Everyone watched her as she walked across the room. She felt awkward and unsure of herself, a feeling that was new to her and one she didn’t like at all.
She took a deep breath. “Pray forgive me for interrupting your conference, husband,” she called out. “I—”
She came to an abrupt stop, then let out a low gasp of surprise.
Little Ulric was home. The baby was sound asleep, nestled in the crook of Royce’s arm. He was wrapped in a sparkling white blanket, and only his face was visible to her.
Nicholaa stared at her beautiful nephew while she struggled to contain the tears that came into her eyes.
She didn’t even realize she’d rushed to Royce’s side. He grabbed her around the waist to hold her steady. When she finally looked up at him, his breath caught in his throat. The joy in her gaze warmed his heart.
Royce couldn’t imagine why her pleasure meant so much to him, but he accepted the truth that her joy had become his joy as well.
Nicholaa felt a tear slip down her cheek. She wiped it away. “Thank you.”
“Shall I take Ulric abovestairs so that you may continue with your conference?” she asked.
“The servants are cleaning his chamber,” Royce answered. He tightened his hold around her waist when she tried to move back. “We weren’t in conference,” he added almost as an afterthought.
“But you were whispering . . .” She suddenly realized why. “You kept your voices low so you wouldn’t disturb the baby.”
He nodded again. He let go of her, then stood up and placed Ulric in her arms. After motioning to his men to leave the hall, Royce started toward the entrance. Then he suddenly turned around and walked back to her. He grasped her chin, leaned down, and kissed her hard.
She was clutching his tunic with one hand and clutching the sleeping babe with the other when he pulled back. “You are feeling well today?” he asked, his voice a gruff whisper.
It took her a minute to concentrate on what he was asking her. Then she nodded. “You’ve just given me back my nephew,” she answered. “How could I not feel well?”
He shook his head. “That isn’t what I meant,” he said. “I hurt you last night. It was necessary, Nicholaa, but now I’m . . . concerned that I might have been too rough with you.”
She immediately turned her gaze to his chest. She could feel her cheeks burning. “You were very considerate,” she whispered. “And I am only just a little tender.”
He started to turn away, obviously appeased by her explanation. She tightened her hold on his tunic and blurted out a question. “Royce? Do you wish me to kiss you each morning?”
He shrugged. “Do you want to?”
“It isn’t that I want to,” she answered. “It’s what we should do—for Ulric.”
He raised an eyebrow. Her cheeks were burning now. He felt like laughing. She was such a joy to watch when she was embarrassed. “We should kiss Ulric?” he asked, knowing full well that wasn’t what she meant. He just didn’t want the ludicrous conversation to end.
“Yes, of course we should kiss Ulric. Babies need affection, Royce. But we should also kiss each other in front of Ulric. Then he’ll feel content.”
She was making a mess of things, she decided. “A baby should be surrounded by a happy family,” she continued. “If he sees us kissing, he’ll assume we’re happy. Now do you understand?”
He grinned at her. He bent down until his lips were just an inch away from her mouth. “I understand you want me to kiss you every morning.”
He didn’t give her time to argue with him. He kissed her just to take her mind off the matter, then once again turned to leave the hall.
She hurried after him. “Royce, what about Justin?”
“What about him?” he called over his shoulder.
“Did you bring him home, too?”
She didn’t understand his sudden abrupt manner. “I’d like to welcome my brother home,” she said. “Could you please ask him to come inside?”
Royce stopped. He turned around and stared at her for a long minute. She noticed how incredulous he looked. What had she said to cause that reaction? she wondered.
“Ask him?” His voice had gone hoarse.
She nodded. “Yes, please.”
He let out a loud sigh. “Nicholaa, you do understand Justin’s position now, don’t you?”
She didn’t know what he was talking about. “I understand he’s home now,” she replied.
“This is no longer his home, wife. It’s mine. Your brother is now a soldier in my ranks. I don’t ask anything of my men. I give commands, not requests.” He could tell from the look on her face that she still didn’t understand.
“All right, then,” she said. “Please command my brother to come inside.”
She had to chase him to the front doors before she was finally able to stop him again. “I don’t understand why you’re being so difficult,” she announced. “Justin was born and raised here. This is his home. If you don’t want him to come inside, then I’ll go outside.”
He blocked the doorway. “You will stay inside and see to Ulric’s comfort, Nicholaa. You may see Justin after he’s settled in.”
She frowned in confusion, but decided not to argue. “I’ll be happy to wait until he’s settled in. Do you suppose it will take him an hour or two?”
“Nay, wife, I suppose it will take at least a month, possibly more. Until then you will stay away from him. Do you understand?”
Royce shut the door behind him before she could protest that appalling dictate. Nicholaa couldn’t believe he’d really meant it. He couldn’t possibly expect her to ignore her brother.
She mulled over that worry until Ulric started squirming in her arms. She looked down to find him smiling up at her. Her mood immediately lightened. She carried the babe upstairs and got him settled in his new home.
Nicholaa spent the remainder of the day with her nephew. She thought Ulric was terribly clever. He could get from one end of the room to another with a speed and agility she found amazing. If he was this quick now, what would he be like when he was walking?
“We’ll have to nail our possessions down once he starts running about,” Clarise commented. “Could you hold him for a moment, mistress? The baron wishes us to move this chest to his room.”
Nicholaa canceled that order. “Leave it here, Clarise. We can use it for Ulric’s things.”
Before supper that night, Nicholaa had countermanded at least six more of Royce’s orders. He’d told Cook to prepare quail for the meal. She changed the order to pheasant.
After Ulric had been put to bed for the night, with Alice acting as his nanny until other arrangements could be made, Nicholaa returned to the great hall. The long table had been moved to the center of the room, near the fireplace. She had it moved back where it belonged. The servants did as she requested, for they were extremely loyal to her.
Nicholaa didn’t think Royce had even noticed his orders hadn’t been followed. He didn’t say a word about the position of the table. He ate a fair portion of the pheasant, too. Supper was really very pleasant. Lawrence and Ingelram joined them at the table, and most of the talk centered on the plans to expand the holding. Royce wasn’t specific about his plans, though.
“Do you mean to build a new wall or reinforce the perfectly sound one we now have?” Nicholaa asked.
“Nay, my lady, the wall isn’t sound,” Ingelram said.
Nicholaa turned her attention to the vassal. “It isn’t?”
Ingelram was so bewitched by his beautiful mistress that he couldn’t remember what they were talking about. Her pretty blue eyes took his concentration away. Her smile stole his heart. He could barely catch a breath.
The elbow in his side helped him gain control of himself. He turned to catch his baron’s scowl. “You may be excused, Ingelram.”
The vassal jumped to do his lord’s bidding, overturning a stool in his haste. He hurried to right the damage, bowed formally to Royce, and then rushed out of the room.
“What’s the matter with him?” Nicholaa asked.
“You,” Lawrence announced.
Nicholaa’s shoulders straightened. “What do you mean, Lawrence? I barely said a word to Ingelram. I couldn’t have upset him. He was acting peculiar all through supper, though, wasn’t he, Royce?”
She waited for her husband’s nod, then turned back to Lawrence. “Do you see? Royce noticed, too. Why, Ingelram barely ate.” She waved her hand toward the bread trencher filled with food. “He must not be feeling well.”
Lawrence smiled. Ingelram wasn’t ill. The boy hadn’t eaten because he’d been too occupied gaping at his beautiful mistress. She was a charmer, all right, the vassal admitted. And when those blue eyes were looking directly at a man, it was possible to forget every serious thought.
Nicholaa wondered about Lawrence’s sudden grin. She thought it was a rather odd reaction to her suggestion that Ingelram might be ill. She put the matter aside and looked at Royce again. He was smiling, too. She didn’t know why her husband was pleased, but decided to seize upon the opportunity. “Is Justin feeling well?”
Royce shrugged. Then he changed the topic. “Lawrence, as soon as you’re finished, call the servants together.”
“Why do you want to call the servants together?” Nicholaa asked.
“I want to speak to them.”
She ignored his frown. “Most of the servants have already taken to their beds, husband. They get up before dawn each day.”
Royce ignored her. “Lawrence?”
“Aye, my lord,” the vassal said. “I’ll see to it at once.”
Nicholaa started to protest again. Royce put his hand over hers and squeezed. As soon as Lawrence left the hall, Royce turned back to her. “Do not question my orders again, Nicholaa.”
“I wasn’t questioning,” she argued. She tried to pull her hand away. He wouldn’t let her. “I was just being curious. Please tell me why you want to speak to the servants at this late hour.”
“Very well,” he said. “I gave specific instructions this morning, and they were not followed. Those who defied me will be removed from the holding.”
She was appalled. “Removed? But where would they go? They belong here. Surely you cannot mean to force them out.”
“I don’t give a damn where they go,” he countered in a hard voice.
“These . . . instructions were of extreme importance?”
“Each and every order must be followed,” he said. “The importance isn’t determined by the soldiers or servants.”
Nicholaa was so infuriated by his unbending position that she wanted to scream. She was just as worried about her staff, though, and knew that shouting at her arrogant husband wouldn’t help their cause. “You will not give them a second chance? One sin and they are condemned?” she asked.
“In battle a knight is never given a second chance.”
“This isn’t a battle.”
Aye, it was a battle, he thought to himself. And Nicholaa was his opponent. He knew she was the one who had changed his orders. Now he wanted her to admit it. Then he would calmly explain the importance of organization, the necessity of a hierarchy, and where her place was in his household.
He almost smiled. His wife was so outraged she could barely sit still. The training had begun.
His voice was mild when he said, “Do not raise your voice to me, wife.”
Nicholaa stared at her husband a long minute. He wasn’t bluffing, she finally decided. She took a deep breath. She wasn’t about to let her servants take the blame for her error in judgment. “I have a request, husband.”
“What is it?”
“I would like to speak to the servants first, if you will allow my interference.”
She was thankful when he simply nodded, a warm glint in his eyes, but she didn’t understand the reason for his reaction.
The servants came hurrying into the great hall, some dressed in their nightclothes. Nicholaa stood up and walked around the table, her hands folded in front of her, her expression serene.
Alice was the last to join the group. Nicholaa nodded to her. “My husband has graciously allowed me to speak to you first,” she began. She was pleased her voice didn’t crack; her heart was about to. “Today your lord gave some of you specific orders.”
Several servants nodded. Nicholaa smiled. “I changed those orders. That was thoughtless of me,” she added. “And I apologize both to my husband and to you for creating confusion.”
As she came to the difficult part, she took another deep breath. “In future, when my husband gives an order, you will obey it. If I should inadvertently contradict that command, please remind me that you must follow your lord’s order. He is master of this holding now, and you must be loyal to him above all others.”
Clarise took a step forward. “Above even you, milady?” she asked with a frown.
Nicholaa nodded. “Yes, above even me. Are there any other questions?”
“What if you be the one to give the order first and the baron changes it?” Alice called out.
“You will follow my husband’s command, Alice.”
The servants nodded. Nicholaa held on to her smile. “My husband would like to speak to you now.”
She didn’t turn to Royce but slowly walked out of the hall, hoping he wouldn’t call her back. She knew she wouldn’t be able to maintain her smile when she was feeling so bloody furious inside.
Nicholaa muttered to herself all the way up the stairs. Her husband was a cad. First he’d taken away her holding, and now he was determined to take away her servants’ loyalty, too. It was all so unfair and damn lopsided, too. Why did she always have to be the one to give in? She supposed it was because the Normans had won the war. Still, she was Royce’s wife now, and he should consider her opinions.
She passed her old chamber and decided to look in on Ulric. Surely the sight of the precious baby would remind her why she was trying to get along with her obstinate husband.
She tried to be as quiet as possible when she went inside so she wouldn’t disturb the baby. Nicholaa was just closing the door behind her when she thought she noticed a movement in the shadows on her left. She instinctively turned. Then she tried to scream. A hand clamped down hard over her mouth to cut off the sound. Nicholaa was pulled up against what felt very like a stone wall.