Lifting his head, Royce stared down into her slumberous blue eyes, and Jenny saw the look of pure satisfaction mingled with puzzlement on his face—"Why is it when you yield, I feel like the one who has been conquered?"
Jenny flinched and turned her back on him, her slim shoulders rigid. " ‘Twas no more than a minor skirmish I yielded, your grace; the war has yet to be fought."
The road to Claymore wound in a wide arc around the woods, a route that took them far out of their way but eliminated the need to force their way through the dense forest. Had he been alone, Royce would have taken the shorter route, for now that they were so close, he was anxious for a glimpse of it. Suddenly he wanted Jennifer to share in his eagerness. For want of anything better to say to reduce the friction between them, Royce answered the question she’d asked him before, about the whereabouts of the men who’d been with them at the priory. With a smile in his voice, he said, "In case you’re still curious, the fifty men who were with us at the priory left there in groups of five. Each group then took a slightly different route so that pursuers from Merrick would have to split up into smaller groups in order to give chase." Teasingly he added, "Would you like to know the rest of what they did?"
Jenny gave her red-gold hair a disdainful toss. "I know the rest. After choosing an advantageous spot for an ambush, your men then hid themselves beneath bushes and rocks like serpents, waiting to strike my father’s people from their backs."
He chuckled at her outrageous slur on his code of ethics. "A pity I didn’t think of that," he teased.
Although Jennifer did not deign to reply, the stiffness went out of her shoulders, and Royce could sense her curiosity to know more. Willing now to satisfy that curiosity, he continued his explanation as they rounded the last bend in the road. "Until a few hours ago, my men were about ten miles behind us, fanned out across five miles in each direction. In the last few hours, they’ve been moving closer, and very soon they’ll close ranks and move in directly behind us." Good-naturedly, he added, "They’ve been back there, waiting to be stabbed in the back by your father’s men."
"Which," she pointedly replied, "would not be necessary had I not been taken from the abbey in the first place and brought to you—"
"Cease!" he said, irritated at her continued hostility. "You were not ill treated, all things considered."
"Not ill treated!" she burst out in disbelief. "Do you deem it a kindness, then, to force yourself upon a helpless maiden, destroy her honor along with her chances to wed a man of her choice?"
Royce opened his mouth to answer her, then closed it again, frustrated because he could no longer defend, nor completely condemn, his actions. From Jennifer’s irate viewpoint, he had acted dishonorably in holding her captive. From his own point of view, his treatment of his captive had been downright chivalrous!
A moment later, they cantered round the last bend and all such unpleasant thoughts vanished from Royce’s mind. His hand tightened reflexively on the reins, inadvertently jerking Zeus to an unnecessarily sharp halt that nearly pitched Jenny out of the saddle.
Recovering her balance, Jenny threw a dark look over her shoulder, but Royce was staring straight ahead at something in the distance, a faint smile playing about his lips. In an odd voice, he tipped his head in the direction he was staring and said softly, "Look."
Puzzled, she turned to see what he was gazing at, and her eyes widened with pleasure at the incredible beauty spread out before her. Directly in front of them, decked out in golden autumn splendor, lay a wide valley dotted with thatched cottages and neatly tended fields. Ahead, nestled into gently rolling hills, was a picturesque village. And higher yet, completely covering a wide plateau, stood a gigantic castle, with flags flying from its soaring turrets and stained-glass windows glinting like tiny jewels in the sun.
As the horse continued forward at a brisk walk, Jenny temporarily forgot her problems and admired the splendor and symmetry before her eyes. A high wall punctuated with twelve gracefully rounded towers completely enclosed the castle on all four sides.
As Jenny watched, the guards along the castle wall raised trumpets and blew a long, double blast, and a minute later, the drawbridge was let down. Soon liveried riders were clattering across it, their helmets shining in the sun, the pennants they carried undulating like small excited dots. Up ahead, along the road, Jenny saw peasants running from the fields and huts and pouring down from the village, hastening toward the road and lining up on both sides of it. Evidently, Jenny thought, the lofty personage who owned the place must be expecting them and had planned this lavish welcome.
"Well," Royce said behind her, "what do you think?"
Her eyes were alight with pleasure as she turned to look at him. " ‘Tis a wondrous place," she said softly. "I’ve naught seen the equal to it."
"How does it compare to your dream kingdom?" he teased, grinning, and she could tell he was inordinately pleased that she appreciated the splendor of the castle and the beauty of its setting.
His smile was almost irresistible, and Jenny hastily turned her head toward the castle, lest she start to weaken, but she was no test against the beauty spread out before her. Suddenly she became aware of the distant thunder of horses coming up from the rear, which she assumed must be Royce’s men closing the gap that separated them from him. For the first time in days, Jenny felt acutely dismayed over her appearance. She was still wearing her wedding gown, which she’d worn the night Royce took her from Merrick, but it was soiled and torn from her unwilling descent down Merrick’s wall and their breakneck rides through forests. Moreover, the rain had ruined the gown and her mantle, and the sun had dried it into a faded, splotchy, crushed mess.
Now they were obviously about to stop at the castle of someone of great importance, and although she told herself she didn’t care a snap of her fingers what an English nobleman or his villeins and serfs thought of her, she hated the thought of disgracing herself, ergo her kinsmen, before them. She tried to console herself with the fact that she’d at least had an opportunity to wash her hair this morning in the icy creek that ran near the place where they’d camped for the night, but she was morbidly certain her hair, which was her only real asset, was a mass of tangles strewn with twigs and leaves.
Turning, she glanced a little apprehensively at Royce and asked, "Who is lord here? Who owns such a place as this?"
His gaze shifted from the castle on the hill, which seemed to fascinate him almost as much as it did Jennifer, and he looked down at her, his eyes glinting with mocking amusement. "I do."