She tried to tug free of his grasp, but Royce stood up and accompanied her from the hall. "There must be some way to ease her."
"Not here!" Jenny said, so frightened her words were jumbled. "My Aunt Elinor mixes an aromatic—she knows more about herbs and cures than anyone in Scotland—there’s some of it at the abbey."
"What’s in it? Perhaps—"
"I don’t know!" Jenny cried, almost pulling him up the steep steps. "All I know is the liquid has to be heated until steam comes from it, then Brenna breathes it, and it eases her."
Royce pushed open the door to Brenna’s bedchamber, and Jenny raced to her bedside, her eyes frantically searching her sister’s ashen face.
"Jenny?" Brenna whispered, clutching Jenny’s hand, then she stopped, her body racked with violent spasms of coughing that lifted her spine clear off the bed. "I-I’m sick again," she gasped weakly.
"Don’t worry," Jenny soothed, bending low and brushing the tangled blond curls from Brenna’s forehead. "Don’t worry—"
Brenna’s anguished eyes shifted to the threatening figure of the earl looming in the doorway. "We have to go home," she told him, "I need the"—another siege of shrill, hacking coughing gripped her—"need the potion!"
Her heart hammering in mounting fear, Jenny looked over her shoulder at Royce. "Let her go home, please!"
"Nay, I think—"
Beside herself with fear, Jenny let go of Brenna’s hand and hurried to the doorway motioning to Royce to follow her out of the chamber. Closing the door behind her, so her words wouldn’t further distress Brenna, she faced her captor, her expression desperate. "Brenna can die from this without my aunt’s aromatic. Her heart stopped beating the last time!"
Royce did not entirely believe the blond girl was actually in danger of death, but it was obvious Jennifer did believe it, and equally obvious that Brenna was not feigning that cough.
Jenny saw indecision flicker across his hard features and, thinking he was about to refuse, she tried to soften him by deliberately abasing herself. "You said I am too proud and I—I am," she said, laying her hand on his chest in supplication. "If you will let Brenna go, I’ll do any humble task you give me. I’ll scrub the floors. I’ll wait upon you—I’ll cook your food in the kitchen. I swear I’ll repay you in a hundred ways."
Royce glanced down at the small, delicate hand laid upon his chest; heat was seeping through his tunic, desire already tightening his loins—and that with only her hand upon his chest. He didn’t understand why she had such a volatile effect on him, but he understood that he wanted her—he wanted her willing and warm in his arms. And to accomplish that, he was prepared to do the first truly irrational thing in his life: he was prepared to let his most valuable hostage go—for despite Jennifer’s belief that Lord Merrick was a loving—if stern—father, some of what she’d said made Royce doubt that the man had any deep feelings for his "troublesome" daughter.
Jenny’s huge, fear-widened eyes were riveted to his face. "Please," she whispered, mistaking his silence for refusal. "I’ll do anything. I’ll kneel to you. Please, you have only to tell me what you want."
He finally spoke and Jenny tensed with hope, too overwrought to notice the odd, meaningful note in his voice as he said, "Anything?"
She nodded vigorously. "Anything—I’ll have this castle set to rights and ready to receive a king within a few weeks, I’ll say prayers for you each—"
" ‘Tis not prayers I want," he interrupted.
Desperate to reach an agreement before he changed his mind, she said, "Then, tell me what it is you do want."
Implacably he stated, "You."
Jennifer’s hand fell away from his tunic as he continued without emotion, "I do not want you on your knees, I want you in my bed. Willingly."
Her relief that he was willing to let Brenna leave was temporarily overwhelmed by blazing animosity at what he was demanding in return.
He was sacrificing nothing by releasing Brenna, for he would still have Jenny as hostage, yet he was requiring that she sacrifice everything. In willingly surrendering her honor to him, she would become a harlot; a disgrace to herself, her family, and all she held dear. True, she had offered herself to him once before—or nearly so—but what she had asked in return would have saved hundreds—mayhaps thousands—of lives. Lives of people she loved.
Moreover, when she’d made that offer, she’d been half-dazed from his passionate kisses and caresses. Now, however, she saw with cold clarity what the results of this bargain would be.
Behind her, Brenna’s coughing rose to a terrible crescendo and Jenny shuddered with alarm; alarm for herself and her sister.
"Do we have a bargain?" he asked calmly.
Jenny lifted her small chin, looking like a proud young queen who’d just been stabbed by someone she trusted. "I was mistaken in you, my lord," she said bitterly. "I credited you with honor when you said me nay two days ago—for you could have promised me what I asked, taken what I offered, and then attacked Merrick anyway. Now I see ’twasn’t honor, but arrogance. A barbarian has no honor."
Even when she knew she was vanquished, she was splendid, Royce thought, suppressing an admiring smile as he looked into her stormy blue eyes. "Is the bargain I offer you so loathsome?" he asked quietly, putting his hands on her stiff arms. "In truth, I have no need to bargain with you at all, Jennifer, and you know it. I could have taken you by force any time these past days."
Jennifer knew that and, although her resentment remained, she had to fight against falling under the spell of his deep voice as he continued, "I want you, and if that makes me a barbarian in your eyes, then so be it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you let me, I’ll make it good between us. There’ll be no shame nor pain for you in my bed—except pain I must cause you the first time. After that, there will be only pleasure."
Coming from another knight, that speech might have been enough to sway the most sophisticated courtesan. Coming from England’s most feared warrior to an unworldly, convent-bred Scottish girl, the effect was devastating. Jennifer felt blood rushing to her cheeks and a weak, trembling feeling from the pit of her stomach to her knees, as she was suddenly assaulted by memories of his heated kisses and caresses.
"Do we have a bargain?" Royce asked, his long fingers sliding up and down her arms in an unconscious caress. It occurred to him he’d just delivered the tenderest speech he’d ever spoken to a woman.