“Ah, the choice,” he whispered. “You’ve been worrying about that for a long while, haven’t you?”
She bumped his chin when she nodded.
“Nicholaa, hasn’t it occurred to you that I could have left the hall before you made your choice?”
“No, you couldn’t have left,” she whispered. “Only the married knights could leave. You didn’t qualify.”
He tried a different approach. “I could have said no to you.”
“No, you couldn’t have,” she argued. “You’re too honorable. You felt responsible for me.”
“You have it all figured out, don’t you? Nothing I can say will change your mind?”
“I’d already made up my mind to challenge for you? I never would have allowed anyone else to have you, Nicholaa.”
“You’re just being kind to me, Royce. You’re always kind and patient with everyone.”
He kissed the top of her head. He didn’t know how to convince her he would have chosen her. He had made up his mind to challenge for her hand in marriage for the simple reason that he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else touching her.
She belonged to him. He’d gotten used to her by the time they reached London. He was possessive by nature. Surely that was the reason he didn’t want to let her go.
This loving business was confusing to him, though. Royce didn’t even know if he was capable of loving her the way a husband should love a wife. He felt completely inadequate, unprepared.
It wouldn’t be enough to tell her he felt content with her by his side. No, nothing he could say would convince her that, in his own way, he did care for her.
He decided he wouldn’t say anything. He’d find a way to show her instead.
That was easier decided than accomplished. No matter how much thought he put into the task, Royce couldn’t come up with a single plan to convince his wife he would have chosen her. It didn’t stop him from trying, however.
It was maddening not to be able to make her believe him, but it was no more maddening than his wife’s perpetual smile. If he hadn’t been so happy she’d finally spoken the words he wanted to hear, he would have been in complete despair.
He tried praising her. She praised him back. He kissed her whenever he got the chance. She eagerly kissed him back. It was the only time she wasn’t wearing that serene smile, because his mouth was covering hers.
He even played chess with her. He was going to let her win, until he realized she already was winning; then he changed his mind. The game lasted into the early hours of the morning, and in the end, he didn’t let her win at all.
She did that all by herself.
Afterward, while he was still reeling from his first defeat in years, she promised to let him win next time.
It got worse before it got better.
It was late morning on a hot Monday when Royce came into the hall with Lawrence at his side. He noticed the fire blazing in the hearth right away. He felt as though he had walked into a furnace. Sweat dripped from his brow before he’d crossed to the buttery where his wife was busy working.
“Nicholaa, it’s hot as purgatory in here,” he announced. “Was there a particular reason for starting a fire?”
She turned to smile at her husband. She was waving a square linen cloth in front of her face. She used the linen to mop her husband’s brow while she explained. “You invited six additional soldiers to supper, and Cook needed the extra fire to prepare all the meat. I appreciate how pleasant you’re being, husband.”
When she’d finished wiping her husband’s forehead, she turned the cloth inside out and mopped Lawrence’s brow. Surprised, he backed away. She followed him, finished her task, and then suggested they both go back outside.
Royce and Lawrence turned to do just that. They’d reached the center of the great hall when Baron Guy’s two inseparable vassals, Morgan and Henry, came inside.
Nicholaa decided to block open the front doors to allow a breeze inside. She walked out of the buttery just as Morgan was boasting.
“Our baron has brought a full contingent of men with him to hunt down the last of the resisters. He’s vowed to slaughter the lot before a fortnight has passed.”
Nicholaa’s face paled, but she kept her expression contained. Royce knew she was thinking about Thurston. Morgan followed Royce’s gaze, spotted Nicholaa, and immediately bowed.
She didn’t acknowledge the greeting. She simply stared at the vassal and waited to hear what else he had to say.
“It’s our understanding that the leader of these resisters is your brother, Lady Nicholaa,” Henry announced. “Is that true?”
“Perhaps,” she answered.
Morgan grinned. “Then we should give you our condolences now,” he said. “Our baron is a compassionate man. I’m sure he’ll drop your brother’s body here on his way back to London so you can give him a proper burial.”
Royce’s fist came down on the table. “Enough,” he ordered. “Tell me what message you bring and get out.”
Henry had never seen Baron Royce lose his composure. The flash of temper stunned him. Morgan didn’t seem worried at all. He was occupied scowling at Nicholaa.
She smiled back. “I forgive you your poor manners,” she said in a calm voice. “Jealousy makes you act that way.”
Morgan opened his mouth to protest.
She raised her hand for silence. The look on her face showed her disdain. She took a step toward the knight. Morgan backed up nearly into the fireplace.
“You heard my husband’s command. Tell him why you’re here and then get out.”
Morgan was too furious to see the duty done. He nodded to Henry, then turned to look at the fire. He noticed the chess pieces lined up on the mantel and absentmindedly took one into his hand to get a better look. He wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing, though, for he was listening to Henry’s message from the king as well.
“King William sends his greetings and his request for you to choose ten of your best men to engage in a celebration of games six weeks hence. You’re also to select ten new soldiers because our overlord believes they should be allowed to join in the festivities. The king has one additional request,” Henry muttered.
Royce folded his arms across his chest and scowled with impatience as he waited for Henry to finish.
“Baron Royce is waiting to hear the rest,” Lawrence snapped.
Henry nodded. “Our king wants it known that he and his beloved wife insist Lady Nicholaa attend the celebration. She has won their affections, and they wish to see her again.” The vassal sounded as though he was gargling with vinegar.
Nicholaa would have laughed if she hadn’t been so worried about the chess piece Morgan was holding. She didn’t dare order him to put the piece back for fear he’d realize the importance to her and deliberately destroy it.
Henry bowed to Royce, then walked toward Nicholaa. “Perhaps then, my lady, we will see who is first and who is second.”
“But we already know that, don’t we?” she asked.
Nicholaa couldn’t stand still a minute longer. Watching Morgan fondling the chess piece was too upsetting. She walked over to the entrance. “Lawrence, please see the soldiers out. My husband did want them to leave right away.”
Morgan turned to Royce. “We plan to crush your soldiers,” he boasted. “We won’t be defeated this time.”
To emphasize his boast, he snapped the head off the chess piece, then tossed the black queen into the fire.
Until that minute Royce hadn’t realized Morgan was holding the piece. He’d been watching Nicholaa. He saw the look of anguish on her face and then saw the chess piece destroyed.
He let out a roar of fury. Morgan turned, surprised, as Royce moved like a bolt of lightning. It all happened too quickly for Nicholaa to react. One minute Morgan was standing there looking smug and arrogant, and the next he was sailing through the air like a disk.
Royce threw the big man a fair distance. Morgan went hurling past the table, then past the screen. He should have landed against the front wall. He didn’t, though. He went through it. Nicholaa guessed the wall was riddled with rotten wood, too.
A gaping hole the size of a man’s doubled-over body appeared in the very center of the wall, giving them a rather pleasant view of the courtyard beyond.
Nicholaa clasped a hand over her mouth in astonishment. She could see through the hole that Morgan was already staggering to his feet. Royce hadn’t killed him. Henry came rushing towards her. He was obviously not going to give his friend assistance. Morgan couldn’t seem to stand up straight. He kept falling back to his knees. She guessed he was a little dizzy.
She tried, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Henry noticed. He was so furious he was shaking. He stopped when he reached her side. “You chose the wrong baron to wed,” he snarled.
Henry might have been able to control his anger if Nicholaa hadn’t laughed. He wanted to strike her. Yet even in his rage he knew Royce would kill him if he touched Nicholaa. Still, the desire to rid her of her smile overwhelmed his caution. He tried to frighten her with words instead. “You’ll be widowed before the games are finished,” he muttered. “You really should have listened to the old hag and killed Royce when you had the chance. You would have saved us the trouble.”
Nicholaa wouldn’t let him bait her into losing her temper. Henry sounded like a little boy who hadn’t gotten his way.
She shook her head. “Do leave, Henry. You’re beginning to irritate me.”
She didn’t waste another minute on the stupid man. Royce was her main concern now. Lord, she’d never seen him lose his control this thoroughly. It was a little unnerving. He didn’t seem to be finished with Morgan, either. When he turned and started for the doorway and she got a good look at the scowl on his face, she knew she’d have to interfere. She didn’t want him to kill Morgan. The soldier’s death wouldn’t be worth the explanation Royce would have to give the king. Besides, she didn’t want Morgan’s body buried on their land.
Royce had almost reached her when she blurted out, “We have a lovely breeze now, husband. Thank you.”
He nodded, passed her, then suddenly stopped. He turned around. “What did you just say?”
“I thanked you for the window.”
Lawrence started to laugh. Nicholaa smiled. Royce closed his eyes and let out a loud sigh. “I’m not going to kill the bastard,” he announced.
“No, of course not,” she agreed. “The chess piece is gone. Killing Morgan won’t change that.”
“I just wanted to break a leg or two, Nicholaa.”
He’d sounded so reasonable when he confessed that plan to her. He grinned, too.
“Nothing will be gained by breaking his legs.”
“I’ll gain immense satisfaction,” he countered.
She shook her head.
He scowled. Then he gave up. The woman had her mind set on getting her way. He wouldn’t disappoint her. He glanced at the fire, then back to Nicholaa. “Sweetheart, which piece was it?”
“The black queen.”
His shoulders slumped. That was the piece her father had made a nick in while laughing over one of his stories.
Royce felt responsible for the disaster. He should have been watching Morgan’s every move. He could have prevented the destruction if he’d been paying more attention.
He roughly pulled Nicholaa into his arms. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “It’s my fault. I should have—”
She didn’t let him finish. “It happened too quickly for you to prevent it.” She patted his chest and kissed his chin. “Don’t frown so. It’s over and done.”
He couldn’t believe she was soothing him. “You’re taking this loss remarkably well,” he told her.
Nicholaa kept right on smiling. It took her a good five minutes to get him to leave the hall. She stood in the open doorway until Royce and Lawrence had crossed the courtyard.
“Is Nicholaa still standing there?” Royce asked Lawrence.
The vassal turned around to look. “No, Baron. She’s gone.”
Royce immediately changed directions. “I’ve a suspicious nature,” he told his vassal. “My wife took Morgan’s treachery rather well, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, she did.”
Royce smiled. “A little too well, I think. He rounded the corner and went to the ladder leading to the walkway near the top of the wall. Then he leaned against the slats and waited.
He didn’t have to stand there very long. Nicholaa came flying around the corner, her skirts raised above her ankles to quicken her speed. She came to an abrupt stop when she spotted her husband lounging against the ladder.
Nicholaa hid her hands behind her back and smiled sweetly at her husband. He smiled back. He didn’t take his gaze off his wife when he ordered Lawrence to return to his duties, and as soon as the vassal had walked away, he motioned Nicholaa closer with the crook of his finger.
Royce waited until she was standing directly in front of him. Then he put his hand out.
She lost her smile and backed up a step.
“Fair’s fair, Nicholaa,” he announced. “If I can’t hurt him, neither can you. Give it to me.”
She looked thoroughly disgruntled. “How did you know?”
He touched the mark on his forehead. “I used logic.”
She put the leather sling in his outstretched hand. She dropped the two stones on the ground.
“You thought you might miss with the first stone?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I never miss. The other was for Henry.”
He started laughing. She didn’t know what to make of that. She took another step back.
“I’ve taken you away from your duties long enough,” she announced. Her disappointment over not being able to give Morgan and Henry a proper send-off still chafed. She wanted to shout at her husband because he wouldn’t let her have her way. She stared at the sling dangling from his fingers, took a deep breath, and then said, “I shall try to keep my temper under control.”
“Does that mean you’ll smile even more often?”
“God help me.”
Her gaze flew to his. “He already helped me,” she whispered. “He gave me you.”
She always took him by surprise when she said such incredibly wonderful things to him. He pulled away from the ladder, took hold of his wife’s hand, and started walking toward the castle.