If he could, Rorik would remain on this boulder by the river for the duration of the evening and into night. His stomach growled in protest, and he realized he had little food this day. He reached for his aleskin and took a sip.
Even the thought of entertaining Hallgerd left a hollow ache within. “For all I ken you might have the face of a goat.”
Rorik sensed the intruder’s approach behind him before the first footstep sounded. He lifted his left hand and rested it on the hilt of his sword by his side.
“I happen to cherish the faces of my goats, though they are stubborn creatures.”
The ale soured in his gut. “Seer.” He released his hand from his sword and continued to stare outward.
When silence greeted him, he dared to glance over his shoulder. Wariness from her all-knowing eyes reflected at Rorik, not the bitter coldness she often imparted to him. “Why have you come?”
Ragna lifted her chin. “I have a message you must hear fully.”
Shrugging, Rorik resumed his gaze outward. “Then speak your words.”
Again, the woman remained silent. Rorik pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.
“Do you not deem it best to put on your tunic?” she suggested, stepping closer and brushing the garment against his arm.
Slowly, Rorik lifted his head to look at her. Even her words sounded different. They were almost a plea, not filled with terse venom. A rosy stain had blossomed on her ivory cheeks, and her breathing appeared labored. He pondered two things—either his naked form disgusted her or perchance appealed to her. Surely, she despises me, nothing more.
The barb he wanted to fling out at her became trapped on his tongue. He guzzled deeply from the aleskin. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he dropped the empty skin next to his sword and swiftly got off the boulder.
Ragna gasped and clutched his tunic to her breasts. Yet she did not avert her eyes.
He dared to move toward her.
Her eyes widened and she stumbled back, dropping his tunic.
Rorik reached out and grabbed her hand, preventing her from falling. The contact of her skin against his sent a tremor of warmth up his arm. This time, his breathing became labored while he stared into her gray eyes. He found no hatred there—only beauty within their depths. His gaze traveled down to her full red lips, partially open and begging to be kissed.
She stomped the ground with her foot. “I will not be forced to marry a…a heathen!”
He gritted his teeth—her words sparked outrage from his inner beast. Glancing over his shoulder, he offered, “Then which would you prefer? Halvard or me? Make your choice, Elspeth. Did you not consider I do not favor this union either?”
Confusion marred her features. She fisted her hands on her hips and glanced upward. “Did you argue against this marriage with King William?”
“Yet he convinced you?”
When she returned her gaze to him again, resolve and a bit of stubbornness filled them. “Why, Magnar?”
“The king will permit me to continue with my duties with the elite guard, including an important task which requires my attention after our marriage.”
Chewing on her bottom lip, she nodded slowly. “Then you will be absent most months from Steinn?”
“Most assuredly, and when I am there, Erik will be my focus.”
Her face softened as she moved slowly toward Magnar. “Therefore this marriage is in name only for Erik’s protection, aye?”
Annoyed with the direction of his thoughts, he looked away. How Magnar longed to tell the lie on the tip of his tongue. The word ached to be released. He turned and stared into her jeweled eyes in an attempt to offer her any hope of what she wanted to hear.
When she placed a hand on his arm, she whispered, “Tell me honestly, Magnar.”
He swallowed and removed her hand from his arm. Placing it securely over his heart, he stated, “Our marriage will be binding in all ways, Elspeth—in name and body. You may worship your God and I shall do so with mine, but ken this, you will be mine completely.”
The battle of emotions splayed across her face. She stepped closer and pulled her hand free from his. “Then you understand this, Magnar MacAlpin, you can have my body on my terms. The time of my choosing. I am tired of having men telling me what to do. Will you accept my terms?”
By the hounds! Her words sparked his lust further. Magnar concluded he did not want a simpering wife by his side. For the first time, he yearned to have one challenging him—in mind and body.
Grasping her around the waist, he ignored her gasp and cupped her chin. Her eyes widened as he slowly lowered his head. “Agreed.” He breathed the word against her cheek.