Eighteen years ago, Bjorn was exiled from Vellefold. Honor-bound to return, he’ll fight for the settlement…then walk away. First, he must work with his childhood friend, now a beautiful, high-ranking Viking lady.
Fierce of spirit, Ilsa will do anything to save her people, including convincing the banished son to take the jarl’s seat. But she has her doubts about the stone-hearted Viking, despite the lust between them. It’s only a matter of time before Bjorn discovers that Ilsa is hiding dangerous secrets, secrets that may jeopardize all they’ve worked for.
When the darkest hour comes, the once-rejected warrior must choose: rescue his men, the Forgotten Sons—or Ilsa, the woman he craves, body and soul.
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This book is approximately 78,000 words
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Bjorn stood over a rain barrel, washing dirt and blood off hot skin. Water rippled his reflection, a hard Northman who chewed iron and breathed battle. Victory was his today, a truth that never unsettled him. The news he carried did. Four of the Breton Queen's men had died with honor by his hand. One warrior had lain in the grass, gasping sweet words about two spies living in Rouen. Both women.
He splashed his face. He'd not hunt them. He refused to — something he'd have to tell his jarl.
Light and laughter burst from the feast hall's open shutters. If trouble lurked, he couldn't see it. The rest of Rouen was peaceful as a sleeping virgin. Doors shut tight. Torches flickering at crossroads. Ships anchored in the Seine River like docile beasts. Even the Christians' stone abbey was sealed for the night, an innocent among the unholy.
Finger-combing wet hair, he waded into Longsword's hall. Farmers and fighters bumped his shoulders, their conversations bouncing off the rafters. Mead, ale, Frankish wine flowed freely in honor of Mabon season, the pagan harvest. It was a time to give thanks and a time to end unfinished business. Deep in the crowd, his feet stalled. Kohl-rimmed eyes a shade of the Aegean Sea fixed on him. A lady in white across the longhouse, a newcomer. Chin tipping high, she studied him in the manner of a merchant considering new wares.
His pulse kicked up. He stared back, masculine instinct meeting feminine confidence. She was a powerful Viking woman, Freyja in the flesh with wide gold earrings gleaming against her neck. Her smooth jaw spoke of youth, her angled cheeks of experience. She was knowing and proud, with a small straight nose. Life had fashioned her close to his age of thirty, a woman who'd lived well and taken her reward. He liked watching her sipping from a silver-trimmed horn, listening to the jarl's half-brother, Ademar. Bjorn grinned. More like she tolerated him, by her bored nods.
Beguiling lips curved the longer she eyed Bjorn, the smile painting her softly. Basking in the lady's attention was akin to falling into cool seas. Deep. Refreshing. Teasing his mind with —
"Are you going to stand there all night?" Thorvald thumped the table, rattling wooden plates. "Come. Eat."
Typical Thorvald. Filling his belly always came first. "I have news for the jarl." He glanced at the head table and stiffened. The woman's head bent intimately with Longsword's.
"It'll have to wait." Thorvald waggled bushy brows. "He's busy."
"Who is she?" Bjorn slid onto the bench, putting his back to her. Jewel-encrusted earrings should've been his first sign the lady in white wasn't for him. Her place of honor between Will Longsword and his bastard half-brother was another. The jarl ate two steps above the earthen floor for a reason. He'd be wise to forget her.
"Don't know." Thorfinn, twin to Thorvald, waved over a thrall. "We were discussing bigger matters than women."
"Land." Erik jabbed his knife into a heaping tray of meat.
Gunnar wiped his blade on his arm brace. "He means we were discussing which one of us will be the next landsman."
Bjorn tore off a chunk of bread and slathered it with butter. The Forgotten Sons, his brothers-in-arms, hungered for land. It was a sickness, consuming their conversation when they trained, when they ate, and probably filling their dreams when they slept. Not his. He was a simple warrior who preferred their old ways, roaming from border to border, serving caliphs, viziers, and kings. But they were men of Rouen now.
Only one of them would get the next holding.
The hall's revelry showered him, a good distraction after blood-pumping combat. Battle's fire ebbed from his body, taking with it the need for constant vigilance. The Breton Queen was a vicious wasp protecting her nest. He couldn't fault her ferocity, but her methods were dirty, plying poor tribes with lies, stealing their sons — and now their daughters — to fight her battles. But this was not the time to unload such weighty news on Longsword.
The thrall, Gyda, a favorite of the Sons, approached the table. Honey smeared her apron, proof of her mead-making. She'd likely labored since sunrise to make the feast a success, and she would labor long past midnight to see its end. Quiet, without complaint.
Brown wisps brushed her rosy cheeks as she filled his cup. "You've returned early."
"To sample your mead before this lot drinks it all." The bread forgotten, he guzzled spiced honey, its sharp-sweetness drenching his mouth.
He checked Erik, his partner on the day's ride. A slight shake of Erik's head told him, I didn't say a word to our brothers about the spies. Loyalty to Longsword first — something else to get used to.
Thorvald gnawed a hunk of meat, talking between bites. "Bjorn should be the next one to get land."
"Why?" Gunnar's arms spread wide. "Because he is second-in-command?" Bjorn frowned. The Whelp.
"The gods do not go by rank." Thorvald pointed a pork rib at Gunnar. "Longsword might, not the gods."
Gunnar scooped buttered turnips from a platter onto his plate. "If that's true, why does Rurik sit at Longsword's table, and we do not?"
Five pairs of wolfish eyes took in Rurik, his mouth curving in a wicked smile as he listened to his bride whisper in his ear. He was the Forgotten Sons' leader, yet Rurik profited the most from the decision to stay in Rouen. A beautiful woman. Wealth. A holding big enough it took two days to ride from end to end.
A carving of Yggsdrasil sprawled floor to ceiling, the mythical tree a mighty crown on the wall behind the jarl's table. Did the gods believe Rurik the most deserving? A wide silver band wrapped around his upper arm, announcing him the third highest man in Rouen. As a boy, he'd led the Sons when they were impoverished troublemakers in Birka. Skalds already lauded Rurik, the hardscrabble Viking who rose from nothing.
Bjorn swallowed more mead, unable to muster even a drop of envy. Rurik earned his place. As long as the Sons stayed together, naught else mattered.
"Do you really care that Rurik sups at the jarl's table?" Gyda asked. "All of you feast in Longsword's hall. Is that not enough?" Petite of frame, she reached forward and splashed golden mead into Erik's cup. "Why not turn your minds to better things?"
"What better things?" Erik's features flickered at the edge of malice, a common state.
"Truth and love." She looked at the men with eyes the shade of newly plowed earth. "Are those not worthy rewards?"
The hall's doors blew open and gusts kicked skirt hems everywhere. Gudrun, a Norse witch, entered, her frosty stare hovering on the Sons before finding her sister, Ginna, talking to a young farmer. Bjorn shivered at something tracing his spine. Had to be excess water trickling from his hair. Nose in his cup, he hoped that was what touched his back. Wherever Gudrun went death wasn't far behind.
"We're arguing about the usual rewards," Erik said gruffly. "Fame. Wealth. Land."
"You must think bigger than that," Gyda chided.
Thorvald swiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Sounds big enough for me."
"Then that is all you will have. In small measure." Her pink lips firmed. "Which is no doubt the same size as other parts of you."
The smash-faced warrior scowled when hoots of laughter followed her jibe. A thrall since birth, Gyda spoke her mind freely under Longsword's rule, but she was a woman who would bend, a reed in the wind. Her pliant nature was her strength, so was her tolerance with men.
Gyda tipped her pointy chin at one of the posts holding up the roof. "Look at the carving of Tyr."
Each Son swiveled around to view a pillar of such size no man could fully wrap his arms around it. Tyr's battle with the wolf Fenrir had been chiseled on one post, the work of a traveling carver.
Gyda rested the earthen vessel on her hip. "He fought to save others —"
"And lost his hand," Thorvald put in.
"— but fame and wealth followed." She stopped and scanned their faces. "Is it not obvious? You must ask the gods for your purpose and seek it, no matter the sacrifice."
Words overlapped from the men arguing about sacrifice and purpose, greatness and riches. Gyda was wise beyond her years, pretty too. An easy companion, she joined the fray. But, these were the gods she spoke of, while the Sons were mere men. Bjorn ate peppered pork and studied the carving of Tyr and Fenrir, their fight curving around oiled wood polished to a shine. Lose a hand to save others? He was Viking, yet he didn't see the need for that kind of sacrifice. Fighting to win? That he understood.
Gyda set her pitcher in front of him and murmured above his ear, "I'll leave this here. Something tells me all this talk will make your men very thirsty." She winked and sauntered off, blue skirts swaying.
Skin on his bare arms pebbled from air turning its face to winter. The matselja, Astrid, keeper of the jarl's longhouse, quickly worked her way down one wall, closing shutters against harvest's chill.
He scooped blackberries from a wooden bowl and addressed the men, "We're getting ahead of ourselves. Think instead of the tasks before us."
"What tasks?" Gunnar popped a berry in his mouth.
"Securing the Seine at Rurik's holding for one, getting ready for winter for another."
Nods of assent were slow. Thorvald wiped greasy fingers across the wolf head carved onto his leather vest. "Makes sense."
Uncertainty clouded Gunnar's brow. "But, what if Gyda is right? What if we must first find our purpose?" His arms spread with appeal. "Why else would the gods bring us here to stay?"
Bjorn's molars ground the berries, their late-season tartness bursting across his tongue. A step above housekarls, the Forgotten Sons were common warriors separated by uncommon gifts in battle, but they were simple fighters. Nothing more. He'd not let one woman's opinion invade their minds. Their zeal for land was distracting enough.
"Listen to me. Gyda is tenderhearted, full of lofty ideas, but she is a thrall untried in life. Forget what she said." He looked pointedly at each man. "It's not wise to let a woman mess with your mind."
Satisfied with that wisdom, he tore off more bread and almost missed their stares drifting behind him. His back prickled when a silken voice touched his ears.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I've traveled a long way to present you with a lofty idea."
The woman in white stepped into his vision, lithe of form and fluid as sunshine on water. Her mouth snared him, the full lower lip indented in the middle as if the gods had pressed a fingertip there when she was born. Blue and green embroidery dressed a bodice covering small breasts. He wasn't complaining. Breasts of any size fascinated him.
"A lofty idea?" Doubt framed his words.
Her smile was sultry and confident. "Yes. One that will make you a powerful man."
For a split second he gave in to enthrallment. Something in his chest twisted at being the center of her attention. The lady's bearing and low voice flooded him with pleasure until reason overruled. Rich offers from fair-faced women didn't happen to men like him.
"A powerful man?" he drawled. "Lady, you're at the wrong end of the hall for that."
Gunnar's eyes flashed a warning. He glared back, but the Whelp was right. He should be careful. This woman had a seat at the jarl's table, which meant she was an honored guest and should be treated with the best manners. The lady's regard swept over tables of warriors around them, meaty, scarred-up, axe-wielding brutes, the toughest of Longsword's housekarls. Those men ogled her hungrily. She met their stares, measure for measure from one man to another until her gaze settled on Bjorn.
"No. I am at the right end of the hall." Sea-green eyes probed him. "It is you I want."
"Me," he said, feeling a foolish grin spread. Across the table, Thorvald coughed on his bite. Gunnar thumped his brother's back, but the lady held court. She was comfortable with her power, chin high, shoulders squared. Nothing docile about this woman.
"What if my offer makes you equal to Longsword?" she asked.
His jaw went slack and Thorfinn's knife froze midway to his mouth, butter dripping off a spiked turnip. Erik's eyes turned into dark slits, and Thorvald gave the woman deeper scrutiny.
His skin tingled the more he absorbed her features. "Do I know you?" Her eyes rounded. "You don't remember me?"
"No. Should I?"
She laughed, the musical sound sending his unwelcome childhood tumbling forward. Thudding drummed in his ears. A grey haze encroached his vision. All pretense of eating at the table stopped, each man boldly curious. The jarl's guest was regal, pleats perfect, her stance unashamed. Gunnar gave her a slow once-over when she smoothed the back of her skirts and slid onto the bench facing Bjorn. More striking than beautiful, she was the kind of woman a man could stare at in fascination and never get bored. Self-assured women had that advantage.
"I recognized you the moment you walked into the hall." Her voice was a smoky purr. "You've cut your hair and it is a darker blond than I remember, but your gait hasn't changed."
"You walk like a hunter. Balanced. Sure of yourself, ready for anything. That's what my father used to say about you." A little shrug and, "Seeing you again, I'd say he's right."
Blood pumped faster in his veins. Battle's metallic flavor filled his mouth. "Ilsa."
Her nod was slow and intimate. "We were friends once in Vellefold."
He dropped his bread onto his plate and nudged it aside. "Yes. A long time ago."
Ilsa. Daughter of Odell, master of North Sea hunts and a great ivory merchant. As a girl, she'd had a talent for wringing fun out of rainy days and spinning sunshine when there was none, but she was part of a life he'd left behind. A grown woman faced him now, armored with natural-born confidence. The mention of Vellefold was as good as a knife to his back, and by the angle of her chin, she knew it.
Icy waves washed his skin. The table's wood grain blurred, unfurling a Hel-black chasm before his eyes. It was the memory of his father's black mantle whipping sideways on a stormy beach — the day his father left him.
Fear spiked in his veins. His knee bounced under the table. He grabbed his thigh and gave a brutal squeeze. He needed to get out of his head, or he'd lose his mind to that Hel-black chasm again.
Ilsa's attention skimmed each man. "I am here for an exclusive trade with Longsword. And Bjorn."
The Sons exchanged sharp glances. Thorfinn dropped his knife on his plate. "A trade with Bjorn is a trade with all of us, lady."
"I have heard that about the Forgotten Sons." Ilsa's gaze reached across the table. "But what I have to say is for Bjorn alone."
Such a tender-voiced message, yet each word cut to the bone. The raucous hall jarred his ears; despite it he was grateful. Thorfinn's shoulder was a steady presence at his side. A lifeline. Erik's slight nod gave a message, Your brothers are with you. They all knew the day his father had abandoned him in Birka. It was the same day Rurik had found Bjorn, taken him home, and convinced his mother, who'd struggled to feed four mouths, to take in one more. She did. Oddny's kindness had saved Bjorn's life.
"I have news from home," Ilsa said. "From your family."
"What home?" Ire sliced Bjorn's words. "Rouen is my home, and these men are my family."
His bite missed its mark. Ilsa glowed with wrath-melting gentleness. Her features softened, but he couldn't say if the lady across the table displayed womanly wiles meant to bend a man to her will, or if she reflected genuine childhood friendship.
"Share some mead with me," she coaxed. "Listen to my proposition."
"This news is now a proposition?"
A fixed smile was her answer. Ilsa had ogre-sized balls to seek him on behalf of Vellefold. Sitting across from her, his senses stirred to smoke churning in Longsword's hall, yet he'd swear he smelled the secret grove she escaped to as a girl. The pines and birches, the sticky resin on her hands and cheeks after she'd carved runes on trees. Her favorite grove had been full of those marks.
The woman with him now had traveled a far distance to speak to him. For her courage alone, she deserved to be heard.
He pushed a cup across the table. "One drink. That's all the time you have to bend my ear."
Chafed fingers full of cuts wrapped around the wooden cup. Her fingernails were clean but roughly shorn, a contrast to ornately embroidered sleeves typical of wealthy, high-born women. Ilsa had strived for something and her hands had paid the price. Beside him spoons and knives scraped plates and heads bent low, the Sons tucking into their food, trying to go unnoticed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Her Viking Warrior"
Copyright © 2019 Gina Conkle.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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