She’d just finished smoothing her hair into place when a servant rapped on her door and called in a shrill, panicky voice, "Milady, his lordship bade me tell you that if yer not down in the hall in five minutes to break yer fast, he’ll come up here and bring you down hisself!"
Rather than let the earl think she was yielding from fear of that threat, Jenny called out, "You may tell his lordship that I intended to come down and that I’ll be there in a few minutes."
Jenny waited what she deemed to be a "few" minutes, then she left the bedchamber. The stairway leading from the sleeping chambers above to the great hall below was steep and narrow, just like the one at Merrick, designed so that, in the event attackers gained entrance into the hall, they would have to fight their way upstairs with their sword arm blocked by the stone wall, while the defenders would not be nearly so hampered. Unlike the one at Merrick, however, this one was hung with spider webs. Shuddering as she imagined the leggy inhabitants of those webs, Jenny quickened her pace.
Lounging back in his chair, Royce watched the stairs, his jaw hardened with resolve, his mind mentally clicking off the passing minutes until her time ran out. The hall was mostly empty, save for a few of the knights who were lingering over their cups of ale, and the serfs who were clearing away the remnants of the morning meal.
Her time was up! he decided furiously and shoved back his chair with a force that made the legs screech against the flagstones. Then he stood stock still. Coming toward him in a soft, high-waisted gown the color of yellow sunlight was Jennifer Merrick. But not the charming nymph he’d become accustomed to seeing. In a transformation that both unnerved and enthralled him, the breathtaking young woman coming toward him was a countess fit to take her place in the most glittering courts in the land. Her hair was parted at the center, falling like a shimmering, red-gold waterfall, waving over her shoulders and down her back all the way to her waist, where it ended in thick curls.
The V-neck of her gown accented her full breasts, then it fell gently over her graceful hips in a long train; wide sleeves were turned back into cuffs at her wrists, then allowed to drape from her arms to her knees.
Royce had the odd sensation that she had become someone else, but when she drew near, there was no mistaking those brilliant blue eyes or that entrancing face.
She stopped in front of him, and his decision to have her, no matter how much trouble she put him to, now became an unshakable resolution. A slow, admiring smile drifted across his face as he said, "What a chameleon you are!"
Her eyes snapped with indignation. "Lizard?"
Royce bit back a laugh, trying to keep his eyes off the alluring display of smooth flesh exposed by the neckline of her gown, and to remember how justifiably annoyed with her he was. "I meant," he said levelly, "that you are changeable."
Jenny was not unaware of the odd, possessive gleam in his gray eyes as they roved over her, but she was momentarily distracted by the disquieting discovery of how handsome and elegant he looked in a deep blue tunic of the finest wool that set off the muscular width of his shoulders, its full sleeves drawn tightly at the wrists and trimmed with silver threads. A belt of flat silver disks rode low on his hips, from which hung a short sword with a large sapphire in its hilt. Below that, Jenny refused to look.
It finally dawned on her he was looking at her hair, and Jennifer belatedly realized that she was bareheaded. Reaching back, she caught up the wide yellow hood attached to her gown and pulled it up and forward, so that it framed her face and draped in graceful folds at her shoulders as it was meant to do.
"It’s lovely," Royce said, watching her, "but I’d prefer to see your hair uncovered."
He was bent on charming her again today, she realized with a sinking feeling; she found it easier to deal with him when they were engaged in open hostilities than when he was being nice. Forcing herself to confront only one problem at a time, Jenny concentrated on his suggestion that she uncover her hair. "As you must surely know," she replied with cool civility as he pulled out a chair for her, " ’tis improper for any but young girls and brides to be bareheaded. A woman is required to conceal her—"
"Charms?" Royce provided, his appreciative gaze sliding over her hair and face and breasts.
"Because ’twas Eve who tempted Adam?" he speculated, stating what he knew was a religious belief.
Jenny reached for a trencher of porridge. "Yes."
"It has always seemed to me," he mockingly observed, "that what tempted him was an apple, in which case, ’twas gluttony that caused his downfall, not lust."
Knowing how she had twice fallen into his arms after just such lighthearted discourse as this, Jenny absolutely refused to be amused or shocked by that heresy, or even to venture any reply. Instead, she broached another topic in a carefully civil tone. "Would you be willing to reconsider your edict that my sister and I are to be separated?"
He quirked a speculative brow at her, "Has your disposition improved?"
His infuriating, unshakable calm, combined with his arrogance, nearly choked her. After a long moment, while she fought to dislodge the word from her throat, Jenny managed to say, "Yes."
Satisfied, Royce looked round at the serf hovering near his elbow and said, "Tell Lady Brenna her sister awaits her here." Then he turned back to Jennifer, pleasuring himself with the sight of her delicate profile. "Go ahead and eat."
"I was waiting for you to begin."
"I’m not hungry." An hour ago, he’d been ravenous, Royce thought wryly; now the only appetite he possessed was for her.
Famished from her self-imposed fast, Jenny did as he suggested and took a spoonful of porridge. Soon, however, his thoughtful gaze began to unnerve her. With a morsel of food partway to her lips, she slanted him a wary, sideways look. "Why are you watching me?"
Whatever answer he’d been about to give was interrupted by the serf who came rushing up to Jennifer and burst out in alarm, "It—it’s your sister, milady. She wants you. She’s coughin’ in a way what makes me flesh crawl!"
Jenny’s face drained of color. "Dear God, no!" she whispered, already bolting from her chair. "Not now —not here!"
"What do you mean?" Accustomed to dealing with every sort of emergency on a battlefield, Royce calmly put a restraining hand on her wrist.
"Brenna has an ailment of the chest—" Jenny explained desperately. "The attacks usually begin with coughing, and later she cannot breathe."