“A what?” She sounded incredulous.
“A map,” he said again. “Do not interrupt me when I’m instructing you.”
He didn’t raise his voice when he gave that command. He never raised his voice, she suddenly realized. Royce was a controlled, disciplined man. In truth, she couldn’t help admiring his restraint. He was kind, too.
She caught a few more snatches of his lecture before she started daydreaming again and realized that everything he said was meant to ease her adjustment to her new status. He wanted her to be happy. That fact became more and more evident the longer he lectured.
The man cared about her—perhaps almost as much as she cared about him. Aye, she did care. She wouldn’t have been sitting there acting so thoroughly interested in his every word if she didn’t care just a little. She was behaving the way her mother used to behave, she realized. Papa loved to retell the same old tired stories again and again and her mother had pretended to be vastly amused each and every time he’d finished.
Royce liked to lecture her. And now she was pretending to be vastly interested.
The traditions were continuing.
A warm feeling filled her. Her mother would be proud of her, for just as she’d protected her husband’s feelings, Nicholaa was trying to protect Royce’s.
“And so, wife, I believe it would be a good idea for you to outline for me the duties you plan to undertake each day,” Royce concluded. “It’s yet another way we will be able to achieve order in our daily lives.”
“Do you mean to say you want me to stand before you every morning and tell you what I plan to do that day?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “But you aren’t leaving any room for surprises, husband,” she pointed out.
He looked appalled. “No, of course not. For God’s sake, Nicholaa, haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?”
She guessed he’d already covered the topic of spontaneous actions. She didn’t dare smile. “Oh, yes,” she rushed out, trying to placate him. “I’ve learned quite a lot. I just wasn’t certain how you felt about . . . surprises.”
The excuse sounded pitifully lame to her, but Royce looked appeased. She did smile then. “Are you almost finished? It’s getting late, and Clarise promised to have a bath ready for me before bed this evening. I don’t want the water to get cold.”
He gave her permission to leave. Her legs were stiff when she walked to the entrance. Lord, how long had she been sitting there?
She turned to say good night to Royce and noticed he was replacing the chess set on the mantel. She waited until he turned around. “Good night, Royce.”
He looked at her for a long minute. “You’re sleeping with me tonight.”
The harshness in his voice didn’t leave room for argument, but it didn’t frighten her either. Nay, he was only letting her know he was determined.
But then, so was she. It was time their marriage became real in every sense. It didn’t matter that she was a little afraid. In her heart she knew Royce wouldn’t hurt her.
The servants had placed a wooden tub in her chamber. Nicholaa took a long bath, all the while reminding herself that everything would be all right. She was even able to smile when she realized she was lecturing herself.
Clarise hovered about, acting like a substitute mother, but once the servant believed Nicholaa understood exactly what was going to happen, she let the embarrassing topic drop.
Nicholaa hadn’t told Clarise the full truth, however. She had only learned bits and pieces of information over the years about the marriage act. Her mother had only spoken in generalities, too.
Still, Royce would know what to do . . . if she ever gathered enough courage to leave her room and go to his, she thought to herself.
Clarise finished brushing her hair, then helped her put on her robe. “I don’t believe he bedded you proper last night,” the servant whispered. “You would have felt a bit of tenderness if he had.”
Nicholaa nodded. “I don’t believe he touched me,” she whispered back. “It wouldn’t have been honorable. I’m starting to understand how my husband’s mind works, you see. He wouldn’t have touched me when I was in such a . . . vulnerable condition.”
Nicholaa tied the belt of her robe. She wore a white cotton sleeping gown underneath. She’d started to put on a heavy chemise first, but Clarise told her that wouldn’t do.
The walk from her chamber to his took forever. She didn’t hesitate, though. She opened the door and hurried inside.
Royce was kneeling in front of the hearth. He was barefoot, bare-chested, too. The display of muscles across his broad shoulders was impressive when he lifted a fat log and added it to the fire.
She stood there watching him for a long minute. She said a prayer of thanksgiving that he still had his pants on. She didn’t want to start the night blushing. Royce would notice.
When she felt a draft around her ankles, she closed the door, then turned around to find Royce leaning against the mantel, staring at her.
She tried to smile.
He didn’t smile back. “What are you thinking about, husband?” she asked, worrying over his dark, almost brooding expression.
“I was thinking that I’m married to a very beautiful woman.”
Her heart started in pounding. “Thank you,” she replied. She took a step forward. “Do you know, I believe that’s the very first compliment you’ve ever given me.”
He shook his head. “No, there was one other.”
“I told you I thought you were cunning when you disguised yourself as a nun. Don’t you remember? It was when we met again at the abbey.”
She smiled. “I do remember, but I didn’t consider that comment a compliment.”
“Why not? It was more substantial than my comment about your appearance.”
She was thoroughly confused. “Why was it more substantial?”
“A woman can’t do anything about her appearance,” he said. “Either she’s pretty or she isn’t. But her character is quite another matter. Now do you understand?”
“I understand you’re trying to confuse me,” she announced. “And I’m still pleased you find me attractive. It doesn’t matter which compliment has more substance.”
She was also pleased that her voice wasn’t shaky. Her legs were. She didn’t want Royce to know she was a little afraid and very embarrassed about what was going to happen. She was his wife now, not some silly little chit. Why, she didn’t even think she was blushing now.
Her face was as red as fire. Royce let out a long sigh. Nicholaa was desperately trying to hide her fear from him, but even from across the room he could see how her shoulders trembled. She was wringing the belt of her robe into knots, another telling indication she was frightened.
“Should I latch the door?” she asked.
She nodded. She kicked off her shoes and walked over to the bed, forgetting in her haste that the door was still unlocked.
Nicholaa stopped, suddenly so nervous she couldn’t stop rambling. “A compliment about one’s nature is more important because a person has to choose how to behave, whilst a compliment about one’s appearance doesn’t mean overly much because there is no choice involved there. You didn’t bed me last night, did you?”
It took him a minute to make the switch in topics. “No, I didn’t bed you last night.”
She turned her attention to taking her robe off. “I knew you hadn’t,” she whispered. “Still, I needed to ask.”
She folded the robe just so, then placed it on the foot of the bed.
“Do you want me to get under the covers now?”
“Do you want to?”
She looked down at the bed, then up at Royce, then back to the bed again. A frown marred her brow. Royce thought she acted as though he’d just asked her to solve all the problems of the world.
“I don’t believe I want to get into bed just yet,” she finally answered.
She turned to frown at him. “Why are you being so agreeable?”
He grinned. “I was told I could catch more vermin with sweet than with sour.”
“Who would say such a ridiculous thing?”
“You said it,” he answered. “Last night.”
He had such an adorable smile that a little of her fear eased away. “I was sotted,” she answered. She threaded her fingers through her hair and tried to concentrate on the conversation. “I’m ashamed of my behavior. I promise you it won’t happen again. You did notice I drank only water with my supper tonight, didn’t you?”
He laughed. “I’m noticing you don’t sound at all contrite,” he drawled out. “That’s what I’m noticing.”
She smiled. She was starting to relax, for Royce didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to bed her. Perhaps he knew she was a bit nervous and was deliberately giving her time to rid herself of her fear.
That possibility made the rest of her fears vanish. She walked over to stand in front of him. The fact that he towered over her didn’t seem to bother her now. His bare chest bothered her, though. Lord, he was a handsome devil. A warm knot settled in her stomach. His skin was bronzed, and he was powerfully built. His upper arms were sleek with roped muscles, and his chest was magnificent. A sprinkling of dark curly hair covered most of his chest, then tapered into a narrow line that disappeared below the waistband of his pants. She felt a little breathless just looking at him. It was a foolish reaction, she told herself, because she’d seen him without his tunic several times now.
Still, he hadn’t been thinking about bedding her then. He was now.
Nicholaa noticed a long, thin scar running down the center of his chest. She touched the mark near the top, then followed the line with her fingertips. The muscles in his stomach contracted when her fingers touched him there.
“This blow should have killed you,” she whispered. “You’ve led a charmed life, Royce, to have suffered so many injuries and still survived.”
He was having difficulty concentrating on what she was saying to him. Her fingers were rubbing circles on his stomach. The feathery caress made his heartbeat quicken.
She liked touching him. The heat from his skin surprised her. He was hard all over, yet warm, too. His body reflected his spirit, she decided. Royce was ruthless in battle, but he was being gentle with her. Yes, the warrior’s body protected a kind heart.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him.
He put his arms around her and pulled her even closer, her cheek resting against his chest. “Royce? Will you explain what’s going to happen?”
The shyness in her voice made him smile. He kissed the top of her head. He wanted her mouth. “No.”
She leaned back so she could look into his eyes. “You aren’t going to tell me?”
He put his hand under her chin so she couldn’t hide her face from him, then slowly leaned down. When he was just a breath away from her mouth he said, “I’ll show you instead, Nicholaa.”
She didn’t have time to wonder if that was a good idea. Royce caught her full attention when his mouth settled on hers. The kiss wasn’t at all gentle. Nay, it was hot, wet, and blatantly possessive. He used his thumb to force her mouth to open wider for him, and then his tongue swept inside.
God, she tasted good. He couldn’t get enough of her. His hands stroked her back, then moved lower until he was cupping her backside. He lifted her up and pulled her tight against his arousal.
Nicholaa tried to move away when she felt his hardness against her, but Royce wouldn’t let her. He tightened his hold. His mouth slanted over hers again and again, until her resistance was forgotten and she was passionately kissing him back.
The sound of their breathing—his raspy, hers shallow—mingled with the pounding of their hearts.
He kept up the gentle attack for long minutes. He was determined to go easy, to savor each and every caress. When Nicholaa was ready for deeper intimacy, she would let him know.
Royce’s legs were braced apart, and he continued to lean back against the mantel as he casually ravaged his wife’s sweet mouth. It didn’t take him long to rid her of her shyness. She began to caress his arms, his shoulders, his back. Then she moved restlessly against him. She cuddled his hardness between her h*ps and pressed against him. When she began to move back and forth, deliberately rubbing against him, his composure vanished. He held her backside and made her stop the torment. It was too soon for him to lose control, he reminded himself, but if his innocent wife didn’t stop her sweet torture, he might forget his vow to go slowly.
His hands stroked her shoulders, then brushed the sides of her breasts. She shivered with pleasure and reached up to put her arms around his neck. It wasn’t long before she was clinging to him. He finally tore his mouth away from her, then began to nibble on the side of her neck. Her head fell to one side to give him better access. His teeth tugged on her earlobe. She let out a ragged moan.
Lord, how she pleased him. He’d never taken this much time to woo a woman before, but then, he’d never taken a virgin to his bed, either. Nicholaa was his wife, and he was determined to make this first union perfect for her. Her own uninhibited response to his touch made him feel as though it was his first time, too. His hands shook, and the ache in his groin had become painful.
“Nicholaa, take your nightgown off.”
He had to pull her arms away from his neck before she could obey him. She bowed her head, turned, and slowly walked over to the side of the bed. She was a little surprised her legs would support her. His kisses had left her feeling weak, light-headed. Her heart pounded a thundering beat when she pulled her gown up over her head. She hurriedly tossed the garment on the foot of the bed, lifted the covers, got under them.
Royce stripped off the rest of his garments, his gaze on Nicholaa all the while. She was still nervous. Her eyes were tightly closed, and she wouldn’t look at him. His nudity obviously embarrassed her. He smiled at his wife’s innocence while he snuffed out the candle flame. A soft glow from the hearth cast a golden light over Nicholaa’s face. Nothing else was visible to him, because she’d pulled the covers up to her chin.
He went to her side of the bed and pulled the covers aside. He didn’t give her time to shield herself or move away from him. He came down on top of her, bracing his arms on either side of her shoulders so his weight wouldn’t crush her.