Passions flare in this enemies to lover’s romance. Two ship builders, each with so much to lose, compete to build the best boat. However, the true test is whether they can keep their hands off each other!
‘A boat is only as good as the quality of the wood used to make it, and I now have the best tree,’ crowed Astrid.
Ulrik did not seem bothered by her victory, and wasn’t even looking at her any more, but at a larger oak further to the side, balanced on the cliff’s edge, half its roots exposed by an earlier landslide. It was much larger than her own and just as straight, but she had dismissed it as being in too awkward a position to fell safely.
Ulrik must have thought the same as his eyes swung back to hers, lazy and untroubled. ‘You think a scrap of cloth makes it yours?’
‘I think I will still beat you to the first cut,’ she said with a dark smile. She had already proved she could outrun him.
Her glory was short-lived, however, as he only nodded. ‘It matters not,’ he said, limping to the trunk and tapping it with his hand.
Had he limped so heavily before the climb?
She tried to ignore the guilt that rose in her chest. She did not want to pity him; she wanted to hate and loathe him with all her heart. That way she would not feel bad about sending him and his daughter away.
‘It is a good choice, but I will not race you for it.’
She laughed at his bravado. ‘Oh, the arrogance! You are so certain you will win?’
‘As long as we play by the rules, I will.’
‘Nobody plays fair,’ she answered coldly. Her father certainly had not.
‘I do,’ he said firmly, and strangely she believed him. ‘I expect you to do the same,’ he added.
She raised a brow. ‘Really? And what will you do if I do not?’
He shrugged. ‘Nothing…but what will your father do?’
She swallowed the ball of resentment that had filled her throat. She knew what her father would do if he caught her breaking his rules—he would declare Ulrik the winner and gladly end the contest early. Which was why she would not cheat…a few tricks perhaps, but nothing that would give her father reason to end it.
‘Well, I will go home now my work is done,’ she said breezily. ‘Good luck finding another tree. Maybe you should just accept your limitations…’
He scowled at her words and she realised her mistake too late. Her stomach churned with guilt. She had only been speaking about the tree, but did he think she was mocking his injury? ‘With…the tree…’ she added haltingly.
Why did her stupid mouth always make her seem the hot-headed fool?
In her hurry to move away from the awkward situation she tripped on a root. She would have landed flat on her face and tumbled down the hill if it weren’t for the strength of Ulrik’s arm that whipped out to grab her.
‘You should be more careful—it is steep here,’ he said coldly, his blue eyes hard as gems.
She jerked her arm from his and danced a few steps to the side, flustered by the sudden heat that now bathed her face and neck.
‘Ha! I know this forest better than the back of my hand. I am perfectly—’ The words were ripped from her throat as her boot slipped in the damp earth. She tried to regain her footing, but only seemed to slide backwards at greater speed. She grabbed at the nearest solid object and found Ulrik’s tunic-covered shoulder. The worn material ripped as she twisted it in her fingers, and she would have taken half of his tunic with her down the mountainside if it weren’t for his grabbing her upper arm.
There was a moment—suspended over the drop—when she thought all would be well. But then he hissed a curse of pain, his leg buckled beneath him, and the world tilted as they fell.
As if it was instinctual, Ulrik pulled her close and twisted his body as they fell, wrapping his arms around her head and shoulders as if to protect them. The fern-covered ground rushed up to meet them, and Ulrik grunted as he thudded down hard on his back, crunching bracken and twigs as he did so.
She winced at how much that must have hurt him, combined with the pain from his bad leg.
But then they began to roll with gathering speed, and she didn’t have time to feel guilty. She tightened her hold on him and prayed for a quick death.
Like a pebble skipping across the water they tumbled, hitting rocks, snapping twigs and feeling every bump as they rolled over and over.
She yelped, all previous bravado forgotten, and he crushed her closer even as she heard his groans and hisses of pain. Eventually, Odin pitied them, because their tumbling began to slow. They bounced against a fallen tree, and the trunk rocked limply but still stopped them. Astrid sank into the rotten mulch, Ulrik on top of her, their breathing heavy and their limbs tangled in a lovers’ embrace.
Astrid wanted to sink into the mud and never return.