To endow him with a virtue like kindness was to be a fool. She’d seen with her own eyes the full extent of the cruelty of which he was capable: to murder a child for throwing a—a piece of dirt was more than cruel, it was barbarous. On the other hand, perhaps he’d never intended to let the boy die; perhaps he’d simply reacted more slowly than Jenny had.

With a sigh, Jenny gave up trying to solve the riddle of her husband for the moment and turned to the maid called Agnes. At Merrick there was always chatter and gossip and confidences exchanged between maids and mistresses, and although it was impossible to imagine these servants ever laughing and gossiping with her, Jenny was determined that they should at least speak to her. "Agnes," she said in a carefully modulated tone of quiet courtesy, "is that the gown I’m to wear tonight?"

"Yes, my lady."

"It belonged to someone else, I gather?"

"Yes, my lady."

In the last two hours those were the only words the two maids had said to her, and Jenny felt frustrated and sad at the same time. "To whom did it belong?" she persisted politely.

"The daughter of the former lord, my lady." They both turned at the knock on the door, and a moment later, three stout serfs were placing large trunks upon the floor.

"What is in those?" she asked, puzzled. When neither maid seemed able to answer, Jenny climbed off the high bed and went to inspect the contents herself. Inside the trunks was the most breathtaking array of fabrics she’d ever seen: there were rich satins and brocaded velvets, embroidered silks, soft cashmeres, and linen so fine it was almost transparent. "How beautiful!" Jenny breathed, touching a length of emerald satin.

A voice from the doorway made all three of the women whirl around. "I gather you’re pleased then?" Royce asked. He was standing in the doorway, his shoulder propped against the frame, clad in an under doublet of dark ruby silk with an over-doublet of pewter gray velvet. A narrow silver belt with rubies at the clasp circled his waist and from it hung a dress dagger with a huge, fiery ruby winking in its hilt.

"Pleased?" Jenny repeated, distracted by the way his gaze had drifted down her hair and stopped at the neckline of her wrapper. She looked down, trying to see what he was looking at, and snatched the gaping fabric together, clutching it with a fist.

A faint mocking smile touched his lips at her modest gesture, then he glanced at the two maids. "Leave us," he said flatly, and they did so with almost panicky haste, sidling past him as quickly as possible.

As Agnes slipped behind him, Jenny saw the woman hastily cross herself.

Alarm trickled down Jenny’s spine as he closed the door behind him and looked at her across the room. Trying to take refuge in conversation, she said the first thing that came to mind: "You really oughtn’t speak to serving maids so sharply. I think you frighten them."

"I haven’t come to discuss servants," he said calmly, and started walking toward her. Acutely aware of her nakedness beneath the wrapper, Jenny took a cautious step back and inadvertently planted her foot on its trailing hem. Unable to move further, she watched him walk over to the open trunks. Reaching into one of them, he flipped through the assortment of fabrics. "Are you pleased?" he asked again.

"With what?" she said, clutching her wrapper so tightly at the throat and breasts that she could scarcely breathe.

"With these," he said dryly, gesturing to the trunks. "They’re for you. Use them to make gowns and whatever else you need."

Jenny nodded, watching him warily as he lost interest in the trunks and started toward her.

"W-what do you want?" she said, hating the shaky sound of her voice.

He stopped within an arm’s length of her, but instead of reaching for her he said quietly, "For one thing, I want you to loosen your grip on that gown you’re wearing before you strangle yourself. I’ve seen men hung on ropes no tighter than that."

Jenny forced her stiff fingers to loosen a little. She waited for him to go on, and when he continued to study her in silence, she finally prompted, "Yes? And now what?"

"Now," he said calmly, "I would like to talk to you, so please sit down."

"You’ve come here to—to talk?" she repeated, and when he nodded, she was so relieved she obeyed without hesitation. Walking over to the bed, trailing a yard of blue wool behind her, she sat down. Reaching up, she raked her hair off her forehead with her fingers and gave it a hard shake to move it off her shoulders. Royce watched her as she tried to restore order to the lush waves tumbling over her shoulders and down her back.

She was, he thought wryly, the only woman alive who could manage to look provocative in a gown that nearly engulfed her. Satisfied with her hair, she faced him, her expression attentive. "What have you come to talk about?"

"About us. About tonight," he said, walking toward her.

She shot off the bed as if her little derrière was on fire and backed two paces from him until her shoulders were pressed against the wall.

"Jennifer—"

"What?" she gasped nervously.

"There’s a fire burning behind you."

"I’m cold," she said shakily.

"In another minute you’re going to be on fire."

She eyed him suspiciously, glanced down at the hem of her long gown, then let out a cry of alarm as she snatched it from the ashes. Frantically brushing ashes from the hem, she said, "I’m sorry. ‘Tis a lovely gown but perhaps a little—"

"I was referring to the celebration tonight," he interrupted firmly, "not what is going to happen afterward, between us. However, since we’re on the subject," he continued, surveying her panicky expression, "suppose you tell me why the prospect of lying with me suddenly seems to frighten you so."

"I’m not frightened," she denied desperately, thinking it might be a mistake to admit to any form of weakness. "But having already done it—I simply feel no desire to do it again. I felt much the same about—about pomegranates. After I tried them, I just didn’t want them any more. I’m like that sometimes."

His lips twitched, and he advanced on her until he was standing directly in front of her. "If lack of wanting is what alarms you, I think I can remedy it."

"Don’t touch me!" she warned. "Or I’ll—"

"Don’t threaten me, Jennifer," he interrupted quietly, " ‘Tis a mistake you’ll regret. I’ll touch you, whenever and however I please."

"Now that you’ve destroyed any pleasure I might have taken in the forthcoming evening," Jenny said stonily, "may I be allowed to dress in private?"