"Come, come, don't be shy," Royce prodded sarcastically, but the strong wine he'd been drinking was doing much to soothe his temper. Besides, he found her swift, startling change from daring assassin to curious young girl both baffling and amusing. "Take a good look at the face you just tried to carve your initial into," he urged, watching her prim profile.
"I need to stitch that wound, milord," Gawin said, frowning. "It's deep and swelling and 'twill be ugly enough as it is."
"Try not to render me hideous to Lady Jennifer," Royce said sardonically.
"I'm your squire, milord, not a seamstress," Gawin replied, the needle and thread poised above the deep gash that began near his lord's temple and followed his jawline.
The word "seamstress" suddenly reminded Royce of the neat, nearly invisible stitches Jenny had sewn into a pair of woolen hose, and he waved Gawin aside, turning his speculative gaze on his captive. "Come here," he told Jenny in a calm voice that nevertheless rang with authority.
No longer eager to provoke him, lest he change his mind about releasing them, Jenny arose and warily obeyed, relieved to take the pressure off her throbbing backside.
"Come closer," he bade her when she paused just out of his reach. "It seems only fitting that you should have to mend everything you have rent. Stitch up my face."
In the light from the pair of candles, Jenny saw the gash she'd made in his face and the sight of that torn flesh, added to the thought of piercing it with a needle, made her feel like swooning. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and whispered through parched lips, "I—I can't."
"You can and you will," Royce stated implacably. A second ago, he'd started to doubt the wisdom of letting her near him with a needle, but as he witnessed her horror at the sight of what she'd done, he felt reassured. In fact, he thought, forcing her to continue to look at it—to touch it—was just retribution!
With visible reluctance, Gawin handed her the needle and thread, and Jenny held it in her shaking hand, poised above Royce's face, but just when she was about to touch him, he stayed her hand with his and said in a cold, warning voice, "I hope you aren't foolish enough to entertain any thought of making this ordeal unnecessarily painful?"
"No, I wasn't. I won't," Jenny said weakly.
Satisfied, Royce held out the flagon of wine to her, "Here, drink some of this first. 'Twill steady your nerves." If he'd offered her poison at that moment, and told her it would steady her nerves, Jenny would have taken it, so distraught was she at the prospect of what she had to do. She lifted the flagon and took three long swallows, choked, then lifted it and drank some more. She would have had yet more, had the earl not firmly removed the flagon from her clenched hand. "Too much of it will cloud your vision and make you clumsy," he said dryly. "I don't want you trying to stitch my ear closed. Now, get on with it." Turning his head, he calmly offered his torn face for her ministrations while Gawin stood at Jenny's elbow, watching to make certain she did no harm.
Never had Jenny ever pierced human flesh with her needle, and as she forced the point through the earl's swollen skin, she couldn't completely suppress her moan of sick protest. Watching her from the corner of his eye, Royce tried not to wince for fear she'd see it and faint dead away. "For an assassin, you have an amazingly weak stomach," he remarked, trying to divert his mind from the pain, and her mind from her gory task.
Biting her lip, Jenny dug the needle into his flesh again. The color drained from her face, and Royce tried again to divert her with conversation. "Whatever made you think you had a calling to be a nun?"
"I—I didn't," she gasped.
"Then what were you doing at the abbey in Belkirk?"
"My father sent me there." she said, swallowing down the sickness at her gruesome task.
"Because he thinks you're meant to be a nun?" Royce demanded in disbelief, watching her out of the corners of his eyes. "He must see a different side of your nature than you've shown to me."
That almost made her laugh, he noted, watching her bite her lip as the color returned to her cheeks. "Actually," she admitted slowly, her soft voice amazingly lyrical when she wasn't angry or guarded, "I suppose you could say he sent me there because he'd seen the same side of my nature that you have."
"Really?" Royce inquired conversationally. "What reason had you to try to kill him?"
He sounded so genuinely disgruntled, that Jenny couldn't completely suppress a smile. Besides, she'd eaten nothing since yesterday and the heady wine was surging through her bloodstream, relaxing and warming her all the way to her toes.
"Well?" Royce prompted, studying the tiny dimple that peeked from the corner of her mouth.
"I did not try to kill my father," she said firmly, taking another stitch.
"What did you do then, that he banished you to a convent?"
"Among other things, I refused to wed someone—in a way."
"Really?" Royce said, genuinely surprised as he recalled what he'd heard of Merrick's eldest daughter when he was last at Henry's court. Rumor had it that Merrick's eldest was a plain, prim, cold woman and a dedicated spinster. He racked his brain, trying to remember who had actually described her to him in such terms. Edward Balder, he remembered now—the earl of Lochlordon, an emissary from King James's court, had said that of her. But then, so had everyone else on those rare occasions he'd heard her mentioned at all. A plain, prim, cold spinster, they had said, but there had been more, though he couldn't recall it at the moment. "How old are you?" he asked abruptly.
The question startled her and seemed to embarrass her. "Seventeen years," she admitted, rather reluctantly, Royce thought, "and two weeks."
"That old?" he said, his lips twitching with a mixture of amusement and compassion. Seventeen was hardly ancient, although most girls married between fourteen and sixteen years of age. He supposed she was loosely qualified for the term spinster. "A spinster by choice then?"
Embarrassment and denial flickered in her deep blue eyes, and he tried to recall what else they said of her at court. He could remember nothing—except that they said her sister, Brenna, eclipsed her completely. Brenna, according to rumor, had a face whose beauty outshone the sun and stars. Idly, Royce wondered why any man would prefer a meek, pale blond to this fiery young temptress, and then he recalled that he himself had generally preferred the comforts of an angelic blond—one in particular. "Are you a spinster by choice?" he demanded, wisely waiting until she'd taken another stitch before using the word that made her flinch.