Edge of Ruin
Book 4.5 of The Edge Series
In this scorching boxed set of brand-new novellas by USA Today bestselling author Megan Crane, the ultimate Viking warriors rule a future, destroyed world with the force of will alone. But now, they will meet the women who will change…everything.
Tait has laid claim to the fearsome reputation of raider. His overwhelming presence and fierce sexual prowess makes people both burn for his touch and cower in his wake. Elenthea has spent her whole life on the Raft, a floating city known for being much safer than the ravaged land. But when Raft politics leave Elenthea a breath away from stranded in the sea, she turns to the blisteringly hot warrior to help secure her place on land. But will this bargain of survival be consumed by passion?
Matylda felt she had no choice but to become a mail order bride, but Zavier isn’t at all what she expected. He’s dark and forbidding, and his sexual expectations are demanding… and hungry. Very, very hungry. It isn’t long before Matylda finds herself more than a little addicted to her mail order husband’s touch… but he has the option to trade her in at the March equinox. Will he return her like every other bride before her? Or will this commanding raider keep his explosively passionate mail order bride?
Mighty warrior Jurin stepped up and claimed Melyssa’s baby when she first came to the clan. As kind as he is fierce, as gentle as he is brutal, Jurin took a vow to act as friend and father to Melyssa’s family. But doing so means ignoring the surge of sensual awareness that simmers barely repressed between them, and soon Jurin must decide whether to play the role of distant protector— or claim her as his woman for good…
Don’t miss the other books in this series!
- ROMANTIC THEMES: Bad Ass Heroine, Guardian/Ward, Mistaken Identity, Mail Order Bride, Widow, Ex-Con Hero, Girl Next Door, Ugly Duckling, Special Ops Hero, Military, Heroine On the Run, Bad Ass Alpha, Boss/Secretary, Cowboy Hero, Dystopian Romance, Erotic Romance, Good Girl/Bad Boy, Kidnapped Heroine, Marriage of Convenience, Meddling Relatives?, MMA Fighter/Martial Artist, Playboy Hero, Vikings?, Warrior
Edge of Ruin
From "Need’s Edge"
He looked nothing like a farmer.
That was Matylda’s first, wild thought when she saw the man waiting for her in the ramshackle frontier village in this far away place—so high in the unclaimed European Alps that the mountain peaks seemed to pierce the shockingly blue March sky, two weeks’ rough and exhausting travel from what was left of civilization down in the more settled and less dangerous Apennines.
Not just a man, she corrected herself, aware that her throat had gone dry as she stared out the bus window. My husband.
That word shivered through her, landing hard somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach, but she didn’t give into the urge to feel sorry for herself. She didn’t know for certain that he was the one waiting for her, standing too still and relentlessly watchful on the wide porch of the lodge that loomed over the village, wedged as it was into a nosebleed-high mountain pass that was still white with snow though the equinox had already passed. There were other people milling about as the bus chugged into town, standing apart from him, but Matylda knew, somehow, that he was the one. He was hers. Her husband. He was the only male in the vicinity who made every hair on her body seem… electrified.
He was much too big, and looked as if he’d carved himself from the most unforgiving rock he could find, then dipped himself in steel to make it all that much more ruthless and unyielding. He was dressed in dark, utilitarian trousers, heavy boots, and a winter coat that he wore open over a disastrously broad chest, as if the raw March weather didn’t affect him at all while it had the others near him shivering into their furs and wraps. He was all muscle with huge hands that fell loosely at his sides and still, made Matylda feel… restless. Something like raw. His hair was pulled back with a tie, blonde with brown in it as if it changed color according to the whims of the occasional sun, and his weathered white skin made his hard blue eyes seem brighter than they should have been. Or sharper, perhaps, like the blades he wore on an odd kind of harness Matylda had never seen anywhere else, that crossed over that vast wall of a chest and called more attention to all the heavy, hard planes and astonishing furrows of strength beneath his shirt. His mouth was a stern, uncompromising line, bracketed by a beard the same blonde/brown mix as the hair on his head that did nothing to mask the tough, masculine jut of his chin.
He looked entirely too powerful. Broad and mighty enough to level the massive peaks that jutted all around him. Merciless enough to do it with his bare hands, if he wanted.
He was the most terrifying man Matylda had ever seen.
And he was her husband.
Or would be within the hour, as soon as he signed the papers that she carried with her, that the bus driver would dutifully return to the lower provinces. After he left her up here on the edge of nowhere with this… farmer.
They’d told her, down in the rolling hills of the Apennines where Matylda had expected to live out the whole of her life in the cities that had survived the Storms and hunkered down through the harsh winters ever since, that the man who called himself Zavier was a problem the lord of her province wanted solved. That he paid for a mail-order bride each summer as was his right as a frontier-based farmer whose labor contributed to the survival of the European islands. That he received a woman before the fall rains set in and the winter snow cut off his remote part of the Alps, but then exercised his option to return her come the spring. Every spring.
He’d never kept a bride.
Every year he grows angrier at the quality of the brides sent to him and every year the lord’s patience dims further, the bride coordinator had said tightly, his pinched face looking a little too haunted for Matylda’s comfort. Zavier cannot be pleased, that is a fact. And yet he must be placated, because he is the lord’s favorite. His cows shit rainbows, apparently.
Matylda doubted that very much, but whether or not rainbows poured from the backsides of alpine cows was the least of her concerns, because the lord of her province wanted Zavier’s beef and his allegiance—possibly not in that order. Zavier might be a nightmare, but she needed, somehow, to please him.
And no matter that no one ever had.
Every bride who’d been returned on the first bus out once the passes cleared told the same story. Zavier was merciless, occasionally cruel, and wholly indifferent to their feelings. He was a tough, hard, pitiless man who worked his land with a single-minded ferocity that had gained the admiration of all the lords of Europe, who squabbled with each other to claim him as their subject, and he expected his wife to attend him with that same level devotion, apparently. He was demanding and specific about the needs he wanted met. Food and sex, the maintenance of his home, and whatever help he needed with his land and his cattle.
You understand that these are the requirements of all the men in the northern Alps, the coordinator had told her sternly, as if Matylda had offered an argument. Or as if it mattered either way, since it wasn’t as if she was precisely volunteering for this. She would have to find a way to handle whatever “requirements” arose. One way or another. These are hard, determined men who have carved out livings from the high mountains when no one else could. They will not coddle you. They will expect you to feed them and fuck them, likely not in that order and without complaint.
I understand, Matylda had said at once, sitting too straight on the ancient chair in the drafty outbuilding on the lord’s estate, trying to exude the sort of quiet competence that she hoped would impress the fearsome and terrible Zavier, too. Because this had to work. Her baby sister Nicoline was depending on her.
The bride coordinator had eyed Matylda solemnly. Or perhaps, upon reflection, that had been pity. But I can’t allow you to travel all that way into the back of beyond without a full understanding of what you’ll be facing. All of the men on the frontier are rough. But I’m afraid Zavier is… worse.
Matylda told herself that she could handle worse. Handling things was what she did. She’d handled it when their parents had died in a winter flood, leaving Matylda and the much younger Nicoline stranded the coastal village where they’d grown up, a place where there was no possible living to be made for two girls who were unlikely to distinguish themselves on the fishing boats. She’d packed Nicoline up and moved them into one of the cities in the higher elevations, where there were more ways to make ends meet. Trade. Textiles. All kinds of necessary goods.
She’d found herself a job making clothes in one of the old towns, which granted them a decent life—one that got better once Nicoline was old enough to work there too. They got to live in one of the boarding houses maintained by the local lord, where they also got the standard two meals a day and a room of their own to share. And they paid their tithes in the bell towers the way everybody did, twice a week in good weather and at least once a week in bad, which seemed like an upgrade from the drafty, always-frigid beach shacks in the coastal village where Matylda had come of age and started her tithing.
Matylda hadn’t had any trouble paying her way. Her trouble was, she’d assumed Nicoline had been doing the same. Because there were consequences for failing to tithe.
Consequences she now had to pay on her sister’s behalf, because Nicoline’s failure to do what all common people must had come to light. And it wasn’t a debt Nicoline could have worked off in the bell towers in a few intense weeks if she’d had to, the way everyone had to now and again when they fell behind for various reasons. Oh no. What Nicoline had done was much worse.
Her sister had fallen in love and more recklessly, had fallen pregnant, too. And because she was in love and her idiotic Fernando claimed he loved her too, they’d declared that they desperately wanted to marry, keep their child, and raise it themselves.
Which, of course, was completely against the law.
All babies born to unwed females belonged to the lord of the province, since most were conceived through the tithing system, where all men and all fertile women were expected to express their gratitude to the lord by doing their best to procreate. Twice a week in good weather and at least once a week in bad.
That was how the world worked. That was how the human race had survived after the Storms had drowned the world. Everyone knew it. Matylda couldn’t imagine what her sister had been thinking.
You and your sister live in the province at the lord’s pleasure, the majordomo had said almost apologetically when they’d been pulled in to discuss what was to be done about Nicoline and Fernando’s treachery. He was an imposing bald man with a bushy white beard that made his dark black skin seem to gleam. He’d sat in his finery in the lord’s hall high on the hill, so splendid and bright that it was hard to imagine that he was merely the lord’s steward and not the great lord himself. Matylda thought that the sight of the actual lord himself might kill her. And neither one of you has worked up to a place where a petition for marriage might be considered, much less granted.
That had not been news to Matylda. It had never occurred to her that she might get married. Certainly not while she still bled.
How could you do something so stupid? she’d cried when Nicoline had first told her the news, back in their little room. Don’t you realize you can be put to death for this?
No one will kill a pregnant woman, Nicoline had replied with a great certainty Matylda did not share, but then, she supposed it was easier to be certain when one was as young and beautiful as Nicoline was at twenty years of age and only recently into her bleeding years. All that strawberry hair and obvious fertility. What did she have to worry about?
That means you have just under six months left to live, Matylda had retorted. Because you will not be a pregnant woman forever.
Nicoline had only shaken her head, her hands on her belly as if the baby inside her needed protection from all this reality.
Do you think you’re the only person who’s faced this kind of problem, Nicoline? You’re not. Matylda knew couples who’d been in precisely this situation. Everyone did. But most people understand that making declarations about refusing to hand over the child and demanding a marriage you haven’t earned spells utter destruction for everyone around them. Or do you not care about that?
Most people who found themselves in Nicoline’s situation—not that it was common, exactly, since there were so few pregnancies through the tithing system, much less through assignations on the side—gave the children they’d made illicitly to the lord, because it was the better option. And it wasn’t a bad life, to be a ward of a great lord. The child would be raised in the grand houses and prepared for the life the lord saw fit to bestow upon it. A much better life than any of the common folk had, that was certain.
Nicoline’s eyes had looked glassy, but she’d shaken her head in defiance yet again. I refuse to accept that some man I’ve never met can simply take my baby from me. I refuse.
No matter how Matylda looked at it, it was a disaster, because the laws on these things were very clear. Marriage was for the rich or the old, as a couple was required to pay their local lord the woman’s fertility price if she wanted to keep it to herself and give it to a husband. Most people couldn’t afford that kind of thing. Fertility prices dropped as a woman aged, but even a low fertility price was out of the reach of most. It took too much hard, thankless labor.
Most regular folks did what Matylda’s parents had done and relocated to the remotest village possible, where they could live as a married couple without actually having to pay for it. Far away from the cities they could raise any children they had themselves, always knowing that if the lord of their province happened by he could claim them as his by right, but gambling on the fact that would probably never happen.
Great lords, it went without saying, very rarely ventured out of their highland fortresses to muck about in the lower elevations.
But it was different in the cities.
There must be something that can be done, Matylda had whispered, there in what the majordomo called his piazza, it was such a large and obviously luxurious hall, filled with plush pillows in a hundred colors and thick furs and glorious wall hangings, and again—he was only the lord’s steward.
The majordomo had gazed at her a moment. He’d shifted his shrewd gaze to Nicoline, then had returned it to Matylda.
Your sister is young and obviously fertile, he’d said calmly. The lord will not let her go without compensation. Beside her on the stiff little couch, far fancier than any Matylda had ever seen, Nicoline had dissolved into floods of tears. Again. She’d been doing only that for days. Some of that can be made up in hard labor, which the father of the child has already promised to deliver. Some of it your sister can make up herself with the clothes she makes. But that leaves a deficit. Not only what remains of her fertility price, but her tithing debt. She has not tithed in nearly four months.
Matylda had pulled in a sharp, shocked breath. Four months. She could hardly get her head around it. Tithing was required, yes, but it was only onerous when you got ill or hurt and fell behind. That meant extra sessions in the bell towers to make up the missing tithes that were marked next to your name in the lord’s ledgers. There was usually a month’s grace period to work the extra tithes off.
Once or twice a week session were easy enough, Matylda always thought. She could remember being so excited to start tithing when she’d been a girl and hadn’t yet bled, and she hadn’t been disappointed when her time came. Mostly it was pleasant. At worst it was perhaps a little clinical. The bell towers were outfitted with little curtained-off cots in tidy rows. Men went in one side and women the other, under the supervision of the seneschal and his staff.
You opened the curtain you were directed to and stepped inside, already naked beneath the robes provided after the compulsory showers in the changing rooms, and attended to the business of tithing with whoever was there. No picking favorites, no refusals, no controlling the encounter in any way, because the goal was the proliferation of the human race, not your own needs or wants. Sometimes it was silly or funny or awkward, especially if you knew the person. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, though never too much so, since the little areas were outfitted with the appropriate oils and the seneschal and his staff were a mere shout away. More often, Matylda found, tithing was… satisfying. Or anyway, she always felt more relaxed when it was done.
But it wouldn’t matter if it was all a hideous chore, because it was the damned law.
What on earth could her little sister have been thinking?
The majordomo had not waited for Matylda to come to terms with Nicoline’s astronomical debt. He’d smiled slightly as he’d continued, his gaze trained on Matylda.
You, on the other hand, have been bleeding for nearly ten years now.
I had my first blood when I was twenty, Matylda had agreed.
You have never conceived.
It would have been more accurate to say that Matylda had quietly taken steps to ensure she did not conceive, because taking care of Nicoline had felt like quite enough to handle, but she had known better than to share that quiet little crime with the majordomo. The herbs she took in her evening tea, in the privacy of her own room, were her business, she’d always thought. She nodded instead, trying to look innocent.
There is a way you can make up your sister’s debt, the majordomo had said. You must know there are men attempting to tame the frontiers.
Of course. There were always men foolhardy enough to risk their lives on new horizons. The provinces outfitted them and backed them, wanting only a certain percentage of their yield in return. Many men of common origins who could never work hard enough to afford to marry a fertile woman or ever claim land for themselves in the long-held provinces signed up. Why wouldn’t they? The rewards were vast.
The trouble was, so many of them died.
And you must also know that the lord provides them with wives, should they request them, to offer a bit of companionship in the remote and dangerous places they’ve claimed so far north. He’d waited for Matylda’s nod. The lord waives the fertility price in any case, but in yours, he would be willing to count your price as equivalent to your sister’s. That is how grateful he would be if you married the man we have in mind. And I should not have to tell you that the lord’s gratitude might well be the only thing standing between your sister and disaster.
Matylda had not been foolish enough to think that she’d really been given a choice. Especially because she knew that it was nothing short of astonishing that the lord would be willing to pretend that Matylda’s fertility price was anything similar to her sister’s. Nicoline was freshly blooded and already pregnant. Her price would be the highest. A thirty year old woman who had never conceived and was likely less fertile by the day, like Matylda, could only claim the tiniest of fertility prices. Everyone knew that women Matylda’s age were no prize.
Which meant the fact the lord was settling her fertility price that high was no gift. It was a threat.
It was how she found herself on this junky old bus, staring out a dirty window at the terrifying man who she knew—somehow, she just knew—was Zavier.
The bus shuddered to a stop, and that was that. Matylda waited as the handful of other frontier hopefuls and fellow travelers staggered down the aisle and out into the March wind, and then forced herself to follow suit.
Maybe it isn’t him. Maybe it isn’t—
But she stopped chanting little fantasies when the bus driver aimed a pitying smile her way.
“That’s your man, I’m afraid,” he said, nodding toward the only person who could possibly match that description. The silent, terrifying blonde man who only watched and waited as if he’d already done this. Because, of course, he had. At least ten years running. The bus driver pressed on, in case Matylda was in any doubt. “The big, scary looking one.”
Hope was great while it lasted, Matylda told herself briskly as she stepped off the bus and stopped breathing for a moment when the wind sliced into her, so cold it hurt despite the blue sky above. But the time for hope was over. Now it was time for reality.
Because Matylda could not go the way of his previous brides. The last one had refused to get off the bus last September, but Matylda would not be afforded the same latitude if she tried to climb back on and return to the lower hills. No matter what he did, no matter how awful he was, she needed to stay with him. That was the bargain the majordomo had struck with her.
For every year she stayed married to Zavier, she bought a matching year of her sister’s life. And the life of the child Nicoline wanted to steal from her lord.
Zavier had the option to return her at the June solstice, in time to order her replacement for the fall, the way he’d done without fail with every bride who’d failed to please him over the past decade. If he didn’t, he had to keep her. Matylda’s job was to please him so well over the next three months that he wouldn’t dream of letting her go.
And then stay here with him forever, in spite of whatever the hell it was he did to all those women to make them run screaming from the Alps to get away from him.
No matter what.
Matylda swallowed hard, and gripped the handle of the bag that held what passed for her worldly possessions as it thudded against her knees. She walked a step or two from the bus door, so that she stood directly beneath the lodge’s wide porch. She felt the cold of the lingering winter kick at her as the wind from the snowy peaks tugged at her long, ruffled skirt and snuck beneath it, sliding over the top of her travel boots and over the bare skin of her upper thighs. She tried to keep her breathing even and told herself the constriction in her chest came from the corset she wore, wrapped over her shirt but beneath her coat to show her class in its common leather ties and buckles where the great ladies wore brocaded silks and metals, gold and silver.
Not that such things mattered here, this far away from everything. Or to a man like Zavier, so impatient and exacting, who looked like no man she’d ever seen before in her life. He was too big. He was too much.
She had to tip her head back to look at him, all the way up that massive, muscled body to his impassive face, but she made herself do it. It occurred to her to smile, or attempt to be charming—something that had always come a lot easier to Nicoline than to her—but stopped herself at the last moment. This man was like the forbidding mountain peaks that bristled all around him.
You didn’t charm a mountain if you wanted to climb it. You set about the climb practically and with realistic expectations. There would be no racing straight up to the peak. There would be no soaring up such steep and treacherous slopes. Slow, steady progress was the only way to get there.
Matylda could do that. She had to.
“Hello,” she said briskly, keeping her eyes on Zavier’s though his gaze was that sharp, hard blue. “I’m Matylda. Not your first wife, I understand, but you should know right now. I intend to be your last.”