These facts, added to the knowledge that she suited him in bed more than any other, were the only facts Royce permitted himself to consider in making his decision. And having arrived at it, he acted with typical speed and resolve. Knowing that he was going to need a few minutes alone with Jennifer in order to make her see reason before she leapt blindly at Graverley's offer, he forced a dry smile to his face and said to his foe, "While my man is fetching Lady Jennifer to the hall, shall we lay down the gauntlet long enough to partake of a light repast?" With a wave of his arm, he gestured toward the table where servants were trooping into the hall carrying trays laden with whatever cold fare they'd been able to assemble on such short notice.

Graverley's brows pulled together into a suspicious frown, and Royce glanced at Henry's men-at-arms, some of whom had fought beside him in past battles, wondering if they'd soon be locked in mortal combat against each other. Turning back to Graverley, he snapped, "Well?" Then, because he knew that, even after Jennifer agreed to stay with him, he was still going to have to dissuade Graverley from forcing her to leave, Royce injected a note of pleasantness into his voice. "Lady Brenna is already on her way home with my brother's escort." Hoping to appeal to Graverley's innate weakness for gossip, Royce added almost cordially, " 'Tis a story which you'll undoubtedly enjoy hearing while we eat…"


Graverley's curiosity won out over his suspicion. After a split second's hesitation, he nodded and headed for the table. Royce made a show of starting to escort him partway there, then he excused himself for a moment. "Let me send someone for Lady Jennifer," he said, already turning to Arik.

In a low, swift voice, he told Arik, "Take Godfrey with you and find her, then bring her here."

The giant nodded as Royce added, "Tell her not to trust Graverley's offer nor accept it until she's heard me out in private. Make that clear to her."

The possibility that Jennifer might listen to his own offer and still insist on leaving was beyond the bounds of feasibility in Royce's estimation. Although he rejected the notion that his decision to wed her might be motivated by anything more than lust or compassion, he always made it a point in every battle to be aware of the strength of his opponent's motivation to oppose him. In this case, he was well aware that Jennifer's feelings for him were deeper than even she knew. She could not have given herself to him so completely in bed, or honestly admitted that she'd wanted to stay there, if that weren't so. And she certainly could not have kissed him the way she had on the hill a few minutes ago. She was too sweet, too honest, and innocent to feign those emotions.

Comfortable with the conviction that victory—after a minor skirmish first with Jennifer and then Graverley—was in his grasp, Royce strode to the table where Graverley had just seated himself.

"So," Graverley said, many long minutes later, after Royce had relayed the tale of Brenna's leaving, and added every possible inconsequential detail he could think of in order to stall for time, "you let the beautiful girl leave and kept the proud one? Forgive me if I find that difficult to fathom," Graverley said, daintily chewing on a hunk of bread.

Royce scarcely heard this; he was reviewing his alternatives in the event Graverley refused to accept Jennifer's decision to remain at Hardin. Having alternatives—and being ready to choose the best one in any volatile situation—was what had kept him alive and victorious in battle. Therefore, Royce decided, in the likely event that Graverley refused to accept Jennifer's decision to remain with Royce, Royce would then demand the right to hear Henry's edict from Henry himself.

Refusing to "believe" Graverley was not exactly treason, and Henry, although he would undoubtedly be angry, was unlikely to order Royce hanged for it. Once Henry heard Jennifer say, with her own soft lips, that she wished to wed Royce, there was a strong possibility Henry would like the notion. After all, Henry liked settling potentially dangerous political situations with expedient marriages, including his own.

That pleasant image of Henry benignly accepting Royce's defiance of a command and then promptly blessing their marriage was not very likely to become a reality, but Royce preferred to dwell on it rather than consider the remaining possibilities—such as the gallows, being drawn and quartered, or being stripped of the lands and estates he'd won at the repeated risk of his life. There were dozens of other equally unpleasant possibilities—and combinations of them—and, sitting at the table across from his foe, Royce considered them all. All except the possibility that Jennifer might have kissed him with her lips and heart and body, while she meant to escape the moment his back was turned.

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"Why did you let her go if she was such a beauty?"

"I told you," Royce said shortly, "she was sick." Trying to avoid talking further to Graverley, Royce made a great show of being hungry. Reaching forward, he pulled his own trencher of bread toward him and took a large bite. His stomach lurched in protest to the bread, which was covered with rancid goose and soaked with its grease.

Twenty-five minutes later, it was taking a physical effort for Royce to keep his growing tension from showing. Arik and Godfrey must have given Jennifer Royce's message and she was evidently balking; as a result they must be trying to reason with her and delaying bringing her into the hall. But would she balk? And if she did, what would Arik do? For a horrible moment, Royce imagined his loyal knight using physical force on Jennifer to make her acquiesce. Arik could snap Jennifer's arm in two with no more effort than it would take another man to break a tiny dry twig between his fingers. The thought made Royce's hand shake with alarm.

Across the distance of the rough-hewn planks that formed the makeshift table, Graverley was looking about him, his suspicion of trickery growing. Suddenly he leapt to his feet. "Enough of waiting!" he said sharply, glowering at Royce, who was slowly coming to his feet. "You're playing me for a fool, Westmoreland. I can sense it. You've not sent your men for her. If she is here, she's being hidden, and if that's the case, you're a greater fool than I thought." Pointing to Royce, he turned to his sergeant-at-arms and ordered, "Seize this man and then begin searching the castle for the Merrick woman. Tear this place apart, stone by stone if necessary, but find her! Unless I miss my guess, both women were murdered days ago. Question his men, use the sword if necessary. Do it!"

Two of Henry's knights stepped forward, under the apparent misapprehension that, as the king's men, they would be permitted to reach Royce without opposition. The moment they moved, Royce's men instantly closed ranks, their hands on the hilts of their swords, forming a human barrier between Henry's men and Royce.

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