Lawrence nodded. “That is my opinion, too,” he admitted. “Did they act on their own or did Guy have a hand in this?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Royce’s voice turned as hard and as cold as ice. “He’s responsible for his vassals’ actions.”
“Of course,” Lawrence agreed. “Still, I’d like to know if he had a part in this treachery. I’m curious to know how far his malice extends.”
“We won’t have long to wait. In just a few weeks we’ll have our answer.”
“And then we retaliate.” Lawrence hadn’t asked a question but simply stated a fact. He’d served his baron long enough to understand how his mind worked.
“You’ll have to take care of Morgan and Henry,” Royce said.
“With pleasure, Baron.”
“Damn, I wish I could fight the two of them.”
Lawrence understood his baron’s frustration. The king would never allow a baron to fight another baron’s vassals in games of strength. It would be beneath his station. It was therefore up to Lawrence to right the treachery. And, Lord, how he was looking forward to the opportunity.
“There’s still Baron Guy,” Lawrence said, reminding Royce he wouldn’t be completely left out.
“Yes,” Royce replied. “That bastard’s all mine.”
The following weeks of preparation proved to be a torment for Nicholaa, and an enlightenment, too.
The torment came first. Nicholaa had to pretend to be happy whenever she ran into Justin or one of his friends. She also had to pretend she wasn’t worried and didn’t doubt her husband’s judgment when she was with him.
There was a price to be paid for her feigned happiness. By keeping all her fears hidden, she made herself sick. Each morning when she opened her eyes, she was so sick to her stomach she could barely get out of bed.
The nausea would dissipate after an hour or two. She thought it was because once she was wide awake, she was able to push her fears away. She couldn’t soothe her nerves when she was sleeping, however. She was vulnerable then.
And then enlightenment came. It took her a good week to catch on. She noticed how tender her br**sts were. She noticed other changes, too. She suddenly couldn’t stand the smell of quail. She couldn’t stand to watch anyone eat the disgustingly greasy meat, either. She was sleeping longer, and more often than not she was sneaking in an afternoon nap when everyone else was too busy to notice.
She was going to have Royce’s baby. Nicholaa was so filled with joy over the wonderful miracle that she got teary-eyed every time she thought about it.
When she wasn’t occupied worrying about Justin, she was thinking about the perfect way to tell her husband he was going to be a father. She knew he was going to be surprised. He’d been so busy with his duties, she didn’t think he’d noticed any changes in her behavior.
Royce worked with the younger soldiers from dawn until dinner. The two hours a day he’d promised to give the Doves had turned into nine.
Royce was clearly worn out by the time dinner was finished, yet he still took time to sit her down and lecture her. She thought it was probably the only enjoyment he gained during the day.
The topic of his lectures was always the same. He talked about her safety at the games. Night after night he made her promise him she’d take every care, that she wouldn’t go anywhere without a proper escort, that she wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks, such as even acknowledging Morgan or Henry.
Nicholaa couldn’t remember the rest of his list of orders because she was usually daydreaming by then.
Royce made it quite clear he would rather leave her behind, but her feelings weren’t hurt. She was certain he still hadn’t recovered from the incident when the woman got into their chamber in London.
He didn’t want her in Baron Guy’s company, either. Royce would surely have left her home if the king and his wife hadn’t requested that she attend.
She decided not to tell him about the baby just yet. It would give him a good excuse to leave her behind and simply tell his overlord that her delicate condition didn’t allow her to travel.
Nicholaa would take every precaution to ensure the baby’s safety, of course. She wasn’t going to let her husband set a breakneck pace. She wasn’t going to become overly tired, either.
On a bright sunny Monday morning they left for the fields near London where the games were going to take place. Nicholaa got up an hour earlier than necessary so she could recover from her morning sickness before Royce awakened.
Justin rode with the other young soldiers toward the rear of the procession. Every now and then she heard her brother’s laughter. A terrible thought—that it was the laughter of an innocent riding toward destruction —would immediately pop into her mind. She’d shake her head, tell herself she trusted Royce’s judgment, and then force herself to think of happier thoughts. Then Justin would laugh again, and the cycle would be repeated.
It was exhausting, this mental game she played. After they stopped to eat their nooning meal, she was so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. She asked Royce if she could ride with him. He thought she was finally going to confide her worries to him, but after she’d settled herself on his lap and wrapped her arms around his waist, she went to sleep. It wasn’t a short rest, either; she slept the entire afternoon away. Royce guessed the fear she’d been so desperately trying to hide from him had worn her out.
He didn’t worry that she was having difficulty maintaining her faith in him. Nicholaa was trying, and that was all that mattered.
They made camp several hours later in a narrow meadow surrounded by forest. A clear knee-deep stream ran along one side of the clearing.
Royce had to wake Nicholaa up before he could dismount. A wave of nausea washed over her as soon as she was helped to the ground. She was able to catch the gag in the back of her throat. Then she begged for a few minutes of privacy. Royce noticed how pale she looked. She took off running toward the cluster of trees. Royce frowned with concern as he watched her leave.
He turned his attention to the care of his mount. He removed the saddle, tossed it to his squire, and then ordered that his horse be allowed to cool down before being given water and oats.
Ten minutes passed, and still his wife hadn’t returned. Royce went after her. He heard the sound of retching when he reached the trees. Justin came up to speak to him and also heard the noise.
“Your sister’s ill,” Royce said.
“Shouldn’t we go to her?” Justin asked, his concern obvious.
Royce shook his head. “Give her a few more minutes of privacy. If she doesn’t come back then, I’ll go to her.”
The two men stood side by side, waiting. Several more minutes passed in silence.
“Was it something she ate, do you suppose?” Justin asked. The sound of retching had stopped, but Nicholaa still hadn’t walked back to the clearing.
“No,” Royce answered. “She’s made herself ill worrying, Justin.”
“What is she worrying about?”
Justin didn’t know what to say to that.
Nicholaa came toward them then. She frowned when she saw the two of them standing there, then went to kneel by the stream. She rinsed her mouth with the cool water, then patted water on her face.
“Nicholaa?” Justin called out. “Have you really made yourself sick worrying about me?”
She turned around to look up at her brother. “No,” she answered. “I’m sick for quite another reason.”
Justin looked relieved. He pulled her to her feet.
“I am worried about you, though,” she told him. “Justin, please understand. I’m your older sister, and I’ll always try to protect you.” She turned to Royce. “If you were going to compete in these games, I’d be worried about you, too. If that means I lack faith in either of you, my only defense is that I love you both.”
“Then it was something you ate that made you sick?” Royce asked.
Nicholaa gave him a roundabout answer. “I’m feeling fine now.”
Royce didn’t look convinced. He seemed preoccupied during dinner, and when they’d finished, he went to the stream. She followed him.
He was bent on worrying about her now, and Nicholaa didn’t think a lecture would ease his mind. A spontaneous action might, though.
Her husband was kneeling beside the stream. He’d taken his tunic off and was splashing water over his neck and chest. Nicholaa walked up behind him and used the flat of her foot against his solid backside to give him a quick shove.
He didn’t budge. He did turn around, though, and give her a most incredulous look.
She laughed and then tried to push him into the water again.
He thought she’d lost her mind. “I’m being spontaneous,” she announced as she lunged for him a second time. “But you aren’t cooperating.”
He still didn’t fall into the water. Nicholaa backed up, thinking to try again, but Royce suddenly stood up. He deliberately glanced over his shoulder at the water, then looked at her and grinned.
She knew what he was going to do, of course, and immediately lifted her skirts to run in the opposite direction.
He caught her from behind. She let out a shrill scream. Royce picked her up, turned, and held her over the water.
Soldiers came running. She and Royce were suddenly surrounded by armed men ready to defend them.
She was both horrified and embarrassed.
Royce laughed at the blush that covered her face. He dismissed his soldiers, and when they were once again alone, he bent down and kissed her forehead. “I love you, Nicholaa.”
“I love you, too.”
They shared a long kiss. Nicholaa quite forgot where they were. His touch was magical, and when he was holding her in his arms, all she could think about was him.
She was standing with his arms around her waist when he finally ended the kiss. She stared up into his eyes for a long while until she regained her wits. She noticed the sparkle in his beautiful eyes, that adorable rascal’s smile. She noticed something else, too. She was standing in the water. He wasn’t.
Her intent was to make him forget to worry about her for just a little while, and when he started laughing, she knew she’d succeeded.
He sat down on the grassy bank, pulled her out of the water and into his lap, laughing over his cunning still, and helped her take off her soggy shoes.
“Royce, if you forgot something, would there still be time to go back home to fetch it?”
“No,” he answered. “Why do you ask?”
“If you wanted to take something back you couldn’t do that, either, could you?”
She gave him a radiant smile. “I have something to tell you,” she whispered.
She didn’t go on. She folded her hands in her lap and turned her gaze to his chest. Her sudden shyness made him smile. “What is it, Nicholaa?”
“We’re going to have a baby.”
He was too stunned to react at first. Then he was speechless.
She peeked up to see how he was taking her announcement. She laughed when she saw the look of astonishment on his face. Tears of joy streamed down her cheeks, and she wondered how it was possible to laugh and cry at the same time even as she continued to do just that.
Royce’s hand shook when he gently touched her face. “You’re certain about this?” he asked her in a gruff whisper.
It was of course a very logical question. It wasn’t logical that after she told him she was certain, he repeated the same question two more times. He couldn’t seem to accept it.
“You’re pleased, husband?”
“Yes.” He didn’t say another word. He didn’t need to. There was so much emotion in that simple acknowledgment, so much love. He put his arms around her and held her against him. He was still having difficulty putting his thoughts into words. They stayed that way for a long while, holding each other, kissing, whispering to each other. Every now and then she’d feel him tremble.
Oh, yes, he was very pleased.
The fields outside London had been turned into a paradise of color. Tents with each baron’s colors sprinkled the hills overlooking the site where the games would be held. The king’s quarters, on the opposite side, were gigantic and far more elegant than all the others.
It seemed to Nicholaa that everyone in England was in attendance. Women, dressed in their finest gowns, strolled beside the jousting fields so they could be noticed by the men. Children ran from cart to cart, snatching sweets. Minstrels moved through the crowd, singing romantic ballads. Heralds were busy watching everyone so they could accurately record the history of the event in their minds for future recitation.
Only six barons had received the honor of having their men engage in the games. Had all the barons been allowed to enter, the festive occasion would have lasted a month or more.
The experienced soldiers engaged in combat first. Nicholaa stood on the side of the hill with Justin at her side and all the other younger soldiers lined up behind her. They cheered for Lawrence and his team.
Baron Hanson’s soldiers were almost immediately defeated. Baron George’s soldiers left the fields next. By early afternoon only two divisions remained. Baron Guy’s soldiers were now pitted against Baron Royce’s, just as everyone had predicted.
Nicholaa was too nervous to cheer. She didn’t watch Lawrence, either. She kept her gaze locked on her husband. He stood at the side of the field, directly across from Guy.
Each time Royce smiled, Nicholaa let out a little sigh of relief. When he frowned, her stomach did a flip. A deafening roar suddenly caught her attention. She turned to the field. Only Lawrence and Henry remained now. Royce’s vassal was standing over Henry. Guy’s soldier was sprawled on the ground. The tip of Lawrence’s sword touched Henry’s neck. Lawrence wasn’t looking at his prey, though. He was staring at Royce, waiting for his signal.
Nicholaa held her breath. Royce took his sweet time making up his mind. A silence fell over the crowd. Royce turned to his king, caught his smile, and then finally turned back to Lawrence.
Royce finally shook his head. Lawrence immediately backed away from Henry, giving him enough room to get up and leave the field.
It didn’t take Lawrence so long to defeat Morgan. Nicholaa thought Lawrence didn’t want to take the time to toy with him. He knocked him into a sound sleep within ten minutes.
Only Royce’s soldiers remained on the field now. They lined up and walked over to their baron. Their stride was arrogant, their grins telling.