Swiveling his charger in a tight circle, Arik reined in sharply beside her and coolly raised his brows. He was, Jenny understood with infuriated clarity, silently ordering her to ride to the front with him. Jenny, however, was so overwrought she was beyond being intimidated. Feigning complete lack of knowledge as to the reason for his presence, she pointedly turned her head and began to speak to Brenna: "Have you observed—" she began and broke off with a start as Arik deftly reached out and grabbed the reins of Jenny’s mare.
"Unhand my horse!" she snapped, jerking on the poor little mare’s reins with enough force to pull the mare’s nose to the sky. The horse swiveled and danced sideways in confusion, and Jenny turned her pent-up fury on the invulnerable emissary of her enemy. Glowering at Arik, she hauled back on her left rein. "Take your hand away!"
Pale blue eyes regarded her with cold indifference, but he was, at least, forced to speak, and Jenny reveled in that tiny victory: "Come!"
Her rebellious eyes locked with his pale blue ones, Jenny hesitated, and then, because she knew he’d merely force her to do his bidding, she snapped, "Then kindly move out of my way!"
The mile ride to the front of the column was possibly the most humbling event of Jenny’s young life. Until today, she’d been kept out of sight of most of the men or else flanked by knights. Now, male heads swiveled as she came abreast, and lewd eyes stayed riveted on her slender form as she continued past them. Comments were made upon her person, the general shape of her person, and the specific shapes of her shapes—comments of a nature so personal that she was sorely tempted to whip the little mare to a gallop.
When she reached Royce at the front of the column, he could not help smiling at the tempestuous young beauty who was regarding him with such blazing defiance; she looked exactly as she had the night she stabbed him with his own dagger. "It would seem," he teased, "that I’ve somehow fallen into disfavor."
"You," she replied, with every ounce of scorn she could put into her voice, "are unspeakable!"
He chuckled. "That bad?"
By the time they were nearing Hardin castle late the following day, Royce was no longer feeling quite so affable. Instead of enjoying her wit as he’d hoped to do, he found himself riding beside a young woman who responded to his teasing comments or serious observations with a blank, polite stare designed to make him feel like a court jester with bells on his hat. Today, she had changed her tactic. Now, instead of treating him to silence, she responded to any remark of his by asking him a question about things which he could not and would not discuss with her—-such as the date he planned to attack Merrick, the number of men he intended to bring with him, and how long he meant to keep her prisoner.
If her intent was to illustrate to him in the clearest possible way that she was the victim of brute force, and that he was the brute, she’d achieved her goal. If her intent was to annoy him, she was beginning to succeed there, too.
Jennifer was not unaware that she’d managed to ruin the journey for him, but she was not as delighted with her success as Royce supposed. In fact, as she scanned the craggy hills for some sign of a castle, she felt little more than exhaustion from the strain of trying to understand the enigmatic male beside her, and her own reactions to him. The earl had told her he wanted her, and he obviously wanted her badly enough to tolerate two days of rudeness from her, which was somewhat soothing to her battered pride. On the other hand, he did not want her badly enough to spare her kinsmen or her home.
Mother Ambrose had cautioned her about the "effect" Jenny might have on men; evidently, Jenny decided, the wise abbess must have meant her "effect would make them behave like hateful, tender, rude, unpredictable madmen—all in the space of one hour. With a sigh, Jenny gave up trying to understand any of it. She simply wanted to go home, or back to the abbey, where at least she knew what to expect from people. She stole a glance behind her and saw Brenna engaged in pleasant conversation with Stefan Westmoreland, who’d been acting as her escort ever since Jenny had been forced to ride at the front, with his brother. The fact that Brenna was safe and seemed content was the only bright spot in Jenny’s dismal predicament.
Hardin castle came into view just before dusk. Situated high atop a bluff, it loomed like an immense fortress, sprawling in all directions, its mellowed stone walls lit by the sinking sun. Jenny’s heart plummeted; it was five times larger than Merrick keep and it looked impregnable. Bright blue flags were flying from the castle’s six round towers, proclaiming that the lord of the castle was expected to be in residence by eventide.
Their horses clattered across the drawbridge and into the bailey of the castle, and servants ran out into the courtyard to take hold of horses’ bridles and make themselves useful to the new arrivals. The earl came around to lift Jenny down from her little mare, then he escorted her into the hall. A stooped, elderly man, who Jenny assumed must be the steward, approached, and Royce began issuing orders: "Have someone fetch refreshment for myself and my—" In the split second Royce took to decide on the right term to apply to Jennifer, the old steward took one look at the way she was dressed, and his contemptuous expression registered his own conclusion: Slut. "—my guest," Royce stated.
Being mistaken for one of the strumpets who traveled along with armies was the last and final indignity Jennifer could bear. Yanking her mortified gaze from the old man’s scrutiny, she pretended to inspect the great hall while the earl continued issuing orders. He had told her that King Henry had only recently given him Hardin, and that he’d not been here before. As Jenny glanced about, her woman’s eyes noticed at once that, although Hardin castle was huge, it was ill kept. The rushes on the floor had not been changed in years, cobwebs hung from the high, timbered ceiling like thick gray curtains, and the servants were slovenly.
"Would you like something to eat?" Royce asked, turning to her.
In a proud, angry effort to disabuse the old steward —and his entire staff of slatternly servants—that she was not what she appeared to be, Jennifer turned to the earl and coldly replied, "No, I would not. I would like to be shown to a chamber, preferably one somewhat cleaner than this hall, and I would like a bath and some clean clothing, if any of that is possible in this—this pile of rocks."
Had Royce not seen the look the steward had given her, he would have reacted far more strongly to her words and her tone, but having seen it, he kept his temper under control. Turning to the steward he said, "Conduct Countess Merrick to the chamber next to mine." To Jennifer he said coolly, "Be down here for supper in two hours."