The first time William saw him, he was riding onto the tournament field on a red horse. His tunic was brilliant blue with a white eagle spreading its wings on the front, identifying him as one of Lord Brandon’s sons. Glinting plate armor covered his shoulders, his arms, and the tops of his legs. Underneath he wore black hose and boots.
It was a warrior’s habit to size up an enemy—or a rival. So William felt no shame in staring as he took the youth’s measure. What armor he wore was polished but functional. It was well used, not that of a mere peacock. A black velvet girdle hung low on his narrow hips. His shoulders were broad for his frame, but his chest was slender and his waist slim. There was nothing of the larder on him. He rode his mount as light as a feather. William’s eyes dropped to his spurs—gilded. He was a full knight. But William knew well enough that such a thing was expected for a son of the nobility and not always hard earned.
The round was archery, and the young knight was dressed for decoration rather than protection. On his head he wore neither helmet, beads, nor braids. His hair was nearly black, chopped shorter than was fashionable, and it was bristled on top in a barbaric style. It was a harsh warrior’s cut, but on him it only made a more open frame for his face. It was the finest face William had ever seen—long, narrow, and delicate, with full, quirked lips, a straight nose, dimpled chin, and broad, arched brows over large dark eyes. His skin was as pale as a bucket of cream. There was a natural rosy cast on the proud bones of his cheeks, which any maiden would kill her own dam for. It was a battle flush, perhaps, in anticipation of the contest.
William could form an impression in an instant, and he rarely changed it. In his mind there were men made for battle, rough-hewn and crude. Those were the men you wanted by your side—if their tempers were not too odious whilst in their cups. And then there were men made for the pleasing of women, as if God had put such men on earth for the sole purpose of warming a woman’s blood for her husband’s bed, thus guaranteeing the spread of the human race. The latter might well claim to be the former—as good in battle as any man, but rarely had William found it to be the case. Perhaps it was a problem of motivation. What man, given the choice, wouldn’t rather be thrusting between a woman’s thighs than thrusting a spear on the practice field? Beauty was most often lazy.
This young knight was definitely a woman-pleaser. He was beautiful in a way William had never seen in a man. In truth, he’d never seen it in a woman. That did little to inspire his trust. He registered the distinctly feminine cheers of welcome the crowd afforded the rider, aptly proving William’s point. And then the young knight rode past William… and looked at him.
It wasn’t a mere glance. The knight met William’s eyes when still ten paces away and held his gaze, unrelenting, as he rode in front of William. He even turned his head as he passed before letting his gaze finally slip away. William did not back down from the stare. He dropped his eyes for no man. But he stood stoically, nothing showing on his face. It seemed to take forever for the knight to pass, eons in which those eyes were locked on William’s. They were a rich dark brown and full of warmth and life. Even with the knight’s face placidly composed, those eyes seemed to speak volumes in a language William didn’t understand. They reached inside him and made his stomach clench hard with feeling.
Confusion? Curiosity? Outrage?
What did he mean by looking at William thus? They’d never met. Was it a challenge? A welcome to a stranger? The admiration of a young warrior to a mature one? Had he heard tales of William’s prowess? Or had he mistaken William for someone else?
William had stopped to watch the procession of archers on his way back from the stables, where he’d taken his tired mount after the last round of jousting. Now he found himself in a crowd of the castle’s laborers. One of them was a blacksmith, his beefy form wrapped in a scarred leather apron.
“D’ya know ’im?” he asked William. “The Crow?”
The blacksmith had apparently noticed the exchanged look. William frowned. “No. Did you say ‘the Crow’?”
The man chuckled. “Aye, poor lad. ’E’s the youngest of seven boys, and ’is brothers took all the more favorable names.”
Another man, craggy and shrunken with age, spoke up. “Lessee, there’s a bear, a boar, a fox—”
“Badger!” a third man said brightly. “That’s Sir Peter Brandon.”
“Aye. Badger. Hawk’s one, innit?”
“’Tis Sir Thomas,” the blacksmith agreed amiably.
“Lessee. Must be one more….” Craggy Face pondered seriously.
“Lion?” the third man suggested.
The blacksmith glanced at William’s tunic knowingly. “Nay. None of the lord’s sons ’as earned that title. And if the first two don’t, you can bet the rest won’t. Elder brothers won’t be outdone.”
“’Ence ‘the Crow.’” Craggy Face snorted.
“Hound,” the third man supplied helpfully. “Sir Malcolm, that one is.”
“’Ound! That’s got it done. He’s the tracker, innit? Looks a bit ’oundish too.” Craggy Face bared his teeth and chomped. A stench wafted on the breeze.
William’s eyes were drawn back to the Crow as he moved away, tall and straight in the saddle. From the back his shoulders looked broader still. They narrowed in a defined V to an almost delicate waist. William could feel his lip curl. “And that one? The Crow? Are all Lord Brandon’s sons like him? In my experience, a man so pleasing to the womenfolk is hard put to raise a sword, much less swing one.”
The blacksmith looked offended. “’Is name is Sir Christian. Aye, he looks fair enow, but ’e’s earned them spurs. Them brothers of his gave him no quarter. ’Ard as nails, every last one of ’em.”
“Aye, ’e’s a goer, Sir Christian is. Let’s go watch ’im shoot.” Craggy Face was all eager anticipation. He and his companion hurried away from William, following the general flow of the crowd toward the archery targets.
The blacksmith paused and gave William a friendly look. “Come and watch? The archery round’s the best o’ the day.”
William was tempted. He was curious to see the Crow shoot, to see if he had any skill to match that noble bearing. But then he thought better of it. He did not know what to make of the youngest Brandon, knew not the meaning behind his look. But an uneasy feeling warned him that keeping his distance was the most expedient course.
“Nay. I’m in search of a meal. Good morrow.”
William headed for the food stalls. He was here for a purpose. He needed to put his cause to Lord Brandon and earn his help. He couldn’t afford to antagonize any of the lord’s sons. And he couldn’t afford to get led astray with wenching, gaming, or fighting, either. His suit was too important—to Elaine and to himself.
As William walked away, the thwunk of arrows and the roar of the crowd rose up loud behind him.
“The champion’s purse for archery goes to our own Sir Christian Brandon!” Lord Brandon held up the money pouch so the crowd could see it, and then he handed it to Christian.
Christian made a formal bow. “Father.”
The crowd cheered, and Lord Brandon met Christian’s gaze and smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, not the sort he gave Christian’s brothers freely and often, but it had genuine warmth in it all the same.
Christian’s blood thrummed in a splendid rush. It had been a good day. He’d won the archery competition handily, and the crowd had been behind him. Now this. It was worth the hours and days and years he’d spent practicing with the bow to have a skill that made his father proud.
Lady Gwendolyn leaned forward. Her lips were soft and perfumed as she gave Christian a lingering kiss on the cheek. The crowd’s murmurs turned into hoots of approval and a few cries for more. Christian ducked his head, pretending shyness, which earned him laughs and hearty slaps on the back from his father’s men on the dais. But he didn’t miss the look of disdain his older brothers Stephen and Duncan shared.
Let them be jealous, then. Or let them find him ridiculous. He didn’t care. To prove it, he waved the purse at the crowd and did a mock salute. That earned him more enthusiastic calls. But as he faced them, Christian found himself searching for one particular face in the crowd, one with lips not soft and most definitely not perfumed.
He didn’t find it.
The knight wearing the red surcoat with the white lion over his armor reappeared in the late afternoon. He was competing in a joust against Christian’s brother, Sir Peter. The crier announced the stranger as Sir William Corbet. Christian had heard the name before. He thought the Corbets lived some distance southeast. Why had Sir William come so far for a modest tournament? Was he passing through and looking to win a few coins? Or was he possibly looking for a new lord? Would he be staying?
Christian had seen the knight’s face in the crowd on his way to the archery round, and it had stopped his heart and his common sense both, incinerated them in a whoosh like shavings of wood thrown on a flame. Even with his visor down, as it was now, Sir William drew attention effortlessly. He was tall and broad, strong and confident in the saddle. He rode sure and easy, and he handled the lance with restrained power. Peter was built like a stone wall, like most of Christian’s brothers, and he was one of their best jousters. But Sir William ducked Peter’s first charge easily and on the second hit Peter’s shoulder solidly with his lance and sent him tumbling from his horse.
William reined in his own mount and jumped to the ground, despite his heavy armor. He ducked under the center rope and helped Peter to his feet. Peter removed his helm, red-faced and breathless. Christian had a moment of fear. Peter had a foul temper, and he didn’t like to lose. But he acknowledged Sir William’s win with a nod and raised William’s hand to the crowd. William said something, and Peter laughed. The people approved, cheering them both loudly.
William took off his helmet and strode to the dais to receive his acknowledgment from Lord Brandon. He was magnificent.
Christian stood near the front of the dais, and he took in the sight of the Lion like a great draft. William had light brown hair, worn straight to just below the shoulders, serious and kind blue eyes, a square face, full lips, and a closely shaved beard. He looked tough—had the face of a man you wouldn’t want to cross. Yet there was honesty and a pleasing harmony in his expression that said he would never cross you. He was, in short, everything a knight was supposed to be—noble, powerful, and true. Christian had never seen his equal. Desire spiked in him, that dreaded, hot, heady, unwelcome feeling that betrayed and stung him, like an adder in his breast.
Christian realized he was staring openly. He silently cursed and looked around to be sure he hadn’t given himself away.
No one was looking at him.
Lord Brandon tossed the purse to Sir William. William caught it easily and bowed. His eyes flickered to Christian, and Christian dared a small smile and nod. A chill came over William’s face, and he turned his back—deliberately, it seemed—to face the crowd. He waved once more to the onlookers.
Christian felt the sting as if it were the swift slice of a bright-edged knife. He turned his head away in disappointment—only to find that someone was watching him after all. His brother Malcolm’s pinched and disapproving face stared at him from the back of the dais, his eyes hooded and far too knowing.