When he finally dragged his mouth from hers, he held her clasped against his chest, his breathing harsh and rapid. Her eyes closed, her arms still twined around his neck, her ear pressed to the heavy beating of his heart, Jenny drifted between total peace and a strange, delirious joy. Twice he had made her feel wondrous, terrifying, exciting things. But today, he had made her feel something else: he had made her feel needed and cherished and wanted, and those last three things she’d longed to feel for as long as she could remember.
Lifting her face from his hard, muscled chest she tried to raise her head. Her cheek brushed against the soft brown fabric of his tunic, and even the simple touch of his clothing against her skin made her senses reel dizzily. Finally she managed to tip her head back and look at him. Passion was still smoldering in those smoky gray eyes. Quietly and without emphasis he stated, "I want you."
This time there was no doubt about his meaning, and her answer was whispered without thought, as if it had suddenly been born in her heart and not her mind: "Badly enough to give me your word not to attack Merrick?"
He said the word dispassionately, without hesitation, without regret or even annoyance; he refused as easily as he would have refused a meal he didn’t want.
The single word hit her like a dousing of ice water; Jenny drew back and his hands fell away.
In a daze of shame and shock, she bit down hard on her trembling lower lip and turned aside, trying numbly to restore order to her hair and clothing, when what she longed to do was run from the woods—from everything that had happened here—before she choked on the tears that were nearly suffocating her. It wasn’t so much that he had refused what she offered. Even now in all her misery, she realized that what she’d asked of him had been foolish—impossibly mad. What hurt so unbearably was the callousness, the ease with which he’d brushed aside all she’d tried to offer—her honor, her pride, her body, at the sacrifice of everything she’d been taught to believe in, to value.
She started to walk out of the woods, but his voice stopped her in her tracks. "Jennifer," he said in that tone of implacable authority she was coming to loathe, "you’ll ride beside me the rest of the way."
"I’d rather not," she said flatly, without turning. She would have drowned herself rather than let him see how much he’d hurt her, and so she added, haltingly, "It’s your men—I’ve been sleeping in your tent, but Gawin has always been there. If I eat with you and ride beside you they’ll… misinterpret… things."
"What my men think matters not," Royce replied, but that wasn’t entirely true and he knew it. By openly treating Jenny as his "guest," he’d been rapidly losing face with the tired, loyal men who’d fought beside him. And not all his army obeyed him out of loyalty. Among the mercenaries, there were thieves and murderers, men who followed him because he kept bread in their bellies and because they feared the consequences should they dare to disobey. He ruled them with his strength. But whether they were loyal knights or common mercenaries, they all believed it was Royce’s right, his duty, to throw her down and mount her, to use her body to humble her as the enemy deserved to be humbled.
"Of course it doesn’t matter," Jenny said bitterly as the full force of her surrender in his arms hit her with all its humiliating clarity. "It isn’t your reputation ’twill be slaughtered, ’tis mine."
In a tone of calm finality he stated, "They’ll think whatever it suits them to think. When you return to your horse, have your escort bring you forward."
Wordlessly, Jennifer cast a look of utter loathing at him, lifted her chin, and walked out of the clearing, her slender hips swaying with unconscious regal grace.
Despite the fact she’d only looked at him for a second before she’d walked out of the woods, Jenny had registered the odd light in his eyes and the indefinable smile lurking at the corner of his lips. She had no idea what was behind it, she only knew his smile increased her fury until it completely eclipsed her misery.
Had Stefan Westmoreland, or Sir Eustace, or Sir Godfrey been present to see that look, they could have told her what it presaged, and their explanation would have upset Jenny far more than she already was: Royce Westmoreland looked exactly as he did when he was about to storm a particularly challenging, desirable castle and claim it for his own. It meant that he would not be deterred by the odds or the opposition. It meant that he was already pleasantly contemplating victory.
Whether the men had somehow glimpsed their embrace through the trees, or whether it was because they’d heard her laughing with him, as Jenny walked stiffly back to her horse, she was subjected to leering gazes and knowing looks that surpassed anything she’d had to endure since her capture.
Unhurriedly, Royce strolled out of the woods and glanced at Arik. "She’ll ride with us." He walked over to the horse Gawin was holding for him, and his knights automatically went to their horses, swinging into saddles with the ease of men who spent great portions of their lives on horseback. Behind them, the rest of the army followed suit, obeying an order before it was given.
His captive, however, chose to flagrantly disobey an order that had been given, and did not join him at the front of the column when it moved forward. Royce reacted to that piece of tempestuous rebellion with amused admiration for her courage, then he turned to Arik and said with a suppressed chuckle, "Go and get her."
Now that Royce had finally reached the decision to have her and was no longer waging an internal battle against desire, he was in excellent spirits. He found the prospect of soothing and winning her while they rode toward Hardin infinitely appealing. At Hardin, they would have the luxury of a soft bed and ample privacy; in the meantime, he would have the undeniable pleasure of her company for the rest of today and tonight.
It did not occur to him that the gentle, innocent temptress who’d surrendered in his arms both times he held her, who’d returned his passion with such intoxicating sweetness, might no longer be quite so easy to soothe. In battle he was undefeated, and the idea of being defeated now, by a girl whose desire for him was nearly as great as his for her, was beyond consideration. He wanted her, wanted her more than he would have believed possible, and he intended to have her. Not on her terms, of course, but he was willing to make concessions—reasonable concessions that, at the moment, seemed vaguely to call for splendid furs and jewels, as well as the respect she would be entitled to receive as his mistress from all who served him.
Jenny saw the giant riding purposefully toward the rear of the column at the same time she remembered the laughter she’d seen on Royce’s face when she left him, and the wrath that burst inside of her made her head pound.