"My own kingdom." She sighed, feeling foolish and sorely tried that he meant to pursue the issue. "I used to plan a kingdom of my own."
"Poor James," he teased, referring to the Scottish king. "Which of his kingdoms did you mean to seize?"
She sent him a rueful smile, but her voice was oddly tinged with sadness. "It wasn't a real kingdom with land and castles; it was a kingdom of dreams—a place where things would be just the way I wanted them to be."
A long-forgotten memory flickered across Royce's mind, and turning toward the wall, he leaned his forearms atop it, his fingers linked loosely together. Gazing out across the hills in the same direction Jennifer was looking, he admitted quietly, "There was a time, long ago, when I, too, used to imagine a kingdom of my own design. What was yours like?"
"There's little to tell," she said. "In my kingdom, there was prosperity and peace. Occasionally, of course, a crofter fell violently ill, or there was a dire threat to our safety."
"You had illness and strife in your dream kingdom?" Royce interrupted in surprise.
"Of course!" Jenny admitted with a rueful, sideways smile. "There had to be some of both, so that I could race to the rescue and save the day. That was the very reason I invented my kingdom."
"You wanted to be a heroine to your people," Royce concluded, smiling at a motivation he could readily understand.
She shook her head, the wistful yearning in her soft voice banishing his smile. "Nay. I wanted only to be loved by those whom I love; to be looked upon and not found wanting by those who know me."
"And that's all you wanted?"
She nodded, her beautiful profile solemn. "And so I invented a kingdom of dreams where I could accomplish great and daring deeds to make it happen."
Not far away, on the hill nearest the castle, the figure of a man was momentarily illuminated by a shaft of moonlight emerging from the clouds. At any other time, that brief glimpse would have caused Royce to dispatch men to investigate. Now, however, sated with lovemaking, knowing more of it was yet to come with the winsome beauty beside him, his brain paid no heed to what his eyes had noted. It was a night filled with warmth and rare confidences, far too soft and lovely a night to contemplate the unlikely threat of silent danger lurking so close to his own demesne.
Royce frowned, thinking of Jenny's puzzling words. The Scots, even the lowlanders who lived by feudal laws more than clan laws, were a fiercely loyal lot. And whether her clan called Jennifer's father "earl" or "the Merrick," he, and all his family, would still command clan Merrick's complete devotion and loyalty. They would not look upon Jennifer and find her wanting, and she would undoubtedly be loved by those whom she loved—ergo, she should not need to dream up a kingdom of her own. "You're a brave and beautiful young woman," he said finally, "and a countess in your own right. Your clan undoubtedly feels about you as you would wish them to feel—and probably more so."
She tore her gaze from his and seemed to become absorbed in the view again. "Actually," she replied in a carefully emotionless voice, "they think me some sort of—of changeling."
"Why would they think anything so absurd?" he demanded, dumbfounded.
To his surprise she leapt to their defense: "What else could they possibly think, given the things my stepbrother convinced them I've done?"
"What sort of things?"
She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself again, looking much as he had seen her when he first came out onto the parapet. "Unspeakable things," she whispered.
Royce watched her, silently insisting on an explanation, and she drew an unsteady breath and reluctantly complied: "There were many things, but most of all there was Rebecca's drowning. Becky and I were distant cousins and the best of friends. We were both thirteen," she added with a sad little smile. "Her father—Garrick Carmichael—was a widower and she his only child. He doted on her, as nearly all of us did. She was so sweet, you see, and so incredibly fair—fairer even than Brenna—that you couldn't help but love her. The thing was, her father loved her so much that he'd not let her do anything, for fear she'd come to harm. She wasn't even allowed to go near the river, because her father feared she'd drown. Becky decided to learn how to swim—to prove to him she'd be safe—and early each morning, we would sneak off to the river, so I could teach her how."
"The day before she drowned, we'd been at a fair, and we quarreled because I told her one of the jugglers had been looking at her in an unseemly way. My stepbrothers, Alexander and Malcolm, overheard us —as did several people—and Alexander accused me of being jealous because I'd had eyes for the juggler, which was silly in the extreme. Becky was so angry, embarrassed, I mean, that when we parted, she told me not to bother coming to the river in the morning because she no longer needed my assistance. I knew she didn't really mean it, and she couldn't swim at all well yet, and so naturally, I went there the next morning."
Jennifer's voice dropped to a whisper. "When I got there she was still angry; she called to me that she wanted to be alone. I was already at the top of the hill, walking away, when I heard a splash and she screamed to me to help her. I turned and started running down the hill, but I couldn't see her. When I was halfway there, she managed to get her head above the water—I know, because I saw her hair on the surface. Then I heard her scream to me to help her…" Jenny shivered, absently rubbing her arms, "but the current was carrying her away. I dove in, and I tried to find her. I dove under again and again and again." Jenny whispered brokenly "but I—I couldn't find her to help her. The next day Becky was found several miles away, washed up on the banks."
Royce lifted his hand, then dropped it, sensing that she was fighting for control and would not welcome any gesture of comfort that might make her lose it. "It was an accident," he said gently.
She drew a long steadying breath. "Not according to Alexander. He must have been nearby, because he told everyone he heard Becky scream my name, which was true. But then he told them we were quarreling, and that I pushed her in."
"How did he explain your own wet clothing?" Royce said tersely.
"He said," Jenny answered with a ragged sigh, "that after I pushed her in, I must have waited and then tried to save her. Alexander," she added, "had already been told that he, not I, would succeed my father as laird. But it wasn't enough for him—he wanted me disgraced and far away. After that, it was easy for him."