A hush fell over the crowd when she and Lawrence walked inside. Everyone seemed to be staring in her direction. She couldn’t imagine why. “Who is everyone staring at, Lawrence?” she asked.
He couldn’t have been more blunt than that, she supposed. Her heartbeat quickened. “I thought they accepted me,” she whispered.
Lawrence smiled. “They do accept you, my lady. This festive dinner is for you and Royce.”
Nicholaa was too busy feeling awkward to be appeased by his explanation. She didn’t like being the center of attention. She didn’t like being ignored by her husband, either. She stared at Royce’s back while she waited for him to come to her.
“I’ll take you to Royce,” Lawrence announced.
She shook her head. “Royce should come to me,” she said.
One of the knights speaking to Royce finally noticed her. He stopped talking and nudged her husband.
Royce slowly turned around. His gaze found her immediately of course. She was the most beautiful woman in the hall. Would he ever get used to her? Each time he saw her, he became rattled by her appearance. Her hair shimmered like gold. He liked it the way she wore it today—unbound and swinging loose around her shoulders. He suddenly wanted to touch her.
He had to take a deep breath to gain control of his thoughts. He nodded and arrogantly motioned Lawrence and Nicholaa forward.
She rejected his order by shaking her head at him. Lawrence looked uncomfortable. Royce watched as his vassal leaned down and whispered something into Nicholaa’s ear. She shook her head again.
What was her game now? Royce was having difficulty believing what he was seeing. His bride dared to disobey his command? It was unthinkable. He almost laughed, but caught himself in time. He motioned to her again.
His expression showed nothing of what he was thinking—until she beckoned to him. His eyes widened then, and damn, if he didn’t find himself shaking his head at her.
Even from the distance separating them, Nicholaa could see a muscle jerk in his cheek. His jaw was clenched tight. He was angry all right. Although she worried over the look in his eyes, she refused to back down. By God, she was his wife and he would come to her.
Royce folded his arms across his chest and continued to stare at her. The message was clear. He wasn’t going to budge.
There was only one alternative left: she would have to leave the hall. She wasn’t very hungry anyway, she told herself. Besides, Royce would surely come chasing after her, and in the privacy of the corridor she could give him hell for being rude to her. She might take the opportunity to explain his new duties to him, too. First and foremost, she would tell him, a husband should always escort his wife to any important function.
Nicholaa put her plan into action. She thanked Lawrence for his escort, then smiled at Royce. She couldn’t manage a curtsy with her bandaged hands, so she inclined her head. Then she turned and walked toward the doorway.
His voice made the rafters shake. Nicholaa came to a dead stop. She couldn’t believe he’d bellowed her name in front of all the guests. She turned around to look at him, mortified. The entire gathering was once again staring at her, thanks to her inconsiderate husband.
She could feel her cheeks burning with embarrassment. The look in Royce’s eyes told her he would continue to make a scene and not be embarrassed at all. She pictured him dragging her to the table by her hair, and that dark thought made her reevaluate her position. God only knew the man was rude enough to go to any length to get what he wanted.
She supposed she’d better let him have his way . . . this one time. She let out a sigh, slapped a serene expression on her face, and walked across the room. She kept her gaze directed on Royce. If that man dared to smile, she swore to her Maker she’d kick him.
She stopped when she was just a foot away from him. “Did you wish something?”
He nodded. He looked complacent to her. She moved a little closer. “You aren’t always going to get what you want,” she whispered.
“Yes, I am.”
She saw the sparkle in his eyes then. “You’re an impossible man,” she muttered.
“You mentioned that before.”
He smiled. She didn’t know what to make of that. She bowed her head. He forced her chin back up. Then he slowly leaned down and kissed her. His mouth only brushed her lips for a fleeting second, but it still left her flustered.
She was just regaining her wits after that surprise when he pulled her to his side, draped an arm around her shoulders, and turned back to his friends.
He treated her like a piece of baggage, she thought to herself, but at least he had given her a proper greeting. Lord, he confused her.
That feeling stayed with Nicholaa throughout the long dinner. The man all but ignored her while the meal was served. She was given compliment after compliment from both the men and the ladies, yet somehow their remarks didn’t count. Royce hadn’t said anything about her appearance, but she didn’t care what he thought, she told herself, even as she tried to smooth her hair just so.
Because of the injury to her hands, someone would have to feed her, and that was a humiliation Nicholaa wasn’t about to suffer. She turned to whisper just that thought to her husband, but was waylaid when he shoved a piece of meat into her mouth. She chewed instead.
There was such a commotion of laughing and talking going on inside the hall that Nicholaa didn’t think anyone was paying her any attention. Matilda sat on her right, but she was in deep discussion with her husband. The topic, Nicholaa chanced to overhear, was their children.
And so she allowed Royce to assist her with her dinner. It helped that he was so nonchalant about the task. He could have ordered his squire to see to the chore, and she found herself thankful that he wasn’t making an issue out of her affliction.
“Baron Samuel said he would take my bandages off tomorrow,” she told Royce.
He nodded. Then he turned to speak to a baron she hadn’t met. She nudged Royce with her foot. He didn’t turn back to her.
Nicholaa sat there, feeling all alone and miserable, her burned hands resting in her lap. It didn’t take her long to start feeling sorry for herself. Her hands were stinging, and the pain only added to her melancholy mood. She noticed several unattached women giving her husband coy looks. She edged closer to Royce and frowned at the shameless wenches.
She didn’t like being ignored. Royce came to that conclusion when she kept squeezing herself closer to his side on the long bench. If she moved again, she’d be sitting on his lap.
He finally took mercy on her. “Are you enjoying yourself, Nicholaa?” he asked.
She lifted her shoulders in a dainty shrug. “Where did you sleep last night?”
Nicholaa turned away from Royce to glare at an ugly redheaded woman who was trying to get her husband’s attention. “Well?”
“Look at me when you ask me a question,” he commanded.
He patiently waited until she’d complied with that order, then said, “I slept with my wife.”
“I’m your wife.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yes, you are.”
“You slept with me?”
“That’s what I just said, woman.”
“You needn’t sound irritated. I don’t remember last night, and I did wonder. So you slept with me.”
She couldn’t seem to get it straight in her mind. Royce held his patience. She was such a joy to watch when she was pricked about something. She was certainly pricked now. She was trying not to frown and failing miserably. He decided to goad her a little. “Actually, I slept under you. You were on top.”
Her face turned flame red. Royce laughed. The loud booming sound drew several startled glances.
“You made me sleep on top of—”
“You wanted to.”
“I was drugged.”
Her shoulders straightened. “I’m not taking a draft tonight.”
He agreed when he saw how upset she was becoming.
Nicholaa was pulled into a conversation with Matilda then. Royce noticed she didn’t move away from his side. She seemed to want to be close to him. He didn’t understand why, but he liked having her by his side. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to put his arm around her shoulders. Nicholaa didn’t shrug his arm away. A few minutes later, when Matilda finished relating an amusing story about one of her daughters and turned back to her husband, Nicholaa gave in to her weariness and leaned against Royce’s side.
To outsiders, she supposed she and Royce looked like a happily wedded couple who couldn’t wait to have a bit of time alone together. In part, that was true, Nicholaa thought. She couldn’t wait to get Royce alone. And the minute she did, she was going to give that unbending brute a fair piece of her mind. Lord, he was inconsiderate. Why, every time she thought about the way he’d bellowed her name and arrogantly motioned for her to come to him, she started seething.
It didn’t take her any time at all to work herself into a fine state of fury. Then Royce ruined it. He started rubbing the tension right out of her shoulders in such a soothing way she couldn’t help but snuggle up against him. She yawned, too.
“Do your hands still burn, Nicholaa?” he whispered against her ear.
A shiver of pleasure made her neck tickle. The tenderness in his voice felt like a caress. She knew it probably wasn’t proper to be pressed up against his side in front of the guests, but she was too weary to care.
Besides, it was chilly inside the hall and Royce was so incredibly warm. She told herself she only wanted to borrow a little of his heat.
She wiggled a little closer to him before she gave him her answer. “My hands do sting a little, Royce. It isn’t unbearable, though.”
He started rubbing her shoulders again. She liked that. She liked his scent, too. Royce smelled so clean, so masculine. When he turned back to talk to his friends, she didn’t feel as though he was completely ignoring her anymore, because every now and then he’d gently stroke the back of her neck or brush his hand against her upper arm, just to let her know, she thought, that he hadn’t forgotten her.
King William suddenly stood up, waved his hand for silence, and then commanded that Sir Clayton come forward.
A tall, thin man with a long, narrow nose and thick jowls separated himself from the group and made a low bow. He was dressed in purple garb, a bright red cape draped across one shoulder.
King William took his seat, and everyone hurried to find a chair. In a matter of minutes silence reigned in the hall.
Clayton made quite a flourish when he motioned for his assistants to come forward. Two young men, dressed alike, stood on either side of Clayton. The assistants held trumpets in their hands.
Nicholaa straightened away from Royce’s side, her curiosity piqued. She assumed the trio would sing for the gathering.
King William clapped his hands. The assistants sounded the trumpets, then walked forward. Clayton followed.
Royce was also watching now. He leaned back against the bench, then nudged Nicholaa to do the same.
She turned to smile at him. “Are they going to sing for us?” she whispered.
He shook his head. “That’s Clayton the herald,” he explained.
Nicholaa didn’t understand. She knew that the herald was the living memory of the times, the history teller of important events. The Saxons also used heralds, of course, and although she knew what the duties were, she couldn’t imagine why Clayton was giving an accounting now.
She leaned into Royce’s side again. “Is he going to tell what happened at Hastings?” she whispered.
He shook his head. “He’s going to recount a special legend, Nicholaa. Pay attention. You’ll understand soon enough.”
Clayton had already begun his tale. Nicholaa caught the end of his remarks about the importance of securing a lucrative holding in King William’s name.
The herald’s voice was strong yet musical, too. In no time at all, Nicholaa had become engrossed in the remarkable story.
Clayton paused, turned to smile at Nicholaa, and then turned back to the group and continued. “Three other Norman knights had tried to capture the Saxon. Each man had failed.
“Sir Gregory was the first to request the challenge. The eager young knight, bold in heart and soul, was anxious to prove his value to his overlord. He begged to be given the duty, and when his plea was granted, the knight boasted to everyone within shouting distance that he would return victorious in less than a week’s time. The rumors, after all, whispered that it wasn’t a Saxon warrior in charge of the stronghold, and if that talk turned out to be true, the battle wouldn’t be worthy of a single retelling. Gregory was so confident of his success that he took only thirty soldiers with him, and he fairly strutted out of the camp.”
A loud round of laughter erupted from the crowd. Clayton waited until the noise had died down, then continued. “Alas,” he drawled in a long sigh, “Sir Gregory didn’t strut back. He couldn’t, for the arrow protruding from his backside made an arrogant swagger impossible. As soon as the arrow was pulled free from his flesh, the now humble Gregory threw himself on his knees in front of his leader. His head, I assure you, was bowed low enough to touch the ground. After admitting his failure, the knight begged our beloved William to have off with his head for his shame.”
Nicholaa let out a little gasp. King William was chuckling over the story and dabbing at his eyes with a linen cloth. It was obvious that he was thoroughly enjoying this tale.
Clayton bowed to his king and then once again continued. “‘Were the rumors true?’ King Wiliam asked. ‘Was it a mere woman who bested my noble knight?’
“Gregory, I can attest, made no attempt to come up with a plausible excuse. He could only give his lord the truth, no matter how humiliating the outcome. ‘Aye, my lord,’ he said, ‘it was a woman directing the defense.’”
Clayton once again waited until the laughter subsided, then continued his explanation. “The duke of Normandy—for our lord wasn’t officially anointed king of England then—clasped his hands behind his back and stared down at the knight kneeling before him. Our lord had won handsomely at the battle near Hastings, but there were still more battles to win before England would belong to him. His men, he informed me, were weary from battle.
“Be it known to all,” Clayton continued, “that William is a shrewd judge of men. He quickly noticed that from the minute Gregory came limping back into camp, his soldiers had shed their fatigued expressions and had eagerly crowded around the young warrior to hear his tale. By the time Gregory finished his confession of failure, the men were smiling in amusement. No one, you see, could believe a woman could best a Norman knight.