For the last hour, Royce had been willing to indulge her, using the time to enjoy her company and to savor the anticipation of what was to come. Now, however, he was no longer interested in anticipation.
"Royce—" Godfrey said, laughing heartily, "wasn’t that an amusing tale Lady Jennifer just related?"
"Very," Royce agreed. Rather than rudely arising and putting an end to her socializing, Royce chose a subtler method: He gave Godfrey a look which clearly stated that supper was over.
Too occupied with her own worries to notice the subtle exchange of glances, Jenny turned to Royce with an overbright smile, thinking madly for some new topic to keep everyone lingering at the table. But before she could speak, there was a sudden scraping of chair legs and all the knights stood up, hastily bade her good night, and immediately took themselves off to the chairs near the fire.
"Did you not think that a trifle odd? Their abrupt leave-taking, I mean."
"I would have found it far more ‘odd’ had they remained."
"Because I told them to go." He stood up, too, and the moment Jenny had dreaded all day had arrived. It was there in his steady silver gaze as he held his hand out to her in an unmistakable indication that she should also arise. Her knees began to shake as she stood up; tentatively she reached for his hand, then snatched her hand away. "I—I didn’t hear you tell them to go," she exclaimed.
"I was very discreet, Jennifer."
Upstairs, he paused at the chamber next to hers and shoved open the door so that Jenny could precede him.
Unlike Jenny’s small, Spartan chamber, the solar into which she stepped was spacious and lavish by comparison. In addition to his large four-poster bed, there were four comfortable chairs and several heavy trunks with ornate brass fittings. Tapestries hung on the wall, and there was even a thick mat in front of a hooded fireplace where a fire burned, warming and lighting the room. Moonlight spilled through a window across from the bed, and next to it was a door leading to what appeared to be a small parapet.
Behind her, she heard the heavy door latch fall into place, and her heart slammed into her ribs. Bent on doing anything to delay him from what he meant to do to her, Jenny fled to the chair furthest from the bed, sat down, and folded her hands in her lap. Fastening a bright, inquisitive smile upon her face, she seized on a subject sure to interest him, and began to bombard him with questions: "I’ve heard it said you’ve never been unhorsed in battle," she announced, leaning slightly forward in her chair in a posture of enraptured interest.
Instead of launching into a tale about his exploits as his knights had done at supper, the earl of Claymore sat down across from her, propped his booted foot atop the opposite knee, and leaned back in his chair, regarding her in complete silence.
From the moment she’d snatched her hand away from his as he helped her up from the table a few minutes ago, she’d had the uneasy feeling he knew she was hoping for some sort of miracle to save her from having to keep her bargain, and that he was not well pleased by her attitude. Widening her eyes, she redoubled her efforts to engage him in discourse. "Is it true?" she asked brightly.
"Is what true?" he replied with cool indifference.
"That you’ve never been unhorsed in battle?"
"It isn’t?" she exclaimed. "Then… er… how many times has it happened?"
"Twice!" Twenty times would have been a minute number, she thought, feeling a tremor of panic for her clansmen who would soon face him. "I see. That’s amazing, considering how many battles you must have fought in all these years. How many battles have you fought?"
"I don’t count them, Jennifer."
"Perhaps you should. I have it! You could tell me about each one, and I could keep count," she suggested a little wildly, her tension compounded tenfold by his clipped answers. "Shall we do that now?"
"I don’t think so."
Jenny swallowed, sensing that her time was up and that no angel of deliverance was going to swoop in through the window to save her from her fate. "What about—about the lists? Have you ever been unhorsed there?"
"I’ve never fought in the lists."
Startled into momentarily forgetting her own concerns, Jenny said with genuine surprise, "Why not? Don’t many of your own countrymen wish to test their mettle against yours? Haven’t they challenged you to a tilt?"
"But you don’t accept?"
"I fight battles, not jousts. Jousts are games."
"Yes, but won’t people… well… begin to think ’tis cowardice that makes you refuse? Or that—perhaps—you aren’t quite so able a knight as rumor has it you are?"
"It’s possible. Now I’ll ask you a question," he interjected smoothly. "Can it be your sudden concern about my feats in battle and my reputation as a knight has to do with a bargain we made—one which you now hope to avoid keeping?"
Instead of lying to him, which Royce half expected her to do, she surprised him by saying in a helpless little whisper, "I’m frightened. More frightened than I’ve ever been in my life."
His brief spurt of annoyance at her attempts to manipulate him for the last few minutes abruptly dissolved, and as he looked at her seated primly in her chair, he realized he was expecting an entrancing innocent to accept what was going to happen between them as if she was one of the experienced courtesans he bedded at court.
Gentling his voice, he stood up, extending his hand to her. "Come here, Jennifer."
Her knees quaking violently, Jenny stood up and walked over to him, trying to tell her outraged conscience that the act she was about to commit wasn’t sinful or traitorous; that in sacrificing herself to save her sister, she was actually doing something noble, even virtuous. She was, in a way, like Joan of Arc, accepting martyrdom.
Hesitantly, she placed her cold hand in his warm palm, watching as his long, tanned fingers closed around hers, finding a strange reassurance in the warmth of his grip and the compelling look in his eyes.
And when his arms encircled her, drawing her against his hard, muscular length, and his parted lips touched hers, her conscience abruptly went silent. It was a kiss like none of his others, for he knew where it would end—a kiss of exquisite restraint, of pagan hunger. His tongue slid across her lips, urging them to part, insisting, and the moment they did, it plunged into her mouth. His hands glided restlessly, possessively, up and down her back, her breasts, sliding across her spine, pressing her tightly to his hardened thighs, and Jennifer felt herself falling slowly into a dizzying abyss of sensuality and awakening passion. With a silent moan of helpless surrender, she wound her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support.