Since he wasn’t going to remember much of anything in the morning, she felt it was safe to boast. “Just below his backside, in his thigh. It was just a flesh wound, Royce, meant to stop him from taking my home.”
He shook his head. “I thought you said your brother’s second-in-command was in charge of the defense. Are you telling me you lied about that, too?”
“No, John was in charge some of the time.”
“But you interfered?”
“Just a little.” She slumped back against his shoulder. “You smell nice, Royce.”
She’d obviously forgotten she’d already said that. He continued on up the steps and walked down the long corridor past her own chamber and on to his own.
His squire, a dark-haired lad named Trevor, waited inside to assist his lord. Royce dismissed the boy with a quick motion of his head, then shut the door behind him.
A fire blazed on the hearth. The room was as warm, as inviting, as the woman cuddled up in his arms. Royce walked over to the bed and sat down with Nicholaa in his lap.
He thought she’d fallen asleep until she said, “Have you noticed how sweet-tempered I’ve been this evening?”
Her voice was a sleepy whisper. “I noticed,” he said.
“Mama used to say you can catch more vermin with sweet than with sour.”
That statement baffled him. “Why in God’s name would you want to?”
“Want to what?”
“I don’t want to catch vermin,” she muttered. “I want to catch you.” Lord, how she wished her husband would quit tossing her about in his arms. She grabbed hold of his shoulders to steady herself. Her head was spinning, and her stomach was fighting waves of nausea.
“Nicholaa?” he said. “About this plan of yours . . .”
He gave up. He continued to hold her until he was certain she’d fallen asleep. Then he set about the task of undressing her.
He couldn’t stay irritated with her. She was a master with her games of manipulation, but he understood her motives now. She was trying to hold her family together, any way she could. Aye, she was trying to survive.
It was going to take her time to learn to trust him completely, he knew, and then perhaps they would be able to settle down to a peaceful life together. He wanted her to be happy. He didn’t know how he was going to achieve that goal, though, until the problem with Thurston was solved. Hell, he might have to kill the bastard. That certainly wouldn’t win Nicholaa’s heart.
Royce felt that he was in an impossible position. But then, so was Nicholaa. She was desperately trying to protect her brother from him and, at the same time, protect him from her brother.
There was much to consider before he formed his plans, he decided. Nicholaa wore only her chemise now, and he was about to pull the covers up over her when he changed his mind. He slowly reached for the silk ribbon that held her chemise in place. His hands shook when he touched her bare skin.
Lord, she was exquisitely formed. Her br**sts were full, her waist incredibly narrow, and the gentle flair of her h*ps couldn’t have been more pleasing to him.
He stripped off his own clothes. Then he stretched out next to his wife. If she didn’t touch him, he might be able to stand the torment of having her warm body so close.
It took Royce a long while to fall asleep. All of Nicholaa’s worries filtered through his mind.
And then his mind returned to the one remark she’d made so matter-of-factly that he knew it was true.
She wanted to seduce him.
A man couldn’t ask for more than that.
Nicholaa awakened to the sound of a waterfall thundering in her ear. It took her a long time to realize what the noise was, and she didn’t have any idea at all until she tried to move.
She felt Royce then. His arm was wrapped around her waist. They both slept on their sides. She was in front, with her backside snuggled up against his groin. The noise was her husband’s snoring.
Her feet were tucked between his legs. She slowly edged away from him and was about to roll onto her stomach when he tightened his hold and pulled her back up against him.
The movement almost killed her. Her head felt as though it might split in half. She went completely still. Her stomach immediately calmed down. Her mind didn’t. Dear God, what had happened last night? She couldn’t remember.
She’d slept with her husband. That was the only fact she was certain of. She had no idea what else had happened.
Had she gotten him sotted or had she gotten herself sotted instead? Nicholaa closed her eyes. It was too much to think about with her head pounding. Perhaps if she went back to sleep for just a little longer, she’d feel refreshed enough to remember.
Royce awakened just a few minutes later. Morning light filtered through the window he’d left uncovered. He lifted his head to look at his wife. Her eyes were closed. He thought she might be pretending sleep just to avoid him.
He gently nudged her. She groaned.
“Nicholaa?” He whispered her name.
She reacted as though he’d roared it. Her hand flew up to cover her ear.
“Are you still sleepy?” he asked. He rolled her onto her back and leaned over her.
The movement made her want to gag. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up at him. Her first thought was that he didn’t look ill. Nay, he appeared fit. Happy, too. A lock of hair had fallen over his forehead, giving him a boyish look. If she’d had the strength, she would have eased his hair back where it belonged. The man didn’t need much sleep, she supposed. His eyes were filled with laughter, and he seemed ready to take on the world.
He thought she looked like hell. Her eyes were so bloodshot it hurt to look at them. Her complexion was greenish. The afteraffects of too much ale, he decided. His wife was going to suffer this morning.
She fell asleep again while he stared at her. He leaned down and kissed her brow, then rolled onto his side to get out of bed. The movement woke her up. She grabbed hold of the covers to keep herself from shaking.
He noticed that action. “Aren’t you feeling well, Nicholaa?” he asked.
If he didn’t quit shouting, she was going to die. “I’m fine,” she whispered.
He laughed. His wife sounded as if she were being strangled.
The man was a morning talker. She vowed to work on that flaw. Royce kept up a steady one-sided conversation while he dressed. God, he was cheerful. She wished she could put a gag in his mouth. It was a mean thought, she knew, but she didn’t much care.
Royce shouted his farewell, then deliberately slammed the door. He wasn’t finished with his cruelty, though. He caught Clarise at the bottom of the steps and told her to bring a trencher of food to his wife’s chamber.
Ten minutes later, when Clarise presented the meal to her mistress, Nicholaa literally bolted from the bed. She made it to the chamber pot without a second to spare.
It took her all morning to regain her strength. By nooning she was feeling better. She finally got dressed in a green bliaut, but she changed when Clarise mentioned the color matched her complexion. The royal blue gown was much better, or so the servant decreed.
Her hair hurt too much to let Clarise braid it. Nicholaa gritted her teeth while the servant brushed the tangles away, then used a blue ribbon to secure it behind her neck.
“Are you going to tell me what happened last night?” Clarise asked.
“I don’t know what happened last night,” Nicholaa whispered.
“You were stark na*ed when you got out of his bed this morn, milady. Something happened.”
“Oh, God, I was naked, wasn’t I? Clarise, I don’t remember last night. What am I going to do?”
The servant shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him what happened, but first you need to take a nice stroll outside. The fresh air will clear your head.”
“Yes, I’ll go outside. Then maybe my head will clear and I’ll remember.”
Clarise nodded. “Milady, you aren’t feeling a little tenderness?”
“My head’s feeling tender.”
“That wasn’t my meaning,” Clarise said. She handed Nicholaa her cloak.
“What was your meaning?” Nicholaa asked.
“Never you mind,” the servant countered. “Get your fresh air. It will all come back to you eventually.”
Nicholaa hoped the servant was right. She wanted to remember what she’d told Royce. More, she wanted to remember what had taken place in the bedchamber.
The cold air did clear her thoughts. She felt much better, but she still didn’t remember anything.
She intercepted her husband as he was returning to the courtyard from the lower bailey. She hurried over to him. “Royce? I would like to ask you about last night.”
She moved closer to him so she wouldn’t be overheard, then lowered her gaze. “Did you have a little too much ale?”
He put his thumb under her chin and tilted her face up. “Yes, you did.”
He looked serious, but not angry. “I don’t remember what happened,” she whispered. “What did I do?”
“And what did you do?”
She let him see her displeasure. “Please don’t make this difficult for me. Tell me what I said. I would like to remember.”
He decided to make her wait. “We will discuss this tonight,” he announced. He tried to walk away from her.
She grabbed hold of his arm. “Please,” she whispered. “Answer just one question now.”
He turned back to her. “All right,” he agreed. “What is it you wish to know?”
She couldn’t look at him when she asked her question. “Did I please you last night?”
The shyness in her voice, added to the blush on her cheeks, told him exactly what she was asking him. She wanted to know if she’d pleased him in bed. He clasped his hands behind his back and waited for her to look up at him. When she finally did, he shook his head. “Not particularly,” he announced.
She looked devastated. “I’m sorry if I disappointed you,” she whispered. “It’s usually a little . . . awkward the first time, isn’t it?”
“No.” His voice turned hard. “It should have been easy for you.”
She let out a gasp. The man was heartless. Her eyes filled with tears. “I wasn’t experienced, Royce,” she muttered.
“No, it was obvious to me you had no experience,” he countered.
“And that displeased you?”
“Of course,” he drawled out. “Nicholaa, telling me the truth should never be awkward, with or without experience.”
Her eyes widened. Dear God, they weren’t even talking about the same issue. She was acutely relieved. The feeling didn’t last long. Royce smiled. She decided then that he’d deliberately misled her.
“I wasn’t talking about telling the truth,” she muttered.
He was a cruel-hearted man. She decided she was finished with the conversation and turned to leave. He grabbed her shoulders and forced her to turn around. “As I said before, wife, we will discuss this tonight.”
She was still frowning at him when suddenly he pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly. Several soldiers were strolling past, but she forgot all about her audience when Royce deepened the kiss. She was enjoying herself too much to care about anything but kissing him back.
He finally pulled away. “I like the way you respond to me,” he murmured.
She melted against him. “Thank you. I’m happy I please you.”
He smiled against the top of her head. “Tomorrow I’ll go and get Justin and Ulric. Does that please you?”
He had his answer when she hugged him tight.
Lawrence called out to Royce then, drawing his attention. Nicholaa immediately disengaged herself from her husband and rushed back inside. She was so excited about Justin and Ulric coming home that she could barely contain herself. There was much to do in preparation. Justin would take over her chamber, she decided, and Ulric would sleep with her and Royce.
When Royce joined her at the supper table, she explained the sleeping arrangements to him. He dampened her good mood when he shook his head. “Ulric will have your old chamber. Justin will sleep with the other soldiers.”
“But he’s my brother,” she argued. “Shouldn’t he . . .”
She gave up her argument when his hand covered hers and he started squeezing. Hugh was watching them, and Nicholaa decided her husband didn’t want her to argue in front of him.
“We will discuss this later,” she announced with a smile in Hugh’s direction.
“No, we won’t,” Royce replied. “The matter is settled.”
He squeezed her left hand again. She smiled sweetly up at him as she placed her right hand on top of his and gave him a good squeeze. Surprised by her boldness, he almost smiled.
“I’m leaving for London tomorrow,” Hugh announced. “I’m hoping for one last game of chess this evening, Nicholaa.”
“Will you be upset when I beat you again?” she asked.
Hugh grinned. At first she thought it was because she’d teased him about being upset. Then she realized he was watching the silent tug-of-war she was having with her husband. She kept trying to pull her hand away, and Royce wasn’t letting her.
“I never get upset, Nicholaa,” Hugh announced. “It won’t matter, anyway, for I plan to win this game. I’ve just been toying with you until now. Since I’m leaving in the morning, I’ve decided to beat you soundly. You’d best prepare yourself to be upset.”
She laughed at his arrogance. Royce smiled. “I hate to disappoint you, Hugh,” he interjected. “But Nicholaa’s going to be busy after dinner. She and I are going to have a discussion. Aren’t we?”
He squeezed both her hands to let her know he didn’t want an argument. Nicholaa didn’t like the look in his eyes or the set of his jaw. It was the look he always wore when he was about to lecture her.
Hugh didn’t want to be denied this one last opportunity to play chess with Nicholaa. “I’m not above pleading,” he told Royce.
Nicholaa thought the baron looked like a child whose sugar treat had just been taken away. She didn’t want his last night to be a disappointment.
“I could play one quick game,” she told Royce. “It wouldn’t take me any time at all to humiliate Hugh. You could give me your lecture while we play, husband.”