Royce shook his head. “Damn,” he muttered.
Lawrence nodded. “The look on her face was very distressing to see,” he admitted. “She looked . . . devastated. She didn’t say anything, though. She just turned around and walked away.”
“I can just imagine what she’s thinking. She’s never going to understand. Perhaps it’s just as well she’s already gone to bed. In the morning I’ll try to reason with her.”
Thomas joined the men at the table. Royce forced the matter of his wife aside and concentrated on listening to the soldier’s report concerning the feasibility of restoring Nicholaa’s home. The report confirmed what Royce already suspected: the structure wasn’t sound enough to save.
Talk continued until midnight. Royce finally went up to his chamber, fully expecting to find Nicholaa sound asleep.
He didn’t find her at all. The chamber was empty. His first thought was that she’d left him. It was a ridiculous, illogical reaction, but she wasn’t there, damn it all, and she should have been in bed by now. His heart started slamming a wild beat inside his chest. He could almost taste his fear. If she’d left the holding, she wouldn’t survive the night. Royce suddenly felt that he was actually living a nightmare he’d had about her the night they’d reached London. In his dream, Nicholaa had been lost in the forest, and he hadn’t been able to get to her.
He shook his head. He needed to calm down, he told himself, in order to think this situation through. The woman had absolutely no reason to leave him. He’d been kind and patient with her. Dear God, if anything happened to her, he didn’t know what he’d do.
He raced out of the room. He shouted her name in a true roar, then started down the hallway, bellowing her name again.
As he passed Ulric’s chamber, the door flew open and Nicholaa stood there frowning at him. Ulric was settled against her shoulder. The baby was fretting.
Royce was so relieved to see her that he scowled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Lower your voice, Royce,” she ordered. “You’re upsetting the baby.”
“Why aren’t you in bed where you belong?”
He couldn’t seem to control his anger. He was so happy to see her that he felt like shouting. Then he realized he was. He almost laughed then. She was safe. She hadn’t left him.
And he was losing his mind. He took a deep breath. His voice was mild when he said, “Ulric needs his sleep, Nicholaa. If you must hold him, do so tomorrow.”
“He wants to be held now,” she snapped.
Royce shook his head. “Give him to me.”
“Will you quit giving orders? I’m exhausted.”
“Then go to bed.”
She was never going to understand him. “All right,” she announced. “I’ll go to bed.” She thrust Ulric into his arms and marched out of the room. “You take care of the baby,” she ordered. “Perhaps you can shout him to sleep.”
“I never shout.” He shut the door.
She was shaking with anger by the time she reached their room. God was supposed to be on her side, wasn’t he? Then why was she married to such a mean, impossible man? She couldn’t possibly love him. He was arrogant, unbending, and had to have his way all the time. There wasn’t a bit of give-and-take in his nature.
He’d actually raised his voice to her! Royce had never shouted at her before. She didn’t like it. Nicholaa was stopped short by that realization. She wanted him to change, didn’t she? No, she admitted. She wanted him to stay just the way he was.
She was losing her mind. It was exhaustion, she told herself. She fell asleep the minute she closed her eyes. She awakened an hour later when she rolled over to snuggle up against her husband and found his side of the bed empty. Her mind immediately cleared.
The baby must be giving Royce fits. She put on her robe and ran barefoot down the dark corridor.
She rushed into the baby’s chamber, then came to a quick stop. She smiled at the sight before her. Both Royce and Ulric were sound asleep. Her husband was stretched out on the bed. He’d taken his boots off but was otherwise fully clothed. Ulric was sleeping face down on Royce’s chest. The baby’s mouth was open and he was drooling all over her husband’s tunic.
Royce held the baby with both hands. Nicholaa quietly closed the door and then stood there a long, long while staring at the pair.
She wasn’t losing her mind after all. She wasn’t even confused now. She knew exactly why she’d fallen in love with Royce. He was everything a wife could ever want. He was kind, gentle, and soon, she promised herself, he’d become loving, too. She wouldn’t give up. The next time he pricked her temper, she would pull this night from her memory as a reminder to herself.
Nicholaa walked over to the side of the bed intending to move Ulric to his crib without waking her husband, but the minute she touched Royce’s hand, he opened his eyes and reached for her. He held Ulric steady with one hand and pulled her down next to him with the other.
She snuggled up against her husband’s side and closed her eyes.
“Nicholaa?” His voice was a bare whisper.
“Yes?” she whispered back.
“You belong with me.”
Lady Millicent and her husband, Baron Duncan, of the border Duncans, came to collect Ulric six days later. Nicholaa hadn’t been informed of the guests’ arrival. Quite by chance, she walked into the great hall, her apron filled with spring flowers, and saw them there. She dropped the flowers.
Ulric’s aunt was holding him and cooing, as a mother would to her own son. Duncan stood next to his wife, his hand on her shoulder. He was leaning down toward the baby and grinning like a proud father.
Nicholaa couldn’t seem to remember her manners. She stood there staring for the longest while, trying to gather her composure.
Fortunately only Royce noticed her distress. He walked over to her, just as she was kneeling to collect the flowers. “Leave them,” he whispered as he gently lifted her back to her feet.
Alice stood to one side of the entrance mopping her eyes with her sleeve. Royce motioned for her to pick up the flowers, then took Nicholaa’s hand and pulled her forward.
“Have you ever met Baron Duncan and Lady Millicent?” he asked her.
Nicholaa nodded. “At Thurston’s wedding. They seemed pleasant enough.”
“Did you know they’ve been married twelve years?”
She didn’t know, and she didn’t particularly care. She just wanted to snatch Ulric out of his aunt’s arms and take him upstairs.
But that wasn’t possible. “Do they have children of their own?”
“No,” Royce answered. “Smile, Nicholaa,” he ordered.
She smiled. Baron Duncan was staring intently at her. He was a squat-framed man with a full reddish orange beard. She remembered how kind he was to her when she and her family went to his holding for Thurston’s wedding.
She moved away from Royce and made a curtsy. Her expression was serene now. She wanted to weep with Alice, but she knew she must behave with dignity. Ulric’s welfare was more important than her own feelings. She tried to remember that.
Her voice barely quavered when she spoke. “It’s a pleasure to see both of you again.”
Ulric reached out to her. Nicholaa started to take him from Millicent, then changed her mind. She backed up a step. “He’s a very affectionate child,” she remarked, “and he’s not afraid of strangers. Most babies are, you know,” she rambled on, wishing Royce would stop her. “Ulric’s an exceptional child.”
Baron Duncan nodded. “Aye, he is exceptional,” he agreed. “We know how difficult this parting is for you, Nicholaa. Your husband has told us how attached you’ve become to the babe.”
Millicent handed Ulric to her husband and then rushed over to take Nicholaa’s hand. Ulric’s aunt, his mother’s sister, was a heavyset woman with wide shoulders and wider thighs. She wasn’t very appealing in appearance until you looked at her eyes. Then you forgot about her figure altogether, for Lady Millicent had lovely brown eyes that sparkled with warmth. “We’ll take good care of him,” she promised.
“Will you love him?” Nicholaa asked. “Babies need love. Did my brother explain why he wanted you to take Ulric?”
Millicent turned to her husband, and Duncan walked over to stand directly in front of Nicholaa. Ulric, she noticed, was clearly fascinated by Duncan’s beard. He was tugging on it while he babbled out his new sounds.
“Yes,” Duncan answered. “He did explain, but Thurston isn’t thinking clearly now, Nicholaa.”
“You don’t have to give me excuses for my brother’s conduct,” Nicholaa interrupted. She took a deep breath, then said, “Please sit down, both of you. I shall have a chamber made ready for you. We’ll have a fine supper . . .”
She stopped when Duncan shook his head. The sadness in his expression should have been warning enough for Nicholaa. “We can’t stay,” he announced, “because of yet another outrageous promise your brother made us give him.”
“ ’Tis the truth we would have promised him anything to make certain Ulric remained safe,” Millicent interjected. “If we didn’t agree to his conditions, he said he would take his son up into the hills.”
Nicholaa edged closer to Royce’s side. Just touching him somehow helped her maintain her composure. His mere presence comforted her. “What was the other promise you had to give?” she asked. “You said, ‘yet another outrageous promise,’ ” she reminded Duncan.
“Thurston made us promise you’d have nothing to do with Ulric.” He shook his head. “He had his plans all set when he came here,” he said. “He fully expected you and Ulric to leave with him.”
“Right then and there, in the dead of night,” Millicent interjected.
Nicholaa didn’t want to talk about Thurston’s expectations. “The only important issue now is the welfare of the baby,” she announced.
She turned around to make certain Alice was still lingering in the hall. “You may weep later, Alice. Go and pack Ulric’s things now.” She softened her command by adding, “Please, Alice?”
Nicholaa turned around again to confront the couple. She moved away from Royce’s side, folded her arms in front of her, and then said, “Now I’ll have two promises from you before I let Ulric leave.”
Royce raised an eyebrow over the change in his wife. She sounded like a commander now.
Duncan looked wary. “What are these promises?”
“First, you must promise to treat Ulric as if he is your own son.”
Before she could go into her reasons for demanding that promise, both Millicent and Duncan agreed.
“Second, you will give me your word that Ulric will stay with you. If Thurston comes back and wants to take his son to someone else, for whatever reason, you won’t let him. You will treat Ulric like your own son, and soon he’ll begin to feel . . . secure. He will stay with you two from this moment on. I won’t have him uprooted again. I . . .”
She couldn’t go on. Royce put his arm around her and pulled her up against his side. “They’ve already given me that promise, Nicholaa,” he said.
Millicent and Duncan immediately nodded.
Nicholaa sagged against Royce.
“Thurston won’t be allowed to uproot his son again,” Royce assured her.
“Thank you.” She was stunned that Royce had already taken care of that worry, and she was pleased that he was so concerned about Ulric’s well-being.
An hour later Millicent and Duncan took Ulric away. Royce ordered a full contingent of soldiers to ride escort.
Nicholaa barely spoke a word to anyone for the rest of the long day. She kept busy with a frenzy of cleaning. Royce didn’t know how to console his wife. When she didn’t come to the great hall for dinner, he went up to their room. He found Nicholaa sitting in a chair near the hearth. Without a word, he pulled her up, sat down, and then settled her on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.
Neither said a word for a long while. Then Royce broke the silence. “It was difficult for you today.”
She didn’t remark on that truth.
“They didn’t know how difficult,” he said then. “I’m proud of you, Nicholaa.”
She closed her eyes and let her head drop onto his shoulder.
“Do you remember my order to you?” he asked.
“Which one?” she asked. “There were so many.”
He ignored her sarcasm. “The one about weeping,” he reminded her.
She smiled in spite of her misery. “Ah, yes, rule number three,” she whispered. “You told me I couldn’t cry.”
He kissed the top of her head. “I’ve changed my mind,” he announced in a gruff voice. “You may weep if you’re so inclined.”
It really was ridiculous for him to think that a simple change in orders could bring about her tears. She certainly wasn’t going to cry just because he’d told her it was now permissible. Besides, she didn’t feel like weeping.
She soaked his tunic through before she finished. Then she started hiccuping. He didn’t try to stop her. He just continued to hold her close until she finally quieted down.
“They’re good people, Nicholaa.”
“They will treat Ulric like their own,” Royce remarked.
She nodded. Lord he hated to see her unhappy. “Nicholaa, you do understand why I let Ulric leave, don’t you?”
The worry in his voice was more of a comfort to her than his hug. He did care about her feelings, if only just a little, or he wouldn’t have been so eager to make her fully understand his motives.
“You don’t want to hurt Thurston because he’s my brother, but you knew he’d come back here if Ulric remained. I understand.”
Royce was surprised he felt so relieved. “I’m not a difficult man to get along with,” he told her.
He fully expected her agreement. He didn’t get it. “Yes, you are difficult,” she countered. “Where will you send Justin?”
“I’m not sending Justin anywhere.”
“Then Thurston will still come back here. He’ll come for Justin.”
“Yes.” He didn’t expound on that answer.
Nicholaa leaned away from him. “Ulric could have stayed . . .” She stopped when he shook his head. “I don’t understand,” she said.