Erik was perplexed by the young woman before him. He’d recognized her as soon as he’d seen that flash of dark hair, and his protective side was brought to the surface as he’d watched the pudgy man grab at her. For a moment, he forgot about Anna. For a moment, his sole mission was to save her once more, to protect her and the strange innocence she exuded.
As she stood before him now, glaring, he was stumped. She was shaking, but her eyes and facial features were cold and lifeless as stone. Yes, she was afraid, but he wasn’t sure if that fear was from this situation, or if it stemmed from something much deeper, much more sinister. A sick feeling curled in his gut as he recalled the jagged scar she adorned. There was something about this young woman that intrigued him greatly.
And she was beautiful, in every sense of the word. From her small, pointed nose, to her pink lips, to her slender (albeit a bit starved) frame, she was everything Erik would have wanted in a wife. With a lurch, he realized the extent of his lust for her. His cheeks reddened, knowing that by tomorrow evening, his virginity—and possibly hers—would be no more.
Although discovered in a brothel, he’d sensed she wasn’t a whore. The way she’d fought off Simon to preserve her virtue, her life…
Erik felt a tremble of fury work its way up his spine, and the poor girl took notice, tugging to be free from his grasp. It was too late, though. If only she knew Erik would be kind to her. If only she could read his thoughts and know he would give his life to keep her safe. It was his only purpose in life, now—to be a husband in every sense of the word. He’d been raised that way, to cherish and protect what was his. It was how his father had been, before his mother had died.
He calmed himself for her benefit, reigning his emotions in before giving her a slight nod. She stared back, face blank, but her hands shook enough to rattle her chains. With a heavy sigh, he led them to the record keeper, falling into line behind newly betrothed pairs. He glanced up near the pulpit, locking eyes with the Duke, who gave him a small nod of approval. Erik had completed his task, it seemed. She was the one meant for him.
They shuffled forward every minute or so, but the young woman refused to look his way. He kept his hold on her, for fear that somehow she would slip away. She had that way about her, and he sensed that, given the opportunity, she would take it and run. He worried, then, about the brands on his shoulder. If she saw them, if she understood their meaning—how would he ever assuage her fears? He grit his teeth in anger as his burnt flesh tingled and smarted.
They made it to the front of the line as Erik’s mind ran rampant with worry.
“Names?” the man drawled without glancing up. Erik cleared his throat, knowing the girl wouldn’t be the first to speak.
“Erik Jameson Wilhelm-Pedersen.”
The deep intonations of his voice made the slim man glance up in surprise, eyes widening as he took in the giant before him. He coughed to cover his shock.
“Twenty and four.”
He watched from the corner of his eye as the woman glanced up, surprise etched across her features.
“And you?” the man asked, nodding to Erik’s new bride. The thought sent a thrill through him.
“Brigid Riona Macdonald…” she said, voice low, timid. Brigid. Finally, a name for this beauty. Erik stared at her anew, wondering what her name meant, why her parents had chosen it. The man’s brows furrowed as he shuffled through another stack of papers, seeking to match records from the hospital to the names being given.
“O’Sullivan?” he asked after a moment. Erik felt her stiffen at his side, bristling like a caged wolf.
“Yes,” she hissed. The man ignored her surly disposition.
Again, Erik was surprised. She was young, much younger than he had thought, but she carried herself as though she were much older. And, once again, his protectiveness surged forward.
“Your ship is La Belle, make your way to the pulpit. You’ll be married and escorted to the docks,” the man said, already waving the next pair forward. Brigid refused to meet his curious gaze, and Erik sensed his challenges were just beginning.
The marriage ceremony was massive and simple; the freed men gave their new wives sloppy kisses while some only stared off into the distance, wondering what life would now consist of. The thought of braving the New World did not frighten Brigid as much as the man beside her did. He hadn’t made any move to plant his lips on hers; he’d only stood, still and stoic, gripping her chains.
It was so very different from her first marriage day, but Brigid felt any comparison she made would fall short. The similarities, though, frightened her; she had little in the way of a choice, and she knew not what to expect of her new husband. The hatred she felt toward him overpowered every other emotion, despite his small kindnesses.
He was much older than she had thought, but she was rather thankful he wasn’t as old as her disgusting first husband. At least Erik was handsome, as handsome as his strong name. The women who were once jealous of her long hair were now jealous of the man who refused to let her go. Everyone stared as they made their way to the doors, and Brigid inhaled a huge breath as soon as they were free of the confines of the church. A slight drizzle began, but she relished the feeling, missing her Irish home.
A few carriages awaited the elite, and behind were carts pulled by massive horses, those spots intended for the prisoners. Erik halted, but Brigid paid his movements no notice. She tripped, almost falling, but his sturdy arms caught her, steadying her as he held her to his chest. For the span of a breath, she let him, feeling the way his muscles moved beneath his thin linen shirt, inhaling his masculine scent.
She tugged away, straightening herself and reddening at their contact. It should have been the least of her worries, knowing what she faced once they were alone.
“Your shoes,” he said, nodding to the flat soles in her grasp. She held them out, inspecting them, before her eyes found his. She didn’t want to admit they were too large. She didn’t want him to try and help her. She shook her head, gnawing her cheek raw.
“You cannot go barefoot down to the docks, min dame,” his deep voice said. Again, she bristled, for she did not care for his opinion or his help, and she detested whatever he had just called her in his own language.
“I’m fine,” she hissed, glaring at him. He seemed unperturbed by her rudeness, which only worried her more. He was of hardy stock, and to push him away felt an uphill battle indeed. It was there, on the church steps, that Brigid knew she had to take a stance. If she didn’t, he would think her an easy target, and she was far from that.
He threw a smirk her way, catching her off guard, and hatred pooled in her gut.
“I’ll find you a smaller pair, liten,” he offered.
“Don’t call me that,” she growled, unsure of the meaning but hating it all the same. He chuckled, a deep, dark sound, and she found herself mesmerized by his penetrating gaze. Most men gawked at her, lust plain in their eyes. But not Erik. She squinted, unsure of his thoughts, which befuddled her further and only flustered her more. From her brief encounters with the man, she already knew there was something very different about him.
As she continued to stare for another beat, his lips pressed into a thin line, and sorrow flittered through his gaze. Ah, she thought, there it was. What had this man’s heart, then? An unrequited love? A deceased wife?
His words pulled her back to the present, and she was thankful, for she’d been drowning in those Norwegian depths.
“You need shoes for this journey, unless you want me to carry you the entire way. I’m not opposed to that idea,” he jested, and she felt herself flush a bright red. Who was he to say such racy things to her?
“Move along to the carriages, scum! Le Havre waits for no man!” A guard called, ushering the slower couples away from the church. Erik moved to pick Brigid up, but she ducked down and slipped her shoes on before he had the chance. He chuckled again, pulling her after him, her large shoes slapping against the cobblestone as a fresh rain began to fall.
Erik searched for the Duke in the shadow of La Belle, the smell of the wharf beckoning him home. If Norway was out of his reach, then the sea would do just as well. He wondered how his new wife would fare, for he was certain the passage from Ireland to France had been quite easy.
Crossing the Atlantic, however, had the capacity to claim many lives. Erik knew he would never be one of those lost at sea, but now he had someone else to care for, to worry about. He was surprised that it wasn’t an unwelcome emotion, either. What stumped him the most was Brigid and her errant emotions. She was either afraid, or angry, or curious, but never at the same moment. She hopped through such instances with brevity, and he wondered again what her life had been before this moment.
He’d allowed himself to slip up, just once, when he’d called her liten, a name reserved for Anna alone. It meant small one in his own language, a name he’d given his sister as a child when she was too young to tag along on hunting or fishing excursions. It had rolled off his tongue with ease, which felt rather strange. Perhaps Brigid reminded Erik of his sister in some capacity.
But, true to her Irish nature, she’d put him into line without hesitation. He knew, though, that she’d seen the sadness in his eyes. Her lips had parted, her brows had knit together in what looked like concern. No matter what armor she chose to wrap herself in for protection, Erik knew he could see through it, just as she could see through his.
A guard gripped Erik’s wrists, unchaining them and snapping his attention back to the wharf and the massive ship. Their journey up the Seine to Le Havre port had taken a day, but the sun was rising, and with it the promise of a warm send off. It was the most Erik could ask for, given the circumstances.
He rubbed his raw wrists, glancing down at Brigid, whose eyes were still awestruck as she stared up at the ship. He knew she’d likely never seen such a massive vessel, and he felt a sense of pride in knowing the mechanics of sailing. The sunlight caught her dark hair, the breeze pulling tendrils over her slender shoulder. He noticed hints of deep red within those almost-black locks, and despite her sunken cheeks and thin, malnourished body, her hair shined.
Her frailness bothered him a bit, for he wondered at her treatment in the hospital, but no bruises or injuries marred her beauty. At least, none he could see. She was short in stature, too, which he found rather endearing. Most Irish he’d come across had stood a head or so shorter than himself, but what they lacked in height they made up for in ferocity.
“Have you sailed before?” he asked over the sound of the gulls and the shouts of the sailors. Her eyes snapped to his in a glare, but he waited, watching as she rubbed the life back into her hands as well. After a moment, she simmered and nodded. Erik mimicked the gesture, wiping his rough hand along his beard, feeling the need for a shave. Brigid’s eyes quickly found the ground, and her quiet anger was once again replaced by fear.
He sensed the train of her thoughts, feeling himself grow hot. This would be it, he presumed. Once settled into their own cabin as the Duke had promised, he knew just what task lay ahead. If he was being honest with himself, he was petrified for the first time in his life, which was a funny notion indeed. He’d survived war, starvation, torture—the death of Anna, and he was afraid now to bed his legal wife.
He knew what to do, thanks to his companions over the years who talked often of such casual romps, and he himself had dabbled in certain sexual pursuits a bit more often than he cared to admit as a lad, but this was the one thing he’d yet to do—one border he must cross, if they were to be truly married. And Erik intended to have their marriage be real in every sense of the word. He’d sworn to himself that no matter what woman he would have ended up with, he would do right by them, would care for them.
It seemed luck had been on his side when he’d spotted Brigid, for at least he was very attracted to her, as well as intrigued.
His eyes found the Duke and his damn white wig, strolling next to a short, wiry man who was wearing all the finery of a captain. He reached out, gripping Brigid’s elbow and tugging her close, turning to her with a silencing glance before she could protest. The Duke nodded to Erik, who stared back as though the two had never met.
“This seems a strong enough man to suit your needs,” he said to the captain, gesturing with his hand. The shrewd Scotsman narrowed his eyes as they continued to approach before halting before them. Erik felt the eyes of every prostitute, thief, and rapist upon him and Brigid. He held his breath, praying they could pass this moment off without incidence.
Erik squared his shoulders as the captain—a pockmarked, grey haired man with keen brown eyes—appraised him.
“Ever sailed the Atlantic before?” he asked, accent thicker than most. Erik assumed he was from the Highlands, a place he’d had the blessing to travel more than once.
“Yes, sir. As far west as Greenland.”
He felt Brigid’s eyes on him now as well.
“Yes…” Erik trailed off, not wishing to mention how many skirmishes and battles he’d been a part of. Not yet, anyway.
The captain chewed his tobacco a moment as he considered, before turning and spitting the brown glob to the cobblestone below.
“Good. I can use the help. We’ve a spare cabin for you and yer woman. Soon as I get a whiff o’ trouble from either o’ ye, its to the brigs, ye hear?”
Erik nodded, solemn as ever. He knew his place on a ship, but wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion where safety was concerned. It had saved him and his crew a few times before in the past.
“On ye get, then,” the captain said, jerking his head to the plank. Erik nodded once, still gripping Brigid’s elbow as he ushered her onto the ship.