"My wounds had rendered me virtually useless, and twice more that night Arik appeared—seemingly from nowhere—to fend off my attackers when I was outnumbered. The next day, we routed the enemy and gave chase. I looked over to see Arik riding beside me. He's been there ever since."
"So you gained his undying loyalty because you rescued him from six attackers?" Jenny summarized.
Royce shook his head. "I suspect I gained his undying loyalty a week after that when I killed a large snake that was trying to share Arik's blanket without his knowledge."
"You don't mean to tell me," Jenny giggled, "that giant of a man is afraid of snakes."
Royce gave her a look of feigned affront. "Women are afraid of snakes," he explained unequivocally. "Men hate them." Then he spoiled the whole effect with a boyish grin. "It means the same thing, however."
Royce gazed down into her laughing blue eyes, longing to kiss her, and Jenny, carried away by this tender, joking, approachable side of him, suddenly blurted the question that had been haunting her. "Did you truly mean to let him murder that child today?"
He stiffened slightly, and then he quietly said, "I think it's time we go upstairs."
Uncertain just why he'd suddenly made that decision, or if talking was what he intended to do once they got there, Jenny hesitated suspiciously. "Why?"
"Because you want to talk," he stated levelly, "and I want to take you to bed. In which case, my chamber is better suited to both our purposes than this hall."
Short of making a scene which would only humiliate her, Jenny knew she had no choice but to leave the hall with him. A thought struck her before she took the first step, and the eyes she turned on him were imploring. "They aren't going to try to follow us—" she pleaded. "I mean, there'll be no bedding ritual, will there?"
"Even if there was, there's no harm in it," he said patiently. " 'Tis an ancient custom. We can always talk afterward," he said meaningfully.
"Please," Jenny said. " 'Twould be a farce, for the world knows we've already—already done that, and a bedding will only make the talk start up again."
He didn't answer her, but as they passed Arik and Aunt Elinor, he stopped to speak to Arik.
The impending departure of the bride and groom was noted almost at once, however, and by the time they'd passed the table on the dais, Jenny's face was scarlet from the bawdy encouragement and advice being shouted at Royce. As they started up the stairs, she stole a frantic glance over her shoulder and to her relief she saw that Arik had positioned himself at the bottom of the steps, folded his arms across his chest, and had taken up a post—obviously at Royce's order —to prevent the revelers from following them.
By the time Royce opened the door to his bedchamber, Jenny was in a state of generalized terror and helplessness. In frozen silence, she watched him close the door, her startled eyes dazedly registering an extremely large and very luxurious room with a huge four-poster canopied bed with fine velvet hangings and a pair of massive chairs with carved arms placed before a large hooded fireplace. Three large, ornately carved chests were against the wall, one for clothes, Jenny knew without looking, and the others evidently containing coins and other riches, judging from the size of their massive locks. A pair of tall silver stands with candles burning in them flanked the bed, and another pair stood on either side of the fireplace. Tapestries hung on the walls and there was even a mat on the polished wood floor. But the most amazing thing about the room was the window—a large bay window with leaded glass that overlooked the bailey and would make the room cheerful and airy in the daylight.
A door to the left was ajar and opened into a solar; the door on the right evidently opened into the chamber Jenny occupied. Scrupulously avoiding looking at the bed, she stared at the two remaining doors, and the instant Royce moved, she jumped and said the first thing that came to mind: "Wh-where do those two doors lead?"
"One to a privy, the other to a closet," he answered, noting the way she was averting her gaze from the bed. In a calm voice that nevertheless carried an unmistakable thread of command, he said, "Would you mind explaining to me why you seem to find the prospect of lying with me even more alarming when we're married than you did before, when you had everything to lose?"
"I had no choice then," she said in nervous defense, turning to face him.
"You have none now," he pointed out reasonably.
Jenny's mouth went dry. She wrapped her arms around her middle as if she were very cold, her eyes desperate with confusion. "I don't understand you," she tried to explain, "I never know what to expect. Sometimes you seem almost kind and quite rational. And just when I think you're actually quite nice—I mean normal," she amended quickly, "you do mad things and you make insane accusations." She held out her hands as if asking him to understand. "I cannot be at ease with a man who is a stranger to me! A frightening, unpredictable stranger!"
He took a step forward and then another, and Jenny retreated step for step, until the backs of her legs bumped against the bed. Unable to go forward, and adamantly unwilling to move backward, she stood in mutinous silence. "Don't you dare touch me. I hate it when you touch me!" she warned shakily.
His dark brows pulled together, and he reached out and hooked his fingertip in the neck of her gown, looking straight into her eyes as he drew it downward until his fingertip was deep in the hollow between her breasts. It stayed there, moving up and down, stroking the sides of her breasts, while tiny flames began shooting through Jenny's body, making her breathing shallow and rapid. His hand forced its way between her bodice and her skin and closed on her full breast. "Now tell me you hate my touch," he invited her softly, his eyes holding hers imprisoned, his fingers teasing her hardening nipple.
Jenny felt her breast swelling to fill his hand and she turned her head aside, staring fixedly at the fire in the grate, drowning in shame at her inability to control her own treacherous body.
Abruptly he pulled his hand away. "I'm beginning to think you must enjoy baiting me, for you do it better than anyone I've ever known." Raking his hand through the side of his hair in angry self-disgust, Royce walked over to the flagon of mulled wine resting near the fire and poured some into a goblet. Turning, he studied her in silence. After a minute, he said in a quiet, almost apologetic tone that startled Jenny into looking at him, "The fault for what happened just now was mine and had little to do with your 'baiting' me. You merely gave me an excuse to do what I've longed to do since I first set eyes on you in this gown."