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Authors: A Tale of Two Vikings

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BOOK: Sandra Hill
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Helga, equally indignant over the wagering, vowed, “I will melt all my embroidery needles and take up cooking, a job I abhor, afore I will wed, and certainly not to a loathsome lout like Vagn. Though I wouldn’t mind…well, never mind.”

Gorm couldn’t stop grinning.

If it didn’t stop snowing soon, Vagn was going to attach ice skates to Clod’s hooves and find a way to escape Briarstead.

But first…

Lady with a mind of her own…

“The stables? Why are you taking me to the stables?” Esme asked Toste as he dragged her the short distance from the keep, slamming the barn door behind him. It was bitterly cold outside but warm in the barn from the heat of fifty or so horses.

He did not answer her at first, just scowled and continued to pull her along beside him down the center aisle between two long rows of horse stalls. The Viking was driving her half barmy with his changes of mood.

But, really, she was changing moods by the minute as well. In one instant she was kneeling-down thankful for his help getting her out of St. Anne’s Abbey and into a safe haven.
Although I will never in this lifetime forgive him for his manner of rescue. The next time my teeth are that close
to a man’s most precious part, he is going to find half of it gone. Yeech! What a picture!

In the next instant she was brain-boiling mad at his teasing antics and overbearing male arrogance.
Why do men always think they know what is best for women? And if this lout thinks he can wink and grin at me and I will do his every bidding, well, he needs to have his brain rearranged…with a mallet. Although he does have a nice wink and grin
.

Then, in a third instant she felt overpowering sympathy for him that he had lost a brother he loved so much.
I have never loved another person so much in all my life and certainly never had such affection thrown my way. I envy him this love. I really do
.

In a fourth and most alarming instant, she found herself being attracted to the knave. His person was exquisite, from his endearing cleft chin to his well-muscled form. But it was more than that.

Will I ever forget that kiss in the convent hallway?

Will there ever be a repeat?

I should not care
.

But I do care
.

Esme was a strong person, much stronger than people gave her credit for. When she wanted something as much as she wanted her home at Evergreen, she would stop at nothing—
nothing
—to attain that goal. Hadn’t she spent eleven years in a nunnery to prove that point? Hadn’t she fought off her father’s marriage and death threats? But it was time to go on the offensive, and if it meant stomping over a roguish Viking to get what she wanted, then so be it. Toste might think he could force her to his will, but he was sorely mistaken. Sad to say, she could be as ruthless as her father if pushed to the wall.

“The stables are the only place where a person can get
any privacy here,” Toste finally responded in a grumbling tone, still dragging her along. “There are people everywhere at Ravenshire, mostly busybodies who have naught better to do than interfere in other people’s affairs.”

“They do it out of affection,” she argued.

“Hah! You have no idea how Alinor and Eadyth meddled in the life of our friend Rurik till he settled down with Maire in the Scottish highlands. He should have left her hanging in a cage from her ramparts, if you ask me.”

“A…a cage?” she sputtered. That was one of the few things her father hadn’t tried with her, probably because he’d hadn’t heard of such.

“Once, Alinor even pretended to grow a tail to scare Rurik into believing she was a witch.”

Esme would have loved to see that.

“Eirik and Tykir are just as bad. Especially Tykir. A more jestsome man there never was! Ask Tykir sometime how he kidnapped Alinor because she put a curse on King Anlaf’s male staff, causing it to make a right turn.”

Esme’s eyes went wide. Then she fought back a smile. She would have liked to see that, too. She was beginning to realize how stale and boring her life had been thus far. By necessity, of course. Still…“I like them…all of your friends.”

“I like them, too. In small doses.”

“I especially like Alinor and Eadyth. They are exactly the type of independent woman I want to be when I regain Evergreen.”

“There is independence and there is
independence
. Eadyth is an accomplished merchant, but she organizes everything. No doubt she even organizes the bedsport with her husband, though he does not seem to complain in that regard. And Alinor, hah! Alinor may very well be
a noted weaver of fine cloth, and she breeds prize sheep with exceptional wool, but I would not want to live with the witch. By thunder, her blathering would drive a sane man mad.”

Esme was amazed at Toste’s longwindedness with regard to his friends. He usually didn’t divulge so much personal information. “Her husband, Tykir, does not seem to mind.”

Toste shrugged. “He is besotted, for a certainty, even after all these years of wedlock.”

There was something endearing about both brothers teasing and openly showing love for their wives, and vice versa. She’d never witnessed such before—not that she would want it for herself. Such caring would weaken her, and that she could not allow, not if she hoped to win the fight before her. Even so, she asked, “What have you against wedlock?”

“’Tis fine for some men. Not me. Though I admit there are a few examples of good marriages, my father and brothers more than prove it is a sad state, to be entered into for family profit. And I have seen marriage used more often as a political ploy than a source of happiness. More trouble than it is worth.”

Sadly, he had a point there. “Do you not want children?”

“Not particularly. Do you?”

“I have not thought much about children. I have concentrated so much these past years on avoiding my father’s scurrilous marriage plots that the prospect of my body increasing from such ventures seemed intolerable.”

They had walked all the way to the end of the aisle. Now they stopped near an empty chamber, and he leaned against the wall. He still held her hand, fingers entwined,
and she did not have the vigor to protest. Or the desire, truth to tell. In the back of her mind, still unformed ideas swirled…how best to use this man for her purposes.

“You do not favor a child of the loins of Lord Rotting-Cock?” Toste asked with a soft smile.

There he goes, teasing me again. I swear, his smile must be magical. It makes me tingle in the oddest places. And tingling is definitely a weakness I cannot allow. Blessed St. Beatrice, next I will be swooning
. “The thought of making a child with Oswald of Lincolnshire turns my stomach.”

“Actually, that is why I have brought you out here,” he said hesitantly.

“To discuss children?”

“To discuss marriage.” The expression of surprise on her face must have scared him, because he immediately amended his statement. “Not to me.”

She laughed.

His face was flushed with embarrassment over his misleading phrasing. God forbid that he should offer marriage to some unwitting maid, especially an overaged almost-nun like Esme. “Do not heed Alinor and Eadyth’s plot to coax you into marriage,” he elaborated. “Outward appearances can be deceptive. Eadyth and Alinor mean well, but they can be devious and relentless when they get a bit between their teeth.”

Why would he care? Could he be jealous? Nay, he has no interest in me that way. Even so, he is speaking in circles
. “Why are you stuttering like a dolthead? Speak your mind.”

He took a deep breath, then said, “You must make me a promise that you will not succumb to their matchmaking efforts whilst I am gone.”

Must?
Since when
must
she do anything he decreed?
Then his other words sank in. “
Gone?
Where are you going?” Her voice was shrill with distress. During this brief time at Ravenshire, she had felt at peace. Now Toste was going to pull away her anchor? When had he become so important to her well-being? She was the one who would steer the rudder of her life course, but she refused to let him jump ship. If it would not have been too obvious, she would have stamped her foot.

“I must needs depart on the morrow. I will take Sister Margaret to Jorvik with me where she will sell her mead, then travel back to the abbey with a priest from the minster. I will stay in the city, alone, and try to get information on Vagn’s murderer. I have some contacts there who should be able to help me.”

“Take me with you.” She was as surprised by her request as Toste.
Too obvious, Esme. Try to be more subtle
.

“What? Nay! I’m going alone. Even Bolthor will stay at Ravenshire. I must travel alone.”

“You won’t come back.”
Why should you? You have no ties here. Nay, I will not let you escape so easily, Viking. I still have use for you
.

“Yea, I will. I have no place else to go, for now. Once I have avenged my brother, I will return.” He spoke to her in a patronizing manner, as if she were a child in distress. The only thing missing was the pat on the head.
Bungling oaf!

“Not if you’re dead. ’Tis a fool’s errand. Your brother would not want you to put your life in peril for him. Revenge will not bring him back,” she nigh screamed at him.

“Stop it, Esme. Stop it right now. You have no idea what my brother would or would not want. It is a Viking’s way. It is a man’s way.”

“It is a lackwit’s way!”

“Mayhap, but it is what I must do.”

She punched him in the chest and pretended to sob.

He was immovable in more ways than one.

“See what you have done. You have made me cry, and I never cry. Loathsome lout. Slimy cur. Bloody bastard. Odious oaf.” She was pounding his chest now to the beat of her epithets.

He wrapped his arms around her and trapped her flailing hands against his body. Against her ear, he said, “Leave off, dearling. Leave off.”

Dearling? He called me dearling. Whoa, that is definitely a woman-weakening tactic. I like it way too much. I cannot let the rogue distract me with sweet talk
. “You are going to abandon me. I should have known better than to trust a man.”

“I am not abandoning you. There will be plenty of men here at Ravenshire to protect you whilst I’m gone.”

“Can you guarantee that you will come back?”

“Of course not.”

“See? You are abandoning me.”

“Because I might die?”

“I might just kill you myself if you keep this up. Mayhap Alinor and Eadyth are right. I should choose a husband myself and be done with it. At least that way I would have some control over my own life.”
Let us see how you like that possibility, Northman. Let us see how you accept a woman taking fate in her own hands. Let us see how you like a woman disagreeing with your “superior” intellect
.

He went stiff, even though he still held her arms imprisoned. “That, you will not do.”

Just as I thought. A typical man who thinks women are the weaker sex, unable to control their own destinies
. “You have
no say in what I do, especially since you are
abandoning
me.” Esme was not wise in the ways of men and women, but one thing she did know: Guilt was one of women’s best tools when dealing with men…especially clueless ones. Eve had probably guilted Adam into biting the apple, way back at the beginning of time.

“Must you always be at cross-wills with me? Can you not accept that sometimes I might know what is best for you?” he said.

Ooooh, wrong thing for you to say in my present mood, my lord Know-It-All Viking. Be careful, or you may trip over that runaway tongue of yours
. “Nay, I do not accept orders easily. That is why I had to go to confession so many times back at the abbey. But you are not to worry anymore. Release me. Begone. Go fly off to Jorvik or the Norselands or hell, for all I care. I am off to find me a husband.” Esme had no inclination to accept Alinor and Eadyth’s plan for finding her a husband, but if it annoyed Toste, then she would damn well let him think otherwise. She was discovering there was great fun in needling the bothersome boor. “Yea, methinks I will pick a homely man, one who is not so full of his own conceit, like someone I know. Strong in body, of course, but not so pretty in face. Definitely not a Viking. A Saxon would be best; they do not jest so much.”

“Do you refer to me? Because if you do, forget it. I am not in the running.”

You have no idea how much I would like to wipe that smirk from your face
. “Methinks you don’t have a clue what you want anymore, Toste. Methinks you are clueless.”

“Clueless? Did you call
me
clueless. I ought to lop off your head…or your tongue, at least. And telling me that you will be on the hunt for a husband. I…do…not…
think…so. I know who is clueless here, and it is not me.” Toste practically frothed at the mouth with indignation.

Good
. “Blah, blah, blah,” she said. “Just like a man. Always blathering their man-nonsense.”

His eyes almost rolled back in his head with frustration. “Odin’s breath! You dare much, wench, pushing me too far. Be careful when you put your head in the mouth of a wolf. You will get more than you wagered for.”

“Oh, please. You are more like a lamb than a wolf.”
Mayhap I am being a bit foolhardy, but the man asks for it. He really does
.

“Aaarrgh!” he said.

Another typical male reaction
.

“’Twould seem there is only one way to shut your teeth. I will show you how much of a lamb I am.”

If he hits me, I am going to hit him back. Lot of good it would do, but I will anyhow
. She braced herself.

With one smooth move, Toste picked her up, tossed her onto the clean straw in the empty stall and came down on top of her.

All right, no hitting. What then?
Esme wasn’t sure why she’d provoked the Viking so much. Anger, for a certainty, that he ordered her about like a wooly-witted milkmaid. Retaliation for his heavy-handed tactics. Fear that he planned to leave her. Envy that Eadyth and Alinor obviously got something wonderful from their men. And stubborn determination that, before he left, she would get one more taste of the man to satisfy the hunger he’d kindled with just one kiss. Oooh, that last item just slipped in and stunned Esme with its implications. Definitely a weakening of control, if she let it go too far.

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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