Jennifer stirred in his arms, trying to pull away. "May I return to my own chamber now?" she asked in a muffled voice.
"Nay," he said flatly, "our bargain is a long way from met." And then, to prove he meant it, and to soften what he knew was an arbitrary order, he rolled her onto her back and buried his lips in hers, kissing her into mindless insensibility until she was clinging to him and returning his kisses with sweet, unbridled passion.
Moonlight spilled through the window, and in his sleep Royce rolled onto his stomach, reaching out with his arm for Jennifer. His hand encountered cool sheets, not warm flesh. A lifetime spent with danger as his usual bed partner brought him from deep, sated sleep to sharp awareness in the space of seconds. His eyes snapped open as he rolled onto his back, his gaze scanning the room, sweeping over the furnishings that loomed like ghostly shadows in the pale moonlight.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood up and rapidly began to dress, cursing his own stupidity for having failed to post a guard at the bottom of the steps. Out of habit, he grabbed his dagger as he stalked toward the door, furious with himself for falling asleep in the comfortable belief Jennifer could not cuddle up against him like that and then stay awake and coldly plot an escape. Jennifer Merrick was capable of that and more. All things considered, he was lucky she hadn't tried to slit his throat before she left! His hand hit the latch and he jerked the door open, almost stepping on his startled squire, who was sleeping on a pallet in front of the doorway. "What's amiss, milord?" Gawin asked anxiously, sitting upright, ready to scramble to his feet.
Some imperceptible movement—something blowing across the window from outside on the parapet—caught Royce's eye and his head jerked toward it.
"What's amiss, milord?"
The door slammed in Gawin's startled face.
Telling himself that he was simply relieved that she had spared him the unwanted task of another nocturnal pursuit, Royce silently opened the door and stepped outside. Jenny was standing on the parapet, her long hair blowing in the night breeze, her arms wrapped around herself, staring off into the distance. With narrowed eyes, Royce studied her expression, and a second wave of relief washed over him. She did not appear to be contemplating flinging herself from the parapet, nor was she weeping for the loss of her maidenhead. More than distraught or angry, she looked merely lost in thought.
Jenny was, in fact, so immersed in her own reflections that she had no idea she was no longer alone. The soothing caress of the unseasonably balmy night air had helped restore her spirits, but even so, she felt as if the whole world had turned upside down this night, and Brenna was part of the reason for it: Brenna and a feather pillow had been the reason for Jenny's "noble" sacrifice of her maidenhood. The awful realization had hit her just as she began to drift off to sleep tonight.
She had been mumbling a sleepy prayer for Brenna's recovery and safe journey, when a quill from her own pillow protruded through the linen case, jarring her memory of the moment she'd smoothed the pillows beneath Brenna's head as she lay in the cart. Feathers near Brenna's face or body made her cough horribly, and no one was more careful than she to avoid them. Evidently, Jenny decided, Brenna must have fallen asleep in her chamber and woken up coughing, but instead of removing the offending pillows, she'd become daring and inventive at last: Believing the earl would release them both, Brenna had probably lain upon them until she was coughing as if death was imminent.
Absolutely ingenious, Jenny thought—worthy of any scheme she herself might have devised—and just as ill-fated, she decided glumly.
Her thoughts left Brenna and shifted to the future she had once dreamed of having, a future that now, more than ever before, was lost to her.
"Jennifer—" Royce said behind her.
Jenny whirled around, making a stern effort to hide her treacherous heart's reaction to the deep timbre of his voice. Why, she wondered desperately, could she still feel his hands upon her skin, and why did the mere sight of his face call to mind the tender roughness of his kisses. "I—why are you dressed?" she asked, relieved that her voice sounded calm.
"I was about to go looking for you," he replied, stepping out of the shadows.
With a wry glance at the gleaming dagger in his hand, she asked, "What did you intend to do when you found me?"
"I'd forgotten about this parapet." Slipping the dagger into his belt he added, "I thought you'd managed to slip from the room."
"Isn't your squire sleeping just beyond the door?"
"Good point," Royce said sardonically.
"He generally makes a habit of stretching out to block the entrance to wherever you are," she pointed out.
"Right again," he said dryly, wondering at his unprecedented lack of forethought in dashing for his own door without checking every other alternative.
Now that he'd found her, Jenny sorely wished he'd go away; his presence wreaked havoc on the serenity she so desperately sought. Turning away from him in an unmistakable hint that he should leave, she gazed out across the moonlit landscape.
Royce hesitated, knowing she wished to be left alone, yet reluctant to leave her. He told himself it was merely concern over her strange mood, and not the pleasure he derived from her company or her profile, that kept him from leaving. Sensing she would not welcome his touch, he stopped within reach of her and leaned his shoulder against the wall surrounding the parapet. She remained lost in thought, and Royce's brows drew together into a slight frown as he reconsidered his earlier conclusion that she wasn't contemplating something as stupid as taking her own life. "What were you thinking of a few minutes ago, when I came out here?"
Jenny stiffened slightly at the question. She'd been thinking of only two things, and she certainly could not discuss one of them, which had been Brenna's ingenious ploy. " 'Twas nothing of great importance," she evaded.
"Tell me anyway," he insisted.
She glanced sideways, her heart giving a traitorous leap at the sight of his broad shoulders so close to hers and his sternly handsome face etched with moonlight. Ready, willing, to discuss anything to distract herself from her awareness of him, she gazed out across the hills and said with a sigh of capitulation, "I was recalling the times I used to stand on a parapet at Merrick and look out across the moors, thinking of a kingdom."
"A kingdom?" Royce repeated, surprised and relieved at the nonviolent nature of her thoughts. She nodded, her heavy hair sliding up and down her back, and he sternly repressed the urge to wrap his hand in the silken mass and gently turn her face up to his. "Which kingdom?"