"It was a mistake," he said flatly, "for both of us. It won't happen again."
It was the very last thing she'd expected him to say, and as he turned and walked swiftly out of the tent into the night, she assumed that must be his form of curt apology for what had happened. Her lips parted in silent surprise, then she hastily closed her eyes as Gawin entered the tent and lay down upon his pallet near the entrance.
At sunrise the tents were dismantled and the sound of continuous, rolling thunder filled the air as five thousand mounted knights, mercenaries, and squires moved out of the valley, followed by heavy wagons groaning beneath the weight of bombards, mortars, battering rams, catapults, and all the equipment and supplies necessary for a siege.
To Jenny, who was riding beside Brenna, heavily guarded on both sides by armed knights, the world became an unreal blur of noise and dust and inner confusion. She didn't know where she was going, or where she was, or even who she was. It was as if the whole world was in upheaval and everyone had changed somehow. Now it was Brenna who cast reassuring smiles at Jenny, while Jenny, who had thought herself reasonably intelligent, found herself watching—hoping for a glimpse of Royce Westmoreland!
She saw him several times as he rode past her, and it was as if he, too, was a stranger. Mounted on a huge black destrier, and clad in sinister black from his tall boots to the mantle that draped his powerful shoulders and billowed out behind him, he was the most frighteningly overpowering figure that Jenny had ever beheld—a deadly stranger bent on destroying her family, her clan, and everything she held dear.
That night as she lay beside Brenna, staring up at the stars, she tried not to think of the ugly siege tower that cast its ominous shadow across the meadow—the tower that would soon be moved into place against Merrick keep's ancient walls. Before, in the valley, she'd glimpsed it among the trees, but she'd never been certain what it was. Or perhaps she simply hadn't wanted her fears confirmed.
Now, she could think of little else, and she found herself clinging desperately to Brenna's prediction that King James might send forces to help her clan in the battle. And all the while, some tiny part of her refused to believe there was going to be a battle. Perhaps it was because she could not quite believe that the man who'd kissed and touched her with such passionate tenderness could actually mean to turn around and, coldly and unemotionally, slay her family and her clan. In some gentle, naive part of her heart, Jenny could not believe the man who teased and laughed with her last night could be capable of that.
But then, she could not entirely believe last night had ever happened. Last night he had been a tender, persuasive, insistent lover. Today he was a stranger who was capable of forgetting she existed.
Royce had not forgotten she existed—not even on the second day of their journey. Memories of the way she'd felt in his arms, the heady sweetness of her kisses and tentative caresses, had kept him awake for two consecutive nights. All day yesterday, as he'd ridden past the columns of his men, he'd found himself watching for a glimpse of her.
Even now, as he rode at the head of his army and squinted at the sun, trying to gauge the time, her musical laughter tinkled like bells on the fringes of his mind. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and suddenly she was looking at him with that jaunty sideways smile of hers…
Why do you think I decided not to marry? he'd said.
Because no suitable lady has asked you? she'd teased.
He heard her muffled chuckle as she tried to look reproving: Do not ever attempt to dazzle your lady fair with your glib flattery, milord, for you haven't a prayer of success …
Based on what I know of you, I can only assume you'd toss the lady over your lap and attempt to beat her into submission …
He could not believe that one naive Scottish girl could possess so much spirit and courage. Royce tried to tell himself this growing fascination, this obsession with his captive was merely the result of the lust she'd fired in him two nights ago, but he knew it was more than lust that held him enthralled: Unlike most of her sex, Jennifer Merrick was neither repelled nor titillated by the thought of being handled and bedded by a man whose very name was associated with danger and death. The shy, passionate response he'd awakened in her two nights ago owed nothing to fear, it had been born of tenderness and then desire. Knowing all the rumors about him as she obviously did, she had still offered herself up to his caresses with innocent sweetness. And that was why he couldn't drag her from his mind. Or perhaps, he thought grimly, she had simply deluded herself into thinking that despite his reputation, he was actually like the virtuous, unsullied, gallant knight of her dreams. That possibility—that her tenderness and passion had been the result of some girlish, naive self-delusion—was so distasteful Royce angrily put all thoughts of her aside and firmly resolved to forget her.
At midday, just as Jennifer sank down onto the grass beside Brenna, about to partake of the usual fare of stringy fowl and a slab of stale bread, she looked up and saw Arik stalking toward them. He stopped directly in front of her, his booted feet planted at least a yard apart, and said, "Come."
Already accustomed to the blond giant's apparent unwillingness to utter more words than were absolutely necessary, Jenny stood up. Brenna started to do likewise, but Arik held up his arm. "Not you."
With his hand locked around Jenny's upper arm, he marched her forward past hundreds of men who'd also settled onto the grass to eat their Spartan fare, then he drew her toward the woods beside the road, stopping at a place where Royce's knights seemed to be standing guard beneath the trees.
Sir Godfrey and Sir Eustace stepped aside, their normally pleasant faces stony, and Arik propelled her forward with a light shove that sent her stumbling into a little clearing.
Her captor was seated on the ground, his broad shoulders propped against a tree trunk, his knee drawn up, studying her in silence. In the warmth of the day, he'd removed his mantle and was clad in a simple brown tunic with full sleeves, thick brown hose, and boots. He did not look nearly as much like the specter of death and destruction he'd appeared to be yesterday, and Jenny felt an absurd spurt of happiness that he'd evidently not forgotten her existence.
Pride prevented her from displaying any such emotion, however. Since she was completely uncertain about how she ought to act or feel, Jenny stayed where she was and even managed to return his steady gaze, until his speculative silence finally unnerved her. Trying to keep her tone politely noncommittal, she said, "I gather you want me?"