She hadn’t seen this servant before. The woman was much older than Mary, rigid in bearing, with heavy brows and a heavier frown. She gestured Nicholaa forward.
The woman certainly wasn’t acting like a servant. Nicholaa was immediately put on guard. “What is your name?” she asked. “Why isn’t Mary here? She was assigned the duty of assisting me.”
“My name isn’t important,” the woman answered in a low whisper. “You won’t be seeing me again. As for the girl, I told her she was wanted in the kitchens.”
“Why are you here?” Nicholaa asked. She noticed the woman’s hands were hidden behind her back and took a cautious step back toward the doors and the guards.
“I’ve been ordered to give you a message and then leave.”
“Who sends me this message?” Nicholaa asked.
“The leader of those who resist the pretender they call king.”
“There are Saxons here in London who resist?”
The woman’s frown deepened. “Have you lost your loyalty already?” she demanded.
Nicholaa straightened her shoulders. “Give me the name of your leader,” she demanded.
“I don’t know his name, and I wouldn’t be giving it to you if I did. You haven’t proved to be trustworthy yet.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you,” Nicholaa countered. “Now give me this message and leave.”
The woman pulled a sharp dagger from behind her back and held it up in front of Nicholaa. “Baron Royce is the finest trainer of soldiers. If something happened to him, the army would suffer. William depends on this baron in all matters of war. Your husband is to be the first one we take away.”
Nicholaa’s gaze was riveted on the knife. She watched as the woman placed the dagger on the low chest next to the bed. The servant rushed across the chamber toward the door. “Kill him,” she whispered. “Tonight.”
“No!” Nicholaa shouted.
The woman whirled around. “Do you want the guards to hear you?”
Nicholaa shook her head. She was terrified, but she didn’t want the old hag to leave just yet. She was determined to learn the name of the man in charge of the resistance. More important, this woman might know what had happened to her brother Thurston, who had gone to the north to join Baron Alfred’s army.
“I ask you again to give me the name of your leader. Baron Alfred is the only Saxon I know of who continues to resist William. He and his men have their stronghold in the north, near my holding.”
She would have continued, but the woman cut her off. “More than one group remains loyal to the old ways,” she said. “You must prove your loyalty to us tonight.”
“How do you suggest I kill my husband?” Nicholaa asked. She lifted her bandaged hands. “I cannot even hold a knife.”
The woman looked startled. It was apparent she hadn’t considered that problem.
Nicholaa said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that she hadn’t been able to sway Baron Samuel into taking the bandages off. “I could not kill my husband even if I wanted to,” she said. There was a hint of victory in her voice, relief as well. She didn’t think the woman noticed. She was glaring at Nicholaa’s hands.
“You’ll have to find a way,” the woman announced. “His death or yours.”
She was reaching for the door latch when Nicholaa said, “It would be my death regardless. William would retaliate.”
The woman shook her head. “At dawn three men will come to take you away. The deed must be done before then.”
“I won’t do it.”
“Then they’ll kill both of you.”
The door closed on that threat.
Nicholaa knew she was going to be sick. The evil radiating from the woman made the chamber as frigid as death.
Royce came into the chamber approximately twenty minutes later. He wasn’t at all certain what to expect from Nicholaa. She’d either be sound asleep and looking like an innocent or wide awake and pacing while she thought of more outrageous opinions to share with him.
One thing was certain: just as soon as possible, he was going to set the woman straight. Granted, he’d never been married before, and he didn’t have a strong understanding of how a man and woman lived together in harmony. But then, she hadn’t been married before, either. Still, the laws of marriage were the same for Saxons as they were for Normans, the rules set down by the church. The husband was lord of the manor, and his wife was simply his chattel.
Nicholaa had gotten everything turned around inside her head. Royce smiled then. It wasn’t going to be easy for her, what with all the changes he would insist upon. One thing was certain, though: she would be the one doing all the adjusting, not he.
As soon as he walked into the chamber, he put the matter of lecturing his wife aside. Nicholaa didn’t seem to be in any condition to listen to anything he had to say. She was kneeling on the floor by the bed, doubled over an empty chamber pot, gagging.
It was one hell of a greeting, he decided. He’d heard about women coming down with wedding-night jitters, but Nicholaa’s reaction went way beyond that. Was she so frightened of being bedded that she’d made herself ill?
That possibility didn’t sit well. He let out a loud sigh as he went over to the washbowl. After dipping a cloth in the cool water, he walked over to her.
Nicholaa was leaning back on her heels, trying to catch her breath when Royce scooped her up into his arms and sat down on the side of the bed. She ended up in his lap.
The minute he touched her, she started crying. Royce held the soggy cloth against her forehead. “Quit your weeping,” he ordered, “and tell me what ails you.”
She didn’t like his gruff tone of voice at all. “Nothing ails me,” she lied.
“All right,” he agreed. “Then tell me why you’re weeping.”
Now he sounded a little too reasonable. “I didn’t mean any of those nice things I said about you,” she announced. She shoved the cloth away from her brow and turned in his arms so he could see her frown. “Don’t you dare believe I meant a single kind word I said.”
He nodded, just to placate her. “When did you say those things I’m not supposed to believe?”
“Last night,” she answered. “When Baron Guy was being such an arrogant nuisance.”
Royce remembered and smiled, but Nicholaa was too overwhelmed by her worries to notice. The past few hours had left her spent. She collapsed against her husband’s chest and closed her eyes. In the back of her mind she realized she wanted him to touch her, to comfort her. That didn’t make any sense, but she wasn’t in the mood to work it all out in her mind.
“Do you hate me?”
“Were you very angry I chose you for my husband?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you were,” she whispered. “Now you can’t go back to Normandy.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Does that upset you?”
He smiled again. He rested his chin on the top of her head. Nicholaa sounded worried. “No.”
“Well, why not?”
His sigh was long. “Do you want to argue?”
“No,” she answered. “You should go back to Normandy, Royce. Was there a special lady waiting for your return?”
“It’s a little late to be concerned about that possibility, isn’t it?”
Her eyes got teary again. “I only just considered that possibility,” she wailed. “Oh, God, I’ve ruined your life, haven’t I?”
He hugged her. “No, you haven’t ruined my life,” he answered. “I didn’t leave a woman behind in Normandy, Nicholaa.”
She sagged against him. He concluded then that she was relieved by that news. “My family’s there, of course,” he told her. “My father’s dead, but my mother’s still alive. She’s kept busy with my sisters and her grandchildren.”
“Will I ever meet your family?”
“Perhaps,” he answered.
He thought he’d soothed her sufficiently to return to his question as to why she’d been weeping and was just about to turn the topic back to that concern when she suddenly whispered, “You must go back to Normandy, Royce, if only for a nice long visit with your family.”
The urgency in her tone wasn’t lost on him. “And why is that?”
“You’ll be safe there.”
“I’m just as safe here.”
Nicholaa decided to take a different approach. “I’d like to leave this place as soon as possible, husband. Could we go now? The moon is sufficient to show us the way home.”
There was a note of desperation in her voice. Royce nudged her chin up so he could see her expression. One look told him she was terrified. “What happened?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she blurted out. “I just want to leave now.”
She pushed his hand away from her chin and hid her face in the crook of his neck.
“Nicholaa? Are you so worried about my touching you that you’ve made yourself ill?”
“What are you talking about? You’re touching me now, Royce.”
“That isn’t what I meant,” he said. “When I bed you . . .”
He never got to finish. Her head came up with a start. Good God, she hadn’t even thought about that. Leave it to him to add another worry to her growing list.
“You can’t expect me to sleep with you that way,” she blurted out. “I haven’t even had time to think about that possibility. No, you can’t expect—”
“I do expect,” he interrupted.
She stared into his eyes. He looked as if he meant what he said. Her face lost its color, and her heart started racing. Nicholaa burst into tears again.
Royce controlled his exasperation. He decided he shouldn’t have mentioned that topic. When the time came to bed her, he’d do just that, but he wouldn’t give her time to let her fear catch hold of her.
“Nicholaa, do you trust me?”
She didn’t even think about it before answering. “Yes.”
“And you’re not afraid of me?”
“Fine,” he whispered. “Then tell me why you’re upset.”
“My hands and arms are burning something fierce,” she muttered. “I’m in agony with all my worries. Royce, I’m in no condition to let you touch me.”
“Let me?” He sounded more surprised than angry over her poor choice of words.
“You know my meaning,” she cried out. “Have you no sympathy?”
He shrugged. She guessed that he didn’t.
If she hadn’t been so busy trying to think of a plan to keep the man alive, she surely would have had time to think of a way to discourage him from exercising his husbandly rights.
She fell back against him again. “I don’t hate you, Royce, but at times I do dislike you.”
He hugged her tight. Long minutes passed in silence. He was patiently waiting for her to calm down. He thought about how soft she was, how feminine her scent was, and how much he liked holding her in his arms.
She thought about the evil look on the woman’s face when she relayed her message.
Royce felt her shiver in his arms. He tightened his hold. The candlelight flickered, drawing his attention. He saw the dagger on the chest, then frowned in reaction. He’d left specific instructions the evening before that all weapons were to be removed from the chamber. Although he was certain that Nicholaa didn’t have it in her nature to kill anyone, she could do a fair amount of damage in an attempt to escape.
He smiled then. He was certain that if she had injured one of his soldiers, she’d be sure to apologize afterward.
The woman was still a puzzle to him, but he was beginning to understand a few of her quirks.
“Nicholaa? Do you still think to escape?”
“I’m a married woman now.”
“And?” he prodded when she didn’t continue.
She let out a sigh. “If I escaped, you’d have to come with me.”
Nicholaa was just realizing her remark was absurd when he said, “Where did the dagger come from?”
She tensed against him. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do,” he answered. “Don’t lie to me, Nicholaa.”
She didn’t say another word for a long while. “It’s a long story,” she finally whispered. “Surely you don’t wish to hear it now.”
“Yes, I do wish to hear it now.”
“An old woman gave me the dagger.”
“Tonight. I don’t want to talk about it,” she cried out. “I just want you to take me away from here tonight. Please, Royce?”
He acted as though he hadn’t even heard her plea. “Why did she give you the dagger?”
She was going to have to tell him everything. He wasn’t going to let up. Besides, she reasoned, she needed his help with this worry, and God only knew he needed her warning. “She said I’m supposed to kill you with it.”
She waited a long while for Royce to react to her announcement before she realized he wasn’t going to say anything. Didn’t he believe her?
“I’m not jesting,” she whispered. “I’m really supposed to kill you.”
“How?” he asked, sounding incredulous. “You can’t even hold a dagger in your hands.”
“I mentioned that very problem to the messenger,” she muttered. “I was told to find a way. The more you doubt my word, Royce, the more convinced I am that it wouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Nicholaa, you couldn’t kill me.”
He sounded pleased with that evaluation. He gently brushed the hair away from her temple. It felt like a caress from a husband who cared about his wife.
God, she was tired. Surely that was the reason her eyes clouded with tears again. “Just when I was beginning to think the war was finally over and we could all live in peace together, this had to happen.”
“The war is over,” he said. “You’re worrying over nothing.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to,” she cried out. “I have proof, husband.”