Nicholaa was completely disheartened. He spoke the truth, and she wasn’t naive enough to pretend otherwise. She’d heard about some of the changes, too. Even though the abbey was isolated, the nuns kept abreast of the latest happenings. Nicholaa was well aware that the Saxon defense had crumbled on the fields of Hastings.
“You still had no right to make such a promise to the abbess. Justin’s my brother. I’ll take care of him,” she said.
He shook his head.
She wanted to hit him. “If you had an ounce of compassion inside you, you’d let me stay by my brother’s side during this unsettling time and give him the comfort he needs.”
“The last thing your brother needs is comfort.”
He sounded so sure of himself. Odd, but his attitude made her feel a glimmer of hope, a possibility that he might hold the answer to Justin’s future. She’d been so terrified for her brother. What was going to become of him? How could he ever learn to make it on his own in this cold world?
“What is it you think he needs?” she asked.
“Someone to teach him how to survive. Compassion won’t keep him alive. Proper training will.”
“You haven’t forgotten Justin has only one hand?”
There was a smile in his voice when he answered her. “I haven’t forgotten.”
“Yet you believe you could train him?”
“It’s what I do, Nicholaa,” he patiently explained. “I’m a trainer of men.”
She was stunned by the commitment he’d just made to Justin. She was terrified, too. Could she really trust this man? “What happens to this promise of yours when you return to Normandy?”
“If I return to Normandy, Justin will go with me.”
“No,” she cried out. “I won’t let you take my brother away from me.”
He heard the panic in her voice. He gave her a squeeze to calm her. He understood her distress, of course. She’d already lost one brother to the war, if he’d heard correctly, and it was apparent to Royce that she felt complete responsibility for Justin’s welfare. She carried a heavy burden on her shoulders, too heavy, he thought, for someone of her young age.
“Justin would return to England as soon as his training is completed. There is also a chance that I’ll stay here, Nicholaa.”
God, she hoped he would stay in England. For Justin’s sake only, she qualified. Nicholaa felt such relief. The baron would keep his word. She didn’t have a single doubt about that now.
“I still don’t understand how you could take on the responsibility for a Saxon soldier, Baron, when you—”
His hand covered her mouth again. “We are finished with this discussion,” he announced. “I’ve been extremely patient with you, Nicholaa. I’ve allowed you to express your concerns, and I’ve explained my position. We’ve wasted enough time.”
She didn’t agree with that rude dictate. He had his way, though. He goaded his mount into motion again, making conversation impossible.
He set a hard pace. There was one amusing moment, though, when he paused at the foot of the hill to collect his shield. The soldier holding it obviously thought to impress his baron by tossing it to him. The weight proved to be too heavy for the soldier, though, and the kite-shaped shield ended up on the ground between the two mounts.
Nicholaa almost laughed out loud until she saw the horrified expression on the young soldier’s face. She couldn’t add to his humiliation by openly laughing at him. She bit her lower lip, turned her gaze to her lap, and simply waited to see what Royce would do.
He never said a word. She heard his sigh, though, and almost lost her composure then and there. He must have guessed she was amused. He squeezed her around the waist, a silent message, she supposed, for her to remain silent.
The poor soldier finally regained his wits and went to fetch the shield. His face was bright red when he picked it up.
And still Royce didn’t chasten him. He accepted his shield and then took over the lead. Just as soon as they were out of earshot of the embarrassed soldier, Nichólaa gave in to her urge and started laughing.
She thought he might laugh, too. It had been amusing, after all. He didn’t laugh, though, and when he pulled the top of his cloak down over her head, she came to the conclusion that he took exception to her own laughter.
There wasn’t much to laugh about during the rest of the long day. They made camp when it became too dark to continue. Nicholaa was beginning to think Royce was actually a tolerable man to be around. He made certain she was warm, well fed, and even fashioned a tent for her near one of the fires.
Then he ruined her good opinion of him by reminding her why he was taking her to London. He spoke of an immediate marriage and kept referring to her as the king’s prize.
She began making her escape plans then. She pretended to be very docile, exhausted, too, and waited for her opportunity.
Royce gave her his cloak again as an added blanket to cover herself. She thanked him for that consideration.
Nicholaa was about to go inside the tent when she suddenly stopped and turned around. “Royce?”
He was surprised she’d used his name. “What is it?”
“No matter what happens to me, you cannot break your promise to the abbess. You have to take care of Justin, isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” he answered. “The promise can’t be broken.”
She was satisfied. She pretended to fall asleep a few minutes later. Her plan was set in her mind. She would sneak away from the camp just as soon as the soldiers had all settled down for the night. She knew the area well. The forest was part of Baron Norland’s holding to the south of her own estate. It was a fair walk back to the abbey, though. Nicholaa thought it might take her an entire day to get there. She’d have to keep to the trees, she thought with a yawn, and avoid the broken north road as much as possible.
The warmth from the fire and her own real fatigue overtook her good intentions then, and she fell asleep.
Royce waited until he was certain she really was fast asleep, then sat down on the ground directly across from her. He leaned back against a fat tree and closed his eyes. He didn’t think she’d try to run away until the camp had quieted down for the night. That would give him an hour or two to gain a little rest . . . and peace.
Nicholaa came awake with a start in the middle of the night. She spotted Royce immediately. She stared at him for a long while, until she was absolutely certain he was sleeping.
He looked very peaceful—content, too. He’d placed his helmet on the ground beside him. His left arm rested on the headgear, his hand only inches away from the sword strapped to his side.
He was a handsome one all right. His hair was dark and much longer than was customary, even for barbaric Normans. It was a rich, dark brown, given to curl, too.
Nicholaa shivered with disgust. How could she be thinking what a fit man he was when he was determined to ruin her life? He considered her a mere possession, a trinket to be given to a knight.
The injustice of it got her moving. She found her shoes buried under the blankets. Her toes stung when she slipped the shoes on. The wind was bitter cold tonight. The long walk back to the abbey was a dreaded ordeal ahead of her. She almost let out a loud sigh just thinking about it.
Nicholaa wrapped herself in Royce’s cloak and silently made her way to the woods beyond the small clearing. None of the soldiers paid her much attention, though one of the three men standing near the second fire did glance her way. When he didn’t call out to her, Nicholaa assumed he thought she needed a few minutes of privacy.
As soon as she turned her back, Royce motioned to the soldiers to stay where they were. He waited only a minute or two, then stood, stretched the cramps out of his legs, and went after her.
He had expected her to make this move, and she hadn’t disappointed him. The woman was courageous to brave such harsh conditions just to get away from him. Foolish, he thought to himself, but courageous all the same.
Nicholaa started running as soon as she’d edged her way through the denser foliage. In the light from the half-moon she wasn’t able to see every little obstacle in her path. It was treacherous going. She was as careful as she could be, until she thought she heard someone behind her. She kept on running, but turned to see if one of the soldiers was chasing her.
She tripped over a rotting log and went flying head first down a deep ravine. She had enough of her wits left to shield her head and turn to one side before she hit the ground.
She landed with a thud. And a curse. She lost one of her shoes in the fall and Royce’s heavy cloak, too, and when she finally sat up, she was a sorry sight to behold. There were more leaves than curls in her hair, and she was covered with dirt.
Royce stood in the shadows and waited. The daft woman could have broken her neck. Yet the loud, unladylike muttering he heard told him she was all right, just furious. She was cursing loud enough to wake the nuns back at the abbey.
She’d never make a proper chess mate. She didn’t know how to calculate her moves. She wouldn’t make a true enemy, either. He’d already concluded that she didn’t have it in her nature to hate . . . or to retaliate. She didn’t even know how to hold a grudge. Royce smiled, remembering how she’d questioned him about keeping his promise to look after Justin, no matter what happened to her. He’d known then she’d try to escape. Her thoughts were so easy to read, her every expression so refreshingly honest and transparent.
A tightness settled inside his chest. Nicholaa was like a fragile flower, so delicate, so incredibly soft, so beautiful.
His delicate little flower was muttering the most searing curses he’d ever heard. None of the phrases made any sense.
Her burst of temper was short-lived, though. She was ashamed of herself for using such coarse words. She made a quick sign of the cross to placate her Maker, and then stood up. As soon as she put her weight on her left foot, hot pain shot up her calf.
Nicholaa let out a loud cry and fell to the ground. She sat there a long minute debating what to do. When Royce heard her whimper, he started toward her.
Nicholaa finally admitted defeat. She shouted for help.
He was standing by her side before she’d finished her plea. She was in too much pain to notice it hadn’t taken him any time at all to reach her.
He had her shoe in his hand. He dropped it into her lap, then dropped down on one knee beside her.
She thought he looked exasperated. “If you say ‘Check’ to me now, I’ll scream.”
“You already did scream,” he replied, his tone gratingly cheerful. “And it’s ‘checkmate,’ Nicholaa. The game’s over.”
She wasn’t in the mood to argue with him. She turned her gaze to her lap. “I fell,” she announced, stating the obvious. “I believe I’ve broken my ankle.”
She sounded pitiful. She looked sorry, too. Her hair hung over her face in total disarray, her gown was torn around the shoulders, and she was covered with dead leaves.
Royce didn’t say a word, just leaned forward to examine the damage. She cried out in pain before he’d even touched her.
“Nicholaa, it’s common to wait until you’ve felt the pain before you complain,” he explained.
“I was preparing,” she snapped.
He hid his smile. He was already certain the ankle wasn’t broken. There wasn’t a hint of swelling around the bone. She could move her toes without crying out, too, another sure indication to him that she’d merely bruised herself.
“It isn’t broken.”
She didn’t believe him. She leaned forward, instinctively placing her hand on his arm for balance, to see for herself that her ankle was all right. Her face was just inches away from his. She stared at her foot while he stared at her.
“It looks broken,” she whispered.
“Must you sound so cheerful? I would have your sympathy over this unfortunate tragic mishap,” she said.
“This ‘tragic mishap’ wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been trying to—”
She interrupted him. “I was trying to gain a few minutes privacy to take care of a rather personal matter.”
She looked right at him when she told that lie. It was a mistake, for only then did she discover how very close to him she was.
Their gazes held for the longest while. Neither said a word. Nicholaa couldn’t seem to catch her breath.
Royce couldn’t either. He didn’t know what to make of his reaction to her. The urge to touch her was overwhelming. He couldn’t stop himself from gently brushing her hair back away from her face. His fingers gently touched her cheek.
Nicholaa was comforted by the caress. The feeling didn’t last long, though, for he was suddenly scowling at her. Her eyes widened. His hand gripped her chin, and he forced her head to one side, towards the moonlight. Then he pushed her hair farther away from her eye with his other hand.
“How did you get this bruise?” he demanded. His voice was rough, angry.
He squeezed her chin. “Answer me. This couldn’t have just happened, Nicholaa. The mark is too dark.” His frown intensified. “But it wasn’t there this afternoon. I would have noticed.”
“It was too there this afternoon,” she told him. “It just wasn’t as noticeable. Why are you so angry? It’s my bruise, not yours.”
He ignored that remark. “How did it happen?”
“It’s not your concern.”
She pushed his hand away and pulled back. The stubborn man followed her. He nudged her chin back up with the crook of his fingers.
“I’m weary of your stubbornness, woman.”
“As weary as I am of your constant orders?”
She thought that was a rather cunning reply. She was giving back as much as she was getting, she thought. Besides, the Norman needed to know he wasn’t dealing with a timid, frightened adversary. He wasn’t going to intimidate her. He’d better not turn his back on her, either, for if she had a dagger, she’d plunge the blade deep between his shoulder blades.
God save her, she was lying to herself now. She couldn’t kill him. And in the corner of her mind, she thought he might know that.
She let out a frustrated sigh. She noticed a lock of hair had fallen forward to rest on his forehead. Before she could think about what she was doing, she reached up and brushed the hair back where it belonged.
He acted as though she’d just smacked him. He jerked back, looking incredulous. She was so embarrassed by his reaction that she turned her gaze away.