The stone statues in the chapel towered high above Jayce Cullen’s head, their cold, chiseled arms outstretched in welcome, their sculptured eyes empty of emotion as they stared at her. But even though the ghostly white men and women were hewn from lifeless rock, Jayce felt more warmth emanating from them than from her future husband. She cast a quick, sideways glance at Lord Reese Harrington. He was tall, taller than her father by six inches. His broad shoulders were four of her hand’s breadth wide, tapering to a slim waist. His thighs were hidden by his black tunic, and his legs were concealed by black hose. Standing near the white statues, his black clothing made him appear like some dark angel. He was dressed more as if he were in mourning than celebrating marriage to his wife.
Wife. The term rocked her body with anxiety. Lord Reese Harrington’s wife. Jayce studied his strong profile, the downward turn of his brooding lips, the slight flaring of his nostrils, his narrowed blue eyes. It should have warmed Jayce’s heart that he had chosen her. But it did not. Something was wrong. He had shown her no more than polite disdain when they had met moments before. As a matter of fact, he had only inclined his head slightly at her in a mockery of a greeting before whirling and preceding her through the chapel doors. Not quite the greeting Jayce had hoped for. What was it she had hoped for? Did she want him to kiss her hand? To smile, perhaps?
Yes! She had wanted to know the man she was marrying was more than the wealthy, powerful, womanizing lord she had heard about. She wanted reassurance that once he came to her bed, there would be no others. She wanted reassurance that her life with him would be a happy one. She dropped her gaze to her clasped hands. That had not happened.
Wealthy. Powerful. Womanizing. That wasn’t all she had heard about Lord Reese. The final piece of gossip that had reached her ears was the most troubling. She had heard he swore off marriage, vowing never to be troubled with a wife. She wondered what had changed his mind. When her father had joyously come to her with Lord Reese’s acceptance of his marriage proposal and told her he was giving his blessing to the union, well, she couldn’t say much. And now, standing before the eyes of God, she could say even less.
Why had he chosen her?
“Get on with it!” Reese rumbled at the chaplain, his voice thundering through the chapel like an angry curse.
Startled, it was all Jayce could do not to jump and flee down the aisle. She turned and cast her father a wary gaze. He sat in the first pew, the only man other than the chaplain and Reese in the chapel. She saw her father’s clenched jaw relax, then he gave her his most reassuring smile.
“Yes, yes,” the chaplain stuttered. He dabbed the top of his head with a cloth he held clutched in a trembling hand. “Well, then, I pronounce you man and wife.”
Jayce started to turn a cheerful smile on Reese, but he seized her wrist, storming down the aisle. She had to run to keep up with him. He flung the doors of the chapel open with an angry shove and moved into the inner ward.
Jayce barely had time to notice the peasants halting their work to glance at them. A man just outside the blacksmith’s shop stopped his hammering to raise his eyes, his tool frozen in mid-strike. He shook his head and continued with his work. An alewife glanced out the window of the brewery, ignoring the amber liquid that had just splashed all over her arm. A small child scampered out of Reese’s path, her large brown eyes wide with fear. For a fleeting instant, Jayce wondered why anyone was working at all; wasn’t it a holiday when the lord married? But embarrassment welled up inside her, forcing the thought aside.
Reese pulled her into the great hall and up a set of spiraling stairs. “Where are we going?” she managed to choke out.
Reese didn’t reply. He kicked open a door, and it banged loudly as it slapped against the wall. He all but hurled her into the dark room. The little bit of sunshine shining into the room through its only window illuminated only a corner of it. Jayce gasped at the sight of a four-poster bed with an enormous mattress filling its wide frame. Rich, blood-red velvet curtains hung from the top, draping down the sides, cloaking the bed’s heart in deeply shadowed mystery. It was a magnificent bed, the biggest she had ever seen.
She whirled to Reese to find him undoing the belt around his waist. Horrified, she looked around nervously, searching the room’s dark shadows as if they could somehow hide her. She knew it was his right to take her, but she had hoped they could get to know each other. She had hoped he would give her time. Now, she knew he would give her nothing.
“Lord Reese…” she ventured, her voice sounding strangely hoarse in her own throat. “Perhaps we could—” Her voice died completely, strangled into silence, as he lifted his eyes to her.
The belt dropped from his fingers to fall to the floor.
Jayce’s heart hammered her chest; she couldn’t get enough air. A flash of light caught her eye and her gaze locked on his right hand. She saw what she hadn’t seen before. A small dagger glimmered in the shaft of sunlight. Reese approached her and she backed away quickly. What was he doing? Was he going to kill her? She held her hands out before her as if to ward him off, but she knew the thought of fighting him was absurd. If he wanted her dead, who was there to offer any kind of resistance? She was no match against his strength.
The backs of her knees slammed into the bed frame, and she fell over onto the mattress. She quickly propped herself on her elbows, waiting for him to come forward and take what was now rightfully his. For a moment, she saw nothing but a wall of dark shadows before her. Her mouth was dry; her hands were moist and slick. Then, he emerged from the darkness like a ghost, stepping into the sunlight, the black shadows sliding from his shoulders as if he were shedding a dark cloak. For a moment, she thought she saw satisfaction in his blue eyes, but then grim resolve filled his face. He stretched his left arm out over her, his hand in a fist. Jayce cringed back, pushing herself into the mattress. Was he going to strike her?
He held the dagger out over her.
Or was he really going to kill her? A scream welled up in her throat.
Reese pushed the sleeve of his tunic up over his elbow, baring his strong forearm. Then, he pressed the tip of the blade to his skin, slicing a small line down his arm.
Jayce half rose, crying out, “Don’t!” But the blood trickled over his arm and dripped down onto the sheets beside her face. She lifted her astonished gaze from the dark red blood to meet his steely blue eyes. For a long moment, they locked gazes, hers filled with questions, his resolve.
He set the dagger down on a table beside the bed.
Jayce rose off the bed, grabbing a towel from the same table, and turned, reaching out to his arm. Reese snatched the towel free from her grip as if her touch would be unbearable. He hurled the towel into the dark shadows of the far corner.
Shocked and confused, Jayce watched Reese roll his sleeve down to cover his cut. He stepped past her to the bed and ripped the sheets from the mattress. He was angry with her for something. But what had she done? They hadn’t exchanged two words! Without a second look at her, he marched to the door, yanking it open.
Her father stood in the open doorway, turning surprised eyes to Reese. Reese shoved the stained sheets into her father’s arms.
Jayce felt the heat suffuse her cheeks and for a moment had to look away. Her father was making sure the marriage had been consummated. She should say something. She should tell her father the truth. She lifted her eyes in time to see the look of surprise fade from her father’s blue eyes to be replaced by suspicion. His jaw tightened, and he snapped his eyes to lock with his daughter’s. “Jayce?” her father queried.
She should tell him Reese chose to shed his own blood instead of her virgin’s blood. She should tell her father the truth. But then she felt Reese’s hot stare on her. The impact of his gaze sent shivers down the length of her body. He was her husband. Her loyalty was to him now. “Yes, Father,” she lied.
Her father’s fist seemed to relax in the sheet, and he whirled, taking it with him. “It is done,” he proclaimed, and marched down the hall.
Jayce watched him go, sadness creeping into her spirit, putting a cloud of melancholy over what should have been the most joyous day of her life. Her father had left her in a strange castle. He had abandoned her to a man she didn’t know. And he hadn’t even said good-bye.
Jayce tried to lift her chin as she turned her back on her father, but her head felt heavy and it was a struggle just to get her chin away from her neck. She knew she had to be strong to face her future. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had been raised to be lady of a castle, to marry a man of her father’s choosing. She was prepared for this.
As she turned from her previous life to face her new life, she locked eyes with a set of angry blue ones. What she wasn’t prepared for was her husband.
He seized her wrist, hauling her back into the bedroom, and slammed the door shut.
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