Nicholaa understood exactly what he meant, but she didn’t want to talk about it. She started to turn away, but Royce grabbed the back of her neck. “I will not allow you to deceive yourself. Thurston is going to resist until he dies. If he comes back here, I’ll have to kill him.”
“But what about Ulric?” she cried out. “Thurston will have to come back to see his son. You cannot mean to—”
Royce forced her head down by applying gentle pressure on the back of her neck. At the same time, he sealed her protest with a long kiss. He thought only to turn her attention, but her lips went all soft and willing on him and she tasted so incredibly good that he couldn’t seem to stop. His mouth was hot, open, demanding. His tongue sank deep inside. She liked that. Her sexy little moan told him so. God, he wanted her. His tongue slid in and out again and again in an erotic rhythm that made him ache for more. He couldn’t get close enough to her. His one hand held the nape of her neck while his other hand gripped her backside, and he pushed up against her heat with his arousal.
She was out of breath when he finally released her. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath, either. He stared at her mouth. Her lips were red, swollen, enticing. He rubbed his thumb across her lower lip. He could feel his heart slamming inside his chest. He took several deep breaths to calm his thoughts.
“Now you will listen to me,” he instructed in a husky voice. “Thurston won’t come back. Your brother is sending someone from his wife’s family to get Ulric. If these guardians prove acceptable to me, I’ll let the baby go.”
“No.” She tried to push herself away from him.
“Yes.” He threw one leg over both of hers, trapping her. “Thurston is Ulric’s father. Because he is a member of your family, I’ve agreed. You will not argue with me, Nicholaa.”
“Just as I can’t argue with you about Justin? You won’t let me see my younger brother, and you won’t even give me a good reason why I can’t. You ask too much from me, Royce.”
“I ask only what I know you can give,” he countered. He kissed her brow. “My decision regarding Justin wasn’t meant to hurt you.”
“You are hurting me, though.”
“I see. And do you believe I’ve deliberately kept you away from Justin just to hurt you?”
“No,” she admitted with a sigh. “You would not be so petty.”
“Have you considered the possibility that my decision had nothing to do with you at all? That perhaps I was thinking about Justin’s welfare when I decided to keep you away from him.”
“Justin loves me. He needs me now.”
“You’re the last person he needs now, wife.”
The anger in his voice confused her. “I would never hurt Justin.”
“Aye, you would,” he answered. He shook his head in aggravation. “I specifically remember explaining that I would take on the responsibility of handling Justin when I went to the abbey to get you, Nicholaa. Didn’t you listen to a word I said?” he asked her.
“I don’t remember,” she muttered. “I was upset at the time. I cannot believe you think I’d deliberately hurt my own brother. I’ve always looked out for Justin. He’s the baby in the family, after all, and now that I’m—”
“Nicholaa, cease this tirade. Justin would mistake your concern for pity. Your compassion would humiliate him. He has enough to worry about now. I can’t let you add to his burden.”
“What does he have to worry about?”
Odd, but that arrogant statement soothed her. In her heart, she knew Royce was right about her brother, too. Justin was a proud man. It would be a humiliation for him to know she was watching him struggle. She wouldn’t be able to hide her worry, either. He’d see her concern and mistake it for pity.
Her husband was right about Thurston, too. By promising to allow Ulric to leave the household, he’d robbed her brother of a true reason for returning. She said a prayer that Thurston would realize his good fortune. She knew Royce wouldn’t give him a second chance to walk away.
Nicholaa put her head on Royce’s shoulder and closed her eyes. She felt inadequate now. She wasn’t one to wallow in self-pity, but everything had turned upside down since the Normans started running things.
Royce nudged her face up and kissed her forehead, then the bridge of her nose. “I want you, Nicholaa,” he whispered with a weary sigh. He suddenly rolled over, cushioning her in his arms. She was flat on her back now with her husband covering her from head to foot. “Go to sleep before I forget my good intentions.”
She didn’t want to sleep. She wanted, nay, she needed him to touch her. And while he was making love to her, she would pretend that he truly did love her. She didn’t even care that she would be lying to herself. The encounter with Thurston had been so painful, so heartbreaking. Royce could make her forget her torment, if only for a little while.
“You said you wanted me,” she whispered in a voice filled with embarrassment. “Don’t change your mind, Royce. I want you, too.”
He propped himself up on his elbows and smiled down at her. Her heart took notice of his devilish grin and started in pounding a wild beat. “How can you act so shy now, when you’ve been draped over me the last half hour without—”
“Our discussion made me forget I—I wasn’t wearing anything,” she stammered. “I’ve remembered now. Kiss me, please. You’ll make me forget to be shy. You did last night.”
He shook his head. The memory of their lovemaking last night made him ache to take her again. “I’d hurt you.”
“One kiss? Surely that wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I won’t stop, Nicholaa. My discipline will vanish.”
Her smile captivated him. “I like it when your discipline vanishes.”
She clasped his face in her hands and pulled him down to her. She kissed him, long and thoroughly. She didn’t get a bit of cooperation from him, though, and finally had to bite his lower lip to get his attention. It was just a gentle nip, but it worked. Royce growled low in his throat before his mouth settled on hers possessively. The kiss quickly took over all other considerations. It was blatantly carnal. She was being ravished. It was a glorious feeling. Royce made her burn for more and more of his touch. She clung to him and let her love and her passion for this man take over her mind and her soul.
Her response to him shattered his control. He tried to slow down, to give her time to want him as much as he wanted her, but he’d been hard for so long that it proved an impossible task.
He dragged his mouth away from hers, moved lower to kiss the valley between her breasts. He kissed the flat of her stomach, then moved lower still. She didn’t have time to protest until he was kissing the very heat of her. Her gasp of astonishment turned into a moan of raw pleasure.
It was decadant, this intimacy he forced on her. And wonderful. She cried out for more.
She tasted so good to him. His tongue stroked the sensitive nub hidden within the slick folds of flesh, then pressed high inside her. She felt as if she’d been hit by hot lightning. She arched up against him, demanding more of this sweet torture. “Royce, please,” she whimpered, begging him to give her the ecstasy she knew was there, just beyond her reach.
He couldn’t wait any longer. He knelt between her thighs, lifted her hips, and thrust deep into her. He stopped when he was fully embedded inside her. His voice was gritty with passion. “Am I hurting you? Tell me if I’m hurting you.”
She wasn’t capable of telling him anything. She arched up against him instead, digging her nails into his shoulders. The pressure building inside her was excruciating.
His hand moved down between their joined bodies. He stroked her with his fingers until the fire burning inside her was completely out of control. Her moans of pleasure told him she liked that. His mouth covered hers again. And then he began to move. He wasn’t at all gentle. He withdrew and then sank deep into her again. She was so hot, so wet, so wonderfully tight. His thrust became more powerful, more consuming. And when he finally felt her tighten around him and he knew she was about to find her own release, he poured his seed into her with a low groan of surrender.
She found her fulfillment at the very same moment. The splendor overwhelmed her. She held on to her husband and let the waves of ecstasy wash over her. She wasn’t afraid, even when she felt as though her mind had become separated from her body. She welcomed the glorious feeling, for she knew that Royce would keep her safe.
When the last tremor faded, she fell back against the blankets. She thought she’d died.
He thought he’d killed her. He collapsed on top of her with a grant of satisfaction. His sweet wife had taken all his strength. She’d taken away his willpower, too, for he couldn’t seem to make himself move away from her.
It took him several minutes to recover. Then he started worrying. “Nicholaa, are you all right?”
The concern in his voice warmed her heart. “Yes.”
He could hear the blush in her voice. God help him, he started laughing. The woman had been wild just a few minutes before, yet now was obviously embarrassed.
“Why are you amused?” she asked shyly. “Are you laughing at me?”
“You please me,” he told her. “That’s why I’m laughing.”
“It isn’t going to be all right, is it?”
The fear in her voice sobered him. “I’ll take care of you, Nicholaa,” he said, giving her a roundabout answer.
“Ulric has to leave.”
“Do you believe Thurston won’t come back once his son is gone?”
“It’s my hope,” he admitted.
“He’ll come for Justin.”
His sigh was long. He’d hoped she wouldn’t figure that out so soon. “Justin won’t leave with Thurston. Go to sleep, Nicholaa. It’s my duty to protect this family.”
Yes, it was his duty, and he wouldn’t turn his back on what he felt was right. But that duty had been thrust upon him when she chose him for her husband.
She wished with all her heart it wasn’t just duty that drove him. Nicholaa closed her eyes and tried not to weep. She had Royce’s protection, aye.
But she wanted his love.
Royce was standing near the buttery when Nicholaa walked into the great hall with little Ulric settled on her hip. An older soldier Nicholaa didn’t recognize stood next to her husband, speaking in a low voice. Both men were staring at the floor where the table had stood before Royce ordered it moved to the center of the room.
She decided to interrupt. She walked over to greet her husband. Ulric was babbling out his new sounds. When Royce turned to her, the baby reached out for him.
He took the baby, settled him up against his shoulder, then looked at his wife. She folded her hands in front of her and smiled at him.
“Good morning, husband.” She started to stretch up and kiss him, then thought better of it. There was a stranger with her husband. She didn’t want to embarrass him.
Royce didn’t seem to mind an audience, though. He grasped her chin, tilted her face up, and brushed his mouth over hers. Then he pulled her up against his side and turned back to the soldier.
“You were explaining, Thomas?” he prodded.
“I was explaining that it’s a miracle, my lord, that the floor hasn’t caved in yet. You can see how rotten the wood is here,” he added with a sweep of his hand.
Royce nodded. “Finish your inspection,” he ordered. “You will join us for dinner tonight. I’ll hear your evaluation then.”
The dark-haired soldier bowed to his baron but kept his gaze on Nicholaa. She nudged her husband. He finally remembered his manners and introduced Thomas to his wife. Nicholaa smiled at the soldier. Royce started counting. It only took Thomas the count of five to turn bright red. It was a damned odd affliction, but one from which all of his soldiers, old and young alike, seemed to suffer. All Nicholaa had to do was give a man her full attention, and he was turned from a mighty soldier to a soggy piece of milk toast.
It was shameful. Thomas was now tugging at his collar. He acted as though a heat wave had just poured over him.
Royce glared Thomas into moving, then shook his head in exasperation when the soldier tried to walk out of the hall without taking his gaze away from Nicholaa. He tripped over his own feet of course, then righted himself like an awkward pup and rushed out of the hall.
Nicholaa looked up at Royce. “The soldiers seem nervous around you,” she remarked. “I believe you intimidate them.”
He smiled. She decided he thought she’d given him a compliment. She was about to explain she hadn’t done any such thing when he turned her attention. “I don’t intimidate you, do I?”
“Almost as much as you intimidate Ulric,” she answered. She edged around her husband to look up at the baby and saw he was sucking on the latches of Royce’s tunic.
“Are you ready to tell me your plans for today?” he said.
“My plans?” She didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.
“I’ll hear your list of duties,” he patiently explained.
“What list of duties?”
“Nicholaa, didn’t you listen to what I said last night? I distinctly remember telling you that each and every morning you would outline for me your plans for the day.”
“Of course I listened,” she rushed out. “Don’t frown so. I do remember. I just don’t have any duties to tell you about. You’ve taken them all away.”
“Explain yourself,” he ordered.
She didn’t care for his curt tone of voice, but she didn’t remark on it. “If Justin and Ulric didn’t need me so much, I’d have no reason to stay here,” she announced. “You certainly don’t need me.”
Nicholaa hoped for a denial. He didn’t give it to her. “You’ve still to explain why you don’t have duties,” he reminded her.
She shrugged. “I thought I was supposed to run my household. However, you’ve taken over that duty. You gave the staff their orders yesterday, and I assume you will continue to do so.”
“That was an unusual circumstance,” he replied. “You slept the morning away, remember?”
She did remember. She turned her gaze to the floor. Her husband had kept her up most of the night making love to her. She remembered that, too. “I was very weary,” she said.