She had looked away, so Jenny didn’t see the new tenderness in his slow smile, but she felt it in the way his arms encircled her, his hand splaying against her spine, clasping her against his hardened length as his mouth took possession of hers, robbing her of speech, and then of breath.
We have visitors," Godfrey announced, stalking into the hall, a frown upon his face as he looked at the knights seated at the table partaking of the midday meal. Twelve pairs of hands paused, their faces alert. "A large group carrying the king’s standard and riding this way. A very large group," Godfrey amplified, "too many to be the usual messengers. Lionel got a glimpse of them from the road. He said he thought he recognized Graverley." His frown deepening, he glanced toward the gallery above. "Where’s Royce?"
"He’s gone out strolling with our hostage," Eustace answered, frowning. "I’m not certain where."
"I know," Arik said, his voice booming. "I’ll go." Turning on his heel, Arik left the hall, his long, ground-eating strides solid and assured, but the look of stony, aloof calm that normally characterized his craggy face was marred by a worried look that deepened the grooves between his pale blue eyes.
Jenny’s musical laughter pealed like bells startled by a sudden wind, and Royce grinned at her as she slumped helplessly against the tree trunk beside him, her shoulders shaking with mirth, her cheeks tinted the same pale pink as the fetching gown she wore. "I—I don’t believe you," she gasped, wiping tears of hilarity from her eyes. " ‘Tis a gross falsehood which you invented just now."
"It’s possible," he agreed, stretching his long legs out in front of him and grinning because her smile was infectious. This morning, she’d wakened in his bed when servants trooped into their bedchamber, and her distress at being found like that with him was almost painful to see. She had become his mistress and she was positive the entire castle would be gossiping about it, which, of course, was true. After considering the alternative of lying to her about it, or trying to seduce her into forgetting her woes, Royce had decided the best course was to take her away from the castle for a few hours so that she could relax a little. It had been a wise choice, he decided, looking at her sparkling eyes and glowing complexion.
"You must think me brainless to be fooled into believing such a falsehood," she said, trying to look stern and failing.
Royce smiled, but he shook his head in denial of both her accusations. "Nay, madam, you’re wrong on all counts."
"All?" Jenny repeated quizzically. "What do you mean?"
Royce’s smile widened as he explained, " ‘Twas no falsehood I told you, nor, I think, could you be easily fooled by anyone." He paused, waiting for her to respond and when she didn’t, he said, smiling, "That was a compliment to your good sense."
"Oh," Jenny said, startled. "Thank you," she added uncertainly.
"Secondly, far from mistaking you for brainless, I find you to be a female of extraordinary intelligence."
"Thank you!" Jenny replied promptly.
"That was not a compliment," Royce corrected.
Jenny shot him a look of curious displeasure that silently demanded an explanation for his remark, and Royce answered as he reached out and touched her cheek with his forefinger, tracing its smooth, delicate texture. "Were you less intelligent, you’d not spend so much time considering all the possible consequences of belonging to me, and you’d simply accept your situation, along with all the benefits attached to it." His gaze shifted meaningfully to the strand of pearls he’d insisted on placing around her neck this morning after giving her the entire cache of jewels.
Jenny’s eyes widened with indignation, but Royce continued with imperturbable masculine logic. "Were you a woman of ordinary intelligence, you’d be concerned only with matters of normal interest to a woman, such as fashions, and the running of a household, and the rearing of children. You’d not be torturing yourself about subjects like loyalty, patriotism, and such."
Jenny stared at him in angry disbelief. "Accept my ‘situation’?" she repeated. "I am not in a ‘situation,’ as you so nicely phrased it, my lord. I am living in sin with a man, in defiance of my family’s wishes, my country’s wishes, and God Almighty’s wishes. And furthermore," she added, working herself into a fine temper, "it’s all well and good for you to recommend that I think only of womanly matters, such as the running of a household, and the rearing of children, but ’tis you who have stolen from me the right to those things. Your wife will have the running of your households and she’ll no doubt make my life a living hell if she can, and—"
"Jennifer," Royce interrupted, biting back a smile, "as you well know, I don’t have a wife." He realized much of what she was saying was true, but she looked so damned pretty .with her flashing liquid sapphire eyes and kissable mouth that he found it hard to concentrate; all he really wanted to do was to snatch her into his arms and cuddle her like an angry kitten.
"You don’t have a wife now," Jenny argued bitterly, "but you’ll choose one someday soon—an Englishwoman!" she spat. "An Englishwoman with ice water for blood, and hair the color of mouse fur, and a sharp little nose that is forever red on the end and in danger of dripping—"
His shoulders shaking with silent, helpless laughter, Royce held up a hand in a mocking gesture of defense. "Hair the color of mouse fur?" he repeated. "Is that the best I can do? Until recently, I thought I fancied a blond wife, with big green eyes and—"
"And big pink lips and big—" So angry was she that Jenny actually raised her hands toward her breasts before she realized what she was about to say.
"Yes," Royce prompted, teasing. "Big what?"
"Ears!" she burst out furiously, "But whatever she looks like, the point is, she’ll make my life a living hell."
Unable to restrain himself another moment, Royce leaned down and nuzzled her neck. "I’ll strike a bargain with you," he whispered, kissing her ear. "We’ll pick out a wife we both like." And in that unlikely instant, he suddenly realized that his obsession with Jennifer was clouding his thinking. He could not possibly marry and still keep Jennifer with him, he knew. Despite his teasing, he was not callous enough to wed Mary Hammel or anyone else and then force Jennifer to suffer the indignity of remaining his mistress. Yesterday, he might have considered it, but not now, not after last night, when he came to realize how much suffering she’d already endured in her brief young life.