Henry's voice hardened. " 'Tis the joke of Scotland that my own champion was duped by a pair of young maids. 'Tis also a story that's been well told and embellished in my own court. The next time you confront an adversary, Claymore, you may find he laughs in your face instead of trembling with fear."

A moment ago, Royce didn't think he could be angrier than he'd been that day at Hardin when Jennifer escaped. However, the realization that Brenna Merrick, who cried at the sight of her own shadow, had actually duped him was enough to make him grind his teeth. And that was before the rest of Henry's words sank in: Jennifer's tears and pleading for her sister's life had been false! She had feigned all that. No doubt when she offered her virginity for her sister's "life," she expected to be rescued before nightfall!

Henry abruptly stood up and walked down the steps, beginning to pace slowly. "You've not heard the lot of it! There has been an outcry over all this, an outcry that has surpassed even my expectations when you first sent me word about the identity of your hostages. I did not grant you an audience until now because I was waiting for your reckless brother to turn up, so that I could question him in person as to the exact location whence he snatched the girls. It seems," King Henry said in an explosive breath, "that there is every possibility he snatched them from the grounds of the abbey where they were staying, exactly as their father is claiming.

Advertisement

"As a result, Rome has been demanding reparation from me in every conceivable form! Then, besides the protests from Rome and all Catholic Scotland over the girls' abduction from a holy abbey, there's the MacPherson, who's threatening to lead every clan in the highlands into war against us because you despoiled his affianced wife!"

"His what!" Royce hissed.

Henry glanced at him in disgruntled annoyance. "You were not aware that the young woman whom you deflowered, and then lavished your jewels upon, was already betrothed to the most powerful chieftain in Scotland?"

Rage exploded in a red mist before Royce's eyes, and in that moment he was absolutely convinced that Jennifer Merrick was the most consummate liar on earth. He could still see her, her innocent smiling eyes never leaving his as she talked about being sent to the abbey—leading him to believe that she'd been sent to remain, possibly for the rest of her life. She had failed to mention that she was on the brink of marriage. And then he remembered her poignant little story about planning a dream kingdom, and the fury inside him was almost past bearing. He had no doubt that she had invented it all… everything. She had played upon his sympathies as skillfully as a harpist plays upon the strings of his instrument.

"You are spoiling the shape of that goblet, Claymore," Henry pointed out with wry irritability, watching as Royce's clenched hand forced the silver rim of the goblet into an oval. "By the way, since you haven't denied it, I assume you did bed the Merrick woman?"

His jaw clenched tight with rage, Royce inclined his head in the barest sign of a nod.

-- Advertisement --

"Enough discussion," the monarch snapped abruptly, all casual friendliness banished from his voice. Putting his goblet down on a richly carved table of gilded oak, he ascended the steps to the throne, saying, "James cannot agree to a treaty when his subjects are in an uproar over our violation of one of their abbeys. Nor will Rome be satisfied with a mere gift to their coffers. Therefore, James and I have agreed there is only one solution, and we are in complete accord for once."

Switching to the royal plural for emphasis, the king announced in ringing tones that brooked no objection, "It is Our decision that you will proceed to Scotland at once, whereupon you will wed Lady Jennifer Merrick in the presence of diplomatic emissaries from both courts, and in full view of her kinsmen. Several members from Our own court will accompany you on your journey, their presence at the nuptials to represent the English nobility's full acceptance of your wife as an equal in rank."

Having spoken, Henry kept his ominous gaze leveled on the tall man who was standing before him, white-faced with fury, a nerve jerking in his dark cheek. When he could finally trust himself to speak, Royce's voice erupted like hissing steam. "You ask the impossible."

"I've asked it of you before—in battle—and you've not refused me. You've no reason, and no right to do so now, Claymore. Moreover," he continued, reverting back to the royal plural while his tone grew more dire, "We did not ask, We commanded. Furthermore, for not yielding to Our emissary at once when he conveyed Our orders to release your hostage, We hereby fine you the estate of Grand Oak together with all income derived therefrom during this past year."

So consumed with fury was Royce over the thought of wedding that scheming, deceitful red-haired witch, he scarcely heard the rest of what Henry was saying.

"However," said the royal voice, gentling somewhat, now that its owner could see that the earl of Claymore was apparently not going to voice foolish—and intolerable—objections. "In order that the estate of Grand Oak will not be entirely lost to you, I shall grant it to your bride as a wedding gift." Ever mindful of the need to continue fattening his coffers, the king added politely, "You shall, however, forfeit the income derived from it for the full year past."

Advertisement

With his hand he gestured toward the rolled parchment resting on the table at the foot of the dais beside his discarded wine goblet. "That parchment will leave here within an hour in the hands of James's emissaries, who will deliver it directly to him. It sets forth all I've told you—everything that James and I have already agreed upon—and I've set my hand and seal to it. As soon as he receives it, James will send his emissaries to Merrick, who will then inform the earl of the marriage that is to take place at once between his daughter and you at Merrick keep, a fortnight hence."

Having said all that, King Henry paused, waiting for polite words of acceptance and a promise of obedience from his subject.

His subject, however, spoke in the same infuriated hiss he'd spoken in before. "Is that all, Sire?"

Henry's brows snapped together, his tolerance at an end. "I'll have your word to obey. Make your choice," he growled. "The gallows, Claymore, or else your word to marry the Merrick woman with all haste."

"With all haste," Royce bit out between his teeth.

"Excellent!" Henry decreed, slapping his knee, his good will completely restored now that all was settled. "To tell you truly, my friend, I thought for a moment you actually meant to choose death over a wedding."

-- Advertisement --