She fought like a wild woman. She bit her captor’s hand while she clawed at his arm with her nails.
“Damn it, Nicholaa. Stop it. It’s me, Thurston.”
She went limp against him. Her brother removed his hand and slowly turned her around to face him.
She couldn’t believe her brother was standing there in front of her. She was overwhelmed. And terrified. “Are you out of your mind, Thurston?” she whispered. “Why would you take such a risk? How did you get inside? Dear God, if they find you here . . .”
Thurston put his arms around her and hugged her tight. “I came up through one of the secret passages. I had to see you, Nicholaa. I needed to make certain you were all right. God, I almost killed you, didn’t I? When I saw the golden hair, I knew it was you my arrow had hit.”
The anguish in his voice tore at her heart. “It was only a scratch,” she lied.
“The Norman was in my sights, but at the last second you threw yourself in front of him. Why? Were you trying to protect him? It looked that way to me, but that explanation doesn’t make any sense. Did you know I was there?”
“I saw you, Thurston. I guessed Royce was your target.”
“Royce? Is that the name of your captor?”
“He isn’t my captor,” she whispered. “He’s my husband.”
Thurston didn’t take that news well. He squeezed her arms with such force she knew she would have bruises, and the look in his blue eyes indicated his fury. Nicholaa pried his hands away while she tried to think of a way to make him understand. “There is much to talk about,” she blurted out. “Don’t judge me until you know all the facts.”
She took her brother’s hand and led him across the chamber and away from the sleeping baby.
Moonlight filtered through the window. Nicholaa lit a candle and looked up at her brother.
Thurston was every bit as big as Royce. Her brother had blond hair and an unscarred complexion. He was a handsome man, even when he was scowling, but he looked tired.
“You can’t come back here,” Nicholaa said. “Royce has found most of the passages. It’s only a matter of time before he discovers the one that leads to this room, too. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Nicholaa, were you forced to marry this Norman?”
There wasn’t time to explain everything that had happened. Thurston would never understand, anyway. She took a deep breath. “No.”
He didn’t want to believe her. “You weren’t forced?”
“No,” she said again. “I chose him. If anyone was forced into this marriage, it was Royce, not me.”
Thurston leaned against the window ledge. A clap of thunder sounded in the distance. Nicholaa jumped. Her brother folded his arms across his chest and stared at her. “Why would you do such a thing?”
She knew the full truth would only fuel his anger. “If the circumstances were different, and if you could meet my husband, you’d know why I chose him. Royce is a good man, Thurston. He’s been very kind to me.”
“He’s a Norman.”
He spit that reminder out like a blasphemy. The fury in his voice made her stomach lurch. It made her angry, too. “The war’s over, Thurston. If you don’t kneel before William and give your pledge of loyalty, you’ll be killed. I beg you, please accept this. I don’t want you to die.”
He shook his head. “The war isn’t over,” he said. “The resistance is growing stronger with each passing day. It’s only a matter of time before we unseat the bastard Norman king.”
“You cannot believe this foolishness,” she cried out.
Thurston let out a weary sigh. “You’ve been isolated here, Nicholaa. You can’t understand. We have to leave now. My men are waiting outside the walls. Wrap Ulric in the blankets. Hurry, before the storm breaks.”
Nicholaa was too stunned to react at first. Thurston towered over her. She took a step back, then shook her head. “I can’t go with you. Royce is my husband now. I have to stay here.”
“You can’t mean to stay with him.”
The disgust in her brother’s voice made her stomach ache. She bowed her head. “I want to stay here.”
A long moment passed in silence. Thurston’s voice shook when he spoke again. “God have mercy on your soul, Nicholaa. You love him, don’t you?”
It wasn’t until that very moment, when she was actually confronted with the truth, that she acknowledged it in her mind. “Yes, I love him.”
Sickened by her confession, her brother lashed out, slapping her hard across the face. The blow almost toppled her over. Nicholaa staggered, then quickly recovered. Her face burned with pain, but she didn’t cry out. She simply stared up at her brother and waited to see what he would do next.
He had never before raised his hand against her. Thurston had always had a terrible temper, but he’d been reasonable, too. It was the war, she told herself, that had turned him into a stranger.
“You’ve become a traitor,” he said.
Those words hurt more than the blow. Nicholaa’s eyes filled with tears. She desperately tried to think of a way to get through to him. “I love you, Thurston,” she said. “And I’m afraid for you. Your hate is eating your heart. Think of your son. Ulric needs you. Forget this sinful pride and consider his future.”
He shook his head. “My son has no future with the Normans,” he muttered. “Where is Justin? Is he still at the abbey?”
The change in topics infuriated her. Did his son mean so little to him that he could so easily dismiss his duty to Ulric?
“Answer me, Nicholaa,” he ordered. “Where is Justin?”
Nicholaa reached out to touch Thurston’s arm. He pushed her hand away. “Please don’t be like this,” she whispered. “Justin wanted to die, Thurston, but Royce wouldn’t let him.”
Her brother showed no reaction to her fervent words. “Where exactly is he?”
“He’s quartered with the other soldiers.”
“God, he must hate that humiliation.”
“Royce promised to help him.”
Thurston shook his head. “Give Justin a message for me. Tell him I haven’t forgotten him. I’ll be back . . . soon.”
She didn’t realize she’d screamed that denial. The sound bounced off the walls. Ulric flinched and started whimpering. Nicholaa rushed over to the crib and gently patted the baby’s back. Ulric put his thumb in his mouth and closed his eyes.
“Get away from him,” Thurston ordered. “I don’t want you to touch my son.”
His repulsion made her feel like a leper. She straightened away from the crib and turned to look at her brother.
Ulric might have gone back to sleep if Royce hadn’t thrown the door open then. The hinges held, though just barely, and the door bounced against the wall twice before settling.
Nicholaa jumped. Ulric bellowed.
Royce filled the doorway. His legs were braced apart and his hands were fisted at his sides. It was a fighting stance, frightening, too, but it was the look in his eyes that terrified her.
Nicholaa was safe. Royce had just started up the stairs when he’d heard her scream. He’d started running then. His heart felt as though it had stopped. He pictured every foul possibility in his mind, and by the time he reached Ulric’s chamber terror consumed him.
She was all right. He stared at his wife until that fact had registered.
Nicholaa deliberately kept the left side of her face hidden from her husband. She could tell from the cold look in his eyes that he was already furious. If he knew her brother had struck her, he might forget he was such a patient man and become as unreasonable as Thurston.
She was determined to prevent a disaster, but she didn’t know whom to placate first. The baby was still fretting, even though a heavy silence had descended on the room. Ulric wasn’t in jeopardy, however. He was safe. Royce might not be. Thurston suddenly took a step forward.
She stood in the center of the chamber between the two adversaries. Thurston and Royce were both staring at her now. She turned to look at one, then the other.
And then she ran across the room—to her husband.
She threw herself into his arms. “Please be patient,” she whispered. “Please.”
The distress in her voice cut through his rage. He gave her a quick squeeze, then shoved her behind his back and focused his full attention on his enemy.
Nicholaa’s brother took another step toward him.
Royce leaned against the door frame. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at the Saxon. His casual attitude confused Thurston.
“I expected you sooner, Thurston.”
Royce made that comment in such a mild tone of voice that Nicholaa’s brother was pushed a little more off center. He quickly recovered. “Did Nicholaa tell you about the secret passageways?”
Royce shook his head. He could feel his wife twisting the back of his tunic. He knew she was terrified, and he decided then not to prolong her pain. “Make up your mind, Thurston,” he ordered. His voice had gone hard.
Nicholaa tried to move to her husband’s side. He shoved her back behind him. His gaze never left Thurston’s face. “The choice is yours,” he said. “Either hand over your sword and give me your oath of fealty, or . . .”
“Or what?” Thurston demanded. “Or die, Norman? I’d kill you first.”
“No!” Nicholaa shouted. She felt someone’s hands on her shoulders, turned, and saw Lawrence standing behind her.
“Baron?” Lawrence said.
Royce didn’t take his attention away from Thurston. “Take my wife to our chamber, Lawrence. Stay there with her.”
The vassal had to pull Nicholaa’s hands away from the back of Royce’s tunic. “No!” she cried out again. “Royce, the baby . . . Please let me take Ulric.”
Now it was Thurston who shouted his denial. “You will leave my son where he is, Nicholaa. You’ve chosen your path.”
She let go of Royce then. Her shoulders were rigid when she backed out of the chamber.
Royce took a step forward. Lawrence reached around Nicholaa and pulled the door closed.
Thurston took another step toward Royce. “You should have allowed your soldiers inside this room.”
Thurston smiled. “To protect you. I’ve got you all to myself now, you bastard. I’m going to kill you.”
Royce shook his head. “No, you’re not going to kill me, Thurston. God’s truth, I would like you to try.” He paused to let out a sigh. “Then I could kill you. I would derive a great deal of satisfaction from that, but my wife would be upset.”
“She betrayed her own family.”
Royce raised an eyebrow. The effort of controlling his anger was becoming more difficult with each passing minute. “When did Nicholaa become a traitor?” he asked in a mild, thoroughly controlled voice. “Was it before or after you abandoned her?”
“Abandoned her? You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? You left her to survive on her own,” Royce countered. “Then you sent your son to her to add to her burden. She went to great lengths to keep Ulric safe, but you don’t give a damn about any sacrifices she made, do you? Yes, you did abandon her.”
“I was needed in the north,” Thurston muttered.
“Ah, yes, the north,” Royce drawled out. “Isn’t that where you left your brother to die?”
Thurston’s face turned blotchy red. His hatred for the Norman consumed him. There wasn’t any room in his mind for reason. “I was told Justin was dead.”
Something in his voice told Royce he wasn’t telling the full truth. “No,” he said. “You were told he was injured. When you heard what the injury was, you left him to die. That’s what really happened, isn’t it, Thurston? Justin was useless to you with only one hand to use in defense of your cause.”
Thurston was too shaken by the information Royce had gathered to mask his reaction. The Norman was trying to make him feel responsible for his brother’s plight. “I continued to fight because I wanted to avenge my brother.”
Royce was sickened. He’d been able to put together only a few of the pieces of the puzzle. He had simply guessed about Justin being left for dead. Now Thurston’s defense of his vile behavior told him he’d been right. The bastard really had left his brother to die.
“Justin knew, didn’t he?” Royce asked.
Thurston shrugged. “He understood. Has my brother also turned traitor?” he asked. “Did he tell you what happened? Or did Nicholaa get to him? In his weakened condition, did she somehow convince him he’d be better off with the Normans?”
Royce didn’t respond to the questions. “Tell me this,” he ordered. “Do you condemn Nicholaa because she married me or because she’s still alive?”
“Her own admission damned her.”
She told me she chose you,” Thurston muttered. “She wasn’t coerced. She’s letting you touch her, isn’t she? God, my own sister in bed with a Norman. I wish now my arrow had pierced her heart.”
Royce’s control snapped. Thurston didn’t have time to prepare. Royce moved too quickly. His fist slammed into the Saxon’s face before Thurston could protect himself. The blow sent him reeling backwards into the fireplace. The mantel was torn free from the stone and fell to the floor as Thurston staggered to recover.
Royce had broken his nose. He wished it had been his neck. The baby’s shrill screams helped Royce regain control of his temper. He glanced at the crib to make certain Ulric was still safe, then kicked open the panel built into the wooden wall.
“I allowed you entrance, Thurston, because I wanted to talk to you. I want the name of the man who threatened my wife when she was in London. You’re going to tell me who it was before you leave here.”
Thurston shook his head. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he muttered. He wiped the blood away from his mouth with the back of his hand. “We don’t have anyone in London . . . yet,” he added. “Soon, however, we’ll take back what belongs to us. There won’t be a Norman left—”
“Spare me your political speeches,” Royce interjected. “I want the truth. Give me the Saxon’s name, Thurston, or I’ll beat it out of you.”