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Authors: Allison Merritt

Her Heart's Desire

BOOK: Her Heart's Desire
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Her Heart’s Desire

Allison Merritt

Copyright © 2016 by Alice Cummings, Demoiselle Books


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


Ebook Edition 2016

Chapter One


Solstad, Northumbria – 950 A.D.

“If you hurt her, I will gut you.”

Eoghann Kentigern swallowed, but held the iron hard stare with his brother-in-law, King Hella Ingvasson. To break it would show cowardice and he didn't mean to reveal his underbelly to the most powerful man in the settlement.

Hella's threat was unnecessary. Hurt Idunna, the woman who had saved his life when she had every reason to hate him?

“You have my word, Your Grace.” His voice wasn't as strong as he would have liked, but even weak, it was better than having no voice at all. Without Idunna's intervention, his head would be rotting on a pike somewhere.

Hella narrowed his eyes and jerked his chin at the curtain separating Idunna Fundinsdottir's room from the hallway. Eoghann's room now too since he'd vowed to protect and honor her a few hours earlier.

He sucked in a breath and pushed the curtain aside. On legs stiff as aged wood, he crossed the floor. Idunna waited for him blank-faced and rigid in a bed piled high with blankets and a shaggy gray wolf pelt. She didn't meet his gaze when he lifted the bridal crown of woven vines. It tangled in her seal brown hair and she flinched as he gave a little tug.

“Forgive me,” he murmured. He didn't need Hella, the king's faithful brothers, nephew, and the other two men tagging along as witnesses to this charade believing he'd harmed her on purpose.

She said nothing as she folded her hands together.

He carried the crown to Hella, then held it out. The king took it with another sharp look, then allowed the curtain to swing into place.

Eoghann's shoulders slumped as the sound of footsteps retreated from the doorway. Norsemen seldom invented an excuse not to attend a celebration. Apparently the queen's traitor brother's wedding claimed the exception as an event few of them could stomach. Aside from Hella, Ealasaid, Erik, Bjorn, their wives and children, the turn out had been abysmal. The shame of marrying a woman only to save his life almost caused Eoghann to flee. Might have, if Hella hadn't been guarding him all day.

He faced Idunna, but his feet froze and dread weighed him down.

They were alone for the first time since he'd come to Solstad. Alone with a woman who couldn't possibly love him because of the slaughter he'd helped bring to the neighboring village of Freysteinn. One of the warriors he'd marched with to slay the
had killed her first husband. Only a mad man would pretend Idunna could ever forgive him.

In Norse custom, they were supposed to consummate their marriage, which would tie them together as one in the community. The rituals of cleansing steams and baths before the wedding were meant to help them cast off their old lives. No amount of scrubbing or herbs would fix him. Not after what he'd done. He was the reason her first husband—the one she loved—was in the ground.

“Would you like some wine?” Idunna pushed the blankets away and threw her legs over the side of the bed.

“That would be...”

Her slender legs were the right length to wrap around him. Eoghann swallowed again. He couldn't force her to bed him, not in good conscience. Hella didn't need to waste his breath on a threat. Eoghann would burn in hell if he so much as imagined harming her.

She poured wine into horn cups then carried them across the room to him. “What did Hella say to you?”

Her eyes, wide, like dew drops on dark wood, showed the same compassion she'd displayed when she brought him meals during his imprisonment. If Idunna possessed a mean streak, it hadn't come to light yet.

“Nothing of importance.”

“Was it a threat?” She lifted the cup to her lips.

He weighed his answer, then took a drink to delay it. The tepid wine burned his tongue like vinegar. “It's difficult to blame him. I have married into the clan, but no one is certain I can be trusted.” The wine didn't ease his thirst. “I made a promise to you and I won't turn my back on that. You can trust me, Idunna.” The shape of her name on his lips gave him gooseflesh. She was a pretty woman, almost delicate with her fragile-looking structure. He'd been taken with her from the start, even though he didn't deserve her kindness.

“I believe you'll try to honor your vows.” A red bead of wine clung to her lower lip.

He brushed it away and let his thumb linger on her mouth.

Despite the wind that howled mercilessly, her skin was soft and warm. A blush colored her cheeks and she ducked her head.

Eoghann drew his hand back. He sipped the wine although it sat hard in his stomach because he hadn't eaten since yesterday evening. Anything to occupy his hands and mind. To keep from staring at Idunna.

“Have you been married before?” She settled on the foot of the bed and tucked her legs beneath her.

“No, nor betrothed.” Although he might have been if they'd taken Solstad. The lord he'd served, Cuthberht Ironfist, had three beautiful daughters, all unwed, who delighted in teasing men. If his brother Diarmaid defeated Hella's men at Freysteinn, Ironfist might have permitted his bloodline to mingle with the Kentigerns. Disgraced, Eoghann could never return to Edinburgh. Cuthberht would have him flayed and dismembered for losing to the Norsemen.

“This wedding was much different than my last. The whole village came out to celebrate when I married Ask.” She tipped her cup up, drained it then leaned down to set it on the floor. “There are still people here from my village. So few came to see us.” The band on her finger glittered in the candlelight. She turned it around and around.

Eoghann hadn't counted, but he suspected fewer than two dozen people had come into Hella's hall.
Had it been my hanging, they'd have come in droves.
He drank the last of his wine and set his cup on the hearth. “I'm sorry it was unpleasant.”

“It wasn't unpleasant. I prefer comfortable. I'd rather have my closest friends attend than a hundred people I don't know by name.” She patted the blanket beside her. “Come sit, Eoghann.”

It wouldn't be far-fetched to think her kindness might be a ploy. In the years he'd spent under Ironfist's thumb, he'd learned compassion often preceded unpleasantness. He fully expected her to unsheathe a knife and plunge it into his heart.

“Surely you're not afraid of me?” Idunna smiled. “I pledged myself to you for your safety. I put my trust in you, husband. Will you not do the same for me?”

The wine gave her a pretty flush and made her bolder. How many cups had she sipped from prior to the ceremony? As far as he knew, she'd only shared a little mead with him during the feast.

He approached, unable to stop himself, as though pulled by an invisible thread. Pity this wedding night would not end in their coupling. When he settled at the head of the bed, Idunna moved closer until their shoulders brushed.

“Tell me about yourself.”

He lowered his gaze. “What is there to tell? I was born in Suibhne. Norsemen destroyed it in a raid when I was a boy. Diarmaid and I escaped and went south. If not for a kind priest, my brother and I would have died. Clerical life didn't suit Diarmaid, so we moved on. The priests' beliefs and ours did not make for easy living.” In the end, he'd taken the Catholic beliefs and relinquished the old gods his family had believed in. These days, he wasn't sure what he believed, but he'd hastened to learn the gods of the
before the wedding. If he'd pledged to the wrong ones, it might have angered his host.

Idunna met his gaze. “There is a story about your brother. It tells of how he killed a bear using only his hands.”

The bitter wine burned the back of Eoghann's throat. “I'm surprised you heard it so far south.”

“Is it true? Did Diarmaid kill the bear without weapons?”

Diarmaid had liked to embellish the story with details about a terrible, bloody fight. The truth didn't sound as good. “No. He wounded it in the stomach with a sword and we escaped up a tree. It bled to death while it tried to climb after us. Diarmaid strung the bear's claws on a strand of leather and wore them as a prize. For a day or two we survived off the meat, but struggled to keep the wolves at bay. We left the carcass behind and made our way to Edinburgh.”

She looked suitably impressed. “I always heard he took the pelt.”

“And you probably heard it was his bravery facing a bear that won our acceptance into Ironfist's home. We worked hard to earn the lord's trust. In the beginning, he enjoyed tormenting us, reminding us that we would be skeletons without his assistance.” Eoghann's chest tightened. “But Diarmaid had a charm nearly impossible to resist when he wanted to use it. He won Ironfist's trust with his smooth tongue and fighting prowess. Ironfist didn't waste any love on me. Diarmaid was a son worthy of replacing one the lord had lost in a battle.”

“He had no use for you?” There was no mockery in her voice, only curiosity.

“I can wield a sword and I will march into battle, but my heart isn't in it.” He traced the pattern of a horse embroidered in the blanket. “It doesn't make me a coward.”

“No, I don't believe you are. A coward would rather die than accept the fate the jarls set for him. It will be no easy task to create a life among people you've fought and a woman who is a stranger.” She put her hand near his and their fingers touched. “With time and patience, you will be redeemed in the eyes of the clan that would have preferred to kill you.”

“I will do whatever is required of me. I owe the king my life if that's his desire.” But hopefully, he'd have many good years to live first. In his childhood, he'd dreamed of being a king. The long struggle of living day to day convinced him it was hard enough to get by as a commoner. He should be so fortunate as to get through the next few years in one piece or without dying horrifically.

“I'm not certain it will come to that. Hella is a peaceful man who prefers hunting to waging war, farming to slaughter, his family to making enemies. I pray we'll know harmony for many years to come.”

Her gaze drifted away. He could only guess at the pain that haunted her. Losing a brother wasn't the same as losing a spouse. Once, he and Diarmaid had been close, but as time passed, they'd grown apart. He couldn't deny his brother's request he join the march on Freysteinn without seeming a traitor. No matter how his wishes differed, he'd done what he believed was his duty. It had nearly cost him everything. He wasn't even certain Ealasaid would forgive him.

Idunna stared into the depths of the fire. “I came here from Jutland with Ask. It was his idea to come, to leave our families. I wanted to refuse, but like you, I owed a debt of life. He wasn't a rich man, merely a hard worker who loaned my family some gold during a winter when we almost starved. It's hard for Norsemen to take anything from one another, because we're a proud people who would rather die than beg from our friends. In exchange for the gold, he asked to wed me. It would have been wrong to refuse his hand for my own sake when my family owed him. I did not love him, but my gratitude ran deep. Ask provided everything I needed during our time together.”

“How long was it before you learned to love him?” With a wife as beautiful as Idunna, Ask must have fallen in love with her right away.

Her brown eyes held a world of sorrow. “I didn't. I tried, truly, but I never managed to love him the way a woman should love her husband.”

Eoghann's stomach tightened. “Yet you didn't divorce him.”

“I didn't hate him. Ask was a decent man.” She ran her fingers through the ends of her hair. “I regret there were no children from our union, although that wasn't possible.”

He frowned. “You're barren?”

“I don't believe I am.” Idunna's fingers moved to the thin strings of silk holding her under dress closed at the neckline. “I have no way to be certain.”

“I'm afraid I don't understand.”

She blew out a breath. “This is my worst secret. A thing I'm ashamed of, so I'll ask you not to judge him or me for it.”

“What is it?” Concerned, he leaned closer.

“My husband was not interested in a marital relationship. He made no mention of it until our wedding night. Although I was ready to perform my obligation, he informed me it wouldn't be necessary. He had no use for a woman in his bed. Our wedding was a formality because he wished to appear as a man in good standing in the village. He desired a helpmate to keep his meal fires burning, to clean his home and clothing, but he...favored members of his own sex.” Idunna's face flamed. “I did as he required and I overlooked his relations with another man in our village.”

Eoghann opened his mouth, but all thought vanished. It took him a moment to recover from his shock. It wasn't unheard for men to turn to other men for sexual favors, although it was unusual for a healthy young man to do so. But to marry and then reject a woman such as Idunna?

“He cared nothing for starting a family?” Hella repeatedly reminded him it was the duty of all men to carry on their line, whether they enjoyed sleeping with women or not. It would be necessary to bed a woman in order to produce sons, no matter what the man's desires. Carrying on the Norse bloodline was more important than one's own wishes.

She shook her head. “He told me someday he would try to help me get with child, but we were married young and he never attempted it. I don't blame him. The heart has longings and his was not for me.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “He wanted the respect of the men in our village and I helped him achieve it. I didn't mind.”

BOOK: Her Heart's Desire
9.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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