“I don’t want him to participate,” she cried out. “It’s too soon. He needs further instruction.”
“Nicholaa, look at me,” he commanded.
When she looked up, he saw the tears in her eyes. He let out a long sigh. “Do you have faith in me?” he asked.
She was surprised by that question, and yet after a minute or two of reasoning, she understood why he’d asked it. That was what it all came down to, wasn’t it? Either she believed in her husband or she didn’t.
Royce stood by his wife’s side and patiently waited for her to sort it all out in her mind. He was a little irritated when she didn’t immediately answer him. He understood her hesitation, however. Her fear was clouding her judgment. Still, he knew what her answer would be.
She finally nodded. “Yes, I do have faith in you.” She stared at the tabletop when she admitted that truth. Then she turned her gaze up to his so that he could see her frown. “And now you’re going to tell me I must also have complete faith in all your decisions, aren’t you?”
He gave her a smile. She couldn’t sit still for another minute. She stood up just as Royce sat down. “Do you believe that because I have faith in you I must also have faith in Justin?”
“No,” he answered. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at her. “You should, however, have complete faith in my judgment.”
God, how she hated it when he was so logical. They were talking about her brother, not an outsider, and for that simple reason she was letting her emotions control her thoughts.
“Why can’t it be undone?” she blurted out.
“That question doesn’t deserve an answer, wife.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I imagine Justin’s pleased with this honor, isn’t he?”
Royce nodded. He flashed a quick grin, then forced a serious expression when Nicholaa’s frown intensified. “Justin’s strutting around like a rooster now. Ingelram and Bryan also won the right to participate. They’re strutting, too.”
She wasn’t amused by the picture he’d painted. “They’re boys,” she cried out. “Royce, they could get killed.”
He shook his head. He would have pulled her onto his lap and comforted her if she hadn’t backed away from him. He decided she wasn’t quite ready to be soothed yet. She needed time to feel angry first.
“They’re men, Nicholaa. They’re young, yes, but still men, not boys.”
Nicholaa realized she was wringing her hands and immediately clasped them behind her back.
“Perhaps you’ll stop worrying after I’ve told you just how exceptional your brother was when he competed for his place,” Royce suggested.
She shrugged. He hid his smile. He knew she wanted to scream at him. She didn’t, though. She was trying to accept his decision, and that pleased him very much. She’d never seen Justin train with the others and couldn’t possibly know he’d developed into quite a warrior.
Royce knew, though. He’d been with Justin day in and day out, demanding perfection. Justin had measured up, the honor now belonged to him, and by God, despite Nicholaa’s resistance, Royce wouldn’t take that privilege away.
He patiently explained each test the soldiers were put through and told how Justin had met every challenge. In truth, he was fairly bursting with pride by the time he’d finished telling Nicholaa about the feats. And when he was done, he again told her it couldn’t be undone.
“This announcement caught me by surprise,” she announced. “I do have faith in you, and for that reason I assume you’ve considered every possibility. Do you believe the men who go up against my brother will fight fairly?”
“No,” he answered. “They’ll do whatever it takes to win, Nicholaa.”
“Even if that means trying to break Justin’s one hand to make him completely vulnerable? Even if they use their swords to try to cut his hand off?”
She was shaking with fear by the time she’d spoken those dark possibilities aloud. Royce leaned back in the chair and stared at her. “Even then,” he agreed.
Odd, but his casual agreement eased her fear just a little. He’d obviously thought about those possibilities, too.
She started pacing. “I imagine you’ve told Justin what to expect. You’ve surely warned him about Baron Guy’s soldiers.” Nicholaa didn’t wait for his agreement but continued. “Although you won’t admit it, you must be a bit worried. I’m worried, too, but I guess it doesn’t matter how we feel. We’ll have to keep our concern hidden from Justin.” She threaded her fingers through her hair, then blurted out, “Royce, if you doubt he’s completely ready, then help him.”
He was having difficulty following her. In the space of a few minutes she’d done a complete turnaround. She was now trying to persuade him not to worry.
She resumed her pacing. “You’ve given Justin back his pride,” she told him. “You can’t take that away now.”
Royce continued to listen to her reasons for accepting this decision and it suddenly dawned on him that Nicholaa wasn’t just repeating what he’d already told her.
She was actually lecturing him.
He waited until her pacing brought her close enough, then reached out and grabbed her. He settled her on his lap and kissed her.
“You please me, wife,” he announced gruffly.
“Will I please you when I tell you I won’t stop being afraid?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Because I know you won’t intervene, and I know you’ll hide your fear from your brother.”
She clasped his face. “Make certain he’s ready,” she whispered. “Teach him all the deceitful tricks they’ll use. If anyone knows how to fight unfairly, it’s you, husband.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Thank you . . . I think. That was a compliment, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “You didn’t fight fairly when you tricked me into leaving the abbey. Had I known then what a soft heart you had, I would have realized Ulric was safer with you than with anyone else in England. Yes, you used cunning then. It certainly wasn’t fair of you to trick me that way.”
He kissed her again, a long, wet, hot kiss that left them both shaking. Lawrence’s discreet cough made Royce reluctantly pull away.
Nicholaa looked flustered. She jumped off her husband’s lap, smoothed her hair and her skirts, and smiled at the vassal. “I understand you’re going to lead the experienced soldiers in William’s games. Congratulations, Lawrence.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
“We must have a special dinner tonight,” she said. She turned to Royce. “Could Justin join us?”
“If he does, the others must also be invited.”
She smiled. “Cook’s going to pitch a tantrum when I tell her we’re having twenty guests.”
Her husband shook his head. “Twenty-four,” he corrected. “Two extra men from each division will go along as reserves.”
“It’s just a precaution, Nicholaa,” he explained, “in case one or two are injured.”
“Or become too ill to compete?”
He knew from the eagerness in her voice what she was thinking . . . and probably hoping. “Justin isn’t going to get injured or become ill. Do not waste your time praying he will, wife.”
She frowned at him. “I would never pray for such a thing,” she muttered. She turned to the vassal, forced a smile, and said, “Lawrence, my husband must learn to have a little more faith in me. Still, he has other redeeming qualities, and so I forgive him his flaws.”
The vassal didn’t know how to respond to that remark. He did notice his baron was looking surprised. Then Nicholaa drew his attention again when she asked if he would order a few of the soldiers to bring the other table up from the floor below.
As soon as he’d given her his agreement, she hurried toward the back of the castle. Nicholaa knew that the sooner she gave Cook the bad news, the sooner she could get over her tantrum and down to the business of preparing a fine meal.
It turned out to be a festive occasion. Royce was right when he said Justin strutted. So did the other young soldiers. The older knights took it all in stride. They were dignified. But they smiled all through dinner, too.
Justin was asked to stay after the dinner was finished. He thought his baron wanted him to assist him with the statue again.
Royce wasn’t in the mood to work on the project tonight, however. “Beginning tomorrow I will set aside two hours each day to instruct you.”
“With the others on my team?” Justin asked.
It was Lawrence who answered him. “Of course, Justin,” he said. “Your baron is simply respecting the chain of command when he tells you his plans, because you earned the right to lead your team. Tomorrow you will relay this message to your men.”
Justin smiled. “I understand.” He turned his gaze to his sister. “Nicholaa, what are you looking at?” he asked. He’d noticed she was frowning intently and staring at his arm.
“Your scars,” she answered immediately. “They aren’t still tender, are they?”
Since she’d asked the question so casually, Justin was hard pressed to take exception. “No, they aren’t tender.”
Nicholaa nodded. “Lawrence told me that you put on a leather covering with loops to slip over your shoulder, and Royce made you take it off. His reason was that the opponent could use the loops to pin you down.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Justin acknowledged.
“Who made that covering for you?” Nicholaa asked.
“Is he very clever?”
Royce interrupted then. “You aren’t thinking to ask Bryan to make the black queen, are you?”
“No, of course not,” she rushed out before her husband’s feelings could become injured. “You must finish the black queen.”
“I was just considering ways to be devious,” she said. “I also have a cunning mind.”
Royce laughed. “You don’t have to convince me, Sister Danielle,” he drawled out.
Lawrence laughed, for he’d heard the tale how Nicholaa posed as a nun. He recounted the story for Justin’s benefit.
Nicholaa drummed her fingertips on the tabletop until the laughter had subsided, then turned to Royce again. “Your worry was that the opponent would grab hold of the leather, wasn’t it?”
He nodded. She smiled. “I think you should let them.”
Lawrence and Justin didn’t know what she was getting at. Royce caught on right away. He laughed. “Yes,” he said then. “We should let them.” He turned to look at Justin. “She’s talking about a surprise,” he explained. “Something sharp sewn into the leather that would even the odds.”
Nicholaa was already blushing. “I wouldn’t normally consider such trickery, but if someone is going to grab your arm to hold you down, I do believe a few blades in the leather would be a just reward.”
“Go and put the possibility to Bryan,” Royce told Nicholaa’s brother.
Justin immediately stood up, winked at his sister, and then hurried out of the hall.
“Royce, you won’t be taking part in the games, will you?” Nicholaa asked.
He shook his head. “The men act in my stead,” he explained. “When they win, I win.”
She was warmed by his arrogance. He hadn’t said if he won but when he won, and she knew he believed his soldiers would be victorious no matter what challenges they faced.
Nicholaa turned her attention to Lawrence. The look of worry on her face surprised the vassal. She took his hand. That surprised him even more.
“Lawrence,” she said, “Morgan and Henry are going to try to hurt Royce at the games. You’ll have to keep your guard up at all times. If they can’t get to him, they’ll hurt you.”
The warning wasn’t necessary. Lawrence was well aware of Morgan’s and Henry’s black hearts. “You mustn’t worry, my lady.”
“Oh, but I do worry.” She squeezed his hand affectionately and then let go when she caught her husband’s frown.
“How would you know what they plan to do?” Royce asked.
“Henry told me,” she answered. “He wants to get even with you. He’s still angry because I didn’t choose to wed his baron. I can’t imagine why he thought I’d prefer Guy to you.”
She sounded so bewildered that Lawrence couldn’t help smiling. Her love for Royce was evident.
“Henry’s jealous,” she said. “He had the gall to bring up that sorry incident with the woman who told me to kill Royce. It was rude of him to mention it.”
She let out a sigh, then dismissed Henry from her thoughts. She stood up, intent on helping Clarise clear the table. She wanted to praise Cook one last time too, for doing such a fine job of feeding all the men such a wonderful meal.
Royce grabbed her hand and forced her to sit down again.
He hadn’t shown any reaction to her remarks about Guy’s vassals. He seemed interested now, however. “Tell me when Henry said these things to you,” he ordered.
“It was right after you tossed Morgan through the wall.”
“He specifically mentioned the woman who threatened you when we were in London?”
“Yes,” she answered. “He was trying to frighten me, I suppose,” she said. “It didn’t work, though. Are you finished with your questions, husband? I really must thank Cook again before I forget.” As soon as he gave her permission, Nicholaa hurried out of the room.
Royce waited until he and Lawrence were alone. “Damn interesting, wouldn’t you say?”
“Henry and Morgan could have heard about the incident,” Lawrence interjected.
“The king wanted it kept quiet, remember? He didn’t want the celebration tainted. Only a handful knew what happened, and Baron Guy wasn’t one of them.”
“But after we left London and the celebration was over, someone could have mentioned it,” Lawrence said.
Royce shook his head. “The king was furious to learn that someone had actually breached his home. He took it as a personal insult, and he didn’t want the news to spread. No, word didn’t get out, Lawrence. There’s something else, too,” he added with a scowl. “When Nicholaa’s older brother came here, I questioned him about the activities of the resisters in London. Thurston didn’t know what I was talking about. I believed then and I believe now that it was an honest reaction on his part. He was too surprised. Damn it, my opinion is that Morgan and Henry sent that messenger to Nicholaa.”