"You dare to exonerate him?" her father breathed, looking at her as if she was changing into a serpent before his eyes. "Or can it be that your loyalty is to him, not us?"

Jenny felt as if he had slapped her, yet in some tiny part of her she realized her feelings for her former captor were a strange enigma, even to her. "I only seek peace—for all of us—"

" 'Tis obvious, Jennifer," her father said bitterly, "you cannot be spared the humiliation of hearing what your affianced husband thinks of this 'peaceful' union, and of you. Within hearing of everyone at Henry's court, he said he wouldn't want you if you were the queen of Scotland. When he refused to have you as his wife, his king threatened to deprive him of all he possessed and still he refused. It took the threat of death to finally make him agree! Afterward, he called you the Merrick slut; he boasted he would beat you into submission. His friends began placing wagers on him, laughing because he means to bring you to heel as he has brought Scotland to heel. That is what he thinks of you and this marriage! As for the rest of them—they've given you the title he conferred on you: The Merrick Slut!"

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Each word her father spoke struck Jenny's heart like a lash, making her cringe with a shame and hurt that was almost past bearing. When he was finished, she stood there while a blessed, cold numbness came over her, until she felt nothing at all. When she finally lifted her head and looked about at the tired, valiant Scots her voice was brittle and hard. "I hope they wagered all their wealth on it!"

Chapter Fifteen

Jenny stood alone on the parapet looking out across the moors, the wind playfully tossing her hair about her shoulders, her hands clutching the stone ledge in front of her. The hope that her "bridegroom" might not arrive for his wedding, which was to take place in two hours, had been snatched from her a few minutes ago when a castle guard had called out that riders were approaching. A hundred and fifty mounted knights were riding toward the drawbridge, the light from the setting sun glinting on their polished shields, turning them to shining gold. The figure of a snarling wolf danced ominously before her eyes, undulating on blue pennants, and waving on the horses' trappings and knights' surcoats.

With the same unemotional detachment she'd felt for five days, she stood where she was, watching as the large group neared the castle gates. Now she could see there were women among them and a few standards bearing markings other than the Wolf. She had been told some English nobles would be present tonight, but she had not expected any women. Her gaze shifted reluctantly to the broad-shouldered man riding at the front of the party, bareheaded and without shield or sword, mounted atop a great black destrier with flowing mane and tail that could have been sired only by Thor. Beside Royce rode Arik, also bareheaded and without armor, which Jenny assumed was their way of illustrating their utter contempt for any puny attempt clan Merrick might make to slay them.

Jenny couldn't see Royce Westmoreland's face at all from this distance, but as he waited for the drawbridge to be lowered, she could almost feel his impatience.

As if he sensed that he was being watched, he lifted his head abruptly, his gaze sweeping over the roofline of the castle, and without meaning to, Jenny pressed back against the wall, hiding herself from view. Fear. The first emotion she'd felt in five days, she realized with disgust, had been fear. Squaring her shoulders, she turned and reentered the castle.

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Two hours later, Jenny glanced at herself in the mirror. The feeling of pleasant numbness that had vanished on the parapet had deserted her for good, leaving her a mass of quaking emotion, but the face in the mirror was a pale, emotionless mask.

"It won't be nearly so terrible as you think, Jenny," Brenna said, trying with all her heart to cheer her as she helped two maids straighten the train of Jenny's gown. " 'Twill all be over in less than an hour."

"If only the marriage could be as short as the wedding," Jenny said miserably.

"Sir Stefan is down in the hall. I saw him myself. He'll not let the duke do anything to disgrace you down there. He's an honorable, strong knight."

Jenny turned, the brush in her hand forgotten, studying her sister's face with a wan, puzzled smile. "Brenna, are we discussing the same 'honorable knight' who kidnapped us in the first place?"

"Well," said Brenna defensively, "unlike his wicked brother, at least he didn't attempt to make any immoral bargains with me afterward!"

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"That's quite true," Jenny said, completely distracted for the moment from her own woes. "However, I wouldn't count on his good will tonight. I've little doubt he'll be longing to wring your neck when he sets eyes on you, because now he knows you tricked him."

"Oh, but he doesn't feel that way at all!" Brenna burst out. "He told me it was a very daring and brave thing I did." Ruefully, she added. "Then he said he could wring my neck for it. And besides, 'twasn't him I tricked, 'twas his wretched brother!"

"You've already spoken to Sir Stefan?" Jenny said, dumbfounded. Brenna had never shown the slightest interest in any of the young swains who'd been pursuing her for the last three years, yet now she was evidently meeting in secret with the last man in the world her father would permit her to wed.

"I managed to have a few words with him in the hall, when I went to ask William a question," Brenna confessed, her cheeks stained hot pink, then she suddenly became absorbed in straightening the sleeve of her red velvet gown. "Jenny," she said softly, her head bent, "now that there's to be peace between our countries, I was thinking I should be able to send you messages often. And if I included one for Sir Stefan, would you see that he receives it?"

Jenny felt as if the world were turning upside down. "If you're certain you want to do that, I will. And," she continued, hiding a laugh that was part hysteria and part dismay for her sister's hopeless attachment, "will I also be including messages from Sir Stefan with mine to you?"

"Sir Stefan," Brenna replied, lifting her smiling eyes to Jenny's, "suggested just that."

"I—" Jenny began, but she broke off as the door to her chamber was swung open and a tiny, elderly woman rushed forward, then stopped in her tracks. Dressed in an outdated, but lovely gown of dove gray satin lined with rabbit, an old-fashioned, gauzy white wimple completely swathing her neck and part of her chin, and a silvery veil trailing down her shoulders, Aunt Elinor looked from one girl to the other in confusion. "I know you're little Brenna," Aunt Elinor said, beaming at Brenna, and then at Jenny, "but can this beautiful creature be my plain little Jenny?"

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