Jenny's heart soared; coming from her taciturn father, such a comment constituted high praise. "I've changed in other ways too, Father," she promised, her eyes shining. "I've changed a great deal."
"Not that much, my girl." Raising his shaggy white brows, he looked pointedly at the short veil and wimple hanging forgotten from her fingertips.
"Oh!" Jenny said, laughing and anxious to explain. "I was playing hoodman-blind… er… with the children, and it wouldn't fit beneath the hood. Have you seen the abbess? What did Mother Ambrose tell you?"
Laughter sparked in his somber eyes. "She told me," he replied dryly, "that ye've a habit of sitting on yon hill and gazing off into the air, dreaming, which sounds familiar, lassie. And she told me ye've a tendency to nod off in the midst of mass, should the priest sermonize longer than you think seemly, which also sounds familiar."
Jenny's heart sank at this seeming betrayal from the abbess whom she so admired. In a sense, Mother Ambrose was laird of her own grand demesne, controlling revenues from the farmlands and livestock that belonged to the splendid abbey, presiding at table whenever there were visitors, and dealing with all other matters that involved the laymen who worked on the abbey grounds as well as the nuns who lived cloistered within its soaring walls.
Brenna was terrified of the stern woman, but Jenny loved her, and so the abbess's apparent betrayal cut deeply.
Her father's next words banished her disappointment. "Mother Ambrose also told me," he admitted with gruff pride, "that you've a head on your shoulders befitting an abbess herself. She said you're a Merrick through and through, with courage enough to be laird of yer own clan. But you'll no' be that," he warned, dashing Jenny's fondest dream.
With an effort, Jenny kept the smile pinned to her face, refusing to feel the hurt of being deprived of that right—a right that had been promised to her until her father married Brenna's widowed mother and acquired three stepsons in the bargain.
Alexander, the eldest of the three brothers, would assume the position that had been promised to her. That, in itself, wouldn't have been nearly so hard to bear if Alexander had been nice, or even fair-minded, but he was a treacherous, scheming liar, and Jenny knew it, even if her father and her clan did not. Within a year after coming to live at Merrick keep, he'd begun carrying tales about her, tales so slanderous and ghastly, but so cleverly contrived, that, over a period of years, he'd turned her whole clan against her. That loss of her clan's affection still hurt unbearably. Even now, when they were looking through her as if she didn't exist for them, Jenny had to stop herself from pleading with them to forgive her for things she had not done.
William, the middle brother, was like Brenna—sweet and as timid as can be—while Malcolm, the youngest, was as evil and as sneaky as Alexander. "The abbess also said," her father continued, "that you're kind and gentle, but you've spirit, too…"
"She said all that?" Jenny asked, dragging her dismal thoughts from her stepbrothers. "Truly?"
"Aye." Jenny would normally have rejoiced in that answer, but she was watching her father's face, and it was becoming more grim and tense than she had ever seen it. Even his voice was strained as he said, " 'Tis well you've given up your heathenish ways and that you're all the things you've become, Jennifer."
He paused as if unable or unwilling to continue, and Jenny prodded gently, "Why is that, Father?"
"Because," he said, drawing a long, harsh breath, "the future of the clan will depend on your answer to my next question."
His words trumpeted in her mind like blasts from a clarion, leaving Jenny dazed with excitement and joy: "The future of the clan depends on you …"She was so happy, she could scarcely trust her ears. It was as if she were up on the hill overlooking the abbey, dreaming her favorite daydream—the one where her father always came to her and said, "Jennifer, the future of the clan depends on you. Not your stepbrothers. You." It was the chance she'd been dreaming of to prove her mettle to her clansmen and to win back their affection. In that daydream, she was always called upon to perform some incredible feat of daring, some brave and dangerous deed, like scaling the wall of the Black Wolf's castle and capturing him single-handedly. But no matter how daunting the task, she never questioned it, nor hesitated a second to accept the challenge.
She searched her father's face. "What would you have me do?" she asked eagerly. "Tell me, and I will! I'll do any—"
"Will you marry Edric MacPherson?"
"Whaaat?" gasped the horrified heroine of Jenny's daydream. Edric MacPherson was older than her father; a wizened, frightening man who'd looked at her in a way that made her skin crawl ever since she'd begun to change from girl to maiden.
"Will you, or will you no'?"
Jenny's delicate auburn brows snapped together. "Why?" asked the heroine who never questioned.
A strange, haunted look darkened his face. "We took a beating at Cornwall, lass—we lost half our men. Alexander was killed in battle. He died like a Merrick," he added with grim pride, "fighting to the end."
"I'm glad for your sake, Papa," she said, unable to feel more than a brief pang of sorrow for the stepbrother who'd made her life into a hell. Now, as she often had in the past, she wished there were something she could do to make him proud of her. "I know you loved him as if he were your own son."
Accepting her sympathy with a brief nod, he returned to the discussion at hand: "There were many amongst the clans who were opposed to going to Cornwall to fight for King James's cause, but the clans followed me anyway. 'Tis no secret to the English that 'twas my influence which brought the clans to Cornwall, and now the English king wants vengeance. He's sendin' the Wolf to Scotland to attack Merrick keep." Ragged pain edged his deep voice as he admitted, "We'll no' be able to withstand a siege now, not unless the MacPherson clan comes to support us in our fight. The MacPherson has enough influence with a dozen other clans to force them to join us as well."
Jenny's mind was reeling. Alexander was dead, and the Wolf really was coming to attack her home…
Her father's harsh voice snapped her out of her daze. "Jennifer! Do you ken what I've been saying? MacPherson has promised to join in our fight, but only if you'll have him for husband."
Through her mother, Jenny was a countess and heiress to a rich estate which marched with MacPherson's. "He wants my lands?" she said almost hopefully, remembering the awful way Edric MacPherson's eyes had wandered down her body when he'd stopped at the abbey a year ago to pay a "social call" upon her.