Love Only Once Page 12

They left the carriage and walked along a flowered path, music growing louder as they neared the large area where an orchestra was set up. Nicholas was looking at Derek so intensely that the younger man finally got the message and hurried Clare ahead of them to buy pastries from the vendors circulating through the audience. Reggie laughed as Derek pulled his cousin along against her protests.

The moment he could, Nicholas whisked her off the pathway and behind a large tree. They were not alone. They were shielded from the crowd of people ahead, but not from those still coming up along the path. But it was secluded enough for a few private words.

He had his chance. She was backed up against the tree, his arms braced on each side of her, a captive audience, forced to listen to his every word. She looked up at him expectantly, and he thought, Hate me, woman. Despise me. Don’t marry me . It was all there in his mind to say, but he lost himself in her eyes.

Without even realizing he was doing it, he bent his head and touched his lips to hers, feeling the petal softness, the sweetness as her lips opened. Fire rushed through him, and he leaned into her, pressing her

between him and the tree. Yet even this wasn’t close enough. He needed to be closer…

“Lord Montieth, please,” she managed, gasping. “We can be seen.” He leaned slightly away, just far enough that he could see her face.

“Don’t be so formal, love. You are entitled to call me by my given name, don’t you think?” Did she hear bitterness in his voice? “You don’t… why did you agree to marry me?”

“Why did you want me to?” he snapped.

“It seemed the only solution.”

“You could have brazened it out.”

“Brazened it—? Why should I have to? I warned you what would happen if we were found out.”

“You were joking!” he reminded her harshly.

“Well, yes, because I didn’t think we would be discovered. Oh, I don’t want to argue. What’s done is done.”

“No it’s not,” he said tightly. “You can break the engagement.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Because you don’t want to marry me, Regina,” he said in a soft, almost threatening voice. “You don’t want to.” Then he smiled tenderly, his eyes caressing her face. “You want to be my lover instead, for I will love you to distraction.”

“For a time, my lord?” she asked curtly.

“Yes.”

“And then we’ll go our separate ways?”

“Yes.”

“That won’t do.”

“I will have you, you know,” he warned her.

“After we are married, yes.”

“We won’t marry, love. You will come to your senses long before the wedding day. But I will have you anyway. You know we are inevitable, don’t you?”

“You seem to think so.”

He laughed. How charming she was. His laughter froze when he heard the deep voice behind him.

“I won’t say I’m sorry for interrupting, Montieth, because it appears you need interrupting.” Nicholas stiffened. Reggie peaked around Nicholas’ shoulder to find her Uncle Tony and a lady holding tightly to his arm. Oh, no! Not her! Nicholas was going to be furious for he would be sure to think Tony had brought Selena Eddington there on purpose.

“You in Vauxhall, Tony?” She tried to sound disbelieving. “I don’t believe it.”

“Spare me your mockery, puss. I’ve heard raves about this particular orchestra.” She held her breath as Nicholas’ gaze fell on his mistress, who was looking confused and angry. Reggie almost felt sorry for the woman, but her sympathy didn’t quite surface. After all, Selena had thought nothing of tossing Reggie’s name to the scandalmongers.

“We meet again, Lady Eddington,” Reggie said with false sweetness. “Now I can thank you for the loan of your carriage the other night.”

Anthony cleared his throat loudly and Nicholas laughed unpleasantly. “I, too, must thank you, Selena.

Why, I wouldn’t have met my future bride if it hadn’t been for you.” A myriad of emotions washed over Lady Eddington’s face—none of them pleasant. She was calling herself a thousand kinds of a fool. When she’d learned what happened, she was so pleased that Nicholas had meant to kidnap her that she’d told all her friends how romantic her lover was… and how unfortunate to have nabbed the wrong female. Her bragging had resulted in disaster for herself.

Anthony said firmly, “You will be coming along now, won’t you? Perhaps I should start chaperoning you myself. I must have a talk with that errant nephew of mine. Derek should know better than to leave you two alone. Being engaged is not a license to behave badly. Remember that.” With that he departed, whispering something in Lady Eddington’s ear as he ushered her away, more than likely encouraging her not to make a scene. Nicholas’ mouth was set in a hard line as he watched them go. “Didn’t your uncle trust me to tell her of my engagement myself? I would have, with great pleasure. If it were not for her and her uncontrollable conceited bragging—”

“You wouldn’t be marrying me,” Reggie finished softly.

The fury went out of him. His expression became maddeningly unreadable. “And you would be my lover instead of my wife. A preferable arrangement.”

“Not for me.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t succumb, love?”

“No, I’m not sure, not sure at all,” she answered truthfully. There was sadness in her admission, and he was instantly remorseful.

“I am sorry, love,” he said gently. “I shouldn’t be badgering you. I should simply tell you that I don’t want to marry you.”

She gazed at him unwaveringly. “Am I to be grateful for your honesty?”

“Blister it! Don’t take it as an insult. It has nothing to do with you!”

“It has everything to do with me, my lord,” Reggie said angrily. “You have linked my name to yours whether you meant to or not. You did that, not I. Also, you agreed to marry me. You were coerced into it, yes, but if you had no intention of honoring that agreement, then you should not have been seen in public with me today. Our public appearance binds me more firmly to you. I am afraid I am stuck with you now, whether I like it or not. And I am beginning not to like it at all.” Without giving him a chance to recover, she turned and walked away. Nicholas didn’t move. He felt ridiculously pleased when she talked of being stuck with him, and then ridiculously hurt when she said she didn’t like it. He had no business feeling like this about her. They were not stuck with each other, and he’d damned well better remember that.

Chapter 13

“UNCLE Jason!”

Reggie threw herself into her uncle’s outstretched arms, thrilled to see him. Jason Malory, Third Marquis of Haverston, was a big man, as all her uncles were big men. She liked that.

“I’ve missed you, my girl. Haverston isn’t the same when you’re away.”

“You say that every time I come home.” She smiled at him fondly. “Actually I did want to come home for a while before all this happened. I still do.” She looked around the drawing room and saw Uncle Edward and Uncle Tony.

“And leave your bridegroom cooling his heels here in London?”

“Somehow I don’t think he would mind,” she replied softly.

He led her to the cream-colored sofa where Anthony was sitting. Edward was standing by the fireplace, as was his habit. They had more than likely been having a family discussion before her arrival. It must have been about she-knew-what. Nobody had even told her that Uncle Jason was there.

“I was afraid I wouldn’t have time to talk to you before you were due to leave,” Jason began. “I’m glad you came down early.”

Reggie shrugged. “Well, I kept Nicholas waiting yesterday when he took me to Vauxhall, and I didn’t want to do that again.”

Jason sat back, looking very solemn. “I can’t say as I like having this matter settled before I even got here. My brothers took a lot upon themselves.”

“You know we had no choice, Jason,” Edward defended himself.

“A few days wouldn’t have made any difference,” Jason returned.

“Are you saying you will withhold your consent now, after the engagement has been decided on?” Reggie exclaimed.

Anthony chuckled. “I warned you, Jason. She’s got her heart set on the young rake, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”

“Is that true, Reggie?”

It had been true, yes, but… she wasn’t so sure now, not after yesterday. She knew Nicholas still wanted her. He had made that plain. And she wanted him. Why pretend otherwise? But marriage?

“I do like him very much, Uncle Jason, but— I’m afraid he doesn’t really want to marry me.” There. It was said. Why did it make her feel so desolate?

“I have been told that he refused adamantly before he agreed,” Jason said gently. “That was only to be expected. No young man likes to be forced into anything.” Her eyes filled with hope. Could that be the only reason?

“I forget that you do know him,” she said, “better than the rest of us.”

“Yes, and I’ve always liked the boy. There is a lot more to him than he allows the world to see.”

“Spare us, brother,” Anthony said sardonically.

“He’ll make her a good husband, Tony, despite what you seem to think.”

“Do you really think so, Uncle Jason?” Reggie asked, hope rising.

“I do indeed,” he said firmly.

“Then you approve of my marrying him?”

“I’d have preferred to see you married under normal circumstances, but as this unfortunate situation has come upon us, I can’t say I’m unhappy that the fellow is Nicholas Eden, no.” Reggie grinned happily, but before she could say any more, her cousins started drifting in. They were all going with her to the Hamiltons’ rout, Amy with her and Nicholas, the others with Marshall in his smart new four-seater. Amidst all the merry chatter as Jason was greeted by his nieces and nephews, Nicholas arrived and stood in the doorway unnoticed. Panic washed over him as he viewed this large family. He was supposed to marry into this overwhelming brood? God help him.

It was Reggie who approached him first. He smiled down at her, determined to keep a tight rein on his emotions this time. She was stunning in a cream day gown that complemented her transluscent complexion. The style was unusual, for while most London women delighted in exposing as much of their bosom as possible, she had contrived to cover hers with a gauze insert that rose all the way to her neck, ending in a thick lacy band around her throat. He was amused. Perhaps he had marked her there and this was her clever way of concealing it. He wondered.

“Nicholas?” she asked, curious as to what he was thinking.

“So you have decided to have done with formality?” he said softly. “I feared you wouldn’t be speaking

to me at all today.”

“Are we to argue again, then?” She looked crushed.

“Perish the thought, love.”

She blushed prettily. Why did he persist in calling her that? It wasn’t proper and he knew it wasn’t. But that was Nicholas.

The Marquis greeted Nicholas warmly and without mentioning the wild escapade that accounted for the engagement. The ride to the Hamiltons’ country house a few miles outside of London went smoothly, too, young Amy filling each lapse in conversation with excited chatter, for she wasn’t often allowed to go to late-night parties.

It remained then to see what reactions the engaged couple would receive at the Hamiltons’ for Nicholas’

engagement to Regina was overtaking the subject of their first improper meeting in the gossip mills. He had found that out the previous evening, at a dinner party.

The Hamilton soiree wasn’t a large gathering. There were only a hundred people present in the large country house, so there was plenty of room to move around. Guests sampled the array of food set out on long tables, danced in a salon cleared for that purpose, or chatted in small groups. A few stodgy ones glared at the sight of Nicholas and Regina together, but most engaged in wild speculation concerning their first unorthodox meeting.

It had always been arranged that they marry, was the on-dit. He had only been amusing himself with Selena while waiting for Regina to return to London. They had met on the Continent, you know. No, no, my dears, they met at Haverston. He and the Marquis’ son have been quite chummy for years, don’t you know.

“Have you heard what they’re saying, love?” Nicholas asked as he claimed her first waltz. “They have us betrothed since you were in swaddling.”

Reggie had heard some of the more outlandish speculations from her cousins. “Never say so,” she giggled. “My other beaux will be devastated that they never had a real chance.”

“Other beaux?”

“The dozens and dozens who sought my hand.” A few glasses of champagne had brought out the imp in her.

“I hope you are exaggerating, Regina.”

“I wish I were,” she sighed, blissfully unaware of his changing temper. “It has been most tedious, you know, trying to make a choice from so many. I was quite ready to give up… and then you came along.”

“How fortunate for me.” Nicholas was furious. He had no idea that he was jealous. Without another word, he maneuvered them to the side of the room, where he abruptly left her with Marshall and Amy, giving her a curt bow in parting. His back to her, he headed for the card room, where he could get a more potent libation than champagne.

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