Love Only Once Page 14

Just as he had been forced into the engagement, so he meant to force her out of it.

The very worst of it was that no matter how much it hurt, she couldn’t break with him. She no longer had just herself to think of.

Nicholas removed her short black lace cape and handed it to the footman, along with his own red-lined dark cloak and his top hat. Reggie was wearing a white gown trimmed with thin gold tassels along the hem and short sleeves. The neckline was fashionably low, barely covering her breasts, and she was uncomfortable in the gown because of that and because white was reserved for innocent maids.

She had managed to coax her Uncle Edward into trusting her without a chaperon this once. Not since the engagement party had there been any pleasantness between her and Nicholas.

Whatever she had hoped for, she was already disappointed. They had been alone in his closed carriage on the short ride, and he hadn’t tried to get close to her, hadn’t said a single word to her.

She stole a glance at him as they walked side by side to the music room, where a young couple, friends of Nicholas‘, were entertaining the twenty or so dinner guests. Nicholas looked exceptionally fine tonight in a long-tailed dark green coat, embroidered cream waistcoat, and frilled shirt. His cravat was loosely knotted, and he wore long trousers instead of the knee breeches and silk stockings preferred by dandies for evening dress. The material clung to his long legs, revealing the powerful thighs and calves. Just looking at his long, graceful body made her feel embarrassed.

His hair was a riot of short, dark brown waves, with so many golden streaks running through it that it sometimes looked copper, or even blond. She knew it was soft to the touch, knew too that his lips were soft, not the hard, rigid line they had been lately. Oh, why wouldn’t he talk to her?

A gleam entered her eyes. She stopped in the hall with a tiny gasp, forcing Nicholas to stop as well. He turned back toward her, and she bent over to adjust her shoe. Clumsily, she lost her balance and swayed toward him. Nicholas caught her under her arms, but she fell onto him anyway, her hands gripping his shoulders to steady herself, her br**sts pressing into his chest. He gasped as though hit in the stomach by a powerful blow. Indeed, it was a powerful blow. Heat surged through his body, and the fire entered his eyes, banking them like smoldering coals.

Reggie’s dark blue eyes smoldered. “Thank you, Nicholas.” She let go of him and walked on as if nothing had happened while he stood there, eyes closed, teeth clenched, trying to regain some control. How was it that such a tiny incident could snap the tight rein he kept on himself? It was bad enough that the sight of her and her voice and scent took a constant toll, but her touch… that was the one weapon that shattered his defenses totally.

“Oh, look, Nicholas. Uncle Tony’s here!”

Reggie smiled across the room at Anthony Malory, but her smile was as much for herself as for him. She had heard Nicholas’ gasp, felt him tremble, saw the desire in his amber eyes. Deceitful man. He still wanted her. He didn’t want her to know it, but now she did know. The knowledge warmed her, made up for a good deal of his abominable treatment.

Nicholas reached Reggie at the entrance to the music room, his eyes falling instantly on the dark head of Anthony Malory, bent toward the lady he was sitting next to. “Bloody hell! What’s he doing here?” Reggie wanted to laugh at his tone, but she managed to keep a straight face. “I wouldn’t know. The hostess is your acquaintance, not mine.”

His eyes fixed on hers intently. “He doesn’t often attend these affairs, invitation or not. He came so that he could keep an eye on you.”

“Oh, unfair, Nicholas,” she chided. “This is the first time we’ve come across him.”

“You are forgetting Vauxhall.”

“Well, that was an accident. I don’t believe his intention that day was to keep an eye on me.”

“No. We both know what his intention was that day.”

“My, but you are angry,” she murmured, and then she let the subject drop. She knew why her uncle was there. He had heard that Nicholas was being seen with other women, and he was furious. Apparently he had decided his presence might help.

The young couple at the piano ended their duet, and some of the guests began to rise from their chairs to stretch their legs before the next song began. Bright satin coats and matching knee breeches graced the more fashionable men. The married women were distinguished by bold color, because maidens wore pastels or white.

Reggie knew everyone except their hostess, Mrs. Hargreaves. George Fowler was there with his sister and younger brother. She had recently met Lord Percival Alden, Nicholas’ good friend. She even knew Tony’s current ladylove, who was sitting next to him. And to her profound irritation, Selena Eddington was there, too, her escort an old chum of Tony’s.

“Nicholas.” Reggie touched his arm gently. “You must introduce me to our hostess before George’s sister begins her recital.”

She felt him stiffen under her fingers, and she smiled as she walked ahead of him toward Mrs.

Hargreaves. My, but she must make a point of touching him more often, she thought.

The evening didn’t progress as she wished. At dinner, she found herself placed well away from Nicholas at the long table. He was seated next to their hostess, an attractively voluptuous woman, and he put himself out to be charming, captivating his hostess and all the other women around him.

She talked as graciously as she could to George, but it was hard to bubble when she felt so sad. The rakish Lord Percival, on her right, didn’t help at all, continually making comments about Nicholas that drew her eyes to him again and again, forcing her to recognize all the signs she’d witnessed before.

Nicholas wasn’t just being charming to Mrs. Hargreaves, he wore the look of a man in hot pursuit.

As the evening wore on, Reggie forgot her earlier triumph in discomfiting Nicholas. He did not look at her once during the meal. She found it difficult to summon even the briefest of smiles for her companions, and she thanked heaven that Tony was not nearby. If she’d had to endure his snide comments just then, she would have burst into tears.

It was with profound relief that Reggie at last retired from the room with the other ladies. She had only a few minutes to compose herself, however, before the men sauntered into the drawing room. She held her breath, waiting to see if Nicholas would continue to ignore her. He made his way straight to Mrs.

Hargreaves without giving Reggie a glance.

It was the outside of enough. Her pride wouldn’t let her stay. And if her uncle said even one word to her about Nicholas, she would explode. She couldn’t do that in public.

When she asked George Fowler to take her home, his limpid green eyes widened in delight. Then he said, “But your uncle?”

“I’m rather annoyed with him.” She was and she wasn’t, but it served as an excuse. “And he has brought a lady with him, anyway. I hate to impose on you, though, George. You have your sister with you.”

“My brother can see to her, never fear,” he declared, smiling.

Well, she thought crossly, it was nice that some body liked her.

Chapter 15

“WHY is it, I wonder, that you notice the minute she leaves the room with someone?” Nicholas swung around to meet the level gaze of Anthony Malory. “Following me, my lord?” he asked.

“No point in staying now that the entertainment is over,” Anthony replied agreeably. “And a grand show it was too. Only ten minutes gone, and off you go too. Bad effect that.” Nicholas glared at him. “I’m surprised you didn’t follow her to make sure Fowler takes her right home.

Isn’t that what a good watchdog would do?”

Anthony chuckled. “Whatever for? She will do what she wants to do, no matter what I say. And I trust her more with Fowler than I do with you”—he paused and cleared his throat—“even if he was one of the chaps after her last season. If he doesn’t take her right home, well, you can’t very well blame him, can you? You’re doing your best to give these young bucks the impression she’s still available.” He waited a moment. “Aren’t you?”

Nicholas’ eyes flared. “If you take exception to my behavior, you know what you can do about it.”

“Indeed,” Anthony said coldly, all humor gone in an instant. “If I didn’t think Reggie would make a fuss about it, I’d see you in the ring quickly enough. When she stops defending you, we’ll make that appointment—you may depend upon it.”

“You’re a bloody hypocrite, Malory.”

Anthony shrugged. “Yes, I am, when one of my own is involved. You know, Montieth, Jason may think highly of you, but Jason knows only the more positive aspects of your character. He doesn’t know what you’re trying to do, but I do.”

“Do you?”

They stopped talking as Percy came in. Anthony left the scowling Nicholas, and Percy approached his friend sympathetically. “So you’ve had another run-in with him, have you?”

“Something like that,” Nicholas bit out.

Percy shook his head. Nicholas’ problem was that he rarely had any opposition in his life. He was big enough and reckless enough that no one cared to match words with him, let alone fight him. Now he had Lady Ashton’s relatives forcing their collective will on him, and the frustration was doing him in.

“You shouldn’t take it so hard, Nick. You’ve just never come up against anyone as formidable as yourself before, and now you’ve got a whole passel.” When Nicholas did not reply, he went on, “It’ll be better once you’re married.”

“Bloody hell!” Nicholas swore. He left Percy and went to fetch his cloak.

Nicholas took a deep breath of the night air as he stepped outside to await his carriage, which was across the street. Then he took another deep breath. It did not calm him.

“Wait up, Nick.” Percy came down the stairs. “It might help if you talk to a friend.”

“Not tonight, Percy, I’m on the short end of my temper.”

“Because of Malory?” Nicholas grunted. “Oh, it’s because she left with Georgie, then, is that it?”

“She can leave with whomever she bloody well pleases, for all I care!”

“Gad, don’t eat me,” Percy protested, backing away a little. “Old George is really… not actually harmless, but… well, dash it all, she’s engaged to you. She—” He saw he was only making matters worse. “I don’t believe it. Can the unfeeling Montieth really and truly be jealous for a change?”

“Of course I’m not jealous,” Nicholas snapped. “I simply hoped tonight would be the end of it.” Except that he had seen red, dark red, when George Fowler put his hand to Regina’s elbow. Fowler was young, he was handsome, and damn Malory for saying he had been after Regina last season!

“What the devil are you talking about, Nick? End of what?”

“This farce of an engagement. You didn’t really think I would marry the girl just because I was browbeaten into agreeing to it?”

Percy whistled softly. “So that’s what you were doing, sniffing round Mrs. H. I knew she wasn’t your type.” Nicholas shook his head. “But I thought you were trying to make your lady jealous.”

“Furious, enough to jilt me. It’s not the first time I’ve chased after another skirt with her there watching. I even gave my full attention to Selena, as disgusted as I am with her. But Regina has not spoken up about it once.”

“Maybe the girl loves you,” Percy said simply—“

“I don’t want her love, I want her hate,” Nicholas growled. Now, he told himself, not after he was used to her love, had come to depend on it and returned it. He couldn’t bear her hate then.

“Well, you’re in a fine pickle. What if she doesn’t break off with you? Will you jilt her?” Nicholas looked skyward. “I gave my word I’d marry her.”

“Then you might end up doing just that.”

“I know.”

“Would it be so bad?”

He was afraid it would be heaven, but he wasn’t going to say that to Percy. His carriage pulled up to the curb then and he asked, “Do me a favor, Percy? Go back in there and give my future in-law a message for me. Tell him he had better have a talk with his niece about who she lets take her home.” He chuckled.

“If he thinks it matters to me, he might redouble his own efforts to get her to jilt me. If nothing else, the message will irritate him. That makes me happy.” And he did look better.

“Thanks much, old man. He’s liable to take my head off, getting a message like that,” Percy said.

“Depend upon it.” Nicholas smiled. “But you’ll do it for me anyway, won’t you? That’s a good fellow.” Nicholas laughed at the expression on Percy’s face, and waved as his carriage moved down the driveway.

It took only a moment for his good humor to flee. Tonight was proof that he couldn’t take much more of Regina’s presence. Her touch alone had brought him to his knees. Damnation! He had tried staying away from her as much as possible, but while that was more comfortable, it didn’t change his predicament.

They were still, in fact, engaged.

“End of the road, mate,” broke into his reverie.

Mate? From his staid driver?

Nicholas glanced out the window and saw, not his house, but trees close at hand. Nothing but dismal black lay beyond. How had he been so preoccupied as not to know he was being taken outside London to the countryside? Or was he in one of London’s huge parks? If so, it might as well be the bloody countryside for all the traffic that might pass at night.

Prev Next