Near Lichfield, England
“Dane, do you know why you were brought here?”
Elspeth, Lady of Hystead, gathered her thick red skirts and sat on the curved stool at the side of the room, opposite the spot where the broad-shouldered man stood. Her hungry gaze drank in the powerful strength of his legs, the ripple of muscle in his chest and arms, the iron line of his jaw. Even wounded, even smeared with the grit and gore of battle, his body glistened with male vigor.
Candlelight reflected off the lime-washed walls and framed the warrior’s furious stare. He strained against the bonds holding his wrists behind him and stretched the short length of rope between his ankles. Animal skins covered the stone-paved floor under his feet, one of few luxuries in the humble room with its bed, brazier of hot coals, and side table.
She turned to the two armed men who’d brought him. “Go now and bar the door until I call.”
The Dane’s angry string of foreign words followed the men as they departed. Elspeth heard the bar fall into place with a heavy thump.
Pale blue eyes flashed toward her, defiant.
“What of our language do you know, Dane? Can you speak?”
“I know enough,” he snarled, his words heavily accented. “What is your intent, woman?”
“My name is Elspeth, and it pleases me to see you.” His anger excited her, although she tried not to reveal any hint of her swelling desire. She sipped from her cup of ale. “Will you drink?”
His tongue slid over the crease of his narrow lips, but he gave no answer.
“You must be thirsty.” She poured another cup from the ewer and carried it to his mouth, tilting it forward.
He drank deeply. The line of his jaw slackened slightly, and she remained beside him, more intrigued than ever by his bristling strangeness. The grime of battle still coated his face and arms, but elsewhere his body had been covered with clothing and armor, now mostly removed, so that he stood in rough pants that hung from his hips. Blood smeared from cuts on his arms and hands did not disguise the inked design scrolling over his tanned arms. A section of his yellow-white hair clumped against his scalp in a dried, darkened mass while the rest fell in tangles around his shoulders.
“Are all your kind so beautiful?” she asked quietly, trailing her fingertip across his chest. His nipples lay flat on the domed pectoral muscles and more ink patterned a fantastical beast between them. Hardly a hair curled there, although lower on his abdomen a faint line of darker hair collected downward to disappear at the waist of his pants. Her gaze lingered there briefly as her pulse quickened.
He made no answer, but inhaled as her finger stroked over one of the nipples. His posture shifted slightly.
“Is this beast meant to say something about you?” she asked, fingering the tattoo.
“It honors the gods,” he grumbled.
“Have your gods served you well today?”
He did not answer.