Glad for the change of subject, Jenny deliberately turned her attention back to that problem. After a minute she said, "You must have been to Henry’s court and met ladies there?"
In thoughtful silence, she sipped her wine, while contemplating the tall man reclining beside her, his leg drawn up, his hand resting casually atop his knee, completely at ease in a tent on a battlefield. Everything about him bespoke the warrior. Even now, at rest, his body exuded predatory power; his shoulders were incredibly broad, his arms and chest bulged with muscle beneath his dark blue woolen tunic, and the muscles in his legs and thighs were clearly outlined by the heavy, black woolen hose above his high boots. Years of wearing armor and wielding a broadsword had hardened and toughened him for battle, but Jenny couldn’t imagine that such a life could possibly benefit him when he went to court, or even prepare him to fit in with the people there. Although she’d never been to court herself, she’d heard all sorts of stories about the opulence there and the sophistication of its inhabitants. Suddenly she realized how horridly out of place this warrior must look and feel in such a place. "You—you don’t feel at ease with the people at court?" she ventured hesitantly.
"Not particularly," Royce said, distracted by the myriad emotions playing in her expressive eyes.
His admission struck her tender heart and made it ache a little, for Jenny knew better than most how humiliating and painful it is to feel out of place amidst those very people one most wants to be accepted by. It seemed wrong, unfair, that this man who daily risked his life for England was shunned by his own people. "I’m certain the fault is not with you," she said charitably.
"Then where do you suppose the fault lies?" he asked, a faint smile playing at the corners of his chiseled lips. "Why do I not feel comfortable at court?"
"Are we talking about your feelings when you’re with the ladies, or with the gentlemen?" she asked, feeling a sudden determined urge to help him that was the result of one part pity, one part strong wine, and one part reaction to his unwavering gray gaze. "If it’s with the ladies, I might be able to help," she volunteered. "W-would you like some advice?"
"Please, by all means." Suppressing his grin, Royce smoothed his expression into an admirable imitation of earnest gravity. "Tell me how to treat the ladies so that when next I go to court, I’ll be such a success that one of them may agree to have me as a husband."
"Oh, I can’t promise they’ll want to wed you," she burst out without thinking.
Royce choked on his wine and wiped the drops from the corner of his mouth. "If your intention was to build my confidence," he said, his voice still strangled with laughter, "you are making a bad job of it, my lady."
"I didn’t mean—" Jenny faltered miserably. "Truly, I—"
"Perhaps we ought to exchange advice," he continued mirthfully. "You tell me how a highborn lady desires to be treated, and I’ll warn you about the perils of demolishing a man’s confidence. Here, have more wine," he added smoothly, reaching behind him for the flagon and pouring some into her tankard. He glanced over his shoulder at Gawin and a moment later the squire laid aside the shield he was polishing and left the tent.
"Do go on with your advice, I’m all eager attention," Royce said when she’d taken another sip of her wine. "Let’s assume I’m at court and I’ve just walked into the queen’s withdrawing room. Gathered around are several beautiful ladies, and I decide to make one of them my wife—"
Shock widened her eyes. "You aren’t the least bit particular, are you?"
Royce threw back his head and gave a shout of laughter, and the unfamiliar sound brought three guards running into the tent to investigate the cause. Curtly waving them away, he looked at her pert nose, which was still wrinkled with disapproval, and he realized he’d just sunk to an unprecedented low in her estimation. Swallowing down a fresh surge of mirth, he said with sham contrition, "I did specify the ladies were all beautiful, did I not?"
Her expression cleared and she smiled, nodding. "That’s true, you did. I’d forgotten that beauty is what matters most to a man."
" At first ’tis what matters most," Royce corrected. "All right, then. What do I do, now that I’ve, er—singled out the object of my matrimonial intentions?"
"What would you normally do?"
"What do you think I’d do?"
Her delicate brows drew together and amusement teased the corners of her generous mouth as she surveyed him, considering her answer. "Based on what I know of you, I can only assume you’d toss her over your lap and attempt to beat her into submission."
"You mean," Royce said straight-faced, "that isn’t the way to handle the matter?"
Jenny saw the humor lurking in his eyes; she burst out laughing, and to Royce it seemed as if his tent were filled with music. "Ladies… that is, wellborn ladies," she clarified a minute later with a look that clearly implied his past experience had probably been with females of quite another sort, "have very definite ideas of the way they wish to be treated by the man who wins their heart."
"Just how does a wellborn lady dream of being treated?"
"Well, chivalrously, of course. But there’s more to it than that," she added, a wistful light shining in her sapphire eyes. "A lady wants to think that when her knight enters a crowded room, he has eyes for no one but her. He’s blind to everything but her beauty."
"In that case, he’s in imminent danger of tripping over his sword," Royce pointed out before he realized Jennifer was talking about her own dreams.
She sent him an admonishing look. "And," she said emphatically, "she likes to think he’s of a romantic nature—which you obviously are not!"
"Not if being romantic means I have to grope my way into rooms like a blind man," he teased. "But go on—what else do ladies like?"
"Loyalty and devotion. And words—especially words."
"What sort of words?"
"Words of love and tender admiration," Jenny said dreamily. "A lady wants to hear that her knight loves her above all else and that to him, she is beautiful. She wants him to tell her that her eyes remind him of the sea or the sky, and her lips remind him of rose petals…"
Royce studied her in appalled surprise. "You actually dream of a man saying such things to you?"
She paled as if he’d struck her, but then she seemed to dismiss the entire matter. "Even plain girls have dreams, milord," she pointed out with a smile.