A Viking for the Viscountess
EAST ANGLIA, 811
He would die in an hour. Perhaps sooner, if the gods called to him.
Arik Thorgrim lay prone upon the deck of his ship, feeling his strength slipping away as the blood pooled beneath him. The battle-ax wound was too deep, and he’d already seen the grim looks upon the faces of his men. They knew, as he did, that his life was over and he would soon join his brother warriors in Valhalla.
The chill of the night air turned his skin cold, numbing him to the brutal pain. Though most men might fear death, he welcomed it. For this night he would claim immortality and leave behind the woman who had betrayed him.
He closed his eyes, trying to blot out the image of Svala’s face. Her long golden hair had flowed against her hips, her beauty tantalizing the dreams of any man. A smile from her was beyond price, worth every last piece of gold he possessed.
And then, as if to taunt him, he recalled her bare legs wrapped around Eyker’s waist, her head thrown back in mindless lust. Arik had stumbled upon them together when he’d returned to their camp after raiding the southern coast. He had believed Svala was a shy virgin, only to learn that she’d given herself to his enemy.
Her infidelity and lies had sliced deeper than any blade. But when he’d gone to murder Eyker, the
man’s brother had struck him in the back with a battle-ax.
So be it. There was a place in the frost-laden depths of Hel for a coward without honor.
The waves of the sea grew rougher, and dimly, he heard the call of his böndr as the ship tossed. The men had sailed with him over the past few months, leaving behind their families and farms to seek wealth. His brother, Magnus, had built a settlement along the northeast coast of East Anglia, and Arik had asked his men to bring him there. He could not survive the journey to Rogaland to see his parents again-but he could reach his brother’s home within hours.
Magnus was his closest sibling, and if the gods willed it, he might look upon his brother’s face before he died. He wanted his body to be buried with honor.
Arik lay motionless, letting the sea take him. The ship rolled him to his back, and the searing pain nearly sent him into a void of darkness. He stared up at the clouded moon, while it transformed into an orange haze of blood. A dark shadow eclipsed the surface, and his vision wavered.
Would that I could have another chance at life.
The icy hand of Death beckoned closer, and he felt his body trembling with the last fight to live. Regrets flowed over him, but there was nothing that would change his fate.
He’d have made far different choices. He wouldn’t have left his father in reckless defiance to go
a-viking. He would have taken a quiet woman as his wife. Then at least he’d have a son or daughter of his blood to live on. But now, only his brother remained.
When he blinked, there were no other clouds in the sky, and the night was clear. Strange for it to be so, while violent sea waves tossed his wooden vessel. He thought he spied another ship, a strange wooden boat that did not resemble anything he’d ever seen before. The mast towered over the deck, and he could only imagine how large the sails would be when they were unfurled. These men, too, were caught in the storm.
Although the ship lurched, Arik’s wounded body remained motionless, as if an invisible hand pinned him to the deck. The swells crashed against the side of the boat, and he feared it was Jörmungand, the serpent of Midgard, rising from the depths to devour them all. Amid the roar of the sea, he heard the shouts of terror from his men before they were swept under by the frigid waves, their lives claimed as sacrifice.
Silence cloaked the night, and the agony of his wound began to fade. Arik took a breath and saw that the blood upon his hands was gone. When he reached back to touch the ragged skin where the battle-ax had cut him down, he found that it had healed completely. A coldness drifted over his skin, but he refused to let the fear gain a foothold.
He was dead now. There was no other explanation for his wound disappearing. No doubt his body now rested on the bottom of the sea. He had to finish this journey to the afterworld alone, and he suspected he would soon see the spirits of those who had fallen before him.
Not yet, he heard a woman’s voice whisper upon the wind.
He blinked, wondering if he had only imagined the words. All was still now, and the sea had calmed. Arik rose to his feet, testing his strength to stand. At the front of the boat, he stared into the darkness, hoping for a glimpse of Asgard, where the gods dwelled. If there was land nearby, he couldn’t see it. He leaned back to look at the stars, trying to determine his whereabouts. The waves bobbed his ship, but the motion was gentle. With his hand upon the rudder, he questioned whether to steer or let the sea guide him. In the end, he surrendered command of the vessel, for he had no way of knowing where the gods would lead him.
As the sea shifted and blurred all around him, he suddenly spied the prone figure of a body in the water. Her golden hair streamed around her, and his heart seized up, not knowing if it was Svala. Had she joined him in death? Or had the gods sent her to him, as a gift?
Whether or not she was real, Arik didn’t hesitate as he dove from the ship to save her.
ONE THOUSAND YEARS LATER
Juliana Arthur, the Viscountess Hawthorne, tucked her son into bed, kissing his forehead. “Sleep well, Harry.” The boy smiled up at her and snuggled deeper into the threadbare sheets. She had dressed him in two nightshirts and woolen socks, as well as a cap to keep him warm. Often at night, he would slip out of his trundle bed and crawl inside her own bed, while the wind rattled the shutters of their small house.
“Will we go back to Hawthorne House in the morning?” he asked.
“We might, if your father returns.” She smoothed his hair and gave an encouraging smile. “Now close your eyes.”
As soon as he did, her smile faded. She had been telling Harry the lie for months now. They could not
return to Hawthorne House, no matter how badly she wanted to. For the past six years it had been her sanctuary. She loved every blade of grass on the estate, and it had become her home after the viscount had abandoned her there.
Juliana supposed she ought to be devastated that her husband had gone traveling on the Continent without her. She did want William to come back-truly she did. But not because she loved him or because she missed him. No, she wanted him back to save them from this poverty.
God forgive her, she’d been so glad at first, when she’d heard the news that he might never return. She’d swept her infant son into her arms, hugging him with joy. No longer would William tell her how worthless she was, how fortunate she was to be with him. He wouldn’t give her orders on how to dress, what ladylike pursuits to indulge in, or how she should best please him in bed. Her son would never know his father, and nothing could have dimmed her elation at that moment.
But then, a solicitor had arrived at Hawthorne House six months ago, informing her that her marriage was invalid and she’d been nothing more than William’s mistress. Her husband’s brother, Marcus, had swiftly stripped her son of his inheritance and title, and though she’d tried to fight back, he would not allow it.
“You were never his wife,” Marcus said coldly. “His mistress, perhaps, but nothing more.”
“But I was,” she whispered. “We eloped in Scotland. I signed the registry.”
“There was no registry. And no written record of the marriage.” Marcus folded his hands, with not a trace of sympathy in his demeanor. “My brother deceived you into believing it, likely so you would share his bed.” When she started to argue again, he cut her off. “You’re a practical woman, Juliana. Why would a viscount wed a fisherman’s daughter?”
He made it sound as if she was no better than a scullery maid. Yes, her father had been a common man, but her mother was nobility.
“My grandfather is a baron,” she argued. “And William loved me.”
“Whether or not he loved you is beside the point. You were never married, and your son is a bastard.”
Her mouth moved to deny his words, but no sound came out. She clenched her knuckles hard, feeling as if she’d entered a nightmare from which she couldn’t wake up.
“Didn’t you ever wonder why he hid you away in the country, never bringing you to London? It was because he didn’t marry you at all.”
Deep inside, she feared Marcus was right. She’d spent months paying runners to search for a record of their elopement. And still, the search had come up with nothing.
Either her husband had lied to her, or Marcus was lying to prevent her son from inheriting. He’d escorted them out of Hawthorne House with hardly more than a trunk of clothes. To keep Harry from being afraid, she’d told him that they were going to visit his grandfather. She’d woven an elaborate tale of how they would spend a few months by the sea and he could build castles in the sand.
Her life had felt like that sand castle, crumbling to pieces all around her. Especially when her father had died a few weeks later, leaving her grief-stricken.
Quiet descended over the house, and her maid, Grelod, drew her chair closer to the fire beside the
sleeping dog. The older woman had been with her ever since Juliana had been a little girl and spoke only a little English. She had sought work in London, after leaving Norway, and had found a position when the housekeeper took pity on her. Grelod had been a favorite servant of the baroness, Juliana’s grandmother, for she worked hard and said nothing.
Keeping her voice low, the old woman murmured in Norwegian, “It’s not right, the two of you living in
a place such as this. It’s hardly fit for a beggar.”
“I have nowhere else to go, and you know this.”
“Your grandmother ought to have opened her doors to you.” Grelod picked up the mending and muttered to herself, as she threaded her needle. “They might have cut off your mother after she wed your father, but that was no fault of yours.”
“She did invite me to visit, but I would rather drown myself than accept help from her.” Juliana moved her own stool beside the fire, watching the flames in the hearth. “Lady Traveston is a horrid woman.”
“She did give you a Season,” her maid pointed out.
“Only because it was my mother’s last wish.” And because her grandmother had wanted to mold her into a lady. Juliana had mistakenly thought that it would be a wonderful chance to meet a husband. She shuddered at the memory. The baroness had drilled months’ worth of lessons and etiquette into her brain, as if she were preparing Juliana for war. And although she’d married a viscount, her grandmother had shown little satisfaction in the match. She’d never approved of William and had been aghast when they’d eloped.
A gust of wind blew through the crevices in the walls, and Juliana leaned over to bring the blanket up
to Harry’s neck. A bleakness caught at her heart. She had to do something to get her son out of this place. Soon, she would have no choice but to seek help from her grandparents. Lord Traveston might have abandoned his daughter and granddaughter, but she believed Lady Traveston would find a place for them to stay if Juliana groveled enough.
It was still a last resort.
Restlessness flowed within her veins as she paced across the cottage, worrying over how to find the
evidence of her marriage. “Go out and have a walk,” Grelod ordered. “You’ll feel better for it.”
“It’s too dark,” Juliana protested. “And I shouldn’t leave Harry.”
She started to walk toward the rocking chair, when Grelod caught her hand. “You’re troubled, and the night air will do you good. Go, and you’ll find the answers you’ve been seeking.”
“The moonlight won’t solve our problems, Grelod,” she argued. “Only William can put everything to rights.” If her husband returned, he could bring them back to Hawthorne House, admitting that their marriage had been valid.
“His ship might return,” Grelod admitted. “Give an offering to the gods, and see what happens.”
“An offering?” She hid a smile at the old woman’s superstitions. Grelod had always believed in magic and folklore. She had woven stories over the years at bedtime, legends that she was convinced were true, though Juliana now knew they had only been tales. Grelod’s beliefs were a part of her, and she fervently upheld the old Norse traditions. At night, she often told Harry stories about the goddess Freya and her children of the moon. Though Juliana didn’t believe in any of that, she saw no harm in indulging her maid.
“Give the gods a lock of your hair. Or a drop of your blood,” the woman suggested. “Perhaps it will conjure up the help you need.”
Juliana squeezed Grelod’s hand, knowing her maid was only trying to help. She did want a chance to be alone, and strolling outside might clear her wayward thoughts. “I’ll go for a walk. Watch over Harry and call out if he needs me.”
Behind her, she heard the woman muttering incantations and words she didn’t understand. Juliana sighed
and reached for her cloak and bonnet.
The wind had stirred up, pulling the gray waves against the shore. She walked along the water’s edge, while a full orange moon bathed the shore in a shimmer of gold. One could almost believe that a night like this could hold a bit of magic.
She drew her cloak around her, holding fast to her bonnet as the night air buffeted it. Ahead, she spied her father’s boat, and a pang caught her heart. He’d been a fisherman all his life, and the battered wood seemed to draw her closer.
When she walked to the edge of the pier, she stepped inside the vessel, remembering the days when he’d taken her out to the sea, teaching her to fish. Being here, she could almost smell the familiar scent of tobacco. He’d been the most wonderful father, and she missed him dearly. Sometimes if she closed her eyes, she could remember the warmth of his embrace and his quiet love.
He’d been her steadfast rock, all her life-especially after her mother had died. A tightness clenched her gut as she stared up at the moon. What am I supposed to do now, Father? How can I support my son, when I don’t know if William is alive or dead?
The wind shifted, filling up the mainsail. Juliana frowned, for she hadn’t untied it. How had it come unfurled? It was almost as if an unseen presence had emerged.
Don’t be silly. There is no such thing as a ghost. She pushed back the thought, trying to find a logical explanation. The sail had been tied up when she’d climbed aboard the boat, but somehow, it must have broken free. She fought with the canvas and ropes, trying to bring it back down again, but another gust of wind made her stumble. The sail swung out, the wooden boom cracking against her forehead.
The vicious pain made her cry out, and she knelt down in the boat, lowering her head to fight the dizziness. She’d never expected a storm to be brewing, not when the night had been so calm.
A moment later, the vessel started to float away from the dock, though she couldn’t understand how. Without someone untying the ropes, there was no way it could break free of the moorings. But the wind strengthened, filling up the sail as if an invisible force were pulling her out into the open sea.
Juliana fumbled with the ropes, fighting to reverse her direction, but the wind was too strong. Even when she put her full weight against the sail, it didn’t move. Panic sharpened within her as the boat sailed farther away from the dock.
No. She couldn’t let this happen. She tore off her gloves, pulling with all her might. But even that wasn’t enough to bring her back.
Her head ached, swelling up from the wound. Terror wrapped around her heart, for the boat was taking her too far away from the shore. And then how could she return to Harry? Though she didn’t want to leave the safety of the boat, she saw no other choice but to swim back.
Steeling herself, Juliana slid both legs over the side of the boat, pushing herself into the frigid water. She strained with her feet to touch the bottom, but her head went underwater. What had happened? Now it seemed that the shore was twice as far away.
Impossible. She fought to swim back, though the weight of her clothes pulled her down. The waves sloshed against her face, and she began stripping away the layers, letting her cloak fall first. She tore off her bonnet and let it sink. The water was so cold, it froze her movements, making it harder to stay above the surface. As she struggled against the waves, the beach disappeared, leaving her alone on the sea.
Her heart was pounding with fear while her mind tried to make sense out of the impossible. Perhaps this was a dream and she was unconscious from the head injury. Dreams never made sense, and undoubtedly that was what this was.
The moon turned the color of blood, sliding back from behind a misty cloud. She tasted salt water, and her arms ached from swimming. But it did no good. The more she swam, the farther away land seemed.
It’s not real, she told herself. It can’t be.
The nightmare only worsened, and horror washed over her when she saw that the boat was now gone. If she didn’t get help soon, she was going to drown. She cried out, though it was hopeless to think that anyone would find her on a night like this.
Her arms grew heavy as she swam, her hair drenched against her face. And when she saw the outline of another ship in the distance, she prayed to God that someone would save her.