Her jeering tone pricked the cold wall of reserve Royce had carefully erected around himself to guard against the inevitable result of having her body pressed intimately against his for three endless days. Slanting her a heavy-lidded look, he considered the foolhardiness of opening up any sort of conversation with her and decided against it.
When he couldn’t even be angered into speaking to her, Jenny suddenly saw a rare opportunity to enjoy herself at his expense. With childlike delight and well-concealed animosity, she promptly launched into mocking conversation without his participation. "Yes, I can see the question about your men has baffled you, your grace," she began. "Very well, let me find a way to make it simpler."
Royce realized she was deliberately mocking him, but his momentary irritation soon gave way to reluctant amusement as she continued her charming, reckless, one-way conversation with him:" ‘Tis obvious to me," she remarked, giving him a look of false sympathy beneath her long, curly lashes, "that ’tis not lack of intelligence which causes you to stare at me so blankly when I question you about your men, but rather that your memory is failing! Alas," she sighed, looking momentarily crestfallen on his behalf, "I fear your advanced years are already taking their toll on your mind. But fear not," she told him brightly, sending him an encouraging look over her shoulder, "I shall keep my questions very, very simple, and I shall try to help you recall where you’ve put your misplaced men. Now then, when we arrived at the priory—you do recall the priory do you not?" she prompted, looking at him. "The priory? You know—the big stone building where we first met Friar Gregory?" she prompted again.
Royce said nothing; he glanced at Arik, who was staring straight ahead, impervious to everything, and then at the friar, whose shoulders were beginning to shake suspiciously as Jenny continued with sad gravity: "You poor, poor man—you’ve forgotten who Friar Gregory is, haven’t you?" Lifting her arm, she glanced brightly over her shoulder at Royce, pointing her long, tapered finger at the friar. "There he is!" she declared eagerly. "That man, right there, is Friar Gregory! Do you see him? Of course you do!" she answered, deliberately treating him like a backward child. "Now then, concentrate very, very hard, because the next question is more difficult: Do you remember the men who were with you when we arrived at the priory where Friar Gregory was?" Helpfully, she added, "There were about forty of them. Forty," she emphasized with extreme courtesy, and to Royce’s disbelief, she actually held up her small hand before his eyes, splayed out five fingers, and politely explained, "Forty is this many—"
Royce tore his gaze from her hand, swallowing back his laughter.
"And this many more," she daringly continued, holding up her other hand. "And this many more," she repeated thrice more, holding up ten fingers each time. Now!" she finished triumphantly, "can you remember where you left them?"
"Or where you sent them?"
"Oh dear, you’re worse off than I thought," she sighed. "You’ve lost them completely, haven’t you? Oh well," she said, turning away from him in frustration at his continued silence, as her momentary delight at mocking him was demolished by a burst of anger. "Don’t worry overmuch! I’m certain you’ll find other men to help you steal innocents from abbeys and slaughter children, and—"
Royce’s arm tightened suddenly, jerking her back against his chest, and his warm breath in her ear sent unwanted tingles up and down Jenny’s spine as he bent his head and said softly, "Jennifer, you merely try my patience with your mindless chatter, but you test my temper with your jibes, and that is a mistake." The horse beneath them responded instantly to the slackened pressure from his master’s knees and instantly slowed his pace, letting the other horses move ahead.
But Jenny didn’t notice; she was so deliriously relieved by the sound of a human voice, and conversely furious that he’d denied her even that for so long, that she could hardly contain her ire. "Good heavens, your grace, I shouldn’t wish to rile your temper!" she said with deliberately exaggerated alarm. "Were I to do that, I might suffer a horrible fate at your hands. Let me think, now—what dire things could you do to me? I know! You might compromise my reputation. No," she continued as if considering the matter impartially, "you couldn’t do that because you compromised it beyond recall when you forced me to stay with you at Hardin without my sister there. I have it!" she cried, inspired. "You might force me to lie with you! And then, you could arrange it so that everyone in two countries knows that I shared your bed! But no, you’ve already done those things—"
Each barbed word she spoke pricked Royce’s conscience, making him feel like the barbarian he was oft called, and still she continued hammering at him with her words:
"I have it at last! Having done all that to me, there’s only one thing left to do."
Unable to stop himself, Royce said with feigned unconcern, "And that is?"
"You could marry me!" she exclaimed in pretended triumphant delight, but what had begun as a jibe directed at him, now seemed to Jenny like a painful joke on her, and her voice shook with bitterness and pain, despite her valiant effort to speak in the same bright, satirical vein as she continued: "You could marry me, and in so doing, take me away from my home and country and bind me to a life of public humiliation and scorn at your hands. Yes, that’s it! It’s exactly what I deserve, is it not, my lord, for committing the unspeakable crime of walking up a hill near an abbey and putting myself in the way of your marauding brother!" With sham disdain she said, "Why—considering the enormity of my crime—having me drawn and quartered is much too kind! It would end my shame and misery prematurely. It would—"
She gasped as Royce’s hand suddenly swept up from her waist and gently cupped the side of her breast in a caressing gesture which shocked her into speechlessness. And before she could recover, he put his cheek against her temple, and spoke in her ear, his gruff whisper strangely gentle. "Cease, Jennifer. That’s enough." His other arm went around her waist, drawing her back against his chest. Clasped against his body with his hand caressing her breast, surrounded by his reassuring strength, Jenny succumbed helplessly to the unexpected comfort he was offering her now, when she faced the terrors of an unknown, and unkind, future.
Numbly, she relaxed against him, and the moment she did, his arm tightened, drawing her nearer, while the hand that had been caressing her breast slid forward to softly cup the other one. His unshaven jaw rubbed lightly against her temple as he turned his head and touched his warm lips to her cheek, his hand sliding slowly, endlessly over her breasts and midriff, soothing and caressing, while the hand that curved around her waist clasped her tightly between his muscular thighs. Faced with a future that held nothing but misery and fright, Jenny closed her eyes, trying to hold her fears at bay, and gave in to the fleeting sweetness of the moment, to the poignant sensation of feeling safe again, of being surrounded by his body, protected by his strength.