"Including pride?" he murmured, distracted by the candlelight glinting in the golden threads of her hair as it cascaded over her shoulders.
"I’m truly not proud," she said with a bewitching smile, well aware that he was undoubtedly referring to her tardy, rather ungracious acceptance of his truce. "I’m willful, I suppose. Stubborn, too. And headstrong. But not, I think, proud."
"Rumor, and my own experience with you, would lead me to think otherwise."
His wry tone made Jenny burst out laughing, and Royce found himself captivated by the infectious joy, the beauty, of it. He’d never heard the music of her laughter before, nor seen it glowing in her magnificent eyes. Seated on a pile of lush furs, laughing up at him, Jennifer Merrick was unforgettable. He realized it as clearly as he realized that if he walked over and sat down beside her, there was every chance he was going to find her irresistible as well. He hesitated, watching her, silently recounting all the reasons he ought to remain right where he was—and then with carefully concealed purpose, he did the opposite.
Reaching out he picked up two tankards and the flagon of wine from the table beside his hip, then he carried all three over to the pile of furs. Pouring wine into the tankards, he handed her one. "You’re called Jennifer the proud, did you know that?" he asked, grinning down at her enchanting face.
Unaware that she was plunging lightning-fast into dangerous, uncharted territory, Jenny shrugged, her eyes dancing merrily. " ‘Tis merely rumor, the result of my one meeting with Lord Balder, I suspect. You’re called the Scourge of Scotland, and ’tis said you murder babes and drink their blood."
"Really?" Royce said with an exaggerated shudder, as he sat down beside her. Half-jokingly he added, "No wonder I’m persona non grata in the better castles of England."
"Are you really that?" she asked, puzzled and fighting down a sudden absurd surge of sympathy. He might be Scotland’s enemy, but he fought for England, and it seemed grossly unfair if his own people rejected him.
Raising her tankard, Jenny took several sips to steady her nerves, then she lowered the heavy vessel, studying him in the glow of light from the tallow candles on the table across the tent. Young Gawin was at the opposite end, seemingly engrossed in the endless task of polishing his lord’s armor with sand and vinegar.
The English nobility, she decided, must be very odd indeed, for in Scotland, the man beside her would have been judged an exceedingly handsome hero and welcomed into any castle where there was an unwed daughter! True, there was a certain dark arrogance about him; the hard, rugged contours of his jaw and chin were stamped with granite determination and implacable authority, but, when taken altogether, it was a boldly masculine, handsome face. It was impossible to guess his age; a life spent in the wind and sun had etched lines at the corners of his eyes and grooves beside his mouth. She supposed he must be much older than he actually looked, since she could never remember a time when she didn’t know the tales of the Wolf’s exploits. Suddenly it occurred to her that it was very odd indeed that he had spent his life in conquest, yet he sought not to wed and have heirs to inherit all the wealth he must certainly have amassed.
"Why did you decide not to marry?" she blurted suddenly, and then could not believe she’d actually asked such a question.
Astonishment registered in Royce’s expression as he realized that, at twenty-nine, she evidently regarded him as being long past the age of eligibility for marriage. Recovering his composure he asked in amusement, "Why do you think I haven’t?"
"Because no suitable lady has asked you?" she ventured daringly with an impertinent sideways smile that Royce found utterly bewitching.
Despite the fact that many such marital overtures had been made to him, he merely grinned. "I gather you think it’s too late for me?"
She nodded, smiling. " ‘Twould seem we’re both destined to be spinsters."
"Ah, but you’re a spinster by choice, and therein lies the difference." Enjoying himself enormously, Royce leaned back on an elbow, watching her cheeks pinken from the heady wine she was drinking. "Where have I erred, do you think?"
"I couldn’t know that, of course. But I suppose," she continued after a moment’s consideration, "that one hasn’t an opportunity to meet very many suitable ladies on the battlefield."
"True. I’ve spent most of my life fighting to bring peace."
"The only reason there’s no peace is because you keep disrupting it with your evil sieges and interminable battles," she informed him darkly. "The English cannot get along with anyone."
"Is that right?" he inquired dryly, enjoying her spirit as much as he’d enjoyed her laughter a moment before.
"Certainly. Why, you and your army have only just returned from fighting with us in Cornwall—"
"I was fighting in Cornwall, on English soil," Royce reminded her mildly, "because your beloved King James—who happens to have a weak chin, by the way—invaded us in an attempt to put his cousin’s husband on the throne."
"Well," Jenny shot back indignantly, "Perkin Warbeck happens to be the rightful king of England and King James knows it! Perkin Warbeck is the long-lost son of Edward IV."
"Perkin Warbeck," Royce contradicted flatly, "is the long-lost son of a Flemish boatman."
"That is merely your opinion."
When he seemed disinclined to argue the issue, she stole a look at his ruggedly chiseled face, "Does King James truly have a weak chin?" she blurted.
"He does," Royce averred, grinning at her.
"Well, we weren’t discussing his looks in the first place," she said primly as she digested this information about her king, who was said to be as handsome as a god, "We were discussing your ceaseless wars. Before us, you were fighting with the Irish, and then you were in—"
"I fought the Irish," Royce interrupted with a mocking smile, "because they crowned Lambert Simnel king and then invaded us in an attempt to put him on the throne in Henry’s place."
Somehow he made it sound as if Scotland and Ireland had been in the wrong, and Jenny simply didn’t feel well enough informed to debate the matter adequately. With a sigh, she said, "I don’t suppose there’s any doubt about why you’re here, now, so near our borders. You’re waiting for more men to arrive, then Henry means to send you into Scotland to wage your bloody battles against us. Everyone in the camp knows that."
Determined to guide the conversation back to its former, lighthearted topic, Royce said, "As I recall, we were discussing my inability to find a suitable wife on the battlefield, not the outcome of my battles themselves."