Love Only Once Page 17

“Blister it, Regina!” Nicholas finally lost all patience. “Why do you wrap your anger up in polite nonsense? Scream at me!”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Aha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “I was beginning to think you had no spirit.”

“Oh, Nicholas.” Reggie laughed softly. “Am I supposed to call you a foul, despicable creature, and swear tearfully that I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man and so forth?” Nicholas glared furiously. “You mock me, madame?”

“What makes you think that?”

She said this with such an innocent expression that he put his hands on her shoulders, ready to shake her. But her magnificent blue eyes widened in surprise as her own hands came up to brace against his chest, and Nicholas flushed red hot.

He stepped back from her, nearly trembling. “The press of time forces me to be blunt, Regina,” he said coldly. “I asked you before to end this farce of an engagement. I am asking you again. Nay, I am begging you. I do not want to marry you.”

She dropped her gaze , staring fixedly at the high polish of his Hessian boots. “You don’t want me… in any way then? Not even as a lover?”

His honey-gold eyes flashed at the turmoil the question caused, but he said only, “You would no doubt make a fine mistress.”

“But you are not interested?”

“Not any longer.”

She turned her back on him, her shoulders drooping, a dejected little figure. Nicholas had to restrain himself with every ounce of will from reaching out and gathering her into his arms. He wanted to take it all back, to show her what a lie it had been. But it was better for her to be disillusioned for a time, and then to forget him. He could not let this lovely woman marry a bastard.

“I really thought I could make you happy, Nicholas.” Her words floated to him over her shoulder.

“No woman can, love, not for any length of time.”

“I’m sorry then. I really am.”

He didn’t move. “You will jilt me then?”

“No.”

“No?” He stiffened, disbelieving. “What the devil do you mean?”

“The word no means—”

“I know what the bloody word means!”

She finally turned around. “You don’t have to shout at me, sir.”

“Formal again, are we?” he cried, his temper cresting.

“Under the circumstances, yes,” she answered curtly. “You have only to absent yourself from London next week. I assure you I am quite strong enough to bear up under the humiliation of being jilted.”

“I gave my word!” he exclaimed.

“Ah, yes, the word of a gentleman—who is a gentleman only when it suits him to be one.”

“My word is my bond.”

“Then you must stick to it, Lord Montieth.”

She started to walk away, but he caught her arm, his fingers hard. “Don’t do it, Regina,” he warned darkly. “You will regret it.”

“I already do,” was the whispered reply. It took him aback.

“Then why ?” he asked desperately.

“I—I must,” she replied.

He let go of her arm and stepped away, his face a mask of fury. “Damnation take you then! I will be no husband to you, this I swear. If you persist in this farce, then that is what you will have, a mockery of a marriage. I wish you happy.”

“You don’t mean that, Nicholas!” There were tears in her eyes.

“I give you my word, madame, and a last warning: Do not come to the church.” Chapter 19

“AH, don’t cry any more, sweetheart,” Meg pleaded. “Your cousins will be here in a moment to help with the dressin‘. You don’t want them to see you like this.”

“I can’t help it,” Reggie sobbed miserably. “And aren’t brides supposed to cry on their wedding day?”

“But you’ve been cryin‘ for a week. It hasn’t helped, has it?”

“No.” Reggie shook her head.

“And you don’t want your eyes to be all puffy, not today of all days.” Reggie shrugged wearily. “I don’t care about that. I’ll have the veil on.”

“But you won’t be wearin‘ a veil tonight.”

There was a silence, and then Reggie whispered, “Will there be a wedding night?”

“You can’t be thinkin‘ he won’t show up?” Meg gasped, outraged.

“Oh, he’ll be there,” Reggie sighed. “But I told you what he said.”

“Nonsense. Some men are just scared to death of marriage, and your Viscount appears to be one of them.”

“But he swore he wouldn’t be a husband to me.”

“He said that in anger,” Meg said patiently. “You can’t go holdin‘ a man to what he says in anger.”

“Yet he can hold himself to it, don’t you see? Oh, how could I have been so wrong about him, Meg?” Reggie cried. “How could I?” She shook her head. “To think I once compared him to Tony. Nicholas Eden is nothing like my uncle. He hasn’t an ounce of feeling—except between his legs,” she added bitterly.

“Reggie!”

“Well, it’s true,” she retorted. “I was just a game to him, another conquest.” Meg stood looking down at her, hands on her hips. “You should have told him about the baby,” she said for the hundredth time. “At least he would have understood why you must go through with this.”

“He probably wouldn’t have believed it. I am even beginning to wonder. Look at me! Four months gone and I’m still not showing even a little. And there’s been no sickness, no… Am I binding myself to this

man for nothing? What if I’m not carrying his child?”

“I wish it weren’t so, my girl, but you know it is. And I still say you should have told him.”

“Fool that I was, I thought his despicable behavior was only a ruse,” Reggie said bitterly. She sighed.

“You know, Meg, I do still have some pride left.”

“Sometimes we must swallow every bit of pride, sweetheart,” Meg said gently.

Reggie shook her head. “I’ll tell you just what he would have said if I had confessed. He would have told me to stop wasting time on a lost cause and find a father for my child.”

“Maybe you should have.”

Reggie’s eyes flashed. “I would never force one man’s child on another! Nicholas Eden has a child on the way, and he can pay the price for it, not someone else.”

“You’re the one payin‘, Reggie, with heartache and misery.”

“I know,” she sighed, the fire gone. “But only because I thought I loved him. Once I see how wrong I was, I will manage.”

“It’s not too late, you know. You can leave for the Continent before—”

“No!” Reggie said so forcefully the maid jumped. “This is my child! I won’t hide in shame until it’s born and then give it up, just to save myself an unpleasant marriage.” Then she elaborated, “I don’t have to live with the man, you know, not if it proves too difficult. I don’t have to stay with him forever. But my child will bear his father’s name. Nicholas Eden will share the responsibility, as he should.”

“Then we had best be gettin‘ to the church on time,” Meg sighed.

Nicholas was already at the church, silently raging and despairing by turns. Family and friends were arriving, proving that this was really happening. His grandmother and aunt were there, but Miriam Eden was conspicuously absent again. It reinforced his conviction that he had done the right thing in warning off his fiancée.

His heart sank when Jason Malory entered the church, the bride a few steps behind him. Exclamations ran through the crowd, for she was truly breathtaking in a silk gown of powder blue and silver, with tiers of white lace trimming. It was strikingly old-fashioned, tight-waisted, long-sleeved, and reaching to the floor. Though the bell of the skirt was not as full as the gowns of the last era had been, the outer skirt was split on both sides and trimmed with lace, revealing wide panels of silver underskirt. There was lace beneath the rounded bodice and at the neck. A circlet of silver and diamond chains held in place a white veil which covered her face to her chin, draping in back nearly to the floor.

She stood in the church door for several long moments, facing Nicholas at the end of the aisle. He couldn’t see her face or her eyes, and he waited breathlessly, willing her to turn around and flee.

She didn’t. Regina placed her hand on her uncle’s arm and began the long walk down the aisle. Cold, calm anger settled inside Nicholas. On the whim of this small child-woman, he was being forced into marriage. Very well, let her have her day of triumph. It would not last long. When she learned she had married a bastard, she would wish she had heeded his warnings. Ironically, Miriam would help. She

would take a malicious delight in apprising Regina of all Nicholas’ faults. He thought with grim humor that this would be Miriam’s first act of kindness toward him. Of course, she wouldn’t know it for what it was.

Chapter 20

REGGIE stared out the coach window, but all she could see was her own reflection. She flushed as her belly growled with hunger but didn’t look at Nicholas to see if he had heard. He was across from her in the plush coach, which bore his coat of arms.

The interior lamp had been burning for two hours, but still they hadn’t stopped at an inn for dinner. She was hungry, but she was damned if she’d beg.

The wedding guests had been served a huge luncheon at Malory house, but Reggie hadn’t been there for it. Nicholas took her home directly from the church, telling her to pack an overnight bag and order the rest of her things sent on to Silverley. The two of them were gone even before their guests arrived.

He had made her ride all afternoon and into the evening, but she didn’t feel like complaining, not when he sat there so pensively, never once looking her way. He hadn’t spoken a word since leaving London.

He was married and furious about it. Well, she’d expected he would be. But it boded well, didn’t it, that he was taking her to his country estate? She hadn’t expected that. She didn’t know what she had expected.

Her stomach growled again and she finally decided to ask, “Will we be stopping soon for dinner?”

“The last inn was in Montieth. Silverley is just up ahead,” Nicholas replied brusquely.

It would have been nice if he’d told her that sooner.

“Is Silverley large, Nicholas?”

“About as large as your own estate, which borders mine.” Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know that!”

“How could you not?”

“Why are you angry? Why, it’s perfect. The estates will now be combined—”

“Which is what I have wanted for years. But surely your uncle told you about that. He used your estate as the inducement to get me to marry you.”

Reggie blushed furiously. “I don’t believe it.”

“That I wanted the land?”

“You know what I mean!” she snapped. “Oh, I knew there was some land involved, and Tony even said it was what swayed you, but—but I didn’t believe it. No one told me about this. I didn’t know your estate borders the land that came to me through my mother. I haven’t lived there since—my parents died,

in the fire that destroyed the house. I was only two at the time. I have never returned to Hampshire.

Uncle Edward has always seen to what was left of the estate, as well as to the inheritance I got from my father.”

“Yes, a tidy sum that, fifty thousand pounds, which he was happy to point out has tripled due to his wise investments, giving you a sizable yearly income.”

“Good God, are you angry about that, too?”

“I am not a fortune hunter!”

Her own grievances were riding very close to the edge. “Oh, bother. Who in his right mind could accuse you of that? You’re not exactly a pauper.”

“It is no secret that I wanted your land, land I assumed belonged to the Earl of Penwich, since the Earl was the last to be in residence there.”

“My father was, not the present Earl. But as the land came to him through my mother, it was not entailed to Penwich and it was their wish it come to me.”

“I know that now! Your Uncle Edward thought it quite amusing to inform me as I left the church that I no longer needed to worry about buying the estate. He couldn’t wait to tell me. Wanted to relieve my mind, he said. Bloody hell. Do you know how it looks, madame?”

“Do you realize you are insulting me, sir?”

He had the decency to look surprised. “I didn’t mean to imply—”

“Of course you did. That is what you are complaining about, isn’t it? That people will say you married me for my inheritance? Well, thank you very much. I was not aware this was the only way I could get a husband.”

His brows narrowed and he said coldly, “Shall we discuss how you got a husband?” Her eyes flashed blue sparks, and for a moment she feared she would lose all control. She managed, just barely, to keep silent, and Nicholas refrained from goading her. Both were relieved to find the coach stopping just at that moment.

He stepped outside and extended a hand to help her down. But as soon as she was standing on the ground, he got back into the coach. She stared up at him, her eyes widening in disbelief.

“You wouldn’t!” she gasped.

He said bitterly, “You can’t be surprised. I am a man of my word, after all.”

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