The gold brocade was cool to the touch as she slowly picked up the gown and held it up against herself. Looking down at her toes, she noted with delight that the gown was the right length.
The maid called Agnes entered, and over her arm was a long overgown of blue green velvet and a matching velvet mantle lined in gold. The stern-faced woman stopped short and for a split second, confusion softened her stony expression, for the infamous red-haired daughter of the treacherous Merrick was standing in the center of the room, her bare toes peeping from beneath the hem of a long wrapper, while she clutched a hastily altered gold gown to herself, looking down at it with eyes that were shining with joy. " ‘Tis beautiful, isn’t it?" she said in awe, raising glowing eyes to a startled Agnes.
"It—" Agnes faltered. " ‘Twas brought down along with whatever gowns could be found belonging to the old lord and his daughters," she said gruffly.
Instead of tossing the used gown aside with contempt, as Agnes half-expected her to do, the young duchess smiled with joy and said, "But look—it’s going to fit!"
" ‘Twas—" Agnes faltered again as she tried to compare the reality of the ingenuous girl with the stories being told about her. The master himself had called her a slut, according to the serfs’ gossip. " ‘Twas cut down and shorted while you slept, my lady," she managed, carefully laying down the overgown and mantle upon the bed.
"Really?" Jenny said, looking genuinely impressed as she glanced at the fine seams at the sides of the golden undergown. "Did you sew these seams?"
"And in only a few hours?"
"Aye," Agnes said shortly, disliking the confusion she was being forced to feel about the woman she was set to despise.
"They’re very fine seams," Jenny said softly. "I could not have done so well."
"Do you want me to help you put your hair up?" Agnes said, coldly disregarding the compliment though she felt somehow that she was in the wrong for doing it. Walking around behind Jenny, Agnes picked up the brush.
"Oh no, I think not," her new mistress declared, smiling brightly over her shoulder at the dumbfounded maid. "Tonight, I’m going to be a bride for a few hours, and brides are allowed to wear their hair down."
The noise that had been audible in her bedchamber became a deafening roar as Jenny neared the great hall, a cacophony of male laughter and music overlaying a sea of conversation. With her foot upon the last step, she hesitated before stepping into view of the revelers.
She knew, without needing to look, that the hall would be filled with men who knew all about her; men who’d undoubtedly been present in camp the night she’d been delivered to Royce like a trussed-up goose; other men who’d undoubtedly participated in her removal by force from Merrick; and still others who had witnessed her humiliating reception in the village today.
A half hour ago, when her husband had been talking in his deep, persuasive voice about memories to store, the prospect of a celebration had seemed wonderful; now, however, the reality of how she had come to be here was demolishing all the pleasure. She considered returning to her chamber, but her husband would only come up to fetch her. Besides, she told herself bracingly, she would have to face all these people some time, and a Merrick never cowered.
Drawing a long, steadying breath, Jenny walked down the last step and rounded the corner. The sight that greeted her in the torchlit hall made her blink in momentary confusion. Easily three hundred people were present, standing and talking, or sitting at long tables that had been set up along the length of one side of the hall. Still others were watching the entertainment—and of that, there seemed to be a dazzling variety: on the gallery above, a band of minstrels was playing, while other minstrels were strolling about the floor entertaining smaller groups; four jugglers in particolored costumes were tossing balls high into the air in the center of the room and exchanging them with each other; while at the far end of the hall three acrobats hurtled into the air. Behind the great table upon the dais, a lutist played upon his instrument, adding its sweet chords to the general chaotic gaiety of the hall.
There were women present, too, Jenny noted in some surprise, about thirty of them—wives of some of the knights, or else neighbors, Jenny decided. She spotted Royce easily, for with the exception of Arik, he was the tallest man in the great hall. He was standing not far away, talking to a group of men and women, a goblet in his hand, laughing at something one of them said. It hit her then that she’d never seen him like this—laughing and relaxed, the master of his own castle. Tonight, he did not resemble the predator for whom he was named; he looked like a powerful noble, and a dangerously handsome one, Jenny thought with a tiny tingle of pride as her gaze drifted over his tanned, chiseled features.
Alerted to Jenny’s presence by the sudden dropping of the noise level in the hall, Royce put his goblet down, excused himself to his guests, turned, and stopped cold. A slow smile of admiration swept across his face as he beheld the regal young duchess who was walking toward him in a gown of blue-green velvet with a fitted bodice and a slashed skirt that parted at the front to reveal a shining gold undergown. A matching velvet mantle lined in gold was draped over her shoulders and held in place with a flat gold chain inset with aquamarines. At her tiny waist was a curving, stiffened belt of gold satin edged in blue-green and set with aquamarines. Her glorious hair, parted in the center, tumbled over her shoulders and back in luxurious waves and shining curls, a ravishing contrast to the rich blue-green of her gown.
Belatedly realizing that he was forcing his courageous young bride to come to him, he walked forward, meeting her partway. Taking her cold hands in both of his, he drew her close, grinning down at her with unconcealed admiration, "You are beautiful," he said softly. "Stay still for a moment so they can all look their fill."
"I was given to understand, my lord, that one of your many reasons for objecting to marrying me—even if I were the queen of Scotland—is because I am plain." Jenny saw the surprised bafflement in his gray eyes and knew instinctively that it was genuine.
"I’m sure I voiced many objections during that angry interview with Henry, but that was assuredly not one of them." Quietly he added, "I am many things, Jennifer, but I am not blind."
"In that case," she answered teasingly, "I yield to your excellent judgment on the matter of my appearance tonight."
There was a meaningful note in his deep voice as he said, "And will you yield to me on anything else?"