She stared in stunned admiration at the bride, who was standing before her clad in a cream velvet and satin gown with a low, square-cut bodice, high waist, and wide full sleeves heavily encrusted in pearls and sprinkled with rubies and diamonds from elbow to wrist. A magnificent satin cape lined in velvet was also bordered in pearls, attached at Jenny's shoulders with a pair of magnificent gold brooches set with pearls, rubies, and diamonds. Her hair spilled over her shoulders and back, glinting like the gold and rubies she wore.
"Cream velvet—" said Aunt Elinor smiling and opening her arms. "So very impractical, my love, but so very beautiful! Almost as beautiful as you—"
Jenny raced into her embrace. "Oh, Aunt Elinor, I'm so very happy to see you. I was afraid you weren't coming—"
Brenna answered a knock on the door, and then she turned to Jenny, her words abruptly choking Jenny's outpouring of delighted greeting: "Jenny, Papa desires you to come downstairs now. The documents are ready to be signed."
A terror that was almost uncontrollable swept over Jenny, twisting her stomach into sick knots and draining the color from her face. Aunt Elinor tucked her arm in Jenny's and, in an obvious effort to distract her from concentrating on what awaited her, she gently drew Jennifer toward the door, while chatting about the scene that awaited her downstairs.
"You shan't believe your eyes when you see how full the hall is," she jabbered in the mistaken belief that a crowd would lessen Jenny's fear of a confrontation with her future husband. "Your papa has one hundred of your men standing at arms at one side of the hall, and he"—the faint sniff of superiority in her voice made it clear "he" was the Black Wolf—"has at least that many of his own knights standing directly across the room, watching your men."
Jenny walked woodenly down the long hall, each slow step feeling like her last one. "It sounds," she said tautly, "like the setting for a battle, not a betrothal."
"Well, yes, but it isn't. Not exactly. There are more nobles than knights down there. King James must have sent half of his court here to witness the ceremony, and the heads of the nearby clans are here, too."
Jenny took another wooden step down the long dark hallway. "I saw them arrive this morning."
"Yes, well, King Henry must have wanted this to seem a special occasion for celebration, for there are all sorts of English nobles here, too, and a few of them brought their wives. It's very wondrous to behold—the Scots and the English in their velvets and satins all gathered together…"
Jenny turned and started the short, steep descent down the winding stone steps to the hall. "It's very quiet down there—" she said shakily, her ears picking up the muted sounds of male voices raised in forced joviality, a few coughs, a woman's nervous laughter… and nothing else. "What are they all doing?
"Why, they're either exchanging cold looks," Aunt Elinor cheerfully replied, "or pretending they don't know the other half of the room is present."
Jenny was rounding the last turn near the bottom of the stairs. Pausing to steady herself, she bit her trembling lip, then with a defiant toss of her head, she lifted her chin high and walked forward.
An ominous hush slowly swept over the hall as Jennifer came into view, and the spectacle that greeted her eyes was as foreboding as the silence. Torches burned brightly in stands mounted on the stone walls, casting their light on the staring, hostile spectators. Men-at-arms stood stiff and straight beneath the torches; ladies and lords stood side by side—the English on one side of the hall and the Scots on the opposite—exactly as Aunt Elinor had said.
But it was not the guests who made Jenny's knees begin to shake uncontrollably, it was the tall, powerfully built figure who stood aloof in the center of the hall, watching her with hard, glittering eyes. Like an evil specter, he loomed before her in a wine-colored cloak lined with sable, emanating wrath so forceful that even his own countrymen were standing well away from him.
Jennifer's father came forward to take Jennifer's hand, a guard on each side of him, but the Wolf stood alone. Omnipotent and contemptuous of his paltry enemy, he openly scorned the need for protection from them. Her father tucked her hand through his arm as he guided her forward, and the wide path through the great hall that divided the Scots from the English widened yet more as they approached. On her right stood the Scots, their proud, stern faces turned toward her with anger and sympathy; on her left were the haughty English, staring at her with cold hostility. And straight ahead, blocking her way, was the sinister figure of her future husband, his cloak thrown back over his wide shoulders, his feet planted slightly apart, his arms crossed over his chest, inspecting her as if she were some repulsive creature crawling across the floor.
Unable to endure his gaze, Jenny focused her eyes on a point just above his left shoulder, and wondered a little wildly if he meant to stand aside and let them pass. Her heart thundering like a battering ram in her chest, she clutched her father's arm, but still the devil refused to budge, deliberately forcing Jenny and her father to walk around him. It was, Jenny realized hysterically, only the first act of contempt and humiliation to which he would treat her publicly and privately for the rest of her life.
Fortunately, there was little time to dwell on that, because another horror awaited her directly ahead—the signing of her betrothal contract, which was spread open upon a table. Two men stood beside it, one of them the emissary from King James's court, the other the emissary from King Henry's court, both of whom were here to witness the proceedings.
At the table, Jennifer's father stopped and released her clammy hand from the comfort of his grip. "The Barbarian," he enunciated clearly and audibly, "has already signed it."
The hostility in the room seemed to escalate to frighteningly tangible proportions at his words, crackling through the air like a million daggers hurtling back and forth from the Scots side of the hall to the English. In frozen, mute rebellion, Jenny stared at the long parchment containing all the words that set out her dowry and condemned her irrevocably to a life, and all eternity, as the wife and chattel of a man she loathed, and who loathed her. At the bottom of the parchment, the duke of Claymore had scrawled his signature in a bold hand—the signature of her captor, and now her jailor.
On the table beside the parchment lay a quill and inkhorn and, though Jenny willed herself to touch the quill, her trembling fingers refused to obey. The emissary from King James moved forward, and Jenny looked up at him in helpless, angry misery. "My lady," he said with sympathetic courtesy and the obvious intention of showing the English in the hall that Lady Jennifer held the respect of King James himself, "our sovereign king, James of Scotland, has bade me to extend his greetings to you, and to further say that all of Scotland is indebted to you for this sacrifice you make on behalf of our beloved homeland. You are an honor to the great clan of Merrick and to Scotland as well."