To set the scene, this is a moment when Dægan and Mara are alone in the woods together after he has just saved her from a group of warring Vikings. Mara is still a little unnerved by his presence since she has been brought up to believe that all Norsemen are theives and savages. But Dægan, being the generous man that he is, has built a fire, hunted and cooked their meal, and is now answering Mara’s many questions.
“Who were those men?”
“I do not know,” Dægan stated with a shrug. “Their presence was as much a surprise to me as it was to you. But if you would have listened to me, they would never have known we were there in the first place, nor would you have that nasty bump on your head.”
“So this is all my fault?”
Dægan’s brows kindly lifted. “I know the means by which I saved you from those men was not as noble as you would have liked, but nonetheless, you have been saved.”
“And I suppose you want compensation from my father worth its weight in silver, aye?”
“I want naught from him. Mayhap a bit of gratitude from you would suffice. Need I remind you, if not for my timely presence, you would be a whore for those men on the Shannon. Who knows how many would have had you by now. The way I see it, you are indebted to me for saving your life, not to mention your precious maidenhead.”
She gasped at his arrogance, but could only counter his rude boasts with a gaping mouth and a tied tongue.
Dægan lifted his finger to her chin and closed her mouth for her. “My apologies, my lady. Perhaps, we can start over. Say with introductions?”
She hardened to stone and crossed her arms. “I do not see how knowing your name will help you any.”
“Very well. Then let us begin with yours.”
She turned back to glare at him but his head was tilted benevolently to one side and his eyes were caring and honest, as though he were truly interested in her, and only her. His hair had fallen off of his shoulder and several small braids adorned with silver clips flashed in the firelight. They were minute, but incredibly detailed with illustrious designs. Despite his unmistakably Norse features and what she had been taught to believe, he was well groomed and clean. Quite frankly, he was the most beautiful thing she had ever laid eyes on. He was not at all what she thought the Fionnghaill should look like, or act like for that matter, and she assumed that outlandish lies and exaggerated stories existed only because no one had dared to get close enough. By her own understanding, he was surely more than a savage…but no less than a man, who only inquired of her name. Finally she gave in, for names were harmless enough. “Mara. My name is Mara.”
Dægan smiled at the name given to him, for he thought it a beautiful one. He enjoyed repeating it back to her, feeling it on his lips, calling her by name. In boldly brushing back a lock of her hair, he asked, “Are you hurt anywhere else—Lady Mara?”
“Are you sure?” he asked again, this time looking into her eyes for evidence of a wandering mind. “You took quite a fall.”
“I am fine,” Mara insisted. “‘Tis not been the first.”
“Do you always make a habit of falling from your horse?”
Mara’s mouth naturally curled into a smile, but she forced it away as quickly as it appeared.
“Ah, you find me funny,” Dægan pointed out.
“I find you odd and unfounded. Nothing more.”
“Perhaps I would be less of those things if you knew my name.”
Mara said nothing. Although she was remotely curious, she did not want to give him the satisfaction of thinking that she cared. So she turned away from the draw of his beautiful eyes, and just as she expected, he offered it all the same.
“I am Dægan of Hladir, son of Rælik.”
Mara liked the sound of his name and it fit him well. But yet again, she refused to show any regard, acting as if his name were ordinary, and at best, a name that would soon slip from her mind.
But…his name clung to her thoughts and she found herself almost brooding over it. Every idling recollection constantly revolved around him; his voice as he spoke his own name, his exceptional generosity, his entrancing blue eyes, and what still seemed to be left unanswered—his reason for risking his life to save her.
She felt his hand gently touch hers, a sudden forwardness she hadn’t expected so soon from him. But even as the little voice in her head told her to pull away and run, she couldn’t. Her hand, he turned over, and in it, he placed the silver and gold dagger that once lay at her side.
“You can keep this with you tonight,” he said, closing her fingers around it. “I promise you, I will not give you any reason to use it.”
How could she doubt those words? Those eyes of dazzling blue? They were the inlet to his soul where mystery and compassion were harbored, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t help but drown in them.
Dægan stood and retreated to the opposite side of the fire, standing massively before her like an old tree rooted in the ground. His arms and legs proved his masculinity and power, and the strength in his jaw accompanied his massive physique. His long golden mane complemented his features well, and his eyes could change like the tides in the sea; stern and intimidating at one glance, and gentle and honest at another.
Whilst she was lost in her thoughts, he suddenly lay down upon the ground and covered himself with his thick bear cloak.
“You are going to sleep?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said, trying to get more comfortable. “Even we Lochlannaigh must sleep, my dear.”
“But I must get home! My father will be worried sick!”
“I will get you home, I promise. But not tonight.”
Mara’s voice rose frantically. “When?”
“When I have an army of men to accompany me. ‘Tis not safe for just you and me.” Her silence, Dægan noted, was long and determinable. “And—” he continued, “put those thoughts of leaving whilst I sleep out of your mind! Even if you left right now, you would not make it back before morn, that is if you did not lose your way in the night. Let us be smart, Mara, and wait until my men can join us before we go traipsing back through hostile territory.”
“I thought your kind always traveled in groups, roving bands of warriors, that sort of thing. Why do you not travel with your men?”
“Because, for what I was doing, I did not need their company.”
“And what may I ask were you doing?”
He sighed and closed his eyes, knowing the conversation at hand would only broaden with each nagging question. “If you must know, I had chosen myself a bride and was going to bring her home with me.”
Mara’s temperament changed as she gathered the extent of his affections rather clearly through his lingering smiling face. “You are quite fond of her.”
Mara kept watching him, liking the way he held the unknown woman in high regard. She softened a little within her guilt. “Now I feel like I should apologize. Had it not been for me, you would be in her arms right now.”
“Think naught of it,” Dægan dismissed, shifting beneath the cloak.
“’Twill all work out soon enough.”
“How did you acquire this woman to be your bride? An alliance?”
“Not exactly. I have chosen her, this is certain, but her father fails to know anything about it just yet.”
Confused, Mara prodded deeper into his personal affairs. “And how do you plan to persuade this uninformed father of hers?”
“Well, I was hoping to offer him a dowry he could not refuse, along with an allotment of seven cows, but it might prove to be unnecessary considering my selfless, heroic measures this fine day.”
Mara’s brows lifted and her words stumbled from her mouth. “You speak of me? And my father, Callan? The King of Connacht?”
Dægan opened his eyes and sat up on one elbow, stunned by the very status of her father’s rank. He had definitely assumed her to be a progeny of some clan nobleman or lesser chieftain, but never had he given thought to her birth being that of the provincial leader himself. With her father being at such a prominent hierarchy, it would surely be a more difficult situation for him to get out of. Yet, to his best ability, he pretended that it was merely frivolous.
“Your Ireland is so overrun by chieftains and all their lessers that ‘tis hard to say if your father is the man I must bargain with. But you, however, I could say with much certainty, are the one of whom I speak.”
Mara stood up, aghast at what he had just said, and walked over to kick him. “How dare you!”
Dægan took the first kick in his side, but caught her foot with the next attempt, lifting it high enough that she lost her balance and fell to her backside. Still holding firmly to her ankle, he dragged her closer, avoiding her little fists that came like madness. He grabbed both her wrists tightly and pulled them to his chest, forcing her lean forward in his direction.
“How dare you!” she shouted again, fighting against his grip. “How dare you belittle my father with your conniving plan! He will not fall for it any more than I have!”
Dægan drew back his face in surprise. “You think this whole day has been naught but a conniving plan?”
“Aye, the men at the river, the chase, the rescue; ‘tis all a farce! I know your kind! You are all the same! Cunning thieves who pilfer from the weak and kill others out of greed!”
“I have never done such things!” he defended.
“Nay, you just look for women who will be naught more than your slaves soon after you take them to your marriage bed!”
Dægan’s face lit up in flames, driven deep into anger by her accusations. “Is that what you think you are? A slave? Odin’s blood, woman! I have been beaten, punched and elbowed in the nose to the extent of bleeding profusely, not for strategy sake, my dear, but to truly keep you safe from the ill-gotten grasps of foreigners on the riverbank! I have gathered wood for a fire so you would be warm! Hunted so you could eat! I have even given you a weapon to keep by your side to protect yourself, and all the while declaring to you my honest intensions of not—ever—hurting you!” He looked away for a quick moment in order to calm himself and back again, throwing her hands at her. “Now tell me again, who is the slave?”
She didn’t answer him, but her gradually thinning stare left him somewhat content that he had gotten his point across.
“I know you are afraid,” he allotted after a much needed sigh, “especially being so far from home with a man preconceived of being a savage. If that is all you think of me from this day forth, then so be it. But I will not let you slander me as being a man without honor or without my kept word. I told you I would take you back home and I will. Furthermore, you are not my slave, nor do I have hopes of it come later. I am a chieftain who already has his fill of thralls and I simply want a wife.”
“You cannot be serious!”
Dægan turned his mouth under in thought. “After what I went through today, I would think there would be no question.”
Mara’s breath drained from her lungs. “This cannot happen.”
“Why not?” he asked leaning in closer.
“My father simply would not allow it.”
“Would you?” he asked, boldly taking her into his arms.
At first, she was shocked at how daring he chose to be by taking away the little comfort of space between them, fighting the affects of his sultry eyes, his rugged aroma, and his breath upon her cheek with all she had. But all in all, she could do little about it. She was torn between the spoonful of endearment being shoved down her throat, and the inviting warmth of his arms.
“You have not answered me, princess,” he teased, wrenching her closer to tuck his head in the crevice of her jaw, where he drew in a deep breath and smelled the oils that settled ideally behind her earlobe.
“Christ, how can I answer you?” she shuddered in response.
“Just open your mouth and speak.”
Before she could even utter one word of resistance, his lips softly closed upon hers. She couldn’t move, for it was the first kiss she had ever experienced in all her nineteen years, as well as the most pleasant of gestures received. Her thoughts whirled around her so quickly. She felt the warm softness of his mouth, the heat that radiated from his skin, and the red-blooded strength of his arms holding her tightly to his chest as the world around her ceased to exist.
Her eyes drew back in their sockets and she fell limp in his arms, finding herself welcoming the gentle caresses of his tongue parting her mouth. He went deeper, tasting her, but never rough or demanding, just easing his tongue in as much as she would allow. He played with her, pulling away tenderly, then delving right back in, taking every sweetened gasp from her like a thief.
She was very responsive to his touch and he continued to kiss her intensely, feeling her virgin tongue beginning to return the kiss as well. He moaned softly in her mouth, a noise hardly to be heard, but it was enough to make her open her eyes and find his to be swirling in drunken lustfulness.
His unashamed forwardness sent her fleeing, but his embrace enveloped her with a passion she had never felt before. There was a strange heat that burned low in her stomach and a cool rush of shivers from the top of her neck down her spine, his kiss feeding both of those glorious feelings at once.
She stared at him, barely being able to breathe as he dwelled near her lips. He was a mountain of strength and an endless vision of beauty; two things that both scared her and kept her leeching for more. She was trapped in his eyes, caught in the very clutches of his hungry stare, and given the circumstances, it was hard to know if it was the pull of sheer attraction that held her motionless, or just blinding fear.
Dægan noticed her statuesque apprehension, a sight quite unlike anything he had ever seen from a woman who had just felt his kiss.
“You look frightened…”
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