Royce nodded. King William frowned on the game, for he felt it took away from the knights’ primary responsibility of training for his army. Royce occasionally made an exception simply because he loved to play the brutal game. The objective was to move the leather-covered ball from one end of the field to the other. There was only one rule: the knights couldn’t use their hands. The game always turned bloody, of course, which was yet another reason everyone loved to play.
“You’ll lead one team, Lawrence, and I’ll take the other,” Royce announced. “We’ll start as soon as I’ve talked to Nicholaa.”
He and Lawrence turned to leave. Ingelram nudged Justin, and then the two of them hurried forward to block their baron’s path.
“Baron, why must we watch?” Ingelram blurted out.
Royce raised an eyebrow over that question. Then he shrugged. “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to,” he answered. “You’re free to do whatever you want this afternoon.”
“What Ingelram means to say, Baron,” Justin explained, “is that we don’t want to watch; we want to play. We have enough men for a team of our own, and we would welcome the opportunity to defeat the Hawks.”
“They’d be insulted if we made them play against Doves,” Lawrence interjected.
Justin grinned. “Not if you and the baron joined our team.”
Royce laughed. “That’s up to your commander,” he announced with a nod in Lawrence’s direction.
His vassal was in the mood to be accommodating. He gave the unit permission. The soldiers immediately rushed toward the area they would use for their field. They were already planning their strategy.
“Did you notice?” Lawrence asked Royce when they were alone.
“Justin has not only become their spokesman,” he explained. “He also considers himself one of them now. Don’t you remember how he was when he first started? Everything was theirs, not his. A good change in attitude, wouldn’t you say?”
It was a simple statement, but Royce reacted as though he’d just been struck. Hell, he thought to himself, he’d been acting just like Justin. From the beginning the holding was his, not Nicholaa’s; the servants belonged to him, not her . . . and after a time she’d finally conceded.
He slapped Lawrence on the shoulder. “You’ve made me realize an error,” he told his vassal. “Thank you.”
Royce didn’t give his vassal further explanation. He would go up to the keep to make certain Nicholaa wasn’t too upset by what she’d seen, but after supper he’d sit her down and explain the changes he wanted. He wouldn’t lecture her. No, no, he never lectured. He wouldn’t stop talking, though, until he was certain she understood.
His wife had fully recovered from her initial reaction to seeing Justin fight with Royce. Her brother’s wonderful smile still lingered in her mind. She had rushed inside the keep and hurried up the steps. She wanted to get to the bedchamber before she deliberately and blatantly broke rule number three.
Aye, she was going to weep. They would be tears of joy, but Royce wouldn’t understand that if he happened to catch her.
“Where are you going, my lady?” Clarise called out to her. “I’ve a question to ask you about supper.”
“Not now, please,” Nicholaa called back. “I’ll be back down in a few minutes. You may ask me then.”
Clarise didn’t want to wait. Cook was already peevish, and Clarise didn’t want the woman’s mood to sour any more than it already had. If that happened, everyone would suffer because supper would be ruined.
The servant rushed toward the steps and stopped Nicholaa just as she reached the landing. “It won’t take but a minute of your time,” she called out. “Cook wants to know if she should prepare the sweet berry tarts or the sugared apples. You won’t be getting either unless you let her know right away,” she warned.
Nicholaa leaned one hip against the railing while she considered her options. “I believe we’ll celebrate tonight. Have Cook prepare both.”
Nicholaa turned to go down the corridor, just as the wood and the railing gave way.
Clarise screamed. Nicholaa didn’t have time to do more than gasp in surprise. She grabbed hold of a ledge as she started to fall and held on for dear life. The railing crashed to the floor below. Wood splintered in every direction. Clarise jumped back to get out of the way. She finally quit screaming, though, and went to help her mistress. “Dear God above, hold tight. I’m coming up to help you. Don’t look down, milady. You’ll only panic if you do.”
“No, don’t come up here,” Nicholaa shouted. “You’ll fall through. Get my husband. Hurry, please. I can’t hold on much longer.”
The servant immediately changed directions. She’d just reached the double doors when they were flung open and Royce strode inside.
Clarise didn’t have to explain. Royce took it all in at once, the splintered wood scattered on the floor in front of him, a pair of feet dangling above. His heart almost failed him. He rushed forward to position himself below Nicholaa.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
His roar actually calmed her. Then his outrageous question penetrated her mind. God’s truth, she almost laughed. “What do you think I’m doing?” she called out. “I’m hanging from the ledge, you daft man.”
Royce heard the threat of amusement in her voice, then decided that wasn’t possible. His wife had to be terrified.
“Let go, Nicholaa, and bend your knees. I’ll catch you,” he said in a calm, reasonable voice.
“Let go now, sweetheart.”
Nicholaa was so surprised by the endearment that she forgot to worry. She let go and simply waited for her husband to catch her.
He barely buckled under the weight as he caught her in his arms and held her close. Then he backed up several steps as a precaution against more of the wood crashing down on top of the two of them.
He was shaking by the time he’d carried his wife into the great hall. Her near disaster had left him reeling. She could have broken her neck.
“You will not go upstairs again, Nicholaa. Do you hear me?”
He was squeezing bruises into her arms when he issued that command. She would have given him her agreement immediately, but then he distracted her by kicking a stool out of his path. He sat down in a high-backed chair near the hearth and took several deep breaths. Nicholaa realized then how upset her husband was. Since he hadn’t raised his voice, his distress was a bit of a revelation to her. “You were worried about me?” she asked.
He scowled to let her know how foolish he thought that question was. “I’m going to have everything moved down here before this day is over. Don’t you dare argue with me, Nicholaa. My mind’s made up. You will not go abovestairs again.”
She nodded. “You were worried.”
One word, spoken in a harsh, clipped voice that absolutely thrilled her. He did care about her. His heart was slamming inside his chest, another telling indication. She heard it loud and clear when he roughly pressed her head against his chest.
The man really needed to calm down, she decided. The danger was over now. Nicholaa decided to turn his attention a bit.
“Royce, you really should tear your home down and build another one. I wonder why you hesitate.”
He suddenly wanted to throttle her. “It isn’t my home, and it isn’t yours,” he announced, carefully enunciating each word.
“Then whose is it?” she asked, thoroughly confused.
He lifted her off his lap and stood up. “Ours,” he snapped. “Everything is ours, wife—not mine, not yours, but ours. Got that?”
She nodded. Damn, he never wanted to have another scare like that for the rest of his life. He roughly grabbed her shoulders and kissed her. Then he turned and walked out of the hall.
The need to pound his fists into something solid nearly overwhelmed him. A game of ball was just what he needed now. Once he’d knocked a few of his soldiers to the ground, perhaps he’d feel better. Then he walked past the pieces of the railing and knew that hitting a few men wouldn’t be enough. He’d have to fell the whole contingent.
Nicholaa wasn’t sure what had just happened. She thought it might be significant, this change in her husband’s attitude about ownership, but he’d acted so furious that he’d only confused her all the more.
Not ten minutes later a group of soldiers came inside. Within an hour they had emptied the upstairs. They placed Royce’s bed in the corner of the great hall, though only after Thomas had checked to make certain the floor would support the weight. They placed Nicholaa’s chest next to the headboard. The men took the rest of the furniture outside. Thomas stood by Nicholaa’s side, watching. He explained that everything would be stored in huts until the baron made further decisions.
Nicholaa was disheartened over the lack of privacy. She asked Thomas if it was possible to fashion a screen around the bed, and he promised to accomplish that task before the day was over.
The soldier kept his word, too. Sturdy screens, made of panels of flat brown wood, were positioned around the corner.
Nicholaa didn’t see Royce again until dinner. She was given quite a surprise when Justin and three other young soldiers walked into the hall right behind her husband. She was so pleased to see her brother again that she almost made a scene. She ran to hug her brother, but Royce intercepted her. He anchored her to his side by putting his arm around her shoulders.
When she got a good look at her brother, she was appalled by his condition. Justin’s face was covered with cuts and bruises. Then she noticed that the other soldiers were in much the same shape.
Royce and Lawrence had a fair number of nicks and bruises, too. It took Nicholaa a good ten minutes to get a straight answer to how the men had come by the injuries. It took her even longer to accept the explanation that it had only been a game.
She tried not to pamper Justin during supper. She knew that would embarrass him. She also tried to pretend she was enjoying their stories of the brutal game they had played.
The four young soldiers, Justin included, ate like starving men, and when they weren’t devouring the food, they were nudging one another and boasting.
They smiled, too. So did Justin. Real smiles. She looked at the four men. They were all quite alike, and Justin was just one of them now. He fit in. Aye, he belonged.
Oh, God, she was going to break that damn rule number three again if she didn’t get hold of herself. The soldiers would never understand if she suddenly burst into tears. Royce wouldn’t understand, either.
She needed to get out of the hall before she disgraced herself. Fortunately the men were so absorbed in recounting their moments of glory that they hardly noticed when she left them to their victories and went outside. She circled the courtyard, then walked down to the lower bailey.
There was so much to be thankful for. God had taken such good care of her when he’d sent Royce to her.
Justin now had a future. Royce had given him that. Yes, there was much to be thankful for. She smiled then. If someone had dared to tell her a year ago that she would one day be hopelessly in love with a Norman, she would have been highly insulted. Now she felt blessed.
Royce cared about her, too. And that was enough for her. She would continue to be just the kind of wife he wanted. It was the least she could do to repay his kindness and his patience.
Nicholaa finished weeping and walked back up the hill. She spotted her husband when she reached the crest of the courtyard. Royce was standing on the top step watching her.
In the moonlight he resembled a giant statue. She stopped in the center of the courtyard. “I’m supposed to stand here with our children,” she said, “and wait for your return.”
“My mother always did.” She took a step closer.
“Was this a specific duty?”
“Just a habit,” she answered. “One my father liked.”
“What other habits did they have?”
She took another step toward him. “After supper every night they would play chess.”
“Then we will do the same,” he announced.
“But after dinner you always discuss the next day’s plans with your soldiers,” she reminded him.
“I’ll do that before dinner,” he answered. “You and I will play chess together after.”
“Why would you adopt this habit?”
“Traditions should be continued, or so my wife told me on our wedding night when she was trying to get me to kiss her.”
She smiled again. “Your wife now admits that was her true motive.”
He nodded. His expression turned serious. “I would like you to admit something else to me,” he said, his voice gruff. “Admit you love me, Nicholaa. I would like to hear you say the words.”
Her eyes immediately filled with tears. She bowed her head so he wouldn’t see how upset she was. “I do not wish to become a burden to you.”
Royce went to his wife. He gathered her into his arms and held her tight. “Telling me you love me will make you a burden to me?” he asked, certain he couldn’t have heard correctly.
He laughed then, a full, rich sound that filled the air around them. “You aren’t ever going to make sense to me, are you?”
“I do love you.”
He hadn’t realized until she gave him the words how much he really needed to hear them. It was a miracle, this precious gift. He was humbled by it. A part of him, the thoroughly logical part, couldn’t understand how she could possibly love him.
She was his miracle. His face was grossly disfigured by scars, but she noticed only the silver flecks in what she called his handsome eyes. He’d always thought of himself as big, awkward, but she praised him because he was so wonderfully tall and strong. Nicholaa seemed blind to the truth, and he would thank God for that flaw for the rest of his life.
He hadn’t said a word to her. She’d waited, hoping, praying, but he hadn’t given her the words she so desperately needed to hear.
“Sweetheart, tell me why you think you’re a burden?”
She burst into tears. “Because you had no choice about marrying me.”
He couldn’t quit smiling. He tucked her head under his chin so she wouldn’t see his expression. He didn’t want her to think he was laughing at her. He didn’t want her to notice how misty his eyes were, either. But damn, the joy inside him was suddenly overwhelming.