Seeing the terror in her enormous eyes as she clutched mindlessly at both sides of the window casing, Royce said curtly, "Don't look down. The rope is stout, and I've lowered far heavier burdens than you."
A moan rose in Jenny's throat as his hands grasped her waist, relentlessly forcing her outward. "Grab the rope," he snapped, and Jenny obeyed at the same moment he lifted her clear of the sill, holding her dangling in a moment of breathless terror high above the murky water below.
"Push away from the wall with your feet," he ordered sharply. Jennifer, who was already out the window, twisting and turning helplessly as a leaf in the wind, groped frantically for the wall with her feet and finally managed to stop herself from revolving. Bracing her feet against the rough stones with only her head and neck above the window opening, she stared at him, her breath coming in shallow, terrified gasps.
And in that most unlikely—and least desirable—of moments, hanging eighty feet above a deep moat with only a strong pair of hands and a stout rope to keep her from plunging to her death, Jenny was granted the rare opportunity to see the Black Wolf's face register total, blank shock as Aunt Elinor rose up from beside Jenny's bed like a ghostly apparition in white bedgown and demanded imperiously, "What do you think you are doing?"
Royce's head jerked toward her, his face a mask of almost comical disbelief as he realized the utter helplessness of his plight, for he could neither reach for his dagger to threaten her, nor dash across the room to silence her.
At any other time, Jenny would have relished seeing him at such a complete loss, but not now, not when he literally held her life in his hands. Her last view of him was of his profile staring at Aunt Elinor, and then the rope began to play out and she was lowered joltingly down the endless wall, left to dangle and to pray and to wonder what in God's holy name was happening in her bedchamber and why Aunt Elinor had revealed herself at all, let alone at that moment.
Royce was wondering the same thing as he stared through the darkness at the elderly woman who had, for some incomprehensible reason of her own, deliberately waited until this impossible moment to present herself. He glanced at the rope biting into his wrists, automatically testing the tension, and then he finally answered her question. "I'm abducting your niece."
"Just as I thought."
Royce peered at her closely, uncertain whether Jennifer's aunt was simple-minded or devious. "What do you intend to do about it?"
"I could open the door behind me and call for help," she said, "but since you have Brenna captive, I probably oughtn't do that."
"No," Royce agreed with hesitation. "Probably not."
For an endless moment their gazes locked as they assessed one another, and then she said, "Of course, you could be lying, which I cannot know."
"I could be," Royce agreed cautiously.
"Then again, you might not. How did you manage to scale the wall?"
"How do you think I did?" Royce replied, shifting his gaze to the rope and stalling for time. His shoulders straining, his lower body braced against the wall, he continued slowly letting out the rope, hand over hand.
"Perhaps one of your men came up here during supper, pretending he wished to use the garderobe, since there was a crowd outside the one in the hall. Then he slipped in here, anchored the rope to that chest beneath the window, and tossed the other end out the window."
Royce confirmed her completely accurate conclusion with a slight, mocking inclination of his head. Her next words brought him another jolt—this time of alarm. "On further reflection, I do not think you're holding Brenna captive, after all"
Royce, who had deliberately misled Jennifer into believing he did, now had urgent need of the old woman's silence. "What makes you think not?" he asked, bargaining for precious time as he continued to let out the rope.
"For one thing, my nephew was posting guards in the hall at the foot of the stairs when I retired this eve—undoubtedly to prevent something such as this. And so, in order to take Brenna, you'd have had to scale this wall once already this eve, which would be a great deal of needless trouble since your only need for Brenna was to ensure that Jennifer left quietly with you."
That summary was so concise and so correct that Royce's opinion of the old woman climbed another notch. "On the other hand," he drawled calmly, watching her closely, trying to judge Jennifer's distance from the moat below, "you can't be certain I'm not a very cautious man."
"That's quite true," she agreed.
Royce breathed an inward sigh of relief that turned into alarm as she added, "But I do not believe you have Brenna. Therefore, I shall strike a bargain with you."
His brows snapped together. "What sort of bargain?"
"In return for my not summoning the guards now, you will lower me out of that window and take me with you tonight."
If she'd invited him to join her in bed, Royce would not have been more stunned. Recovering his composure with an effort, he assessed her thin, frail body and the danger of having to carry her with him down the rope. "It's out of the question," he snapped.
"In that case," she said, turning and extending her hand to the door, "you leave me no choice, young man—"
Stifling an oath at his current helplessness, Royce continued letting the rope play out. "Why should you want to go with us?"
Her voice lost its imperious confidence and her shoulders drooped a little. "Because my nephew means to send me back into seclusion on the morrow, and I truly cannot bear the thought of it. However," she added with a trace of slyness, " 'twould also be in your best interest to take me with you."
"Because," Aunt Elinor replied, "my niece, as you well know, can be a troublesome woman; however, she will do as I tell her."
A faint gleam of interest entered Royce's eyes as he considered the long journey ahead and the need for speed. A "cooperative" Jennifer could mean the difference between success and failure of his plan. However, as he considered Jennifer's rebelliousness, obstinacy, and cunning, he found it difficult to believe the red-haired she-devil would meekly acquiesce to her aunt. Even now he felt the imprint of her teeth in his bloodied palm. "Frankly, I find that difficult to believe."
The woman lifted her white-crowned head and looked at him down the length of her nose. " 'Tis our way, Englishman. 'Tis why her father sent for me and meant to send me with her when she left with you on the morrow."