“You don’t have to convince me, milady. I’m in favor of this plan. There is one problem I would mention, though. Doesn’t your husband think Ulric’s your son?”
Clarise let out a sigh. “He’ll be noticing you lied, milady, when he beds you. You’d better tell him the truth before he finds out on his own.”
Nicholaa shook her head. “I had good reason for telling that lie,” she said. “I was protecting Ulric. As long as the Normans believed he was my son, they’d leave him alone.”
“But things have changed,” Clarise argued. “And you can’t possibly believe your baron would harm the babe now.”
The servant sounded outraged. Nicholaa realized then that Clarise had already given her loyalty to Royce. That pleased her, though she couldn’t understand why. “Once I met Royce, I knew he wouldn’t harm Ulric. Still, he might use him to get Thurston’s cooperation. There is that worry.”
“What foolishness are you talking?” Clarise asked. “We both know Thurston’s dead.” The servant paused to make a quick sign of the cross. “God rest his soul.”
“What if he isn’t?” Nicholaa asked.
“Your baron still wouldn’t use the babe against him. I believe that with all my heart.”
Nicholaa let out a sigh. She turned the topic just a little then. “I know that a marriage based on deceit is doomed. I’ve already given Royce my promise never to lie to him again.”
“So you’re going to tell him—”
“I’m going to get him sotted first,” Nicholaa announced. “Then I’m going to tell him everything.”
“Have you lost your mind, milady?”
Nicholaa laughed. The astonished look on Clarise’s face was amusing. “I know what I’m doing,” Nicholaa said. “Alice told me that when a man has had too much ale, he doesn’t remember much of what he’s been told. I’ll confess my lie about Ulric and tell Royce another secret I’ve been worrying over, but if Royce is muddleheaded, he’ll remember only bits of what I’ve told him come morning.”
Clarise thought that had to be the most daft plan she’d ever heard. “You’d better have another plan in mind if this one doesn’t take,” she advised. “Alice is a twit, giving you such ignorant advice. A drunk man usually thinks only about sleep, but if he’s set to dally, he won’t be considerate, especially if he thinks you’re experienced.”
Nicholaa shook her head. “Royce would never hurt me.”
“He might not want to, but . . .”
Clarise stopped trying to explain when her mistress walked out of the chamber. She chased down the corridor after Nicholaa. “Milady, you’ve come up with a poor plan this time. You’ll have to take my word on this, for I’ve had quite a bit of experience, God forgive me, and you haven’t had any experience at all. I’ve seen the way the baron watches you when you aren’t noticing. He’s wanting you something fierce, and unless you explain . . .”
They reached the entrance to the great hall. Nicholaa give Clarise an affectionate hug. “It will be all right,” she whispered. “Don’t fret so, Clarise.”
“Dear Lord, put your pride aside, Nicholaa, and simply confess your lies.”
“Pride has nothing to do with this,” Nicholaa countered.
Clarise shook her head. “Nay, milady. Pride has everything to do with this plan of yours.”
When her mistress shook her head again, the servant gave up. She moved to the shadows and stood there wringing her hands and wishing with all her heart it was Alice’s neck she had between her fingers.
Nicholaa forced a smile and slowly walked toward her husband.
He did look handsome tonight. He was dressed all in black, but the severe color made him look quite invincible to her. He was standing in front of the hearth beside Hugh, and the two men were in deep discussion. Nicholaa was pleased to see that Hugh hadn’t yet left for London. He’d told her he would gather his men for the journey soon now. She was going to miss him, for he knew how to be pleasant. He played a fair game of chess, too. He wasn’t any match for her, of course, and she always beat him quickly, but he was the only man who actually forced her to concentrate on the game. When she’d told him that one evening the previous week, Hugh had laughed until tears filled his eyes. She thought that was a strange reaction to her compliment, but she didn’t tell him so for fear she’d hurt his feelings.
Royce didn’t come into the hall often enough to challenge anyone to a game, but Nicholaa didn’t want to play chess with her husband anyway. She knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate. Perhaps in another year or two, when she’d gotten used to his nearness and his handsome looks, she’d be able to think about the game. Then she would play him. She’d beat him, too. That thought made her smile.
Hugh noticed her standing there. He looked startled for a second or two, then bowed low and called out a greeting.
Royce simply stared at his wife and then motioned for her to come to him.
She gritted her teeth against the rudeness even as she obeyed the arrogant command. She stopped a foot away from the men and was in the middle of a curtsy when she realized Royce could see the scars on her hands. She straightened and hid her hands behind her back.
Hugh told her how lovely she looked. Royce didn’t say anything. Nicholaa wouldn’t let him sour her mood, though. She stood there, determined to remain patient and sweet-tempered until they finished their conversation.
“Do go on with your discussion,” she said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Hugh turned back to Royce and said, “Will you tear down the wall first or the castle?”
Nicholaa let out a low gasp. “You think to tear down my home?”
Her relief was visible. Then Royce explained. “I’m going to reinforce my home with wood and stone.”
“Because I want to.”
It took all she had to smile. “Thank you for explaining.”
There was a definite glint in his eyes. She noticed that right away. She didn’t understand why he was amused. “I wasn’t questioning you, Royce,” she said. She bowed her head so she would look submissive. “I was only interested in your plans. What you do with this holding is no concern of mine.”
She looked up in time to catch his smile. She took heart then. Being pleasant was far easier than she’d realized.
What was her game now? Royce wondered. He had never seen her act so agreeable. The last two weeks had been an ordeal . . . an invigorating ordeal, he qualified. There had been moments when he’d felt as though he was standing in the middle of a whirlwind. It hadn’t been at all peaceful, and yet he was honest enough to admit that he enjoyed her clever attempts to outwit him.
Now she was acting submissive. It was probably killing her. Royce continued to smile as he said, “Then it wouldn’t matter to you if I tore this building down and built another one?”
Since he’d only just announced his intention to reinforce the wood with stone, she felt safe lying. “No, it wouldn’t matter at all.”
“I’m thoroughly confused,” Hugh interjected. “I thought that was your plan all along.”
“It was,” Royce said. “But then I decided that my plan might prove unsettling to my wife. She was raised here, Hugh, and I thought she might have strong feelings about having her home torn down. Now, however, I shall—”
“I do have strong feelings,” she blurted out.
“But you just said—”
She forgot to be nice. “You aren’t going to tear my home down, Royce.”
He raised an eyebrow.
She let out a sigh. She hadn’t meant to shout at her husband. “I hope you will leave the building alone.”
“Then you were lying when you said—”
“I was trying to get along,” she interrupted. “God’s truth, that’s almost impossible with you. Could we not eat our supper now and put this matter aside?”
Hugh was in wholehearted agreement. He hurried over to the table, bellowing for Clarise to bring on the food.
Nicholaa turned to follow Hugh. Royce held her by her arm and forced her to stand still. “You will speak the truth at all times,” he ordered.
She turned to look up at him. “I am trying,” she said. “I would like to please you.”
That admission stunned him. “Why?”
“When I please you,” she answered, “perhaps you’ll begin to please me.”
He grinned. “And how am I to please you?” he asked. He slowly pulled her closer to him.
“If you would bring Justin and Ulric home, that would please me,” she said.
“Then I’ll do that,” he answered. His hand cupped her chin. “Just as soon as you explain your actions on the day we were attacked by the Saxons.”
“Do you still wish me to apologize for interfering?”
She stretched up and kissed him. It was a gentle, undemanding touch. “I will give you your explanation tonight, Royce. When you’ve heard it, I don’t think you’ll want me to apologize. I haven’t done anything wrong, and once I’ve explained, I’m certain you’ll agree. You might even have to apologize to me. You do know how, don’t you?”
She was smiling up at him so sweetly, looking so damn innocent too. It was difficult to believe she was the hellion he’d been living with these two past weeks.
“You could drive a man to drink.”
Dear God, she hoped so. His insult thrilled her. She almost laughed out loud.
The dimple was back in her cheek when she smiled at him. The temptation was becoming too much to resist. Royce had been determined to ignore her until she realized her demands weren’t going to get her anywhere. Aye, she needed to understand her position in his household.
The stakes were too high for Royce to back down. He wanted Nicholaa’s complete loyalty and honesty, and by God, he would have both before he touched her. Hell, he was the only one suffering in this marriage. Royce had recognized that truth quickly enough. Nicholaa was too innocent to understand the torment she was putting him through. She didn’t have the faintest idea of her own appeal, either. The woman was so feminine. When she smiled up at him, all he could think about was touching her. She didn’t understand the joy and fulfillment they could give each other in bed, and at the rate they were going, she’d be an old woman before she found out.
Perhaps he should change tactics. That thought popped into his mind even as he was reaching for her. He threaded his fingers through her hair to keep her captive as he slowly leaned down to her mouth. He intended to take one quick taste, but his wife went all soft and willing on him, and he couldn’t stop himself from deepening the kiss. His tongue swept inside her mouth to rub against hers. The taste of her was intoxicating. It made him hungry for more.
He growled low in his throat when Nicholaa wrapped her arms around his waist and held him tight against her. The kiss turned hot, ravenous. His mouth slanted over hers again and again until he was shaking with his need for more.
It was time to stop. This was neither the time nor the place for such uninhibited behavior. Royce gently pulled back. She followed him. He was so pleased with that reaction he had to kiss her again.
Nicholaa was trembling when he finally forced himself to end their love play. She went limp against him. He held her close until they’d both regained their composure, then forced her chin up so he could see her eyes. He whispered the obvious: “I want you, Nicholaa.”
The harshness in his whisper didn’t frighten her. Nay, she was warmed by his confession. “I’m pleased you want me, Royce. I want you, too. It should be that way, shouldn’t it, between husband and wife?”
He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. “Yes, it should be that way, though in truth it is a rarity.”
Nicholaa didn’t know what to say next. She couldn’t stop looking at him. He didn’t want to stop staring at her. They stayed that way for what seemed an eternity. The spell was broken when Clarise’s laughter reached them. Royce was the first to move. He grabbed Nicholaa’s hand and led her to the table.
She shook her head in exasperation when she saw that Baron Hugh had Clarise pinned up against the far wall. The big Norman was diligently nibbling on her ear, and Clarise was thoroughly enjoying his attention until she realized her mistress was watching her. The servant quickly disengaged herself from Hugh’s hold and scurried into the buttery. Hugh let out a loud sigh of regret. “She’s leading me a merry chase,” he muttered as he took his place.
Royce sat at the head of the table. Nicholaa took her place to his right. Hugh settled himself across from her.
Alice waited at the entrance to the buttery for her mistress to give the signal. The servant had already set the table with three silver goblets. As soon as Nicholaa motioned to her, Alice rushed over with a fat jug and filled each goblet with dark ale. She filled Royce’s goblet to the rim. He didn’t reprove her because he thought she was simply eager to please him.
Nicholaa immediately lifted her goblet and suggested a toast. She kept her hand turned away from Royce so he wouldn’t notice the scars. She took a long drink, too, because she didn’t want her husband to become suspicious.
She didn’t stop after just one toast, either. No, she offered another and another until she’d given a salutation to everyone in England except the stable master. She was about to toast him, too, when bread trenchers filled with quail and pheasant were placed on the table. Thick loaves of freshly baked black bread and wide wedges of yellow cheese came next. Additional salt had been added to the meat to increase Royce’s thirst. Nicholaa forgot about the added salt, though. Her head was muddled from all the ale she’d already swallowed. She ate a good portion of her supper, drinking heartily after each bite.
It didn’t take Royce long to realize Nicholaa was up to something. Each time he took a drink, Alice was there to refill his goblet. He suspected that the two women were in league together. They kept giving each other knowing looks.
His wife wanted to get him drunk, but he was aware of her plan. Each time his goblet was refilled, he poured half of the ale into Nicholaa’s cup. She couldn’t refuse his generosity, and after a while she was too confused to notice. Within an hour, Nicholaa’s eyelids were drooping and she was having extreme difficulty staying on her stool. Her elbow rested on the table, her head propped up in her hand.