Love Only Once Page 13

Reggie frowned, utterly bewildered. To tease her about the new gossip, smile at her with great

tenderness, warm her with his honey-gold eyes, and then become so angry without reason. What was the matter with him?

Reggie smiled, determined not to let him make her miserable. She was asked to dance again and again, and she renewed acquaintances with the young men who had flocked around her last season. Basil Elliot and George Fowler, two persistent admirers, now dramatically professed their lives at an end because of the Viscount’s good fortune. Both young men swore they would love her forever. Reggie was amused and flattered, for George and Basil were both wildly popular. Their attentions made up for Nicholas’

rudeness.

It was some two hours before the errant Lord Montieth decided to join Reggie again. She had not seen him in all that time, but he had seen her. Time and again he had stood in the door of the card room and seen her laughing up at a dancing partner, or surrounded by ardent beaux. The sight sent him right back for another drink. He was pleasantly foxed by the time he approached her.

“Will you dance with me, love?”

“Will we finish this dance?” she rejoined.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t wait for her to accept either but clamped his hand onto her waist and moved her out onto the dance floor. It was another waltz, and he held her much too close this time.

“Did I tell you yet this evening that I want you?” he asked her suddenly.

She had been aware that there was something different about him, but it wasn’t until he leaned close that she smelled the brandy. She wasn’t worried though. No one who could move around a dance floor so gracefully could be foxed.

“I wish you wouldn’t say that kind of thing, Nicholas.”

“ ‘Nicholas,’ ” he repeated. “Sweet of you to call me by my given name, love. After all, most everyone here thinks we are already lovers, so it would seem a bit odd for you to call me Lord Montieth.”

“If you don’t want me to—”

“Did I say that?” he interrupted. “But something like ‘beloved’ would be even nicer than just ‘Nicholas.’

I suppose you must love me if you want to marry me. And I don’t want to marry you, but I do want you, love. Never doubt it.”

“Nicholas—”

“It’s all I can seem to think about,” he went on. “I am found guilty, yet I have not been permitted to enjoy my crime. Hardly fair, don’t you agree?”

“Nicholas—”

“Beloved,” he corrected. Then he changed the subject.

“Let’s go see the Hamiltons’ lovely gardens.” Before she could protest, he led her off the dance floor and out of the house.

The gardens were brilliantly landscaped into rolling lawns dotted with trees, man-made ponds, flower beds, a topiary garden, and even a gazebo, so thickly covered by flowering vines that it resembled a tree.

They did not pause to appreciate these beauties. In a twinkling Reggie found herself inside the gazebo, wrapped in Nicholas’ arms, being kissed so thoroughly she was close to fainting.

Moonlight spilled in through the hanging vines, bathing them in soft silver light. Padded benches hugged each short, trellised wall. The floor was wood, smooth and polished. There were large potted plants scattered between the benches, their leaves rustling gently in the warm night air.

Deep down Reggie knew that Nicholas was not going to be satisfied with just kissing her, not this time.

It would be up to her to stop him. But a voice inside her demanded to know why she wanted to stop him.

He was going to be her husband, wasn’t he? Why should she deny him anything—especially when she didn’t want to deny him anything? And wasn’t it possible that his attitude toward their marriage would change if they… ? Well, wasn’t it?

How conveniently the mind works to get what it wants. And how predictably the body reacts to pleasant feelings, wanting more and more. Her mind and her body conspired against Reggie, and soon there was no fight left in her. She wrapped her arms around Nicholas in surrender.

He carried her to a bench, sat down, and cradled her in his lap. “You will not be sorry, love,” he whispered, and then his warm mouth claimed hers again.

Sorry? How could she be when she was so excited and happy?

He supported her back with one arm while his other hand moved slowly along her neck, then lower, making her gasp as it passed over her breasts. On it went, over her belly, down her thigh. He was feeling her hesitantly, as if he couldn’t quite believe she would let him. But as his hand began to trace that same path upward, he became bolder, more possessive.

Through the thin silk of her gown, her skin began to burn. The gown was in the way, a nuisance. He thought so too. The button at her throat came undone first, then the tie that held the gown beneath her breasts. In another moment they were standing and he had it removed completely.

Nicholas gasped at the sight of Regina in silk underclothes that clung, molding her gentle curves. She looked right back at him, unashamed, which fanned the flames licking at him. Her eyes were black in the shadowy light, her young br**sts straining at the lacy chemise. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.

The small bruise at the base of her throat drew his gaze and he smiled. “So I did put my mark on you. I suppose I should say I’m sorry.”

“You might be sorry if you knew how difficult it has been to conceal. You won’t give me any more like it, will you?”

“I can’t make any promises,” he whispered hoarsely.

Then he looked at her shrewdly and asked, “You aren’t frightened, are you, love?”

“No—at least I don’t think so.”

“Then let me see all of you,” he persuaded gently. She let him come to her again, and he began removing the rest of her clothing until she was na**d. His eyes explored her slowly, hungrily, and then he pulled her close to him and fastened his mouth on her breasts. His tongue, his teeth, his lips all came into play, making her gasp and cry out again and again. She wrapped her arms around his head, holding him to her.

Her head fell back as he began kissing her belly. Good God, she couldn’t take much more…

“Shouldn’t you… Nicholas… your clothes, Nicholas,” she finally managed.

In seconds he was bare-chested, and Reggie’s eyes widened, so amazed was she at what his clothes had concealed. She had known his chest would be broad, but now it seemed so huge. He was darkly tanned all over, the mat of hair on his chest golden brown.

She ran her fingers over his muscular upper arm. Her touch scorched him, making him groan.

“The rest now,” she pleaded softly, wanting to see all of him, as he had seen all of her.

She moved away and sat down to watch as he undressed. She didn’t feel at all awkward, na**d though she was. She feasted her gaze on him, a man in all his glory.

When he was finally na**d, she went to him and touched him, first his narrow hip, then his long, thick thigh. He grasped her hand, stopping her.

“Don’t, love.” His voice was harsh with passion. “I am near to exploding now, yet I must go slowly.” Then she saw what was near to exploding. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Extraordinary.

Slowly she raised her eyes to his. “How am I to learn what pleases you if I can’t touch you?” He cupped her face between his hands. “Later, love. This time it will please me to please you. But I must hurt you first.”

“I know,” she said softly, shyly. “Aunt Charlotte told me.”

“But if you trust me, Regina—if you relax and trust me—I will prepare you. There will be only a little pain, and I promise you will enjoy what comes after.”

“I have enjoyed what comes before.” She smiled up at him.

“Oh, sweet love, so have I.”

He kissed her again, his tongue parting her lips to plunge inside. He was on the very edge of losing control. Her eagerness inflamed him, made him fight for precious time. He caressed her belly, then drifted lower to her parted thighs.

She moaned as he touched the warm essence of her. And then she jerked in surprise when he thrust a finger deep inside her. Her back arched, br**sts pressing against his chest. She tore her lips away from his.

“I am… prepared, Nicholas, I swear I am.”

“Not yet, love,” he cautioned.

“Please, Nicholas,” she gasped.

That undid him. He glanced down at the narrow bench in frustration. He refused to take her maidenhead on the floor, but—damnation, he should never have brought her to this place, not for her first time.

“Nicholas!” she beseeched him passionately.

He positioned himself and then leaned into her as gently as he could. He heard her gasp as her warmth closed around him. She surged forward until her maidenhead was reached. The pressure stopped her, but in their position, he could not breech her quickly enough to minimize the pain.

There was no help for it. He closed his mouth over hers to receive her cry and then, without warning, he lifted her up and pulled her down hard onto him. He held her like that, impaled.

It took only moments before her nails eased out of his shoulders and she sighed with pleasure again, relaxing against him.

“Nicholas?”

His name had never sounded sweeter. He smiled with relief and answered her without words, clasping her buttocks to lift her, then letting her slide back onto him slowly.

She quickly increased the tempo, clinging to him tightly. A thousand fires were ignited in her, joining into one flame that soon could not be contained. It washed through her, drowning her in sweetest fire.

Nicholas could not remember ever being so sated, or feeling such tenderness after making love. He wanted to hold Regina forever and never let her go.

“Was that… normal?” she asked dreamily.

He laughed. “After what we just experienced, you want mere normalcy?”

“No, I suppose not.” She lifted her head from his chest, sighing, “I suppose we must go back to the house.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” he growled. “I suppose we must.”

She gazed at him, love and longing lighting her beautiful face. “Nicholas?”

“Yes, love?”

“You don’t think they’ll guess, do you?” The truth was, she didn’t care if they did, but she believed she should ask.

Nicholas grinned at her. “No one would dare suggest we had made love out of doors. It isn’t done, love.”

Between dressing, teasing, and stealing kisses, it was another twenty minutes before they were on their

way walking around the pond toward the house. Nicholas’ arm was draped over her shoulder, holding her close, when Amy rushed out at them from behind a wall of shrubbery.

“Oh, Reggie, I’m so glad it’s you!” she called breathlessly.

“Have I been missed?” Reggie asked, preparing herself for an ordeal.

“Missed? I don’t know. I’ve been out… walking, you see, and I didn’t realize so much time—” Amy started to cough, a bad acting job, as the shrubbery behind her began to rustle. “Marshall will be so angry,” she said. “Would you mind terribly if I told him I’d been with you?” Reggie managed to suppress her grin. “Of course not, if you promise not to let the—time— get away from you again. Nicholas?”

“Not at all,” he agreed. “I know how easy it is to lose track of time myself.” All three of them managed to keep straight faces as they hurried back to the house.

Chapter 14

THE engagement party, given by Edward and Charlotte Malory, was a complete success. The whole family and all of their close friends were there. Even Jason’s wife had been persuaded to leave the cures at Bath and be there for the event. Nicholas’ grandmother and Aunt Eleanor enjoyed themselves immensely, and Reggie got the impression that they had despaired of Nicholas’ ever marrying. His mother, of whom he never spoke, was conspicuously absent.

Nicholas was on his best behavior, and everything went beautifully. The party had taken two weeks to prepare, and all the meticulous attention to detail, all the effort paid off.

Alas, smooth sailing doesn’t last. Two months after the party, Regina Malory was at the very bottom of despair. It didn’t help that she had reached this level of misery by slow degrees.

It was all for nothing.

She wouldn’t have believed it possible, not after he had made love to her. She had been so certain he would be happy to marry her after that night. He had been so wonderful, so incredibly patient and tender with her that night. Certainly he had had too much to drink, but was that enough to make him forget the evening?

Oh, they were still to be married. And he always let her know when he was leaving town. He went to Southampton for weeks at a time, claiming business. He always let her know when he returned to London, but in the last two months, she had seen him no more than five times. And those five times were terrible, every one.

He was never late to call for her each time he escorted her to a party, but he’d brought her home only three times. The other two times she had let her temper get the best of her and left without him. It wasn’t that he deserted her to spend the entire evening in the card room or embroiled in political discussions, but he often spent more time with Selena Eddington than with her. When he made an obnoxious fool of himself by following her around, well, that was the outside of enough.

Intentional, all of it. She knew very well he was playing the cad for her benefit. That was what hurt so much. If she for a minute thought he was showing his true colors, well, she would let Tony have at him, just see if she wouldn’t. But he was not a cad. He was waging a ruthless campaign to make her cry off.

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