“William reported to me that he also was feeling invigorated by this fresh puzzle. He announced that the Saxon woman had provided a respite for his men. She’d actually made the soldiers forget their injuries and their fatigue. ‘Who will take on this challenge in my name?’ William, our leader, called out.” Clayton was once again forced to wait for everyone’s attention as heads turned.
Nicholaa whispered, “Who are they looking for?”
Royce smiled. “For Hannibal,” he answered. “There he is, in the back. He’s the one with the red face. His failings are about to be paraded before us.”
Nicholaa tried not to laugh. The poor man looked embarrassed. “Where is Gregory?” she asked. “The first knight who took on this challenge?”
“He’s trying to blend into the back wall to your left, Nicholaa.”
Clayton drew her attention when he finally continued. “Another eager young knight by name of Sir Hannibal rushed forward. He placed his hand over his heart, bowed his head low, and humbly requested the duty. Our beloved William granted him permission. ‘I want the woman unharmed,’ he decreed. ’ Bring her to London once you’ve secured the fortress. She’ll witness my coronation.’ William then paused to stare at his attentive audience before adding, ‘She’ll be my prize to award to a worthy knight.’”
It wasn’t until that moment, when Clayton said the word “prize” that Nicholaa realized the tale was about her.
She would have bolted out of her seat if Royce hadn’t held her down. She turned to her husband. She looked stricken. Her eyes filled with tears.
Royce whispered into her ear, “Clayton doesn’t mock you, Nicholaa. He praises you.”
She took a deep breath. Her back was rigid, and she stared straight ahead. She tried, but she couldn’t block out the herald’s voice.
“Hannibal left the camp on his quest the following morning. He took sixty soldiers with him, double the number Gregory had commanded. The flame of determination in the knight’s eyes was bright, but like Gregory, he also underestimated his adversary. Six days later, he caught up with his overlord to confess his failure.
“A third knight by name of Michael was dispatched the following morning. He was older than the first two challengers and far more experienced, but alas, he also failed.”
The herald continued, telling how William finally called together his most trusted barons, Guy and Royce, for a conference. Clayton went into great detail with praise for the barons and finally ended the dissertation with the events leading up to the marriage.
When Clayton finally finished his tale, he bowed to King William and walked over to stand directly in front of Nicholaa. He bowed low again, to her this time. Everyone in the hall stood up and applauded.
Royce stood up, but Nicholaa seemed glued to the bench. He lifted her up and held her steady with his arm around her waist.
The knights she’d bested came forward through the crowd. Each carried an armful of flowers. Gregory carried white; Hannibal carried pink, and Michael carried red. The knights bowed to Royce before placing the flowers on the table in front of Nicholaa.
King William raised his hand for silence again. “These three have earned the right to join Baron Royce’s ranks. When he’s finished training them, they won’t be bested again.”
Laughter followed that announcement. William clapped his hands together again, and the musicians began to play.
Nicholaa sat down, confused by what had just happened. She turned to Royce. He was watching her closely. He wasn’t smiling. “It was all a game,” she whispered. “Stealing my home and—”
He took the bluster out of her when he leaned down and kissed her. Surprised by the show of affection, she became even more confused.
He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. “It was war, Nicholaa, not a game,” he whispered. “Accept their tribute.”
She slowly nodded, but she wasn’t convinced.
Royce shook his head. “Nicholaa, I would never have allowed Clayton to repeat the tale if there had been mockery intended, and if I believed it was only a game to ease our soldiers’ weariness, I would not have subjected you to this.”
She was at last appeased. In her heart, she knew Royce wouldn’t allow anyone to mock her. The flowers suddenly took on new significance. She smiled at her husband and turned to pick one up, then stopped, realizing she couldn’t grasp anything with her bandaged hands.
Royce picked up a white bloom and held it under her nose. She inhaled the light, sweet fragrance, then nudged the flower toward Royce. “It smells wonderful,” she announced.
He inhaled the fragrance before tossing the flower back on the table. “You smell better.”
She wasn’t given time to say thank you. Royce turned when a friend called out to him, dismissing her then and there.
The celebration went on and on into the dark hours of the night. Most of the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves. One by one they came forward to speak to Nicholaa and offer their congratulations again. She was pleased by the good wishes, and she believed in her heart they were sincere. She also noticed several elderly Saxon barons mixing with the Normans. When she mentioned this to Royce, he explained that those who’d pledged their fealty to William were now considered equal members of the realm. A very few were even allowed to retain a portion of their properties.
In the shadows near the alcove by the entrance, four men stood together, deep in discussion. Every now and then one would turn to look at Lady Nicholaa. The leader of the four stood in the center, dictating his orders. Each time he listed a command, the other three nodded agreement.
“Are you certain she’ll do it?” one asked. He gave a worried glance over his shoulder just to make certain they weren’t being overheard, then turned back to his leader. “If the plan doesn’t work—”
“She’ll be the one to suffer the consequences,” the leader whispered.
“She might not cooperate,” another pointed out.
The leader smiled. “Nicholaa is a Saxon, first and always. She’ll do it.”
“And then?” the third asked.
Nicholaa had no idea she was the topic under discussion. She was jarred from her sleepy state by a sudden burst of raucous laughter from the alcove. She turned to see who was making all the commotion, but the crowd got in her way. The ale had been flowing freely for hours now, and she concluded that some of the less cautious knights had consumed too much of the sweet, intoxicating drink.
The burns were making her hands throb with pain now, and her skin itched. The soothing salve had worn off, she supposed.
“Royce? Would it be rude for me to leave now?” she asked.
In answer her husband motioned to Lawrence.
The vassal put down his goblet and walked over to the table.
Nicholaa smiled at the knight before turning to Royce. “Are you staying here?”
He smiled. She was so sleepy that her eyelids were half closed. “It isn’t rude for you to leave, Nicholaa, but I must stay here until King William ends the celebration. He must take his leave before I do.”
She looked pleased with his explanation. He didn’t know what to make of that. She had the smile of an angel, though, and he had an almost overwhelming urge to give her a real kiss.
“You do know what’s proper behavior, after all,” she said. “Now I’ll know that whenever you’re rude to me, you’re doing it on purpose and not because you’re just plain ignorant.”
“And that makes you happy?”
She nodded. “A woman doesn’t wish to be married to an ignorant man,” she explained. “I should warn you, Royce: now that I know you’re aware of what you’re doing, I’m going to start retaliating in kind. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is. Why, I believe—”
He didn’t let her finish. He kissed her, quick and hard, and when he pulled back, she was too bemused to remember what she’d been talking about.
Damn, he wanted to kiss her thoroughly. He wanted her mouth open, his tongue inside . . . hell, he wanted a wedding night.
“Why are you frowning?” she asked.
He didn’t answer her. He helped her to her feet instead. Nicholaa turned to thank the king and his wife.
Royce stood by her side, watching the way she won their smiles with her gentle, shyly whispered words.
She was such a fragile thing, and so very, very proper. Yes, an angel, but with a bit of the devil in her, too, if the sudden sparkle that came into her eyes was any indication.
“When I get across the hall,” she whispered, “I just might stop and shout your name. Then I might motion for you to come to me. What do you suppose you’ll do?”
She was bluffing of course. She was too much of a lady to go to such undignified lengths just to even their positions.
Royce must have realized that fact, too. He winked at her, then motioned Lawrence closer.
“My wife’s ready to leave now,” he said. “You may escort her to our chamber.”
Lawrence nodded and reached for Nicholaa’s elbow. His baron’s next command made him pause. “If Lady Nicholaa stops at the doorway, you have my permission to carry her to our chamber.”
Nicholaa’s eyes widened. She looked at Lawrence to see how he was reacting to such a shameful order and noticed he was trying not to smile. She glared at him, then turned to her husband. “You’re horribly inconsiderate, Royce.”
He smiled at her. “You wound me with such harsh criticism,” he returned. “I’m never inconsiderate.”
To prove his point he said, “Lawrence, if you have to toss my wife over your shoulder, don’t touch her hands. They’re still tender from her injuries.”
“Yes, Baron,” Lawrence answered. “I’ll be careful.”
Royce winked at Nicholaa. “There, wife, I’ve just shown you how considerate I can be.”
She shook her head. “You know, Royce, every time I begin to think there might be a glimmer of hope for a peaceful future together, you say something to ruin it. You’d better understand your new position, sir.”
Her eyes had turned a deep violet. She was getting all worked up, he decided. He felt like laughing. His wife stood up to him with no fear in her expression, as though she thought she was his equal. Damn, she pleased him.
Lawrence watched his baron stare at Nicholaa and felt safe smiling. Royce was trying to intimidate his wife, but it wasn’t working. The vassal could almost see the sparks flying between them. Lawrence thought Nicholaa might already be in love with Royce. She’d certainly given him her loyalty. The way she’d stood up to Guy was proof of that. He wondered if Royce realized his good fortune. It would take him a while to appreciate her value, of course, for he was a warrior, and warriors rarely thought about such insignificant matters.
“Nicholaa?” Royce asked, drawing Lawrence’s attention again. “What did you mean when you said I didn’t know what my position was?”
She had to stop staring into his eyes so she could concentrate. He was a handsome man, even when he was insulting her. All she had to do was notice the beautiful gray flecks in his eyes and she’d forget her own thoughts. She turned her gaze to his chest. “Now isn’t the time to discuss—”
“Oh, but I want to hear your explanation now.” He clasped his hands behind his back and patiently waited.
She took a deep breath. “Very well,” she said. “In a few days, we’ll be going back to my holding, won’t we?” She didn’t wait for him to agree. “And you are married to me now.”
It took him a full minute to realize she was finished. She was looking up at him with a hopeful expression on her face. He wanted to laugh. God, she was daft. “You haven’t explained sufficiently for me to understand.”
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. She’d hoped for privacy when she explained in full, but this opportunity was too good to pass up. She had his full attention now, and God only knew when that would happen again.
“As your wife, it’s my duty to serve you, and as my husband, it’s your duty to serve me.”
He quit smiling. “And how am I supposed to serve you?”
“By following my directions.”
Nicholaa wasn’t about to back down now, no matter how furious he became. The issue was too important. “By following my directions,” she said again. “It won’t be an easy adjustment. You are going to be the outsider. The servants at my holding are loyal to me, of course. Do you see how simple it is?”
“Nicholaa, it’s my duty to protect you.”
“That, too,” she agreed. It took all she had to stand there. The look in his eyes was chilling. “I would like to live in peace with you, Royce. If you’ll only be patient—”
“I’m always patient,” he snapped.
He didn’t sound at all patient, but she decided not to argue with him. “In time you’ll learn all our customs. I’ll help you make this adjustment.”
“You believe I’m going to change my ways?” His voice had gone hoarse.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she said. “I’m very weary. Couldn’t we discuss your new duties tomorrow?”
He didn’t answer her. He just stood there staring down at her with the oddest expression on his face.
Nicholaa thought it would be best if she took her leave now. She stretched up to kiss his cheek, then hurried toward the entrance. “Aren’t you coming along, Lawrence?” she called over her shoulder.
The vassal rushed after his mistress.
Nicholaa was feeling very pleased with herself. She’d expressed her wishes, and Royce had listened. It was a fair start, she decided. In no time at all he’d see how right she was. Royce was the outsider, and it was her holding, but he was intelligent and he’d make the adjustment quickly. She was sure of it.
Lawrence didn’t say a word to his mistress as he escorted her to her quarters. God’s truth, he couldn’t. He was too busy trying to contain his amusement. The incredulous look on Baron Royce’s face would live in his memory for a long, long while.
“Thank you for giving me your escort, Lawrence,” Nicholaa said when they reached her door. “Good night.”
“Good night, my lady. Sleep well.”
Nicholaa smiled at the two guards standing by the doorway, then went inside. One of the soldiers pulled the door closed behind her. She let out a loud sigh. A serving woman was waiting for her in the shadows by the hearth, but Nicholaa didn’t notice her until she was halfway across the room. She came to quick stop and let out a gasp of surprise.