"Claymore has to marry the Merrick slut!" the elderly gentleman obligingly called out.
In the uproar that followed, only two nobles in the antechamber remained still and silent—Lord MacLeash and Lord Dugal, the emissaries from King James, who were waiting for the signed marriage agreement which they were to take to Scotland tonight.
Within two hours, word had passed from noble to servant to guards outside, and then to passersby: "Claymore has to marry the Merrick slut."
In answer to her father's summons, Jenny dragged her thoughts from the memories of the handsome, gray-eyed man who still haunted her days and nights. Laying down her embroidery, she gave Brenna a puzzled look, then she pulled her dark green mantle closer about her shoulders and left the solar. Male voices raised in debate made her pause on the gallery and glance down into the hall. At least two dozen men—kinsmen and nobles from surrounding demesnes—were gathered around the fire, their rough-hewn faces grim as death. Friar Benedict was there, too, and the sight of his stern, icy face made Jenny cringe with a combination of alarm and shame. Even now, she could recall every word of his blistering tirade when she confessed to him the sin she had committed with Royce Westmoreland: "You shamed your father, your country, and your God with your uncontrollable desires for this man. Were you not guilty of the sin of lust you' d have surrendered your life before your honor!" Instead of feeling cleansed, which she normally did after confessing her sins, Jenny had felt dirtied and almost beyond salvation.
Now, in retrospect, she thought it a little odd that he had placed God in the last position of importance when he listed those she had shamed. And despite her lingering guilt at having actually enjoyed the things Lord Westmoreland had done to her, she refused to believe her God would blame her for making the original bargain. In the first place, Lord Westmoreland had not wanted her life, he had wanted her body. And although she'd been wrong to enjoy lying with a man who was not her husband, the actual bargain had been nobly made for the sake of sparing Brenna's life—or so she'd thought.
The God whom Friar Benedict spoke of in such frightening terms of fiery vengeance and righteousness, was not the same God to whom Jenny frequently poured out her heart. Her God was reasonable, kind, and only somewhat stern. Hopefully, He even understood why she could not seem to permanently blot out of her mind the exquisite sweetness of the night she'd spent in Royce Westmoreland's arms. The memory of his passionate kisses, of his whispered words of praise and passion, kept coming back to torment her, and she couldn't prevent it. Sometimes, she didn't want to try… several times, she'd dreamed of him, of the way he looked when that lazy white smile swept across his tanned face, or…
Jenny jerked her mind from such thoughts and stepped into the hall, her reluctance to face the men assembled around the fireplace growing with each step she took. Until now, she'd remained virtually secluded within Merrick, needing somehow the security of its ancient, familiar walls around her. Despite her self-imposed seclusion, she had no doubt the men in the hall knew what she had done. Her father had demanded a full accounting of her abduction, and partway through Jenny's explanation, he had interrupted her to bluntly demand to know if the Wolf had forced her to lie with him. Jenny's face had given away the answer, and despite her efforts to ease his fury by explaining about the bargain and assuring him that her captor had not been brutal, his rage was uncontainable. His shouted curses had rung to the rafters, and the reason for it had not been kept secret. Although, whether the men in the hall viewed her as a helpless victim or a common slut, she had no way of knowing.
Her father was standing at the fireplace, his rigid back to his guests. "You wished to see me, Father?"
Without turning he spoke, and the ominous tone of his voice made alarm tingle up her spine. "Sit down, daughter," he said, and her cousin, Angus, quickly stood up to offer Jenny his chair. The swiftness, the eagerness of the polite gesture took Jenny by surprise.
"How are you feeling, Jenny?" Garrick Carmichael asked, and Jenny stared at him in amazement, a lump of emotion filling her throat. It was the first time since Becky's drowning that Becky's father had spoken to her.
"I—I'm very well," she whispered, looking at him with her heart in her eyes. "And I—I thank you for asking, Garrick Carmichael."
"Yer a brave lass," another of her kinsmen spoke up, and Jenny's heart began to soar.
"Aye," said another. "Yer a true Merrick."
A fleeting thought passed her delighted mind that, despite her father's inexplicably black look, this was beginning to feel like the best day of her life.
Hollis Fergusson spoke up, his voice gruff as he issued an apology on behalf of everyone for their past behavior: "William has told us all about what happened while you were in the clutches of the Barbarian —about how you escaped on his own horse, and attacked him with his sword, and slashed their blankets. You've made him a laughingstock with your escape. A lass with courage like yours would no' sneak about doin' the sorts o' vile things Alexander accused you o' doin. William has made us see that. Alexander was mistaken in you."
Jenny's gaze flew to her stepbrother's face, and there was a world of love and gratitude in her eyes.
"I only told the truth," he said, his smile gentle and inexplicably sad as he returned her gaze—as if his pleasure in what he'd accomplished was being dimmed by something else weighing heavily on him.
"Yer a Merrick," Hollis Fergusson put in proudly. "A Merrick through and through. Not one 'o us has ever given the Wolf a taste of our blades, but you did, small though you are, and a lass, at that."
"Thank you, Hollis," Jenny said softly.
Only Malcolm, Jenny's youngest stepbrother, continued to regard her as he had in the past, his face filled with cold malice.
Her father turned abruptly, and the expression on his face banished some of Jenny's delight. "Has something… bad happened?" she asked hesitantly.
"Aye," he said bitterly. "Our fates have been decided by our meddling monarch, not ourselves." Clasping his hands behind his back, he began to pace slowly back and forth while he explained in a harsh monotone: "When you and your sister were taken, I petitioned King James for two thousand armed men to join with ours so that we could pursue the Barbarian into England. James sent word back, commanding me to take no action until he had time to demand your release, as well as reparation for this outrage, from Henry. He had just agreed on a truce with the English, he said.