standing at the sea's edge was surely as conspicuous as was that of the Northman standing in that first ship. The others blended into one mass of muscled humanity bending and rowing, but he stood tall with one foot resting on the gunwale as he stared directly at her. She had been spotted. He was coming for her.
Alfred had been right. He'd warned her all along to keep close to the manor while he was gone, that the Northmen were growing bolder, but she'd disregarded him as an overly protective older brother. But he'd been right, and now nothing could save her from them. Every story she'd ever heard of the horrible things they did to their captives sped through her mind in an instant. The terror was enough to paralyse her.
But she forcefully pushed her fear away and made herself move. At first in slow, wobbling steps backwards and then, after a half turn, in wider, faster strides that took her towards the grass. She had trouble tearing her gaze from that giant on the first boat. He moved, arms uncrossing from his chest, lord of all he set his eyes upon as he readied to jump from the boat.
The horrible certainty that he would catch her made her sprint faster towards the manor. It stood on a gentle slope about a half mile inland. It was too far away to reach before the boats touched the beach, but maybe she had a chance to warn everyone of the invaders. They wouldn't see the monsters coming without her warning. Even knowing where the fortress stood, she could hardly make out a light through the heavy fog.
Her legs pumped, toes digging deep into the sandy shore as she struggled to run, her blood prickling and settling heavy in her calves. She already had a painful stitch in her side, but Merewyn forced herself to keep going. She imagined she heard the wind striking the leather of a Northman's cloak. It spurred her to move faster and sooner than she had imagined possible she was running through the open gates of her home.
'Close the gates! The Northmen have come!' She barely managed to get the words out before she collapsed in a heap, struggling to catch her breath while her lungs constricted painfully in her chest.
Someone grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet as the gates swung closed.
'How many?' a voice called out. She had no idea who had spoken in the chaos.
'Five ships, perhaps more.' She shook her head in frustration. She'd been too frightened to count and unable to see them clearly. There could have been more hiding in the fog.
'Dear God, they'll overrun us!'
A low roar filled her ears, and she realised it was the sound of the beasts just outside the gates. Their battle cries were fierce and almost inhuman. Her knees trembled and her blood ran cold. The horde had been so close on her heels it was a miracle she'd made it within the walls before they caught her. She immediately offered up a prayer of thanks and tried to remember what Alfred had told them to do if they were attacked while he was gone.
'Merewyn! What in God's name have you done?'
Merewyn turned to see Alfred's wife, Blythe, approaching. There was no denying the censure in the woman's eyes. 'The Danes are here'
'How dare you lead them to us? This is what comes of your morning walks. Didn't Alfred forbid them?'
'They were coming straight for the beach. They already knew where the manor was.'
The blow was so unexpected, Merewyn staggered. The imprint of Blythe's hand burned hot on her cheek and her eyes stung with tears.
'Get below. I'll have to deal with this.' Blythe was already looking past her to the gates.
'Wh-what of the children?'
'Alythe has them all except Annis and Geoff. They just ran to your chamber. Take them with you.'
Merewyn ran to find her brother's youngest children. She was thankful she never allowed them to follow her to the beach in the mornings. Already she could hear the banging at the gates and the wood groaning as it struggled to withstand the assault. The hollow echo of the initial chop of an axe splitting into the gate reverberated through her and made her stomach clench with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before the wood gave way.
Eirik used the thick hilt of his sword to bash through another door. Another empty chamber. He bit back the sour disappointment and stalked to the great hall. It, too, had been abandoned by the Saxons, but was now filling with his men. The lady of Wexbrough Manor stood glaring at him from her place in the far corner. Her guard had been disarmed and knelt, tethered, at the other end of the room. The servants and workmen had been gathered in the yard. Only young boys, women and old mennone capable of putting up much of a fight. That only left the family members, who were conspicuously absent. He knew they were hiding.
It shouldn't matter. They weren't here for captives. This was merely a scouting trip. The location was prime for a command post for the spring invasion and it hadn't yet been thoroughly assessed. Eirik would send men to report to his uncle, who was wintering to the south, and then leave to spend the winter at home, a place he hadn't seen in almost two years. Taking the girl wasn't part of that plan, and he assured himself it wasn't why he hoped to find her. He wanted to see her up close to understand what it was that drew him to her. To appease his curiosity.
His sharp gaze took in every shadow in the hall, searching for a glimpse of the blue gown she wore or a tendril of the dark hair that had streamed out behind her as she'd run. She would be hidden with the rest of the family, wherever that was. They didn't have time to search. The hair on his neck stood upright, a warning that they needed to make haste and had already spent enough time at the manor. Whether the lack of an adequate guard was a reflection of its lord's arrogance or its king's desperation in calling all the able-bodied men to him, Eirik didn't know. But the possibility that someone had escaped from the manor to summon nearby warriors to their aid was very real. Every instinct insisted they leave now.
The need to find her pressed tight on his chest and threatened to squeeze the air from his lungs. It was madness, sheer and utter madness. Eirik recognised it and kept a tight rein on it, refusing to give up control.
He stepped over bowls and tankards, all signs of an interrupted breakfast, and stopped when he stood before the lady. Two chests of tribute, danegeld the lady had called it, were spilled on the floor between them. 'This is all you offer? You've already told me of your household's relation to your king. Doesn't your lord husband rank high enough to deserve more generosity from his king?' He kicked a gilded tankard so it came to rest at her feet.
If the woman had been shocked that he spoke her language, she never revealed it. Even now, she regarded him with the contempt he assumed she reserved for the lowest slaves.
'What more do you want from us, dog? Your hounds are already tearing apart the chapel.' Her words were punctuated by a loud crash coming from the general direction of that building.
'If you have nothing else to offer, we'll take your grain.' The tribute was no more than what she should pay. The lord of the manor had led a particularly brutal offensive against his uncle's men to the south just months ago. It didn't bother him at all that the loss of the grain meant she and her lord would face a particularly harsh winter. He repeated the words in his own tongue and they were greeted with sounds of disgust. Gold was exceedingly preferable to grain. Eirik smiled and raised his hand to a group of men who stood nearby awaiting his command. It was the signal to carry out his threat.
'Nay!' she yelled when the group moved to leave for the granary.
Almost at the same time, a shrill scream pierced the still morning air. The smile dropped from his mouth and his heart picked up speed in his chest. It was the girl. Eirik knew it without even knowing how he could be so sure. His feet were leaden, but moved faster as he followed the sound through the wide doorway that led to a pantry.
Shelves stacked with sacks of foodstuff lined the walls. Oak barrels had been stowed three deep against the wall, but a portion of them were pushed aside revealing a hidden chamber in the floor. A door that led to the underground chamber was thrown wide, leaving a yawning black hole in the earth.
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