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happened?" he prodded. "If I tell you, you must promise to remember that I was much like any other girl of
fourteen-filled with dreams of the wondrous young knight whose wife I would become. I knew in my mind
just how he would look," she added, smiling ruefully as she thought back on it. "He would be fair-haired, and
young, of course, his face wonderful to look upon. His eyes would be blue, and his bearing would be princely. He
would be strong, too, strong enough to protect our holdings for the children we would somebody have." She
glanced at Royce, her expression wry. "Such was my secret hope, and in my own behalf, it must be said that
neither my father nor my half-brothers said aught to make me think Lord Balder would be otherwise." Royce
frowned, a picture of the foppish, elderly Balder flashing across his mind." And so there I was, strolling into
the great hall at Merrick after spending hours practicing my walking in my bedchamber." "You'd practiced
walking?" Royce uttered, his tone filled with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "But of course," Jennifer
said gaily. "You see, I desired to present a perfect picture of myself for my future lord's benefit. And so, it
would not do that I bolt into the hall and seem too eager, nor that I walk too slowly and thus give the
impression that I was reluctant. It was an enormous dilemma-deciding just how to walk, not to mention
what to wear. I was so desperate that I "actually consulted my two stepbrothers, Alexander and Malcolm, to
get their male opinion. William, who is a darling, was away from home for the day with my stepmother."
"Surely they must have forewarned you about Balder." The look in her eyes told him otherwise, but even so he
was not prepared for the sharp stab of pity he felt as she shook her head. "Quite the opposite. Alexander said
he feared the gown my stepmother had chosen was not nearly fine enough. He urged me to wear the green one
instead and dress it up with my mother's pearls. Which I did. Malcolm suggested I wear a jeweled dagger at
my side so I'd not be overshadowed by my future husband's illustrious presence. Alex said my hair looked too
common and carroty and must needs be caught up under a golden veil and laced with a rope of sapphires.
Then, after I was attired to their satisfaction, they helped me practice walking..." As if loyality prevented her
from painting an unflattering image of her stepbrothers, she smiled brightly and said in a determinedly
reassuring voice, "They were funning me, of course, as brothers will fun their sisters, but I was too filled with
dreams to notice." Royce saw beyond her words to the truth and recognized the heartless malice in their trick.
He felt a sudden, overpowering desire to smash his fist into her brothers' faces-just for "fun." "I was so
concerned about every detail being just right," she was saying, her face perfectly cheerful now as if she were
laughing at herself, "that I was quite late coming down to the hall to meet my betrothed. When I finally
arrived I paraded across the hall at just the right speed, on legs that trembled not only with nervousness but
with the weight of the pearls, rubies, sapphires, and gold chains at my throat and wrists and waist. You
should have seen the look on my poor stepmother's face when she saw the way I was attired. It was quite a
garish display. I can tell you," Jenny laughed, blithely unaware of the pent-up anger building in Royce as she
continued. "My stepmother later said I looked like a coffer of jewels with legs," she chuckled. "She did not say
it unkindly." Jennifer hastily added when she saw the black scowl on her captor's face. "She was quite
sympathetic, actually." When she fell silent, Royce prodded. "And your sister, Brenna? what had she to say?"
Jennifer's eyes lit with fondness. "Brenna will always find something good to say about me, no matter how
shocking my mistakes or outrageous my conduct. She said I'sparkled like the sun and moon and stars.'" A
bubble of laughter escaped Jenny and she regarded Royce with eyes aglow with merriment. "Which of course I
did-sparkle, I mean." His voice harsh with feelings he could neither understand nor contain, Royce looked at
her and said tightly, "Some women need no jewels to make them sparkle. You are one of them." Jennifer's
mouth dropped open in shock and she gaped at him. "Was that a compliment?" Thoroughly annoyed that
she'd actually reduced him to uttering gallantries, Royce shrugged curtly and said, "I'm a soldier, not a poet,
Jennifer. It was merely a statement of fact. Go on with your story." Abashed and confused, Jennifer hesitated
and then dismissed his unaccountable mood change with a mental shrug. Helping herself to another bite of
apple, she said cheerfully, "In any case, Lord Balder does not share your disinterest in jewels. In truth," she
said laughing, "his eyes nearly popped right out of his head-so entranced was he with my glitter. In fact, he
was so bedazzled by my vulgar display that he passed only a cursory glance over my face before turning to my