Viking in Tartan: A Highland Vampires Romance by Suz deMello

Scotland, Yule Eve, 1260

Erland Blodson narrowed his eyes and stared across the strait at his target—the castle perched on a crag above the thundering waves. The December storms would make the landing a trial, but none inside the keep celebrating Yule would expect an assault during the worst weather of the winter.
Viking in Tartan: A Highland Vampires Romance
Viking in Tartan: A Highland Vampires Romance by Suz deMello
Even so, he doubted King Haakon’s wisdom in ordering an attack at this time. That the Scots had dared to mount an expedition to Haakon’s keep on the Isle of Skye must be answered, yea, but on the wildest night of the year? A blast of chill wind ruffled his cloak, and Erland wished peace talks had succeeded. He’d be in his cozy longhouse with his feet warmly tucked beneath his favorite dog’s belly. Instead, here he was. He looked around. If anything, his men were even more miserable, lacking his legendary tolerance of the cold. ’Twas the blood, of course, but he dared not reveal his secret. Waves battered the longship and he gripped the rudder, hoping to steady the craft. Though the great square sail had long been lowered, the wind’s screams through the rigging mingled with the oarsmen’s grumbles. Seawater slashed his face as he brought the boat about to face the waves. A bump on the side of the ship alerted him to possible trouble. Nay, a disaster, for if they’d struck a rock— “Kaptein!” a cry came from the bow. “There’s a...there’s a girl in the sea!” He smacked a hand to the side of his head to clear water from his ears and strode forward, evading the rowers and the sea chests on which they sat. “Are you mad, Sigurson?” Holding a lantern aloft so Erland could see, his first mate pointed over the ship’s side. Erland looked down, gripping a rope. He believed Sigurson wanted the title of “Kaptein” rather than “first mate.” But this time, Sigurson wasn’t lying. Below, trapped between the vicious storm-surge and the longship’s side, a small sailing curach bobbed. Its one sailor clutched the splintered mast. Whips of wet, dark hair clung to a pale, terrified face. A pale, terrified, beautiful face. Ensuring it was tied to the longship, Erland tossed the rope he held over the side to the girl. “Grab it!” he roared. She didn’t react. Had she not heard him? Mayhap she had not understood. She should, for they spoke a common language. He thumped the ship’s side to get her attention. “Ho! Girl!” He smashed his fist again on the wet wood. She looked up. Hope brightened her eyes as she reached for the rope. Thick leather gloves, he noted with approval. Though the girl was no doubt insane or desperate to have challenged the waves on a night like this, she was still in possession of her senses enough to have dressed intelligently. She started to climb the rope, but was sorely hampered by her gown. Woolen, no doubt, and probably heavy with moisture. “Hold tight!” he shouted. “I’ll pull you up!” Had she heard? She gazed upward again and he thought he saw acknowledgment on her desperate face. She wrapped a length of the rope around her body, and he again found himself approving of her brains. He began to haul her aboard. Scant seconds later, she was halfway up the ship’s side and released the rope to scrabble for a hold. “No!” he yelled. “You’ll fall!” The rope slipped and into the storm-tossed water she went. He followed her without hesitation. The icy waves squeezed his lungs and for a surprised moment he wondered if he’d pass out, die here in a strange Scottish fjord. But his natural affinity to the cold reasserted itself, and he kicked upward until his head broke the water’s surface. Where was she? Scant moonlight gleamed on a dark, wet head and he swam with powerful strokes toward it, hoping he wasn’t in pursuit of a seal. He grabbed an armful of wet, shivering woman and hauled her close. He knew that his body would supply no heat, but he could keep her head above the water, keep her alive until he got her aboard ship. He slung an arm beneath her chin and used his other hand to push her body upwards. Though weighted by her heavy dress, she floated enough that he could get her back to the ship. The ship. Where was it? He looked around with a frantic gaze until he espied the rope, the same rope he’d thrown to the girl. He snatched it before the waves took it away, but only one tug revealed that it was no longer tied to his ship...which was gone. At last, Sigurson had his wish. ***** After struggling for an age against the thrashing waves, he’d dragged the girl to the shore. She’d tried to help, but her flailing had done nothing but slow him down, and he’d blessed the gods when she’d finally given up and gone limp in his grasp. He hauled her onto the narrow, stony beach lining the fjord, her only sign of life her shaking limbs. He knelt over her and set a hand on her chest, being careful to keep his palm above her breasts. They were lovely breasts—or so he guessed, for they pushed the fabric out in a pleasing way—but he wouldn’t take advantage of her helplessness. Her cyrtel covered her to the neck, but even through layers of fabric he divined slight up-and-down movement of her chest. Alive still. By Odin’s one eye, she was a fighter! He vowed to keep the lady alive and return her to her home. Impossibly high above, faintly glimmering lights showed the location of the keep. But getting to it in this storm with the girl’s dead weight holding him back—he shook his head. He was strong but doubted he could do it. He slung the cold, unconscious woman over one shoulder and eyed the cliffs, hoping to find a bit of shelter. Ah. A darker shadow portended a crevice at least, and a sea cave if the gods smiled upon them. He trudged across the beach, his burden growing heavier with each step. The gods did indeed smile, for the cave was deep enough to shelter them from not only the storm, but its high tide surge—or so he hoped. Mayhap they’d evade a watery end this dark night. At the far end of the cave, its sandy floor seemed fairly dry. He used one soaked boot to scrape pebbles and bits of driftwood aside, creating a flattish area, then lowered the girl onto it. Though pale as death, she was beautiful, with long dark hair tangled around a finely boned face. Wide, full lips he could easily envision around his cock, which now stirred. He quelled the urge. Viking though he was, he did not want to take advantage. Swiving an unconscious woman was not his idea of a rollicking good time. He liked his women awake and responsive, preferably screaming his name loudly enough so the entire village knew of his prowess. But her heavy woolen clothing was sodden, and she could die from the chill, so... He stripped her quickly and, to escape temptation, rolled her on her belly before rubbing her chilled limbs. She had a fine, round rump. He flung her damp smock over it. Made of a fine chansil, the pleated smock was embroidered ’round the neck and hem. Standing, he considered the mysterious young woman while he gathered enough dry driftwood for a fire, using two flints to strike a spark into a few slivers. A thin tendril of smoke emerged and curled tentatively toward the cave’s ceiling. He fed the tiny flame patiently, for it could be the difference between life and death for his well-born companion. Once the fire blazed, he took off his clothing and boots, setting them nearby to dry, and did the same with the girl’s. He approached her, finding that her shift had dried a bit and was large enough to cover them both. He curled around her and slept, wondering what the new day would bring. ***** Rhona awakened, imprisoned by a massive arm lying across her waist and an even larger leg between hers as she lay on one side. A muscular thigh pressed against her quim, heating her blood. She sleepily rubbed against it, enjoying the wave of warmth that flooded her, a bridge from a cold, lonely death into a new life. In front of her, a small fire smoldered, providing soft light and warmth. Behind her was what felt like a chilly wall moving with the steady breaths of a rather big man, the owner of the brawny limbs that cradled and pleasured her. Naked brawny limbs. He was completely bare and so was she. She jerked upright with a gasp. Where was she? The dying fire’s glow flickered off rough walls, and she sat on sand, shells and pebbles. A sea cave, then, p’raps the one at the bottom of the cliff. Rain pattered on the beach outside punctuated by the occasional rumble of thunder. So the storm that had swamped her boat still raged. And who was he? Turning her head, she beheld a face slack with sleep but still pale and handsome in a craggy, rugged way. Not like... Memories assailed her and she shuddered, recalling grasping hands and sloppy, foul kisses. Running. Stealing the boat. Heading out onto the firth during the nastiest storm of the year. She must have been mad, mad with fear. He blinked and twitched. A new dread struck, for he was awakening. Whatever was she to do? What could she do, given her situation? Her heartbeat sped. She struggled to stand, but his arm tightened around her. “Greetings,” he said. She deliberately calmed herself. Despite her nakedness, despite her vulnerability, she realized that if he’d meant to hurt her, he already would have. She asked, “Who are ye?” “I am called Erland. And you?” She liked the deep, almost musical voice she heard. “Rhona Kilbirnie.” “Ah, you hail from the keep on the cliff above. What brought you out on such a blustery night, Mistress Rhona?” She shivered and tried to pull away. “Too late for shyness, mistress.” She eased back, trying to become used to their nudity. “’Tis true,” she said thoughtfully. “Aye, then, ye have rescued me.” He laughed, his chest against her back rumbling with mirth. “I did. You were well on your way to feeding the fishes when I jumped into the sea.” This time she did sit up and turned her head to look at him with wonder. “Ye did! I remember that. I remember that.” She fell silent for a moment, then said, “Thank ye.” “I ask again. What brought you out in such a storm? You surely would have died.” Another shiver, which he must have felt, for he sat up and drew her closely into his arms, her back against his chest, his hands linked with hers. Her thoughts elsewhere, she didna resist. He didna touch her breasts, which relaxed her. “Tell me.” A demanding note had entered his voice. “They—my father particularly—planned to marry me tomorrow to the Bute.” “Stuart of Bute?” “Aye. He’s the horrible auld man who rules the lands neighboring us to the north.” “Ah,” he said. “You be the local headman’s daughter.” “I have that misfortune.” He shrugged. “Would you prefer to be the child of a pig farmer or p’raps a washerwoman?” “Anyone but me father’s daughter.” She couldna keep bitterness from her tone. “Then I have indeed rescued you.” His embrace tightened. She should push him away but decided she wouldna. She was grateful and he...he felt good. Not like the hot, wet lips of the Bute when he’d tried to kiss her. “Aye. When the Bute discovers we spent the night together, he will reject me as spoiled goods.” “As will all other men...but me.” He stroked her side. Her flesh shivered. “Your fingers are so cold. Do ye wish to get closer to the fire?” “Aye, but only to build it up again.” Releasing her, he stood and went to a tidy pile of driftwood he’d evidently collected while she’d slept. While he added shavings to the fire, followed by larger chunks, she bent her legs up to conceal her nakedness and draped her shift over herself as well, then took the opportunity to examine her rescuer. She reckoned him to have p’raps five-and-twenty years. His face was chiseled and strong, with a fine firm mouth and deep brown eyes, almost black. No, she decided, not almost black. Quite black, like the sky on a moonless night. His longish hair was similarly dark, but his skin milk-white, and his nude form beautiful. She tried to avoid staring between his legs and failed. The thick pole she beheld... She looked away and squirmed a wee bit, for her thoughts were not those of a chaste virgin. “Well, at least ye’re bonny,” she told him. His grin lit his face. “At least?” “As you say, I am now yers. So ’tis fine that ye are good to look upon.” “And you are also comely, mistress. But I must warn you, you have found your way into the arms of a lost Viking.” She jumped to her feet with a cry. “A Viking?” She dashed toward the cavern’s mouth. He chuckled. “And where will you go, on this stormy winter night?” “Oh.” She stopped and sank onto the cave’s floor. “Quite so. Be not afeared, little mistress, nothing will happen to you that you do not desire.” His voice had taken on a silken, mesmerizing quality, and she struggled to think clearly. “But what...what will become of me?” “Be not afeared. I can take care of you. All your needs.” He sat in front of her, taking her hands in his. She stared down at them. He had large, capable hands, scarred here and there... She tried not to think of how he’d probably gotten those scars, but couldna. “Are ye a...warrior?” “A sea captain and a fighter, yea. I fight for King Haakon.” She couldna stop her mouth from twisting. “Look at me.” He gently squeezed her hands, which felt good. She raised her gaze to his. His eyes were deep as the ocean and as compelling as the wild wind that had called her to freedom—or death—that night. “Nothing will happen to you that you do not desire.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I know what you need, dear one.” Dear one. Her mother had called Rhona that when she’d been wee, before Mam had died in childbed. Rhona’s heart twisted in pain, then wrenched wide open and let him in. Leaning forward, Erland stroked her cheek, gazed into her eyes and set his lips on hers. Cool they were, but with an underlying fire. She recalled the feel of his leg between hers, rubbing her, and the memory enflamed her anew. Letting her eyes drift shut, she pushed her mouth against his, sure he held the key, knew the secret, could give her everything she’d ever wanted. From where had that crazed thought sprung? Her lids popped open, her eyes meeting his. “Aye,” he murmured. “Everything.” How did he ken her very thoughts? Did that matter? No, she decided. The how of it wasn’t important. That he understood was enough...more than enough. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her body against his. He kissed her with more determination and opened her lips with his, then gently slid his tongue inside. She jerked away. “Och!” He chuckled. “Bear with me, mistress.” Another kiss, and now she tentatively let him in. She sought his tongue, eager to learn this new game, and he responded by allowing her to play as she wished. She became entirely absorbed. She’d seen folk in shadowed corners of the castle kissing, but had never understood the reason people liked it so much. Now she did. She wanted to kiss Erland for the rest of the night. That she might have to kiss him for the rest of their lives... Well, that wouldna be so bad, would it? He seemed to have other ideas—more ideas—for he started to explore her body. His fingers caressing her breasts along with his kiss was intoxicating, mesmerizing. Would he feel the same if she did the same? Still with closed eyes and questing mouth, she blindly reached out and touched his chest. Cool and firm, with soft smooth skin overlaying hard muscle, his chest was almost as interesting as his lips and... She opened her eyes. His face. Och, aye. She loved his face. She blinked. “Oh,” she breathed. He smiled, teeth perfect and pearly, then took her long, dark hair in one hand. He used it to tug her head to one side... Why? He kissed her neck, feathering his tongue over the sensitive skin, and all conscious thought fled. She gripped his shoulders, then stroked them, admiring his strength, a contrast to his sweet, sweet kisses. Her body was heating, tingling, sizzling, and she wanted to touch herself the way she did when she was alone at night, but... Wasn’t that wanton? Would he cease to treat her kindly if he knew the desires that drove her? He lifted his head. “Touch yourself. Touch yourself in whatever way feels good to you.” She inhaled a startled breath. “Aye,” he said. “’Tis all right. Do it.” She kissed him and dropped a hand to her quim. ’Twas damp and needy, and she couldna resist pushing in one finger, then two, moaning. “Aye,” he whispered. “Are you ready?” “I... Should we?” “You’re asking me?” He laughed. “Truly, sir, I ken not what I should do.” He pulled away and regarded her, his expression thoughtful, and rubbed his chin. “What troubles you, Mistress Rhona?” “I, er... I ken that a man will reject used goods. That the Bute would reject me as would every other well-born man because I am with ye tonight.” She rose and picked up her shift. “But what if ye should do the same?” He shook his head. “I will not.” She pressed her lips together. Well she knew the ways of men, having seen more than one lass broken-hearted by a lad’s inconstancy. “I should go.” “Is that what you truly wish?” He fixed her with those eyes again, those impossibly deep, soulful eyes. Caught in their spell, she sank to her knees before him. “Nay,” she whispered. “Well, then.” He set his hands beneath her arse and lifted her as though she were light as a sea shell. “Open your legs.” Mesmerized by his bewitching eyes, she obeyed without really thinking. He drew her close and set her atop him. Set her atop that pole of flesh she’d seen dangling between his legs, which was now hard and erect, pointing up along his equally hard belly. His aim was a little off, so he moved her around a bit before something—it—rubbed against her slit. She gasped but he didnae stop, instead loosening his grip to let her weight drop upon his shaft. An aching heat started and she wriggled, suddenly terrified. She scrabbled for his shoulders and tried to lift herself up off his rod a little. But he pressed her slowly, inexorably downward and with a little sob, she let it happen. Pain cut through her and she clung to his shoulders, wailing. He stopped, his pole throbbing inside her. ’Twas wondrous, and she raised an astonished gaze to his. The midnight eyes smiled. “Aye,” he murmured. “The first time is both pain and pleasure for you, but all the other times... I promise you, you shan’t regret the choice you’ve made this night.” Gripping her hips, he slowly lifted and lowered her. Each time her body accepted a little more of his until she was seated fully upon him. Was she going to burst? It seemed so! Her quim was on fire, not just the opening, but all the way inside, so deep that he seemed to reach her heart with every push and thrust. And he used his tongue in her mouth to echo his cock’s quickening rhythm inside her. She became wetter with every movement, the sizzle burning hotter until she could do nothing but hold on and take what he chose to give her. Her eyes tight shut, colors burst against her closed lids, rainbows and stars until a great flash of light and heat and rapture seemed to stop time. She cried out, then went limp in his arms, boneless and weak from the overwhelming pleasure. His cry echoed hers, and his seed flooded her channel. “Rest,” he whispered. “Rest against me.” She sagged against him, and his spent shaft fell out of her. But he wasna done. He lowered her body back until she rested on the sand. Kneeling between her legs, he began to lick her thighs clean, starting at her knees and going up, up, up... Up until he reached her sore quim, where he continued to lick and then to suck. Propping herself up on her elbows, she stared. “Wha-what-what are ye doin’, mon?” He lifted his head and smiled, moisture glistening on his pale lips. “Loving you. Lie back and enjoy yourself.” He rubbed his tongue over her sensitive bump and lightning tore through her body. She fell back onto the sand with a moan and let him take her to heaven. Eyes closed, the bright pulses she saw echoed the ecstasy tingling along her skin and gathering in her core. A small, but sharp prick on her cunny surprised her, but the little hurt receded as he continued to suck and lick. The same bright rainbows filled her mind and thrummed throughout her body. She moaned, pushing her mound into his mouth, chasing her pleasure. She arched her back and shouted out her joy. ***** She awakened astonished, remembering everything. She was no longer Rhona Kilbirnie, facing a dreaded marriage. She was a Viking warrior’s woman, and although she didna ken what would happen, she could face life with confidence. She opened her eyes. Faint daylight filtered into the cave... Where was Erland? Fear clutched her belly. Was he gone? Had he lied? Had he taken the only thing she had of value—her virginity—then left her alone to face an uncertain future? Whistling reached her ears, and she sat up, her heart eased. Someone—Erland?—had draped her dry shift over her, providing little warmth, but nearby the fire crackled, providing enough heat so she had been able to sleep. Erland, still whistling, approached and knelt beside her, tenderly brushing sand off her shoulders and breasts, where his hands lingered. He tweaked one nipple and asked, “Good morrow, mistress mine. And how do you fare this fine day?” She shrugged. “Well enow.” “Ah, you’re afeared again. ’Tis time to face Da and Mam, hmm?” She shook her head. “Not Mama. She died a while ago.” He stroked her face. “Mayhap that is part of the problem with your da. He doesn’t understand you the way a mother would.” She nodded, swallowing her sadness. “Never you mind. ’Twill all come right. You’ll see. Now get dressed. I have a great hunger this morn.” ***** They dressed, Erland in his customary black—a rough tunic, trews and boots, with a short sword scabbarded in his belt. Rhona’s pleated chansil smock was embroidered around the neck and hem, and her cyrtel tightly woven green wool. He hadn’t doubted her word that she was the local laird’s daughter, but her clothing, despite their dampness and salt-stains, proved her honesty. He led the way out of the cave and into the thin daylight. The storm had passed, and the sun struggled through low-hanging fog to glitter off the weapons of a half-dozen warriors surrounding the cave’s mouth. Energy shot through his veins. He shoved Rhona behind him and snapped, “Get back in there and do not come out ’til I say.” White-faced, she obeyed without protest. He advanced, dropping one hand to his sword’s hilt. “Who threatens me and my lady without cause?” “Without cause?” One of the warriors broke from the group. He was protected by a bronze chest plate over a tunic and black trews, and wore a plaidie of red, white and green wrapped around his shoulders. Erland recognized the pattern. Stuart of Bute. So this was the swain his lady had risked death to flee. Bute’s narrow, cruel eyes and seamed face contrasted with full, almost girlish lips. Though he seemed fit, he was indeed older, and certainly Erland could defeat him in a fair fight. But fights were rarely fair. He shifted his gaze to the rest of the group. Some wore bows slung over their shoulders, less helpful in close quarters. But all wore swords. Erland tugged on his ear. Six against one. Not great odds, but not impossible. Mayhap he could improve his chances. “I challenge you for the lady’s hand.” Bute snorted. “I wouldnae have the whore on a golden platter.” Erland sprang at him, seized his head and with a mighty twist, wrenched it off. Gouts of blood sprang from the torn neck, and a man screamed. Erland grabbed the corpse. Holding it between himself and the Bute’s warriors as a shield, he allowed the leaping blood to flow into his mouth while watching them. He needn’t have bothered. They fled. He drank his fill and considered the situation. He couldn’t allow his little lady to see what he’d done or what he was, so when he was sated, he tossed the carcass far into the sea and washed before calling for Rhona. “Lead us,” he told her. “Where is the best path to the keep?” She eyed him, saw patches of blood soaking into the sand, then eyed him again. “What happened?” “Never you mind. Let us merely say... Don’t worry about the Bute.” “Hmm.” Head tilted to one side, she absorbed that. He nudged her. “The path to the keep?” “This way.” She gathered her still-damp skirts and strode along the beach to a steep trail up the cliffs that nevertheless seemed to be oft-used, judging by its width and lack of plant life. As she struggled up the path in front of him, he steadied her with a hand on her back. “I reckon that early this morn is the best time to enter the keep,” he said. “While all are still awakening, we can make ourselves presentable and mayhap talk with a few folk who may influence your da in our favor.” “What do we need that for?” she asked over her shoulder. He chuckled. “A great deal. My first mate should have waited for us, but the treacherous bastard left with my ship. My lands are far away across the sea to the north. Do ye wish to go there?” “Nay, not really...but why not? We must do what we must.” “Should we receive a chill welcome in your keep, I suppose we can travel to Skye and ask King Haakon for succor.” Her silence told him what she thought of asking the Viking overlord for help. “As you say, Mistress Rhona, we must do what we must.” She harrumphed as she lifted one booted foot over the lip of the cliff and stood at its top, then reached down a hand to help him. He did not need help, but took her hand nevertheless, enjoying her touch. For a moment they stood, her breaths huffing, before they turned toward the keep. He examined it with a warrior’s eye. The barrel-shaped stone structure was simple but would effectively repel invaders unless ’twas improperly defended, as ’twas this day, with its gate open and folk passing in and out freely. That portended peace in the region, which he hoped would presage a happy chieftain. The reaction of Rhona’s father to Erland’s advent was crucial to his survival, and hers. They passed through the gate, with Rhona waving to the sleepy guard. “Ho, Shuard! Good morrow!” “Uhhh... Good morrow, Mistress Rhona.” Shuard cradled his head in his hands, clearly the victim of drink. “Where be Keith?” Aside, she told Erland, “Me brother. He’s the apple of my da’s eye. If he will intercede for us, all will be well.” Shuard rubbed his temple. “I havena seen him this morn. I believe he is aboot, but milaird is still abed.” Perfect. Erland glanced at Rhona, seeing his thought reflected in her eyes. She led him through the gate and into the dirt-floored keep. ’Twas quiet, with only a guard or two, but ’twas Yule, so many would also remain abed after the night’s revels. Chapter Two Keith Kilbirnie, immaculate in dark trews topped by clean white linen, stood at the scullery door and regarded his sister. Rhona had always been a brat, but he had never seen her so disheveled. And the company she was keeping—Och. He advanced, one hand on the hilt of the long knife he always carried in his belt. “And what have we here?” Rhona dropped the bannock she’d been devouring. “Brother!” She flung her arms around him. “Doona ye ‘brother’ me, ye imp. Where have ye been all night long? I searched for ye everywhere! And who might ye be?” he asked the stranger, a dark giant with a fierce, wild demeanor. “I am called Erland Blodson.” “A Viking?” Keith whipped out his knife and crouched in a defensive position, ready. “Nay! He rescued me!” Keith eyed Rhona, noticing salt stains on her formerly elegant cyrtel and sand in her hair. “What have ye done?” Rhona stared at the stone floor. “I took a boat out last night and left...tried to leave.” “She nearly drowned,” the Viking said in a rich bass. He picked up a mug and drank deeply. “She passed the night with ye?” Keith asked. The Viking put down the mug and wiped foam off dark stubble with a brawny forearm. “Aye.” He locked eyes with Rhona, whose cheeks reddened. Keith leaned against the long wood table in the scullery’s center while the maids, who should have been chopping onions, stared. “What a tangle.” He rubbed his forehead. “The Bute may attack.” The Viking smiled. “Not likely.” Rhona pressed against Keith and looked up at him with wide eyes. “Can ye fix this with Da, do ye think?” “Lassie, this is not breaking a jug or taking Da’s favorite mount. This could mean war.” “Nay,” Blodson said. “I fought the Bute on the beach this morn. He’s dead.” Keith drew a startled breath. “And his men?” “They fled.” “Why didna ye tell me?” Rhona demanded of Blodson. “A man doesn’t boast.” “Unhhh...” Their da appeared, gripping the doorpost, eyelids puffy. He blinked. “G’morrow, me bairns, and, uh, ye.” He fixed a bleary, bloodshot gaze upon the Viking. Da’s stained linen was open over his thrusting belly. His graying hair straggled over a balding pate, and he reeked of sweat and strong drink. Pressing his lips together, Keith tried to conceal his shame. But Blodson set down his ale and bent his head respectfully. “Good morrow, milaird Kilbirnie.” “Who are ye?” “This be the man who rescued my foolish sister,” Keith said, pleased the Viking showed respect despite Da’s slovenly appearance. “She took out a boat last night to flee marriage to the Bute. Who is dead.” “Dead? How?” The Viking shrugged and smiled. Da blinked, his attitude visibly changing. Keith could practically see Da’s clouded brain trying to sort matters out. Da’s gaze brightened. “Och, I doona have to pay him the dower-price.” “Nay,” the Viking said. “Nor to me. I do not want a dowry. Your daughter’s hand will be enough.” Their da told Rhona, “Ye deserve a beating.” “Aye, Da.” “Ye’re lucky I am not quite fit this morn.” “Aye, Da.” “Get oot of me sight.” She scooted toward the door and the Viking followed. “Nay, not ye,” Da said. Blodson stopped. “From where did ye spring?” Da asked. The Viking grinned, teeth a bright flash against his burgeoning black beard. “I was sent from Skye by King Haakon to take your keep.” Da stared, jaw slack, then bellowed with laughter. “Weel, ye have done that, and without a single strike of a blade!” ***** Still chuckling at the father’s jest, Erland followed the daughter—soon to be his wife—up several flights of stone stairs. At the top of the turret, he entered a round-walled chamber to see servants filling a wooden tub with hot water. At one end, a fire burned, sending its smoke up a primitive chimney. Nearby, a child’s bed stood, its linens untidy. He made a mental note to have that small virgin’s bed replaced. A salt-stained cyrtel was flung by an unseen hand from behind a woven screen, and was soon followed by the smock. Boots clunked to the floor. Ignoring the maids’ scandalized stares, he slipped behind the screen and embraced his woman. Naked, she smiled up at him and put her arms around his neck. She kissed him, but he preferred to put off the love-play. “Yer da isn’t the ogre you painted him,” he told her. “He suffers from the effects of our whisky, but is pleased you did away with the Bute, so he doesna have to pay the dower-price.” She stroked his chest. “And ’tis clear ye could best him in battle. Da kens what’s best for himself and our little clan.” “Ah.” Satisfied, he threw himself fully into their kiss, as did she, judging by the quickness of her darting tongue and exploring hands. He sucked hard, drawing her tongue into his mouth while sliding a hand down to find her ripe, ready quim. He set a palm on her mound and rotated it. When she’d moaned and dampened, he feathered his lips along her neck and slipped in his fangs for a little drink. He wasn’t thirsty, but relished his woman’s toothsome flavor. She gasped and gripped his shoulders hard. “What are ye doin’?” “Tasting your sweetness, milady. You’re irresistible. Are you hurt?” “N-nay, not exactly.” “Well, then.” He gave her one final hard suck, then stuck his head around the screen. The servants had left, so he stripped and led Rhona to the tub. He got in and urged her to follow. With her back to his chest, he maneuvered her until she was seated on his cock, leaning forward. Her groans and pants of desire told him that he had her exactly where he wanted her, and now, he could do anything with her. Lust sang through his veins. He pushed her forward so that her arms rested on the tub’s far end and her backside was perfectly presented. That she’d been virgin was a joy, yea, but that she was now open for his pleasure pleased him more. He didn’t have to hold back, and now he gave her his all, pumping hard until they both gasped and screamed. ***** And that eve, Da joined them, reciting the solemn but joyous words that would bind her to her Viking warrior forever. She glanced around. Their Great Hall wasna so great, but on this afternoon the servants had outdone themselves. They’d cleared away the remains of the previous night’s revelry and decorated every table, mantel and window ledge with fresh evergreen and holly boughs. Their fragrance and bright berries lent a festive atmosphere to the ceremony. Pale moonlight struggled through the few arrow slits uncovered by tapestries. A fire crackled and glowed, fed by the great Yule log that smoldered in the hearth. She was relieved to notice that because the storm wind had died down, the chimney didna smoke—for they were standing in front of the hearth for the short ceremony. Clearly aware of the event’s importance, Erland had cleaned his boots, combed his long hair and shaved with a borrowed razor. He had found the largest plaid available and, with her brother’s help, had pleated it into a kilt and wore it belted atop immaculate linen borrowed from her da. The shirt almost fit, Da having gained more than a little weight as he’d aged. Everyone had washed and was clad in their best. She’d done her part, choosing her finest cyrtel for the event. ’Twas fashioned of a soft red wool that looked especially well with her dark hair and eyes. Erland looked down, caught her glance and smiled gently, in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. She smiled back, her heart warmed, her pride swelling. Her man was an unexpected treasure. He’d already shown he could defend as well as love her. And he’d managed to get on with Da and Keith, despite his Viking heritage. What would their bairns be like? Though she was still a mite sore, she could scarce wait to have Erland again and begin their new life. How everything had changed in less than a day! She found it hard to remember she’d been willing to die rather than be joined to a man she detested. Indeed, she had promised herself she’d never wed, would never allow herself to be used as a pawn in her da’s schemes. And she hadna. Fate had chosen her man. But how she had fallen so swiftly for Erland? She wrenched her mind away from her stray, tumbling thoughts when Da wrapped a swatch of Kilbirnie plaid around their crossed wrists, joining them. They kissed but briefly, with Rhona mindful of her da and brother watching. The onlookers’ cheers bounced off the hall’s stone walls before everyone broke ranks to hug her and Erland. He looked a bit startled before he accepted the clan’s embrace. She hoped that amity would continue. Scots and Vikings were fierce enemies, due to the Northmen’s frequent raids. Though the Kilbirnie clan was small and their lands lay in the south and west of Scotland—farther away from Scandinavia—they nevertheless lived in fear of the raiders. The Vikings dominated the islands to the west and north and were a force to be reckoned with. She shunted all that aside to enjoy her wedding feast. Da had ordered a young sheep, one of the lambs born the previous spring, slaughtered so they ate it roasted with a sauce made of berries and rosemary along with wheat boiled in broth and some haggis. Roasted rabbit and fish from the chilly ponds rounded out the meal, with both a sweet and a savory custard ending all. Everyone noisily crowded around the tables to share the bounty. Stuffed to somnolence and drowsy from ale, Da snored in his big chair near the fireplace. She cast a glance at her husband, who sat next to her. Erland sat placidly, saying little, then shifted so his side touched hers. She shivered, that slight contact bringing waves of desire despite her tender quim. Would she be able to have him again tonight? She hoped so. ’Twould be a poor wedding night without lovemaking. Keith approached, sat on a bench nearby and plunked his mug of ale onto the table. “What noo?” he asked Erland. Erland eyed him, then Rhona. “A man doesn’t discuss such matters.” Keith reddened. “I didna mean this night. I general.” Her husband cocked his head and glanced at her. For the first time since they’d met, he looked uncertain. He said, “I would take you to see my home.” “I thought ’twas far to the north.” She leaned against him, glorying in the feeling of being his wife. “Aye, but...methinks staying too long could cause trouble.” He fixed Keith with a knowing gaze. “I am a Viking in your lands.” She stirred. “I mislike the idea of living in the dark, cold north. Canna we stay in Scotland? They say in the Highlands many places are without lairds or headmen.” “Hmm.” He took her hand. “’Twould be exciting, building a new clan. Yes, let’s!” Epilogue Kilborn Keep, northwest Highlands, five years later “Killian!” Rhona grabbed the toddler, who had climbed up to a window embrasure and had been trying to squeeze out the arrow-slit. The skinny bairn was thin enough, she reckoned, that he could slip through and fall to his death below on the treacherous cliffs guarding their hold. Erland entered, asking, “What’s he done now?” “The usual.” She set him on the stone floor. Erland eyed the arrow-slit and then Killian, who grinned back cheekily. Hand-in-hand, she and her husband peered out the window. In the bailey below, clansmen scurried hither and yon, preparing for the Yule feast. Many were black-haired and unusually pale of skin, Erland’s relatives from the far north. She’d oft wondered about their peculiar traits. They shared her husband’s immense strength, hewing and carrying the great blocks that formed their keep with ease. Their skin was cold even in midsummer. And according to whispers and giggles from the clanswomen, they also enjoyed little sips of blood while lovemaking. She shrugged, dismissing her concern. She hadna cause for complaint. Vikings were different—everyone knew that. Their northern cousins were true, loyal and hard-working. All wore the Kilbirnie tartan but now called themselves “Kilborn,” both to honor her birth-clan and to differentiate themselves. “We’ve done well, my wife.” Erland picked up Killian and cradled him against one brawny shoulder. “We’ve stores enough to last this winter and celebrate this Yule.” “And next year, we will do better. Look!” Rhona pointed. Below in the courtyard, two big-bellied women hung linens to dry. “Aye. Our little clan increases.” “It does, milaird.” “Milaird. I like the sound of that. With luck, there’ll be a Laird Kilborn in this castle forever.” Rhona rubbed Killian’s head. “Forever.”


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