Ulric had just filled his lungs with the intention of letting out an outraged bellow of his own when Royce gently wrapped him up in his cocoon of blankets. The warmth soothed the baby, and he began to suckle diligently on his chubby fists.
The slurping noise made Royce smile. He pulled the blanket back so he could see the baby’s face and was rewarded with a grin. Four sparkling white teeth, two on top and two on the bottom, were visible when Ulric removed his fist from his mouth. Drool covered the baby’s chin and cheeks. Royce awkwardly mopped the wetness away and then thought to dismiss the child by again covering his face.
Ulric had other intentions. He immediately arched his back into a bow, let out a loud, thoroughly undisciplined scream, and then started kicking.
Royce had absolutely no experience handling such a little baby. His three younger sisters had children, yes, but he’d never spent any time with them. As to that, he wasn’t even sure how many nieces and nephews he had. He didn’t have any idea why Ulric was upset. The baby was warm and protected, and that should have been quite enough. Royce had, after all, patiently waited until the servant, Clarise, had fed the child.
The baby had absolutely nothing to complain about.
He pulled the covers away from the baby’s face. “Go back to sleep,” he ordered in a soft but firm voice. Ulric quit squirming long enough to smile up at Royce. The baby looked absolutely ridiculous with his hair standing on end. Royce couldn’t help smiling back.
He then decided he’d spent enough time soothing the child and once again pulled the covers over the baby’s face. “Now you will go back to sleep.”
Ulric let out another bellow. Royce spotted Nicholaa then. She came running through the open gates with her hair flying out behind her, paying no heed to the weather, for she hadn’t even taken the time to put a cloak around her shoulders in her haste to get to Ulric.
His plan had worked. Royce was relieved—not so much at having tricked her into leaving the abbey as to be rid of the squirming infant.
Nicholaa flew down the hill at a breakneck run. She was out of breath but full of fury when she finally reached Royce. “Give me that baby,” she demanded in a hoarse shout.
She was so infuriated that she couldn’t stop herself from slapping his leg.
“Is Ulric your son, Nicholaa?”
She hesitated for only a fraction of a second before nodding. “Yes, he’s my son.”
He knew she was lying. Again. He let out a sigh. The fear he saw in her gaze made him hold his silence. He wouldn’t challenge her now. She had lied because she was afraid. She couldn’t possibly understand him. He knew she was trying to protect the child from harm. Royce was her enemy, and he could well imagine the foul stories she’d been fed about the Normans.
“Ulric’s safe, Nicholaa. No harm will come to him.”
After making that promise, he reached down to her, offering her his hand.
She shoved it away. “Give him to me. Now.”
He would have liked nothing better than to hand the child down to her, for Ulric was at it again, squirming, kicking, howling, too, but Royce wasn’t about to let Nicholaa have the upper hand. She wasn’t the one giving the orders, and the sooner she understood that, the better. The journey would be difficult enough without her challenging him every step of the way.
Ulric had gone into a rage of rebellion. Royce turned his attention to calming him. He gently turned the infant so that his back rested against the cloak covering his chest. He then removed the blanket from his face, for the babe did seem determined to look around him. He mopped his face again, too. Then he finally turned his gaze back to Nicholaa.
The bluster had gone out of her anger. Royce was being incredibly gentle with Ulric. The warrior had such big hands, and yet he wasn’t at all awkward with the infant. Ulric liked him, too. The baby kept tilting his head back and grinning up at his captor.
He was only a baby. He didn’t know any better, she told herself. She finally turned her gaze to Royce. They stared at each other for a long minute while Ulric gurgled out his new sounds. The baby was very content.
Nicholaa couldn’t hold Royce’s stare long. She started shivering and couldn’t decide if the chills were due to the weather or the giant’s glacial stare.
“The game’s over, Nicholaa. I’ve won. If this were a chess match, I would say checkmate,” he said. “Admit your defeat and I’ll show you mercy.”
The amusement in his voice was more infuriating to her than his arrogant boast. She looked up at him again and saw that he was trying hard not to laugh at her.
The man was literally gloating with victory. She slapped his leg again. “If this were a game, your move would not be checkmate, Baron, but check, for you’ve only cornered me with this devil’s move. Aye, this game isn’t over yet.”
He shook his head. “You’re in an untenable position, Nicholaa. Give up this foolish struggle and accept what cannot be changed.”
He had the gall to smile at her. She disliked him intensely for that. How could she have thought he was the least bit handsome? The man was a monster to use a baby to get his way. Why, he’d deliberately put Ulric in jeopardy just to gain the advantage.
Nicholaa realized that, in all honesty, the baby wasn’t in any jeopardy. She was candid enough with herself to admit that truth. Ulric was safe. There was a full army within shouting distance to keep the baby safe from attack, and he was well protected in the Norman’s arms.
No, Ulric wasn’t in any jeopardy, but she was. It was only a matter of minutes before she would be turned into a block of ice by the wind.
Nicholaa rubbed her arms and stomped her feet in an effort to take the sting out of her toes. “Give me my son,” she demanded again, though her voice lacked conviction now.
“Is he your son?”
Before she could answer that question, Ulric gurgled out a word: “Mama.” Since the baby was looking at her, she seized the opportunity.
“Of course he is,” she announced. “You just heard him call me Mama.”
His exasperation was obvious. “Madam, in the past five minutes this babe has called me, my horse, and his fists Mama. You’re trying my patience,” he added with a frown. “Are you determined to stand there until you freeze to death or will you concede defeat?”
She nibbled on her lower lip for a long minute before giving him answer. “I’ll concede only that you’ve bested me by means of sinful trickery, but that’s all I’m going to concede.”
It was enough to satisfy him. He lifted his cloak from where it was draped across his thighs and tossed it down to her.
“Put this on.”
She’d whispered those words, and he wasn’t certain he’d heard her correctly. “What did you just say?”
“I said thank you.”
“Why?” he asked, his puzzlement obvious.
She shrugged. “For a kindness given,” she explained. “There is never a good reason for rudeness, Baron. We Saxons understand that, but I assume from the look on your face that Normans do not. ’Tis yet another reason you should go back where you belong and leave England alone. Our cultures are too different to mix.”
God, she was exasperating. He let out a sigh. “Are all the Saxons as daft as you?”
She clutched the edges of his heavy cloak around her shoulders and glared at him. “We aren’t daft. We’re civilized.”
He laughed. “So civilized that Saxon men and women paint their bodies? Don’t shake your head at me. I’ve seen the pagan designs drawn on the Saxon soldiers’ arms and faces. Even your church leaders think it quite decadent.”
The man had a valid argument there, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She, too, thought it a bit decadent the way some of the Saxons painted themselves. However, this was a ridiculous conversation to be having right now.
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
The anguish in her voice caught him off guard. One minute she was arguing with him about his manners, and the next she was pleading with him and looking ready to weep.
“I’d like nothing better than to leave you alone, but it is my duty to take you to London, and it’s your duty to—”
“To become some man’s prize? Isn’t that the real reason I’m being dragged to London?”
She was bloody furious again. Her changes of mood occurred so swiftly that he was amazed. And pleased. He much preferred an angry woman to a weeping one.
“I hadn’t planned to drag you all the way to London, but the idea has merit.”
The amusement in his voice made her want to scream. “You do try my patience,” she muttered.
“And you mine,” he announced when she pushed his outstretched hand away a second time.”
“If I’m going to London, then I shall walk there. I won’t—”
She never got to finish her threat, because he took matters into his hands. Literally. Before she realized his intention, he leaned to one side of the saddle, grabbed her around the middle, and lifted her up onto his lap. It happened so quickly she didn’t even have time to gasp. Her bottom landed on his hard thighs. Her back was slammed up against his chest, and his arm became an anchor around her waist.
Ulric was tucked under one of his arms. The baby’s lusty laugh indicated he was thoroughly enjoying being jostled about.
Nicholaa hated being so close to her captor. His size overwhelmed her. The heat and the strength radiating from him made her feel horribly vulnerable.
She fought this fresh spurt of fear, but she knew she was losing the battle when she started trembling again. It was actually her captor who made her terror subside. He handed Ulric to her and then took time—and care, she couldn’t help but notice—to adjust his cloak around her shoulders. He tucked the heavy garment around her legs and even offered her his warmth when by pulling her back against his chest. He was being extremely gentle with her, as gentle as he’d been with little Ulric.
He smelled nice, too. She let out a little sigh. He wasn’t a monster after all. God’s truth, that admission took the wind right out of her. The fear, too. She realized she couldn’t dislike him as much as she wanted to, and then she found her first smile. Heaven help her, she’d never been good at holding a grudge or disliking anyone as thoroughly as she was supposed to dislike him.
She mulled that truth over for a minute or two and came up with an alternative. She couldn’t hate him, for that would be a sin. She could, however, make his life a living hell during the short time they spent together. Odd, but that plan cheered her considerably. The possibilities, after all, were endless.
The Norman barbarian deserved every inconvenience she could give him. He was the one who insisted on taking her to London, and any misery she could give him would be his just reward.
Nicholaa turned her attention to the baby. She cuddled him against her bosom, kissed the top of his head. Ulric let out a happy gurgle. Absentmindedly she brushed his hair down. The strands of blond fluff sprang right back up.
Royce watched her. “Why does his hair do that?” he asked.
He’d whispered that question close to her ear. She kept her gaze directed on the baby. “Do what?”
“Stand up on end,” he said. “He looks as if he’d just suffered a fright.”
She couldn’t help but smile. Ulric did look silly. And adorable. She didn’t let the Norman see her amusement, though. “He’s perfect,” she announced.
He didn’t agree or disagree.
“You don’t plan to take Ulric to London with us, do you, Baron? The journey would be too difficult for him.”
He ignored her question and nudged his stallion forward. They stopped when they reached the iron gates. He dismounted in one fluid motion. “You will wait here,” he ordered. He put his hand on her thigh. “Do you understand me?”
His grip stung. She put her hand on top of his to push him away. She wasn’t going to obey any order he gave her. Then he captured her fingers and started squeezing. “I understand. I’ll stay here,” she lied, hoping that the lie didn’t qualify as a sin, since the Norman was her enemy and God was still on her side. God would help her get away, she reasoned. As soon as the Norman went inside the abbey, she and Ulric would take to the north road.
And then what? The baron’s men would surely notice she was leaving.
She completely discarded the plan when Royce took Ulric into his arms.
“Give him back to me,” she demanded.
He shook his head.
“What are you thinking to do?” she asked.
“I told you to stay there,” he commanded when she started to dismount.
His voice hadn’t risen above a whisper, but the sternness in his tone got her full attention. “Give me my son and I’ll do whatever you ask.”
He pretended he hadn’t heard her. Nicholaa waited until he went inside the abbey. She was left to fret a good ten minutes before he came outside again.
The baby wasn’t with him. Royce carried her baggage, though, and once he’d secured it to the back of the saddle, he remounted behind her.
“Will the abbess see that Ulric is taken back home?”
She waited for him to explain in full, but after he’d settled her on his lap and covered her with his cloak, the rude man still didn’t say another word.
“Who will take care of Ulric?”
The worry in her voice softened his attitude. “Ulric’s going to stay at the abbey until your future has been decided.”
“How did you get the abbess to agree to tend Ulric?”
“I offered her a bargain she couldn’t resist,” Royce replied.
She could hear the amusement in his voice. She tried to turn so she could see his expression, but he forced her to stay where she was. “What was this bargain?”
They started back down the hill before he answered her. “In return for the favor of looking after Ulric, I promised to see that Justin is taken care of,” he said.
She was astonished. “How could you make such a bargain? Justin’s dying, or have you forgotten?”
His sigh was long. “He isn’t dying,” he said. “Somewhere in that mind of yours I think you know I’m speaking the truth. Justin might not want to live, but he’s going to, Nicholaa.”
When she started to answer him, he put his hand over her mouth. “In the past two months there have been many changes in your country. England is ours now, and William is as much your king as mine.”