Without going to the bother of opening her eyes, Gwendolyn stretched, all but purring with contentment. She never dreamed it would be so very cozy in a dragon’s belly. In the flicker of eternity before that thing had come lumbering out of the darkness, she’d had ample time to imagine her flesh being seared from her bones by flame or stripped away by boiling acid.
She rolled to her side, pillowing her cheek against a fat, fluffy bolster. Compared to the prickly, heather-stuffed tick she shared with Kitty, it felt as if she was sleeping on a nest of feathers. The heady incense of sandalwood and spice enveloped her. Perhaps she wasn’t in a dragon’s belly after all, she mused, but in heaven.
She stiffened, coming fully awake. Even the meek Reverend Throckmorton had always preached more on the perils of hell than the pleasures of heaven. Up until that very moment, she wasn’t sure she had believed in either. But nor had she believed in dragons.
She drew in a steadying breath before sitting up and opening her eyes. As her gaze traveled her surroundings, that breath escaped from her lungs in a sigh of pure astonishment. This was surely a heaven more luxuriant and decadent than anything the pious minister had dared to imagine!
She floated in a shimmering pool of midnight blue satin. The rumpled bedclothes shrouded a whitewashed four-poster whose carved columns jutted upward in a fanciful swirl. Lit candles ringed the bed—not smelly tallow, but fragrant wax, melting in a cascade down the graceful arms of the standing candelabrums that cradled them. The tapers cast a flickering halo of light heavenward, drawing Gwendolyn’s eyes to the mural painted on the rounded dome of the ceiling.
Nude women, both goddess and mortal, frolicked in faded pastel meadows, the exuberant abundance of their rosy flesh making Gwendolyn feel as svelte as Kitty. There was Persephone, forsaking spring to surrender her heart to the lord of darkness; Ariadne guiding her lover from the monster’s labyrinth; Psyche waking up in a bed of flowers while Cupid watched her from the shadows, his beautiful face forever hidden from her curious eyes.
Gwendolyn craned her neck, so beguiled by their shameless sensuality that she barely felt the sheet slide from her shoulder. She might not have noticed it at all had she not heard a sharply indrawn breath that was not her own. She glanced down, her skin prickling with shock as she realized that beneath the bedclothes, she was as naked as Psyche. Snatching the sheet up to her chin, she slowly lifted her head.
The luminous candlelight gave the bed the unholy glow of a sacrificial altar, but left the corners of the chamber veiled in darkness. Yet she knew she was not alone. She wished she had paid more attention to Reverend Throckmorton’s sermons. Perhaps she wasn’t in heaven after all. Perhaps this decadent bower was a place of endless torment disguised as dark pleasures of the flesh.
Gwendolyn shook her tousled hair out of her eyes. “Only the worst sort of coward would spy on a woman from the shadows. I dare you to show yourself.”
She heard a muffled footfall, and instantly regretted her challenge.
If this was Hell, she was about to meet its overlord.
“There’s no need to blanch and cower beneath the blankets. I’m not a dragon or a monster. Simply a man.”
Gwendolyn squinted into the corner and clutched the sheet to her breasts, the caress of that smoky baritone somehow more a threat to her virtue than her own nudity. She didn’t know whether to be frightened or relieved when its owner stopped just short of emerging from his veil of shadows. The moody flicker of the candles kept her eyes from adjusting. She could make out little more than a dark figure leaning against the wall with indifferent grace.
“If I’m cowering beneath the blankets, sir,” she said, “it’s because some shameless libertine has stolen my clothes.”
“Ah, but if I were so shameless a libertine, there would have been no need for me to steal them. You would have surrendered them willingly.”
The clipped English bore no trace of a burr to soften its mockery. Against her will, Gwendolyn was beset by an image of strong, masculine hands peeling the wet fabric from her naked flesh. She clenched her teeth to hide a shiver that had little to do with her fear.
“You dare to accuse me of cowardice, yet you’re the one hiding in the shadows, too craven to show your face.”
“Perhaps it’s not fear for myself that prompts my caution, but fear for you.”
“Is your face so horrible to look upon? Will it drive me insane or turn me to stone?”
“It already made you swoon, did it not?”
Gwendolyn touched her fingertips to her temples and frowned, unable to summon up more than a hazy recollection of that moment in the courtyard—the smell of rain, the flap of wings, a silvery swirl of smoke...and his face. A face made all the more terrible by its utter impossibility. She struggled to capture the memory, but it melted away, more elusive than the stranger taunting her from the shadows.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“The villagers of Ballybliss call me the Dragon,” he replied.
“Then I shall call you charlatan. For only a charlatan would perpetrate such a cruel hoax.”
“You wound me, my lady,” he said, although the hint of laughter in his voice told her she had succeeded only in amusing him.
She sat up straighter, tossing a damp curl over her shoulder. “I’ll have you know I’m no lady.”
Her ears were so tuned to his movements that she would have almost sworn she could hear him cock an eyebrow.
“At least not in the strictest sense,” she amended. “My father possesses no title.”
“Forgive my presumption. You don’t speak in the crude tongue so common to these Highland savages so I naturally assumed...”
“My mother was a lady. The daughter of a Lowland baron. She died when I was nine.” Gwendolyn lifted her chin against a pain that time had done little to dull.
“Your lack of nobility is no lack at all to me since I can assure you that I’m no gentleman.”
She was unsure whether to take this as reassurance or warning. Gwendolyn dared a glance beneath the sheet before giving him a smile as sweetly mocking as she imagined his own to be. “So I gathered. If you were, I’d still be wearing my clothes.”
“And still be in imminent danger of expiring from consumption.” His voice hardened. “Which leads me to a question of my own. Just how did you end up sopping wet and bound to a stake in the middle of my bloody courtyard?”
Gwendolyn stiffened. “Do forgive me for having the ill manners to disturb your precious solitude, M’lord Dragon. I can just picture you sitting with your cloven hooves propped up on the hearth, enjoying a nice warm cup of kitten’s blood, when you heard the shouting of the mob. ‘Damnation!’ you must have growled. ‘I do believe someone has left another human sacrifice on my doorstep.’”
He was silent for so long that Gwendolyn began to tremble. But his reply, when it finally came, was as dry as the rattle of dragon bones. “Actually, I was enjoying a nice glass of port when I heard the commotion. I had to swear off kitten’s blood because it gave me dyspepsia.”
Gwendolyn was caught unawares by the dazzling flare of a match. Its flame died before she could blink, leaving her with the aroma of cheroot smoke and a glowing tip in the darkness.
“So the villagers dragged you up the cliff in the pouring rain, bound you to that stake, and left you to die at my hands.” He snorted. “And they have the nerve to call me a monster.”
Gwendolyn focused on where his eyes should be, trying to hold his invisible gaze. “I don’t see how you can condemn them when they were responding to your own greedy demands.”
A cloud of smoke streamed from the darkness, revealing a flash of temper. “I asked for a haunch of venison and a jug of whisky, not a bloody woman.”
“That’s not all you asked for, was it?” she said softly.
His sudden stillness warned her to tread with care. “Why do you defend them when they care so little for you that they would cast you away as if you were of no more consequence than a sack of rubbish?”
“Because they’re foolish, uneducated, and misguided, but you’re nothing but a mean-spirited bully, preying on ignorant superstitions and terrorizing innocent people!”
The glowing tip of the cheroot vanished, as if he had stubbed it out in a fit of anger. “They might be ignorant. But they’re far from innocent. They’ve more blood on their hands than I do.”
Up until that moment, Gwendolyn would have sworn her captor was English, but a faint burr had crept into his speech along with his passion, like moonlight stealing over the heather. “Who are you?” she whispered again.
“Perhaps I should be the one asking that question,” he suggested, his voice even more clipped than before. “By what name should I call you?”
Frustration emboldened her. “You refuse to tell me who you are, yet I have no lack of names to call you.”
“Such as coward? Bully? Charlatan?” he offered.
“Blackguard. Knave. Scoundrel,” she added.
“Come now,” he coaxed. “I’d have expected more imagination from that nimble little tongue of yours.”
She bit her bottom lip, tempted to let fly with a string of oaths that would have made Izzy blush. “My name is Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn Wilder.”
She gasped as a gust of wind whipped through the chamber, extinguishing the candles. At first, she thought he’d gone, forsaking her to the darkness, but then he was there, surrounding her on all sides without ever once touching her. She breathed him in—the aroma of sandalwood and spice, as inescapably masculine as it was intoxicating. In that moment, she knew exactly where she was.
His lair. His chamber. His bed.
“Why you?” His whisper resounded with a strange urgency. “Why did they choose you?”
To Gwendolyn’s ears, his words had the ring of deliberate cruelty. Why didn’t they choose someone prettier? Someone thinner? Someone more like Glynnis or Nessa or even Kitty?
She closed her eyes, thankful he couldn’t see her burning cheeks. “They chose me because virgins are even more uncommon than dragons in Ballybliss.”
His hand brushed her damp hair, its treacherous tenderness reminding her without words that it could be more dangerous to be at a man’s mercy than a monster’s. “A thousand pounds. Is that the price they’re putting on innocence these days?”
He didn’t wait for an answer she did not have. There was another gust of wind, then more darkness. But this time Gwendolyn knew with absolute certainty that he was gone.
The Bride and the Beast