Royce groaned inwardly, trying to push himself to his feet with his unbroken right arm. Jennifer had come back—now, to witness his defeat. Or his death. Even so, he didn’t want her to see him die groveling, and with the last ounce of strength he possessed, he managed to stagger to his feet. Reaching up, he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, his vision cleared, and he realized he was not imagining it. Jennifer was moving toward him, and an eerie silence was descending over the crowd.
Jenny stifled a scream when she was close enough to see his arm dangling brokenly at his side. She stopped in front of him, and her father’s bellow from the sidelines made her head jerk toward the lance lying at Royce’s feet. "Use it!" he thundered. "Use the lance, Jennifer."
Royce understood then why she had come: she had come to finish the task her relatives had begun; to do to him what he had done to her brother. Unmoving, he watched her, noting that tears were pouring down her beautiful face as she slowly bent down. But instead of reaching for his lance or her dagger, she took his hand between both of hers and pressed her lips to it. Through his daze of pain and confusion, Royce finally understood that she was kneeling to him, and a groan tore from his chest: "Darling," he said brokenly, tightening his hand, trying to make her stand, "don’t do this…"
But his wife wouldn’t listen. In front of seven thousand onlookers, Jennifer Merrick Westmoreland, countess of Rockbourn, knelt before her husband in a public act of humble obeisance, her face pressed to his hand, her shoulders wrenched with violent sobs. By the time she finally arose, there could not have been many among the spectators who had not seen what she had done. Standing up, she stepped back, lifted her tear-streaked face to his, and squared her shoulders.
Pride exploded in Royce’s battered being—because, somehow, she was managing to stand as proudly—as defiantly—as if she had just been knighted by a king.
Gawin, who had been immobilized by Stefan’s hand clamped on his shoulder, rushed forward as soon as the hand released him. Royce put his arm across his squire’s shoulder and limped off the field.
He left to the accompaniment of cheering that was nearly as loud as it had been when he unhorsed DuMont and MacPherson.
In his tent on the jousting field, Royce slowly, reluctantly opened his eyes, bracing himself for the blast of pain he knew would come with consciousness. But there was no pain.
He could tell from the noise outside that the lists were still underway, and he was wondering dazedly where Gawin was, when it dawned on him that his right hand was being held. Turning his head, he looked in that direction, and for a moment he thought he was dreaming: Jennifer was hovering over him, surrounded by a blindingly bright halo of sunlight that spilled in from the open tent flap behind her. She was smiling down at him with so much tenderness in her beautiful eyes that it was shattering to behold. As if from far away, he heard her softly say, "Welcome back, love."
Suddenly he understood the reason he was seeing her surrounded by shimmering light, the reason for his lack of pain, and for the incredibly tender way she was speaking and looking at him. He said it aloud, his voice flat, dispassionate: "I’ve died."
But the vision hovering over him shook her head and sat down carefully beside him on the bed. Leaning forward, she smoothed a lock of black hair off his forehead and smiled, but her thick lashes were spiky with tears. "If you’ve died," she teased in an aching voice, "then I guess ’twill be up to me to go out onto that field and vanquish my stepbrother."
Her fingertips were cool on his forehead, and there was something decidedly human about the press of her hip against his side. Perhaps she was not an angelic vision after all; perhaps he had not died, Royce decided. "How would you do that?" he asked —it was a test, to see if her methods would be spiritual or mortal.
"Well," the vision said, bending over him and gently brushing her soft lips against his, "the last time I did it… I threw up my visor… and I did this—" Royce gasped as her tongue darted sweetly into his mouth. He was not dead. Angels surely did not kiss like that. His free arm came up around her shoulders pulling her down, but just when he would have kissed her, another thought occurred to him and he frowned: "If I’m not dead, why don’t I hurt?"
"Aunt Elinor," she whispered. "She mixed a special potion, and we forced you to drink it."
The last cobwebs in his mind cleared, and with a sigh of bliss, he drew her down, kissing her, his spirits soaring as her lips parted and she kissed him back with all her heart. When he finally let her go, they were both breathless, longing to say words that deserved to be spoken in a better place than here in a tent that shook with the bellows from a crowd.
After a minute Royce asked calmly, "How badly am I injured?"
Jenny swallowed and bit her lip, her eyes shadowed with pain for the wounds he’d suffered on her account.
"As bad as that?" he teased huskily.
"Yes," she whispered. "Your left arm is broken, and three fingers. The wounds at your neck and collarbone, which Stefan and Gawin said are Malcolm’s work, are long and deep but no longer bleeding. The gash on your leg is monstrous. But we’ve stopped all the bleeding. Your head took an awful blow—obviously when your helmet was off—and undoubtedly," she added vengefully, "when another one of my butcherous kinsmen attacked you. Beyond that you’re bruised horribly everywhere."
His brow arched in amusement. "Doesn’t sound too bad."
Jenny started to smile at that outrageous conclusion, but then he added in a quiet, meaningful voice: "What happens after this?"
She understood at once what he was asking her, and she rapidly considered the extent of additional physical damage he’d be likely to suffer if he returned for one more joust, and then weighed that against the awful damage to his pride if he didn’t. "That’s up to you," she answered after a moment, unable to keep the animosity she felt for her father and brother out of her voice as she added, "However, out there on the ‘field of honor’ which my family has disgraced today, there is a knight named Malcolm Merrick, who issued a public challenge to you an hour ago."
Royce rubbed his knuckles against her cheek and tenderly asked, "Am I to infer from that remark that you actually think I’m so good that I could beat him with my shield strapped to my shoulder over a broken arm?"
She tipped her head to the side. "Can you?"
A lazy smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and his sensual lips formed one word: "Absolutely."