Was there an emphasis on the word "sacrifice," Jenny wondered dazedly, but the emissary was already picking up the quill and pointedly handing it to her.
As if from afar, she watched her hand slowly reach for it, grasp it, and then sign the loathsome document, but when she straightened, she could not tear her eyes from it. Transfixed, she stared at her own name, written in the scholarly script Mother Ambrose had made her practice and perfect. The abbey! Suddenly, she could not, would not, believe God was actually letting this happen to her. Surely, during her long years at Belkirk abbey, God must have noticed her piety and obedience and devotion… well, at least her attempt to be obedient, pious, and devoted. "Please God…" she repeated wildly, over and over again. "Don't let this happen to me."
"Ladies and gentlemen—" Stefan Westmoreland's bold voice slashed through the hall, echoing off the stone walls. "A toast to the duke of Claymore and his new bride."
His new bride … the words reverberated dizzily in Jenny's brain, jarring her from her recollections of the past weeks. She looked around in a dazed panic, not certain whether her reverie had lasted seconds or minutes, and then she began to pray again:
"Please God, don't let this happen to me…" she cried in her heart one last time, but it was too late. Her widened eyes were riveted on the great oaken doors that opened into the hall to admit the priest for whom everyone was waiting.
"Friar Benedict," her father loudly proclaimed as he stood at the doors.
Jenny's breath stopped.
"Has sent us word he is unwell."
Her heart began to hammer.
"And the wedding cannot be performed until tomorrow."
"Thank you, God!"
Jenny tried to step back, away from the table, but the room was suddenly beginning to spin, and she couldn't move. She was going to faint, she realized with horror. And the person nearest to her was Royce Westmoreland.
Suddenly Aunt Elinor let out a cry of dismay as she recognized Jenny's plight, and she rushed forward, shamelessly jostling startled clansmen aside with her elbows. An instant later, Jenny found herself wrapped in a fierce hug, a parchment cheek pressed to hers, an achingly familiar voice bubbling in her ear. "Now, now, babe, take a deep breath, and you'll feel right as can be in a moment," the voice crooned. "Your Aunt Elinor is here now, and I'll take you upstairs."
The world tilted crazily, then suddenly righted itself. Joy and relief poured through Jenny as her father addressed the company in the hall:
" 'Twill only be a day's delay," he boomed, his back turned to the English. "Friar Benedict is only mildly afflicted, and the good man promises to leave his pallet and come here on the morrow to perform the ceremony, no matter how ill he may still be."
Jenny turned to leave the hall with her aunt, and she stole a quick glance at her "betrothed" to see his reaction to the delay. But the Black Wolf seemed not to know she was there. His narrowed gaze was trained on her father, and though his expression was as inscrutable as a sphinx, there was a cold, speculative look in his eyes. Outside, the storm that had been threatening all day suddenly whipped itself into a frenzy, and lightning split the sky, followed by the first ominous, primitive boom of thunder.
"However," her father continued, turning to address the entire hall without ever actually looking at the English on his right, "the feasting will take place as planned this eve. 'Tis my understanding from the emissary of King Henry that most of you wished to return to England at once on the morrow; however, I fear you may have to remain an extra day, since our roads aren't fit for English travel when the storms come."
A babble of voices burst out on both sides of the room. Ignoring the stares aimed at her, Jenny walked with her aunt through the crowded hall, straight to the stairs that led up two stories to her bedchamber. To sanity and solace. To a reprieve.
When the heavy oaken door of her bedchamber closed behind her, Jenny turned into Aunt Elinor's arms and wept unashamedly with relief.
"There, there now, my kitten," said her mother's elderly aunt, patting Jenny's back with her small hand, and talking in the eager, disjointed, determined way that was so much a part of her, "There's no doubt in my mind that when I didn't arrive yesterday or the day before, you gave up and thought I wasn't coming to be with you. 'Tis true, is it not?"
Swallowing back her tears, Jenny leaned back slightly in her aunt's fond embrace and nodded sheepishly. Ever since her father had suggested Aunt Elinor accompany Jenny to England, Jenny had been concentrating on that as the only joy on her gloomy, frightening horizon.
Cupping Jennifer's tear-streaked face in her palms, Aunt Elinor went on with bright determination. "But I am here now, and I've talked with your father this morn. I'm here and I'll be with you every day from now on. Won't that be nice? We'll have lovely times together. Even though you'll needs be married to that Englishman and reside with him, beast that he is, we'll forget him altogether and go about the way we used to do, before your father banished me to the dower house at Glencarin. Not that I blame him, for I do chatter so, but I fear it's worse now than ever, for I've been deprived so long of loved ones who I can talk with."
Jenny looked at her, a little dazed from her aunt's long, breathless speech. Smiling, she wrapped the small lady in a tight hug.
Seated at the long table on the dais, oblivious to the din of three hundred people dining and drinking around and below her, Jenny stared fixedly across the hall. Beside her, their elbows nearly touching, sat the man to whom the betrothal contract had bound her as irrevocably as the formal wedding ceremony which would follow tomorrow. For the last two hours that she'd been forced to sit beside him, she'd felt his icy gaze on her only thrice. It was as if he couldn't stand the sight of her and was only waiting to get her in his clutches so that he could begin making her life a hell.
A future of verbal attacks and physical beatings loomed before her, for even among the Scots it was not uncommon for a husband to beat his wife if he felt she was in need of discipline or encouragement. Knowing that, and knowing the temper and reputation of the angry, cold man beside her, Jenny was certain her life would be filled with misery. The tightness in her throat that had nearly choked her all day almost cut off her breath now, and she tried valiantly to think of something to look forward to in the life she'd be forced to lead. Aunt Elinor would be with her, she reminded herself. And someday—someday soon, considering her knowledge of her husband's lustful nature—she'd have children to love and care for. Children. She closed her eyes briefly and drew a painful breath, feeling the tightness slowly lessen. A baby to hold and cuddle would be something to look forward to. She'd cling to that thought, she decided.