"Easy in what way?"

Her slim shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. "A few more evil lies and twisted truths—a crofter's cottage that suddenly caught fire the night after I challenged with the weight of a sack of grain he brought to the keep. Things such as that."

Slowly she raised tear-brightened blue eyes to his and to Royce's surprise she tried to smile. "Do you see my hair?" she asked. Royce glanced needlessly at the golden red tresses he'd admired for weeks and nodded.

Advertisement

In a suffocated voice, Jenny said, "My hair used to be an awful color. Now, it's the color of Becky's hair. Becky knew… how much I… admired her hair," she whispered brokenly, "and… and I like to think she gave it to me. To show me she knows—I tried to save her."

The painful, unfamiliar constriction in Royce's chest made his hand tremble as he started to lift it to lay against her cheek, but she pulled back, and although her huge eyes were shining with unshed tears, she did not break down and weep. Now, at last, he understood why this lovely young girl had not wept since her capture, not even during the sound thrashing he'd given her. Jennifer Merrick had stored all her tears inside her, and her pride and courage would never permit her to break down and shed them. Compared to what she'd already endured, a mere thrashing at his hands must have been as nothing to her.

For lack of knowing what else to do, Royce went into the bedchamber, poured wine from a flagon into a goblet, and brought it out to her. "Drink this," he said flatly.

With relief, he saw that she'd already gotten control of her sorrow, and a winsome smile touched her soft lips at his unintentionally abrupt tone. "It seems to me, milord," she replied, "that you are forever putting spirits into my hand."

"Usually for my own nefarious reasons," he admitted drolly, and she chuckled.

Taking a sip, she put the goblet aside, then she crossed her arms on the low wall, gazing out into the distance again as she leaned against it. Royce studied her in silence, unable to get her revelations out of his mind, feeling the need to say something encouraging about her plight. "I doubt you'd have liked having the responsibility for your clan, in any case."

-- Advertisement --

She shook her head and quietly said, "I would have loved it. There were so many things I saw that might have been done differently—things a woman would notice that a man does not. Things I learned from Mother Abbess, too. There are new looms—yours are much better than ours—new ways of growing crops—hundreds of other things to be done differently and better."

Unable to argue the relative merits of one kind of loom or crop over another, Royce tried a different argument. "You cannot live your life trying to prove yourself to your clan."

"I can," she said in a low, fierce voice. "I would do anything to make them see me as one of them again. They are my people—their blood flows in my veins, and mine in theirs."

"You'd best forget it," Royce urged." 'Twould seem you've embarked on a quest where victory is unlikely at best."

"For a while, these past few days, 'twasn't as unlikely as you think," she said, her beautiful profile somber. "William will be earl someday, and he's a kind, wonderful boy—well, man—since he is twenty. He isn't strong like Alexander was, or Malcolm is, but he is intelligent and wise and loyal. He feels for my plight with our clan, and once he became lord, he would have tried to set matters aright. But tonight, that became an impossibility."

"What has tonight to do with it?"

Advertisement

Jenny raised her eyes to his, the expression in them reminding him of a wounded doe, despite the calm, matter-of-fact tone she used. "Tonight, I became the consort of my family's worst enemy—the mistress of my people's foe. In the past, they despised me for things I hadn't done. Now, they have good reason to despise me for what I have, just as I have reason to despise myself. This time, I've done the unforgivable. Even God won't forgive me…"

The undeniable truth of her accusation about becoming his consort hit Royce with more force than he wanted to acknowledge, but his guilt was lessened by the knowledge that the life that was lost to her now was not much life at all. Reaching out, he took her firmly by the shoulders and turned her around, then he tipped her chin up, forcing her to meet his gaze. And even as he began to speak, in the midst of his concern and sympathy, his loins were already hardening in demanding response to her nearness. "Jennifer," he said with quiet firmness, "I didn't know how things stood between you and your people, but I've bedded you, and nothing can change that now."

"And if you could change it," she said, looking mutinous, "would you?"

Royce gazed down at the incredibly desirable young woman who was setting his body on fire at that very moment. Calmly and honestly, he said, "No."

"Then do not bother looking regretful," she snapped.

His lips quirked in a mirthless smile, his hand sliding along her cheek to her nape. "Do I look regretful? I'm not. I regret causing you humiliation, but I do not regret the fact that I had you an hour ago, nor will I regret having you again in a few minutes, which I mean to do." She glared at the arrogance of his statement, but Royce forged ahead with what he'd intended to say: "I do not believe in your God, nor any other, but I'm told by those who do, that your God is supposedly a just God. If so," he continued in a calm, philosophical tone, "He will surely hold you blameless in all this. After all, you only agreed to my bargain out of fear for your sister's life. 'Twas not your will, 'twas mine. And what passed between us in that bed was against your will, too. Wasn't it?"

As soon as he asked the question, Royce regretted it—regretted it so sharply that it confused him. And then he realized that, while he wanted her to assure him that he hadn't damned her in the eyes of her God, he did not want her to deny that she'd felt all the things he had in their mating, or that she had wanted him almost as much as he had wanted her. As if he suddenly needed to test her honesty and his instincts, he persisted, "Isn't that right? He will hold you blameless in all this because you merely submitted to me in bed against your will?"

"No!" The word burst out of her, filled with shame and helplessness, and a thousand other feelings Royce couldn't identify.

-- Advertisement --

"No?" he repeated, while a heady sensation of relief burst within him. "Where am I wrong?" he asked, his voice low, but insistent. "Tell me where I'm wrong."

It was not the tone of command in his voice that made her answer. It was, instead, her sudden memories of the way he had made love to her; memories of his incredible gentleness and restraint; of his pained regret when he hurt her as he broke her maidenhead; of his whispered words of praise; of his labored breathing as he fought to hold back his passion. Added to all that was the memory of her own urgent desire to be filled with him, and to give him back the exquisite sensations he was making her feel. She opened her mouth, wanting to hurt him as he had hurt all her chances for happiness, but her conscience strangled the words in her throat. She had found glory, not shame in their mating, and she could not make herself lie to him and say otherwise. " 'Twas not my will to come to your bed," she answered in a muffled whisper. Dragging her mortified gaze from his smoky gray one, she turned her head away and added, "but once there, 'twas not my will to leave it either."

-- Advertisement --