She sobered. "I openly challenged Alexander to either take back the things he was saying about me or else meet me on the field of honor—in a local tournament we had each year near Merrick."
"And he refused," Royce said with somber tenderness.
"Of course. 'Twould have been disgraceful for him to do otherwise. Besides my being a girl, I was only fourteen and he was twenty. I cared naught for his pride, however, for he was—not very nice," she finished mildly, but there was a wealth of pain in those three words.
"Did you ever avenge your honor?" Royce asked, an unfamiliar ache in his chest.
She nodded, a hint of a rueful smile touching her lips. "Despite Father's command that I not go near the tournament, I persuaded our armorer to lend me Malcolm's armor, and on the day of the joust, without anyone knowing who I was, I rode out onto the field and faced Alexander, who had distinguished himself often in the lists."
Royce felt his blood turn cold at the thought of her galloping down the field, charging toward a grown man wielding a lance. "You're lucky you were only unseated and not killed."
She chuckled. " 'Twas Alexander who was unseated."
Royce stared at her in blank confusion. "You unseated him?"
"In a way," she grinned. "You see, just as he raised his lance to strike at me, I threw up my visor and stuck out my tongue."
In the shocked moment of silence that preceded Royce's explosion of laughter she added, "He slid off his horse."
Outside the little clearing, knights and squires, mercenaries and archers stopped what they were doing and stared at the woods where the earl of Claymore's laughter rose above the trees.
When at last he'd caught his breath, Royce regarded her with a tender smile filled with admiration. "Your strategy was brilliant. I'd have knighted you right there on the field."
"My father was not quite so enthusiastic," she said without rancor. "Alex's skill at the joust was the pride of our clan—something I'd failed to consider. Instead of knighting me on the field, my father gave me the thrashing I probably deserved. And then he sent me off to the abbey."
"Where he kept you for two full years," Royce summarized, his voice filled with gruff gentleness.
Jenny stared at him across the short distance separating them, while a startling discovery slowly revealed itself to her. The man who people called a ruthless, brutal barbarian was something quite different: he was, instead, a man who was capable of feeling acute sympathy for a foolish young girl—it was there in the softened lines of his face. Mesmerized, she watched him stand up, her eyes imprisoned by his hypnotic silver gaze, as he walked purposefully toward her. Without realizing what she was doing, Jenny slowly stood up, too. "I think," she whispered, her face turned up to his, "that legend plays you false. All the things they say you've done—they aren't true," she whispered softly, her beautiful eyes searching his face as if she could see into his soul.
"They're true," Royce contradicted shortly, as visions of the countless bloody battles he'd fought paraded across his mind in all their lurid ugliness, complete with battlefields littered with the corpses of his own men and those of his foes.
Jenny knew naught of his bleak memories, and her gentle heart rejected his self-proclaimed guilt. She knew only that the man standing before her was a man who had gazed upon his dead horse with pain and sorrow etched on his moonlit features; a man who had just now winced with sympathy at the silly story she'd told of dressing up to meet her elderly knight. "I don't believe it," she murmured.
"Believe it!" he warned. Part of the reason Royce wanted her was that she did not cast him in the role of bestial conqueror when he touched her, but he was equally unwilling to let her deceive herself by casting him in another role—that of her knight in virtuous, shining armor. "Most of it is true," he said flatly.
Dimly, Jenny was aware that he was reaching for her, she felt his hands close around her upper arms like velvet manacles, drawing her nearer, saw his mouth slowly descending to hers. And, as she gazed into those heavy-lidded, sensual eyes, some lambent protective instinct cried a warning that she was getting in too deep. Panicked, Jenny turned her face away a scant instant before his lips touched hers, her breath coming in rapid gasps as if she was running. Undaunted, Royce kissed her temple instead, trailing his warm lips over her cheek, pulling her nearer, brushing his lips down the sensitive column of her neck, while Jenny turned liquid inside. "Don't," she breathed shakily, turning her face further aside and, without realizing what she was doing, she clutched at the fabric of his tunic, clinging to him for support as the world began to reel. "Please," she whispered, as his arms tightened around her and his tongue slid up to her ear, sensuously, leisurely exploring each curve and crevice, making her shudder with longing while his hands shifted up and down her back. "Please, stop," she said achingly.
In response, his hand slid lower, splaying against her spine to force her body into intimate, thorough contact with his rigid thighs—an eloquent statement that he couldn't, and wouldn't, stop. His other hand slid to her nape, stroking sensuously, urging her to lift her head for his kiss. Drawing a shattered breath, Jenny turned her face into his woolen tunic, refusing his tender persuasion. When she did, the hand at her nape tightened in an abrupt command. Helpless to deny either his urging or his command any longer, Jenny slowly lifted her face to receive his kiss.
His hand plunged into her thick hair, holding her captive while his mouth seized hers in a plundering, devouring kiss that sent her spiraling off into a hot darkness where nothing mattered except his seductive, urgent mouth and knowledgeable hands. Overwhelmed by her own tenderness and his raw, potent sexuality, Jenny fed his hunger, her parted lips welcoming the thrusting invasion of his tongue. She leaned into him and felt him gasp against her mouth the split second before his hands slid possessively over her back and sides and breasts, then swept down, pulling her tightly to his rigid arousal. Helplessly, Jenny melted against him, returning his endless drugging kisses, moaning in her throat as her breasts swelled to fill his palms. Fire trembled through her as his hand forced its way between the waist of her heavy hose, shoving downward, cupping her bare buttocks and moving her tighter against the thrusting hardness of his manhood, crushing her against him.
Between the wildly erotic sensation of his hand pressed against her bare skin and the bold evidence of his desire pressing insistently against her, Jenny was lost. Sliding her hands up his chest, she twined them around his neck and gave herself up to his pleasure, stimulating it, sharing it, glorying in the groan that tore from his chest.