Hell, he hoped she didn’t have a couple more brothers she hadn’t mentioned to him yet.
That possibility made him smile. He wondered how long it would take him to really understand his wife. Royce decided he’d have to sit down with her and discuss these concerns. He didn’t want her to worry about anything. She was going to be happy, he vowed, and he wouldn’t stop prodding her until she was.
Royce woke up in the middle of the night when Nicholaa rolled away from him in her sleep. He followed her. He would have fallen back to sleep if her backside hadn’t rubbed up against his groin. That enticement was too much to ignore. He had to touch her then. One caress led to another and another, and before he was fully awake, he was making slow, sweet love to her.
Their mouths melted together in long, lazy kisses, and their lovemaking was filled with tenderness. And when they’d both found fulfillment, they fell asleep hugging each other.
Nicholaa’s behavior underwent a radical change. It all started the morning after she promised to become the kind of wife Royce wanted.
She rose at the crack of dawn, dressed quietly, and went down to the great hall. She was giving directions to the servants for the day’s activities before her husband had even opened his eyes.
Nicholaa missed Ulric so much she was aching inside. She was determined to keep busy so she wouldn’t have time for self-pity. She was going to work until she dropped from exhaustion.
She was going to give her husband peace, too. The problem, of course, was figuring out how to accomplish that goal. She’d have to control her temper, keep her opinions to herself, and agree with her husband at all times.
She might as well be dead, she thought to herself. The changes would probably kill her. Still, she’d given her word to Royce, and she was going to keep it. She owed him her gratitude for everything he’d done for her family, too. Granted, she’d forced him to take on those responsibilities, and she’d ruined his life in the process. The very least she could do to make up for that was to give the man what he wanted.
In the back of her mind lurked the tiny hope that, once she’d made all these changes, Royce might start to love her. She didn’t just want a place in his life. She wanted his heart, too.
Nicholaa was arranging flowers in the brown clay bowl on the table when Clarise and Alice hurried into the hall.
The two women took turns offering comfort to each other over the loss of their “precious little baggage,” the affectionate term they’d given to Ulric.
The more they talked about the baby the more upset Nicholaa became. She shook her head and announced Ulric would be well loved.
“I’ve a list of chores to give you today,” she said then. “Every morning I’ll divide our duties and we’ll get them done before nightfall. We’re going to get organized, ladies.”
“Why?” Clarise asked. “We’ve gotten everything done in the past without being organized.”
“My husband doesn’t like disorder,” Nicholaa explained. “And I’ve given him my word I will become the kind of wife he wants. Therefore—”
Alice interrupted her. “But he likes you fine the way you are.”
Clarise agreed. “You can’t believe otherwise, mistress. Why, the baron’s so kind and patient—”
“He’s kind and patient with everyone,” Nicholaa interjected.
“Well, then,” Clarise asked, “why this need to change?”
“I’m after more,” Nicholaa confessed in a whisper. “I would like Royce to . . .” She couldn’t get the words out.
Clarise took sympathy on her. “You would like the baron to feel about you the same way your father felt about your mother? Is that what you’re meaning to say?”
Clarise snorted, then turned to Alice. “She thinks the baron doesn’t love her.”
“Oh, he must love her,” Alice replied. “Of course he does.”
Nicholaa let out a sigh. “You both love me,” she announced, “just as I love you, and for that reason you can’t imagine that someone else wouldn’t.”
Clarise scowled. Nicholaa held up her hand so neither servant would interrupt, then calmly outlined the changes she planned to make. The two women looked at her incredulously.
“You’re never going to raise your voice?” Alice asked, latching on to the last change Nicholaa had explained.
Clarise shook her head. “You can’t be serious,” she said. “If the man can’t love you for what you are—”
“I’m saying he does love her,” Alice muttered. “Milady, you need only put the question to him.”
Nicholaa’s shoulders drooped. She didn’t like admitting that she was afraid to ask. If he told her no, what would she do? “It doesn’t matter if he loves me or not,” she said. “I owe him my gratitude. I’m going to give him the happiness and peace he deserves. It’s the least I can do.”
“I’ve never seen you so unsure of yourself,” Clarise muttered. “I’m not liking it, either. I liked you better when you would take the dog by his tail and give him what for. Aye, you always had yourself a plan in the past when you wanted to get something.”
Nicholaa smiled. “I have a plan now,” she argued. “I’ll give Royce exactly what he wants, and then he’ll realize he loves me. See how simple it is?”
Royce walked into the hall, interrupting the discussion. Nicholaa hurried over to meet him at the entrance and gave him a proper greeting. She kissed him, too.
Clarise and Alice hurried to the buttery to see about the morning meal. Nicholaa walked with Royce to the table.
She was smiling. Royce was pleased by that. Since his wife was in a pleasant frame of mind, he decided to wait before sitting down to discuss her worries with her.
Perhaps he’d been too concerned last night. Nicholaa was probably just overwrought because Ulric had left. He knew she was going to miss the baby, and her mood last night was probably just a reflection of the emptiness she was feeling inside.
Thomas and Lawrence strolled into the hall and took their positions at the table.
As soon as Royce sat down, Nicholaa clasped her hands behind her back and recited the duties she planned to undertake for the day.
He couldn’t have been more pleased with her. He was about to tell her so when Thomas interrupted.
“Have you had a chance to explain about the wood, Baron?”
Royce shook his head. He reached around behind Nicholaa and took one of her hands. Since she was in such a cheerful mood, now would be a good time to discuss her home.
“Nicholaa, you never asked me why I ordered this table moved to the center of the room,” he began.
“It isn’t my place to question your orders, husband,” she answered, repeating his own dictate back to him.
She decided then he was happy because she remembered that lecture.
“I had the table moved because the floorboards under the spot where it used to stand have almost completely rotted through. By all rights, the table should have crashed through to the lower level long ago.”
Nicholaa hadn’t realized the floors were in such bad condition. She forced herself to keep smiling as she waited for Royce to continue.
“It’s a miracle the entire floor hasn’t collapsed,” Thomas interjected.
Royce nodded. “The second floor is rotted as well. Thomas doesn’t believe it can be reinforced.”
Thomas volunteered additional information. Nicholaa noticed that Royce nudged the vassal first. “The entire structure should be torn down and a new one built,” Thomas blurted out.
“The cost will be four times greater if the baron tries to save this one,” Lawrence added.
Nicholaa didn’t react to this news. She knew Royce was only telling her the truth. How often had her mother remarked that the keep was falling down around them? Nicholaa remembered the heated debates between her parents. Papa had wanted to leave things just the way they were. He hated change. Mother had been more practical.
Nicholaa realized she took after her father; she also hated change. Then she noticed how concerned the three men looked as they stared at her. They were in league together, gently planting the seeds of her eventual acceptance.
Her husband obviously did care about her feelings after all. “I haven’t made a final decision,” Royce announced in a gruff, no-nonsense voice.
He wasn’t telling her the truth. He’d made his decision, all right, but he wanted to give her time to get use to the idea first.
She smiled at her husband and went back to arranging the flowers. All three warriors continued to watch her. She caught Royce’s shrug out of the corner of her eye.
“I know how much this home means to you, wife. If possible, I’ll—”
She finished his sentence for him. “Try to save the keep?”
He nodded. She shook her head. “You mustn’t consider my feelings. This is your holding now, not mine. Do what you feel is best. Whatever you decide will be fine with me.”
Thomas and Lawrence sighed. Royce frowned. His wife’s easy acceptance bothered him.
“We’ll discuss this later,” he announced.
“If it will please you,” she answered.
She was being too accommodating. He was immediately suspicious. He decided to put his wife’s unusual behavior out of his mind for the rest of the day and focus his attention on training his soldiers.
Nicholaa continued to arrange the flowers so that she could hear her husband’s plans for the day. She was hoping for a word about her brother.
Her patience was finally rewarded. Justin, Lawrence told Royce, was beginning to work within the unit. He still showed no allegiance to the others, but his hostility had lessened and he was giving his opinions more and more often. Lawrence thought that was a good start.
Royce agreed. He noticed how his wife was pulling and tugging on the flowers and took mercy on her. “Nicholaa, would you like to speak to your brother today?”
She almost knocked the vase over. “Oh, yes, I would like to,” she answered in a rush. “I couldn’t help overhearing your remarks about Justin getting along now, Lawrence. Is my brother also feeling well?”
The vassal smiled. “Yes, my lady, though in truth I haven’t asked him,” he admitted.
Nicholaa walked over to stand by her husband. She was looking at Lawrence. “You are training Justin, then?”
Royce gave his vassal permission to explain.
“I’ve always been commander of the new soldiers,” Lawrence said. “I do very little training in weapons and attack methods, however. My task is to strengthen their bodies. When I feel they’re as fit as possible, then they’ll move up into Royce’s ranks.”
“So that is why they are taking those heavy stones from one pile and putting them in another? It isn’t punishment, after all?”
“Nicholaa, the soldiers aren’t my enemies,” Royce interjected, clearly exasperated. “We serve two purposes with that duty. Those men will build a new wall, much wider and taller than the old one, for I want a larger area in which to train,” he explained. “And the work will strengthen the men.”
She nodded, letting him know she understood. “When will I see Justin? Should I go down to the soldiers’ quarters? Yes, I should,” she answered in a rush. “I want to make certain Justin has enough blankets for the cold nights.”
Royce tried not to laugh. He could just imagine the embarrassment Justin would feel if she tried to coddle him. “You may see him later. I’ll send him to the courtyard.”
Royce was as good as his word, of course. Nicholaa paced back and forth along the edge of the inner courtyard for what seemed like hours before she spotted her brother walking up the slope toward her. She started running to meet him. Tears came to her eyes, but she forced herself to stop that foolishness.
Nicholaa threw herself into Justin’s arms and hugged him tight. How fit he looked! The color was back in his face, and when she finally pulled away and looked up into his eyes, she knew without a doubt that he was going to be all right.
She couldn’t find her voice. She kissed his chin and finally let go of him.
“You look happy, sister,” Justin announced, his voice gruff with emotion.
“I am happy,” she answered. “Happy to see you.”
“The baron treats you well?”
He was already beginning to frown when she answered him. “Oh, yes, very well,” she said. “He’s kind and patient with me.”
His frown eased away. He actually laughed when she added that she was also being kind and patient with him.
“Are you getting enough to eat, Justin? Do you have enough blankets at night? Do you need anything?”
“I have enough,” Justin answered. He turned and saw Ingelram and Bryan watching. Justin’s voice was a bit more gruff when he said, “I’m not a boy, Nicholaa. Do not treat me as such.”
She didn’t realize they had an audience, nor did she see Royce coming up the slope toward them. Her gaze was fully directed on her brother’s face. The sun had darkened his skin and lightened his blond hair. She hadn’t realized what a handsome man Justin was becoming.
“Did you know Ulric left?” she asked.
Justin nodded. “The baron told me.”
Nicholaa noticed that her brother’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “You aren’t concerned about Ulric, are you? He’ll be well taken care of by Duncan and Millicent,” she said.
“No, I’m not concerned,” Justin answered. “Ulric will be happy with them.”
“Then why are you frowning?” she asked.
“The baron told me Thurston came here. He shouldn’t have.”
Justin’s voice was flat, devoid of emotion. Nicholaa didn’t know what to make of that reaction.
Then Royce interrupted them. “Justin, you have one afternoon a week away from your duties. This isn’t it. Say good-bye to your sister. Ingelram and Bryan are waiting.”
Justin immediately separated himself from his sister and turned to bow to his baron. Nicholaa didn’t want him to leave just yet. She reached out to detain him and noticed that his entire left arm was covered with black leather. Two wide loops from elbow to shoulder held the covering in place.
Royce also noticed the contraption. “What’s this?” he asked.
Justin turned back to his baron just as Bryan and Ingelram came forward. “Bryan made this for me,” Justin muttered with a shrug, his gaze on the ground.