Jenny lay down atop the furs while he blew out the candles; a few moments later, the earl stretched beside her, pulling the furs over him for warmth. Suddenly the comforting glow from the wine began to desert her, and her exhausted mind started replaying each nerve-shattering hour of the endless day, from early dawn when Brenna and she planned their escape, until a few hours ago, when the man beside her had recaptured her.
Staring up into the darkness, she relived the most shattering scene of all—the one she’d been trying to forget all night. Before her eyes she saw Thor in all his magnificent splendor, prancing effortlessly through the woods, racing along the ridge, jumping obstacle after obstacle, and then she saw him lying dead against the boulder, his glossy coat shining in the moonlight.
Tears gathered in her eyes; she drew a shattered breath and then another, trying to hold them back, but the anguish she felt for the courageous animal would not go away.
Royce, who was afraid to fall asleep until she did, heard the ragged texture of her breathing, and then a slight, suspicious sniff. Positive she was feigning tears in hopes he would relent and let her beneath the furs, he rolled onto his side and in one smooth motion caught her face and turned it toward him. Her eyes were glittering with unshed tears. "You’re so cold, you’re fighting back tears?" he uttered in disbelief, trying to see her face with only the dying embers of the little fire in the center of the tent for illumination.
"No," she said hoarsely.
"Then why?" he demanded, completely at a loss as to what could have finally battered down her stubborn pride and made her cry. "The thrashing I gave you?"
"No," she whispered achingly, her eyes locked with his. "Your horse."
Of all the things she could have said, that answer was the one he least expected and most wanted to hear. Somehow knowing that she regretted the senseless loss of his horse made it seem somehow less painful.
"He was the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen," she added hoarsely. "If I’d known that taking him this morning might have led to his death, I’d have stayed here until I could—could find some other way."
Staring up into the earl’s hooded eyes, Jenny saw him wince as he pulled his hand away from her face. "It’s a miracle you fell off or you’d both have died," he said gruffly.
Turning onto her side she buried her face in the furs. "I didn’t fall," she whispered brokenly, "he threw me. I’d ridden him over higher obstacles all day. I knew we could clear that tree with ease, but when he jumped, he reared up at the same time, for no reason at all, and I fell backward. He shook me off before he jumped.
"Thor sired two sons, Jennifer," Royce said with rough gentleness, "in his exact likeness. One of them is here, the other at Claymore being trained. He isn’t completely lost to me."
His captive drew a shattered breath, and in the darkness, she said simply, "Thank you."
A biting wind howled through the moonlit valley, taking sleeping soldiers in its frigid embrace until their teeth chattered convulsively, as fall made an ungraceful and early debut, masquerading as winter. In his tent, Royce rolled over beneath the warm furs and felt the unfamiliar brush of an icy hand against his arm.
He opened an eye and saw Jennifer shivering atop the furs, her slim body curled into a tight ball, her knees drawn up against her chest, as she tried to keep warm. In truth Royce was not so drugged with sleep that he knew not what he was doing, nor had he forgotten that he’d forbade her the warmth of blankets until she righted the damage she’d done to his men’s. And, to be completely honest, as he wearily considered her shivering form, it did occur to him that his loyal men were shivering far more outdoors, without a tent. And so there was absolutely no justification for what Royce did next: Leaning up on his elbow he reached far across Jennifer and grasped the edge of the thick pile of furs, then he pulled them up and over her, rolling her into them until they made a warm bunting around her.
He lay back again and closed his eyes without remorse. After all, his men were conditioned to hardship and the elements. Jennifer Merrick was not.
She moved, snuggling deeper into the furs, and somehow her bottom came to rest against Royce’s updrawn knee. Despite the insulating barrier of furs, his mind instantly began reminding him of all the delectable female attributes that lay just within his easy reach. And just as persistently, Royce shoved the thoughts aside. She had the peculiar ability to be at one and the same moment an innocent, untried girl and a golden-haired goddess—a child who could snap his temper as easily as a twig, and a woman who could soothe even pain with a whispered, "I’m sorry." But child or woman, he dared not touch her, for one way or another, he would have to let her go, or else relinquish all his carefully laid plans for a future that would be his in less than a month. Whether Jennifer’s father yielded or no, it was actually no concern of Royce’s. In a week, two at the most, he would either hand her over to her father, if he surrendered on terms that were agreeable to Henry, or to Henry himself if her father refused. She was Henry’s property now, not Royce’s, and he did not want the complications that would come from every direction if he bedded her.
The earl of Merrick paced before the fire in the center of the hall, his face contorted with wrath as he listened to suggestions from his two sons and the four men whom he counted as his closest friends and kinsmen.
"There’s naught to be done," Garrick Carmichael put in wearily, "until King James sends us the reinforcements you asked for when you told him the Wolf has the girls."
"Then we can attack the bastard and demolish him," his youngest son, Malcolm, spat. "He’s close to our borders now—there’s no long march to Cornwall to weary us before we go to battle this time."
"I don’t see what difference it makes how close he is or how many men we have," William, the eldest son, quietly said. " ‘Twould be folly to attack him unless we’ve freed Brenna and Jenny first."
"And how in God’s name are we supposed to do that?" Malcolm snapped. "The girls are as good as dead as it is," he said flatly. "There’s naught to do now but seek revenge."
Far smaller in stature than his brother and his stepfather—and far calmer of temperament—William brushed his auburn hair off his forehead and leaned forward in his chair, looking about him. "Even if King James sends us enough men to trample the Wolf, we’ll not get the girls free. They’d be killed in the fighting—or murdered as soon as it began."
"Stop arguing with every plan unless you have a better one!" the earl snapped.