Her husband hadn’t even looked at her before he was dragged away by his friends. Nicholaa didn’t know if he was pleased by her defense or angry.
Matilda couldn’t have been more pleased, however. “Baron Guy is sinfully jealous of Royce, but he’s also loyal to his king. I try not to forget that.” She turned to smile at Lawrence. “It’s a sound match,” she told the vassal. “Nicholaa’s already loyal to Royce. In time I believe she’ll give him her heart.”
Nicholaa didn’t delude herself. Royce wasn’t the type of man who would accept her love—assuming she was in the mood to give it, she qualified. She let out a sigh then, realizing how addled her thoughts had become.
“Did you love William when first you met?” she asked.
Matilda laughed. “No, dear, he courted me for seven years. I finally agreed to marry him, and from that moment on, he had my love. I pray it won’t take Royce that long to win yours.”
Nicholaa wondered what had changed Matilda’s mind after such a long time, but didn’t feel she could prod her to explain. Besides, she had another question on her mind. “I was wondering,” she began, “how you knew I would choose Royce. I did hear your husband say you knew I would, and I don’t understand—”
“It was a simple conclusion,” Matilda answered. “When I asked you to tell me how you felt about Royce’s appearance it was what you didn’t mention that gave me my answer. I’d already guessed it would be a fitting match,” she added, patting her hair. “It’s what you didn’t see.”
Nicholaa had no idea what the woman was talking about. “What didn’t I see?”
Well, of course she saw the scar when she looked at Royce. It covered half his cheek after all. And just what did that have to do with anything?
Matilda turned to Lawrence. “Your new mistress told me she believes Royce to be a vain man.”
Lawrence laughed. Nicholaa could feel herself turning pink with embarrassment.
Matilda patted her arm. “Come along now,” she ordered. “You must return to your chamber to await your husband. We aren’t allowed to join in tonight’s celebration. Tomorrow night you’ll have your festive dinner, Nicholaa, but tonight belongs to the men. It’s for the better,” she added with a nod. “You look exhausted from all the chaos. It was a lovely ceremony, wasn’t it?” she continued. “Don’t dally, Nicholaa. I shall walk with you part of the distance. Lawrence? You may have the honor of escorting us.”
The vassal bowed low. He couldn’t seem to quit smiling. He’d overheard Matilda’s remarks about Royce’s scar and had seen Nicholaa’s confused reaction. He couldn’t have been more pleased. Nicholaa was a fitting choice for his baron.
Matilda took Nicholaa’s elbow and walked toward the doors. Her guards fell into step behind Lawrence.
Nicholaa was exhausted. The evening had been overwhelming. It had drained her strength, she decided. Everyone was being so kind to her, everyone except Baron Guy’s mean-hearted vassals, but those two didn’t signify.
Was it really possible for the Normans and the Saxons to live together in harmony?
The king’s wife waved farewell when she turned down the south corridor. Her attendants rushed to catch up with her. Lawrence walked by Nicholaa’s side down the north hallway.
“Will you accompany Baron Royce to my home when we leave here?” she asked.
“I would imagine so,” Lawrence answered.
She looked up and caught his smile. “You’re pleased to be staying in England?”
“Then why are you smiling?” she asked.
He debated a minute before giving her his answer. “I was remembering the look on Royce’s face when you walked up to him. I don’t believe my lord expected you to choose him.”
She lowered her gaze. “Do you think I’ve ruined his life?” she whispered.
“I think you’ve enhanced it,” he returned. “Lady Nicholaa, I wouldn’t be smiling if I believed otherwise.”
It was a lovely compliment he’d just given her. Nicholaa didn’t know how to respond. She looked up at him and suddenly burst into laughter. “He was surprised, wasn’t he?”
“Aye, he was,” Lawrence agreed.
Two soldiers stood guard in front of her door. Lawrence bowed to his new mistress, opened the door for her, and then turned to leave.
He immediately stopped.
“For what, my lady?”
“For accepting me.” She shut the door before he could respond.
Lawrence whistled on his way back to the great hall. The irritation of having to put up with Baron Guy’s foolishness was gone now. His new mistress’s smile had brightened his mood considerably. Yes, he thought to himself, she would enhance his baron’s life. She would bring light into his dreary, disciplined existence. It wouldn’t be long, Lawrence wagered, before she had Royce smiling. That would take magic, the vassal knew, but Nicholaa was up to the challenge.
Nicholaa was too exhausted to think about anything other than going to bed. Mary was waiting to assist her. She kept up a steady stream of chatter while she helped Nicholaa undress. After her mistress had bathed and changed into a long white nightgown, Mary brushed her hair.
“You’re the talk of the palace,” Mary announced. “Such bravery, they’re all whispering, the way you saved the king’s niece. Here now, milady, drink this down,” she pleaded after she’d tucked Nicholaa under the covers. “Baron Samuel sent this draft to ease your pain.”
Mary didn’t let up her nagging until Nicholaa had swallowed the last drop.
Nicholaa fell into a deep sleep minutes later. Mary went over to the stool by the hearth to watch over her mistress until Baron Royce dismissed her for the night.
A full hour passed before Royce was able to leave the hall. When he entered his chamber, the servant jumped to attention.
“You wife is having a very fitful sleep, milord,” Mary whispered. “She cries out in fear. I tried to wake her from her nightmare but the draft she took makes that impossible.”
Royce nodded. He surprised the servant by thanking her for her assistance; then he dismissed her.
He barred the door against intruders and walked to the side of the bed. Nicholaa was frowning in her sleep. He gently brushed his hand across her brow. “You’ve had one hell of a week, haven’t you, Nicholaa?”
She muttered something in her sleep, then rolled onto her side. The weight of her body on her burned hand made her cry out in pain.
He gently turned her onto her back again, then stood there for a long while staring down at her. Dear God, she really belonged to him now. He shook his head. What was he supposed to do with her?
A slow grin settled on his face. Protect her, and her family as well. That had become his primary duty. It didn’t matter who had made the choice; the deed was done. It didn’t matter, either, that he was set in his ways and that he liked order and discipline in his life.
Everything was going to change now. She’d give him fits before she calmed down and learned to accept her new station in life. Odd, but he found he was looking forward to the challenge of taming Nicholaa. If he was patient and understanding with her, he didn’t think it would take him long to win her loyalty. The way she’d stood up to Guy had shown him she was capable of being loyal to others outside her family.
He doubted Nicholaa would ever love him. That didn’t matter, of course, as love had little meaning to him. He was a warrior, and warriors neither wanted nor needed love. He was out to conquer Nicholaa’s mind, not her heart. He would use a firm though gentle hand while he trained her to be his wife.
It was a sound, logical plan. Royce put the matter aside and prepared for bed.
It felt strange to sleep next to a woman. He had bedded a fair number of wenches, of course, but he’d never slept the night through with any of them.
She wasn’t making it an easy adjustment either. When she wasn’t muttering incoherent phrases, she was tossing and turning like an errant wave. Each time she moved, she bumped one of her injured hands and cried out in pain.
Royce tried to help her get comfortable. It was a damn difficult task. She wouldn’t stay still long enough for him to anchor her.
Just when he was finally drifting off to sleep, she bolted up in the bed. “I want to sleep on my stomach,” she muttered.
Royce didn’t think she even knew where she was; she hadn’t even opened her eyes when she blurted out that demand. When she kicked the covers aside and tried to get out of the bed, he grabbed her.
She went limp in his arms. He was about to haul her up against his side, but she suddenly turned around. She ended up sprawled on top of him.
Nicholaa finally found a comfortable position. She let out a little sigh of pleasure and stopped squirming.
The top of her head was tucked under his chin. Her soft br**sts were pressed against his bare chest. Her pelvis was right on top of his, and her legs were draped over one of his thighs.
He adjusted her position until her legs were between his own, then wrapped his arms around her waist.
She was all soft and feminine. She smelled as good as she felt, too. They were a nice fit, he thought to himself. That thought led to another and another, of course, and it wasn’t long before Royce was damned uncomfortable.
He tried to go to sleep, but her warm body kept getting in his thoughts. All he wanted to think about was making love to her.
It was a wedding night he would never forget.
It was midafternoon before Nicholaa awakened. She spent an hour stumbling around the room, trying to clear her mind of the effects of the powerful sleeping drug.
Lord, she’d slept like the dead. Odd, but she didn’t feel the least bit refreshed after her long rest, either.
Mary found her mistress sitting on the side of the bed when she entered the chamber a short time later. The servant carried a beautiful white bliaut and chainse. The sleeves of the bliaut were embroidered with gold threads, and the chainse had the same distinctive design sewn into the hem. The fabric looked delicate enough to shred with a good sneeze. It felt wonderfully soft against Nicholaa’s cheek.
“Who sends this to me?” Nicholaa asked.
“The king’s wife,” Mary answered. “You’ve won her affection,” she added with a nod. “She even sent along gold threads to weave through your hair. You’re to sit with your husband at the king’s table for tonight’s celebration, milady.”
Nicholaa didn’t show any reaction to that announcement. She knew she probably should show some enthusiasm over the honor of dining with the king of England. She couldn’t, though. She still felt a little dull-witted from the draft she’d taken. She was homesick, too, and all she wanted was to be left alone for a while.
She didn’t get that wish. The next several hours were spent on practical matters. After she’d been bathed and dressed in the elegant garments, Nicholaa did feel better. Mary brushed her hair thoroughly, poking and tugging until Nicholaa was ready to scream. She wasn’t used to being pampered, but she didn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings, and so she put up with the nuisance. The servant couldn’t seem to get the gold threads to stay in her mistress’s curls, though. Nicholaa finally ordered her to stop trying.
Baron Samuel and his staff arrived then to see to Nicholaa’s injuries. She couldn’t persuade the healer to leave her hands unbandaged, though she was able to elicit from him a promise that the wrapping would stay on for only one more night.
She kept expecting Royce to pay her a visit. She hadn’t seen him since the wedding, after all, and she thought it would be proper for him at least to look in on her. By the dinner hour, she was good and pricked by his rudeness. It was obvious to her that Royce was ignoring her.
Mary kept fawning over her. Nicholaa wasn’t used to hearing how pretty she was, and the servant’s compliments soon had her blushing with embarrassment. In desperation, she sent Mary to get her fresh water just so she could have a few minutes of peace and quiet.
The servant left the door ajar. When Nicholaa saw that two soldiers stood guard in the hallway, she was irritated. Was she still a prisoner, then? She decided to find out. She walked over to the entrance, nudged the door wider with the toe of her shoe, and bowed to the men.
The soldiers were staring at her, clearly astonished. She wondered about their amazement even as she bade the men good day.
“You’re a worthy bride for our lord,” one blurted out.
The other nodded. “Aye, you are.”
Nicholaa thanked the soldiers for their kind remarks, then asked, “Why do you guard my door?”
The taller soldier answered. “Baron Royce has ordered us to stay here, milady.”
“For what purpose?”
“To protect you,” the soldier answered. “You’re our mistress now,” he added with a dramatic bow.
“Then I’m allowed to leave without interference?”
Both soldiers nodded. “We would be honored to escort you to your destination,” he explained.
Nicholaa felt better. She wasn’t a prisoner, after all. “Would you please escort me to my husband’s quarters?” she requested. “I have need to speak to him.”
The two men shared a look before turning back to their mistress. “But you’re already inside his chamber,” the shorter one said.
Then where had Royce slept? Nicholaa wasn’t about to ask that question. The answer might prove humiliating. She nodded to the soldiers and was about to nudge the door closed again when Lawrence came rushing down the hallway.
“Are you ready for your supper, Lady Nicholaa?”
“Where is my husband?” she asked.
“He’s waiting for you in the great hall,” Lawrence answered. “If you would allow me to escort you, my lady, I’ll take you to him.”
The man couldn’t even be bothered to come and fetch his wife? Nicholaa hid her frown. She told herself she didn’t care. It was all right with her if he wanted to sleep in someone else’s bed. He could keep right on ignoring her, too.
No, she didn’t care at all. Nicholaa kept telling herself that lie as she walked by Lawrence’s side.
The great hall was filled to capacity. She found Royce right away. He was the tallest warrior in the room, which made her task easy. His back was turned to her, and he was surrounded by acquaintances.