Lord of Fire, Lady of Ice by Michelle M. Pillow
Full Length – Medieval Historical Romance
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(Soft Release, Jan 15, 2013)
Official Ebook Release
April 20, 2013
“She found herself unimpressed with him, having expected more of the legendary man—Brant. Lord Blackwell. Brant the Gladiator. Brant the Vigorous. Brant the Flame. Brant the Viking Hero. Della snorted in unladylike disgust. More like, Brant the Thorn in my Arse!”
Lady Della the Cold-Hearted
Lady Della despises all things Viking. They may rule the land, but they will never rule her. Unfortunately, her father doesn’t seem to agree. To prove his continued allegiance to the Viking king, the Ealdorman of Strathfeld betroths his only daughter to a respected Viking Lord—a warrior who’s legendary prowess isn’t reserved for the battlefield. Fighting the newfound craving in her body and the unwelcome fire in her heart, Della must choose between everything she knows to be true and the one thing she never expected…
Lord Brant of Blackwell, the Fiery One
Lord Blackwell is as fiery on the battlefield as he is in his passions. He has fought valiantly for King Guthrum and has earned the respect of the nobles. When his overlord offers the hand of his beautiful daughter and the right to inherit his lands, Blackwell can hardly refuse. However, he soon discovers that his noble bride is anything but the meek and mild woman he envisioned for his wife. One minute she’s kissing him back, the next she’s swearing to do whatever it takes to dissuade him from their marriage. Can his lust for life and his new bride melt the ice that surrounds her heart? Or will Lady Della the Cold be this warrior’s undoing?
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Rating: Contains graphic sexual content, adult language, and violence.
Lord of Fire, Lady of Ice Chapter One Excerpt
Michelle M. Pillow
Strathfeld Castle, Northumbria, 871 A.D.
“Methinks my sire has lost his bloody mind! It would seem this man is truly a barbarian.”
Wrinkling her nose, Lady Della lifted her chin haughtily into the air, trying to hide her apprehension beneath a composed expression. Under the long skirts of her blue overtunic she tapped her foot, staring across the main hall to where her father spoke to their Nordic visitor. She took a calming breath and then another, doing her best not to let her aggravation show.
I am a lady, she thought with a feeling of resentment curling through her entire being. I am above him.
Her fingers worked against her waist in frustration, causing the fine linen of her gown to crumple beneath her hold. She concealed her scorn under an icy mask of indifference. It was an old habit, one she’d cultivated through years of practice. The dirty Viking glanced around the hall, paying her no mind. However, she watched him intently from the shadowed end of the stairwell, taking in his every gesture like a falcon waiting for a sign of weakness—something, anything she could use against him.
The warrior laughed, nodding in agreement at something the Ealdorman of Strathfeld said. Lord Strathfeld was her distinguished and honored father, though Della was hard pressed to think so highly of him this day. Her irritation deepened as the grating sound of the warrior’s merriment only continued.
Grumbling under her breath, she said, “We may have to show allegiance to the heathens, but this goes too far.”
“M’lady,” her faithful servant scolded. Della didn’t take offense to the light reprimand in Ebba’s tone. They had known each other for too long, though not exactly friends, they were as close as a maid and her lady could be. “It’s not yer place to question yer sire’s wishes. He has good reason fer this match or else he would ne’er make it.”
Della gave the maid a stiff smile. Feigning nonchalance, she stepped out of the shadows to edge closer to where the men talked. Though she strained her ears, she failed to make out a single word they said.
“Yea, he has his reasons. He thinks by making me wed this barbarian, it will ensure an alliance with King Guthrum in case there is to be another war. With Aethelred so recently in his grave and his brother, Alfred, just named his successor, times are uncertain, especially with Wessex so close to falling under Viking rule.”
The entire time she spoke, Della kept her eyes coolly on the warrior, taking in every detail of his figure. She found herself unimpressed with him, having expected more of the legendary man—Brant. Lord Blackwell. Brant the Gladiator. Brant the Vigorous. Brant the Flame. Brant the Viking Hero.
Della snorted in unladylike disgust. More like, Brant the Thorn in my Arse!
“M’lady?” Ebba tilted her head in confusion, causing her short, black curls to bob as she moved. She imitated her mistress by pulling at her own clean, white apron.
“Yea, he has his reasons.” Della glanced wearily at the maid, who really had no understanding of politics. The noblewoman didn’t know why she bothered to explain them as she turned her eyes forward once again to her intended.
The Norseman was dressed as if he’d just come from battle, still wearing his shirt of chainmail. Della was surprised he hadn’t rushed boldly into the hall, brandishing his bloodied sword, calling out Nordic curses to his pagan gods. She couldn’t help but wonder how many Anglo-Saxons the barbarian had killed. By reputation, it was many.
Della was predominately of Saxon heritage, though not directly related to those in Wessex. Would Lord Blackwell’s anger toward the race be transferred onto her in their marriage? The only reason her father retained his title was because of a single drop of royal Viking blood in their ancestry, from when the heathens had first come to Briton. That and her father had proven himself a loyal and valuable man to his Viking overlords.
Briton had been ravished by wars for several hundred years, perhaps since the beginning of time itself. Wessex to the south raged against the Vikings to the north. Her Northumbrian home was in the middle of it all, firmly held by their Viking rulers. No matter how she secretly wished victory for the Wessex king, it wasn’t likely her traitorous prayers would be answered. In truth, Della wasn’t sure the Christian God could hear prayers said in a pagan land.
The world will always be at war so long as men are in it, regardless of my marriage to Brant the Thorn! Della fumed inwardly.
The barbarian lord nodded as her father pointed up into the high rafters of the main hall. Whatever it was they talked about, it looked to be a serious conversation. Della turned back to her handmaid. “Times mayhap are uncertain, but my cousin, Sir Stuart of Grayson, could well man this keep. Methinks he would make a more likely choice in husband and father to my children.”
Ebba giggled and Della wondered at the knowing look in the girl’s eyes. “Yea, Sir Stuart is handsome. Would yer sire consider him?”
“Nay,” Della admitted with remorse. Nay, he thinks naught of Stuart. He is more interested in his political intrigues and an alliance with Stuart is not politically advantageous. He would rather see me married to a murdering, lecherous boor of a Viking than let me find true happiness with a man who would stay out of my way and let me run my keep!
“It’s a shame.” Ebba licked her bottom lip. “Perchance this Viking husband will not be so bad. It’s rumored he’s good with his sword, both in bed and out.”
Della suppressed a groan at the younger girl’s crudeness. It was no secret Ebba already had many lovers in her young life. She had never even been alone with a man, except for her cousin, Stuart. They’d been childhood friends, though she hadn’t seen him for many years. She didn’t love him as a woman loved a man, far from it, but he was safe.
The marriage bed terrified her and wasn’t a prospect she’d been looking forward to experiencing. Della knew if she would’ve been permitted to marry Stuart, he would’ve let her out of that particular marital duty. In turn, she would’ve let him keep as many mistresses as he desired so long as he was discreet and out of her way.
She determined it best to change the course of the conversation before her fear of the marriage bed was discovered. It was easier to be in charge of men and servants if she showed no weaknesses. Della knew what the men called her behind her back—“Della the Cold-Hearted” or, for short, “Della the Cold”. Long ago, she’d taught herself not to care so long as they showed no disrespect to her face and did as they were commanded.
“Do you think this Viking has even seen the inside of a keep? I heard it told they sleep outdoors on their ships. Mayhap right next to the cattle.” Della gave Ebba a pointed look.
“M’lady!” Ebba’s cheeks turned red and she grabbed a piece of her cropped black hair, twirling it around her fingers. She kicked the worn tip of her shoe into the herb-scented rushes that lined the floor. “Mayhap he was just at battle. Mayhap he rode through the night to get here on time.”
The maid gave a romantic sigh, no doubt believing the whispers of Lord Blackwell being a glorious war hero, a valiant knight-errant. It was said he was a man of distinguished valor on the field of battle and those war-hardened men who fought against him ran at the mere sight of him and his fiery sword. However, Della knew how the scribes liked to exaggerate. Eyeing the Norseman now, she frowned. He wasn’t so frightening.
Besides, Della thought ruefully, he might scare grown men but he would assuredly meet his match in a woman.
“Yea, and mayhap you should marry the nefarious barbarian and I could be your handmaid.” Della understood Ebba had no knowledge of the conspiring that ran her mistress’s life. All the servants could seem to understand was the work of their daily existence. Della tried to change that by teaching them the ways of the world, for she believed that everyone deserved to be enlightened. She found most of them didn’t want her lessons.
Ebba scrunched her face at the prospect of being a fine lady. “Nay, it’s too much to ask. Abovestairs he would break me with his very size.”
“More like he would stifle you with his odor,” Della noted wryly. Ebba giggled again. Though, the handmaiden had a point. Brant was indeed a big man, even for a Viking.
“Yea, it’s a sad truth. Lord Blackwell is not known for his cleanly ways.”
Della stiffened, as the soft words drifted from behind her. The sound curled the hairs on her neck to standing. She’d only changed the subject to keep Ebba from probing too much into her future husband’s carnal appetites. She hadn’t meant for anyone else to hear her barbs—especially not someone with a Nordic accent. Her heart fluttered and she felt sick at being caught, but she couldn’t let her anxiety show.
Proudly straightening her shoulders, she turned to the man behind her. Heat rose on her cheeks and she hoped he didn’t see it, as she eyed the man who dared to interrupt their conversation. Giving him a chilly stare, it was too late to back down from her viperous comments.
“Yea, it is.” Her hard tone crackled over them like breaking ice. No one would know it, but the more nervous she became the harder her voice was, the icier her expression.
“M’lady?” Ebba whispered. Della saw the maid from the corner of her eye, but refused to pull her gaze from the barbarian’s. The servant swayed back and forth, clearly wanting to be dismissed. Ebba gave a cautious glance to the large man and took a step back. “M’lady?”
“Yea, Ebba?” Della’s head was forced back to look up at the man. His light blue eyes held a rigid formality within their depths, though his words had carried some vast amusement. Della found herself suddenly grateful he wasn’t to be her intended. She thought her fiancé was big, but this one gave her reason to pause.
“M’lady?” Ebba insisted once more, tugging lightly on her mistress’s sleeve. The barbarian raised an eyebrow and Della’s frown deepened.
The noblewoman drew her gaze away first. “Ebba, get you to the kitchen and tell Isa about our guests. Mayhap they would like a draught of mead after their travels.”
“Yea, m’lady.” Ebba gave a small curtsy and scurried away in relief.
“Do you know Lord Blackwell?” the Viking warrior asked when they were alone. His low voice dripped over her like heated syrup—thick and warm and wickedly sweet. For a barbarian, he was well pronounced despite the heathen accent. He hadn’t moved, but with Ebba gone Della lost some of her confidence. She didn’t like being alone with him.
She was by no means a short woman and yet this man still towered over her. An unsettled feeling curled in her stomach at his nearness, taking her by surprise. She took a step back to put some distance between them. His mouth twitched up in obvious amusement and she was compelled to run. Not many people could frighten her by their mere proximity.
I am a lady. I am above him. The words were less convincing than before.
Purposefully, she gave a slow, dispassionate glance over the length of his attire, refusing to let him know he unsettled her. It was a mistake. Looking at him only made the feelings worse. The flexible chainmail shirt he wore ran across an expansive chest, the heavy links molding into the folds of his muscles. An unfamiliar fire worked its way through her, causing a shiver to run the length of her body.
Repulsive, Della thought, hoping to convince herself she meant it.
From the look of his shabby clothing, she presumed he was part of Blackwell’s hird, the retinue of fighting men who served under him. His crossed arms and widespread stance effectively made an unbreakable barricade. Under his threadbare long tunic, she detected his thighs were like the trunks of two large oaks and his arms like their immense branches. It occurred to her if she were to try, she wouldn’t be able to wrap her arms around his upper body.
Della saw how this man would make a formidable opponent on the field of battle and off it. His hair hung loose, in the typical Viking style, to just below his shoulders with two braids plated into it behind the ears and banded with thin strips of leather. He had trimmed blond whiskers over his jaw. She looked at his eyes, momentarily lost in the clearness of their depths.
Come on, girl, wake up! He is a lecherous Viking!
The barbarian raised his eyebrow and an amused corner of his mouth wrenched up higher than before. She grudgingly noticed the attractiveness of his lips under the short beard.
“Do you know Lord Blackwell?” he repeated. “His manor lies not far from here and you speak as if you are acquainted.”
Blessed Saints! She chastised herself, annoyed at having been caught staring like a dimwitted fool.
“Nay. It’s only by his inflated reputation that I know of him.” Her icy features remained purposefully blank, though she was hard pressed to keep the hauteur from her voice.
The Viking nodded and Della wondered at his unwarranted concern. As he stepped forward, a lock of his long hair fell across his shoulder. The braid on the left side of his head appeared to be a dark shade of red, while the rest of his hair was lighter blond. It reminded her of a streak of fire burning through a golden field of wheat. It was said that Vikings were able to bleach the color from their hair with soaps, though she had never seen it done.
“Do you ride with Lord Blackwell oft?” Trying to sound uninterested, she turned to watch her father and intended. She decided to ignore the fact that the man to her side wasn’t properly introduced.
Leastways, mayhap I can discover a few things about my intended.
“Yea, oft enough,” he answered, his tone serious. “It’s almost like we are the same person.”
Della scrunched up her nose at his enigmatic words. “And you have fought together in many battles, I presume?”
“Yea, and sometimes we even sleep by the same row of cattle,” the man whispered mischievously.
Della paled and refused to look at him. She was about to question him further when she saw her father turn to her with a look of satisfaction. Nodding her head stiffly in the ealdorman’s direction, she acknowledged his interest.
“Lord Strathfeld is a good man.” The Viking prevented her from asking more. There was a yielding respect in his voice as he spoke. “He has truly proved his worth in battle.”
“Yea, my father has fought in many battles,” Della said.
Those battles were the reason for her hasty marriage. He’d fought bravely several months ago at the Battle of Martin, where King Aethelred had been brought low, and had caught the notice of King Guthrum. Together they had formulated a plan to help ensure Strathfeld’s continued allegiance to the Viking clans. Their arrangement was simply to unite the prominent Strathfeld line in marriage to a Viking noble and have male heirs of mixed blood produced to join the people. Her father had readily offered her up to be a political sacrifice. Not only did he seek to assure peace with King Guthrum, but he also wanted to ensure continued loyalty between his manor and the neighboring Nordic manor of Blackwell. So it came to be that she was betrothed to Brant of Blackwell, Viking Barbarian.
A jarl, Lord Blackwell was one of the few nobles truly descended of pure Norse blood. Generations of raiding and pillaging the land had given way to Norsemen taking Saxon brides and the children of such matches were considered Viking by birth. If her father had been a pure or even half Viking, he would have been Blackwell’s better. Lord Strathfeld was richer and had more land. However, by Viking law, the circumstance of Blackwell’s birth made him more powerful than Della’s father.
While he is titled, it does not make him noble. He is still naught more than a Viking barbarian, a Viking barbarian who is soon to be my husband.
Della closed her eyes as a wave of disgust rose in her chest. Taking a deep breath, she steeled her nerves.
“M’lady has a look of distaste. Do you feel ill?”
She sensed the man kept his emotions well-guarded and couldn’t tell if he disapproved of her earlier remarks regarding her intended. His stony expression puzzled her. She could usually sense what others were thinking.
Mayhap he is as displeased by this match as I! It’s likely he does not care for the Saxons as much as I do not care for the Vikings. Mayhap I can convince him to persuade his friend to leave before the nuptial vows are spoken.
Della turned her most charming smile to her unknowing ally. She ignored his surprise at her sudden change in attitude toward him. “Methinks this marriage between our people is a mistake. Perchance, it is the same for you?”
The Viking’s eyes narrowed and shot flames in her direction, but he kept quiet.
Della took his silence as a fervent agreement. “I do not wish to marry Lord Blackwell and it’s obvious you dislike the match as well. Perchance you can whisper a few words of discouragement into my intended’s unsuspecting ears. It would be well worth your while to do so.”
“And what would these whispers say?” The Viking leaned closer, his face devoid of emotion as he scratched at his beard.
“They would say I love another, that I would not be faithful. They would say I carry the bastard child of Stuart of Grayson in my belly. They would say aught you would see fit.” Della’s tongue edged the line of her upper lip in nervous agitation. She barely believed the lies spilling from her mouth. But she didn’t care, for they could be disproved when it was discovered she carried no babe. “I care naught what the whispers say of me, only that they meet their purpose.”
“It would appear that m’lady has little care for her reputation, nor for the reputation of her betrothed, to speak thusly of herself.” The Viking’s lips pressed together into a thin line.
Was it possible she’d been mistaken in her assessment of him? He didn’t appear as daft as she first assumed and he didn’t seem pleased at her intention to overthrow the betrothment. Jutting her chin up in defiance, she said quietly, “I care naught of his lordship’s reputation. If you are a true and loyal friend to him, you will warn him against me. Do you understand my words?”
“Yea, I understand.” The Viking lowered his head and leaned his face into hers.
Anger glowed like embers of fire in his gaze. He didn’t take her veiled threat lightly. Narrowing her eyes, she returned his hard stare, not about to back down now that she’d stated her case. What did it matter if she got along with a barbarian who owed allegiance to her future husband? If this charade of a marriage took place, her first act would be to dismiss the knave at her side and turn him out of the castle. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears as she stared into his steely gaze. Even before the battle of wills had started, she somehow knew she was to be the loser.
Contemptuously, she withdrew her gaze from his and noticed his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Suddenly the size and power of the man before her grabbed hold of her senses and she knew she’d stepped too close to the flame. Taking a hesitant step back, she debated as to whether she should turn and run.
“Do you leave so quickly?” Brant asked in low, exact tones as his future wife backed away from him. He wanted nothing more than to wring the life’s breath from her traitorous, unfaithful throat. Her passionless face gave no emotion away.
No wonder you are called Della the Cold-Hearted. Methinks you lack all passions, even fear.
Brant watched the woman’s unwavering composure in awe. She was a beautiful creature, or would be once the ice melted from her features. She looked too young to possess so much self-control, though she was old by marrying standards. He estimated she could be no more than one and twenty years.
Brant hadn’t meant to overhear her conversation with her handmaid. He’d thought simply to introduce himself, for it was clear she thought his seneschal and good friend, Gunther, was he. But when he caught her cutting remarks about his heritage and cleanliness, he couldn’t help himself. He had teased her to teach her a lesson about gossiping. Though now he saw there was to be no end to her insults. The damned Anglo-Saxons always insulted what they didn’t understand and it seemed his bride was no different. He’d hoped since she was a lady, a position allowed her by the very race she now scorned, she would see the wisdom in their alliance.
Brant took a menacing step toward her. He usually would be against striking such deliberate fear into a woman, for he knew they were naturally apprehensive of his large size. He always tried to treat womankind with a gentle hand and, after they got to know him more intimately, they never complained. But this frustrating woman wasn’t fearful of him. In fact she seemed damned near indifferent. Could it be the rumors about her were true? Did she truly feel nothing?
Do you understand your mistake now, little schemer? Brant took another step, closing the distance between them. He noted in grim satisfaction the way her pulse quickened at the base of her slender neck. Nay, you are not immune to my anger, you just shroud it well.
“Do you leave before being introduced to your future master?” Brant forced a hard smile as he fingered a lock of her waist-length blonde hair. He smoothed the submissive strands gently between the pads of his thumb and his forefinger. She wore a simple blue gown, the fine linen embroidered at the edges as to befit her station. By looks alone, she would make him a good wife—someone warm and soft to hold during the night, someone to slake his desires when they arose. First, she must learn to submit to him. He had a feeling she wouldn’t take kindly to being commanded. Lifting the soft lock of hair to his lips, he kissed it lightly before whispering, “For make no mistake, Lord Blackwell will be your master.”
“No man will ever be my master.” She snatched her hair from him and threw it over her shoulder in contempt. “And you will do well to unhand me in the future lest I tear off the offending appendage.”
Brant’s smile widened at her show of defiance. He was going to enjoy taming her obstinate ways. Underneath her icy façade was a fiery passion just waiting to be released. Even through his anger, he had to confess, he was drawn to her unpleasant temperament. And he had worried that his bride would turn out to be an unexciting wife who couldn’t hold his attention.
“I will not be commanded! Not by my father and certainly not by your fellow barbarian over there.” Della turned her chilly gaze in the direction of Lord Strathfeld.
“Of that you can be certain, m’lady,” Brant whispered mockingly to her, as he followed her eyes. He felt more than saw the small shudder of apprehension that radiated through her body. A lazy smile settled on his lips, though his insides were kindled in a temperate rage. His future father-by-marriage nodded his acknowledgment as he made his way toward them. Gunther followed closely behind him. Della’s hand trembled as she grabbed the dress at her waist to still her fingers. He turned and gave an agreeable smile to Lord Strathfeld. “M’lord.”
“Ah! It is good that you are getting on.” Lord Strathfeld nodded worriedly to his daughter, his look of concern belying the pleasure in his words.
“Argh,” Della huffed under her breath in aggravation.
Lord Strathfeld raised a brow at her anger and shook his head in disapproval. Leaning into his daughter, he warned none too quietly, “Della, this is no way to act before your intended. Would you have him think you are no lady?”
Della looked scornfully at Gunther and held out her hand to him. “It is a pleasure, I’m sure.” The words barely escaped her bared teeth.
Gunther looked at Brant in confusion and then took her hand. He bowed gallantly over it. “M’lady.”
Brant felt a small pang of irritation as Della moved to Gunther’s side. She took up his friend’s arm and turned a self-important stare to him.
“Della?” Lord Strathfeld coughed. He motioned to the man whose arm she held. “Have you met Gunther? He will be replacing Edwyn as seneschal here after I am gone. I was showing him the improvements Edwyn made here in hopes that he would see fit to continue them.”
Brant watched in grim satisfaction as Della turned to Gunther in horror.
“Seneschal?” she mouthed as she dropped Gunther’s arm. Her eyebrows shot high on her face, adding to her icy charm.
“Yea, m’lady.” Gunther let her hand slip from him as he turned to Brant, not even trying to hide his amused smile. “Brant, did you introduce yerself?”
“Lord Blackwell?” Della gasped and turned her head sharply to look at him. Realization dawned in her amber eyes.
“M’lady.” He bowed and offered his hand to her.
“Oh!” Della opened her mouth in shock. She jerked away from him as if he were poisonous. “You are a detestable, unspeakably miserable lout! How dare you not reveal yourself to me?”
Gunther chuckled and soon all the servants in the hall were doing the same. Della turned around in dismay, quickly making her way abovestairs.
“It would seem you did not make a favorable impression on her, Blackwell,” Gunther said in amusement. “And to think we left the fighting behind us. Perchance you are just too much Viking fer her.”
“Yea, perchance.” Brant gave a wry smile as he stared at the place his bride’s feet had disappeared from. And perchance the battles have just begun.