“Do you mean the dagger?”
“No,” she answered. “My proof will arrive at dawn. Three men are coming. If I haven’t killed you by then, they’re going to kill both of us. Then you’ll know I was telling you the truth.”
He leaned down and kissed her brow. “You really are telling me the truth, aren’t you?”
“How could you believe I’d make up something this vile?”
She moved away from his shoulder so she could glare at him. She was surprised to see how furious he was, for his voice had been mild when he spoke to her. She lost her frown immediately and nodded with satisfaction. It was high time the man showed a proper reaction.
Lord, she was relieved, too. His anger actually comforted her. He would know what to do. He’d take care of this threat. She snuggled up against him and let out a loud, unladylike yawn. “Now do you see why I thought we should leave tonight?”
“Nicholaa, I want you to start at the beginning,” he ordered. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
She didn’t argue with him. When she finished her explanation, he was squeezing her hard around her waist. He was frowning like a devil, too. The scar on his face had turned stark white again. He looked like a warrior now, even though he wasn’t dressed in battle gear.
The strangest feeling came over her. God’s truth, he made her feel safe. How long had it been since she’d felt that way? Nicholaa couldn’t remember.
She didn’t even worry about leaving now. Royce would protect her no matter where they were.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’ll take care of it, Nicholaa.”
“Stand up now and let me help you get your clothes off,” he said quietly.
He ignored the startled tone in her voice. “So you can sleep, wife. I’ll wait until your hands have healed before bedding you.”
“Hell, you don’t have to sound so relieved.”
His surly tone of voice told her she’d offended him. She guessed she’d dented his pride. She stood up and faced him. “Royce, the first time between a husband and a wife should be special, shouldn’t it?”
She was blushing like a virgin. She couldn’t look him in the eye, either. Her gaze was centered on the floor. He couldn’t resist goading her just a little. “But you’ve been married before, remember? You’ve had a child, too, or have you forgotten Ulric?”
“Of course I remember Ulric,” she rushed out. “I was just trying to explain that, with or without experience, the first time between us should be . . .”
“Special?” he said when she didn’t continue.
She nodded. “I would rather not have to worry about someone putting a dagger between your shoulder blades while you’re . . . otherwise occupied.”
He untied her belt, tossed it aside, and then stood up. He tried to detach himself from what he was doing as he pulled the bliaut up, over her head. The rest of her clothes followed, save for the thin-as-air chemise.
A heavy silence fell between them. She stood as still as a statue. She didn’t feel like one, though. Royce was already regretting his rash promise not to bed her.
“You didn’t mention your own shoulder blades,” he remarked in an attempt to ease the tension building inside him. “You could well be the first to feel the enemy’s blade.” His voice sounded harsh to him.
She stood before him, her toes curled into the rushes, her head bowed low. Lord, she was even more beautiful without her clothes on. Her legs were so incredibly long. Her skin was smooth all over, and in the flickering candlelight she looked like a golden goddess from magical days.
The provocative scoop-neck chemise left little to his imagination. The swell of her full br**sts pressing against the embroidered fabric made his chest tighten.
Yes, she was beautiful. And she belonged to him.
“You wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.”
“What did you say?”
“I said you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.”
It took all his discipline to concentrate on the conversation. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“Why are you frowning? Are you angry with me?”
He shook his head and almost laughed. The innocent had absolutely no idea what thoughts were going through his mind. He took a deep breath and then put his bride to bed. He covered her with the blankets and turned back to the door.
“Nicholaa?” he called over his shoulder.
“When we reach my holding,” he said, stressing his ownership. “I won’t allow any more lies. From the moment we take up residence, you’ll always tell me the truth.”
“Are you thinking I lied about the woman telling me to kill you?”
“No,” he answered. He turned and stared at her. “I’m talking about the other lies you’ve told me. They end when we reach Rosewood. Give me your promise.”
She didn’t want to promise him anything. “What lies do you mean?” she asked, trying to find out exactly what he knew.
“It isn’t necessary for me to explain,” he countered. “Just promise me, Nicholaa.” A hard glint came into his eyes as he waited for her to give him what he wanted.
“Royce, understand this,” she whispered. “I will do whatever I have to do to protect Ulric and Justin. That promise I give you now.”
“Is lying to me your way of protecting them?”
“In the past, when I—”
“I’m talking about the future,” he interrupted. “From the minute we reach Rosewood,” he added. “No more lies.”
She took a deep breath. “All right,” she whispered. “I promise you there won’t be any more lies.”
Royce turned around and started for the door again. He’d already dismissed his wife from his thoughts. There was much to be done before dawn. He had reached for the door latch when Nicholaa called out to him.
“Royce, my father always kissed my mother good night. It was a family tradition.”
He turned back to her. “And?”
“It’s a Saxon tradition, too.” Another minute passed. “I was just wondering if it was a Norman tradition, too.” She was trying to act nonchalant.
He shrugged his answer.
“Traditions should be continued, Royce, especially during unsettled times.”
The man wasn’t catching on. It was apparent he still didn’t understand she wanted him to kiss her. “So they won’t be forgotten,” she muttered.
“Nicholaa? Do you want me to kiss you?”
So much for subtlety, she thought to herself. “Yes.”
As soon as she saw him coming toward her, she closed her eyes. Royce sat down on the side of the bed. He leaned down and kissed her brow. She told him thank you. He kissed the bridge of her nose. She said thank you again.
Her face looked as if it had been burned by the sun. He knew she was embarrassed, but didn’t have the faintest idea why. He was too pleased that she wanted his touch to dwell on her daft behavior.
“Traditions are v-very important to m-me,” she stammered. “Now that you’re my husband, they have to be important to you, too.”
That statement gave him pause. “They do?”
“Yes,” she answered. She opened her eyes to look up at him. “It’s not that I want you to kiss me. It’s just that—”
She quit trying to explain when his mouth settled on hers. He stole her concentration completely. His mouth was so wonderfully warm. His fingers threaded through her hair to hold her captive, although that wasn’t really necessary; she didn’t want to move. The kiss was gentle, undemanding. It left her breathless. And wanting.
Royce pulled back just a little. “Open your mouth for me, Nicholaa,” he Whispered.
She barely had time to do as he commanded before his mouth took possession again. His tongue swept inside her mouth then, to taste, to stroke, to drive her wild.
He held her still as his mouth slanted over hers again and again. He felt her tremble, and in the back of his mind was the thought that he was probably scaring the hell out of her. She was such an innocent.
Then her tongue touched his and she let out a low, ragged moan. He could feel the passion in her response. Stunned, he damn near lost his control then and there.
He forced himself to pull back. His smile was tender when he saw the result of his touch. Her lips were swollen, rosy, and she wore the most astonished expression.
He rubbed his thumb across her lower lip.
“I don’t believe my father ever kissed my mother quite like that,” she whispered.
There was a definite sparkle in her eyes. He realized she was teasing him. He responded in kind. “With all those children? I think he did.”
He bent down and kissed her again, a quick no-nonsense kiss without a hint of passion in it. She couldn’t hide her disappointment when he stood up. “Now go to sleep, Nicholaa,” he ordered. “The tradition has been continued.”
She didn’t say thank you. She sighed instead. Nicholaa was sound asleep before Royce reached the door.
Two fresh guards had just arrived to replace the pair in the hallway. All four soldiers were seasoned knights under Royce’s command. One soldier held a goblet filled with the sleeping draft the healer had just delivered. Royce ordered the soldier to throw it away. He then commanded another guard to tell Lawrence he needed to speak to him.
The second-in-command arrived a few minutes later. Royce still hadn’t dismissed the soldiers from their watch. He leaned against the door and quickly explained the situation. When he was finished, he gave his orders.
By Royce’s command, the leader of the king’s guard was to be alerted of the possible threat immediately, and the number of men on the night watch would be tripled. A clean sweep was to be made of the castle and the grounds. The old woman who’d told Nicholaa to kill him might still be lingering nearby, and Royce wanted her found.
“What about the men who are coming to challenge you at dawn?” Lawrence asked when Royce had finished giving his orders.
“I’ll take care of that possible threat,” Royce answered. “I hold little hope they’ll actually show up, though. They used the old woman to give Nicholaa her duty and will now leave her to suffer the consequences on her own. It would be too dangerous for them to try to get to either one of us.” He expelled a long breath. “God, I hope I’m wrong,” he admitted. “I would like for them to try. I want a chance to kill the bastards. They frightened my wife.”
Lawrence noticed that his baron seemed more furious over the fact that Nicholaa had been frightened than he did over the possibility that someone was trying to kill him. It was a telling reaction, to the vassal’s way of thinking.
After bowing, Lawrence and the other soldiers left to carry out their assignments. Royce stood with his back protecting the door until two of the soldiers returned. He went back inside the chamber when the hallway was once again guarded by his trusted men.
Less than an hour later a knock sounded. Royce had the door open before Lawrence had let his hand drop back to his side.
The vassal moved out of the way so Royce could join him in the corridor. “We found the old woman,” he announced in a low voice. “She’s dead. Her neck was broken. Someone tossed her body behind a couple of crates. Do we round up all the Saxons in residence and question them?”
Royce shook his head. “The Saxon barons who have pledged their loyalty to William would be insulted by our distrust. That wouldn’t matter to our king, of course, but it wouldn’t serve our purposes. If there is a Saxon traitor in league with those who still resist the king, he certainly won’t give us any answers. We’ll have to find another way to ferret out the bastard.”
Lawrence nodded agreement. “There are many people here, Baron,” he said. “I don’t recognize a fair number of them. The crowd will make it difficult for us to find the culprit.”
“Damn, I wish we could set a trap now and be done with it,” Royce muttered.
“A trap with you as the bait?” Lawrence asked. “It would be too difficult to control the outcome, my lord.”
Royce shrugged. “It could be done,” he countered. “Still, I won’t take the chance. Nicholaa’s safety comes first. I’m anxious to get her home. Once I’m certain no one can get to her, I can turn my attention to finding the bastard behind this scheme. This isn’t finished, Lawrence. They’ll try again. I’m sure of it.”
“When do you wish to leave?”
“Tomorrow, by midday,” Royce answered. “I’ll talk to William in the morning.”
Royce dismissed his vassal and went back inside the chamber. Nicholaa was sleeping soundly. The dark smudges under her eyes were still noticeable, and he wished he could let her stay in London a few more days, until she regained her strength.
There wasn’t time, however. He wouldn’t rest until he knew she was safe. His gentle wife didn’t appear worried, though. She couldn’t have slept so peacefully if she had been.
He tucked the covers around her shoulders. Wives were a damn nuisance, he decided. If a husband cared about his wife, the enemy could use her to get to him. They could, in effect, use her as a weapon to destroy him.
If a husband cared, he thought again.
He was desperate to get Nicholaa home to Rosewood where she would be safe. He shook his head. The evidence couldn’t be denied. How in God’s name had it happened? And so quickly, too? He thought about the week of hell she’d put him through on the journey to London, and had to shake his head again.
And then he grinned. He didn’t understand how or why it had happened. Only one thing was certain: he cared.
The assassins didn’t arrive at dawn.
Royce wasn’t surprised. He was disappointed, though.
He let Nicholaa sleep several more hours before finally prodding her awake. She was pleased to hear that no one had tried to breach their quarters.
Baron Samuel arrived a few minutes later. Royce helped Nicholaa into her robe and stood like a sentry by her side while the healer looked at her injuries. As soon as Lawrence arrived, Royce took his leave to speak to the king.
Samuel wrapped fresh bandages around Nicholaa’s hands and arms. The healer had promised to leave the bindings off, but since she was leaving for her home, he thought the raw skin should be protected from the brittle winter air. She didn’t argue with him, however.