The fire was extinguished before any of the soldiers could give assistance. Nicholaa knelt on the floor, tore the remnants of the gown away from the little girl, and then hugged her tight, whispering words of comfort all the while.
The child clung to her savior, whimpering softly against her neck.
No one seemed capable of moving for a long minute. Then the child’s mother let out a scream and came running across the hall.
Nicholaa stood up with the little girl still clinging to her neck. She transferred the child into her mother’s outstretched arms. “She’s still frightened,” Nicholaa whispered, “but I don’t believe she suffered any serious burns.”
King William had bounded out of his chair as soon as the child’s tortured scream reached him. His wife stood by his side with her hands clasped over her mouth.
They both watched as the mother accepted her daughter. The little girl turned back at the last second and loudly kissed Nicholaa on her cheek. “You are a princess,” she whispered. “You saved me.”
The child’s mother wept with relief. “Yes, she did save you,” she agreed. She hugged her daughter and turned to smile at Nicholaa. “I would thank you properly,” she said. She started to bow low, then let out another scream. “Dear heaven, look at your hands. You’ve blisters already.”
Nicholaa didn’t want to look at her hands. If she saw the damage, she knew it would hurt even more. Her left hand and arm throbbed far more than the right did. ’Twas the truth the burns felt as though she were holding a burning log in her hands.
She glanced up and saw Royce making his way toward her. She spotted him through the haze of tears burring her vision.
It was about time, she thought to herself. He damn well should come to her. This was all his fault . . . wasn’t it?
She couldn’t seem to concentrate. The crowd swelled around her. Nicholaa took a step back. She hid her hands behind her back.
She desperately wanted Royce to get to her so that she could tell him to go away.
“Let me see your hands, Nicholaa.”
He was standing so close to her; all she had to do was lean forward and she’d be touching him. He might put his arm around her shoulders and offer her comfort.
She vowed she’d smack him if he touched her.
Dear Lord, she wasn’t making any sense. She shook her head and took another step back.
“Make way, make way.”
The shrill feminine demand forced the crowd aside. Royce moved to her side, and Nicholaa suddenly found herself staring down at the king’s wife.
Lord, she was short. The top of Matilda’s head only reached Nicholaa’s shoulders. The woman had the bearing of a commander, though. “Give me your hands. Now.”
Nicholaa didn’t argue. She showed the woman her burns. Determined not to look at her hands, she stared over Matilda’s head while the queen examined her injuries.
“You must be in terrible pain, my dear. Come, I shall personally supervise your care. William?” she called out. “There will be no more talk of challenging until we return.”
The king was in complete agreement. Matilda tried to take hold of Nicholaa’s elbow, but ended up grasping air, for Nicholaa moved like lightning to get closer to Royce. She was literally snuggled up against his side before Matilda could blink.
The action was telling. Matilda looked at her loyal vassal, then at the Saxon woman and back at Royce again. “You may come along with us, Baron,” she announced.
Nicholaa allowed the queen to take hold of her elbow then. Matilda tried not to smile. She noticed that when she led Nicholaa out of the hall and down the corridor, the lovely young lady kept glancing back over her shoulder to make certain Royce was following.
He was right behind her. Relief swept through Nicholaa, though she couldn’t imagine why. Oh, yes, now she remembered. This was all his fault and she needed to tell him so.
He was only doing his duty by dragging her to London. That logical thought popped into her mind all of the sudden. She pushed it aside. She didn’t want to be logical now.
“You’re a very courageous woman, Lady Nicholaa,” said Matilda. “The little girl you saved is my dear niece. We’re all in your debt.” She paused to give Nicholaa a penetrating look, then added, “She’s Norman, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to you, did it?”
Nicholaa shook her head. She wished Matilda would quit being so solicitous. She looked back over her shoulder and gave Royce a wait-until-I-get-you-alone glare.
He winked at her.
“You’re responsible for this, Royce,” she whispered.
Matilda heard her. “No, dear, it was an accident,” she said. She motioned for the guards to open the door to Nicholaa’s chamber, then marched inside.
Royce had to nudge Nicholaa forward.
The next fifteen minutes were sheer agony for Nicholaa. While the king’s bossy wife issued her orders, her personal healer—a wrinkled old man named Samuel who looked in dire need of a healer of his own—arrived with three servants. The women put their supplies down on the wooden chest, bowed to Matilda, and then backed out of the room.
Royce stood at Nicholaa’s side, his hands clasped behind his back, when the healer began his ministrations. Matilda stood near the window, her arms folded across her ample bosom, her gaze as sharp as a hawk’s as she watched the couple.
Nicholaa had refused to take to her bed. She sat on a stool. Her back was as straight as a lance, her expression devoid of all emotion as she stared off into space.
Baron Samuel sat on a stool facing his patient. He cleaned the burns with cool water and then spread a thick brown salve from her fingertips to her elbows.
The cleansing had hurt like fire, but the cooling salve had a soothing effect on her skin. Nicholaa didn’t realize she was leaning against Royce’s thigh. Matilda noticed, though, and she couldn’t contain her smile this time.
“She’ll have a few scars,” Samuel told Matilda after he’d finished wrapping the injuries with soft white cotton strips.
Royce assisted the old man to his feet. Samuel’s knees crackled louder than the logs in the hearth.
“I’ll send you a sleeping draft,” he told Nicholaa. “It will ease your pain and help you rest.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
They were the first words she’d uttered since the healer had entered the chamber. His smile was broad. “I’ll return tomorrow to change your bandages.”
She thanked him again. Matilda’s piercing gaze kept turning from Nicholaa’s serene expression to Royce’s worried one.
“Are you in pain now, Nicholaa?” Royce asked.
The compassion in his voice was almost her undoing. “Don’t you dare be kind to me, you scoundrel.”
“Royce, would you leave us now?” Matilda requested.
He didn’t want to leave. That was very obvious to Matilda. The baron did her bidding, of course, just as she knew he would, but he paused at the door to give Nicholaa a long hard look before he bowed and left the chamber.
“What was that frown all about?” Matilda asked.
“It’s his you’d-better-behave-yourself glare,” she answered.
Matilda walked over to stand in front of Nicholaa. She brushed Nicholaa’s hair back over her shoulders in a motherly gesture. “It was Baron Royce’s duty to bring you to us. Why do you blame him?”
Nicholaa shrugged. “Because he was so cheerful about it,” she remarked. “And it makes me feel better to blame him.”
She glanced up in time to catch Matilda’s smile. “I know Baron Royce is your loyal servant, my lady. You probably appreciate him, but I must tell you I find him insufferable.”
“Did he mistreat you?”
“Then why do you find him insufferable?”
“He’s rude, arrogant, and . . .” Nicholaa stopped when she saw how amused Matilda was. That reaction thoroughly confused her. She was insulting one of the king’s most favored knights, wasn’t she?
“If Royce had left you at the abbey, my dear niece would have been severely burned before my worthy knights could have saved her. So you see, Nicholaa, it was God’s will that you were here to save the child. Do you argue with me?”
Her tone suggested Nicholaa agree. “I won’t argue with you,” she said. In her heart she knew Matilda was wrong, though. Her coming here hadn’t been God’s will at all. It was William’s decision, and that was that.
“Tell me what you see when you look at Royce.”
Nicholaa thought that was a peculiar request. She didn’t want to talk about Royce anymore. Still, it would have been rude to ignore the question. “I see a very stubborn man.”
“A vain man,” Nicholaa answered.
Matilda looked startled. “Vain, you say?”
Nicholaa nodded. “I know you don’t want to hear about your baron’s flaws, but Royce is vain. He knows his appeal.”
“Explain to me exactly how you feel about his appearance,” Matilda prodded.
Nicholaa decided from the determined look on Matilda’s face she wouldn’t let up until she had her answers. She wasn’t going to soften the truth, though, when she gave her opinion. “He has dark, handsome looks, and he knows it. Even I will admit that I’ve admired his beautiful gray eyes. I’d have to be blind not to notice, my lady. He also has a strong profile.”
“You noticed that, too, did you?” Matilda asked, smiling.
“Yes,” Nicholaa said with a sigh. “Then he gives me one of his lectures, and I forget how handsome he is. I just want to shout at him. Do tell me why you’re smiling. I am insulting one of your barons, and I would expect you to take exception to my remarks.”
Matilda shook her head. “You’re telling me what’s inside your heart.”
“Royce means nothing to me,” Nicholaa announced. “The man’s a barbarian. He has the manners of a . . .” She started to say that Royce had the manners of a Norman, but caught herself in time. “A dog.”
Matilda nodded. She walked over to the door. “I shall have the servants help you change your clothing. Are you up to returning to the hall and finishing this contest?”
Nicholaa nodded. She wanted to get the ordeal over and done with. “I’ll give you fair warning, my lady,” she called out. “I won’t be a good wife. I’ll make whoever weds me miserable for the rest of his days.”
She meant the remark as a threat, but Matilda misunderstood. Her smile was gentle. “Do not berate yourself, my dear. I’m certain you have enough good qualities to keep your husband content for the rest of his days.”
“But I meant . . .”
Nicholaa didn’t get a chance to explain. Matilda had already left. Mary and Heloise came rushing into the chamber then, and she turned her attention to the matter of keeping their hands off her. She was determined to be left alone, and she determined not to change her gown.
Matilda hurried back to the hall. She didn’t pause to speak to anyone but continued until she was once again standing by her husband on the platform. William was sprawled out in his chair. He held a silver goblet of ale in one hand.
His wife whispered into his ear. It was a lengthy, one-sided conversation. Matilda paused several times to dab at her eyes with her linen square, and when she’d finished her explanation, William was smiling. He took hold of his wife’s hand and kissed it.
The king handed the goblet to his squire, then motioned for silence. In a loud, booming voice he ordered all the married knights, along with their wives and children, to leave the hall. The unattached knights were to remain where they were.
Royce thought the order odd, and the puzzled expressions on his friends’ faces told him they thought it peculiar, too. No one questioned the king, though. Royce walked back to his place against the far wall, for it gave him the best unblocked view of the double doors where Nicholaa would reenter the room. He nodded to Lawrence and then leaned back to wait.
The doors were finally opened. Everyone, including the king of England and his wife, turned to watch Lady Nicholaa walk into the hall.
Those who had been sitting quickly gained their feet. Someone started clapping. Then another joined in, and another and another, until the hall was a thunder of noise.
King William didn’t stand, but he did join in the applause. Nicholaa didn’t understand what was happening. She came to an abrupt stop and almost turned around to see who was standing behind her drawing everyone’s cheers.
From her expression, Royce could tell she didn’t realize the crowd was paying her a tribute. She didn’t appear rattled by the noise, however. Nay, she looked quite serene.
And lovely. She was dressed in a deep blue chainse and bliaut. Royce thought the color was even more beautiful on her than the white gown she’d worn into the hall an hour before.
King William motioned Nicholaa forward. She hesitated for the barest of seconds before doing as he commanded.
Royce frowned over the lustful gazes some of the knights wore as they watched Nicholaa walk toward their king. He had an almost overwhelming urge to beat the soldiers to a bloody pulp.
In that minute of raw possessiveness and true jealousy, he knew what he had to do.
“What has you scowling, Royce?” Lawrence asked.
“Nothing has me scowling,” Royce muttered. “Damn it, Lawrence, Nicholaa has to be in severe pain. Look at those bandages. They cover most of her arms. She should be resting.”
“That is for our overlord to decide,” Lawrence remarked. “Perhaps he thinks it best to get the ordeal finished,“ he added before turning back to watch Nicholaa.
In truth, Nicholaa wasn’t feeling any pain at all. Baron Samuel had promised her the salve contained a special ingredient that would numb the burns. He’d been true in giving her that promise.
She walked over to stand in front of the four steps that led up to the platform. She couldn’t have knelt down if she’d wanted to, because she couldn’t grasp the hem of her gown to move it out of her way.
William noticed the slight. He leaned forward in his chair. “You do not kneel before me?”
A frown was settling on his harsh features when his wife interjected, “She cannot kneel, husband. Her hands are bandaged, and she can’t catch hold of her skirts. She’ll fall on her face if she tries. Nicholaa dear,” she called out. “Bow your head. That will please your king.”
William nodded. He looked appeased by his wife’s explanation.