Pleasured by the Viking

Glen Ocham, Ireland
1181

Twilight descended, casting shadows upon the cashel in a fading veil of gray. It was a spring night of celebration, a time when the Irish gave thanks for their prosperity. But for Auder Ó Reilly, it was the beginning of the end.

Her skin was frigid, for the life she’d known was slipping away, like water from between her fingertips. In two days, she would travel north to the Norman settlement governed by Lord Miles de Corlaine, Baron of Maraloch, to be his bride.

The very idea of surrendering herself to the Norman made her shudder. Aye, she would protect the lives of her kinsmen, by forging this alliance. They would be safe from invasion, their lands joined together. And Lord Maraloch was a wealthy man who could give her everything she would ever need.

But that wasn’t the reason she’d agreed to marry him.

Auder’s gaze settled upon her mother, who was sitting apart from the other women. Halma Ó Reilly’s thin face held a serene expression, but there was pain and loneliness beneath it. The shadow of humiliation from her husband’s misdeeds surrounded her still.

It’s not your fault, Auder wanted to tell her mother. You don’t deserve to suffer for what Father did.

She wanted to see her mother laughing again with friends. She wanted her to have a reason to lift her head up, knowing that her daughter had created peace where there had been a threat. And for that reason, she’d agreed to the marriage.

Halma had protected her in so many ways. Could she do less for her mother?

Auder crossed the cashel until she sat beside Halma. The matron’s green eyes stared at the others who were feasting and gossiping. “You haven’t touched your food.”

“I’m not hungry.” Halma patted her hand. Concern lined her face, and she added, “Auder, I’m not so sure you should marry this baron. We don’t really know the man.”

“It was my choice, Mother,” Auder pronounced. “I’ve agreed to accept the honor.” Though she tried to summon a smile, she couldn’t. Right now, she felt as though she were disappearing from her own body.

“You’re a beautiful woman,” her mother said, touching Auder’s cheek. “You could have your choice of any man here. Why would you give that up?”

For you, she wanted to say. To take away the shame you’re feeling right now. To give you a reason to be proud again.

“None of the men here interest me,” she lied. “And don’t you believe the lives of our clan members are more important than my personal feelings?”

“You have the choice to say no,” Halma said. “No one will force you into this marriage.” Her face grew tight with worry. “Or his bed.”

A shiver crossed over Auder at the thought of submitting to the Norman. She was not a virgin, but the one time in her life she’d taken a lover, it had not been pleasant. Something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Afterwards, the man had left her without speaking, and she was left to wonder what she’d done wrong.

Since that time, she’d held herself apart from all men. Though she was never impolite, she’d made it clear that she had no interest in any of them. But instead of making them keep their distance, it only made matters worse. The men tried to compete for her affections, each believing that he was man enough to wear her resistance down.

“I’m feeling tired,” her mother said, rising from the bench. “I think I’ll go and rest for a while.” Her face was bright with embarrassment, as though she didn’t want to discuss Auder’s impending marriage any further.

When Halma had gone, Auder’s mood dimmed further. She didn’t feel like celebrating, not when she had only two days left. In dismay, she stared down at her hands. They were stained from madder root, not at all a lady’s hands. The markings were a part of her, a visible sign of her love of dyeing cloth. Women from all over the region traveled to bring her their lengths of wool and linen. It filled her with pride to see women and men wearing the rich crimsons, emeralds and saffrons.

If she wed the Norman, she suspected she would have to give it up. Ladies of noble birth did not soil their hands with common labor. Auder closed her eyes, wondering if she could convince her husband to let her continue her craft.

In the distance, she saw the chieftain’s wife Morren struggling with a basket. Auder pushed her way past the others, making her way towards the pregnant woman. Morren adored plants nearly as much as she did, and although she’d known the woman all her life, they had become closer friends over the past few months.

Auder took the basket from Morren and walked alongside her. “Tired?”

“A little,” Morren admitted. “I’ll be glad when this child is born, near the end of summer.” She risked a glance at her husband, who was standing on the opposite side of the cashel with several of their clansmen. “Trahern is more afraid of the birth than I am.”

Morren settled to rest upon a bench and motioned Auder to sit with her, her gaze turning serious. “Auder, you should know . . . the Norman soldiers are patrolling our lands again. Trahern has posted sentries, but I don’t know their intent.”

A coldness settled within her stomach, and Auder veiled her fear. “Perhaps they’ve come to escort me to my marriage.” Looking into the other woman’s eyes, Auder tried to show a courage she didn’t feel. “I’ll go with them if I must.”

Morren didn’t smile. “Until we know why they’re here, I don’t want you to be alone at any moment.” She looked around and caught sight of Gunnar Dalrata, beckoning him to join them.

Tall, with sun-darkened blond hair and cloudy gray eyes, Gunnar was one of the few men Auder felt comfortable around—namely because they’d been friends since four summers ago, when she’d visited her mother’s Norse family. Although he’d been handsome even then, not once had he shown her any interest. It was no wonder, since she’d been inches shorter and hadn’t developed as a woman.

But even after she’d arrived home, he’d kept his distance, not speaking to her at all. She’d caught him watching her from time to time, but it was as if their friendship had disappeared. Though it bothered her, she supposed his actions were out of respect for Clár Ó Reilly, whom he’d been courting.

“Gunnar, will you stay with Auder and guard her?” Morren asked, glancing back at her husband. “The Normans—”

“I’ve seen them.” His expression tightened with anger, but he gave Morren a nod. “And you’re right. Auder shouldn’t be alone while they are about.”
His tone made her feel like a child not old enough to be left by herself. He hardly looked at her, and the easy friendliness he’d always shown was gone. She couldn’t understand why.

“Good.” Morren rested one hand upon her spine as she stood and started walking away. “I’m going to speak to Trahern about the celebration tonight, and if you’d stay with Auder, I’d be grateful.”

Unrelenting and fierce, Gunnar stared at Auder in silent disapproval. “So. You’re still planning to go through with this?”

“That’s all you can say to me, after I’ve returned from traveling?” She crossed her own arms, sending him a dark look. “Not even a greeting?” It annoyed her for it seemed that she’d imagined their friendship.

Gunnar’s eyes turned to steel, and she was startled by the restless anger brewing within him. “I can’t believe Trahern would let you do this. He’s lost his wits if he thinks you should wed the baron.”

Auder straightened her shoulders, using her height to meet his gaze directly. “It’s the right thing to do, if it protects us from an invasion.” And if it protects my mother.

“We can defend ourselves, Auder,” Gunnar argued. “Just because there are more of them doesn’t mean we cannot fight.”

“But if I do this, there is no need for fighting.” The Ó Reillys couldn’t withstand another attack—not after the devastating massacre they’d suffered a year ago. The survivors were gradually returning, but the damage was done. Fewer than twenty remained.

Gunnar studied her as though he were trying to find a way to talk her out of the marriage. His gray eyes bored into hers, moving past her face and down her body. “And you don’t mind being used in that way? You’re just a girl.”

A flustered air enveloped her as his words conjured up the vision of her marriage bed. She imagined the Norman’s heavy weight bearing down upon her, while she had to endure his touch. Auder knew she wasn’t capable of feeling passion; her last lover had taught her that lesson well enough. There would be no pleasure; it was a matter of distracting herself with other thoughts while he satisfied himself.

“I’m not a girl anymore, Gunnar,” she made herself say calmly. “Not that you’ve noticed.”

He stared at her, his eyes meeting hers. “I noticed.” His mouth drew into a line, and he took a step closer. She could almost feel the palpable change between them, and she couldn’t have moved if she wanted to.

“I suspected you’d grow up into a beautiful woman,” he said, touching her cheek with his palm. “But I never thought you’d give yourself up to a Norman.”

A hard pressure built up within her throat, but Auder forced herself to look at him. “If this will protect my mother and the others, then it’s worth it.” The whispers about her father would eventually stop. And maybe she could bring something good out of Lúcás’s mistakes.

“There are other ways, Auder.”

She fell silent. The gentle touch warmed her skin, and her cheeks flushed. Though it was nothing more than the touch of friendship, she’d never expected to feel this uneasy around him.

This is Gunnar, Auder reminded herself. There’s no reason to be nervous. His interest lies in Clár, not you.

She tried to take a breath, but it was as if the air around her had grown thicker. She saw his mouth tighten in a thin line, and his grip upon her hands grew protective. An invisible cord drew her to him, and she noticed things she hadn’t seen before. There was a darker gray ring around his eyes, and he’d taken a blade to his cheeks, shaving them clean. She wondered what his skin would feel like against her fingertips. Or his mouth, heated and demanding upon hers.

Her embarrassment deepened when she saw his expression transform. He was looking at her as though he wanted to act upon her desires. Like he wanted to take her face between his hands and kiss her senseless.

From the novella “Pleasured by the Viking”
Copyright © 2010 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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