They walked side by side without saying a word to each other. She thought he was taking her back to the great hall so he could sit her down and lecture her.
Yet when they reached the table and the chairs, he didn’t let go of her hand. He just continued tugging her along toward the screens that hid their bed.
He stopped to look out the hole he’d made with Morgan’s body, then turned to wink at Nicholaa. “Nice view, isn’t it?”
“Royce, where are you taking me?”
“Royce, this isn’t like you,” she blurted out. “You never stray from your plans for the day. It’s . . . disorganized.”
She’d sounded appalled. He pulled her into his arms. “Spontaneous actions are just as important as planned ones, wife. You really should leave a little room in your life for surprises.”
“I must learn—”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the floor. His mouth came down on hers just as she was putting her arms around his neck.
Ingelram, Justin, and their commander, Lawrence, were passing the hole in the front wall. They were all given quite a surprise at seeing their baron kissing his wife.
Lawrence smiled. Ingelram nudged Justin in his ribs and let out a hoot of laughter. Justin took the longest to react. He turned to his commander, caught his grin, and then said, “My sister must love her husband.”
Lawrence nodded. “Her husband loves her just as much.”
Justin smiled. He wasn’t going to worry about his sister any longer. She’d found her place in this new Norman world, just as he had.
Ingelram nudged him again. Justin immediately turned his attention to tripping his friend.
Lawrence grabbed both soldiers by the nape of the neck and shoved them forward. His baron obviously wanted privacy, and Lawrence was going to see that he got it.
Royce gathered the soldiers together and told them about the message from King William. Although every man present wanted to be one of the twenty chosen for the battle games, none dared ask for the honor. They knew they would have to wait until he was ready to tell them.
The next evening during dinner Nicholaa noticed several cuts on her husband’s hands. She asked him about the nicks, but he only shrugged and changed the subject. She thought he didn’t remember how he’d come by the cuts.
Royce looked exhausted. He was too tired to play chess after the table was cleared. He wasn’t too tired to make love to her, though.
She awakened in the middle of the night. She moved toward Royce and nearly slid off his side of the bed before she realized he wasn’t there.
She put on her robe and went to find her husband. She didn’t have to go far. Royce was sitting at the head of the table concentrating so hard on what he was doing that he didn’t notice her.
Royce had a small block of wood in his hands. In the flickering candlelight she could see the white queen on the table in front of him. Royce held the block of wood near the bottom in his left hand. He held a small knife in his other hand and was hard at work carving away slivers from the top. He would occasionally look up at the queen, then turn back to the block of wood.
He was making another black queen for her.
She understood then where all the cuts had come from. She understood why her husband looked so exhausted, too. But most of all, she understood something else: Royce loved her.
Nicholaa didn’t move for a long while. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched her husband. She smiled each time he muttered an expletive, for she knew he’d nicked his hand again.
She heard the door open and immediately moved back behind the screen. She peeked around the corner and saw Justin striding toward Royce. Her brother held a small dagger in his hand.
Royce didn’t even look up. Nicholaa guessed he’d been expecting Justin. Her brother looked just as haggard as Royce did. Had he been staying up each night to help with this project?
“This was my father’s knife,” Justin whispered. “It should work much better, Baron.”
Justin sat down on the stool next to Royce. He put the knife down and then took hold of the base of the wooden block. Justin wore a strip of black leather over his hand. When Nicholaa saw the way Royce was awkwardly cutting with the knife, she realized the leather was a necessary precaution.
Nicholaa wiped the tears away from her eyes and quietly walked over to join the two men she loved with all her heart.
“Nicholaa’s going to be surprised,” Justin whispered.
“I hope she’s pleased,” Royce whispered back.
“I’m both surprised and pleased,” Nicholaa whispered.
Her brother jumped at the sound of her voice. Royce flinched. He nicked the neck of the barely formed statue. “Now look what you’ve made me do, wife,” Royce grumbled.
She leaned over her husband’s shoulder to see the damage. She started laughing then. It was the most lopsided, ill-fashioned chess piece she’d ever seen. The head was bigger than the body, and the neck was thrice the size of the white queen’s.
She loved it. Especially the hole in the side of the neck. She leaned down to kiss her husband, then sat down opposite the men.
“You must remember that nick, husband, so you can tell our children how it happened.”
She suspected that Royce was embarrassed because he’d been caught doing such a sweet, tenderhearted task for his wife.
Nicholaa felt like crying again. Dear heavens, how she loved this man.
Her gaze turned to Justin’s. He winked at her. She thought he might have noticed the color in Royce’s face, too, or perhaps he’d noticed how misty her eyes were.
“I love Royce.”
Her brother smiled. “I already knew you did, Nicholaa.”
“The way you look at him.”
She turned to see Royce’s reaction to their conversation. Her husband was bent over the table, diligently laboring over the half-formed statue. But he was smiling, too.
“There’s something else you should know, Justin,” Nicholaa said then. “Royce loves me.”
“I already knew that, too,” Justin announced with a laugh.
Royce dropped the knife and turned to look at Nicholaa. He stared at her for a long minute. “You’re certain I love you?” he demanded.
He nodded. He sighed, too. “Then you’ll quit this infernal smiling all the time? God, Nicholaa, it’s driving me crazy.”
Justin looked incredulous. Nicholaa burst into laughter. “I was only trying to be the kind of wife you wanted.”
“I want you.”
“Nicholaa, aren’t you supposed to smile?” Justin asked, trying to make sense out of the conversation.
Royce didn’t take his gaze away from his beautiful wife’s face when he said, “Justin, go away.”
“Yes, Baron,” Justin answered with a grin.
Nicholaa stood up when her brother did. She picked up one of the candles and slowly walked back to the bed. She put the candle down on the chest and waited for Royce to come to her.
He went to the other side of the bed. In the flickering candlelight, she watched him disrobe.
He was such a handsome man. There was such strength in him, such power. And such gentleness, too. Nicholaa took off her robe and dropped it on the floor, staring at her husband all the while.
“I love you so much, Royce.”
“I love you, too.”
They met in the center of the bed on their knees, facing each other. His hands grasped her hips. Her arms were wrapped around his neck.
She kissed his chest, his chin, his scar. Royce wasn’t in the mood to let her tease him. His hand became a fist in her hair. He jerked her head back with a low growl of longing. His mouth covered hers. Their tongues met, rubbed against each other. He growled again. She sighed.
He pulled her down to the bed. He covered her with his body and then began to kiss every inch of her. He was such a gentle, patient lover . . . until she became so wild and demanding she made him forget his control. His need consumed him then.
He moved between her thighs and slowly eased into her tight sheath. The ache intensified, burned with raw pleasure, and when he was finally fully one with her he was able to slow down for just a minute, long enough to tell her all the love words he’d held inside himself for so long.
Nicholaa only caught snatches here and there, for she was telling him all the tender words of love she’d stored inside her heart for so long.
It wasn’t long before their feelings overwhelmed them and speech became impossible. The bed rocked from their lovemaking. Royce’s thrusts were slow, controlled, until she came apart in his arms and squeezed him tight. He went wild then. He shouted her name when he poured his seed into her.
And still he stayed inside her. She wept against his neck, and once he understood they were tears of joy, he didn’t mind at all.
Nicholaa fell asleep listening to her husband’s whispers of love in her ear.
Royce reached over to put the candle out, then gathered his wife into his arms again. He could feel her warmth.
He closed his eyes and smiled. He could feel the contentment, too. It was there, in his wife’s arms. Her love gave him such strength.
He wasn’t a man given to prayer, but he got out a grumbled thank-you to his Maker before he fell asleep. He touched the scar on his face, and then he smiled again.
Nicholaa was wrong. God wasn’t on her side. He was on theirs.
His impossible, stubborn-to-her-soul wife was back in full evidence the following day. It wasn’t even noon before they had their first argument. Thomas had drawn the design for their new home, using all of his baron’s specifications of course, and when Royce graciously allowed Nicholaa to look over the plan, she announced that it simply wouldn’t do.
She waved her hand toward the area reserved for the kitchens and told him they’d need twice the amount of space. She frowned over the gigantic area he’d reserved for the soldiers’ quarters he planned to put on the lower level. He’d accidentally left out a buttery, too. He didn’t think they really needed it anyway. Nicholaa thought otherwise.
He finally had to sit her down and discuss each of her opinions. She let him talk without once interrupting, but it didn’t take him long to realize she was daydreaming again. God, she was maddening. Damned invigorating, too. She finally agreed he was right on every single point. He went back to his duties feeling content. Nicholaa waited until her husband had whistled his way across the courtyard, then called Thomas back inside to give him the new, corrected specifications. She added a large buttery to the plan, extended the kitchens and the size of the hearth, and increased the master bedchamber to twice the original size.
Royce was terribly busy the rest of the week. He told Nicholaa he’d decided not to choose the soldiers who would participate in the king’s games. He would set up feats of strength instead, and the top ten soldiers from each division would earn the honor on their own.
Nicholaa thought that was more than fair. She was pleased, too, that her husband had begun to include her when he discussed his plans with Lawrence. Yet as the second week progressed, Royce became more and more withdrawn. Whenever the topic of the competition came up, he would either change the subject or simply stop talking.
Something was worrying her husband, but he wasn’t ready to tell her what it was. Nicholaa was learning to be patient. In time she was certain he’d sort it all out in his mind and then confide in her.
Four weeks remained before they would leave for the games. Royce finally confided in Nicholaa. It was a warm Sunday evening. Royce asked Nicholaa to sit down. He didn’t look enthusiastic, as he usually did when he was about to launch into a lecture. No, he looked terribly serious, and if she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he looked worried, too.
He didn’t pace, either. He stood in front of the hearth with his hands clasped behind his back.
Royce didn’t want to look at Nicholaa when he gave her his news. The fear he was sure to see in her expression would tear at his heart.
“Nicholaa,” he began in a brisk, no-nonsense voice. “As you know, I allowed my men to compete against one another, and those most skilled would earn the honor of representing me . . . that is to say,” he corrected, “the honor of representing us.”
Nicholaa was beginning to get worried. She’d never seen her husband act this hesitant before. She folded her hands in her lap, straightened her shoulders, and forced herself to wait until he told her the rest.
Long minutes passed before Royce spoke again. “It’s finished now,” he announced. “The men all know who the ten from each division are. It can’t be undone.”
“No, of course not,” she agreed.
He nodded. “Each unit will have nine soldiers and one commander. Lawrence easily won the honor of becoming commander over the experienced soldiers.”
He went into great detail outlining Lawrence’s strengths. Then he finally turned the topic to the Doves. “Nine soldiers were above all the others in every competition. There was one, however, whose expertise put him well above the others. He was quite exceptional.”
Nicholaa had already guessed that Ingelram had earned the honor of becoming commander. Bryan might also be one of the ten. She thought she understood then. Royce was going to leave Justin behind, and he was concerned about her brother’s feelings. Justin would have to accept this decision, of course. It would probably sting his pride to watch his friends leave for the games. Still, Nicholaa thought he had quite a lot to be thankful for, and if she had to, she’d sit him down and tell him so.
Royce turned away from the hearth and walked over to Nicholaa. He pulled her to her feet, took her hands, and said, “Justin has earned the right to command the unit.” He braced himself for her tears.
She looked incredulous. She shook her head. It was obvious she didn’t believe him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m very serious,” he answered. “He earned the right, wife.”
She pulled her hands away from his and collapsed into the chair. She was suddenly so frightened for her brother that her stomach started aching. She was furious with Royce, too. How could he have let this happen?
“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Justin isn’t ready.”
“Yes, he is ready,” he countered. “He was quite exceptional in the competition,” he told her again. There was a noticeable tinge of pride in his voice. “You should be very proud of him, Nicholaa. I am.”