Chapter Ten

Seated beside Jennifer after supper, Royce lounged back in his chair, his arm stretched across the back of hers, his expression thoughtful as he watched Jennifer deliberately charm and dazzle the four knights who’d remained seated at their table. It wasn’t surprising to him that Eustace, Godfrey, and Lionel were lingering long after the meal was over: For one thing, Jennifer looked ravishing in a gown of sky blue velvet trimmed in cream satin. For another, midway through their meal, Jennifer had suddenly become lively and amiable and gay, and now they were seeing a side of her that even Royce had not seen. She told entertaining stories about her life at the abbey, and about the French abbess who’d insisted, among other things, that Jennifer and Brenna learn to speak without their Scots brogue.

She had deliberately set herself out to charm, and as Royce idly turned the stem of his silver wine goblet in his fingers, it was that effort which both amused and exasperated him.

She had made a glittering affair out of a rather tasteless meal that included roasted mutton, goose, and sparrow, as well as trenchers of greasy stew and pies filled with something that reminded Royce of brown gruel. The food at Hardin, he reflected with disgust, was little better than he’d had on the battlefield.

If Jennifer hadn’t decided to make herself so delightful, his knights would undoubtedly have eaten just enough to fill their stomachs and then gone off without lingering-which was, Royce knew, exactly why she was doing this: she was trying to delay going upstairs with him.

Jennifer said something that made Godfrey, Lionel, and Eustace burst out laughing, and Royce casually glanced to his left where Arik was seated. Arik, Royce noted with amusement, was the only male at the table who’d not fallen under Jennifer’s spell. With his chair tipped back on its hind legs, Arik was watching Jennifer with narrowed, suspicious eyes, his massive arms crossed over his chest in a disapproving posture which clearly indicated he wasn’t fooled by her outward complaisance and didn’t think she should be trusted for a second.

For the last hour, Royce had been willing to indulge her, using the time to enjoy her company and to savor the anticipation of what was to come. Now, however, he was no longer interested in anticipation.

“Royce-” Godfrey said, laughing heartily, “wasn’t that an amusing tale Lady Jennifer just related?”

“Very,” Royce agreed. Rather than rudely arising and putting an end to her socializing, Royce chose a subtler method: He gave Godfrey a look which clearly stated that supper was over.

Too occupied with her own worries to notice the subtle exchange of glances, Jenny turned to Royce with an overbright smile, thinking madly for some new topic to keep everyone lingering at the table. But before she could speak, there was a sudden scraping of chair legs and all the knights stood up, hastily bade her good night, and immediately took themselves off to the chairs near the fire.

“Did you not think that a trifle odd? Their abrupt leave-taking, I mean.”

“I would have found it far more ‘odd’ had they remained.”

“Why?”

“Because I told them to go.” He stood up, too, and the moment Jenny had dreaded all day had arrived. It was there in his steady silver gaze as he held his hand out to her in an unmistakable indication that she should also arise. Her knees began to shake as she stood up; tentatively she reached for his hand, then snatched her hand away. “I-I didn’t hear you tell them to go,” she exclaimed.

“I was very discreet, Jennifer.”

Upstairs, he paused at the chamber next to hers and shoved open the door so that Jenny could precede him.

Unlike Jenny’s small, Spartan chamber, the solar into which she stepped was spacious and lavish by comparison. In addition to his large four-poster bed, there were four comfortable chairs and several heavy trunks with ornate brass fittings. Tapestries hung on the wall, and there was even a thick mat in front of a hooded fireplace where a fire burned, warming and lighting the room. Moonlight spilled through a window across from the bed, and next to it was a door leading to what appeared to be a small parapet.

Behind her, she heard the heavy door latch fall into place, and her heart slammed into her ribs. Bent on doing anything to delay him from what he meant to do to her, Jenny fled to the chair furthest from the bed, sat down, and folded her hands in her lap. Fastening a bright, inquisitive smile upon her face, she seized on a subject sure to interest him, and began to bombard him with questions: “I’ve heard it said you’ve never been unhorsed in battle,” she announced, leaning slightly forward in her chair in a posture of enraptured interest.

Instead of launching into a tale about his exploits as his knights had done at supper, the earl of Claymore sat down across from her, propped his booted foot atop the opposite knee, and leaned back in his chair, regarding her in complete silence.

From the moment she’d snatched her hand away from his as he helped her up from the table a few minutes ago, she’d had the uneasy feeling he knew she was hoping for some sort of miracle to save her from having to keep her bargain, and that he was not well pleased by her attitude. Widening her eyes, she redoubled her efforts to engage him in discourse. “Is it true?” she asked brightly.

“Is what true?” he replied with cool indifference.

“That you’ve never been unhorsed in battle?”

“No.”

“It isn’t?” she exclaimed. “Then… er… how many times has it happened?”

“Twice.”

“Twice!” Twenty times would have been a minute number, she thought, feeling a tremor of panic for her clansmen who would soon face him. “I see. That’s amazing, considering how many battles you must have fought in all these years. How many battles have you fought?”

“I don’t count them, Jennifer.”

“Perhaps you should. I have it! You could tell me about each one, and I could keep count,” she suggested a little wildly, her tension compounded tenfold by his clipped answers. “Shall we do that now?”

“I don’t think so.”

Jenny swallowed, sensing that her time was up and that no angel of deliverance was going to swoop in through the window to save her from her fate. “What about-about the lists? Have you ever been unhorsed there?”

“I’ve never fought in the lists.”

Startled into momentarily forgetting her own concerns, Jenny said with genuine surprise, “Why not? Don’t many of your own countrymen wish to test their mettle against yours? Haven’t they challenged you to a tilt?”

“Yes.”

“But you don’t accept?”

“I fight battles, not jousts. Jousts are games.”

“Yes, but won’t people… well… begin to think ’tis cowardice that makes you refuse? Or that-perhaps-you aren’t quite so able a knight as rumor has it you are?”

“It’s possible. Now I’ll ask you a question,” he interjected smoothly. “Can it be your sudden concern about my feats in battle and my reputation as a knight has to do with a bargain we made-one which you now hope to avoid keeping?”

Instead of lying to him, which Royce half expected her to do, she surprised him by saying in a helpless little whisper, “I’m frightened. More frightened than I’ve ever been in my life.”

His brief spurt of annoyance at her attempts to manipulate him for the last few minutes abruptly dissolved, and as he looked at her seated primly in her chair, he realized he was expecting an entrancing innocent to accept what was going to happen between them as if she was one of the experienced courtesans he bedded at court.

Gentling his voice, he stood up, extending his hand to her. “Come here, Jennifer.”

Her knees quaking violently, Jenny stood up and walked over to him, trying to tell her outraged conscience that the act she was about to commit wasn’t sinful or traitorous; that in sacrificing herself to save her sister, she was actually doing something noble, even virtuous. She was, in a way, like Joan of Arc, accepting martyrdom.

Hesitantly, she placed her cold hand in his warm palm, watching as his long, tanned fingers closed around hers, finding a strange reassurance in the warmth of his grip and the compelling look in his eyes.

And when his arms encircled her, drawing her against his hard, muscular length, and his parted lips touched hers, her conscience abruptly went silent. It was a kiss like none of his others, for he knew where it would end-a kiss of exquisite restraint, of pagan hunger. His tongue slid across her lips, urging them to part, insisting, and the moment they did, it plunged into her mouth. His hands glided restlessly, possessively, up and down her back, her breasts, sliding across her spine, pressing her tightly to his hardened thighs, and Jennifer felt herself falling slowly into a dizzying abyss of sensuality and awakening passion. With a silent moan of helpless surrender, she wound her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support.

In some distant part of her mind, she felt her gown falling away, and then the brush of his palms against her swollen breasts, the sudden increase in ardor in each of his searing kisses. Arms like bands of steel surrounded her, lifting her, cradling her, and then she was being carried to the bed and gently laid down upon cool sheets. Suddenly the warmth, the security of his arms and body and mouth withdrew.

Surfacing slowly from the dreamlike daze where she had deliberately sought refuge from the reality of what was going to happen, Jenny felt cool air touch her skin and, against her will, her eyelids opened. He was standing beside the bed, removing his clothing, and a tremor of alarmed admiration quaked through her. In the glow of firelight, his skin was like oiled bronze, the heavy muscles in his arms and shoulders and thighs rippling as his fingers went to the waistband of his chausses. He was splendid, she realized, magnificent. Swallowing a knot of fear and embarrassed admiration, she swiftly turned her head away, her fingers clutching the edge of a sheet, using it to partially cover herself as he removed that last piece of concealing clothing.

The bed sank beneath his weight, and she waited, her face turned away, her eyes tightly shut, wanting him to hold her and take her swiftly, before more cold reality returned to her.

Royce had no such haste in mind. Stretching out on his side, he brushed a light kiss against her ear, and gently but inexorably pushed aside the sheet. His breath caught as he beheld her in all her naked splendor. A blush stained her satiny skin from her hair to her toes as he gazed upon the exquisite perfection of her lush, rosy-tipped breasts, tiny waist, gently rounded hips, and long shapely legs. Without thinking, he voiced his thoughts aloud. “Have you any idea how beautiful you are?” he whispered huskily, his gaze sweeping slowly upward to her enchanting face, roving over the tawny red-gold hair spread luxuriantly across his pillows, “or how much I want you?”

When Jenny kept her face averted, her eyes tightly closed, his fingers gently grasped her chin, turning her face toward his. In a voice like rough velvet, filled with desire and the trace of a languorous smile, he whispered, “Open your eyes, little one.”

Reluctantly, Jenny obeyed and found herself staring into seductive silver eyes that held hers imprisoned while his hand slid from her cheek to her throat and then to her breast, cupping its fullness. “Don’t be afraid,” he ordered softly as his caressing fingers slid to her nipple, grazing it lightly, back and forth. The deep, husky timbre of his voice, combined with the tantalizing exploration of his skillful fingers, was already working its magic on Jenny as he added, “You’ve never feared me before. Don’t begin now.”

His flattened hand slid lightly upward from her breast, curving over her shoulder, and his finely molded mouth began a purposeful descent to hers. The first light, stroking touch of his lips sent pleasure streaking through Jenny’s entire body, momentarily paralyzing her. His tongue slid over her lips, coaxing them to part, teasing with tormenting gentleness. And then his mouth opened on hers, hot and insistent in an endless kiss of deep, raw hunger. “Kiss me, Jenny,” he ordered thickly.

And Jenny did. Curving her hand around his nape, she offered him her parted lips, moving them against his, kissing him as erotically as he was kissing her. He groaned with pleasure and deepened the kiss, his hand splaying across her spine turning her into his arms, bringing her into vibrant contact with his rigid erection. Kissed into insensibility, Jenny’s hands slid up the bunched muscles of his chest and shoulders, then glided round his neck, sliding into the crisp curly hair at his nape.

When at last Royce lifted his mouth from hers, his breathing was harsh and rapid, and Jenny felt as if she would surely melt from the molten tenderness and desire pulsing through her veins with each thundering beat of her heart. Gazing into his scorching eyes, she lifted her trembling fingers, touching his face as he had touched hers, tracing his cheek and the groove beside his mouth with her fingertip, following it to his smooth lips, while inside her, an emotion sweetly unfolded, then burst into wild, vibrant bloom with a fierceness that made her tremble. Her chest aching with it, she slid her fingertips along his hard jaw, wincing as she touched the reddened scar she’d put there. Overwhelmed with guilt, she raised her eyes to his and whispered achingly, “I’m sorry.”

Royce gazed down into her intoxicating blue eyes, his raging desire increased a hundred times by her touch and her voice, and still he held back, mesmerized by the incredible sweetness of her as she trailed her fingertips down his chest and saw the maze of long scars there. He watched her, knowing instinctively that, unlike the other women he’d bedded, she would not shudder with revulsion at those scars or, worse, shiver with sordid excitement at this visible evidence of the danger he lived in, the danger he represented.

He expected something different of the wanton angel in his arms, but he was not prepared for what happened, or for his own turbulent reaction to it: Her fingers touched his scars, sliding slowly toward the one closest to his heart, making his muscles leap reflexively as he fought to keep himself from taking her. When at last she raised her eyes to his, they were bright with unshed tears, and her beautiful face was pale with torment. In a fierce, tortured moan, she whispered, “Dear God, how they’ve hurt you-” And before he could imagine what she meant to do, she bent her head, her lips softly touching each scar as if trying to heal it, her arms sliding tightly, protectively, around him, and Royce lost control.

Shoving his fingers into her heavy, silken hair, he rolled her onto her back. “Jenny,” he groaned hoarsely, kissing her eyes, her cheek, her forehead, her lips. “Jenny…” he whispered again and again. And the sound of that word, the hoarseness of his deep voice, affected Jenny as vibrantly as the things he began doing to her. His mouth went to her breast, teasing the taut peak, then closing tightly around it, drawing hard, until Jenny was gasping, arching her back, clasping his head to her breasts. His hands shifted, gliding down her midriff to her waist, then lower to her thighs.

Reflexively, she clamped her legs together, and a muffled, groaning laugh escaped him as his lips returned to plunder hers with searing passion. “Don’t, sweetheart,” he whispered hotly, his fingers delicately probing amidst the curly triangle between her thighs, seeking entrance. “It won’t hurt.”

Shivers of delight and fear were racing through Jenny’s body, but she responded to neither of those; she responded instead to the need she heard in his voice. With a conscious effort, she forced the muscles in her legs to relax, and the moment she did, his knowledgeable fingers parted her, slipping deep inside her wet warmth, tenderly and skillfully pleasuring her, preparing the way for his passionate invasion.

Clutching him to her, her face buried against his corded neck, Jenny felt as if her body were on fire, melting and flowing, and a sob of startled pleasure escaped her. Just when she thought she would surely explode from the feelings building inside her, Royce’s knee parted her thighs and he moved into position over her. Jenny opened her eyes and saw him poised above her-the warrior whose name made men tremble, the same man who had touched and kissed her with such violent tenderness. His face was hard and dark with passion and a pulse was throbbing in his temple as he fought to hold himself back.

His hands went beneath her, lifting her hips to receive him; she felt his hot hardness probing, poised at the entrance, and she met her fate as bravely as she’d met it each time at his hands. Closing her eyes, she wrapped her arms tightly around the same man she knew was going to hurt her. The poignancy of the gesture was shattering to Royce. A shudder shook him as she surrendered in his arms and he inched his throbbing shaft into her incredible warmth, uncertain how much pain he was going to cause her and desperate to lessen it. The time he had taken with her had eased his passage, and he felt her silken warmth tightly sheathing him, expanding to encase him. Twisted into knots of desire, his heart beating painfully, he eased himself into her until he finally encountered the fragile barrier.

He withdrew by inches, and shifted forward again, and then withdrew, poised to breach the barrier, desperate to bury himself within her, hating the pain he was going to cause her. Wrapping his arms tightly around her as if he could absorb the pain into himself, he spoke against her lips, his voice hoarse: “Jenny-I’m sorry.” And he drove full-length into her, hearing her gasp of pain as her arms tightened spasmodically.

He waited for her pain to subside, and then he began moving inside of her, gently sliding upward and withdrawing, entering deeper each time, withdrawing further, his body fully aroused and desperate, his will straining for control. Delicately he circled his hips against hers, his passion tripled by her soft moan of delight and her hands gliding to his hips, clasping him to her. Switching to deep, rhythmic thrusts, he plunged into her and felt her body begin moving with his. He could not believe the pleasure she was giving him, the way her body felt clasped around his swollen shaft, sheathing him, or the sweet torture of her instinctive movements.

Quick, piercing stabs of desire were rhythmically jarring Jenny’s body and she moved with him, mindlessly seeking something she sensed he was trying to give her, and coming closer to it and closer to it as he quickened his driving, insistent strokes. The pulsing deep inside of her suddenly exploded in a wild burst of piercing pleasure that racked her body with wave after wave of sensation. Her spasms clasped him, clenching and pulling against his engorged manhood. Royce wrapped his arms tightly around her, holding perfectly still, to increase her pleasure, his breath coming in fast, deep pants against her cheek. He waited until they subsided, his heart thundering against his ribs, and then he drove into her, no longer able to control the force of his thrusts, his whole frame jerking convulsively again and again as his warmth spurted into her.

Floating in a sea of mindless pleasure, her body still joined with his, Jenny felt Royce move onto his side and bring her with him, and she drifted slowly back to consciousness. Her eyelids flickered open, the shadows in the bedchamber slowly took form and shape; a log crashed onto the stones, and sparks flickered brightly. The realization of all that had passed between them came flooding back to her and there, held securely in his arms, she knew a feeling of loneliness and terror beyond anything. What she had just done was not martyrdom, not even noble sacrifice-not when she’d found such pagan pleasure in it, such… heaven. Beneath her cheek, she heard the heavy, rhythmic beating of his heart, and she swallowed a lump of painful emotion. She had found something else here, something forbidden and dangerous to her, a feeling that shouldn’t, couldn’t exist.

And despite all her fear and guilt for what she felt, all she wanted at that moment was for him to call her “Jenny” again in that same rough, tender tone. Or to say, in any tone, “I love you.”

As if her need to hear his voice communicated itself to him, he spoke, but what he said was not what she wanted to hear, nor was his tone the one her heart yearned for. Quietly, and without emotion, he asked, “Did I hurt you badly?”

She shook her head and, after two attempts, managed to whisper, “No.”

“I’m sorry if I did.”

“You didn’t.”

“It would have hurt, no matter who took you the first time.”

Tears leapt to her eyes, clogging her throat, and she rolled onto her opposite side, trying to pull out of his arms, but he held her fast, her back and legs pressed to his chest and thighs. No matter who took you, Jenny thought miserably, was a very far thing from “I love you.”

Royce knew it. He knew it as surely as he knew that it was folly to think the words, let alone say them. Not now, not yet… not ever, he corrected himself, as the vision of the woman he was supposed to marry floated across his mind. He felt no guilt at having made love to Jennifer; among other things, he was not yet betrothed-unless Henry had gotten impatient and arranged the matter with Lady Mary Hammel himself.

It occurred to Royce at that moment that, even if he were betrothed, he probably wouldn’t feel any guilt. A vision of Mary Hammel’s face, lovely and fair, framed by a cloud of silvery blond hair, crossed his mind. Mary was passionate and uninhibited in bed, trembling with excitement in his arms, and her reasons were no secret between them, for she had said them herself, smiling into his eyes, her voice husky and low: “You, my lord, are Power and Violence and Mightand to most women, those are the most potent aphrodisiacs of all.”

Staring into the firelight, Royce wondered idly whether Henry would have proceeded with the betrothal without waiting for his return at the end of the month. For a strong sovereign who’d seized the throne by conquest, Henry had immediately developed what Royce felt to be a rather distasteful habit of solving political problems, whenever possible, through the expedient measure of arranging marriages between the two hostile entities-beginning with Henry’s own marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of the very king from whom Henry had seized the throne of England one year before, in a battle that ended in the other’s death. Moreover, Henry had said more than once that if his daughter were old enough, he’d marry her to James of Scotland and end the interminable strife between the countries that way. Such a solution might satisfy Henry, but Royce wanted no such unfriendly alliance for himself. He wanted a compliant, biddable wife to warm his bed and grace his hall; he’d already had too much strife in his life to voluntarily subject himself to more of it in his own domain.

Jennifer stirred in his arms, trying to pull away. “May I return to my own chamber now?” she asked in a muffled voice.

“Nay,” he said flatly, “our bargain is a long way from met.” And then, to prove he meant it, and to soften what he knew was an arbitrary order, he rolled her onto her back and buried his lips in hers, kissing her into mindless insensibility until she was clinging to him and returning his kisses with sweet, unbridled passion.

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