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United in Love

Edited by Lucy Felthouse


Featuring stories from Gina Wynn, Lily Harlem, Rebecca Chase, Rosie Jamieson, Skye MacKinnon, M H Heyer, Alyssa Drake, Arizona Tape and Lucy Felthouse.


Text Copyright 2017 © Gina Wynn, Lily Harlem, Rebecca Chase, Rosie Jamieson, Skye MacKinnon, M H Heyer, Alyssa Drake, Arizona Tape, Lucy Felthouse.


All Rights Reserved.


Smashwords edition.


With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the aforementioned author.


Warning: The unauthorised reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the author’s written permission.


This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


Cover art by Kev Blisse.

Table of Contents

Blurb

Introduction

What’s Past is Present by Gina Wynn

The Valkyrie’s Mortal by Lily Harlem

Forget Me Not by Rebecca Chase

On the Edge by Rosie Jamieson

Salvation by M H Heyer

Healing Touch by Alyssa Drake

Until Death Do Us Part by Arizona Tape

The Wrong End of the Stick by Lucy Felthouse

Blurb


The world could use a lot more love, which is why being united in love is the theme of this short story collection. Each of the characters are dealing with horrific and heartbreaking situations—loss, grief, war, divorce, dementia, disputes over land and more, but what they all have in common is that, with the help of love, of unity, they come through. It may not be all happily-ever-after—since life just doesn’t work that way—but positivity and solidarity shine through in each of the tales and will warm your heart.

So enjoy these stories of unexpected companionship, old lovers reuniting, second chances and creative problem-solving, with the knowledge that the proceeds from your purchase will also have a deeply positive effect—with every penny going to the British Red Cross’s UK Solidarity Fund.

Introduction


On the afternoon of 22nd March 2017, I was busy working, as I am every weekday afternoon. But suddenly, as I flicked to the Facebook window I always have open, I noticed something not quite right. I don’t remember now exactly what it was, but something that made me think oh my God, what’s happening? I jumped quickly onto a news site and discovered that some kind of terrorist attack was taking place in London. Immediately my heart was in my mouth and all thoughts of work were forgotten. I spent the rest of the day in a daze, refreshing news sites, checking on family and friends—none of whom were affected—devastated as each new horrific piece of information was released about what became known as the Westminster attack. Understandably, the news coverage continued for several days afterwards as new details came to light.

Slowly, though, very slowly, life started to get back to normal. Not for those directly affected, obviously, and not behind the scenes with the security and emergency services, but as is always the case in these situations, life must go on. The news coverage calmed down, and although what happened would never be forgotten—and nor should it be—it was no longer front and centre.

Then, two months later, on 22nd May 2017 there was an attack in Manchester, at a concert. I didn’t know about it until I woke up the following morning. I was immediately wide awake and checking in on friends in the area—especially those I know with children that might well have been at that concert. Again, nobody I know personally was involved, but the casualties and injuries were numerous—and many of them were children. Once again, the news coverage was vast, and more and more heartbreaking stories kept hitting TV, computer and phone screens. In the end, I had to step away for a while because it was just too much. I can’t even begin to imagine how people directly involved were feeling.

This time, though, there was barely any time to process what had happened, to allow normalcy to return—to even begin to allow it to return. Because, on 3rd June 2017, there was a third attack. I’d been at the cinema for the evening, had travelled home and then looked at my phone to find an attack just taking place in London, in the area of London Bridge—an area I know very well. Yet again, the shock, the horror, the helplessness returned as the events unfolded, with each new piece of horrifying information brought to us by the media.

I’m sure all of you reading this are well aware of everything I’ve said above, but it needed to be said in order to follow through to how this anthology came about. You see, during and after each of the three attacks, despite the horror and the terrible loss of life, I noticed that there was some positivity coming out of the tragic events. People were—mercifully—“marking themselves as safe” using the Facebook check-in function. But, wonderfully, people nearby were also using this function, as well as other means, to offer aid and assistance. They offered help to reunite people with their loved ones, food, water, use of shower and toilet facilities, somewhere to sleep for the night, clean clothes, lifts to somewhere, and so on. It was amazing to see that selflessness, and it reminded me that there are good people in the world, and plenty of them. It lifted my very heavy heart, just a little.

Then there was the defiance. Alongside and often hand in hand with the selflessness came the defiance. The people being united in the face of the tragedies and refusing to let it tear them apart. People from different faiths and communities came together, supported each other, helped each other, and helped those directly affected by the attacks. This lifted my heart a little bit more, but it also emphasised my personal feeling of helplessness. I don’t live anywhere near either London or Manchester. I wasn’t in a position to offer physical assistance, which I found incredibly frustrating.

Then I realised I could help in a different way. On 5th June 2017, after some brainstorming and researching, I posted the call for submissions for the anthology you’re about to read. I was amazed and incredibly touched by the response. People shared it across social media, left encouraging comments, offered to help any way they could, and hurried off to write stories. Because of the nature of the project, there wasn’t much time to get stories in, and yet people did, people eager, like me, to help however they could. The authors aren’t being paid for their contributions, the cover artist generously donated the cover, and I donated my time in putting it together—the least I could do to try to help people, even a little bit.

So here you have it, mine and the wonderful authors’ and cover artist’s project of positivity, of unity, of defiance. Every penny raised from sales of this collection will be donated to the British Red Cross’s UK Solidarity Fund, which was launched on the 4th June 2017 to help the victims of terror anywhere in the UK.

I hope you enjoy the collection and its theme of unity and coming together during hard times. Please do tell your friends and family about it and help us sell more books, therefore getting more money into the hands of the charity and their very worthwhile cause. Thank you so much for your support.

Love,

Lucy xxx

What’s Past is Present by Gina Wynn


Connie always believed she’d know it was summer when the rain got warmer. And that meant summer was today.

She ran along the pavement, trying to dodge the drops as they fell in big splats on her bare arms like sloppy kisses, hunching as she attempted to shield the package of fish and chips she carried. The aroma of the hot food and warm paper tickled her nose, and she could almost taste the contents. Declan would be lucky if she arrived back with anything more than soggy, empty wrappings at this rate.

Picking up her pace as the smell of rain-splashed tarmac filled the air, she hurried the rest of the way back to the house. His house. She shook her head. It would take a while to see the house as anything but Mr Pearce’s place—an adjustment it felt like she’d only just made. Now, it was Dec’s. Just Dec’s. In her head, it’d only just stopped being his place where he lived with his dad. Glancing at the windows in hopes of glimpsing him inside as she walked past had been a habit for a very long time.

When her doorbell had rung the previous night, she hadn’t expected to find a very crumpled, travel-weary Dec in the dingy entryway to her bedsit. In fact, he was probably the last person she hoped to ever find gracing the stoop of what she not-quite-laughingly referred to as her hovel.

She’d barely had chance to move, or slam the door in his definitely unwelcome face, before he wrapped his arms around her, folding her into a perfect bear hug of long-ago familiarity. Caught off-guard and unprepared to see him, she rested her cheek against the soft brushed cotton of his shirt, listening to his heartbeat, as his fingers splayed over her cheek, and she pretended not to notice the rough gasps of air he drew or the silent tears landing in her hair. Her chest hollowed, her heart breaking both for him and over him anew, and a lone teardrop of her own slid noiselessly down her nose.

Of course, she’d promised to help him today because she could never deny him anything, even though she’d spent the past five years regretting him. Getting over him. The bastard. She’d never stopped loving him.

Five years had crept by in a lazy blink of his beautiful brown eyes. And now, in the place where she’d spent so many of her stolen days and illicit nights, she could almost imagine the clocks had rolled back and he’d never left. She’d certainly wished for it enough times.

Short of pressing the doorbell with her nose she had no way to attract his attention, so she pushed on the door handle with her elbow and shouldered her way through the unlocked door into the narrow hall. The same worn carpet, lending a musty smell to the house these days, ran straight ahead to the kitchen and up the stairs. She walked towards the kitchen, ignoring the grime of a house where the owner hadn’t cared as much for the fabric of the building over the years as he did the family members within it. Framed portraits and holiday snapshots of Dec and his dad lined the walls, but she brushed past each of them. She could describe the position and content of each—perhaps accurately pinpoint the date of a few if she appeared on Mastermind with ‘The early life of Declan Pearce’ as her specialist subject.

But as she turned to push through the door into the next room, she caught sight of some new pictures and swallowed down a mixture of envy and bitterness at the juxtaposition of Declan’s life before and after—the part where he’d moved on without her. Even after Dec left, his dad must have continued to hang pictures of him because there he was, framed with as much care as anything that gone before.

Dec in an office of black leather and gleaming chrome—a vista of New York spread like a map through the huge picture window behind him; Dec beside an aeroplane bearing his name—sunglasses on, wide grin in place, and a suit that must have been expensive but one he wore without effort and made it look good.

Dec behind a podium.

Dec in an apartment so swish she’d have believed someone had Photoshopped him into it if she didn’t know better.

Dec… Dec… Dec. Just him.

Her gaze skimmed the remainder of the newest frames, and her thoughts stalled. She leant closer. No. They weren’t photographs. They were pictures that had been cut with great care from glossy magazines and newspaper articles, as if someone was reduced to simply scrapbooking a loved one’s life rather than being part of it.

Regret flashed through her. It didn’t show the future—the life together— she and Dec had planned in all those late nights that somehow turned into seeing the dawn. If she was honest, it didn’t show any sort of life she’d ever imagined for anyone she knew, let alone someone she loved. And especially not for Dec. She’d always believed they were the same type of person. But maybe not now she could see his life through someone else’s eyes.

She shrugged, trying to throw off her sudden melancholy. The fish and chips wouldn’t eat themselves.

She walked into the kitchen, and the drinks in her carrier bag knocked together. After one look at the layer of dust she could write her name in covering the surfaces, she decided against the glasses she’d come in search of.

Guilt washed through her as she turned her attention to the worn curtains and torn lino floor. She should have made more of an effort to visit Dec’s dad. But she hadn’t known he was unwell. Because she hadn’t been to see him. She blinked away tears at the should haves. So much should have been different, but wasn’t.

Juggling everything she held, she left the kitchen and peeked into the dining room. He’d really let the place go. Dust motes hovered in a gloomy room of outdated furniture and a floor piled high with newspapers and plastic bags full of whatever Mr Pearce thought he might need. His treasures. He’d always kept things aside for his prophesised rainy day, but never to this extent.

After a quick peek into the equally crammed living room—Dec wasn’t there, either—she climbed awkwardly up the stairs. “Where are you?”

“Bedroom.” Dec’s voice floated from the room Connie would have most liked to avoid, and she drew a deep breath of resolve.

Entering the room was more like passing through a time-warp. The hours she’d spent in Dec’s space, surrounded by this exact smell, his scent, his arms, rushed back to her. “I’ve brought something to eat.”

“Fish and chips?” He glanced over from where he stood, examining something at the bookcase. “It’s been a while.”

She hung the bag with the drinks over the arm of the chair in front of the desk, and wrangled the fish and chips under one arm so she could bend and swipe at the desk, the dust oily against her skin. Then she put the food down in the clean spot and looked over her shoulder at Dec. “Ta-da!”

He replaced the years-old football trophy on the shelf and smoothed his thumb over the small, gold-coloured nameplate on the base. His sigh gusted his despair right to her heart.

“What’s the plan, then?” She forced a breezy tone she didn’t feel, and concentrated too hard on unwrapping the fish and chips, rolling the papers open with all the care of undressing a newborn.

He laughed, the sound darker than she remembered and without humour.

Her heart thudded at the unfamiliar dry sound spilling from his lips, but reason kicked in. He’d been away for years, in New York City, where rich men wore their suits like armour. Perhaps he wasn’t the same person anymore. Sorrow at that loss lodged in her chest.

The sadness etched in lines that pinched in his mouth and narrowed his eyes brought a fresh wave of guilt through her. Of course he wasn’t the same. The man in front of her was grieving.

She flexed her fingers as longing to connect with him, touch his skin, stroke his hair, swelled inside her. But she stood, unmoving. Their gazes locked, and she faltered, turning again to the food. “We should eat this before it gets cold.”

Dec reached for a chip and appeared to consider it from all angles before he threw it into his mouth and chewed. “Can’t beat them. Far better than those stringy things Americans call fries.” The corners of his mouth twitched, but any attempt at a smile failed before it took hold.

“I brought those plastic knives and forks from the chippy. Or one of those wooden trident things. I didn’t know which you’d prefer.”

He didn’t even look at the cutlery she waved a hand towards. “You saw the place—the downstairs?”

Embarrassment flushed her face with heat. “Only quickly. I didn’t mean to be nosey. I was looking for glasses. And for you.”

“I don’t get it, Con. I sent him money.” Dec clenched his fist. “I sent him money, and the old bugger did nothing with it. I took care of his debts, I tried to make him comfortable, and he still lived in squalor.”

Connie bowed her head. It didn’t look as though Dec’s dad had lived at all. He’d simply survived. But she couldn’t say it. “Did you see the photographs?”

He barked out another dry laugh. “You mean the pictures of the rich son who couldn’t save his father by throwing money at him?”

“He loved you.” Connie grabbed Dec’s hand, then squeezed to try to pass strength into him. “He loved you. And you loved him.”

“I should’ve done more.”

She tugged him to the bed, barely concealing a quick smile of memory as familiar springs creaked under his weight when he sat down. “Right. Eat something, and I’ll start sorting in here.” She looked around. “Any idea where you want me?” The last word left her lips and she didn’t dare meet his eyes. He would have had a ready reply for that five years ago. “To start, I mean.”

He flicked his wrist. “Wardrobe. Under the bed. Books. It doesn’t matter. I’ll have to hire a skip to deal with downstairs, anyway. Probably a fleet of them.”

She wandered to the old CD player. “This is almost antique, now.”

For the first time a real grin lit up his features, and her breath caught at seeing the old him. Back for one last appearance. “Or vintage, maybe. Retro, certainly. It was the first thing Dad bought for me after Mum went off to wherever. He saved for weeks to afford that.”

“And it got us through many an evening of study.” She flipped through the CDs. Time had stood still in Dec’s room, even before he left home.

“Study?” A genuine laugh followed. “If that’s what you think we were doing, I may have needed a few more lessons in the art of love.”

She took a quick breath, and her hand shook as she returned one of her favourite CDs to the pile. Love. Dec had told her many times how much he loved her in this room. She swallowed. He’d told her in that bed. He’d also told her before he left to go to the airport.

Behind her, Dec coughed, then cleared his throat.

She turned and caught him wiping his eyes.

“Sorry.”

His gruff word conquered the distance between them. She crossed the room then wrapped her arms around him and rested her chin on his head, the position as natural to her as if she’d held him against her the same way only yesterday. “Please don’t be sorry,” she whispered. “Not with me.”

He looped his arms around her waist and tightened his hold before his hand brushed over her bottom, and she stepped out of his comfortable embrace.

“I… we… can’t. Now isn’t the time. It’s been… too much water under the bridge, you know?” She turned her back on him, the effort stiffening her movements, and opened the wardrobe. Clothes from his younger days still lingered on their hangers, and she resisted the urge to bury her nose in them. “You travelled light, then.” Being confronted with all he’d left behind hurt—he’d left her as easily as he’d left his clothes and the assorted paraphernalia of his youth.

“This entire room is testament to that fact, although I can’t believe Dad never redecorated.”

“Maybe he hoped you’d come home.” Like she had, but look where hope’d got her.

“Did you?” Dec murmured behind her.

She tensed. “Every day.” Her voice, a mere whisper, betrayed her, and she snapped her mouth closed to prevent further words.

“I missed you.” Dec wound his arms around her waist again and pressed his cheek to hers over her shoulder, but she held herself away rather than leaning against him, even though the heat from his body warmed her and tempted her closer. “I’ve missed this.” He stroked his thumb across her waistband, touching her skin where her shirt rode up.

“No, Dec.” She ignored the confusion on his face when she turned to face him and quashed the excitement racing through her at his touch. “It’s been… what? Four years. Five?” Definitely five. She could give him precision down to hours if she had a moment for the maths. He’d been stuck in her head and heart since university.

“But we’ve still got it.”

“How do you know? How do you know what we’ve got when you threw it all away to chase your dream?”

“Is that what Dad told you?”

Connie shrugged. “It’s five years since you left, Dec. We can’t just go back to the way things used to be.” She threw up her arms. “And we’ve got a job to do, here. We haven’t even started sorting, and the chips are going cold.”

“I had a job to do, there. Not a dream to chase.” Frustration tinged his words and ground lines in his face.

“Well, it seems to have worked out okay for you, whichever it was.”

“Don’t be like that, Con.” He took her hand, entwining their fingers. “I’ve missed you. I mean it.”

She looked down at their hands, studying every new mark on his. They’d lost some of their youth—they were a man’s hands now. An unexpected thought of them on her bare skin sent a thrill racing through her.

He drew closer, aligning their bodies.

“You aren’t making good decisions right now. You shouldn’t… not so soon after your dad.” Her voice shook, and her breaths wouldn’t co-ordinate with her speech.

“I think,” he murmured, “that this might be the best decision I’ve made in a very long time.” He lowered his head, and she froze, waiting for the moment when his mouth finally grazed hers.

At the touch of his lips, a gasp broke free from her. She wove her fingers into his hair and tugged him closer. He pinned her to him, and the hard shaft of his erection jutted against her hip.

“I need you.”

His words pierced a warning through the armour she’d constructed around herself to battle each day without him, and she shifted away. Even the small movement sent sudden loss spiralling through her. “This isn’t… I can’t take advantage of you when you just need a distraction.” She couldn’t let him leave her again. She’d put the pieces of herself back together once and couldn’t guarantee she’d be able to do it again. “I came here to help you sort everything out.” Coming here, to his house, to every good memory she held, had been a mistake, and she walked further from his reach. Only distance would help.

“I think we’re the biggest thing I need to sort out.” He sighed. “I really made a mess, didn’t I?”

She sat against the wall, moving the furthest she could be from him, while she squashed her feelings back into their box. “Yeah. It was a hard few days.” Weeks, months… years.

He smiled a little, the attempt a weak imitation of the full force grin she remembered. “Days? I pined for you for hours. Minutes, even.”

“The seconds it took you to pull the door closed, you mean?” The words sounded crueller in the room than they did in her head, but she stared at him, defiant. Willing him to deny it.

“Connie.” Just her name. With that one word, her heart flipped over. Maybe her intentions in coming to help him hadn’t been as honourable as she’d kidded herself they were.

“I’d have done anything for you, and you left me.” Hot tears burned her cheeks as she dialled up the rage to tone down the attraction.

“It wasn’t my choice.”

“I don’t believe you’ve never been able to talk to me, never been able to at least apologise. They have telephones over there, Declan.” She shook her head at his downcast eyes, disappointment coursing through her. His shame proved her right.

“It wouldn’t have fixed it.” He returned to his bed, this time climbing to sit in the middle with his legs stretched out in front of him.

“Oh, and the money you were making helped with forgetting me, too, I bet?”

“Connie, don’t.”

She took a deep breath. She hadn’t come for this. “You’re right. Let’s sort the house out. I don’t want to argue. Let’s part as friends this time.”

“This time? Connie, I’ve never stopped being your friend. I’ve never stopped… a lot of things.” He patted the bed beside him. “Sit with me?”

They used to sit together all the time—leaning against his headboard, her head on his shoulder. Sometimes in his lap. Sometimes in his crotch. Her cheeks flamed, and he chuckled gently as though sensing her sudden discomfort.

“We had some good times.” He moved back against his headboard, the position so familiar that her heart picked up its pace. His disarming grin widened as he held his arm out, offering her space up against him. “I’ve had enough sadness today, enough change. Let’s leave things as they are and talk.”

“Just talk.”

His mouth opened and he sucked in a stage-play gasp. “Of course, just talk. I’m nothing if not a gentleman.”

“Dec Pearce, you were never a gentleman. And never nothing.” She crawled up next to him, savouring everything about him, about the very moment. Settling herself against him, she threw an arm around his waist and closed her eyes.

“I’m lonely, Connie. Without you.” His voice rumbled in his chest, and she cracked an eye open but forced her breathing to grow more measured, as if she’d already relaxed into sleep. “It’s not the life I wanted.” He slid his hand down her arm before he tangled their fingers together. “I need you.”

She opened both eyes and stared at the radiator across the room. The paint was peeling in the same way it always had, just as she and Dec were sat in the same way they always had. But nothing was the same. He’d broken her heart, broken her. Only now he was broken, too, with his dad gone too soon.

As his soft shirt brushed against her cheek with every breath he took, all they’d lost crashed over her in a wave of despair, flowing through her limbs and weighing her down. She sniffled as a rogue tear escaped.

Dec reacted immediately. In one movement, he swept Connie to sit across his lap and pulled her closer to him. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see the face she’d never stopped loving.

“Look at me,” he whispered. “Please don’t cry. I’ve always hated it when you cry. It breaks my heart.”

“You broke mine.” She breathed the words on a sigh, but he still heard.

“Mine, too. It still isn’t fixed. I don’t know if I can ever fix it.”

She opened her eyes and looked into his deep brown ones. They were different than before he’d left. Older, somehow. Wiser, maybe. Sadder, definitely. “How did we get here?” She gave a short laugh. “I mean, you came on your private jet, and I took the number 46 bus from outside the bedsit from hell, but… how?”

“I just don’t know.” He fell quiet again, but leant his forehead against hers. “I think I took a wrong turn. Someone gave me the wrong directions.”

His mouth was just a fraction of a breath away. It hadn’t been quite a kiss before. She deserved one of those for everything he’d put her through… for old times’ sake. For the past. For now.

She swayed towards him and their lips met. Soft, gentle forgiveness flowed through her. Dec had left her to go to America, but his reasons would keep. She loved him.

God, she loved him. She’d never stopped. Or she’d hated him, but her heart never got that memo. And, in the end, didn’t hearts make the decisions? In fact, whoever had told her warm rain signalled summer was probably also the one who imparted the knowledge that people regretted most what they didn’t do. Well, she regretted not doing Dec one last time, apparently. Loving him, anyway.

Fate or life—a death, even—had brought him back to her, and she could show him everything she hadn’t had chance to show him when he left before. Smothering a smile at the line her thoughts had taken, she arched against him in a silent offer as long forgotten desire awoke deep within her and drew taut strands of need through her body. For a moment, she revelled in her lack of control, then the idea that she wouldn’t be able to put the lid back on the box and trap all the feelings inside it flitted through her mind, but it was gone before she could truly grasp it, swept away by Dec’s tongue flicking across her lower lip.

His kisses grew more urgent, his breathing more ragged, and her excitement mounted. She’d longed for this, and he still wanted her, too. She grazed her hand over the bulge in his jeans once... twice… three times and stopped when he groaned, instead walking her fingers to his waist and spreading them across the warm skin under his shirt. He shuddered at her touch. She smiled—she’d almost forgotten that ticklish spot.

Connie deepened the kiss, pouring in all of the stuff she wanted to tell him—her sorrow, her grief, her forgiveness, and the growing heat of her desire. Dec’s touch trailed up her arm until his fingers reached her neck. Then he cupped her cheek in his big palm. Electricity surged through her, and she shifted back.

He pressed the pad of his thumb to her lips and blew out a sigh. “Are you sure?” He asked the question, but his eyes begged for her certainty. And she had to try. She had to fix the broken man she loved as much as she wanted to give herself one last moment to remember with him, even if it meant he took the strength she gave him and left her again.

Instead of answering, she parted her lips and swirled her tongue over his thumb, sucking the tip gently into her mouth. His pupils dilated and he drew a deep breath, then brought his hand to her breast where it fit as naturally as it always had. She almost giggled. The clock really had turned back—past the days of slow, comfortable sex when they were used to each other, past the frantic moments when they were so horny that buttons popped off and zips tore, all the way to touching each other over clothes and awkward teenaged fumbles.

She shrugged his hand off and smiled at him. Then, biting her lip, she fiddled with her top button before slipping it loose. He watched as she trailed her hand lower, sliding buttons free without her hand ever losing contact with her skin. After she allowed her shirt to slide from her shoulders, she knelt and pressed her hands to Dec’s shoulders, and he nuzzled her cleavage, then traced his mouth over the thin material of her bra. When he reached her nipple, he covered the hard peak with his tongue, stroking it through the fabric, and started a pulse throbbing between her thighs.

She shifted, clamping her legs together to satiate the fresh wave of desire, then reached around to undo her bra. As it loosened, Dec moved, flipping her onto her back and lying alongside her. His hand covered her breast and he strummed her nipple, sending a shower of sparks through her. Impatient, she pushed at his T-shirt, noting the tight new muscles his new life had brought him. She skimmed her hand across the unfamiliar planes and he shivered in response.

“Keep touching me,” he whispered. “I want you so much right now.” He replaced the hand on her breast with his mouth, and sucked on one nipple, before moving to the other. The soft silky strands of his hair danced over her skin, his scent surrounded her, and the sensation of being home settled in her heart.

Wanting to bring him home to her, too, she tugged at his waistband. “Take these off.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Unleash… the beast?”

She giggled at his repetition of one of their first clumsy bedroom references, but the memory of what he felt like when he slid inside her resurfaced and anticipation zinged to her core. “You’d better.” She smoothed her hand across his fly. “Unless you want me to make your jeans a couple of sizes too tight?”

He grimaced and closed his eyes for a moment. “Maybe next time. You don’t need to do anything. I’m so ready for you.” His speech came in short bursts as she continued to stroke him through his clothes.

She pulled at a belt loop. “Come on then, but you better have developed moves like the Energiser bunny during your absence.”

He laughed and unfastened the button on his jeans. “All right, but I show you mine, you show me yours.”

“Same deal as always.” She wriggled from her clothes, sucking in her stomach more than she ever had before. On reflection, replacing Declan with food hadn’t been her best idea. Before she could get too lost in her head, Dec pressed a kiss to her thigh and she snapped back to the moment. She took his hand from where he’d rested it on the bed next to her, and urged it down to where she needed him most.

Surprise crossed his features. “Nothing else?”

“I just need you.”

“Okay. Next time.” There were those words again, but she shook away the sadness of empty promises to focus on the moment. Her moment. Their moment.

The only sound was his jeans rustling against the bedclothes, and when he tangled his legs back with hers, sudden tears filled her eyes.

“Are you okay?” The concern in his voice brought more, and she fought to blink them away.

“I’m fine… just, you know, memories.”

“Good ones, I hope.” He leaned over and claimed her lips. “Let’s make more.”

One more. “Come on, then. Show me your bunny side.” Resistance was truly futile. Dec was her drug, and an addict never said no to an easy fix, even after so long.

His erection prodded against her thigh as he rolled closer. “I didn’t plan for this, Con. I didn’t bring anything.”

Sense warred with want as she considered his words. “I’m on the pill. And I’m clean.”

“I’m clean, too, Connie. I’d never hurt you. Ever.”

She wrapped her hand around his length, and he groaned as she drew her thumb across the tip. “Don’t make me beg, then.”

She laughed, the sound low. “Never.”

As he positioned himself above her, he stroked a hand between her legs, teasing her, and she jumped at the sudden tingle. “God, Connie. You’re so ready.”

She closed her eyes. “Always for you.” There went her mouth spilling words and secrets, again. Never one for settling for ‘just enough’, she didn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she’d tattooed the damn thing to her arm.

He nudged at her opening, and she let loose a small moan of anticipation. When she looked at him, she met his solemn gaze.

“I love you, Connie. Always have.”

She nodded and parted her legs further, offering more of herself to him. Sometimes there just weren’t the right words.

As he slid inside her, she moved to meet him in the only way that ever felt right. He filled her. Made her whole, less broken. She brushed away the hair that hung over his forehead. “I love you, too, Dec. Always.”

After setting a gentle rhythm, he drew one of her hands down and pressed it between them. “I shouldn’t have all the fun today.”

She toyed with herself and nudged where their bodies joined together until the heat and pressure began to build.

Dec matched her speed, his movements growing in time with her spurted breathing. “Yes, Connie,” he whispered as she took one last gasp and every stretched nerve inside her let go, sending her soaring until only Dec inside her existed.

In the quiet moment that followed, he pressed his mouth to hers, and she closed her eyes against more tears. She was an adult, after all, who’d decided the risk to her heart was worth their one last time. She’d taken back the experience and now all they’d been would end on her terms. These were the lies she told herself to try to hold her heart together.

The sheets beside her rustled, and Dec nuzzled her neck. “Thank you.”

At his quiet gratitude, her eyes sprang open. “We’ve never thanked each other before.”

“Not for that. For trusting me. I know I’ve let you down in the past.”

She pressed her lips together. Short of agreeing with him, there wasn’t much she could say, and she didn’t want to taint the moment with bad memories. Not now she’d engineered at least a bittersweet ending, anyway.

“It wasn’t my choice, you know.” He threw one arm across his forehead even as he reached his other hand to cup her breast. The rhythmic stroking of his thumb over her nipple relaxed and teased her in equal measure. “I wouldn’t do it again. It was all too much, back then. I did it for Dad because he…” Dec grimaced. “He owed the wrong people a favour. I paid those debts. Well, in a manner of speaking. But I should have been a stronger man for you.”

Her gaze searched his face for something more, but his eyes remained hidden from her view. “What do you mean?”

“I got it wrong before, Con. Very wrong. I lost sight of us. I want to try again, if you’ll have me. I can’t be apart from you again. I won’t. Please promise me we can try.”

Tentative excitement awoke inside her, although she didn’t quite know what he was proposing. Maybe the details could wait… a few more hours, at least. His lazy ministrations grew too much to bear, and she reached between his legs and took him into her hand, satisfaction coursing through her at the speed of his response to her touch. “Oh, you know me. I’m nothing if not a trier.”

And especially so when her future suddenly looked a whole lot brighter.


*****


About the Author


From a magical land of castles and kings (Okay, it’s England), Gina doesn’t feel as old as she looks, owns three children who can’t be tamed, and writes in spare—usually stolen—time. She sometimes bakes—not always with quite the desired results, and has found the only solution to keeping the characters in her head quiet is to placate them with lots of other lovely books and worlds.

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The Valkyrie’s Mortal by Lily Harlem


Odin’s words rang through Iona’s mind as she forged forwards on her magnificent steed:

The web of war is again upon us. Follow the banners, charge with the heroes and bring only the worthy to Valhalla. Because it is you, my valkyrie, who will choose who is slain and who will remain.

Her master, Odin, must be obeyed. He was her god, he was the brave warriors’ god and he had entrusted her to ride into the bloody battlefield and carry out his bidding.

Iona’s horse galloped on and on, his hooves pounding on the hard ground. It was twilight and the darkening sky was streaked with fingers of red, orange and purple. On the horizon the spiked tips of forest trees pierced the bellies of the bloated clouds.

Soon, the sounds of the battle penetrated Iona’s helmet. Shouts, screams and the heavy metallic clash of steel banging onto armour and shields. It wasn’t a noise she feared, it was a noise that meant it was time for her to work and carry out her duties.

She was a foreboding, ethereal addition to the battle, and her arrival would run terror through the veins of any warriors who paused in the fighting to glance at the beautiful woman in their midst.

From her helmet, stiff gold wings fanned out behind her and her hair was braided into two long plaits that hung to her waist and bounced with each pace of her horse. She wore a black corset dress that covered her breasts and stopped at the very tops of her thighs. Over this a long, black leather cloak with shoulder pads sporting more golden wings. On her feet, heeled black boots, rising above the knee and with wickedly pointed toes. She had a short belt, like a garter, buckled around her right leg. Here she kept her dagger.

She drew near to the bloody scene. She kept going, entered the foray and was surrounded by jarring swords and screams of agony.

She pulled to the right, avoiding a man who’d taken a painful but not fatal blow to his arm. Before her was a slain victim. Another valkyrie was tending him, bent protectively over his body, shoulders hunched as she made her decision.

Iona pulled her horse to a halt. But he didn’t like standing and reared, front legs pawing the air and nostrils flaring as he snorted his protest.

But something, or rather someone, had captured Iona’s attention, and as she gripped the reins and counterbalanced, she studied the mortal before her.

He was a giant of a man, of Norse descent, and was skilfully swinging his sword at three enemies all attacking him at once. He’d lost his helmet and his blond hair hung down his back in great tousled curtains. He wore only trousers—foolhardy for war, unless like his helmet he’d lost his armour since the fighting began—and the muscles on his torso danced and flexed as he hoisted the great weight of his weapon through the air.

Iona had never seen a more beautiful earthly man.

Her mouth went dry and her breasts pressed against the front of her corset. An ache grew between her legs.

She had to have him.

Instinctively she knew the name he went by.

Stein Holt of Esthland.

Stein roared—head back, eyes flashing—as an invader raced towards him with weapon raised and aimed at Stein’s skull.

He swung his sword upwards, blocked the attack, lunged and sent the man reeling to the ground as though he were nothing more than an insect.

Behind him another aggressor sprang forwards with his sword held aloft.

Again Stein obstructed the blow.

He reminded Iona of Thor—strong, wild, undefeatable—and the woman in Iona longed to know how that power and dogmatic determination would translate in the bedchamber.

Iona’s horse placed its front hooves on the mud-strewn ground and skittered to the left as again Stein was attacked. This time by a small man, fast and artful on his feet, who ran a full circle around him, long knife thrust forwards.

“No,” Iona gasped. “No, not him.”

But even as she spoke she saw it was too late. The smaller man had been swift and skilful as he’d stabbed, jabbed and embedded the knife deep in Stein’s chest.

Stein dropped to the filthy ground, clutching a small wound that spurted blood into the air, which landed wetly on the churned, stained earth.

Iona leapt from her horse and rushed to him.

She’d done this many times in her eternal role as a valkyrie, but never had she felt such agony, such empathy. It was as though her chest had been pierced.

“Stein Holt of Esthland,” she said, dropping to her knees and pressing her palm over the fatal wound.

“Valkyrie…” he gasped, staring up at her with wide eyes, bluer than the sky at Valhalla.

“Yes. I am here.”

“But…” He coughed and a droplet of blood landed on his full bottom lip.

“Shh.” Iona wiped the scarlet drip away with the pad of her thumb. “I am here. There is nothing to worry about. Soon the pain will disperse.”

“You are… beautiful…”

“Yes.” She pushed his hair from his eyes. “So are you, and now it is time for you to accompany me to Valhalla. You are a chosen one.”

“No, no…” He screwed up his eyes, clearly in agony. “No. It is not my… time.” He shook his head, mud plastering the long strands of his hair.

“That is not your decision.” Iona looked down at her hand, still pressed over his wide chest. Her skin was bright red with blood.

His pulse was thready and his breaths coming in shallow wheezes. “Please. I have many more battles as a mortal, much to do. Don’t take me… not yet… one day… but not now.”

He was weakening, his words fading. Life was leaking from him.

“Why would you resist Valhalla?” Iona asked. “It is Odin’s paradise created just for you, his mighty warriors who wait to serve at Ragnarok.”

“Doomsday is many… moons away…”

“We do not know that. The five hundred and forty doors that surround the palace need to be sufficiently manned for when Ragnarok comes.”

“I do understand… and I want to serve… but there is work to be done here.” His eyes rolled back, his earthly soul preparing to float from him.

“Here? What do you have here? At Valhalla, you will live like a king, blissful under the leadership of your god. It is a splendid palace, roofed with shields and the warriors feast on the flesh of a boar slaughtered daily and made whole again each evening. They drink liquor that flows from the udders of a goat, and their sport is to fight one another every day and make love to valkyrie women.”

“I know. But not yet.” His eyes closed. “Please, what can I give you?”

Iona looked at his ruggedly beautiful, mud- and blood-splattered face. She had the power to heal, to make his heart beat again. To give him what he wanted.

“What can I trade?” he begged.

“Your body.” Iona sucked in a breath. Had she really just said that?

“It is yours.” He cracked his eyes open and set his gaze on her. “It would be an honour to be your mortal lover.”

Iona lifted her free hand and pressed her fingertips over her lips. He’d known what she’d meant without her even having to speak the words.

“Please,” he said, his voice weak. “Make the deal. I promise… I will uphold.”

It was against the rules. The exact opposite of what she was supposed to do. But Iona couldn’t help herself. Even though she was supposed to bring the great and mighty warriors of the battlefield to Odin, she couldn’t resist keeping Stein on Earth. The thought of using his warm, hard body for pleasure was temptation personified and she wasn’t strong enough to walk away.

She closed her eyes and murmured the sacred salvation prayer.

The heavens above are too stained with the blood of men. Invested in me is the power of the valkyrie. Hear my song, hear my plea. Take swords unsheathed away from here and let life dwell another day.

As she spoke the last word, Stein gulped in a great lungful of air. His chest inflated beneath her palm and the flow of blood stopped.

She lifted her hand and looked at the wound. The skin tugged together, sealing the deadly hole. Within a few seconds it was as though Stein had never been injured.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice already stronger. “Thank you, valkyrie.”

“Iona.” She leaned forwards, her braids brushing over his chest. “I am Iona. I am your valkyrie and you owe me, mortal.”

“Yes. I owe you my life.” He reached up and gripped the side of her head, over her helmet. “And I am not a man who likes to be in debt.”

“And I don’t like to be owed.”

“So come to me. In Esthland.”

“Oh, I will. I will. When you least expect me.” Iona brushed her lips over Stein’s, then stood. “Be prepared.”

The wind had picked up and her cloak billowed out behind her. All around, the battle raged on. Men were dying and being brutally hacked, but all she saw was Stein. Stein Holt who owed her his life and also his body.


*****


Three months later Iona rode through the marshy fields that surrounded Stein Holt’s farm in Esthland. Time had no meaning for her, but still, this was a moment she’d been looking forward to—secretly of course, for she’d told no one of her deal with the mortal warrior she should have delivered to Odin.

She spotted his dwelling and paused. It was a wooden structure set against the side of a lush green hill. The roof appeared to have grass growing over it from the adjoining rise of earth. Next to the main building was what looked like a low-pitched barn with a clutter of tools around the entrance; a cart, boxes, scythes, forks and barrels.

Iona clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth and urged her steed onwards. They followed the meander of the river, a wide gush of water, to Stein’s home. She knew he was there, she felt it in her blood and in every beat of her heart.

When she was within twenty feet of the building she slid from her horse and left him standing, watching her. She walked, boots tapping on the roughly cobbled ground, to the entrance of the barn.

She peered in. The light was dim and the scent of freshly harvested hay filled her nose.

Standing in the middle of the building, amongst the dust motes, was Stein Holt. Again he was shirtless, but this time there was none of the fierce energy of battle surrounding him. He was calm, focused and drawing a plane along a wide, smooth piece of wood in long, even strokes.

Iona paused and enjoyed the vision. He was even more beautiful than she remembered. He’d pulled his hair up to the centre of his head and braided it every few inches with strips of leather as it hung down his back. The rest of his scalp, above his ears, was shaved. His skin, bronzed and muscled from a summer of sun and manual labour, sported several battle scars and inked drawings. His cloth trousers sat low on his hips, the drawstring holding them having come loose. Like Iona, he wore boots that hugged his feet and calves. Laces wrapped around kept them secure and his lower garments tucked in.

For a few blissful moments she watched him working. He was clearly a master carpenter as well as a farmer and an accomplished warrior.

His biceps bunched and relaxed as he pulled the tool along the wood, sending a scatter of shavings to the ground. He bit on his lower lip, as though deep in concentration then frowned as he rubbed his palm along the plank, checking the smoothness of the surface.

Iona wanted that hand on her. That palm sliding over her body and bringing her pleasure.

“Stein Holt of Esthland,” Iona said, stepping into the barn, her cloak floating out behind her.

He jerked his head up and looked at her. His lips were parted and his eyes wide. “Valkyrie,” he said, his voice low and rasping. “You have come to me.”

“You knew that I would.”

“Yes.” He set down his plane and straightened to his full height. “I did.”

Iona walked deeper into the shadows. To her right a table was set with an assortment of tools and chunks of wood, to her left a large pile of hay. She reached out and touched the wood he was working on. It was warm and velvety.

“What are you creating?” she asked.

“I am repairing my boat before the next voyage. The stern has some damage.”

“Voyage to where?”

“A dangerous voyage with my men to visit a faraway land and take back what is rightfully ours.”

Iona nodded. “You are right to prepare your vessel.”

“My vessel is my lifeline.” He paused. “Apart, of course, from you.”

Iona lifted her hand from the wood and touched her fingertips to the centre of his chest where he’d been fatally wounded.

There wasn’t even a scar. Just healthy skin coated in golden body hair.

He breathed deeply. “You have come to collect your debt.”

“Yes,” Iona said quietly. Her body tingled and heat gathered between her legs. She hadn’t bedded a mortal before—usually it was the slain warriors in Valhalla that sated her needs.

She wasn’t complaining, though—this was new and exciting and Stein Holt had ruled her thoughts and invaded her dreams since the day she’d met him.

Stein tipped one side of his mouth into a half-smile “So how would you like to proceed?”

Iona raised her head, jutting her chin upwards. “I want to know how mortal men take their women.”

“But what if you do not like it?” He twitched his eyebrows, almost teasingly. “You are, after all, not of this earth.”

“I am of a higher place. I can handle whatever this earth throws at me.” She frowned.

“Ah, yes, but that was before you met me.” He reached out and wrapped his arms around Iona’s waist. He jerked her close, so her body pressed against the length of his.

Iona gasped; the fast embrace and the sensation of his hot, hard skin stole her breath.

“You saved my life,” Stein whispered hotly. “And for that I will be eternally grateful.”

“I should have taken you to Odin.”

“But you did not, you left me to fight another day. Many men want to kill me; women too, probably, but you… you let me live.”

“I let you live on a condition.” Iona ran her hands over his shoulders, enjoying the feel of his warm flesh. “That you become my lover.”

“I could never forget that condition.” He smiled. “And I do not think it will be a hardship.”

He pressed his lips to hers in an intense, passion-infused kiss that made Iona dizzy.

She moaned her pleasure and clung to his long braid of hair.

He tilted his head, deepened the kiss and pushed his tongue between her teeth.

Iona shifted even closer to him, her breasts pressing through the material of her corset dress onto his chest. “More,” she demanded into his mouth.

He ground his pelvis into hers.

She could feel his excitement, his desire for her. It increased her own desire, and impatience flooded her veins. She dragged her nails over his shoulders.

He groaned and drew his head back. “You taste of paradise.”

“And you taste of sweet ale.”

“Let us be rid of this.” He reached up and tugged off her helmet. “I do not want to kill myself on the sharp points of the wings.”

Iona watched as he carefully set aside her helmet—it was one of her most treasured possessions, a gift from Odin on the day of her first battle.

“And this.” Stein slipped her cloak from her shoulders.

The cool air inside the barn caressed Iona’s skin. Normally she wasn’t as aware of temperature but right now her senses were hyper-alert to everything. She wanted to experience it all; every taste, smell and touch.

Stein took the cloak, laid it over the wood he’d been working on, then turned to look at Iona.

He blew out a long, low breath and shook his head. “On the life of Odin, you are more beautiful than anything I have ever seen.”

Iona knew she was beautiful—all valkyrie were creatures of paradise and stunning beyond all comparison. But when Stein Holt said it, with that lustful look in his eyes and admiration in his tone, she couldn’t help a flush of joy.

“And you are a warrior to challenge all others,” she said, jutting out her hip and placing her hand on her waist.

“And a lover to challenge all others.” He grinned, and, without looking away from Iona, removed his boots. “Are you ready?”

“Always.”

Iona gripped the front of her corset, where it joined. With one fast movement she tugged the garment open, revealing her nakedness beneath. She let the dress fall to the floor.

Stein raked his gaze down her body, taking in her skin, the colour of milk, her weighty breasts and the golden triangle of hair between her legs.

Iona could tell that he liked what he saw, not least because a thick wedge of flesh strained against the front of his trousers. His erection was hard and long, pressing upwards and a little to the right of his midline.

He stepped closer.

“Wait.” She held up her hand.

“No.”

“Yes.” She frowned at him and pulled the dagger from the belt around her thigh. “It is always sensible to remove weapons before this kind of activity.”

Stein made a growling noise low in his throat and his eyes flashed.

Iona knew that he was on the edge of control. That thrilled her. She wanted to see him lose control of his passion. She wanted him to unleash his male desires on her.

The second the dagger hit the floor he was on her, kissing her, dragging her close again.

Iona went to her tiptoes, still wearing her boots, but no matter—they wouldn’t get in the way.

His stubble abraded her chin, heating her further. His hands skimmed over her body. The calluses on his palms scraped and scratched her flesh and she adored it.


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