"I’ve little doubt I’ll oft regret I didn’t," Royce snapped.
Henry chuckled and motioned with a beringed finger to his discarded wine goblet. "We shall drink a toast to your marriage, Claymore. I can see," he continued a minute later, watching Royce toss down a fresh goblet of wine in an obvious attempt to calm his ire, "that you regard this forced marriage as poor reward for your years of faithful service, yet I have never forgotten that you fought beside me long before there was much hope for gain."
"What I hoped to gain was peace for England, Sire," Royce said bitterly. "Peace and a strong king with better ideas for keeping that peace than the old methods, with battle axe and battering ram. I did not know at the time, however," Royce added with poorly concealed sarcasm, "that one of your methods would be to wed the hostile parties to each other. If I had," he finished acidly, "I might well have thrown my lot in with Richard instead."
That outrageous piece of treason made Henry throw back his head and roar with laughter. "My friend, you’ve always known I deem marriage an excellent compromise. Did we not sit up late one night by a campfire at Bosworth Field, just the two of us? If you think back on the occasion, you’ll recollect I told you then I’d offer my own sister to James if I thought ‘twould bring peace."
"You don’t have a sister," Royce pointed out shortly.
"Nay, but I have you instead," he quietly replied. It was the highest of royal compliments, and even Royce was not proof against it. With an irritated sigh, he put his chalice down and absently raked his right hand through the side of his hair.
"Truces and tournaments—that’s the way to peace," Henry added, well pleased with himself. "Truces for restraint and tournaments to work off hostilities. I’ve invited James to send anyone he likes to the tournament near Claymore later in the fall. We’ll let the clans fight us on the field of honor—harmless. Quite enjoyable, actually," he announced, reversing his earlier opinion on the subject. "Naturally, you needn’t participate."
When Henry fell silent, Royce said, "Have you more to say to me, Sire, or may I beg your leave to retire?"
"Certainly," Henry replied good-naturedly. "Come to see me in the morn, and we’ll talk more. Don’t be too hard on your brother—he volunteered to marry the sister in order to spare you. Seemed not at all reluctant to do it, in fact. Unfortunately, that won’t do. Oh, and Claymore, you needn’t worry about telling Lady Hammel of your broken betrothal. I’ve done that already. Poor lovely thing—she was quite overset. I’ve sent her off to the country in hopes the change of scene will help restore her spirits."
The knowledge that Henry had proceeded with the betrothal, and that Mary had undoubtedly been subjected to tremendous humiliation as a result of Royce’s notorious behavior with Jennifer, was the last piece of ill news he could tolerate in one night. With a brief bow, he turned on his heel and the footmen opened the doors. A few steps away, however, Henry called his name.
Wondering what impossible demand he was about to make now, Royce reluctantly turned to face him.
"Your future bride is a countess," Henry said, an odd smile lingering at his lips. "It is a title inherited by her through her mother—a title far older than your own, by the by. Did you know that?"
"If she were queen of Scotland," Royce replied bluntly, "I wouldn’t want her. Therefore, her present title is scarcely an inducement."
"I quite agree. In fact, I regard it as a likely hindrance to marital harmony." When Royce merely looked at him, Henry explained with a widening smile, "Inasmuch as the young countess has already duped my most fierce and brilliant warrior, I think ‘twould be a tactical mistake to have her outrank him as well. Therefore, Royce Westmoreland, I hereby confer upon you the title of duke…"
When Royce emerged from the throne room, the antechamber was filled with staring nobles, all of them visibly eager to have a look at him and thus assess how his interview with the king had gone. The answer came from a footman who rushed out of the throne room and loudly said, "Your grace?"
Royce turned to hear that King Henry bade him convey his personal regards to his future wife, but the nobles in the antechamber heard only two things: "your grace," which meant that Royce Westmoreland was now a duke, the holder of the most exalted title in the land, and that he was evidently about to be married. It was, Royce realized grimly, Henry’s way of announcing both events to those in the antechamber.
Lady Amelia Wildale and her husband were the first to recover from the shock. "So," said Lord Wildale, bowing to Royce, " ‘twould appear congratulations are in order."
"I disagree," Royce snapped.
"Who is the lucky lady?" Lord Avery called good-naturedly. "Obviously, it is not Lady Hammel."
Royce stiffened and slowly turned while tension and expectation crackled in the air, but before he could reply, Henry’s voice boomed from the doorway: "Lady Jennifer Merrick."
The stunned silence that followed was broken first by a loud laugh that was abruptly stifled, and then giggles, and then a deafening babble of denials and amazed exclamations.
"Jennifer Merrick?" Lady Elizabeth repeated, looking at Royce, her sultry eyes silently reminding Royce of the intimacies they had once shared. "Not the beautiful one? The plain one then?"
His mind bent only on getting out of there, Royce nodded distantly and started to turn.
"She’s quite old, isn’t she?" Lady Elizabeth persisted.
"Not too old to snatch up her skirts and run away from the Black Wolf," Graverley put in smoothly, strolling out from the midst of the crowd. "No doubt you’ll have to beat her into submission, won’t you? A little torture, a little pain, and then mayhaps she’ll stay in your bed?"
Royce’s hands clenched against the urge to strangle the bastard.
Someone laughed to diffuse the tension and joked, "It’s England against Scotland, Claymore, except the battles will take place in the bedchamber. My purse is on you."
"Mine, too," someone else called.
"Mine is on the woman," Graverley proclaimed.
Further back in the crowd an elderly gentleman cupped his hand to his ear and called to a friend who was closer to the duke, "Eh? What’s all this about? What’s happened to Claymore?"
"He has to marry the Merrick slut," his friend replied, raising his voice to be heard over the increasing hubbub.
"What did he say?" called a lady far back in the crowd, craning her neck.