"About your delectable body," he said crudely, but somewhere in her heart, Jenny was accepting something else… another explanation so exquisite that she was afraid to think it. It explained everything.
"I didn’t know," she said simply. "I never imagined you would want to marry me."
"And I suppose if you had, you’d have sent your stepbrother off and stayed at Hardin with me?" he jeered.
It was the greatest risk Jenny had ever taken in her life, because she told him the truth: "If I—I’d known how I was going to feel after I left, I might have." She saw his jaw harden, and without thinking, she lifted her hand and touched her fingertips to his taut cheek. "Please don’t look at me like this," she whispered, her eyes gazing deeply into his. "I am not lying to you."
Trying without complete success to ignore the tender innocence of her touch and to stifle the sudden memory of the way she had kissed his scars, Royce said flatly, "And I suppose you knew nothing about your father’s plot?"
"I was not going to any cloister, I was leaving with you in the morn," she said simply. "I would never have done anything so… so low."
In sheer frustration at her endless deceit, Royce jerked her into his arms and kissed her, but instead of fighting the hard, punishing kiss, she leaned up on her toes and welcomed it, her hands sliding up his chest and twining around his neck. Her parted lips clung to his, moving tenderly, softly against his mouth, and to Royce’s astonishment he realized she was gentling him. And even when he realized it, he couldn’t stop it from happening. His hands no longer dug into her arms, they were shifting over her back in a restless, soothing caress, sliding up her nape and holding her lips closer to his hungry mouth.
And as his passion built, so did the awful, guilty premonition that he had been wrong. About everything. Tearing his mouth from hers, he held her clasped tightly to him, waiting for his breathing to even out. When he could finally trust himself to speak, he moved her slightly away and reached down to lift her chin, needing—wanting—to see into her eyes when he asked her. "Look at me, Jennifer," he said gently.
The eyes she raised to his were innocent of guile and strangely trusting. It was not a question, it was a statement: "You didn’t know anything about your father’s plot, did you?"
"There was no plot," she said simply.
Royce leaned his head back and he closed his eyes, trying to shut out the obvious truth: After forcing her to stand in her own home and endure the barbs of his people, he had dragged her out of bed, forced her to marry him, hauled her across England, and to finish it all off nicely, he had, within the hour, graciously offered to "forgive" her and "let bygones be bygones."
Faced with the choice of shattering her illusions about her father or letting her go on thinking he was a callous madman, Royce chose the former. He was not in a mood to be gallant—not at the expense of his marriage.
Stroking her silken hair, he tipped his chin down and stared into those trusting eyes, wondering why he consistently lost his reason where she was concerned. "Jennifer," he said quietly, "I am not quite the monster you’ve had good reason to think I am. There was a plot. Will you at least listen to my explanation?"
She nodded, but the smile she gave him told him she thought he was fanciful beyond belief.
"When I went to Merrick keep, I fully expected either your father or one of the clans to try to violate the pact that guaranteed my safety while in Scotland for our marriage. I put men on the roads leading to Merrick and left them with orders not to let any group pass without making inquiries."
"And they didn’t find anyone trying to violate the pact," she said with quiet assurance.
"No," Royce admitted. "But what they did discover was a caravan of one abbess with an escort of twelve, making what seemed to be undue haste toward Merrick. Contrary to what you have reason to believe," he added with a wry smile, "my men and I are not in the habit of harassing clerics. On the other hand, following my instructions, they made inquiries of the party—by the expedient measure of letting the abbess believe they were there to give her escort. She, in turn, happily confided that she was coming for you."
Jenny’s finely arched brows drew together in a puzzled frown, and Royce almost regretted telling her the truth. "Go on," she said.
"The abbess and her party had been delayed by all the rain in the north—which was, by the by, why your father and your ‘pious’ Friar Benedict dreamt up that nonsensical explanation about the good friar being very temporarily too ill to perform the ceremony. According to the abbess, it seemed that one Lady Jennifer Merrick had decided to cloister herself as the result of an unwanted marriage. The ‘husband,’ she understood, was determined to stand in the way of the lady’s decision to pledge her life to God, and so she had come to assist Lady Jennifer by helping her father get her out of Merrick—and out of her husband’s godless clutches—in secret.
"Your father had hit upon the perfect revenge: since our marriage had already been consummated before the fact, an annulment would have been out of the question for me. So of course would divorce have been. Without the opportunity to remarry, I couldn’t sire a legitimate heir, and so all of this—Claymore and all I have—would have reverted to the king on my death."
"I—I don’t believe you," Jenny said flatly, and then with heartbreaking fairness, she amended, "I believe you believe this. But the simple truth is that my father would never have locked me away for the rest of my life without at least giving me a choice first."
"He would, and he intended to."
She shook her head, shook it so hard and so emphatically that Royce suddenly realized she couldn’t bear to believe it. "My father… loves me. He wouldn’t do that. Not even to avenge himself on you."
Royce winced, feeling like the Barbarian he’d been called for trying to shatter her illusions. "You’re quite right. I—it was a mistake."
She nodded. "A mistake." She smiled at him, a soft, sweet smile that made his heart pick up its tempo because it was not like any other smile she’d given him. It was filled with trust and approval and something else he couldn’t quite identify.
Turning, Jenny walked over to the window, staring out at the starlit night. Torches were lit on the battlements and the silhouette of a guard patrolling the wall was clearly outlined against the orange light. Her mind, however, was not on stars or guards, or even her father; it was on the tall, black-haired man standing behind her. He had wanted to marry her, and the knowledge filled her with an emotion so poignant, so consuming that she could scarcely contain it. It was so overpowering that feelings like patriotism and revenge became paltry.