Once Upon a Kiss
Author:Tanya Anne Crosby



The Reign of Stephen

It was a mortal sin.

To lust after one’s brother’s wife.

Not that they were wed as yet... though soon enough they would be, and he had no license to burn as he did.

It was the crimson she wore, he told himself, that set him afire. Dominique Beauchamp was ablaze as she rode though the gates atop her small palfrey. Her gown was rich crimson; her cloak, crimson; her lips, as sumptuous a shade as the ruby jewel she wore at her breast. And her hair... it burned a shimmering copper beneath the late afternoon sun, a glorious mane that defied rule. Like some enchanted faerie creature, all of her seemed to glimmer with each stride of her horse.

Against his will, his body quickened at the sight of her.

She was bold, he decided with a shudder. Perchance too bold. Why else would she ride so fearlessly into their midst? What did she hope to gain? Whatever it was, it was other than she claimed, he was certain.

She was dangerous, he sensed.

Still he coveted her, and for the first time in his life, he coveted his brother’s place—but only for an instant, and then he cast the unforgivable sin away to that black hollow deep within his soul.

Hardening his heart against her, Blaec d’Lucy cast a glance at his brother, scrutinizing Graeham’s reaction to the woman who had elicited such a profound response in him. Graeham stood impassive, seemingly unaffected by the creature riding so proudly into their demesne, looking every bit like a pagan sacrifice of old.

Did she feel herself a sacrifice?

He wondered, wishing he knew precisely what was in his brother’s mind. Graeham’s face revealed, if aught, a slight uneasiness, but little else. For his part, Blaec only wished he were equally undisturbed, and he couldn’t keep himself from wondering how he might have responded were he the one receiving this barter-bride today.

Impatient? Doubtful? Mistrusting?

Certainly not indifferent.

Had he been given his rightful place as heir... she would have, in truth, been his.

Aye, he knew. He’d known for long. Confidences were rarely private with so many ears about. And yet it mattered not, for he was firstborn merely by a matter of moments, and if he was wounded by anything, it was the simple fact that his father had all but disowned him. Not only had he stripped him of his birthright, but the whole of his life had been spent without the blessings of his father. But it didn’t matter. He valued his brother and he had sworn to serve Graeham, and serve him he would until his last waking breath.

If any anger remained it was for the simple fact that their father had done Graeham an injustice, consigning him as leader, for either his brother knew naught of warfare, despite his years of battle training, or he held himself a death wish. Which of the two, Blaec knew not. Only one thing was certain: Graeham needed him. God’s truth, but the fool battled with one leg e’er in the grave. His younger twin brother would never have survived this long without him, and Blaec had long made it his life’s purpose to protect Graeham at any cost.

Straightening to his full height, he turned to find the woman riding toward them still, her shoulders back, her posture erect, her eyes—she was close enough now that he could spy their color—deepest blue.

And brilliant... as though with unshed tears.

Reluctant, was the thought that first came to mind, and his gaze shifted to the man riding beside her upon his own steed, his dress as lavish as hers... and then back.

Aye, he decided, ’twas reluctantly she’d come to do her brother’s bidding.

Nevertheless... she’d come, and with that knowledge came a surge of rancor.

For in truth, he did not trust her. Most assuredly, he did not trust her treacherous brother.

Like his father before him, William Beauchamp was to be suspected—despite that he offered peace between them. Most especially not when he offered his exquisite young sister in the bargain. Graeham was unwise to think it would end so simply. These two were involved in some intrigue, and whatever they were after, Blaec would uncover it, by God. That, he vowed as vehemently as he did that he would not—refused to—covet his brother’s bride.

A quiver raced down Dominique’s spine at the sight of the stronghold that loomed before her.

This, then, was to be her prison?

On their approach Drakewich had appeared animated with preparations for their arrival—a flurry of movement upon the castle walls—only now that they were within the bailey, it seemed more forbidding a place than London had been to the Empress Matilda—and she had been driven from the city by an angry horde! Not a soul stirred, neither to greet them nor to spurn them, though for the latter, at least, she was grateful. Even the donjon itself seemed a formidable thing, with its dark, high tower windows. No wonder William had sought this alliance; never in her life had she seen the likes of Drakewich, so vast and so impenetrable did the stone fortress appear from within.

Had she truly thought it modest from without? Had she dared deem Amdel its equal? Leaning discreetly toward her brother, she murmured beneath her breath, “They seem so... inhospitable.”

“Do they?” William replied.

She looked at him incredulously. Sweet Mary, but how could he not have noticed the overly cool reception? Even outside the curtain walls, the villein had kept their silent vigils from the portals of their scanty wattle-and-daub homes.

Frowning, William berated her. “You fret overmuch, Dominique.”

“Nay, William!” She cast him a despairing glance. “What if they will not accept me?”

The look upon his handsome face was one of amusement rather than concern. “You cannot have expected they would receive you with open arms?”

“Nay, but—”

“Hush. I promise it will change with time,” he heartened, dismissing her protest once and for all. He gave her a conspiratorial wink. “Now cease your brooding, sister mine.”

Dominique nodded, catching her lip between her teeth, recognizing his tone. Lest she incur his anger, she left off at once and could only hope he was right. Instinctively, her gaze strayed toward the area before the donjon, caught by the figure of a man standing there, his stance proud, his countenance dark and she swallowed convulsively, recognizing him at once—the Black Dragon. He was unmistakable dressed in Danish black. God’s truth, but she had tried not to imagine him when considering this union, tried not to think of him at all, but seeing him now, she could well believe every tale she’d ever heard recounted of his battle fury.

And more.

Though he appeared to be weaponless, he wore hauberk and chausses, and to her mind no one had ever appeared more battle ready. She tried in vain not to gape, but standing there, scrutinizing their approach, he reminded her of the barbarian Viking invaders of legend, his stance threatening even in his unaffected stillness.

Fraught with anxiety, she cast another glance at her brother and found him watching her prudently. William smiled in encouragement, and panic rushed through her. There would be no deliverance this day, she knew. He coveted this far too much.

With all her heart, she wanted to reel her mount about and flee before they could lower the portcullis, entrapping her forever, but she merely returned William’s smile, reminding herself that she did this for him. For him and for peace, she reminded herself, trying desperately to calm the ruthless beating within her breast.

How long had it been since William had smiled so sincerely? she chided herself. The truth was that he rarely smiled at all, and now—now that he found cause to—well, she could not fail him now. She observed him an instant longer and knew without question that it was the right thing to do.

Nay, she would not fail him.

Resolutely she turned toward her future, advising herself that she wanted this, too. After all, it had been far too long—too many battles fought, too much death, and too much enmity. She, too, needed it all to end at long last—for William’s sake, for the sake of his soul, as well as her own. If her brother was willing to call a truce, so, too, was she. Too long had this vendetta consumed him.

Still she shuddered... for how could there ever be peace in the very heart of the Dragon’s den? The thought plagued her as she rode toward her betrothed.

“Smile, Dominique,” William commanded through clenched teeth. She turned abruptly to find him leaning toward her discreetly. “Smile,” he bade her once more. “You look as though you ride to your death!”

Perhaps ’twas because she felt so, but Dominique made a better effort for William’s sake. “I... I was merely searching for my lord, Graeham,” she lied, trying to sound eager. “Perchance do you spy him?”

William gave her a sidewise glance. His blue eyes, so like her own, scrutinized her an instant, and then his brows knit as he indicated, with a discreet nod, to the very place Dominique had been staring so long. “There,” he stated, lifting his chin slightly and glancing in the vicinity in which the infamous Black Dragon stood so ominously. “Standing aside his black-hearted brother.”

Dominique’s eyes widened, but not at William’s epithet, for he used it so oft, it seemed almost an affection. With a stifled gasp, she turned her gaze toward the man standing directly at the Dragon’s side. Sweet Mary, how could she have missed him?

Standing beside the infamous Dragon, her newly betrothed, Graeham d’Lucy, second Earl of Drakewich, was all but indiscernible. In contrast to his brother’s darkness, he was colorless: Though his hair, as fair as sun-bleached flax, was the shade so many coveted, it did not stand apart. And his skin, though swarthier than most of his coloring, was merely pale in comparison. Though comely, his features alongside those of his ruthless brother called to mind those of a youth and not a man, for the Dragon’s in contrast were harsh, with his black shoulder-length hair and towering height.

At her side, William’s voice was soft, thoughtful, as he remarked, “I thought you’d spied him already? You gaped long enough.”

His remark seemed to convict her somehow, and her cheeks heated fiercely. Averting her gaze, she plucked at her gold-threaded gown with suddenly tremulous hands. To her immense relief, she was saved from replying because Graeham d’Lucy started forward to greet them in that instant. The Dragon, on the other hand, stood his ground. His expression, she noted, was as grave as those of Drakewich’s tenants, who observed from safe perches. A terrible sense of foreboding swept over her suddenly, but she inhaled deeply, bolstered herself, and tore her gaze away from his brother to meet that of her betrothed.

“A hearty welcome!” Graeham exclaimed as he sauntered forward. Her mount shied a little at his approach, but she quickly soothed it, returning Graeham’s greeting with a wan smile. His pale hair tousled softly in the breeze as he smiled up at her. His brother, on the other hand—well, she refused to look at him again, refused to even think of him. Lifting her chin slightly, she continued to smile serenely down at Graeham, despite the fact that she’d never in her life felt more ill at ease.

“My lord,” she said, with a gracious tilt of her head. Discreetly, she wiped her palms upon her gown.

He reciprocated her nod and turned to address William. “Welcome, Beauchamp,” he said. “And yet I fear we did not quite expect you.”

There seemed to be a question in his declaration, and William’s face fell into a frown. “What say you? Did my messenger not reach Drakewich?”

There was a moment of taut silence as Graeham glanced briefly toward his brother—the Dragon shook his head, almost imperceptibly—and then Graeham replied with a note of genuine concern. “He did not. Perchance when did you dispatch him?”

William at once dismounted, his expression grave as he came to stand before Graeham d’Lucy. He glanced up at Dominique. “No later than midmorn, would you say?” Dominique thought he might be looking for affirmation, but the instant her lips parted to speak, his brows drew together in condemnation, and he averted his face. “Perhaps he was laid upon by brigands?” he reckoned, with growing distress. “I’ve heard tell you’ve been troubled with them of late?”

Dominique’s brows knit as she inspected their entourage, wondering who it was that her brother had sent ahead to announce their arrival. None were unaccounted for that she could recall. Nevertheless, if William claimed he had dispatched a messenger, surely he had dispatched a messenger. What reason would he have to lie about something so trivial? Whatever else she might say of him, her brother had never forsworn himself.

“William,” she ventured, hoping to set him at ease, “Were the herald laid upon by brigands, would there not have been signs of foul play along the way? We saw none,” she pointed out.

Like blue fire, William’s gaze snapped up to meet hers, his eyes bright with ire—though at what, she didn’t know. Perhaps he feared to have lost another man when Amdel could little spare another loss. And yet to her bewilderment, he simply glared at her an interminable moment, as though cautioning her to remain silent. She tilted her head, silently questioning what it was she’d said to anger him so easily, but he said naught, only glared at her with fire in his eyes.

The silence between them lengthened.

“Perchance he took another route?” a deep voice interjected.

A shudder raced down Dominique’s spine at the intense, slightly mocking sound of it. Without being told, she knew at once who had spoken, and her face flushed as she met the Dragon’s gaze. For the boldest instant he held her eyes, as though he were appraising her. God’s mercy, but she had the sensation of being seduced into their clear green depths—that if she did she not break free, she would be eternally lost. Then abruptly he glanced away, and his release of her was as physical as though he’d thrust her bodily aside.

Shaken by his perusal, Dominique averted her gaze to her brother, and at once heard the Dragon call for one of his men to come forward.

“Aye,” William agreed, eyeing her wrathfully still. “Perhaps he took another route...”

Unnerved, though not by her brother’s glare—she’d weathered them afore—but by the Dragon’s very presence, Dominique ran her fingers along the length of her mare’s reins. She dared not glance up again for dread of meeting his eyes.

Like a terrible blade, the sound of his voice sliced through the air, prickling the tiny hairs of her nape. He commanded his men, “Search every route between Drakewich and Amdel.

“Take as many men as you require and search under every last blade of grass,” he reiterated without the slightest pretense at civility. ’Twas evident to Dominique that he cared not a whit whether he offended them, or whether his orders seemed an underlying challenge to her brother.

“Search the area thoroughly,” he charged the man, “then report to me at once.”

Why would William lie? she thought again. Of course, it would make sense that her brother would send a man to herald their arrival. Why would William bear false witness about something so pointless?

“I’d not have it said that we left a man—a guest at that—to die unshriven upon our lands,” Graeham said. “You understand, Beauchamp,” he appealed. “Perhaps you might even wish to send along some of your own men to aid in the search?”

Once again William glared up at her, though Dominique kept her gaze averted, watching through her peripheral. She still could not conceive what she might have said to upset him so much.

“Of course,” William replied tightly, his gaze reverting to Graeham. “How obliging of you.” And then he turned to the Dragon. “You serve your brother well, d’Lucy,” he said, stressing the word “serve,” and leaving Dominique to wonder whether her brother was baiting the Dragon. Surely not! Not when he’d lobbied so long for this truce? Still, this was a bitter pill for him to swallow, she knew, and her heart ached for him.

The Dragon said naught, simply stood, and when she ventured a glance his way, she saw that his eyes were steely, no longer so bright a green, but darkened to gray. Lord, by the sight of him, the size of him, she thought it unwise for William to rouse him so recklessly. And judging by the feral look in his eyes, she thought he might pounce at William’s throat any second. She wanted to speak up, to warn William to hold his tongue, but dared say nothing more.

To her relief, it was Graeham who spoke first. “He serves me too well,” he agreed with a modest smile, and his eyes were momentarily sad with the admission. He placed a hand upon William’s shoulder. “Come now, Beauchamp,” he bade her brother. “You and I have much to speak of.” He glanced up at Dominique, his dark eyes kind. “Lady Dominique... by your leave?”

She was certainly pleased there seemed to be some accord between her brother and Graeham, but she felt it rather indelicate to be dismissed so easily—and so directly! “Certainly, my lord,” she managed. “I assure you I would be content to simply take my respite before the evening meal.” Even more elated to remove myself from the Dragon’s presence, she added silently. “If you would only be so kind as to direct me along my way?”

Graeham nodded empathetically. “The ride from Amdel must have been wearisome,” he acknowledged. “My brother would be pleased to see you to your bower, m’lady.” And he gave her a smile, one with such sincerity that it took her an instant too long to realize to whom it was that Graeham had entrusted her, and then her heart leapt into her throat. But she had no chance to protest, for with that, her betrothed turned to go and William followed, leaving her entirely at the Dragon’s mercy.

She swallowed convulsively as she turned to face him, for she’d already determined that in Drakewich’s Dragon, there was no mercy to be found.