Royce saw beyond her words to the truth and recognized the heartless malice in their trick. He felt a sudden, overpowering desire to smash his fist into her brothers' faces—just for "fun."
"I was so concerned about every detail being just right," she was saying, her face perfectly cheerful now as if she were laughing at herself, "that I was quite late coming down to the hall to meet my betrothed. When I finally arrived I paraded across the hall at just the right speed, on legs that trembled not only with nervousness but with the weight of the pearls, rubies, sapphires, and gold chains at my throat and wrists and waist. You should have seen the look on my poor stepmother's face when she saw the way I was attired. It was quite a garish display, I can tell you," Jenny laughed, blithely unaware of the pent-up anger building in Royce as she continued.
"My stepmother later said I looked like a coffer of jewels with legs," she chuckled. "She did not say it unkindly." Jennifer hastily added when she saw the black scowl on her captor's face. "She was quite sympathetic, actually."
When she fell silent, Royce prodded. "And your sister, Brenna? What had she to say?"
Jennifer's eyes lit with fondness. "Brenna will always find something good to say about me, no matter how shocking my mistakes or outrageous my conduct. She said I 'sparkled like the sun and moon and stars.' " A bubble of laughter escaped Jenny and she regarded Royce with eyes aglow with merriment. "Which of course I did—sparkle, I mean."
His voice harsh with feelings he could neither understand nor contain, Royce looked at her and said tightly, "Some women need no jewels to make them sparkle. You are one of them."
Jennifer's mouth dropped open in shock and she gaped at him. "Was that a compliment?"
Thoroughly annoyed that she'd actually reduced him to uttering gallantries, Royce shrugged curtly and said, "I'm a soldier, not a poet, Jennifer. It was merely a statement of fact. Go on with your story."
Abashed and confused, Jennifer hesitated and then dismissed his unaccountable mood change with a mental shrug. Helping herself to another bite of apple, she said cheerfully, "In any case, Lord Balder does not share your disinterest in jewels. In truth," she said, laughing, "his eyes nearly popped right out of his head—so entranced was he with my glitter. In fact, he was so bedazzled by my vulgar display that he passed only a cursory glance over my face before turning to my father and saying, 'I'll have her.' "
"And, just like that, you were betrothed?" Royce asked, frowning.
"No, 'just like that' I nearly fell into a dead swoon —so shocked was I by my first glimpse of my 'beloved's' countenance. William caught me before I fell to the floor and helped me onto the bench at the table, but even once I was seated and beginning to regain my senses, I could not tear my gaze from Lord Balder's features! Besides being older than my father, he was thin as a stick, and he was wearing—er—" Her voice trailed off and she hesitated uncertainly. "I ought not to tell you the rest."
"Tell me all of it," Royce commanded.
"All?" Jennifer echoed uncomfortably.
"Very well," she sighed, "but 'tis not a pretty story."
"What was Balder wearing?" Royce prodded, beginning to grin.
"Well, he was wearing…"—her shoulders rocked with mirth as she gasped—"he was wearing someone else's hair!"
Laughter, rich and deep echoed from Royce's chest, joining the lilting music of Jennifer's.
"I'd scarce recovered my senses from that when I next noted that he was eating the most peculiar-looking food I'd ever seen. Earlier, while my brothers had been helping me decide what to wear, I'd heard them joking between themselves about Lord Balder's desire to have artichokes at every meal. I realized at a glance that the peculiar-looking fried objects heaped upon Lord Balder's platter must be the food called the artichoke, and that was what led to my being banished from the hall and Balder crying off."
Royce, who already guessed why Balder had been eating the food which was purported to increase male potency, fought to keep his expression grave. "What happened?"
"Well, I was very nervous—stricken actually—at the prospect of wedding such a dreadful man. In truth he was a maiden's nightmare, not a maiden's dream, and as I studied him at table, I felt a most unladylike urge to shove my fists into my eyes and howl like a babe."
"But you didn't, of course," Royce guessed, smiling as he recalled her indomitable spirit.
"No, but 'twould have been better if I had," she admitted with a smile accompanied by a sigh. "What I did was much worse. I couldn't bear to look at him, so I concentrated upon the artichokes which I'd never seen before. I was watching him gobble the things up, wondering what they were and why he ate them. Malcolm noticed what I was looking at and so he told me why Lord Balder was eating them. And that was what made me begin to giggle…"
Her wide blue eyes swimming with mirth and her shoulders shaking helplessly, she said, "At first I managed to hide it, and then I snatched a handkerchief and pressed it to my lips, but I was so overwrought the giggles became a laugh. I laughed and I laughed and 'twas so contagious even poor Brenna began to laugh. We laughed ourselves into fits, until my father sent Brenna and me from the hall."
Raising her mirthful eyes to Royce's she gasped gaily, "Artichokes! Have you ever heard anything so absurd?"
With a supreme effort, Royce managed to look puzzled. "You don't believe artichokes are beneficial to a man's prowess?"
"I—er—" Jennifer blushed as she finally realized how inappropriate the topic was, but it was too late to turn back, and besides she was curious. "Do you believe it?"
"Certainly not," Royce said straight-faced. "Everyone knows 'tis leeks and walnuts that are beneficial in such matters."
"Leeks and —!" Jenny burst out in confusion, and then she saw the slight movement of his broad shoulders that betrayed his own laughter, and she shook her head in smiling reproof. "In any case, Lord Balder decided—quite rightly—that there weren't enough jewels on earth worth having me as his wife. Several months later, I committed another unforgivable folly," she said, looking more seriously at Royce, "and my father decided I was in want of a stronger guiding hand than my stepmother's."
"What 'unforgivable folly' did you commit that time?"