She was just in time. She took the arrow that was meant for him. The force of the arrow threw her hard against him. He caught her, then tried to force her down onto his lap so that his shield could protect her. He realized then that Nicholaa was pinned to him. The arrow had gone through her shoulder and into his hauberk.
Royce’s anguished bellow echoed from above the ridge. He turned his mount and urged the big stallion toward the safety of the trees to the west. Nicholaa’s long golden hair covered her injury, and though Lawrence hadn’t witnessed the attack, his baron’s shout told him something terrible had happened to his mistress. The vassal motioned to three other seasoned soldiers to follow their lord, then ordered another to command the raging battle. Then Lawrence followed his baron into the trees.
Royce thought Nicholaa had fainted. He considered that a blessing, for she wouldn’t feel the pain when he pulled the arrow from her shoulder.
He was just about to dismount when she said, “Forgive him, Royce. He didn’t know. He couldn’t have known.”
Royce didn’t understand what she was talking about. When she went limp in his arms, he knew she couldn’t answer his questions now. He couldn’t have formed a logical question anyway, for his rage at what had just happened held his full attention.
Lawrence jumped from his mount and spread his cloak on the ground. He reached up to take Nicholaa from Royce so he could dismount without jarring her. Royce shook his head. “She’s still pinned to me,” he announced, his voice filled with anguish.
He didn’t allow his vassal to assist him. His hands shook as he pulled the tip of the arrow from his hauberk, then took a calming breath before he dismounted. He couldn’t stand to think about the torment to come. He laid Nicholaa’s limp body on the cloak, snapped off the arrowhead, and slipped the shaft free.
She screamed. The sound tore at his heart. He whispered broken words of comfort as blood poured from her injury down upon his arm.
Lawrence was far more experienced at taking care of injuries than his overlord was. Royce’s mind understood that fact well enough, but his heart didn’t understand it at all. Lawrence tried three times before his leader would let him near Nicholaa.
She was just coming out of her swoon when the vassal poured liquid fire over her shoulder. She didn’t scream this time; she roared. She lunged up at her tormentor, too. Royce had to hold her down. If she’d had a dagger, she might have killed the man who was trying to help her.
The concern on Lawrence’s face finally penetrated her stupor. Her mind suddenly cleared. She realized she was shouting then and fell silent.
Royce was kneeling on the ground beside her, his hand on her other shoulder. Nicholaa took one look at the chilling expression on his face and almost fainted again. Lord, he looked furious. He seemed to want to kill someone, she thought, and since he was staring down at her so intently, she could only surmise she was the victim he had in mind. How dare he scowl at her? She’d just saved his life, hadn’t she?
Oh, God, her brother Thurston had tried to kill Royce. It was too much to take in. Dear Lord, what was she going to do? Thurston was alive. But for how long?
She turned to look at her injury as Lawrence tore the bliaut away from her shoulder with his dagger.
Nicholaa realized it wasn’t a fatal injury. The cut was deep, aye, but the bleeding had already slowed to a trickle.
Royce turned her face away. “Don’t look at it,” he ordered. “It will only upset you.”
His voice shook. She thought it was because his throat was strained from not being able to shout at her.
Thurston was alive, and he was trying to kill Royce. Her husband would certainly try to kill Thurston, too, given the chance. What was she going to do?
She decided to take the coward’s way out. She struggled to sit up, then pretended that the movement made her head spin. She slumped against Royce’s side, whispered a pitiful plea that he put his arm around her waist to steady her, and closed her eyes.
A wave of nausea caught her by surprise. She wasn’t sure if it was a reaction to her trickery or if she had lost more blood than she’d realized.
Lawrence lifted the hem of her gown, tore off a strip of her chemise, and began wrapping her throbbing shoulder.
Nicholaa looked down at the ragged bandages covering her hands and had to shake her head over her own condition. Lord, she was a mess. Since meeting Royce, she’d suffered one injury or indignity after another. If this continued, she’d be dead in a week.
She started to mention this to her husband, just to prick his pride, but suddenly the light-headed feeling she’d pretended to experience only minutes before, came on all at once. She wasn’t pretending this time when she asked Royce to tighten his hold.
“I can’t decide if I’m going to lose my supper or swoon,” she whispered.
Royce fervently hoped she’d swoon. She proved to be accommodating.
“She’s sleeping again,” Lawrence remarked.
Royce nodded. His voice was ragged when he said, “She’s lost so much blood.”
The anguish in his lord’s voice wasn’t lost on the vassal. “Nay, Royce,” he replied. “Only a fair amount. She should be fully recovered in a week or two.”
Neither warrior spoke again until Lawrence finished his ministrations. Royce allowed the vassal to hold Nicholaa while he remounted and then took Nicholaa into his lap. He noticed that the white bandage on her shoulder had already turned red. “She could bleed to death before we reach home,” he muttered.
Lawrence shook his head. “The flow has already eased,” he said. “Royce, I don’t understand your reaction. This isn’t a life threatening injury.”
“I don’t wish to discuss my reaction,” Royce interjected.
The vassal quickly nodded agreement. He regained his mount before speaking again. “Why did she interfere, my lord? Surely she realized your armor would protect you.”
“She wasn’t thinking,” Royce returned. “She thought only to protect me.”
He sounded baffled by his own explanation. “Nicholaa said something just after . . . I don’t understand her meaning, Lawrence, but there is more to this than . . .”
He didn’t continue. One of the soldiers drew his attention when he offered him his cloak. Royce accepted the garment and wrapped it around Nicholaa.
He then gave the order to call his men together. It was the first time in all his days that he’d retreated from a fight. He didn’t hesitate though. Nicholaa was his only concern now. Nothing else mattered.
As it turned out, retreat wasn’t necessary. Lawrence returned to Royce with the announcement that the attackers had fled as suddenly as they’d appeared.
Royce mulled over that oddity a long while. Although the rebels had clearly had the initial advantage, Royce could have turned the fight into a victory, as his soldiers were far more skilled than the Saxons were. That much had been evident from the way the enemy had rushed toward them from the hills. They had run without a thought of flanking the Normans or protecting their own backsides. There wasn’t any discipline in their ranks. They had made an easy target for the Normans’ arrows.
On the long ride to Rosewood, Royce kept trying to separate his mind from his emotions, a simple undertaking under usual conditions. His heart kept getting in his way, though. He told himself again and again that when he’d given the order to quit the battle, he’d merely been doing his duty. Nicholaa was his wife, and it was his responsibility to protect her. But why were his hands still shaking? Why was his fury over her injury so consuming he could barely think?
Damn it all, this inconvenience was getting out of hand. His wife was muddling his mind. His life was a carefully drawn map, and now she was easing her way right into his every thought.
It wasn’t until they had reached the castle and Royce was carrying Nicholaa up the narrow steps to the bedchambers that he realized the full horror of his situation.
He didn’t just care about her. He was falling in love with the woman.
God’s truth, that admission so stunned him that he almost dropped her. He quickly recovered and continued on toward Nicholaa’s chamber, his mind racing with all the reasons he couldn’t possibly love such a stubborn, illogical woman. Hell, he didn’t even like her most of the time.
Logic came to his rescue. It wasn’t possible for him to love her. He didn’t know how to love anyone. Aye, he told himself. He’d been trained all these years to be a warrior, and he had never learned how to love. Therefore, he reasoned quite logically, he couldn’t possibly love Nicholaa.
It was all right to care about the woman, of course, for she was his possession. He could care as an owner would care about any valuable property.
Royce felt better after he’d sorted it all out. Yet he contradicted his new convictions by growling at all the servants who presumed they would take over Nicholaa’s care. Baron Hugh had followed the parade of weeping women up the stairs. He stood in the doorway, watching with growing astonishment as Royce tried to put Nicholaa on the bed. The giant warrior couldn’t seem to get the deed done. He leaned over the bed twice, but each time he straightened up, Nicholaa was still in his arms. Royce couldn’t seem to let go of her.
Hugh took mercy on his friend. He ushered the servants out of the room, save for one, a sweet, plump temptress named Clarise whom he’d been trying to get into his bed for nearly a week now. He motioned for her to stand aside, then ordered Royce to put his wife down. His hand rested on Royce’s shoulder. “Take your helmet off and see to your own comforts. Clarise will take care of Nicholaa.”
Royce did put Nicholaa down and take his helmet off, but he refused to leave the room. He tossed the headgear into a corner, then clasped his hands behind his back and stood guard beside the bed. He saw Nicholaa jump when the helmet hit the floor. Could she hear them? he wondered. Perhaps she was finally coming out of her swoon. God, he hoped so.
Nicholaa knew exactly what was going on. She’d alternated between true sleep and pretending to be asleep all the way home. The pain in her shoulder had eased considerably, and she was feeling much better now. The problem was that she’d have to explain her actions to her husband once he knew she’d recovered, and she still didn’t know what she was going to tell him.
She needed time to worry through this problem. She was still a bit stunned that Thurston was alive—thankful too, of course. As his only sister, she felt it was her duty to protect him. But she was also Royce’s wife now. She had to give her loyalty to him and try to protect him as well. God, it was confusing.
Nicholaa started shivering. She was frightened for Thurston and for Royce. She knew her brother’s stubborn nature. He wouldn’t give up until he’d regained his holding, but Royce wouldn’t let Thurston have Rosewood without a fight, either. One or both could die before the matter was settled.
She didn’t want to lose either of them. What was she going to do? Should she trust Royce with the truth? Or would that be disloyal to Thurston?
Tears filled her eyes. She needed time to sort it all out before doing anything.
“She’s in pain,” Royce muttered, drawing her attention. “I want it stopped. Now.”
Nicholaa didn’t open her eyes. She wished Royce would take her into his arms and offer her the comfort she so desperately needed right now. She wanted him to tell her everything would be all right.
God help her, she actually wanted him to love her, if only just a little.
“We could send someone to the abbey for a healer,” Hugh suggested.
Clarise had just finished sorting through the trunk, looking for Nicholaa’s sleeping gowns. She carried a white cotton garment over to the bed. When Nicholaa moaned, Clarise burst into tears. She dropped the gown and began to twist the hem of her bliaut into a knot. “Lady Nicholaa cannot die,” she cried out. “We would be lost without her.”
“Stop that sinful talk,” Hugh commanded. “She isn’t going to die. She just lost a bit of blood, that’s all.”
Clarise nodded, then picked up her mistress’s gown.
Hugh stood by Royce’s side, staring down at Nicholaa. He rubbed his beard as he asked. “Was it an arrow that—”
“She threw herself in front of me to save me from taking that arrow,” Royce interrupted.
“Royce she’s going to be all right,” Hugh said again. “Are you in the mood to tell me why she’s here? I thought she was going to be given to some worthy knight as wife. Did the king change his mind?”
Royce shook his head. “She’s my wife.”
Hugh raised an eyebrow and smiled. “So you challenged for her after all. I guessed you would.”
“I didn’t challenge for her,” Royce countered. He found his first smile when he explained. “You might say Nicholaa challenged for me.”
Hugh let out a snort of laughter. “There’s more to this tale than you’re telling me. I’ll demand the rest at supper. Now turn your mind back to this sorry matter, and explain to me why your wife would throw herself in front of you. You were wearing armor, weren’t you?”
“I’ll have my answers when Nicholaa wakes up.”
Nicholaa had heard every word of the exchange. She grimaced over the harshness in her husband’s voice. She decided then and there she just might have to pretend to be asleep for another week or two, or until she could decide what to do about Thurston. She wouldn’t lie to Royce, though. Her word was as important to her as her loyalty. She’d given her husband her promise, and she wouldn’t break it.
“I pray to God Lady Nicholaa knows where she is when she wakes up.”
Clarise’s remark gained both warriors’ attention. “What are you rambling on about?” Hugh asked. “Of course she’ll remember where she is.”
Clarise shook her head. “There’s those who don’t remember a thing after they’ve been hit on the head or lost their blood. Some get confused. Others get forgetful. It’s the truth I’m giving you,” she added on a sob. “My lady might not even recognize me.”
“I’ve never heard of such an affliction,” Hugh scoffed.
Royce hadn’t taken his gaze away from his wife during the conversation, so he alone noticed that the grimace eased from her expression and she suddenly looked quite peaceful.
Was she listening to their conversation? “Nicholaa, open your eyes,” he commanded.
She didn’t obey him. She groaned instead. It was a dramatic sound, not the least bit convincing. What was her game?