Any gratitude Jenny might have felt at his deliberate use of her title was obliterated by her turmoil at the location he'd chosen for her bedchamber. "I'll dine in my chamber, behind a locked door, or not at all," she informed him.

This wholly unacceptable piece of public defiance before fifty gaping serfs, added to the rest of her behavior for the last two days, finally convinced Royce that a sterner reprisal was in order, and he provided it unhesitatingly. "Jennifer," he said in a calm, uncompromising voice that completely belied the harshness of the punishment he was about to deliver, "until your disposition improves, your visits with your sister are over."

Jennifer paled, and Brenna, who was just being escorted into the hall by Stefan Westmoreland, sent a pleading look first to Jenny and then to the man beside her. To Jennifer's amazement, Stefan spoke up. "Royce, your edict is as much a punishment to Lady Brenna, who has done nothing—"

Advertisement

He broke off at the look of icy displeasure his brother sent him.

Freshly bathed and shaven, Royce sat at the table in the great hall with his knights and his brother. The servants had laid out trenchers filled with watery venison stew which was growing cool. Royce's attention, however, was not on the unappetizing food; he was watching the narrow steps that wound down from the bedchambers above, trying to decide whether or not to go up there and drag both women down, for, in an amazing show of spirit, Brenna had evidently chosen to join in her sister's rebellion and had ignored the servants' announcement that supper was being served below.

'They can go without eating," Royce decreed finally and picked up his eating dagger.

Long after the trestle tables had been dismantled and stacked against the walls, Royce remained sitting in the hall staring into the fire, his feet propped on a stool. His earlier intention of bedding Jennifer tonight had fallen by the wayside in the press of dozens of problems and decisions that had required his attention almost from the moment he'd started to sup. He considered going up to her chamber now, despite the lateness of the hour, but in the mood he was in, he was more likely to subdue her rebellion with brute force, rather than gently seducing her. After experiencing the exquisite pleasure of the way she felt in his arms when she was willing, he was reluctant to settle for anything less.

Godfrey and Eustace walked into the hall, relaxed and smiling after a night obviously spent with buxom castle wenches, and Royce's thoughts switched instantly to matters of a slightly different bent. Glancing at Godfrey, he said, "Instruct the sentries at the gate to detain anyone who seeks admittance and to notify me."

The knight nodded, but his handsome face was puzzled as he said, "If you're thinking of Merrick, he can't gather an army and get it here in less than a month."

-- Advertisement --

"I'm not expecting an attack, I'm expecting some sort of trickery. If he attacks Hardin, he risks having his daughters slain in the battle, either accidentally by his own men or—he'll assume—by us. Since an attack is unthinkable under these circumstances, he'll have no choice but to try to get the women out. In order to do it, he'd have to get his people in here first. I've ordered the steward not to employ any additional servants unless they're specifically known to be from the village."

When both knights nodded, Royce abruptly stood up and started toward the stone steps at the end of the hall, then he turned back, his brows knitted into a slight frown. "Has Stefan said or done anything to give you the impression he's developing an… interest… in the younger girl?"

The two knights—both older than Stefan—looked at each other and then at Royce, shaking their heads in the negative. "Why do you ask it?" Eustace asked. "Because," Royce said wryly, "he leapt to her defense this afternoon when I ordered the women separated." Shrugging, he accepted his friends' opinion and headed up to his bedchamber.

Chapter Nine

Wrapped in a bedgown of soft cream wool, Jennifer gazed out the tiny window of her bedchamber the next morning, her eyes roving over the wooded hills just beyond the castle walls. Shifting her attention to the bailey below, she slowly scanned the thick walls surrounding it, looking for some sort of escape route… signs of a concealed door. There had to be one; Merrick had one inset into its wall, concealed behind an overgrowth of bushes; as far as she knew all castles had one which the residents could use for escape should an enemy penetrate the outer defenses. Despite her belief that such a door must exist, she could see no sign of it, or even a crack in the ten-foot-thick wall that she and Brenna might squeeze through. Raising her gaze, she watched the guards moving ceaselessly along the wall walk, their eyes trained on the road and surrounding hills. The domestic staff might be slovenly and slothful and sorely in need of training and direction, but the earl had not ignored the castle's defenses, she thought glumly. Every guard was alert, and they were posted at twenty-foot intervals.

The earl had told her that her father had been notified that Brenna and she were his captives. That being the case, her father would have no trouble tracing an army of five thousand men to Hardin. If he meant to try to rescue them, then Hardin was no more than two days' hard ride—or a five-day march—from Merrick. But how on earth her father would be able to rescue her from such an incredibly well-fortified castle, she couldn't begin to imagine. Which brought her back to the same confounding problem she'd faced all along: It was up to her to think of some way to escape.

Advertisement

Her stomach growled, reminding her she'd had nothing to eat since before noon yesterday, and she turned away from the window in order to get dressed and go down to the hall. Starvation was no solution to her problem, she decided with a sigh as she walked over to the trunks of clothes that had been carried into her chamber this morning. Besides, if she didn't go down, she had no doubt that the earl would simply come fetch her, even if he had to break down her door.

She'd been able to soak in a wooden tub filled with hot water this morning, and at least she had the pleasure of feeling clean from her scalp to her toes. A dip in a freezing stream, she reflected, thinking back upon the last weeks, could not compare to warm water and a piece of soap.

The first trunk was filled with gowns belonging to the former lady of the castle and her daughters, many of which reminded Jenny of the lovely, whimsical style her Aunt Elinor preferred—the gowns ladies had worn with high conical headdresses and veils trailing to the floor. Although the gowns were no longer in fashion, no expense had been spared in the cloth, for there were rich satins and velvets and embroidered silks. Since all of them were too ornate for the occasion, and her position in this household, Jenny opened the next trunk. A gasp of sheer, feminine delight escaped her lips as she carefully removed a gown of softest cashmere.

-- Advertisement --