"I—I did say that," she stammered, her gaze flying to Royce’s face, watching it harden into a mask of icy wrath.
"There! That proves it," her father shouted.
Jenny felt Lord Hastings take her arm, but she jerked it away. "No, please, listen to me," she cried, her gaze riveted on the drumming pulse in Royce’s cheek and the glittering violence in his eyes. "Listen to me," she begged him. "I did say that to my father. I’d forgotten I said it because—" her head jerked to her father, "because you wouldn’t hear of it. But I never, never agreed to any plan to wed him first, and then flee to a convent. Tell him," she cried. "Tell him I never agreed."
"Jennifer," her father said, looking at her with bitterness and contempt, "You agreed when you begged me to let you go to Belkirk. I merely chose a safer, more distant abbey for you. There was never any doubt in my mind that you would have to first abide by our king’s command that you wed the swine. You knew that, too. That is why I originally refused your request."
Jenny looked from her father’s accusing face to Royce’s granite one, and she knew a feeling of panicked defeat that surpassed anything she’d ever felt. Turning, she picked up her skirts and began walking slowly toward the dais as if in a nightmare.
Behind her, Lord Hastings cleared his throat and said to her father and Royce, " ‘Twould seem this has been a case of grave misunderstandings between all the parties. If you will be so kind as to provide us with lodgings for the night in the gatehouse, Claymore, we’ll depart in the morn."
Booted feet hit the stone floor as everyone filed out. Jenny was nearly at the top of the steps when shouts and a bellow from her father made her blood freeze: "BASTARD! You’ve killed him! I’ll kill—" The sound of Jenny’s thundering heart drowned out everything as she turned and started running down the stairs. As she raced past the table, she saw men bending over something near the door, and Royce, her father, and Malcolm being held at sword point.
And then the men huddled near the door slowly stood up and stepped back…
William was lying on the floor with a dagger hilt protruding from his chest, a pool of blood spreading out around him. Jenny’s scream split the air as she raced to the prone figure. "William!"
Throwing herself down beside him, moaning his name, she felt wildly for a pulse, but there was none, and her hands rushed over his arms and his face. "William, oh, please—" she cried brokenly, imploring him not to be dead. "William, please don’t! William—" Jenny’s eyes riveted on the dagger, on the figure of a wolf etched in its hilt.
"Arrest the bastard!" her father shouted behind her, trying to lunge at Royce while being restrained by the king’s man.
Lord Hastings said sharply, "Your son’s dagger is on the floor. He must have drawn it. There’s no arrest to be made. Unhand Claymore," he snapped at his men.
Royce came to stand beside her, "Jenny—" he began tautly, but she whirled on her heels like a dervish, and when she came up in a crouch, she held William’s dagger in her hand.
"You killed him!" she hissed, her eyes alive with pain and tears and fury as she slowly straightened.
This time Royce did not underestimate her ability or her intent. With his eyes riveted to hers, he watched for the moment when she would strike. "Drop the dagger," he said quietly.
She raised it higher, aimed at his heart, and cried, "You killed my brother." The dagger flashed through the air, and Royce caught her wrist in a vice grip, twisting the dagger free and sending it spinning to the floor, but even then, he had all he could do to restrain her.
Wild with grief and pain, she launched herself at him, striking at his chest with her fists when he jerked her tightly against him. "You devil!" she screamed hysterically as they carried her brother out. "Devil, devil, devil!"
"Listen to me!" Royce ordered tautly, grabbing her wrists. The eyes she raised to his were sparkling with hatred and glazed with tears she could not shed. "I told him to stay behind if he wanted to talk to you." Royce let go of her wrists as he finished harshly, "When I started to turn back to take him upstairs, he was reaching for his dagger."
Jennifer’s hand crashed into the side of his face as she slapped him with all her strength. "Liar!" she hissed, her chest heaving. "You wanted vengeance because you believed I conspired with my father! I saw it on your face. You wanted vengeance and you killed the first person who got in your way!"
"I tell you, he drew his dagger!" Royce bit out, but instead of calming her, that enraged her—and with good reason: "I drew a dagger on you, too," she cried furiously, "but you took it away as easily as a child’s toy! William was half your size, but you didn’t take his away, you murdered him!"
"You’re an animal!" she whispered, looking at him as if he was obscene.
White-faced with guilt and remorse, Royce tried once more to convince her. "I swear to you on my word, I—"
"Your word!" she hissed contemptuously. "The last time you gave me your word ’twas that you’d not harm my family!"
Her second slap crashed against his cheek with enough force to snap his head sideways.
He let her go, and when the door to her chamber slammed, Royce walked over to the fire. Propping his booted foot on a log, he hooked his thumbs into the back of his belt and stared down into the flames, while doubts about her brother’s intent began to hammer at him.
It had happened so quickly; William had been close behind him as Royce stood near the door watching his uninvited guests depart. From the corner of his eye, Royce had glimpsed a dagger sliding out of its sheath, and his reaction had been instinctive. Had there been time to think—or had William not been so damned close to his back—he would have reacted with less instinct and more caution.
Now, however, in retrospect, he remembered perfectly well that he’d sized the young man up before inviting him to remain to see Jenny, and that he’d thought him nonaggressive.
Lifting his hand, Royce pressed his thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, but he could not shut out the truth: either his original instincts about William not posing a threat had been wrong, or else he’d just slain a young man who’d been drawing his dagger merely as a precaution in case Royce was tricking him.
Royce’s doubt erupted into almost unbearable guilt. He’d been judging men and the danger they represented to him for thirteen years, and he’d never been wrong. Tonight he’d judged William harmless.