Storm of Desire – Bec McMaster

She came to him on a spring storm, one wicked night. Haakon Haraldsson strode across the mountainous countryside, slinging his bow over his shoulder. Night was falling, and there’d be no game in this brewing gale. Time to return home before he was caught out. The storm kissed the coastline to the east and blustered inland, bringing with it lashings of lightning. Thick, fat raindrops began to spatter down. Perfect. Just perfect. Haakon cursed, dragging the hood of his cloak over his head as he soldiered on. He’d spent most of the day out in the mountains, trying to linger as far from home as possible. At twenty, with his older sisters married off, his mother had turned her sights upon him, and he hadn’t missed the insinuation when she’d invited her friend, Helga, and her daughter, Maria, to eat with them that night. But it was one thing to avoid a mother’s matrimonial intentions—quite another to freeze his balls off. A jagged spear of lightning lit the world around him as he loped down the craggy mountainside. He thought he heard a roar, but perhaps it was only thunder, quick on the lightning’s heels. Not far to go now.

He could almost feel the heat of the fire in his mother’s hearth, and smell the rich, gamey scent of the stew she’d been making. Something to warm him from the inside out in this wretched cold. Maria’s attentions notwithstanding. He was so caught up in imagining it that when he took a twist in the path, he almost plowed directly into a naked young woman. A flash of golden skin seared his eyeballs. And then somehow he managed not to brace his hands against a part of her anatomy she’d surely slap him for touching. A violent lurch to avoid slamming into her sent him sprawling, and his hands bit the gravel of the path as he tumbled head over heels into the soft leaf mulch. Haakon froze, pushing himself off the loam and brushing off his hands. He slowly rolled over. He was not imagining anything.

There was a naked woman. A very wet, completely unclothed woman glaring down at him, gowned only in her hair. It clung in wet, serpentine streaks to her breasts, and though it appeared brown in that moment he had the feeling sunlight would paint it pure gold. His gaze followed the lengths of it, reaching her naval, and then— He squeezed his eyes shut. He wasn’t entirely innocent. There’d been kisses, and heated touches, and the press of a woman’s mouth, but Viksholm was distant enough from civilization and his mother watchful enough that he’d not yet had a woman of his own. Some stray thought tickled at his mind at the thought, but it wasn’t working very swiftly in that moment. All he could picture was rosy nipples, and lips flushed pink, and curse him, but his cock was swelling in adamant need. What the hell? “Are you insane?” he demanded, trying to avoid looking at her as he pushed himself to his feet. “What are you doing out here?” The woman scrambled away from him, crouching against a rock, one hand splayed over the granite and her expression feral.

Haakon stopped abruptly, and tried to make himself look less intimidating. Think, you fool. Any woman out here on a stormy night—wearing no clothes—was likely in some sort of danger. Her long blonde hair tangled over her breasts, thankfully shielding them from view. She bared her teeth at him. “I mean you no harm.” Swinging his sodden fur cloak off his shoulders, he wrapped it around her bare body, trying to ease her raking nails away from his face. She hissed at him, but subsided when he drew the cloak around her nakedness and held his hands up in surrender, as if to say, “See?” And then she looked up, a distant flash of lightning illuminating her amber-colored eyes. For Haakon, it was like an arrow to the chest. He felt breathless; lost.

His entire destiny unfolded before him with a single glance and he knew, knew it revolved around this mysterious stranger. Fate had clearly contrived to keep him chaste for her, because the very idea of knowing another woman would have felt wrong. Hell. He felt as though the lightning must have hit him. “Harm?” she whispered, in a voice that sounded like a velvet-wrapped purr. “You would not wish to have harm in your heart, or I’d kill you myself.” At any other time he might have snorted—he was a hunter, and a large man—but he was still feeling rattled. He could barely look away from her, as he tried to loop the clasp on his cloak closed, so she would feel less naked. Every inch of her was perfect, though he was trying like hell not to stare. “Who are you?” “A traveler.

” “Do you have a name?” She cocked her head on the side. “You may call me Árja.” Árja. It had the ringing tones of destiny written all over it. “My name is Haakon.” Thunder rumbled, as if the gods themselves heard his name—and accepted it as a pledge. The storm faded into the distance, the cold and the wetness evaporating from his awareness. She had a heart-shaped face, her wet hair clinging to a smooth throat, and those stormy eyes full of a thousand mysteries as she considered him. “Are you hurt?” he whispered, suddenly aware his knuckles brushed each other just below her chin, where he held his cloak firmly around her. The beautiful stranger eyed him as thoroughly as he’d done to her.

The storm began to blow out. “No.” “What are you doing out here?” “I was hunting these cows,” Árja said, and tipped her chin up as if to defy him. “I’m hungry and there are many cows in this valley.” Cows? He shook his head. “If you poach one of my father’s cows, he won’t take kindly to it.” “These cows belong to him?” “Most of them.” Haakon cleared his throat. He couldn’t quite place her accent. “Where are your clothes? Do you have a bow? Any weapons?” She curled her fingers into claws and smiled a vicious little smile.

“I am the weapon.” Maybe she’d hit her head. Or maybe she was mad. His heart began to beat again, and suddenly he was freezing, and she was naked and probably even colder and— “Come,” Haakon whispered, swinging her up into his arms, where she eyed him with dark suspicion. Mad or not, she was his. And it was a freezing cold night, with both of them wet to the skin. “Let me take you to the healer to examine you, then I’ll take you home. My mother has stew on the stove.” “I want cow.” “It’s beef,” he said dryly.

“Beef stew.” And he couldn’t let her out of his sight. Not now, when he’d only just found his future wife. For him, this chance meeting meant his future was carved in stone. It would take him many years before he discovered that for her, it was nothing more than a safe haven for a year or two… before she suddenly vanished as swiftly as she’d come, in the heart of another raging storm. And the only clue to her disappearance was the flapping wings of a golden dragon. N 1 ine years later Reykjavik, Iceland There were many ways one could woo an estranged wife, and as Haakon Haraldsson nursed his ale at an inn in Reykjavik, he heard them all. “…gift her with flowers,” Bjorn argued. The boy had swollen into a giant of a man in the past two years, but he was still barely able to grow fluff on his chin. “It’s a timeproven method to win a woman’s heart.

” The lady’s more interested in emeralds, Haakon thought with a bitter smile. All the more to add to her hoard of gold. But none of his men were paying attention to him. Haakon’s massive cousin, Tormund, snorted and shook his head. “Flowers? Sweep her off her feet and throw her over your shoulder. Make a woman of her.” Which would work perfectly if the lady in question couldn’t breathe fire…. Bjorn snorted. “In my experience—” “What little there be of it,” Tormund said. Bjorn slammed his tankard down and shoved to his feet.

“There’s damned near enough to make your toes curl. When was the last time you saw a woman naked?” “Last night, as a matter of fact,” Tormund said. The two men stared at each other, their chests almost touching. “Sit down, you bloody fools,” Haakon’s second-in-command, Gunnar, bellowed. “You break any of this furniture and I’ll break your heads.” Gunnar shoved the pair of them apart, even as Haakon sank his head into his hands. What was he doing here? Trying to get answers…. Tormund scraped at his beard. “Mind you, when I was chasing Gertrude, she did like flowers—” Haakon faded out of the conversation. Loose timbers flapped against the inn’s cladding as the storm outside began to drive through the town.

He crossed to the window, peering through it. Light flashed in the distance. The heart of the storm hadn’t arrived yet. But when it came, it would descend on the town with driving force. There was a crackle of energy in the air, one he’d slowly learned to recognize. This would be no ordinary storm. Would it be her out there on the winds? He’d spent months camped out in this hell-forsaken traders town, hoping to lure her out. Months showing the townsfolk the portrait he’d drawn of her face. Yes, one or two of them had declared. I’ve seen her.

She comes to buy books every few months. She likes jewelry too, someone else had said. I think she made Ivar a very happy jeweler…. Bought a pair of emerald earrings off him without even blushing at the price. That sounded like her. Before his wife vanished in the middle of a storm, barely two years after they’d married, she’d been enamored of precious gems. Even the single wink of light on a set of rubies had caught her eye from across the room. He’d not thought anything of it at the time—except to think he’d like to buy her a set of her own one day—but in hindsight, there’d always been signs of the truth. Seven years given over to hunting the dragon who took his wife. Seven years of lies….

His only purpose since her loss had been to hunt for any news of such a creature, until he’d finally gotten word earlier this year of a golden dragon in Iceland. Well, he’d finally tracked down the golden dreki—as it preferred to call itself—only to hear the truth from its lips. “You hunt the dreki who took your wife,” Rurik had said. “There is only one golden dreki beside myself. Her name is Árdís, and she is my younger sister. She resides in the dreki court below Hekla.” “That dreki took my wife!” “She did not steal your wife, you fool,” Rurik had hissed. “She was your wife.” And in that moment, he’d no longer been able to deny the truth. The storm rattled the shingles on the roof.

“Fucking cows,” he muttered, staring into the skies and laughing humorlessly. “I was hunting these cows.” He should have known the truth the moment he met her. Why else would she have been naked in a storm? Why else would she have been endlessly curious about the customs of his hearth and home, as if she’d never lived them before? For a man who’d lived all his life among myth and legend, it had been remarkably easy to haul the wool over his eyes. Anger brewed. Seven years spent believing his wife was either killed or kidnapped by a dreki who rode one of these storms, only to discover his wife was the actual dreki, had left him bitter and hollow. It was time for a reckoning. “Are you certain kidnapping your wife is the best way to go about this?” Tormund muttered, leaning against the wall beside him. “Bjorn might have a point about a dragon princess not appreciating being manhandled like that.” “Dreki,” Haakon corrected absently.

“They don’t like to be called dragon.” Tormund gave him a strange look. “Either way, I would prefer to dine on the pig on the spit out back tonight. Not be the one roasting.” “Rurik said few dreki own the gift to actually breathe flame.” “Aye, and Rurik’s her brother. Where do you think his loyalties lie?” Haakon glanced toward the flicker of lightning through the window, before slinging back the rest of his ale. “He wouldn’t have told me the truth about her if he intended me to die at her hand. He’s… an admirable creature. He believes in debts of honor and fate.

” He’d have never believed those words would come from his mouth before he set foot on these shores. “Let us hope his sister believes in honor too.” Haakon’s smile felt tight. “I wouldn’t trust her sense of decency. She’s already proven she has no compunctions with deceit, but I have means to counteract her powers, if it comes down to it.” The heavy weight of the gold cuff in his pocket seemed to warm. Tormund stared at him. “I hope you know what you’re doing. She was your wife—” “She was a lying, conniving creature with a heart of ice,” he corrected coldly. “Still….

” Tormund hesitated, but Haakon paid him little attention. He’d spent months learning the difference between a regular storm and a dreki storm. This was it. She had to be here in Reykjavik somewhere. He was weary with waiting, but without magic he couldn’t get into the dreki court beneath the volcano of Hekla, according to the exiled dreki prince, Rurik. He’d needed her to come for him, and he’d baited the trap appropriately. “Do you have any better ideas? Preferably ones without that flower nonsense?” After all, he wasn’t here to win his wife back, or to woo her, or whatever other nonsense the men were discussing. He was here for answers. Tormund winced. “Kidnapping it is then.

” There were few things that gave Árdís pleasure these days, but the promise of an emerald necklace the likes of which she’d never seen before came close. Gliding above the storm, she turned in slow barrel rolls, exulting in the wind beneath her wings. Reykjavik sprawled beneath her, the very sign of its humanity calling to her as she began her dive. The storm lashed out as she pulled out of the dive and alighted upon a rocky crag overlooking the town. Lightning flashed as Árdís threw her wings out, a shimmer of power spilling through her. Heat washed through her veins. And then she was squatting on bare feet, her hands held aloft as she transformed to her mortal form. Instantly fat raindrops splashed her bare skin. It always felt so strange to shift forms. The dreki was mighty and impervious, gilded by scales of gold that protected her from danger, but also from so much raw sensation.

In her dreki form she heard each groan of the earth, and the whisper of winds through the skies in a way her mortal ear could not perceive, and yet to be human connected her to the world in ways she’d never been able to imagine before her first shift. She’d felt hands on her skin in this form. Lips trailing down her neck. The weight of her husband pressing her down into their mattress as he made love to her for the first time. And the utter destruction of a heart she’d broken herself. To be human meant pain, suffering, and wretched emotion. But it also lured her with whispers of joy and freedom, and the sheer warmth one gained from other humans. Árdís had been born from fire, but she loved this mortal realm with a curious heart other dreki curled their lips at. Picking up the leather bag she’d carried in her claws, she swiftly drew her gown on, lacing up the pale green wool dress over her chemise. Stockings and shoes followed, and then she looped around her throat the silver chain she always carried with her.

She could only ever wear it when she wore this form, and for a second her fingers fumbled on the plain silver ring he’d once given her. It dangled from the end of the chain, and warmed against her flesh as if it were finally home. She’d taken it off over a dozen times, and even managed to bury it once, before she’d succumbed and dug it back out of the earth. The only reminder of a moment when she’d given in to the whim of her heart, it was past time she finally put it away, but…. Her fingertips grazed the silver ring. To put it away forever meant burying her heart entirely, and she wasn’t certain she had it in her to do so. A flash of icy gray eyes lit through her mind. A smile. The shape of his mouth as he leaned down to kiss her…. She refused to speak his name, but the memory of his face would not leave her alone, particularly at night, when her thoughts were unguarded.

He’d never smile at her like that again. Árdís slid the ring inside her dress, and swiftly braided her hair. She’d made her choices long ago. She should never have married him. Never have given him her heart. She was a dreki princess and he a mortal man, and she’d known from the start it would only ever end in disaster. But sometimes the head did not rule the heart. Enough. Árdís turned toward the town, shedding her foolish regrets. It always hit her hard when she first shifted shape.

And she had emeralds to buy, and hopefully a certain dreki prince to thwart. In the streets of Reykjavik, humans began to close the shutters on their windows, faces turned fearfully toward the storm that was rolling over the edges of town. With her no longer in the skies it would fade, but they didn’t know that. Brightly colored roofs gleamed under the stormy skies as Árdís made her way unerringly toward the small jewelers she frequented. Bells tinkled over the door as she entered. The jeweler looked up at the sound of the bells, his hands scattering the fine beads he’d been trying to separate as he saw her. Árdís breathed in the stuffy fumes of pipe smoke and oil, her gaze flickering over the dull gleam of brass and gold in the display cases, and the faint wink of rubies. Too small to capture her interest, of course, but Hjálmarsson always kept his finest wares behind the counter, or in his safe. “Good day, Master Hjálmarsson,” she called. “I hear you have new emeralds?” The jeweler set aside the small loupe he’d been peering through.

His mustache quivered. “How do you always know? I’ve not breathed a word of it to anyone.” Because I can hear them whispering through the earth’s crust, practically calling my name. Every dreki was gifted with some natural affinity for one of the elements, and hers was Earth. Árdís smiled. “A lady cannot give up her sources, good sir. Please, may I see them?”

.

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