Royce reached for his goblet of wine and she stole a glance at him from the corner of her eye. He was, she noted sourly, watching a particularly comely acrobat who was balancing on her hands on a bed of sharp swordpoints, her skirts tied to her knees to prevent them falling over her head—a necessity that allowed her shapely, stockinged legs to be exposed from knee to ankle. On the other side of the room, jesters wearing pointed hats with balls at the ends, cavorted before the table which ran the full length of the hall. The festive entertainment and lavish supper fare was her father's way of showing the hated English that the Merricks had pride and wealth.

Disgusted with Royce's open admiration for the acrobat with the pretty legs, Jenny reached for her goblet of wine, pretending to sip from it rather than face the malicious, scornful eyes of the English, who'd been watching her with derision all night. Based on some of the remarks she'd overheard, she had been judged and found completely lacking. "Look at that hair," one woman had sniggered. "I thought only horses had manes of that color."

"Look at that haughty face," a man had said as Jennifer walked past him with her head high and her stomach in knots. "Royce won't abide that haughty attitude of hers. Once he has her at Claymore, he'll beat it out of her."

Advertisement

Turning her gaze from the jesters, Jenny looked at her father, who was seated on her left. Pride filled her as she studied his aristocratic, bearded profile. He had such dignity… such noble bearing. In fact, whenever she'd watching him sitting in judgment in the great hall, listening to disputes that periodically cropped up among his people, she couldn't help thinking that God must look just like him, sitting on His heavenly throne and passing judgment on each soul who came before Him.

Tonight, however, her father seemed to be in a very strange mood, particularly given the awful circumstances. All evening, while talking and drinking with the other heads of the various clans in the hall, he'd seemed preoccupied and edgy, and yet… oddly… pleased. Satisfied about something. Feeling Jennifer's gaze on him, Lord Merrick turned to her, his sympathetic blue eyes drifting over her pale face. Leaning so close to her that his beard tickled her cheek, he spoke in her ear, his voice raised slightly, but not enough to carry to anyone else. "Do not vex yourself, my child," he said. "Take heart," he added, "all will be well."

That remark seemed so absurd that Jenny didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Seeing the panic in her widened blue eyes, he reached out and covered Jenny's clammy hand, which was at that moment clutching the edge of the table as if she were holding onto it for her life. His big warm hand covered hers reassuringly, and Jenny managed a wobbly smile.

"Trust me," he said, "all will be well on the morrow."

Jenny's spirits plummeted. After the morrow, it would be too late. After the morrow, she'd be wed for eternity to the man whose wide shoulders beside her made her feel puny and insignificant. She stole a quick, worried look at her betrothed to belatedly make certain he hadn't somehow managed to overhear the hushed conversation she'd just had with her father. But his attention was elsewhere. No longer idly watching the comely acrobat, Royce was gazing straight ahead.

Curious, Jenny surreptitiously followed the direction of his gaze and saw Arik, who'd just reentered the hall. As Jenny watched, the blond, bearded giant slowly nodded once, then once more at Royce. From the corner of her eyes, Jenny saw Royce's jaw harden, then he inclined his head almost imperceptibly, before calmly and deliberately returning his attention to the acrobat. Arik waited a moment and then casually walked over to Stefan, who was ostensibly watching the pipers.

-- Advertisement --

Jenny sensed that some sort of information had just been silently exchanged, and it made her intensely uneasy, particularly when her father's words were ringing through her mind. Something was happening, she knew it, though she knew not what. Some deadly serious game was being played and she wondered if her future was somehow hanging on the outcome.

Unable to endure the noise and suspense any more, Jenny decided to seek the peace of her bedchamber so that she could savor what little reason she had to be hopeful. "Papa," she said swiftly, turning to him, "I beg your leave to retire now. I would seek the peace of my bedchamber."

"Of course, my dear," he said at once. "You've had little peace in your short life, but 'tis just what you need, isn't it?"

Jenny hesitated a split second, feeling that there was some sort of double meaning in his words, but failing to understand it she nodded, and then she stood up.

The moment she moved, Royce's head turned toward her, though she could have sworn that he hadn't really known she was there all night. "Leaving?" he asked, his insolent gaze lifting to her bosom. Jenny froze at the inexplicable fury in his eyes when they finally lifted to hers. "Shall I accompany you to your chamber?"

With a physical effort, Jenny willed her body to move and straightened to a full standing position, giving herself the momentary pleasure of looking down on him. "Certainly not!" she snapped. "My aunt will accompany me."

Advertisement

"What a dreadful evening!" Aunt Elinor burst out the instant they reached Jenny's chamber. "Why, the way those English looked at you made me yearn to order them from the hall, which I swear I very nearly did. Lord Hastings, the Englishman from that odious Henry's court, was whispering to the fellow on his right throughout the meal, and ignoring me completely, which was more than rude of him, though I had no wish to talk to him. And, dear, I do not mean to add to your burdens, but I cannot like your husband at all."

Jenny, who'd forgotten her aunt's habit of running on like a little magpie, grinned affectionately at the disapproving Scotswoman, but her mind was on a different matter: "Papa seemed in a strange mood at supper."

"I always felt he did."

"Did what?"

"Have strange moods."

Jenny swallowed a hysterical, exhausted giggle and abandoned any further attempt to discuss the evening. Standing up, she turned around so her aunt could help unfasten her gown.

"Your father means to send me back to Glencarin," Aunt Elinor said.

Jenny's head jerked around and she stared at her aunt. "Why do you say such a thing?"

-- Advertisement --

"Because he did."

Completely confused, Jenny turned and took her firmly by the shoulders. "Aunt Elinor, exactly what did papa say?"

"This eve when I arrived later than expected," she replied, her narrow shoulders drooping, "I expected him to be vexed, which would have been most unfair, for it wasn't my fault it was raining so hard to the west. You know how it is this time of year—"

-- Advertisement --