"Aunt Elinor—" Jenny said in a dire, warning tone. "What did Papa say?"

"I'm most sorry, child. I've been so long without human company, storing up so much conversation for lack of anyone to speak to, that now that I have—someone to speak to, I mean—I cannot seem to stop. There were two pigeons who used to land on the window of my bedchamber at Glencarin, and we three conversed, though of course, pigeons have little to say—"

At this, the most ominous time of her life, Jenny's shoulders began to .shake with helpless laughter, and she wrapped her arms around the startled little woman, while mirth exploded from her chest and tears of fear and exhaustion filled her eyes.

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"Poor child," Aunt Elinor said, patting Jennifer's back. "You are under such strain and I'm but adding to it. Now then," she paused, thinking, "your papa told me at supper tonight that I should not plan on accompanying you after all, but that I could stay to see you married if I wished." Her arms fell from Jennifer and she slumped dejectedly onto the bed, her elderly, sweet face filled with appeal. "I would do anything not to go back to Glencarin. It's so very lonely, you see." Nodding, Jenny laid her hand atop her aunt's snowy hair and gently soothed the shining crown, remembering years past when her aunt had run her own huge household with bustling efficiency. It was grossly unjust that enforced solitude combined with advancing years had wrought such a change in the courageous woman. "I will appeal to him on the morrow to change his mind," she said with weary determination. Her emotions were battered from the long, trying day, and exhaustion was beginning to sweep over her in heavy, crushing waves. "Once he understands how much I want you with me," she said with a sigh, suddenly yearning for the comfort of her narrow cot, "he'll surely relent."

Chapter Sixteen

Nearly every foot of floor space, from the great hall to the kitchens, was covered with sleeping guests and exhausted servants, lying upon whatever they had, or could find, to cushion the hard stones. A chorus of snores rose and fell discordantly throughout the castle, clashing and ebbing like confused, tumultuous waves.

Unaccustomed to the peculiar sounds that disrupted the dark, moonless night, Jenny stirred fitfully in her sleep, then turned her face on the pillow and opened her eyes, startled into a somnambulant wakefulness by some unknown noise or movement in the room.

Her heart racing in confused fright, she blinked, trying to calm her rapid pulse and peer through the inky darkness of her bedchamber. On the low pallet beside Jenny's narrow bed, her aunt turned over. Aunt Elinor, Jenny realized with relief—no doubt Aunt Elinor's movements had awakened her. The poor thing suffered quite often from a stiffness in her joints that made sleeping on a hard pallet preferable to a soft bed, and even then she tossed and turned seeking comfort. Jenny's pulse returned to normal, she rolled onto her back, shivering from a sudden cold blast of air… A scream tore from her chest at the same instant a large hand clamped over her mouth, throttling it. While Jenny stared in paralyzed terror at the dark face only inches above her own, Royce Westmoreland whispered, "If you cry out, I'll knock you senseless." He paused, waiting for Jennifer to recover her wits. "Do you understand me?" he snapped.

Jenny hesitated, swallowed, then nodded jerkily.

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"In that case," he began, loosening his grip very slightly. The moment he did, Jennifer sank her teeth into the fleshy part of his palm and flung herself to the left, trying to gain the window and shout to the guards in the bailey below. He grabbed her before her feet left the bed and threw her onto her back, his wounded hand clamping down on her nose and mouth so tightly that she couldn't breath. "That's the second time you've drawn my blood," he bit out between his teeth, his eyes alive with fury. "And 'twill be the last"

He's going to suffocate me! Jenny thought wildly. She shook her head frantically, her eyes wide, her chest straining, heaving for air.

"That's better," he jeered, softly. " 'Tis wise for you to learn to fear me. Now listen to me very carefully, Countess," he continued, ignoring her terrified struggles. "One way or another, I'm going to lower you out that window over there. If you give me one more instant of trouble, you'll be unconscious when I do it, which greatly reduces your chances of reaching the ground alive, since you won't be able to hang on."

He lightened the pressure of his hand just enough for her to drag air into her lungs, but even when she'd gulped down several heaving breaths, Jenny could not stop trembling. "The window!" she mumbled against his muffling hand. "Are you mad? It's more than eighty feet above the moat."

Ignoring that, he fired his most deadly weapon, the threat guaranteed to demolish her resistance. "Arik is holding your sister prisoner, not to be released until I give the signal. If you do anything to prevent me signaling him, I wouldn't like to think what he might do to her."

What little fight Jenny had left within her drained away. This was like reliving a nightmare, and trying to escape it was pointless. Tomorrow she'd have been wed to the devil anyway, so what difference was one more night in what was bound to be years of misery and confusion.

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"Take your hand away," she said wearily. "I won't cry out. You can trust—"

The last sentence was a mistake; she knew it the instant the words escaped her lips and she saw his face tighten with furious contempt. "Get up!" he snapped, jerking her out of bed. Reaching out into the darkness, he snatched up the velvet wedding gown lying across a trunk at the foot of her bed and thrust it into her arms. Clutching the gown to her bosom, Jenny said shakily, "Turn your back."

"Shall I fetch you a dagger to use as well?" he jeered icily, and before she could reply, he snapped, "Get dressed!"

When she'd donned gown, slippers, and a dark blue mantle, he pulled her toward him, and before she realized what he meant to do, he was wrapping a black cloth around her mouth, gagging her. Finished, he spun her around and pushed her toward the window.

Jenny stared down in terror at the long smooth wall that dropped straight into a deep dark moat. It was like looking at her own death. Wildly she shook her head, but Royce shoved her forward, snatching the stout rope he'd left dangling over the window ledge and tying it tightly around her midriff.

"Hold onto the rope with your hands," he ordered mercilessly as he Wrapped the other end of the rope around his wrist, "and use your feet to hold your body away from the wall." Without hesitation he lifted her off her feet and onto the sill.

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