His discipline saved him from grabbing hold of her and finding out then and there. He took a deep, calming breath. He forced himself to put his lust aside and concentrate on staring the woman to her knees. Defiance was all very well and good under certain circumstances, but this wasn’t one of them. She needed to be afraid now. With fear came caution, he reasoned. Nicholaa had caused quite enough havoc. It was time for her to surrender. He was determined to make her realize just whom she was up against. He was her conquerer, and she was his booty. The sooner she came to terms with that fact, the easier her life would be.
He was good at intimidation. The scar on his face helped, of course.
Odd, but it didn’t seem to be helping him now. No matter how fierce his scowl became, she still didn’t cower.
He couldn’t help but be impressed. He took a step forward. The tips of his boots touched the toes of her shoes. She still didn’t back away. Her head was tilted all the way back so she could continue to hold his gaze, and if he hadn’t known better, he would have thought there was a sparkle in her eyes.
Dared she mock him?
Nicholaa was having difficulty remembering how to breathe. In truth, she was more furious with herself than with the warlord frowning so furiously down at her. Her reaction to the Norman was unexplainable. She couldn’t quit staring at him. He had the most beautiful gray eyes, though why in God’s name she’d taken time to notice the appealing trait was simply beyond her comprehension.
He was trying to intimidate her. She wasn’t going to let him. The warrior really was handsome, damn his hide. And damn her own for noticing. What was the matter with her? He was her enemy, and she was supposed to hate him, wasn’t she?
He obviously wasn’t having any trouble hating her. His dark expression told of his displeasure. Her back straightened in reaction.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” she whispered.
He raised an eyebrow. “And when was that?” he asked in a soft, mocking voice.
“When I knocked you off your feet with the stone from my sling.”
He shook his head.
She nodded. “My aim was true,” she boasted. “I meant to mark you, not kill you. Now I regret that decision. Perhaps I’ll get a second chance before you’re chased back to Normandy where you belong.”
He still didn’t believe her. He folded his arms across his chest and smiled down at her. “Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t feel like it,” she announced. “Now I do.”
When he laughed, she realized that he still didn’t believe her. She couldn’t blame him, she supposed, because until this very minute, she hadn’t told him a single truth. She wondered if he’d found out she wasn’t really a member of the order of nuns. Of course he had, she decided almost immediately. The treasonous tax collector would have told him.
Nicholaa could feel her composure slipping away. Her knees, too. She decided to dismiss him and reached up to pull the curtain closed.
He was much quicker than she was. He had hold of her hand before she’d even touched the drapery.
He wouldn’t let go, either. His grip stung like a hornet. She quit trying to pull away from him as soon as she realized how futile her struggle was, and how weak it made her appear.
“Are your possessions here, Nicholaa?”
That question, asked so matter-of-factly, took her by surprise. She nodded before she could stop herself. Then she said, “Why would you ask me such a question?”
“I’m a practical man,” he answered. “It will save time to go directly to London from here. Have your things ready or I’ll leave them behind. As soon as my friend has recovered, we leave.”
She was astonished by his arrogance. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yes, you are.”
She shook her head at him. The veil hiding her hair slipped to one side. Before she could right the damage, he reached over and ripped the covering from her head.
Nicholaa’s glorious blond mass of hair tumbled down from the coil on top of her head to hang almost to her waist. His breath caught in his throat at the magnificent sight.
“Only nuns wear the veil, Nicholaa, and you aren’t a nun, are you?”
“The pretense was necessary. God understands. He’s on my side, not yours.”
That ridiculous remark made him smile. “And how did you come to that conclusion?”
The smile had moved into his voice. Was he laughing at her? No, of course not, she told herself. He wouldn’t know how. Norman warriors didn’t experience human emotions. They lived only to kill and to conquer, or so her brothers had told her. The reason was simple: the enemy soldiers followed a leader who was more monster than man.
“Why do you believe God’s on your side?” he asked again when she didn’t answer him.
“I did get away from you, didn’t I? That should be proof enough, Baron, that God’s on my side. I’m quite safe here.”
He couldn’t argue with that bit of lopsided logic. “For the time being, you’re safe,” he agreed.
She granted him a smile that showed off the attractive dimple in her cheek. “I’ll stay here as long as I want,” she boasted. “'Tis the truth, I’m not leaving this sanctuary until the invasion attempt has been foiled and you’ve gone back home where you belong.”
“The invasion is all but over, Nicholaa. England belongs to us. Accept that fact, and life will be much easier for you. You’ve already been conquered.”
“I will never be conquered.”
The mighty boast was thoroughly ruined by the quaver in her voice. He noticed it, too. The rude man had the gall to smile. Her shoulders straightened in reaction.
Royce gave her hand a hard squeeze before finally letting go. Nicholaa started to turn away. He stopped her by grabbing hold of her chin.
He forced her face up, then leaned down until he was just inches away from her. “Don’t inconvenience me again.”
He didn’t raise his voice above a whisper when he gave that command, but his tone was hard enough to truly infuriate her. She pushed his hand away from her chin, then moved to one side so he could get a clear look at her brother.
“Do you actually believe I care if you’re inconvenienced or not?” she asked. “My brother lies near death because of your greedy, land-hungry leader, Duke William. Had he left England alone, Justin would still be whole.”
Royce turned his attention to her brother. The first thought that came into his mind was that the Saxon soldier really was near death. His complexion was as white as the blanket covering him. Beads of perspiration covered his brow. His hair was the same white-blond as Nicholaa’s, but that was the only similarity between brother and sister.
Royce couldn’t see any injuries, because the blanket covered the big man from neck to feet.
He judged the soldier to be young from the lack of wrinkles at the outer corners of his eyes and the few scars on his face. He remembered then that the Saxon informant had told him Justin was a year younger than Nicholaa, and from all appearances, she was a very young woman.
So the Saxons also sent boy warriors into battle. Royce suddenly felt very weary. He shook his head in an effort to clear it while he kept his gaze on Justin. The brother’s sleep was fitful. He wore a frown that suggested demons were racking his nightmares. Royce found himself affected by the sight of such obvious torment.
Nicholaa saw the concern in his eyes. He’d tried to hide his reaction, but he hadn’t been able to. She was surprised, confused, too. Shouldn’t he be gloating?
“When he’s awake, he prays for death,” she whispered.
He sounded genuinely perplexed. Nicholaa realized he couldn’t see Justin’s affliction. “My brother’s left hand was severed in battle.”
Royce showed no reaction to her announcement. “He could still live,” he said after a long minute. “The injury could heal.”
She didn’t want him to be optimistic. She wanted him to feel guilty. She took a protective step toward her brother. “You might have been the one who did this to Justin.”
His easy acceptance of such a foul deed took her breath away. “You feel no remorse?”
He gave her a look that suggested she’d lost her mind. “Remorse has no place in a warrior’s mind.”
He could tell from her expression she didn’t understand what he was saying. He patiently explained. “A war is like a game of chess, Nicholaa. Every battle is like a well-thought-out move on the board. Once it begins, there shouldn’t be any emotion involved whatsoever.”
“So if you did, in fact, injure my brother—”
“That’s highly doubtful,” he interrupted.
“That isn’t how I fight.”
He wasn’t making any sense to her. “Oh? What is it you do when you go into battle if you don’t injure your enemies?”
He let out a sigh. “I kill them.”
She tried not to let him know how appalled she was. The man acted as though they were discussing the week’s mass schedule, for all the emotion in his voice. His callous attitude made her stomach burn.
“Your brother was injured near Hastings and not in the north as I was informed?” he asked, drawing her attention again.
“No, Justin wasn’t in the battle near Hastings,” she answered. “He was felled at Stamford Bridge.”
Royce couldn’t contain his exasperation. The confused woman had her enemies mixed up in her mind. “I’m Norman, Nicholaa, or have you forgotten that fact?”
“Of course not.”
“The battle at Stanford Bridge in the north was waged by the king of Norway and his soldiers. We Normans weren’t even there.” He took a step closer to her. “And so, whether you wish it to be so or not, I couldn’t have injured your brother.”
“I didn’t wish it,” she blurted out.
Royce didn’t know what to say to that. He considered himself an excellent judge of his opponent’s reactions. Yet now he doubted his own ability. God’s truth, she looked relieved. That didn’t make any sense to him at all. Why would it matter to her if he had or hadn’t injured her brother?
“You look relieved.”
She nodded. “I am . . . pleased to know it wasn’t you,” she admitted. She turned her gaze to the floor. “And I apologize to you for jumping to the wrong conclusion.”
He couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You what?”
“I apologize,” she muttered.
He shook his head, trying to clear it of this illogical conversation.
“If it had been you, I would have had to retaliate, wouldn’t I? I’m all Justin has left, Baron. It has become my duty to protect him.”
“You’re a woman.”
“I’m his sister.”
Nicholaa rubbed her arms, for it seemed that the room had suddenly become frigid. God, she was tired. She’d been cold for so long, and so exhausted she could barely form a coherent thought.
“I don’t like this war,” she whispered. “Men do, though, don’t they? They like to fight.”
“Some do,” he acknowledged, his voice brusque in reaction to his sudden urge to take Nicholaa into his arms. Lord, she looked fragile. He could only imagine the hell she’d been through since the invasion. He found it admirable that she would try to protect her brother, even though it was quite ridiculous for her to think she could.
From the whispers he’d heard about her, he realized he shouldn’t have expected less. “Do you know, Nicholaa, that you’ve become a legend among the Norman soldiers?”
That announcement gained her full attention and caught her curiosity. “Only the dead become legends,” she countered. “Not the living.”
“If that’s true, you’re an exception,” he said. “You did lead the defense against the first three challengers Duke William sent to secure your holding, didn’t you?”
She shrugged. “Your leader sent children to try to steal my home. I merely sent them back.”
“Even so,” he argued, “there—”
She interrupted him. “My brother’s soldiers were under my direction, yes, but only after the first-in-command was forced to leave.”
“Who is this soldier and where is he now?”
“His name is John,” she answered, “and he left for the north.” She folded her arms in front of her and turned to look down at her brother. “You’ll never catch him. He’s far too clever for the likes of you.”
“He sounds like a coward. He left you unprotected.”
“I ordered him to leave. John isn’t a coward. Besides, I can take care of myself, Baron. I can even get away from tiresome Normans when I want to.”
He ignored that barb. “A Norman would never have left a woman in charge.”
She shook her head. She knew she couldn’t defend John now. In her heart, she thought her brother’s loyal vassal was one of the most courageous men she’d ever known. Against terrible odds, he had brought little Ulric to her. Her brother Thurston had ordered John to deliver his son to Nicholaa for safekeeping until the war was finished. James, the Saxon traitor, would have no knowledge about the baby, and neither, Nicholaa reasoned, would the Normans. It was a pity that Nicholaa couldn’t boast of John’s courage now. Little Ulric’s safety came first. As far as the Normans were concerned, Ulric was simply the child of one of the servants.
Royce watched the play of emotions cross her face and wondered what thoughts were going through her mind. He didn’t like the way she defended the soldier who’d left her to survive on her own with but a small contingent of men to offer protection, but he decided to put that topic aside for now.
“You showed cleverness when you disguised yourself as a nun. My soldiers were taken in.”
She noticed he hadn’t included himself in that admission. Did he refuse to confess that he’d also been fooled? “Your soldiers are also little boys,” she said. “’Tis yet another reason you’ll be defeated, Baron.”
“Most of my soldiers are older than you.”
“Then they’re ignorant.”
“Untrained, not ignorant,” he corrected. “The skilled soldiers were needed for more important work.”
He was being honest with her, but the look on her face indicated she was insulted by the truth. She turned her back on him in an attempt to dismiss him.