Royce frowned at her pale face. "What's wrong—you seem—"
"Restless!" Jenny burst out. "I feel the need to stroll just a bit. I—"
Royce rolled to his feet and was about to ask the reason for her restlessness when he saw Arik walking up the hill. "Before Arik reaches us," he began, "I would like to tell you something."
Jenny swung around, her gaze freezing on the mighty Arik while crazy relief surged through her: With Arik here, at least Royce wouldn't die without someone to fight at his side. But if there was fighting, then her father or William or one of the clan might be killed.
"Jennifer—" Royce said, his tone reflecting his exasperation at her flagging attention.
Somehow, Jenny made herself turn to him and look attentive. "Yes?" If her father's men were going to attack Royce, surely they'd have moved from the woods by now; he'd never be more vulnerable than he was at this moment. Which meant, Jenny thought wildly, William must be alone and he'd seen Arik. If that was true, and she hoped at the moment it was, then she had only to stay calm and find some way to return to the woods as soon as possible.
"No one is going to lock you in a dungeon," he said with gentle firmness.
Gazing up into his compelling gray eyes, it suddenly dawned on Jenny that she'd be leaving him soon—perhaps within the hour, and the realization pierced her with unexpected poignancy. True, he had condoned her abduction, but he had never subjected her to the atrocities any other captor would have forced upon her. Moreover, he was the only man who'd admired her courage instead of condemning her headstrong conduct; she'd caused the death of his horse, and stabbed him, and made a fool of him by escaping. All things considered, she realized with an awful ache behind her eyes, he'd treated her with more gallantry —his own style of gallantry—than any courtier might have done. In fact, if things were different between their families and their countries, Royce Westmoreland and she would have been friends. Friends? He was more than that already. He was her lover.
"I—I'm sorry," Jenny said in a suffocated voice, "my mind has gone abegging. What did you say just now?"
"I said," he repeated with a slight worried frown at her panicked expression, "I don't want you imagining you're in any sort of peril. Until the time comes to send you home, you will remain under my protection."
Jenny nodded and swallowed. "Yes. Thank you," she whispered, her voice flooded with emotion.
Misinterpreting her tone for one of gratitude, Royce smiled lazily. "Would you care to express your gratitude with a kiss?" To his amazed delight, Jenny needed no strong persuasion at all. Reaching her arms around his neck, she kissed him with desperate ardor, crushing her lips to his in a kiss that was part farewell and part fear, her hands roving over the bunched muscles of his back, unconsciously memorizing the contours of it, clasping him to her tightly.
When he finally lifted his head, Royce gazed down at her, his arms still wrapped tightly around her. "My God," he whispered. He started to lower his head again, then stopped, his gaze on Arik. "Damn, here's Arik." He took her arm and guided her toward the knight, but when they reached Arik, he instantly drew Royce aside, speaking swiftly.
Royce turned back to Jennifer, preoccupied with the unpleasant news of Graverley's arrival. "We'll have to go back," he began, but the look of misery on her face tugged at his heart. This morning, she had lit up like a candle when he'd offered to take her out of the castle. "I've been confined to a tent or else under guard for so long," she'd told him, "that the thought of sitting on a hillside makes me feel reborn!"
Obviously, the time out here had done her a world of good, Royce thought wryly, recalling the ardor of her kiss, and wondering if he would be insane to offer her the right to remain here alone. She was on foot, with no way to get a horse, and she was intelligent enough to know that if she tried to escape on foot, the five thousand men camped all around the castle would be able to find her within an hour. Moreover, he could instruct the guards on the wall to keep an eye on her.
With the taste of her kiss still on his lips, and the memory of her decision not to try to escape from camp several nights ago still fresh in his mind, he walked over to her. "Jennifer," he said, his reservations about the wisdom of what he was doing making his voice sound stern, "if I allow you to remain out here, can I trust you to stay in this spot?"
The look of joyous disbelief on her face was reward enough for his generosity.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, unable to believe this boon from fate.
The lazy smile that wafted across his bronzed features made him look very handsome and almost boyish. "I won't be long," he promised.
She watched him walk away with Arik, unconsciously memorizing the way he looked, his broad shoulders encased in a tan jerkin, a brown belt drawn loosely around his narrow waist, and thick hose outlining the heavy muscles of his thighs above his high boots. Partway down the hill, he stopped and turned. Raising his head, Royce scanned the trees, his black brows drawn into a frown, as if he sensed the threat to him lurking in the woods. Terrified that he'd seen or heard something and meant to come back, Jenny did the first thing that came to mind: Raising her hand in a slight wave, she drew his attention and smiled at him, then she touched her fingers to her lips. The gesture had been unintended, a forestalled impulse to cover her mouth and stifle a cry of panic. To Royce, it appeared that she was blowing him a kiss. With a grin that bespoke his surprised gratification, he lifted his hand in a gesture of farewell to Jennifer. Beside him, Arik spoke sharply, and he pulled his attention from Jennifer and the woods. Turning, he walked swiftly down the steep hill beside Arik, his mind pleasurably occupied with the enthusiastic ardor of Jennifer's kiss and his body's equally enthusiastic response to it.
"Jennifer!" William's low, urgent voice from the woods behind her made Jenny's entire body tense for her impending flight, but she was careful not to make a move for the woods—not until the earl had disappeared through the hidden doorway cut into the thick stone wall surrounding Hardin castle. Then she whirled, almost stumbling in her haste, as she raced up the short incline and bolted into the woods, her gaze searching madly for her rescuers. "William, where—" she began, then stifled a scream as strong, wiry arms caught her at the waist from behind, lifting her clear off the ground, hauling her into the deeper seclusion of the ancient oaks.
"Jennifer!" William whispered hoarsely, his beloved face only inches from hers. Regret and anxiety were etched into his worried frown. "My poor girl—" he began, his eyes searching her face, and then, obviously recalling the kisses he'd witnessed, he said bleakly, "He forced you to become his mistress, didn't he?"