"You do!" she exclaimed, "But you said 'twould be three days, not two, before we reached Claymore."

"The roads were drier than I expected."

Horrified that his vassals were going to have their first glimpse of her when she looked such a fright, Jenny's hand flew automatically to her tangled hair in the gesture that universally signified a woman's worry over her appearance.

Advertisement

The gesture was not lost on Royce, who politely halted the big destrier so that Jennifer could try to comb the tangles from her hair with her fingers. He watched her, amused by her concern over her appearance, for she looked adorable with her hair tousled and her creamy skin and vivid blue eyes glowing with health from her days in the sun and fresh air. In fact, he decided, his first official act as her husband was going to be to forbid her to hide that magnificent mass of golden red hair beneath the usual veils and hoods. He liked it down, falling about her shoulders in wild abandon, or better yet, spread across his pillow like thick, waving satin…

"You might have warned me!" Jenny said darkly, wriggling in the saddle and trying ineffectually to smooth the wrinkles from her ruined velvet gown, while she glanced anxiously toward the people lining the road up ahead. The liveried retainers riding toward them in the distance were obviously an honor guard coming to escort their lord home with appropriate fanfare. "I never imagined this was your demesne," she said nervously. "You've been looking at it as if you've not set eyes on it before."

"I haven't. At least not when it looked like this. Eight years ago, I commissioned architects to come here, and together we drew plans for the home I wanted when I was finished with battles. I kept meaning to come back here to see it, but Henry always had urgent need of me somewhere else. In a way, it's been for the best. I have amassed a large enough fortune now to ensure that my sons will never have to earn their gold with their own muscle and blood, as I have done."

Jenny stared at him in confusion. "Did you say you're done with battles?"

His eyes flicked to her face and he said with amused irony, "Had I attacked Merrick 'twould have been my last battle. As it is, I breached my last castle wall when I took you from there."

Jenny was so dazed by these startling revelations that she actually entertained the absurd thought that he might somehow have made this decision on her account, and before she could stop herself, she blurted, "When did you decide all this?"

-- Advertisement --

"Four months ago," he stated, his voice harsh with resolve. "If I ever raise my arm in battle again, 'twill be because someone is laying siege to what is mine." He was silent after that, staring straight ahead, and then the tense muscles of his face slowly relaxed. When he finally pulled his gaze from the castle, he looked down at her with a wry smile and said, "Do you know what I'm looking forward to most in my new life—next to a soft bed to sleep in at night?"

"No," Jenny said, studying his chiseled profile, feeling as if she scarcely knew him at all. "What are you most looking forward to?"

"Food," he stated unequivocally, his spirits restored. "Good food. No—not just good, but excellent, and served three times a day. Delicate French food and spicy Spanish food and wholesome English food. I want it served on a plate, cooked to perfection—instead of hanging off a spit, raw or else charred. And then I want desserts—pastries and tarts and every kind of sweets." He shot her a look filled with amused self-mockery as he continued, "On the night before a battle begins, most men think of their homes and families. Do you know what I used to lie awake thinking of?"

"No," Jenny said, fighting back a smile.

"Food."

She lost the battle to remain aloof and burst out laughing at this incredible admission from the man the Scots called the son of Satan, but although Royce spared her a brief, answering smile, his attention had reverted to the view in the distance, his gaze roving over the land and its castle as if he was drinking in the sight of it. "The last time I was here," he explained " 'twas eight years ago, when I worked with the architects. The castle had been under siege for six months, and the outer walls were in ruins. Part of the castle itself had been destroyed, and all these hills had been burned."

Advertisement

"Who laid siege to it?" Jenny asked suspiciously.

"I did."

A sarcastic reply sprang to her lips, but she was suddenly loath to spoil their pleasant mood. Instead, she said lightly, " 'Tis little wonder the Scots and English must always be at odds, for there's naught in common in the way we think."

"Really," he said, grinning at her upturned face. "Why so?"

"Well, you will agree," she replied with polite superiority, " 'tis a very queer custom the English have of razing your own castles—as you've done for centuries—when you could be fighting with Scot—with other enemies," she corrected hastily "and razing their castles."

"What an intriguing idea," he teased. "However, we do try to do both." While she chuckled at his answer, he continued, "However, if my knowledge of Scottish history serves me, it seems the clans have been battling with each other for centuries, and still managing to cross our borders and raid and burn, and generally 'annoy' us."

Deciding it was best to drop the subject, she glanced back at the enormous castle shining in the sun and asked curiously, "Is that why you laid siege to this place—because you wanted it for yourself?"

"I attacked it because the baron to whom it belonged had conspired with several other barons in a plot to have Henry murdered—a plot which nearly succeeded. This place was called Wilsely then—after the family to whom it belonged, but Henry gave it to me with the stipulation that I rename it."

-- Advertisement --

"Why?"

Royce's glance was wry. "Because Henry was the one who raised Wilsely to baron and rewarded him with the place. Wilsely had been one of his few trusted nobles. I named it Claymore in honor of my mother's family and my father's," Royce added, as he spurred his horse, sending Zeus forward in a flashy trot.

The riders from the castle had wended down the hill and were bearing down on them from the front. Behind her the low, constant rumble that had been moving ever closer and louder became the distinct sound of galloping horses. Jenny glanced over her shoulder and saw all fifty men closing in on them from behind. "Do you always plan things with such precise timing?" she asked, her eyes twinkling with reluctant admiration.

-- Advertisement --