Royce had made love to her long and lingeringly this morning, this time with an exquisite, restrained gentleness that even now made Jenny's pulses race. He had not told her that he loved her, but he did love her—as inexperienced as she was with love, she was certain of that. Why else would he have made such a pledge to her? Or taken such care with her when she was in his bed?

So lost was she in her reflections that Jenny didn't notice when Agnes entered the room. The smile still in her eyes, Jenny turned to the maid who was holding out another hastily remade gown to her, this one of soft cream cashmere. Despite the servant's stern, foreboding expression, Jenny was absolutely determined to break through the barriers and befriend her serfs as well. Surely if she could gentle a wolf, it could not be nearly as difficult to befriend his servants.

Searching for something to say to the maid, she accepted the gown and then noticed the tub in the alcove. Seizing on that as a safe topic, she said, "That tub is large enough to hold four or five people. At home, we either bathe in the lake, or else make do with a little wooden tub that holds only enough water to cover you to the waist."

Advertisement

"This is England, my lady," Agnes replied as she picked up the gown Jenny had worn last night. Jenny shot a startled glance at her, uncertain whether her tone had been laced with superiority or not.

"Do all the big homes in England have such enormous tubs and real fireplaces and—" she lifted her arm and made a sweeping gesture that included the luxurious chamber with its velvet draperies and thick mats scattered across the floor, "and things like all this—?"

"No, my lady. But you're at Claymore, and Sir Albert—the master's steward and steward to the old lord, too—is under orders to keep Claymore like a castle fit for a king. The silver is polished every week, and no dust is allowed to get into the tapestries, nor on the floors, neither. And if something gets ruint', 'tis given away and replaced."

"It must require a great deal of work to keep it so perfect," Jenny observed.

"Aye, but then the new master has told Sir Albert what he's to do, and Sir Albert, hard, proud man though he is, will do what he's told—no matter how he feels inside about he what's tellin' him to do it."

That last startling remark was so laced with bitterness and resentment that Jenny couldn't believe she'd heard correctly. Her brows drew together as she twisted around fully to look at the maid. "Agnes, what do you mean?"

-- Advertisement --

Agnes obviously realized she'd said too much, because the woman turned white and stiffened, staring at Jennifer in wild-eyed fear. "I meant nothin', my lady. Nothin'! 'Tis proud we all are to have our new master home, and if all 'is enemies come here, as they surely will, 'tis proud we'll be to give up our crops and our menfolk and children for his battles. Proud!" she uttered in a low, desperate voice that was still filled with a trace of angry resentment. "We are good, loyal folk, and hold no ill will toward the master for what he did. An we hope he holds none against us."

"Agnes," Jenny said gently, "you needn't be afraid of me. I won't betray your confidences. What do you mean by 'what he did'?"

The poor woman was shaking so hard that when Royce opened the door and poked his head inside to remind Jennifer to join him downstairs for the midday meal, Agnes dropped the velvet gown. Snatching it up, she fled from the room. But as she pulled open the heavy oaken door, she glanced back at Royce, and this time Jennifer distinctly saw her cross herself again.

The cashmere gown forgotten in her hand, Jenny stared at the closing door, her forehead furrowed in a thoughtful frown.

The great hall showed few signs of last night's merrymaking; the trestle tables that had filled the room had been taken down and removed. In fact, the only remnants of the night's revelry were the dozen or so knights who were still asleep on benches along the walls, their snores rising and falling sonorously. Despite the air of bustling efficiency, Jenny noticed with sympathy that the serfs' movements were sluggish, and that more than one was unable to dodge a halfhearted kick from an irate knight on the bench who did not want his slumber disturbed.

Royce looked up as Jennifer came to the table and rose to his feet with that easy, catlike grace that she'd always admired. "Good morning," he said in a low, intimate voice, "I trust you slept well?"

Advertisement

"Very well," Jenny said in a voice that was an embarrassed little whisper, but her eyes were bright and sparkling as she sat down beside him.

"Good morning, my dear!" Aunt Elinor chirped happily, as she looked up from daintily slicing a piece of venison from the tray of cold meats in front of her. "You're looking in fine spirits this morning."

"Good morning, Aunt Elinor," Jenny said, sending her a reassuring smile; then she cast a puzzled look up and down the table at the silent men who were also present: Sir Stefan, Sir Godfrey, Sir Lionel, Sir Eustace, Arik, and Friar Gregory. Aware of the strange silence and downcast eyes of the men, she said with a hesitant smile, "Good morning, everyone."

Five male faces slowly lifted to hers—pale, strained faces whose expressions ranged from glazed pain to befuddled confusion. "Good morning, my lady," they echoed politely, but three of them winced and the other two shaded their eyes with their hands. Only Arik seemed normal this morning, which meant he had no expression at all, and he said absolutely nothing to anyone. Ignoring him completely, Jenny looked at Friar Gregory, who seemed to be in no better condition than the others, and then she looked at Royce. "What's wrong with everyone?" she asked.

Royce helped himself to the white wheaten bread and cold meats laid out on the table, and the men reluctantly followed suit. "They're paying the price of last night's orgy of drunkenness and wenc—er, drunkenness," Royce amended, grinning.

Surprised, Jenny glanced at Friar Gregory, who'd just lifted a cup of ale to his lips. "You, too, Friar Gregory?" she said, and the poor man choked.

"I'm guilty of the former, my lady," he sputtered with chagrin, "but I plead complete innocence of the latter."

Jenny, who'd failed to note the word Royce had swiftly altered, gave the priest a puzzled look, but Aunt Elinor piped up, "I anticipated just such a malady as this, my dear, and early this morning, I went down to the kitchens to prepare a nice restorative, only to find there was not so much as a snip of saffron to be had!"

-- Advertisement --

The mention of the kitchen drew Royce's instant attention, and for the first time he seemed to study Lady Elinor with great interest. "Do you find my kitchens lacking in other items—items which might make all this—" he gestured to the rather tasteless leftover sops from last night, "more pleasing to the palate?"

-- Advertisement --