Ulric’s screams finally penetrated Thurston’s rage. He walked over to the crib and picked up his son. He gently patted Ulric’s back in a bid to calm him.
“I’m taking my son with me.”
“No, you’re not,” Royce replied. “You may not give a damn about the baby’s welfare, but Nicholaa and I do. It’s cold and raining outside. You aren’t taking Ulric out into such conditions. I’ll strike a bargain with you,” he added before Thurston could protest. “When you’ve found a safe place for your son, you can send someone to get him.”
“You’ll let him go?”
Royce nodded. “I give you my word,” he said. “And now I want your word that you don’t know who threatened my wife.”
“Tell me what happened,” Thurston asked.
Royce explained about the woman who’d given Nicholaa the dagger with instructions to kill him. He could tell from Thurston’s expression that he really didn’t know about the incident.
“The Saxon barons who’ve joined William certainly can’t be trusted,” Thurston said. “We never would have given any of those men such an assignment. Look to your own people for the man,” he added. “Saxons don’t send women to do their work.”
Royce believed him. He watched as Thurston put Ulric back in his crib. The Saxon was his enemy, but he was also Nicholaa’s brother. Royce held his patience while father said good-bye to son.
Thurston took a deep breath. Reason nagged him to admit that the Norman was right. Yet he found it galling to leave his son in the enemy’s nest. He was going to have to trust the Norman to keep his word. That was even more galling.
“Ulric is going to my wife’s family. When they arrive, you will give Ulric to them.”
It was an order, not a request. Royce nodded. Then he qualified his decision. “Your wife’s family can come. If I’m convinced Ulric will be safe with them, I’ll let him go. Leave now, Thurston. You’ve used up all the time I’m going to give you.”
Thurston looked down at his son, then walked over to the opening to the hidden staircase.
“Get rid of the hate, Thurston. There’s still time. It doesn’t have to destroy you.”
If Nicholaa’s brother heard the warning, he didn’t acknowledge it. He went down the steps without a backward glance.
Royce shut the panel, then went over to the crib. Ulric was once again in a full rage. Royce lifted the baby and put him up against his shoulder the way he’d seen Nicholaa do. He soothed the infant with whispered nonsense words he’d heard his wife say, and it didn’t take him any time at all to calm the tantrum.
Ingelram was waiting in the hallway. Royce ordered him to seal both the upper and the lower entrances to the passageway.
He noticed Alice standing by the steps and motioned her forward. “The baby’s fine,” he said when he saw her frown. “He wasn’t harmed.”
Ulric was wide awake now. He leaned away from Royce’s shoulder and looked around him. Alice took the baby into her arms. “You soothed this little innocent,” she said. “Now you’d best go soothe the other one.” Alice blushed after making that suggestion. “Begging your pardon, milord, for my boldness in speaking out like that, but I’m concerned about my Nicholaa. She must surely be worn through with worry.”
Royce nodded. “Aye, Alice, she surely must,” he agreed. He patted Ulric’s head, then turned and walked down the hallway. God’s truth, he dreaded the task ahead of him, for he felt completely inadequate. He didn’t have the faintest idea how to soothe Nicholaa.
She was standing by the window, looking out into the night when Royce walked into the chamber. She turned as soon as the door squeaked open. The look on her face made his heart ache. She was terrified. Royce let out a weary sigh. He assumed she thought he’d already killed her brother and was waiting for his confirmation.
Lawrence stood by the hearth. He looked relieved to see his lord. “Lady Nicholaa’s been worried,” he called out, stating the obvious.
Royce continued to stare at his wife. “she needn’t have worried. Her brother’s still alive.”
Lawrence held his smile. He passed Royce on his way out of the room. “She wasn’t worried about Thurston, Baron. She was worried about you.”
The vassal pulled the door closed after making that telling statement.
“I wasn’t worried about you,” Nicholaa said.
“Lawrence just said you were.”
“He never lies.”
Tears blurred her vision. “I should hate you, Royce. Yes, I should. Since the moment we met, the most horrible things have happened to me. Just look at me.” She raised her hands. “I’ve got scars on both hands and another ugly one on my shoulder. It’s your fault.”
Nicholaa untied her belt and threw it on the floor. She kicked her shoes off next. “It’s because you’re a Norman. That’s why everything’s your fault.”
She pulled the bliaut over her head, tossed it aside, then grasped the underskirt and tugged it off. “Well?” she demanded. “Have you nothing to say in your defense?”
She didn’t give him time to reply. “I wouldn’t be riddled with scars if it hadn’t been for you.”
“I thought you were just prone to accidents.”
He didn’t think she heard that remark. She was too busy reciting a litany of his flaws. He didn’t smile, even when she blamed the thunderstorm on him. Royce let her rant and rave because he understood her desperate need to vent her anger and her fear. Aye, she was afraid to ask him about Thurston and Ulric.
Nicholaa had worn herself out by the time she’d stripped down to her chemise. She stood facing him, head bowed and toes curled into the rushes. She looked so vulnerable.
“Are you ready to listen to me?”
She didn’t answer him. “Nicholaa, come here.”
“No.” She walked across the room to stand in front of him. “I’m never going to obey any of your commands again, Royce.”
He didn’t think now would be a good time to point out that she’d already done just that. He put his arms around her and tried to pull her up against him.
She slapped his hands away. “I’m never going to let you touch me again, either.”
Royce wouldn’t be denied. He forced her into his arms and hugged her tight. She was ready to be comforted. She collapsed against him, wrapped her arms around his waist, and wept without restraint. She was as loud, as undisciplined as little Ulric. Royce didn’t try to calm her. He rested his chin on the top of her head and simply waited for her to finish.
The front of his tunic was soaked through by the time she was done. Nicholaa continued to hiccup against his chest for several more minutes. She was appalled by her conduct, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. She’d been so overwhelmed with relief when Royce walked into the room and she’d known for certain he was all right that she hadn’t been able to control her emotions.
She was shivering with exhaustion and cold now. Royce felt her tremble and tightened his hold. “You should get under the covers before you freeze,” he told her in a gruff whisper.
She ignored that suggestion. Nicholaa didn’t understand why, but she needed him to hold her a little while longer. “You must think I’m a baby,” she said. “I’m acting just like Ulric.”
“You might act like him, but you smell much better.”
Nicholaa heard the amusement in his voice and realized he was teasing her. It was an odd reaction to the tragic events that had taken place. “Royce?”
A long minute passed before she could get her question out. “Am I a traitor?”
The force in his denial made her jump. “Don’t be angry with me. There’s been too much anger tonight.”
He held her chin and forced her to look up at him. “I’m not angry with you. The question made me angry, that’s all. Thurston called you a traitor, didn’t he?”
Tears filled her eyes again. He was amazed she had any left. “God, Nicholaa, don’t start crying again. It’s over now. Thurston’s safe.”
“I knew he’d be safe,” she cried out. “I was worried about you.”
Her vehemence surprised him. He didn’t know if he should be insulted or not. “Have you so little faith in my ability?”
She jabbed his chest with her fingers. “Your ability has nothing to do with this.”
He looked thoroughly confused. “No, of course not.”
“Nicholaa, make sense.”
“Thurston’s my brother.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“I know him better than you do.”
“He has many fine qualities.”
“Don’t you dare defend him to me.”
She tried to turn away from him. Royce wouldn’t let her. He forced her to look up at him again, then trailed the backs of his fingers down her cheek. “He did this, didn’t he?” he asked with a frown as fierce as the welt on her face. “If you tell me he didn’t mean to strike you, I’ll completely lose my patience.”
“How did you know Thurston struck me? Did he tell you?”
“You’ve got a mark the size of a man’s fist on your face, wife. That’s how I know.”
The fury in his voice made her shiver. “You won’t lose your patience,” she said. “And that’s what I’m trying to explain to you. Thurston has a terrible temper. From the time he was a little boy, he would react before he would think. Papa was often in despair. He couldn’t seem to teach Thurston restraint. My brother doesn’t fight with honor, Royce. You do.”
His smile was filled with tenderness. “And how do you know how I fight?”
“I just know,” she answered. “You have strong values. You’ve learned to control your temper. You’re extremely patient, too. On the journey to London, when I kept trying to get away from you and you kept catching me, you never once lost your temper.”
Nicholaa was suddenly weary. She leaned against Royce again. “The war changed Thurston. He’s full of hate now. He wouldn’t have fought fairly.”
“And you believe I would?”
He kissed the top of her head, then lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bed. He was smiling inside. He didn’t think she realized how she’d just complimented him. His wife didn’t understand what was fair and what wasn’t. She obviously thought there were specific rules of conduct.
She had it all wrong, aye, but he wasn’t going to explain that in a fight there weren’t any rules. He was too pleased she’d been concerned about him.
He set her on her feet next to the bed, then reached for the ribbon that held her chemise in place. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Taking this off,” he answered.
She tried to push his hands away. The straps of the undergarment slipped down her arms. “I want it on.”
The chemise fell to the floor. Nicholaa was too embarrassed by her nakedness to argue. She jerked the covers back and got into bed. Royce got only a glimpse of a blush before she cocooned herself under the quilts.
Her shyness amused him. Royce stripped out of his clothes, blew the candle out, and got into bed. He was pleased he didn’t have to force her into his arms. The cold had done that for him. Nicholaa rolled up against his side to borrow some of his heat. He turned onto his side, wrapped his arms around her, trapped her legs between his own, and tucked her head under his chin. In minutes her shivers were gone.
He liked holding her in his arms. Her scent was light and appealing enough to drive a man to distraction. He wanted her. He let out a long sigh over that realization. It was too soon for her. He’d hurt her last night, and she needed time for the tenderness to ease. She’d been through purgatory tonight, too, and she needed time to recover from that upset as well. No, he shouldn’t touch her.
His body wasn’t paying any attention to the decisions his mind was making. He was already hard, hurting with his need to be inside her.
Hell, he had no more discipline than a goat when he was near her. Royce didn’t understand his lack of control. She was just his wife. Nothing more. It was actually a little astonishing that she had this strong an effect on him.
“What are you going to do with Thurston?” Nicholaa murmured into the darkness. Her whole body tensed in anticipation of his answer.
“I’m not going to do anything with him.”
She didn’t understand. “Did you lock him up? You’re taking him to London, aren’t you?”
She was getting all worked up again. Royce squeezed her. “I let him leave, Nicholaa.”
She was stunned by that news. She didn’t say anything for a long minute. Then she asked, “Will you get into trouble because you let him go?”
Her question was so ridiculous that he smiled. “No,” he answered dryly.
“I heard a commotion,” she said. “It sounded as though the walls had caved in.”
Nicholaa put her hand on his chest while she waited for him to explain. Her skin was so incredibly warm. Her fingers caressed him absentmindedly. He stopped her by putting his hand on hers. Another minute or so passed before she finally realized he wasn’t going to say anything more. She guessed she’d have to prod him. “Was there a fight?”
“Then what was that noise I heard?”
He let out a long sigh. She wasn’t going to give up. “The mantel fell to the floor.” He sounded half asleep.
She leaned up to look at him and saw that his eyes were closed. “It just fell?”
“Go to sleep, Nicholaa. It’s late.”
“Why did you let Thurston leave?”
“You know why.”
“You let him leave because of me, didn’t you?”
He didn’t answer her.
She kissed his chin. “Thank you.”
He opened his eyes and frowned at her. “You have nothing to thank me for,” he said in a hard, thoroughly unlikable voice. “I wanted to talk to Thurston, and that’s what I did. I gave him an opportunity to surrender. He chose not to. You do understand what that means, don’t you?”