Authors: Jo Grafford
Tags: #shifters, #historical romance, #mythology, #magic, #Vikings
HIS book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are employed fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locations is coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributions in any printed or electronic form.
First Edition: February 2015
Second Edition: July 2015
Copyright 2014 by Jo Grafford
All rights reserved.
o Joshua who believes every book needs a splash of magic.
y heartfelt thanks to my fabulous beta readers, the Scribe Sirens:
Misty, Heather, and Denise.
T WAS a trap. Branwyn O’Tyre was no fool. Why else would her half-brother — the new Bishop of Exeter — insist on meeting her in such a remote location in the middle of the night? He claimed to be in desperate need of a healing. Why then did he not seek aid at the nearest monastery? By the saints, he could not be more disapproving of her methods. A mere fortnight ago, he’d warned her to cease practicing her craft at once or risk being arrested for witchcraft.
She tucked a stray lock of auburn hair beneath her snood, patted the coiled braid at her nape, and tried not to shiver as she stretched out her hands to the crackling hearth fires of the Silver Swan. The tavern itself was a far cry from its glorious title, consisting of little more than a pile of weatherbeaten timbers hunched between two craggy bluffs on the southernmost point of Devon.
The only other guest in the room was sprawled atop a corner table in the shadows. He was snoring away amidst a rather impressive assortment of empty mugs. The round shield wedged beneath one arm and the scarred helmet resting askew his dark shoulder-length locks was a sure sign he was a supporter of William the Conquerer. A Viking raider if his navy, salt-spattered tunic was any indication. Branwyn suppressed another shiver at the realization she was alone, truly alone, with naught but a solitary drunkard to witness her arrest if he bothered to wake in time.
Branwyn stepped closer to the massive redstone fireplace, restlessly twisting the silver cross pendant around her neck. Orange and blue tendrils of flames licked their way around a gnarled array of logs — releasing the tantalizing aromas of pine, smoke, and autumn. Normally it was her favorite time of year. She closed her eyes and bent her pale, heart-shaped face to embrace the heat and her last few moments of freedom.
Out of sheer habit, her fingers fumbled at the ties of the pouch at her waist. Despite their trembling, she unwound the knot and dropped the precious sack on the nearest table. From it, she withdrew several smaller bundles. Pulling a flask of spring water from the folds of her gray cloak, she took a pinch of powder from each bundle and mixed the contents into her flask. Vervain, frankincense, sea salt, and myrrh. Setting the flask inside the coals of the fire, Branwyn muttered a prayer to heat the potion.
A shout sounded outside the tavern. Branwyn paused in the act of returning the bundles of herbs to the larger sack and dashed to the fire. Uncorking the flask, she downed the potion in two hasty, choking swallows. There. ‘Twas done. She tucked the flask inside the folds of her cloak. Neither the bishop nor his cronies could harm her now. If they carted her off to jail, however, the potion would almost certainly wear off in a few hours. Then she would be completely at their mercy.
Spinning to face the door, Branwyn yelped in surprise to find herself staring into the armored chest of her Viking tavern mate. Glancing upwards, her gaze clashed with eyes of the deepest blue. They watched her from the peepholes of his helmet covering the upper half of his face. Oddly enough, they were clear and assessing, not the least clouded by the aftereffects of too much ale.
The man was taller than she had imagined, towering nearly a foot over her slender frame. He was square jawed, broad of chest, and no stranger to the sun with a darkly tanned neck and hands. His menacing size made the room seem smaller. She shrank back as he waved the leather sack at her. “I’ve a need for knowing what potion you mixed with these, lass.” The rich baritone of his voice washed over her with a mesmerizing quality. She liked the sound. A lot. ’Twas deep and majestic, the kind of voice a body would never tire of hearing.
“Wh-what?” Branwyn shook herself to regain control of her senses and made a swipe for the sack. “’Tis naught but a collection of herbs, used mainly for cooking. Pray, return them to me, good sir.”
“Not till you answer my question,” he said evenly and swiveled to the sound of feet stamping in the entry foyer. He held her gaze a moment longer. “Apparently we have company. We shall finish this conversation anon.”
“I highly doubt that we will,” she retorted. “My brother has arrived to accuse me of witchcraft and arrest me. Unless you are available for hire as my protector, this conversation is quite finished.”
Instead of appearing shocked, the stranger’s eyes took on a twinkle. “Is that so? Most damsels in your distressed shoes would be either weeping or swooning by now. Instead you offer me employment. I’ll admit I am fascinated by your offer.”
The tavern door rattled on its hinges as if the men on the other side of it were having difficulty opening it.
“’Tis a limited time offer,” Branwyn gritted through clamped teeth, surprised he actually seemed to be considering it. “I’ve not the time to dicker like a fish wife over price, but I will pay you handsomely.”
In labor, for she possessed no money.
He pursed his lips in calculation. “I’ve no need of your coin, but you clearly have need of my assistance. Pray allow me to provide you safe passage from Exeter on my ship in exchange for something else I desperately need – answers...starting with my question about the contents of this sack.”
This ruggedly dressed Viking was wealthy enough to own his own ship?
He could be lying, but ’twas worth the risk from her precarious standpoint. ‘Twas not as if she had any better options at the moment. “Safe passage first. Questions afterwards,” she countered.
“Agreed.” He bowed.
“Then you are hired, sir.”
She offered to seal their bargain with a handshake, but the door crashed from its hinges and claimed their attentions. The Duke of Smythen burst into the room in a swirl of bishop’s robes accompanied by a constable and a half dozen knights armed with swords and crossbows.
Branwyn drew a shaky breath and smoothed her dusty green gown. “Byron, my lord brother. How good to see you.”
Snapping dark eyes beneath a cap of black wavy hair raked over her. From his high frowning forehead to his patrician nose, the man was too sinfully handsome to be so heartless. “Behold the accused. Arrest this cursed woman at once.”
Two of the knights separated themselves from the group and rushed forward. Alas, the one on the left slipped on a puddle of ale and crashed into his comrade. Their helmets collided with a dull clanking sound that made Branwyn wince. Then they crumpled to the floor.
The Viking stranger emitted a muffled guffaw and appraised her carefully. “Methinks I can guess the nature of the potion now. Come, lass. ’Tis getting late. We’d best be on our way.” The rogue actually crooked an arm at her as if preparing for a stroll in the park.
Branwyn could only gape.
With a sigh of resignation, he reached down to clasp her hand and drew it through his arm. She gasped as a powerful awareness sizzled through her. ‘Twas sharp and immediate, stopping just sort of pain. Branwyn’s shocked gaze locked with the stranger’s. When the clarity of his blue gaze took on a slightly dazed sheen, she realized he felt it, too.
Lord help her, but she was instantly drawn to his scent — a mixture of smoke and salt and mystery — as well as his strength. The pulse of his heart, the hum of blood through his veins, the aura of power and danger surrounding him. The air around them fairly crackled with the potency of their contact as skin brushed over skin.
Alarmed, Branwyn tried to tug her hand free, but the stranger clamped his arm tighter to his side, imprisoning her. She nearly cried out from the sensations flooding her. Light. Heat. Joy.
“Pray forgive the liberties I take with ye, lass,” he muttered in her ear. His breath on her lobe brought her just shy of the point of collapsing. “I will explain as soon as we are clear of this arse.” He steered her towards the door.
“Halt! Who are you?” the duke cried as they crossed the dining room and passed by him. He made a grab for Branwyn’s arm, lost his balance, and stumbled to regain his balance.
“I am Jarl of New Dorset,” her companion replied calmly. There was humor in his voice.
“A jarl! But that would make you—”
“A friend of the king. Same as you.”
“Nay. Not the same. There is a world of difference between a duke and a jarl.” Fear and distrust chased their way across the young bishop’s face. “How do I know you speak the truth?”
The Viking shrugged, but his voice held a challenge. “Perhaps you might detain me for questioning.” A few steps more and he and Branwyn would be out the door.
“Indeed I will, and you may unhand my sister whilst I do, you shaggy-haired half-troll.”
“Pray pardon, but I cannot. See?” The tall seafarer held up her sack. “Just before you arrived, she hired me with this. Now I am honor bound to hold up my end of the bargain. That is, unless the lady has changed her mind. Madame?” He arched a questioning brow at Branwyn.
His face swam dizzily before her. At the moment, the only thing she was sure about was that she did not wish for him to leave her. Ever. “Nay!” she exclaimed breathlessly, struggling to regain control of her wits. No one had ever shaken her composure so thoroughly. “I am a woman of my word. I’ll be honoring my end of the contract.”
A hand signal from the bishop sent another two knights flying in their direction. One stepped on a loose floorboard which popped up and planted itself into his face, knocking him senseless. Another somersaulted over a chair, slammed his helmet into the floor, and twitched pitifully where he landed.
“Hired you for what?” the duke shrieked after them as Branwyn and her would-be escort made their exit. There was no point in explaining she had hired the man to help her escape her brothers clutches. As soon as they were clear of the door, the Viking swept her up in his arms and began to run with her down the coastline. The wharves lay ghostly and gray in the light of a full moon, with ships of various sizes moored there and rocking gently in the waves created by the night breezes. Few creatures stirred other than a skeleton crew of sailors standing guard over their vessels and an occasional drunkard slumped over a pier, mumbling in his sleep.
Footsteps pounded the ground as Byron, the Duke of Smythen, his remaining two knights, and the constable took up the chase. The four men should have gained on them more quickly. Branwyn puzzled the oddity as she peered over the Viking’s shoulder, for their pursuers were not likewise weighed down with the carrying of a full-grown woman of nineteen years.
Branwyn entwined her arms around the neck of her unlikely rescuer and resisted the urge to brush her lips against the edge of his jaw.
What is wrong with me?
She should have been frightened. At the very least, she should have been more focused on the crisis at hand. Instead, her senses were assailed with the power and speed of the creature moving with her in his arms. Thick muscles corded his chest and arms, which flexed and tightened as he ran. How she wanted to run her hands up and down those arms and that glorious chest!
Instead, she moaned, “Who are you?” and dropped her fevered forehead to his shoulder. ‘Twas a fine time to be falling ill.
“Eirik,” he responded harshly.
“Eirik,” she whispered. ‘Twas a simple name, unencumbered by titles, and it suited him. Lord help her, but everything about him suited her just fine. Never before had she desired anyone or anything so badly. The need to press her mouth to his shook her. She wanted to slick her tongue against the hard seam of his lips, which were pressed together in concentration.
Sweet mercy, where had that thought unseemly come from?
She longed to break his concentration, longed to center all of that blue-eyed intensity upon herself.
A snarling sound brought her head up. A pair of dogs with hair raised skidded across one of the piers and leaped in front of her pursuers. Growling and snapping, they affixed themselves to the nearest legs and another two men went down, shouting and wrestling for their lives.
The protection potion was working better than she could have hoped for. Only Byron and his constable pursued them now. His eyes frenzied with unholy purpose, her brother drew his spear.