Four knights turned to Royce in unison, their faces wreathed in helpless grins. In a laughter-tinged voice, Stefan said, "God’s teeth! She was not quite that bad on the way here. But then she could scarcely talk when she was clinging to a horse for dear life. She must’ve been storing up her words all those days."

Royce quirked a sardonic brow in the direction Aunt Elinor had disappeared. "She’s crafty as an old fox if your hands are tied. Where’s Albert Prisham?" he said, suddenly anxious to see his steward and to discover first hand how Claymore was prospering.

"He’s ill," Stefan replied, settling down in a chair by the fire, "as Lady Elinor said. But ’tis his heart, I think, judging from the short time I spoke with him when we arrived yesterday. He’s arranged for the celebration tonight, but begs your leave not to join you until the morrow. Don’t you want to have a look around the place?"

Royce put his tankard of ale down and wearily rubbed the back of his neck. "I’ll do it later. For now, I need some sleep."

"So do I," Sir Godfrey said, yawning and stretching at the same time. "First I want to sleep, and then I want to stuff myself with good food and drink. And then, I want a warm, willing wench in my arms for the rest of the night. In that order," he added grinning, and the other knights nodded in agreement.

When they were gone, Stefan relaxed in his chair, eyeing his brother with mild concern as Royce frowned distractedly into the contents of his tankard. "What is it that makes you look so grim, brother? If it’s thoughts of that messy scene in the valley, put them aside and do not let them spoil the celebration tonight."

Royce glanced up at him. "I was wondering if ‘uninvited guests’ were going to arrive in the middle of it."

Stefan understood instantly that Royce was referring to the arrival of a contingent from Merrick. "The two emissaries from James and Henry will naturally come here. They’ll demand to see proof of the marriage with their own eyes, which the good friar can provide. But I doubt her people will ride all this way when they can do naught once they get here."

"They’ll come," Royce said flatly. "And they’ll come in sufficient numbers to show they have might."

"So what if they do?" Stefan said with a reckless grin. "They can do naught but shout at us over the castle walls. You’ve fortified this place to withstand the worst assault that you could give it."

Royce’s expression turned hard and implacable. "I’m done with battles! I told you that and I told Henry that. I’m sick of it, all of it—the blood, the stench, the sounds." Oblivious to the fascinated serf who had come up behind him to refill his tankard, Royce finished harshly, "I’ve no stomach for it any more."

"Then what do you intend to do if Merrick does come here?"

One sardonic brow lifted over mocking gray eyes. "I intend to invite him in to join the celebration."

Stefan saw he was serious and stood up very slowly. "And then what?" he demanded.

"And then we’ll hope he sees the futility of trying to fight me when he is vastly outnumbered."

"And if he doesn’t?" Stefan prodded. "Or if he insists on fighting you alone, which is more likely, what will you do then?"

"What would you have me do—" Royce snapped in angry frustration. "Slay my own father-in-law? Shall I invite his daughter to watch? Or shall I send her upstairs until we’ve mopped up his blood from the floor where her children will play someday?"

It was Stefan’s turn to look angry and frustrated. "Then what are you going to do?"

"Sleep," Royce replied, deliberately misunderstanding Stefan’s question. "I’m going to meet briefly with my steward, and then I’m going to sleep for a few hours."

An hour later, after meeting with his steward and leaving instructions with a servant to see to a bath and clothes for him, Royce walked into his bedchamber and with great anticipation, he stretched out atop the huge four-poster bed, linking his hands behind his head. His gaze roved idly over the dark blue and gold canopy above the bed with its heavy, brocaded silk draperies pulled back and held with gold ropes, then he glanced at the wall across the room. Jennifer was on the other side of it, he knew. A servant had provided that information, along with the information that Jennifer had entered her bedchamber a few minutes ago, after requesting to be awakened in three hours and to have a bath and whatever clothing might be available for her to wear to the celebration.

Memories of the way Jennifer looked in sleep with her hair strewn about the pillow and her bare satiny skin exposed above the sheets made his body tighten in instant need. Ignoring it, Royce closed his eyes. It was wiser to wait to bed his reluctant bride until after the celebration, he decided. It was going to take some persuasion to make her agree to fulfill this part of her marriage vows, of that Royce had little doubt, and at the moment he was not in a fit state of mind to deal with her on the matter.

Tonight, when she was mellowed with wine and music, he would bring her to his bed. But willing or unwilling, he intended to make love to her tonight and any night hereafter that he pleased. If she would not come to him eagerly, she would come because he willed it, and it was as simple as that, he decided forcefully. But the last recollection he had as he drifted off to sleep was of his outrageously pretty, impertinent young bride holding up her fingers and informing him with saucy superiority, "Forty is this many—"

Chapter Nineteen

Jenny climbed out of the wooden tub, wrapped herself in the soft, light blue wrapper a serving maid handed her, and then parted the curtains that hid an alcove where the shoulder-high tub was kept. The voluminous wrapper, although very fine, had obviously belonged to someone much taller; the sleeves hung down six inches past her fingertips and the hem trailed a full yard behind her, but it was clean and warm, and after spending days in the same soiled gown, Jenny thought the wrapper heavenly. A cozy fire was burning to ward off the chill, and Jenny sat down upon her bed and began to dry her hair.

The serving maid came up behind her, a brush in her hand, and began wordlessly to brush the tangles from Jenny’s heavy hair, while another maid appeared with an armful of shimmering, pale gold brocade that Jenny assumed must be a gown. Neither of the maids betrayed any sign of overt hostility, which was little wonder, Jenny thought, considering the warning their duke had delivered in the bailey.

The memory of that kept coming back to taunt Jenny like a riddle. Despite all the bitter feelings between them, Royce had publicly and deliberately endowed her with his own authority, before one and all. He had elevated her to his equal, and that seemed like a very odd thing for any man to do, particularly a man like him. In this instance he seemed to have acted out of kindness to her, and yet, she could not think of a single action he’d ever taken, including releasing Brenna, that he’d done without an ulterior motive that served his purpose.