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Chapter Twenty-Three

In the sennight that followed, Royce found himself confronted with the first wall he could not find a way to breech—the wall of ice Jennifer had built to insulate herself from him.

The night before last, he’d gone to her, thinking that if he made love to her, passion might thaw her. It hadn’t worked. She hadn’t fought him, she had simply turned her face away from him and closed her eyes. When he left her bed, he’d felt like the animal she’d called him. Last night, in fury and frustration, he’d tried to confront her about the matter of William, looking for a quarrel—thinking that the heat of anger might succeed where bedding her had not. But Jennifer was past the point of quarreling; in aloof silence she walked into her bedchamber and bolted the door.

Now, seated beside her at supper, he glanced at her, but could think of nothing to say to her or to anyone else. Not that he needed to speak, for his knights were so conscious of the silence between Royce and Jennifer that they were trying to cover it with forced joviality. In fact, the only people at the table who seemed to be unaware of the atmosphere were Lady Elinor and Arik.

"I see you all enjoyed my venison stew," Lady Elinor said, beaming at the empty trenchers and platters, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Jennifer and Royce had eaten very little. Her smile drooped, however, as she looked at Arik, who had just devoured another goose. "Except you, dear boy," she said with a sigh. "You are the very last person who should be eating goose! ‘Twill only complicate your problem, you know, which is exactly what I told you. I made that nice venison stew for you, and you didn’t touch it."

"Pay no heed to that, my lady," Sir Godfrey said, shoving his trencher aside and patting his flat stomach. "We ate it, and ’twas delicious!"

"Delicious," proclaimed Sir Eustace enthusiastically.

"Wonderful," boomed Sir Lionel.

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"Superb," Stefan Westmoreland agreed heartily with a worried glance at his brother.

Only Arik kept silent, because Arik always kept silent.

The moment Lady Elinor left the table, however, Godfrey rounded on Arik in anger. "The least you could have done was taste it. She made it particularly for you."

Very slowly, Arik laid down the goose leg and turned his huge head to Godfrey, his blue eyes so cold that Jenny unknowingly drew in a long breath and held it, waiting for some sort of physical explosion.

"Pay him no heed, Lady Jennifer," Godfrey said, noticing her distress.

After supper, Royce left the hall and needlessly spent an hour talking with the sergeant-of-the-guard. When he returned, Jennifer was seated near the fire amidst his knights, her profile turned to him. The topic of discussion was evidently Gawin’s obsession with his Lady Anne, and Royce breathed a sigh of relief when he noticed the slight smile touching Jennifer’s lips. It was the first time she’d smiled in seven days. Rather than join the group and risk spoiling her mood, Royce leaned his shoulder against a stone arch, well out of her sight, and signaled to a serf to bring him a tankard of ale.

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"Were I a knight," Gawin was explaining to her, leaning slightly forward, his youthful face taut with longing for his Lady Anne, "I would challenge Roderick to meet me in the village jousting matches!"

"Excellent," Sir Godfrey joked, "then Lady Anne could weep over your dead body, after Roderick finished with you."

"Roderick is no stronger than I!" Gawin said fiercely.

"What jousting matches do you mean?" Jennifer asked, trying to distract him a little from the helpless antagonism he felt for Sir Roderick.

" ‘Tis an annual affair held here in the valley each year after the crops are in. Knights come from far and wide—well, from as far as four or five days’ journey, to participate in it.

"Oh, I see," she said, though she’d already heard much excited talk about the lists from the serfs. "And will all of you participate in them?"

"We will," Stefan Westmoreland answered, and then anticipating her unspoken question, he added quietly, "Royce will not. He thinks them pointless."

Jenny’s pulse jumped at the mention of his name. Even now, after what he’d done, the sight of Royce’s rough-hewn face made her heart cry out for him. Last night she’d laid awake till dawn, fighting the stupid urge to go to him and ask him to somehow ease the ache in her heart. How foolish to yearn to ask the very person who’d caused the pain to heal it, yet even at supper tonight, when his sleeve had touched her arm, she had wanted to turn into his arms and weep.

"Perhaps Lady Jennifer or Lady Elinor," Eustace said, pulling Jennifer out of her dismal reverie, "could suggest something less hazardous to your life as a way to win Lady Anne’s heart—other than a joust with Roderick?" Raising his brows, he turned to Jennifer.

"Well, let me think for a minute first," Jenny replied, relieved to have something to concentrate on besides her brother’s death and her husband’s vicious betrayal. "Aunt Elinor, do you have any ideas?"

Aunt Elinor laid aside her embroidery, tipped her head to the side, and provided helpfully, "I know! In my day there was a custom of long standing that impressed me very much when I was a maiden."

"Really, ma’am?" Gawin said. "What would I do?"

"Well," she said, smiling with the memory. "You would ride up to the gate of Lady Anne’s castle and shout to all within that she is the fairest maiden in all the land."

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"What good would that do?" Gawin asked, perplexed.

"Then," Aunt Elinor explained, "you would challenge any knight in the castle who disagreed to come out and meet you. Naturally, several of them would have to meet your challenge—in order to save face with their ladies. And," she finished delightedly, "those knights whom you vanquished would then have to go to Lady Anne and kneel and say, ‘I submit to your grace and beauty!"

"Oh, Aunt Elinor," Jenny chuckled, "did they really do that in your day?"

"Most assuredly! Why, ’twas the custom until very recently."

"And I’ve no doubt," Stefan Westmoreland said gallantly, "that a great many knights were vanquished by your stalwart suitors, my lady, and sent to kneel before you."

"What a pretty speech!" said Lady Elinor approvingly, "I thank you. And it proves," she added to Gawin, "that chivalry isn’t falling by the wayside one bit!"

"It won’t help me, however," Gawin sighed. "Until I myself am knighted, I cannot challenge any knight. Roderick would laugh in my face if I dared, and who could blame him?"

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