"Does the food live up to your expectations, my lord?" Jenny asked, turning to Royce, who was helping himself to a second portion of roasted peacock and another of stuffed swan.
"It’s adequate," he said with a mild frown. "But I’d expected better fare from kitchens under Prisham’s supervision." At that moment, the steward himself materialized behind Royce, and Jenny had her first glimpse of Albert Prisham as he said in a cool, formal voice, "I fear I have little interest in food, your grace." He glanced at Jennifer and said, "A cup of mild broth, a lean joint of meat is enough to satisfy me. However, I feel certain your wife will take the kitchens in hand and create menus and recipes to better please you."
Jenny, who knew nothing whatever of recipes and menus, paid no heed to that remark, because she was trying to stifle a surge of instant dislike for the man. Wearing a gold chain about his waist and carrying a white staff, the insignias of his exalted position, he was thin to the point of emaciation. His jawbones protruded sharply beneath skin that was white and nearly transparent. But it wasn’t that which made Jenny react so negatively to him, it was the coldness in his eyes when he looked about him. "I trust," he continued, showing more respect to Royce, but certainly no more warmth than he’d showed Jennifer, "that with the exception of the food, all else is to your satisfaction tonight?"
"Everything is fine," Royce replied, sliding his chair back as the dancing began at the far end of the hall. "If you’re well enough tomorrow, I’d like to see the ledgers, and the following day, we should tour the estate."
"Certainly, your grace, but the day after tomorrow is the twenty-third, which is customarily Judgment Day. Do you desire me to postpone it?"
"No," Royce said without hesitation, his hand under Jennifer’s elbow as he indicated she should rise. "I’d be interested to watch and see how it is done."
With a bow to Royce and a curt inclination of his head to Jennifer, Sir Albert withdrew. Leaning on his staff, he made his slow way to his own chambers.
When Jenny realized Royce meant to join the dancing, she drew back and shot him an apprehensive look. "I have danced little, your grace," she explained, watching the swirling, energetic dancers and trying to see what steps they were doing. "Perhaps we ought not to do it, just now, when there are so many—"
With a grin, Royce took her firmly in his arms. "Just hold on tightly," he said and began to whirl her expertly. He was, Jenny realized at once, an excellent dancer. Moreover, he was an excellent teacher—by the third dance she was twirling and skipping and leaping right along with the others. Those dances were followed immediately by a dozen more, as Stefan Westmoreland claimed his dance, and then Sir Godfrey and Sir Lionel and the rest of the knights claimed theirs.
Breathless and laughing, Jenny shook her head no when Sir Godfrey tried to lead her into another dance. Royce, who’d danced with several of the other ladies present, had been standing on the sidelines for the last half hour talking with a group of guests. Now he materialized at Jennifer’s side as if sensing her exhaustion. "Jennifer needs a rest, Godfrey." Nodding toward Gawin, who seemed to be having a belligerent conversation with the knight called Sir Roderick in the presence of Lady Anne, Royce added dryly, "I suggest you invite Lady Anne to dance instead—before Gawin does something foolish to win her admiration, like provoking a fight with Roderick and getting himself killed."
Sir Godfrey obligingly went off to solicit a dance from the lady in question, and Royce led Jenny over to a quiet corner in the hall. Handing her a goblet of wine, he blocked her from view by standing directly in front of her and bracing his hand on the wall near her head.
"Thank you," she said, happy and flushed, her chest heaving with exertion. "I truly needed a moment to rest." Royce’s gaze drifted appreciatively to the rosy skin swelling above the square bodice of her gown, making Jenny feel strangely excited and nervous at the same time. "You’re an excellent dancer," she said, and he reluctantly forced his gaze to hers. "You must have danced a great deal at court."
"And on the battlefield," he said with a disarming grin.
"On the battlefield?" she echoed, perplexed.
He nodded, his grin widening. "Watch any warrior who’s trying to dodge arrows and lances and you’ll see dance steps and footwork that would dazzle you."
His ability to laugh at himself warmed Jenny’s heart, which was already liberally warmed by several cups of strong wine and a great deal of dancing. Self-conscious, she glanced sideways and saw Arik only a few yards away. Unlike everyone else who was laughing, eating, or dancing, Arik was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his legs braced wide apart, staring straight ahead with an expression on his face that looked absolutely lethal. And at his side was Aunt Elinor, chattering up at him as if her very life depended on making him respond.
Royce followed the direction of Jennifer’s gaze. "Your aunt," he teased, "would seem to enjoy courting danger."
Emboldened by the wine, Jenny returned his smile. "Does Arik ever talk—I mean in real sentences? Or laugh?"
"I’ve never seen him laugh. And he speaks as little as necessary."
Gazing up into his compelling eyes, Jenny felt strangely safe and sheltered, and yet uneasily aware that her husband was a virtual mystery to her. Sensing that in his approachable mood, he’d be willing to answer a question, she said softly, "How did you meet him?"
"We were never actually introduced," he teased. When she continued to regard him as if waiting for more information, he obliged by saying, "The first time I saw Arik ’twas eight years ago, in the thick of a battle that had been raging for over a sennight. He was trying to fend off six attackers who’d singled him out as a target and were pounding him with swords and arrows. I went to his aid, and between the two of us we managed to fell the attackers. When the skirmish was over, I was wounded, but Arik didn’t give me so much as a thank you for my efforts. He just looked at me and then he rode off, plunging into the heat of battle again."
"And that was all there was to it?" Jenny asked, when Royce fell silent.
"Not quite. The next day, near nightfall, I was wounded again, and this time unhorsed as well. As I bent down to pick up my shield, I glanced up and there was a rider coming straight at me, his lance aimed at my heart. The next instant, the lancer was headless, and there was Arik, swooping down to pick up his bloodied axe and riding off. Again without a word.