Her insulting words didn't put so much as a scratch in his damnable composure, but his voice seemed to gentle. " 'Twas not my intention to come in here and give you news that would cause you to dread the night, but 'tis kinder to tell you how things are going to be than to let you wonder. There are many other matters that need to be settled between us, but they can wait until later. However, to answer your original question, this was my real purpose in coming in here—"

Jenny missed the imperceptible movement of his arm and continued to watch his face in wary confusion, thinking he was going to try to kiss her. He must have guessed it, because his firm, sensual lips twisted with a smile, but he continued to look back at her face without moving toward it. After a long moment, he said softly, "Give me your hand, Jennifer."


Jenny glanced down at her hand and, in complete confusion, reluctantly pried her fingers from their grasp on the throat of her wrapper. "My hand?" she repeated blankly, holding it an inch or two toward him.

He took her fingers in his left hand, his warm grasp sending unwanted tingles up her arm; then and only then did she finally notice the magnificent ring resting in a small jewel-encrusted box in the outstretched palm of his right hand. Embedded in a heavy, wide circlet of gold were the most beautiful emeralds Jenny had ever beheld, fiery stones that glowed and winked at her in the candlelight as he slid the heavy ring onto her finger.

Perhaps it was the weight of the ring and all that it implied, or perhaps it was the odd combination of gentleness and solemnity in his gray eyes as they gazed into hers, but whatever the cause, Jenny's heart had doubled its pace. In a voice like rough velvet, he said, "We haven't done anything in its usual order, you and I. We consummated the marriage before the betrothal, and I've placed your ring on your finger long after we exchanged vows."

Mesmerized, Jenny stared into his fathomless silver eyes while his deep husky voice caressed her, pulling her further under his spell as he continued, "And although nothing else has been normal about our marriage thus far, I would ask a favor of you—"

Jenny scarcely recognized the breathy whisper that was her own voice. "What… favor?"

"Just for tonight," he said, reaching up and tracing the curve of her flushed cheek with his fingertips, "could we put aside our differences and behave like a normal, newly wedded couple at a normal marriage feast?"

Jenny had assumed tonight's feast was to be a celebration of his homecoming and his recent victory against her people, rather than their marriage. He saw her hesitation, and his lips quirked in a wry smile. "Since it evidently takes more than a simple request to soften your heart, I'll offer you a bargain to go with it."

Intensely aware of the effect of his fingertips brushing her cheek and the magnetism his big body was suddenly exuding, she whispered shakily, "What sort of bargain?"

"In return for giving me this night, I will give you one of your own at any time you name. No matter how you wish to spend it, I'll spend it with you doing whatever you'd like." When she still hesitated, he shook his head in amused exasperation. " 'Tis fortunate I've never met such a stubborn adversary as you on the battlefield, for I fear I'd have gone down to defeat."

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For some reason, that admission, made as it was with a tinge of admiration in his voice, did much damage to Jenny's resistance. What he said next demolished it yet more: "I do not ask this favor only for myself, little one, but for you as well. Don't you think, after all the turmoil that has preceded this night—and will probably follow it—that we both deserve one special, unsullied memory of our wedding to keep and hold for ourselves?"

A lump of nameless emotion constricted her throat, and although she had not forgotten all the valid grievances she had against him, the memory of the incredible speech he had delivered on her behalf to his people was still vibrantly fresh in her mind. Moreover, the prospect of pretending, for just a few hours —just this once—that she was a cherished bride and he an eager groom, seemed not only harmless but irresistibly, sweetly appealing. She nodded finally and softly said, "As you wish."

"Why is it," Royce murmured, gazing into her intoxicating eyes, "that every time you surrender willingly, like this, you make me feel like a king who has conquered. Yet when I conquer you against your will, you make me feel like a defeated beggar?"

Before Jenny could recover from that staggering admission, he had started to leave. "Wait," Jenny said, holding out the box to him. "You've left this."

"It's yours, along with the other two things that are in it. Go ahead and open it."

The box was gold and very ornate, and the top completely encrusted with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Inside was a gold ring—a lady's ring with a large ruby deeply embedded in it. Beside it was—Jenny's brow furrowed in surprise and she looked up at him. "A ribbon?" she asked, glancing down at the simple, narrow pink ribbon neatly folded, reposing in a box worthy of crown jewels.

"The two rings and the ribbon were my mother's. They're all that was left after the place Stefan and I were born in was razed during a siege." With that he left, telling her that he would await her downstairs.

Royce closed the door behind him and for a minute he was very still, almost as surprised by the things he'd said to her—and the way he'd said them—as Jennifer had obviously been. It still rankled him that she had twice tricked him at Hardin Castle, and that she had collaborated with her father in a scheme that would simultaneously have cheated him of a wife and of heirs. But Jennifer had one irrefutable defense in her favor, and no matter how he'd tried to ignore it, it did exonerate her:

All because I put myself in the way of your marauding brother by walking up a hill…

With a smile of anticipation, Royce crossed the gallery and headed down the winding oak steps to the great hall below where the revelry was already well under way. He was ready to forgive her past deeds; however, he would have to make her understand that he would not tolerate deceit in any form in the future.

For several minutes after he left, Jenny remained where she stood, oblivious to the increased sounds of revelry coming from the great hall. Staring down at the jewel-encrusted, velvet-lined box he'd pressed into her palm when he left, she tried to still the sudden outcry of her conscience over what she'd agreed to do. Turning, she walked slowly over to the foot of the bed, but she hesitated as she started to pick up the shining gold gown that lay across it. Surely, she argued with her conscience, she would not be betraying her family or her country or anyone else by putting aside all the animosity that lay between the duke and herself—just for a few short hours. Surely she was entitled to this small, single pleasure. It was so little to ask for out of the rest of her married life—just one brief period of a few hours to feel carefree, to feel like a bride.

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