Recovering from her brief alarm, Lady Elinor slowly smiled her approval. "Which is exactly what I thought you would say, dear boy," she whispered fondly. She turned to leave, then turned back again, and this time her white brows were drawn together into a stern line. "I hope," she admonished, "you will have a care for those stitches of mine tonight—while you are making certain my potion has not already done its worst to you."

Hampered by his bound left arm and fingers, it took Royce several minutes to struggle into a gray cashmere robe and tie its black belt around his waist. He opened the door to Jenny's bedchamber quietly, expecting her to be either in bed asleep—or, more likely, sitting in the dark, trying to come to grips with everything that had happened to her today.


She was doing neither, he realized, arrested in the doorway. The tallow candles were lit in their wall sconces and she was standing serenely at the window, her face tipped up slightly, seemingly looking out across the torchlit valley, her hands clasped behind her back. With her delicately carved profile and red-gold hair spilling over her shoulders, she looked, Royce thought, like a magnificent statue he'd seen in Italy of a Roman goddess looking up at the heavens. As he looked at her, he felt humbled by her courage and spirit. In one day, she had defied family and country and knelt to him in front of seven thousand people; she had been disinherited and disillusioned—and yet she could still stand at the windows and look out at the world with a smile touching her lips.

Royce hesitated, suddenly uncertain about how best to approach her. By the time he finally came off the jousting field today, he'd been near collapse, and there'd been no chance to speak to her until now. Considering everything she had sacrificed for him, "thank you" was scarcely adequate. "I love you," sprang to his mind, but just bursting out with the words didn't seem entirely appropriate. And if, by some chance, she wasn't thinking about the fact that she'd lost family and country today, he didn't want to say anything to remind her of it.

He decided to let her mood make the choice for him, and he stepped forward, throwing a shadow across the wall beside the window.

Her gaze flew to him as he walked toward her and stopped beside the window. "I don't suppose," she said, trying to hide her worry, "that 'twould do the least bit of good for me to insist that you go back to bed?"

Royce propped his good shoulder against the wall and restrained the urge to agree to go back to bed—providing she came with him. "None whatsoever," he said lightly. "What were you thinking about just now while you were looking out the window?"

To his surprise, the question flustered her. "I—wasn't thinking."

"Then what were you doing?" he asked, his curiosity aroused.

A rueful smile touched her inviting lips, and she shot him a sideways look before turning back to the window. "I was… talking to God," she admitted. " 'Tis a habit I have."

Startled and slightly amused, Royce said, "Really? What did God have to say?"

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"I think," she softly replied, "He said, 'You're welcome.' "

"For what?" Royce teased.

Lifting her eyes to his, Jenny solemnly replied, "For you."

The amusement fled from Royce's face and with a groan he pulled her roughly against his chest, crushing her to him. "Jenny," he whispered hoarsely, burying his face in her fragrant hair. "Jenny, I love you."

She melted against him, molding her body to the rigid contours of his, offering her lips up for his fierce, devouring kiss, then she took his face between both her hands. Leaning back slightly against his arm, her melting blue eyes gazing deeply into his, his wife replied in a shaky voice, "I think, my lord, I love you more."

Sated and utterly contented, Royce lay in the darkness with Jenny cradled against his side, her head on his shoulder. His hand drifted lazily over the curve of her waist as he gazed across the room at the fire, remembering the way she looked today as she ran to him across the tourney field, her hair tumbling in the wind. He saw her kneeling before him, and then he saw her standing again, her head proudly high, looking up at him with love and tears shining unashamedly in her eyes.

How strange, Royce thought, that, after emerging victorious from more than a hundred real battles, the greatest moment of triumph he had ever known had come to him on a mock battlefield where he'd stood alone, unhorsed, and defeated.

This morning, his life had seemed as bleak as death. Tonight, he held joy in his arms. Someone or something—fate or fortune or Jenny's God—had looked down upon him this morning and seen his anguish. And, for some reason, Jenny had been given back to him.

Closing his eyes, Royce brushed a kiss against her smooth forehead. Thank you, he thought.

And in his heart, he could have sworn he heard a voice answer, You're welcome.


January 1, 1499

'Tis an odd feeling to have the hall this empty," Stefan joked, glancing about at the twenty-five people, including the fifteen men who comprised Royce's private guard, who'd just finished eating a sumptuous supper.

"Where are the dancing bears, tonight, love?" Royce teased, putting his arm around the back of Jenny's chair and smiling at her. Despite his joking about the bears, Royce had never enjoyed a Christmas season the way he had this one.

"I look," she laughed, her hand pressed against her abdomen, "as if I swallowed one."

Despite her advanced pregnancy, Jenny had insisted that Claymore and all its inhabitants should celebrate the fourteen days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany in the traditional manner, which meant keeping "open house." As a result, for the past eight days, feasting had continued without abatement, and any travelers who arrived at Claymore's gates were automatically welcome to join the family. Last night, the castle had been the scene of an enormous celebration put on especially for the delight of Royce's serfs and villeins, as well as all the villagers. There had been music and carols provided by hired minstrels, performing bears, jugglers, acrobats, and even a nativity play.

Jenny had filled his life with laughter and love, and, at any hour, she was due to gift him with their first child. Royce's contentment was boundless—so much so that not even Gawin's antics were annoying him tonight. In keeping with Jenny's decision to celebrate the season to its traditional fullest, Gawin had been given the role of the Lord of Misrule—which meant that for three days, he presided at the high table, where his role permitted him to mimic his lord, issue outrageous commands, and generally manage to do and say things for which Royce would have otherwise banished him from Claymore.

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