Samuel left her a small packet of herbs with instructions to mix a pinch with clear water to make a salve to apply to the injuries each morning.
Nicholaa thanked him profusely. Mary, the sweet-tempered serving girl, was waiting to help her mistress dress when Royce walked into the room and motioned to her to leave.
“I would like Mary to stay,” Nicholaa said. “I need her assistance, Royce.”
“I’ll help you,” Royce answered. “Lawrence, see to your duties now. We’ll leave in one hour.” He held up the packet of herbs. “What is this?” he demanded.
She told him. When she’d finished her explanation, Royce walked over to the hearth and tossed the packet into the fire. Nicholaa was too astonished to try to stop him.
“Why in heaven’s name did you do that?”
He wouldn’t answer her. His mood didn’t improve, either. He finally allowed Mary to come back into the chamber, though, when Nicholaa asked him to braid her hair. He couldn’t be bothered to perform such a menial task, of course, but he wouldn’t leave the chamber, either. Poor Mary was so intimidated by his presence that she couldn’t get the braid done. Her hands were shaking too much.
As soon as Nicholaa dismissed the servant, she turned to Royce. “What is the matter with you? Don’t you trust me enough to let me have a few minutes alone with my servant to see to personal matters, husband? Do you still believe I would try to escape? Is that the reason for your irritable mood?”
He looked exasperated with her. “I’m thinking of your safety, wife,” he announced. “I don’t trust any of the servants. The sooner we leave for home, the better my mood will be.”
She shook her head. “I’m not the one in danger, husband,” she countered. “You are. Besides, the servants are in the king’s employ. Surely none of them would try to harm me.”
He clasped his hands behind his back and scowled at her. “Nicholaa, it’s obvious that not all the servants are loyal to William. The old woman who came into our chamber last night to give you your assignment certainly wasn’t loyal. There could be others. You’re as much in jeopardy as I am,” he added.
He let out a sigh. “You’re my wife now. The Saxons could use you to get to me. That’s why. Now quit your questions. It’s time we left.”
“How could the enemy use me to get to you?” she asked, completely ignoring his order to stop questioning him.
He didn’t answer her.
They left London a few minutes later. Nicholaa rode with Royce. She noticed that the soldiers who escorted them were older than the ones who’d accompanied them to London. The younger knights now rode at the back of the procession.
“How many ride with us?” she asked Royce.
Now what did that mean? Nicholaa decided against prodding her husband for an answer. The set of his jaw indicated he wasn’t in the mood for conversation.
By the time they made camp for the night, Nicholaa was too exhausted to care about her husband’s mood. She slept inside the small tent on a pallet of furs he’d fashioned for her, but when she awakened during the night she found herself snuggled up on Royce’s lap. She didn’t know how she’d gotten there.
Two days later, riding at breakneck pace, they arrived at the edge of Nicholaa’s holding. They wouldn’t reach the keep until the following morning, however, for the hills they still had to climb would make the journey arduous. They would have to slow their pace.
Nicholaa didn’t mind. The weather had taken a turn for the better. The sun shone bright, and the breeze had lost a little of its winter sting. The scent of spring was in the air. Nicholaa’s spirits lifted. She listed all the things she would do as soon as she arrived home. First she would change her clothes, and then she’d hurry over to the abbey to see Justin and Ulric.
She told Royce her intentions while they ate supper together.
“You aren’t leaving Rosewood,” he announced. He handed her a thick crust of bread. “Justin and Ulric will come to you.”
She must have been overly tired from the long day’s ride. Surely that was the reason she became so irritated with her husband now. “Why must you be so difficult to get along with?” she demanded.
He seemed genuinely surprised by her question. “I’m not difficult to get along with,” he countered.
He suddenly reached out and pulled her onto his lap. He wrapped one arm around her waist. When she turned to protest, he shoved a bit of cheese into her mouth.
Neither said a word until the meal was finished. Then Nicholaa leaned back against Royce’s shoulder and said, “Are you going to be pleasant once we reach home?”
That question was too foolish to answer. He was always pleasant—except, of course, when he was in battle. He wasn’t pleasant then. Lord, he was too weary to think about such things now. “Are you ready to sleep?”
“I’m ready to talk to my husband,” she muttered. “I would like to discuss our future.”
She tilted her face up, and Royce leaned down and kissed her. Hard. He thought only to turn her thoughts away from nagging him into conversation, but the kiss quickly overshadowed all other motives.
It wasn’t a gentle kiss. It was hot, demanding, thoroughly arousing. He couldn’t seem to get enough of her. His tongue swept inside to mate with hers. He let out a low growl that mingled with her sigh of pleasure.
In no time at all she forgot where they were. Royce didn’t. He ended the kiss and pushed her head down on his shoulder.
“You will sleep now,” he ordered.
She was too shaken to answer. Her face rested against his chest, and she could hear his heart racing. Nicholaa suddenly didn’t mind his abruptness; her discovery was too pleasing. Royce might not want to admit it, but the kiss had affected him, too.
She let out a little sigh, closed her eyes, and yawned. She was just about to drift off to sleep when Royce whispered her name.
“Your hands will be healed in two days.”
His voice had turned hard, demanding. “They will?” she asked, wondering how he could make such a prophecy. What did it matter to him how long it took for the injuries to heal?
And then she remembered. He’d promised her he wouldn’t bed her until the bandages were off. Nicholaa smiled.
He wanted her. She thought she should probably be a little frightened of the bedding to come, for the unknown was always worrisome. Her mother had told her only that it was a commonplace occurrence between husband and wife, necessary for the begetting of heirs, and fully approved by the church.
None of those reasons eased her worry as much as Royce’s gentle touch did, though. He really wanted her. That was all that mattered to her now. Nicholaa suddenly needed to hear him tell her so. “Will you be pleased when my hands are healed?”
He didn’t answer her for the longest while. He tightened his hold around her waist, rubbed his chin against the top of her head, and when she’d finally come to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to say anything more, he spoke. “Yes, Nicholaa, I’ll be pleased.”
Her heartbeat quickened when she heard the caress in his voice.
She couldn’t go to sleep for a long time. Her mind was racing with all the new responsibilities she now had to take on as wife and mistress of Rosewood.
Her mother had taught her all the gentle skills a lady should possess, but she hadn’t said much about a wife’s duties to her husband. Nicholaa did know, however, that as mistress of Rosewood, it would be up to her to create a happy, peaceful home.
Her mother had taught by example, not by lecture. Her father had liked order, Nicholaa remembered, and her mother had seen that he got it. She’d pampered him and, by her actions, taught him to pamper her. No matter what chaos ruled beyond the walls, when her father returned to his home, Nicholaa’s mother would rush outside to greet him. Sometimes Nicholaa would stand by her mother’s side on the top step of the castle. Her father, a fierce-looking man when dressed in battle gear, would usually be scowling and looking weary to his bones as he rode up the last hill. Nicholaa was never afraid of him, though. She knew her mother could cajole him out of his black mood, so magical was her smile.
It always worked. By the time her father reached the bottom step, he’d be smiling, too. He’d kiss his wife, hoist Nicholaa up on his shoulders, and then decree in a booming voice that he was a starving man in need of his supper.
Nicholaa was comforted by that memory from childhood. A man’s home should be a sanctuary, she decided, a haven of peace and safety and—sometimes —love.
Making Royce’s life a living hell wasn’t a consideration now. She would only be hurting herself if she acted like a shrew. She was a grown woman now. It was time to behave like one.
There was also Ulric to think about. He’d lost his mama during the birthing, and Nicholaa became more convinced each day that Ulric’s papa was also dead. Thurston would have sent word to her if he’d survived the last battle.
She and Justin were Ulric’s only family now. But there was Royce, too. Was he willing to become Ulric’s father? Would he teach the boy all the lessons a father should teach his son? Nicholaa thought about the gentle way Royce had held the baby in his arms when he came to collect her from the abbey. In her heart, she was convinced he’d protect Ulric. Perhaps, in time, he would even begin to care for the child as his own.
Ulric needed a tranquil home. Nicholaa vowed then and there to put her criticisms aside. She would learn to bend a little in order to get along with her husband, and she’d teach him to bend, too.
Nicholaa snuggled up against Royce while she considered her new plan.
He told her to be still.
His voice was gruff, filled with sleepy irritation. Yet he rubbed her back when he gave the command.
She was content. The future seemed filled with promise, now that she’d worked it all out in her mind.
It was all so simple. Royce was the first trainer of men. His duty had been determined years before, when William recognized his talent. Matilda had told Nicholaa several stories about Royce’s mighty feats. She’d been duly impressed.
Nicholaa decided not to interfere with her husband’s primary duties. She’d stay out of his way while he turned ordinary men into invincible warriors.
She had only just decided upon her duty, however. She wasn’t sure how to begin. Only one thing was certain: she and Royce were going to live together in peace and harmony even if it killed him.
Yes, she thought to herself, Royce would train his men.
And she would train him.
She had dreamed of living happily ever after, but on the following morning, Nicholaa’s certainty that the future would be filled with joy and peace was put to a terrifying test.
The procession had ridden for nearly an hour when they reached a narrow trail that led to the top of a steep hill. Royce hadn’t taken the lead, but rode in the center of his men, with Nicholaa riding by herself directly behind him, the reins wrapped around her wrist.
Royce suddenly called a halt and took over the lead, leaving Nicholaa at the base of the hill with soldiers surrounding her. He then led the first twenty soldiers to the crest above.
It was a perfect place for an ambush, Royce thought. The pathway up the hill was so narrow that his men had to ride in single file.
Royce returned for Nicholaa after the first group had spread out over the crest, their arrows nocked in preparation for a sneak attack. Nicholaa thought Royce was being overly cautious. They were almost home now, and surely the resisters to William’s rule had better things to do than attack such an isolated holding.
The set of her husband’s jaw told Nicholaa to keep her opinion to herself. She felt comforted by the extreme measures he was taking to keep everyone safe, even though they seemed a bit excessive.
The attack caught her completely by surprise. It came when the last soldier reached the crest.
Royce sounded the battle cry. The earth-shuddering shout nearly jarred her off her mount. She was suddenly surrounded by soldiers, their shields up, protecting her from harm.
Arrows rained down on them from the surrounding hills. The attackers swarmed over the hills like locusts in search of prey.
Nicholaa watched as Royce drew his sword. He nudged his stallion into a gallop, then swung the sword high above his head. It was a magnificent sight. Terrifying, too. Nicholaa murmured fast and furious Pater Nosters that God would keep her husband safe.
The soldier behind her let out a cry and fell to the ground. Nicholaa turned and saw more resisters coming up the hill from their hiding places below.
The soldiers surrounding her immediately changed tactics. One slapped Nicholaa’s horse and shouted the order to ride to the west ridge.
Nicholaa had trouble controlling her mount. She couldn’t grasp the reins with enough strength to direct the animal. The horse veered to the east. A soldier shouted to her not to ride in the direction Royce had taken.
Nicholaa paid no attention. She wanted to find her husband, to make certain he was safe, before she took cover. Her gaze scanned the hills while she frantically repeated her prayers.
Royce and his soldiers were within striking distance of the first wave of outcasts when Nicholaa spotted him.
Dear God, why did he have to be so big? He was such an easy target. Surely the enemy would take him down first.
Nicholaa tried to slow down her mount. She didn’t want to get in her husband’s way. The distraction could well cost him his life. Her attention was drawn to the top of the ridge just as she was nudging her horse to the west. A beam of sunlight bounced off the enemy’s chest armor, blinding her.
She shifted in the saddle and looked up again. A lone rider, dressed in Saxon battle attire, suddenly raised his hand high into the air—a signal for the remaining horsemen to take up the attack. Approximately fifty Saxon soldiers, shouting their battle cry, galloped down the ridge.
Nicholaa couldn’t take her gaze away from the leader. Sunlight shone all around him, giving him an almost mystical appearance. The light acted like a mirror, making him seem to be closer than he really was.
When the leader turned in his saddle and reached for an arrow, Nicholaa saw his profile.
She understood then why she’d been so mesmerized.
The Saxon leader was aiming at a target, his arrow nocked, his bowstring pulled taut.
Nicholaa started screaming.
Her brother Thurston was alive. And he was preparing to kill Royce.
Royce turned when he heard Nicholaa’s scream. He slowed his horse just as she goaded hers into a full gallop. She reached his side and literally threw herself into his arms.