“I believe this is the worst supper I’ve ever tried to eat,” Hugh announced. “It’s more salt than meat, Royce.”
“Aye, it is,” Royce agreed.
Hugh stood up. “I’m weary this evening. I’m taking to my bed. Now where did sweet Clarise wander off to?”
“She’s hiding in the buttery,” Nicholaa blurted out. She then apologized for the supper and bade Hugh a good night. She didn’t realize how slurred her words were or how disheveled she looked. Her hair had fallen forward and hid half her face. She was fully occupied trying to keep her head from slipping off her hand.
Royce was exasperated with her. He waited until Hugh had left the hall, then motioned for Alice to leave and turned his attention to his wife. Just as he was about to demand that she explain her actions, she shifted and almost fell off her stool. Royce caught her before she hit the floor, then leaned back and pulled her onto his lap.
The room was spinning around Nicholaa. She reached up to put her arms around his neck, then changed her mind. She awkwardly tried to hide her hands in the folds of her gown.
“What are you doing?” he asked when she continued to pull at her gown.
“Hiding my hands from you.”
“I don’t want you to see my scars. They’re ugly,” she announced. She pressed her cheek against his shoulder. “You smell nice, Royce. Like the outdoors.”
Royce ignored the compliment and reached around her to take hold of her hands. He forced her to open her fists, then looked at the marks. He thought her skin must still feel tender, because the palms were bright red.
When he didn’t immediately tell her what he was thinking, she whispered, “They’re ugly, aren’t they?”
She leaned away from him so she could see if he was teasing her or telling her the truth.
Royce almost laughed when he saw her disgruntled expression. A lock of hair hung over her left eye, and she looked half asleep.
“You have to tell me the truth,” she announced. “They’re ugly.”
“No, they aren’t ugly.”
“They aren’t pretty.”
“Then what are they?”
His smile was filled with tenderness. “They’re just scars, Nicholaa.”
She was appeased. He kissed the frown away from her brow.
She smiled with pleasure. “I’m no longer perfect,” she said in a cheerful voice that made him want to laugh again. “What say you to that?” She didn’t give him time to answer. “Do hold still, Royce. You make the room spin when you move like that.”
Since he hadn’t moved at all, he didn’t know how to correct that problem for her. He was still looking at her hands when he noticed the hard calluses on two of her fingers.
“Where did you get these calluses?” he asked.
The top of her head bumped his chin when she turned to examine her left hand. “What calluses?” she asked.
She was nearly doubled over in her bid to see her hands. It obviously hadn’t occurred to her that she could have lifted her arm.
He controlled his exasperation. “The calluses on your other hand, Nicholaa.”
He lifted her right hand. She frowned as she stared at her fingers, then smiled. “Oh, those calluses. They’re from the loops, of course. Where else could I have gotten them?”
She’d lost him with that explanation. “What loops?”
“The ones my two fingers fit through.”
He closed his eyes and prayed for patience. “But what do the loops belong to, Nicholaa?” he prodded again.
She cuddled up against his chest, wondering why he’d gone all tense on her. Then she remembered how she’d felled him with a stone. Since she’d decided to be completely honest with him, she guessed she’d have to confess this transgression.
“I hit you with a stone from my sling, but I already admitted that to you. I wasn’t at all sorry, either. I could have killed you if that had been my intent.”
She paused to yawn noisily, then added, “Thurston taught me how to use a sling. Did you know that?”
He was too busy reacting to her confession to answer her. She’d tried to tell him before, he remembered, but he hadn’t believed her. He did now.
“Lord, I’m sleepy,” she whispered.
Royce let out a sigh. He decided to put the matter of the sling aside for now and get to the heart of the matter before his wife passed into a drunken slumber. From the look of her, that wouldn’t be long in coming.
“Did you want to get me drunk?” he asked.
“So I could seduce you.”
She couldn’t be more specific than that, he decided. “You thought you needed to get me drunk in order to seduce me?”
She nodded. The top of her head bumped his chin again. She rubbed the ache away. “You are sotted, aren’t you? You drank at least twelve goblets of ale. I counted.”
She’d miscalculated by at least eight cups, unless she’d kept count of her own consumption by mistake. “Have you ever been drunk, Nicholaa?”
Her gasp nearly knocked her off his lap. “Good heavens no. That wouldn’t be ladylike, Royce. Only common wenches get drunk. Besides, I really don’t like the taste of ale very much.”
“You could have fooled me,” he drawled.
She smiled. “Yes, I did fool you,” she agreed. “I got you good and sotted, and you didn’t even notice. Wasn’t that clever of me?”
“You still haven’t explained why,” he reminded her.
“I think you’re very handsome, Royce, but you already know that.”
That explanation didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t irritated, though. Nay, he was astonished. “You think I’m handsome?”
“Of course,” she answered. “I have this plan, you see, and you’re following it quite nicely.”
“And what is this plan?”
“Now that you’re sotted, I’m going to confess my lies to you. You’re too drunk to be upset. Then I’m going to seduce you. Do you see how easy it is, husband?”
“No,” he answered. “Tell me why it’s easy.”
“In the morning you aren’t going to remember what I told you.”
The woman was as daft as a donkey. “What if I do remember?”
She frowned over that question a long while before answering. “Then you’ll have bedded me and only half remember. Alice says so.”
“For the love of God, Nicholaa—”
She poked him in the shoulder. “It’s a sound plan, Royce.”
He rolled his eyes heavenward. The plan belonged to a half-wit. “Why go to all this trouble, wife?” he asked then. “Couldn’t you have just explained?”
“Why must you complicate everything?” she asked. “This is my plan, not yours. We have to do it my way. You’re confusing me with all your questions.”
She was getting all worked up. Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked as if she might break into a fit of weeping.
He tried to soothe her. “All right,” he said. “We’ll do it your way. Let’s begin with the lies, shall we? Then we can move on to my seduction.”
“It’s my seduction, not yours.”
He didn’t argue with her. “I assume there is more than one lie. Is that correct?”
“Which one would you like to tell me about first?”
“The big one.”
When she didn’t continue, he prodded her. “I’m waiting, Nicholaa.”
“I’m not Ulric’s mama.”
She tensed in anticipation of his reaction. Royce didn’t say anything. She leaned away from him to see if he was frowning. He wasn’t. She took heart. “I’ve never even been married.”
She shook her head. “No, you don’t see,” she whispered. “You think I’m experienced, but the truth is just the opposite.”
He still didn’t react. She didn’t know what to make of that. Perhaps he didn’t understand. “Royce, this is going to upset you, and I’m sorry for that, but I’m really still . . .”
She couldn’t get the word out. He took mercy on her. “You’re still a virgin?”
“And you believed I would be upset by this news?”
“You needn’t smile at me, Royce. I had to tell you before I seduced you. You were bound . . .” She stopped in mid-sentence to frown up at him. “You would have noticed, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I would have noticed.”
“There, do you see?” she asked. She leaned farther back and would have kept right on going if Royce hadn’t tightened his hold around her waist.
“Tomorrow you won’t remember any of this discussion. You can’t know little Ulric belongs to my brother. It wouldn’t be safe for the baby, especially when you find out Thurston’s still alive.”
She started getting misty-eyed again. Royce pulled her close. “Nicholaa, I know you’re having a little trouble concentrating now, but I want you to try to understand what I’m going to say to you.”
“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps just a little.”
“I don’t want you to be even a little afraid,” he whispered. He squeezed her to emphasize that statement, then continued. “Do you know, you have a much stronger temper than I do.”
She thought about that remark for a long minute, then nodded. “Thank you, husband.”
He held his exasperation. “It wasn’t a compliment, just an observation.”
“I admit I do raise my voice every now and again,” she whispered.
“You’re turning the topic, Nicholaa. I want to talk about this unreasonable fear you have of me.”
“It isn’t unreasonable,” she muttered. “And I’m not overly afraid. I’m just a cautious sort, that’s all.”
“Caution is all good and well, wife, but you needn’t be cautious around me. No matter how often you provoke me, I’ll never hurt you.”
“You hurt my feelings when you ignore me.”
She let out a sigh. “I don’t see how.”
“Tell me what happened the day we were attacked.”
“I know you interfered. I want to know why.”
“I shouldn’t tell you,” she whispered. “But I want to tell you. I don’t know what to do. You’re going to be furious with Thurston. Please don’t hate my brother. He didn’t realize he was trying to kill you. I mean to say, he probably meant to fell you, but he couldn’t have known you were my husband.”
“Nicholaa, will you try to make sense?” he ordered. “Thurston is still alive? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Oh, God, how did you guess?”
“Your brother’s in league with the resisters against William.”
His cunning amazed her. “How did you guess that?” she asked him.
He didn’t remind her that she’d just told him. “And Thurston is Ulric’s father, isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” she cried out. “But you won’t remember whom the baby belongs to in the morning, Royce. Promise me.”
He was suddenly furious with her. “Do you actually believe I’d hurt the baby just because his father is my enemy?”
She snuggled up against his shoulder. “No, you wouldn’t hurt him, but you might use him to get Thurston. My brother was leading the soldiers who attacked us, Royce. I saw him.”
“Damn it all, Nicholaa, I would never use Ulric in such a way. How could you think . . .”
He quit protesting when he realized he’d already done just that by using the baby to force Nicholaa to leave her sanctuary. It was only logical for her to assume he’d use Ulric again.
His anger evaporated. His mind was reeling with the information she’d given him. “Nicholaa? Did you see your brother before or after you took the arrow in your shoulder?”
She put her arms around his neck. Her fingers began to toy with his hair. He stopped that distraction by pulling her hands away. “Answer me,” he commanded.
She let out a sigh. “It was Thurston’s arrow that hit me,” she said. “You were his target.”
His smile was tender. “That’s why you screamed, isn’t it?”
“I was afraid for you,” she said. She kissed his chin, then fell back against him. “You can’t blame my brother. He didn’t know I was there. He loves me, Royce. He would never intentionally hurt me.”
It all fell into place now. Thurston must have realized what he’d done after he dispatched the arrow. Nicholaa’s white-blond hair must have been visible to the Saxon warrior. Royce remembered the anguished bellow that came from the crest and mingled with his own outraged roar. Aye, Thurston knew what he’d done. That was the reason he’d ordered the retreat.
God help Nicholaa. She’d had a hell of a time since she’d met him. He kissed the top of her head and then stood up, cushioning her in his arms.
“Do you doubt that Thurston loves me?” she asked.
“No, I don’t doubt his love,” he answered. “I do doubt his eyesight,” he added in a mutter. “He damn well should have—”
“Thurston has wonderful eyesight,” she announced. “I’ve better, though. Do you know I can hit any target with my sling?”
She reached up and touched the small jagged scar on his forehead. “That’s exactly where I meant to hit you, husband.”
He couldn’t help noticing how cheerful she sounded. “You do not regret injuring your husband?” he asked, his amusement obvious.
“You weren’t my husband then,” she answered. “I use arrows, too, sometimes.” She kissed his chin again, then whispered, “I’m always accurate. The first knight your William sent to seize my holding took one of my arrows home with him.”
Royce had just started carrying her up the steps. He stopped and looked down at her. She was looking thoroughly pleased with herself. “You’re the one who put the arrow in Gregory’s backside?”