Even now, his mind shied away from the thought of how she would be treated by her "beloved" clansmen when she went back to them after sharing the bed of their enemy.
The alternative of his remaining unmarried, and of going without children and heirs, was unappealing and unacceptable.
The only remaining alternative—that of marrying Jennifer—was out of the question. To wed her—and in so doing acquire sworn enemies as in-laws, as well as a wife with loyalties weighted heavily in favor of those enemies—was untenable. Such a marriage would only bring the battlefield into his own hall when what he sought there was peace and harmony. Simply because her innocent passion and selfless giving in bed brought him exquisite pleasure was no reason to subject himself to a life of continual strife. On the other hand, she was the only woman who made love with him, not with the legend he was. And she made him laugh as no other woman ever had; she had courage and wisdom and a face that bewitched and beguiled. Last, but far from least, she had a directness, an honesty about her that disarmed him completely.
Even now, he could not forget the feeling in his chest last night when she'd chosen honesty over pride and admitted that once in his bed, she'd not wanted to leave it. Honesty such as that, especially in a woman, was a rare thing indeed. It meant her word could be trusted.
Of course, all those things weren't reason enough to let all his carefully laid plans for his future be destroyed.
On the other hand, they weren't exactly strong incentives to give her up, either.
Royce glanced up as the guards on the castle wall sounded a single, long blast on their trumpets, signaling the approach of nonhostile visitors.
"What does that mean?" Jenny asked, startled.
"Couriers from Henry, I imagine," Royce replied, leaning back on his forearms and squinting up at the sun. If they were? he thought idly, they were here much sooner than he'd expected. "Whoever they are, they're friendly."
"Does your king know I'm your hostage?"
"Yes." Although he disliked the turn of the conversation, he understood her concern for her fate, and he added, "I sent word to him a few days after you were brought to my camp, along with my regular monthly dispatches."
"Am I"—she drew a shaky breath—"am I to be sent someplace—a dungeon, or—"
"No," Royce said quickly. "You'll remain under my protection. For the time being," he added vaguely.
"But suppose he commands otherwise?"
"He won't," Royce said flatly, glancing at her over his shoulder. "Henry cares naught how I win his victories for him, so long as I win them. If your father lays down his arms and surrenders because you're my hostage, then this victory will be the best kind—a bloodless one." Seeing that the subject was making her tense, he diverted her with a question that had been niggling at the back of his mind all morning. "When your stepbrothers began to turn your clan against you," he asked, "why did you not bring the problem to your father's attention, instead of trying to escape from it by building dream kingdoms in your mind? Your father is a powerful lord, he could have solved your problem the same way I would have."
"And how would you have solved it?" she asked with that unconsciously provocative, sideways smile that always made him long to drag her into his arms and kiss it off her lips.
More sharply than he intended, Royce said, "I would have commanded them to desist in their suspicions of you."
"Spoken like a warrior, not a lord," she commented lightly. "You cannot 'command' people's thoughts, you can merely terrify them into keeping them to themselves."
"What did your father do?" he asked in a cool voice that challenged her observation.
"At the time Becky drowned," she replied, "my father was off fighting you in some battle, as I recall."
"And when he returned—from fighting with me—" Royce added with a wry smile, "what did he do then?"
"By then, there were all sorts of stories circulating about me, but Father thought I was exaggerating, and that they would die away shortly. You see," she added when Royce frowned disapprovingly, "my father does not place a great deal of importance on what he calls 'women's matters.' He loves me very much," she stated with what Royce considered to be more loyalty than sense—given Merrick's choice of Balder as a husband for Jennifer, "but to him, women are… well… not quite so important to the world as men. He married my stepmother because we are distant kin and she had three healthy sons."
"He preferred to see his title handed over to distant kin," Royce summarized with ill-concealed distaste, "rather than handed down to you and, hopefully, his grandsons?"
"The clan means everything to him, and that is as it should be," Jennifer said, her loyalty driving her to speak with more force. "He did not feel I, as a woman, would have been able to hold their loyalty or guide them—even if King James had permitted my father's title to pass to me—which might have been a problem."
"Did he bother to petition James about it?"
"Well, no. But, as I said, 'twas not me, as a person, Father doubted, 'twas merely that I am a woman and therefore destined for other things."
Or other uses, Royce thought with anger on her behalf.
"You cannot understand my father, but 'tis because you do not know him. He is a great man and everyone feels as I do about him. We—all of us—would lay down our lives for him if he…" For a moment, Jenny thought she was either going quite mad or going quite blind—for standing just inside the woods, looking at her, his finger pressed to his lips in the signal for silence—was William. "… if he asked it," she breathed, but Royce didn't notice her sudden change in tone. He was occupied with fighting down a surge of irrational jealousy because her father could inspire such blind, total devotion in her.
Closing her eyes tightly, Jenny opened them again and stared harder. William had slipped back into the shadows of the trees, but she could still see the edge of his green jerkin. William was here! He'd come to take her back, she realized as joy and relief exploded in her breast.
"Jennifer—" Royce Westmoreland's quiet voice was edged with gravity, and Jenny tore her gaze from the place where William had vanished.
"Y-yes," she stammered, half expecting her father's entire army to leap from the woods at any instant and slaughter Royce where he sat. Slaughter him! The thought made bile rise up in her throat, and Jenny shot to her feet, obsessed with the simultaneous need to get him away from the woods and still manage to get into them herself.