For some reason her question brought a mocking gleam to his eyes. "You're right."
Flustered by his odd, mocking tone, she waited and then said, "Why?"
"Now there's a question."
"Are—are we having a conversation?" Jenny demanded darkly, and to her complete confusion, he threw back his head and shouted with laughter, the rich, throaty sound echoing in the clearing.
Her face was a mirror of lovely confusion, and Royce sobered, taking pity on the innocence that made him laugh at the same time it made him want her more than he had two nights ago. He gestured toward the white cloth spread out upon the ground. On it were some pieces of the same fowl and bread that she'd been eating, along with some apples and a chunk of cheese. Quietly he said, "I enjoy your company. I also thought 'twould be more pleasant for you to eat here with me than to eat in an open field surrounded by thousands of soldiers. Was I wrong?"
If he hadn't said he enjoyed her company, Jenny might well have informed him that he was quite wrong, but she was not proof against that deep compelling voice telling her that, in essence, he had missed her. "No," she admitted, but in the interest of pride and prudence both, she did not sit down near him. Picking up a shiny red apple, she sat down on a fallen log, just beyond his reach, but after a few minutes of casual conversation, she began to feel perfectly relaxed in his company and oddly light-hearted. It never occurred to her that this strange phenomenon was the result of his deliberate efforts to make her feel safe from his advances, or to make her forget the abrupt and callous way he'd ended their preliminary lovemaking two nights ago, so that she wouldn't automatically rebuff his next attempt.
Royce knew exactly what he was doing, and why he was doing it, but he told himself that if by some holy miracle he were able to keep his hands off of her until he sent her either to her father or his king, then his efforts had not been wasted, for he was having a very pleasant and somewhat prolonged meal in a cozy clearing.
A few minutes later, in the midst of a perfectly impersonal discussion of knights, Royce suddenly found himself thinking almost jealously of her former suitor. "Speaking of knights," he said abruptly, "what happened to yours?"
She bit into her apple, her expression quizzical. "My what?"
"Your knight," Royce clarified. "—Balder. If your father was in favor of the marriage, how did you dissuade old Balder from continuing to press you?"
The question seemed to discomfit her and, as if stalling for time in which to compose an answer, she drew her long shapely legs up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them, then she perched her chin upon her knees and raised brilliant blue, laughing eyes to his face. Perched upon that log, Royce thought she looked incredibly desirable—a charming wood nymph with long curly hair, clad in a boy's tunic and hose. A wood nymph? Next she would have him composing sonnets to her beauty—and wouldn't that delight her sire, not to mention enliven the gossip at court in two countries! "Was that question too difficult for you?" he said, his voice sharp with self-annoyance. "Shall I try to frame an easier one?"
"What an impatient nature you have!" she replied sternly, completely undaunted by his tone.
Her words were accompanied by such a wellbred, reproving look that Royce chuckled in spite of himself. "You're right," he admitted, grinning at the outrageous child-woman who dared to lecture him on his shortcomings. "Now, tell me why old Balder withdrew."
"Very well, but it's most unchivalrous of you to badger me so about matters which are of a most private nature—not to mention excruciatingly embarrassing."
"Embarrassing for whom?" Royce asked, ignoring her jibe. "For you, or for Balder?"
"I was embarrassed. Lord Balder was indignant. You see," she clarified with smiling candor, "I'd never seen him until the night he came to Merrick to sign the betrothal contract. 'Twas an awful experience," she said, her expression as amused as it was horrified.
"What happened?" he prodded.
"If I tell you, you must promise to remember that I was much like any other girl of fourteen—filled with dreams of the wondrous young knight whose wife I would become. I knew in my mind just how he would look," she added, smiling ruefully as she thought back on it. "He would be fair-haired, and young, of course, his face wonderful to look upon. His eyes would be blue, and his bearing would be princely. He would be strong, too, strong enough to protect our holdings for the children we would someday have." She glanced at Royce, her expression wry. "Such was my secret hope, and in my own behalf, it must be said that neither my father nor my half-brothers said aught to make me think Lord Balder would be otherwise."
Royce frowned, a picture of the foppish, elderly Balder flashing across his mind.
"And so there I was, strolling into the great hall at Merrick after spending hours practicing my walking in my bedchamber."
"You'd practiced walking?" Royce uttered, his tone filled with a mixture of amusement and disbelief.
"But of course," Jennifer said gaily. "You see, I desired to present a perfect picture of myself for my future lord's benefit. And so, it would not do that I bolt into the hall and seem too eager, nor that I walk too slowly and thus give the impression that I was reluctant. It was an enormous dilemma—deciding just how to walk, not to mention what to wear. I was so desperate that I "actually consulted my two stepbrothers, Alexander and Malcolm, to get their male opinion. William, who is a darling, was away from home for the day with my stepmother."
"Surely they must have forewarned you about Balder." The look in her eyes told him otherwise, but even so he was not prepared for the sharp stab of pity he felt as she shook her head.
"Quite the opposite. Alexander said he feared the gown my stepmother had chosen was not nearly fine enough. He urged me to wear the green one instead and dress it up with my mother's pearls. Which I did. Malcolm suggested I wear a jeweled dagger at my side so I'd not be overshadowed by my future husband's illustrious presence. Alex said my hair looked too common and carroty and must needs be caught up under a golden veil and laced with a rope of sapphires. Then, after I was attired to their satisfaction, they helped me practice walking…" As if loyalty prevented her from painting an unflattering image of her stepbrothers, she smiled brightly and said in a determinedly reassuring voice, "They were funning me, of course, as brothers will fun their sisters, but I was too filled with dreams to notice."