The thunder rolled like hundreds of heavy horses across a battlefield, shaking the ground as it passed above. The heavens opened and dumped its water in sheets without mercy. Within minutes, the bitter cold rain had seeped through their clothing and bled deep enough to chill the marrow in their bones.
To keep from shivering, Dægan directed his attention to the feel of Mara huddled against his back. She’d found a refuge beneath his wet hair, pressing as close to him as humanly possible. He couldn’t ignore the warmth of her breath between his shoulder blades or the softness of her body. The thought of her naked breasts in his hands, in his mouth, stuck with him as readily as the thin wet tunic and shift clinging to her own body.
He cursed his crude musings. This was certainly not the time for indecency. If Mara only knew what had crossed his mind, she’d never trust him again. He willed depravity away and clutched her arms at his waist in silent reassurance. The shelter he promised was something he’d seen only once, near the river on his way to Connacht several days before. He hoped that his memory served him correctly—even prayed to the gods that it had, for the onslaught of needlelike rain in his face was wearing on his good sense.
Even his horse struggled to cope. The heavy downfall shrouded loose rocks upon the black slated ground beneath its hooves, and the animal slipped several times during their descent. It was a slope much steeper than Dægan had expected, but at least he didn’t have to worry about Mara’s ability to ride. She proved as competent in this jaunt as she had in yesterday’s sprint. With that in mind, he lunged his horse off the incline and drove it faster to where he thought he’d seen the cavern.
Like a gift from Odin, it emerged from the thick gray fog. Although farther from the river than he’d remembered, the overhang was hospitable and tall enough even for his horse. Upon entering the shallow depths of the cave, Dægan relished the sudden end of the chastising rain. Tiny echoes of dripping water crooned an appeasing welcome as his horse’s slick black body steamed.
“Are you all right?” Dægan’s voice resonated within the cavern walls. Mara nodded as she shuddered, trying to absorb the warmth from his back.
“We must get you warm.” He slid from his horse, landing on both feet, and reached for her. Without hesitation, she wrapped her arms around his neck, evidently too cold to care whose protective arms enveloped her. He smiled, for she’d morphed into a little child, burying her head against his neck, contrary to the fiery vixen from yesterday’s affair. He cradled her close and savored the petal-soft lips upon his neck. If not for her shivering, he would’ve held her all day.
He shifted her weight to one arm and untied the hide from his saddle with the other. Giving it a good, hard shake, he covered her body and whispered, “Take off your wet clothes. I’ll give you my cloak.”
Mara reacted as if his words seared through her like a red-hot brand, and she clutched her arms in protest. “I most certainly will not.”
“Then how do you expect to gain warmth in sodden clothing?”
“If you think I’ll remove my clothes simply because you ordered it, you’re sorely mistaken. I’ll do no such thing.” She jumped from his arms and kept the hide for herself.
“Listen, princess,” Dægan said as he pulled off his boots and unbuckled his belt. “You, above all, should know this rain will hold us here for many hours, if not days. I’m not going to sit in wet, uncomfortable clothes when I’ve perfectly dry furs at my disposal. And I suggest you follow my lead.”
Mara hadn’t long to contemplate Dægan’s candid advice before he’d completely disrobed. “Oh my,” she gasped and turned her head away from his nakedness.
He laughed. “You might as well get used to it, my lady. Soon you’ll be seeing me this way every night.”
“I will not,” Mara argued over her shoulder.
“Will you close your eyes to me, even on our wedding night?”
“You’re a stupid heathen of a man! How can you possibly think that I’ll want to marry you?”
“I felt the tides turn last night—and so did you.”
“Do you know what your problem is?” he asked, staring at the back of her head. “You don’t trust yourself. You despise that you gave in to me so quickly, and for that, you question your own good sense. Your heart is talking to you, but you won’t listen. You’re denying yourself the chance to find love, a love that is different, foreign, and well beyond your dreams. I saw how you’d gaze upon the river waters in Connacht, farther than its shores, wishing for something greater. And now ’tis here in front of you, yet you fear the possibility of its wonder because ’tis not what your father wants. Tell me, Mara, what do you want?”