Love Only Once Page 19

“Oh, dear,” Reggie interrupted, “I gathered there was an estrangement between you and Nicholas when you didn’t come to our wedding, but I—”

“I was needed here,” Miriam said stiffly.

“—didn’t realize you had disowned your son,” Reggie finished.

“What are you doing here, and without Nicholas?” Miriam asked.

“Nicholas and I simply don’t suit, you see, and so we couldn’t possibly live together,” Reggie replied.

There was an astonished pause. “Then why marry?”

Reggie shrugged and gave her a dazzling smile. “It seemed a good idea. For me anyway. I was tired of the constant whirl of parties and such. I much prefer the country life.”

“Which doesn’t explain why Nicholas would marry.”

Reggie raised a brow. “Surely you know why. I wasn’t present myself when Nicholas agreed to marry me, but your sister and mother-in-law were there.”

Miriam frowned. Of course she wouldn’t ask the same question again. Nor would she admit that she didn’t communicate with Eleanor or Rebecca. She was being left to wonder about the marriage, which was just what Reggie had intended.

“We are rather isolated here,” Miriam warned.

Reggie smiled. “That sounds wonderful. My only regret is that I must ask you to select other rooms for yourself.”

Miriam drew herself up stiffly. “I am told you have taken over Nicholas’ rooms.”

“But they won’t do for long, you see. I must have the nursery close at hand.” She patted her belly lovingly.

The Countess appeared ready to choke. “Nonsense. You can’t be expecting. You were married only yesterday, and even if you stopped at some inn after the wedding, you couldn’t possibly know—”

“You are forgetting your son’s reputation, Lady Miriam. Nicholas is an expert seducer. I was quite helpless against his charm. I am now four months along.” The Countess stared at Reggie’s belly, and Reggie said, “Isn’t it fortunate I am not showing?”

“I don’t see how you can think any of this fortunate in any way,” Miriam said with stiff hauteur. “People can count, you know. It’s shameful that you don’t even blush when you— just shameful.”

“I don’t blush, madame, because I feel no shame,” Reggie replied coldly. “No shame, no guilt. And if my child is born five months after the marriage, well, other babies have been born early. At least I have a husband, even if he won’t be around very much. And my child has a name. Considering your son’s reputation, no one will be surprised that Nicholas could not be held off for the four long months of our engagement.”

“Well, I never!”

“Haven’t you?”

Miriam Eden turned crimson at the innuendo and stalked out of the room. Reggie sighed. Well, she had made her own bed, so to speak. She shouldn’t have alienated the sour old bird, but… Reggie smiled.

That last look of outrage on the Countess’ face had been worth whatever unpleasantness she could expect from the woman.

Chapter 22

“PUTTING on a little weight, aren’t you, puss?” Anthony asked as he kissed Reggie’s cheek and then

sat down next to her on the lawn. “Must be eating because you’re miserable. And no wonder, living with that cold fish.”

Reggie put down her sketch pad and smiled fondly at her uncle. “If you mean Miriam, she’s not so bad.

After our first two rows, we reached an agreement. We simply don’t speak to each other.”

“I suppose that’s one way to get along with someone,” Anthony replied in his driest tone.

Reggie laughed delightedly. “Oh, Tony, I’ve missed you this last month. I really did expect you sooner.

Everyone else has been here.”

“You wouldn’t have cared to see me right after I heard what was going on. It has taken me this long to cool off.”

She sighed. “I suppose you wanted to kill him again?”

“Damned right. I tried to find the blackguard but he has disappeared.”

“I could have saved you the trouble of looking,” she told him levelly. “He told me he was leaving England. I guess he meant it.”

Anthony’s temper rose. “We had better talk of something else, puss. Your husband is not my favorite subject. What is that you’re drawing?”

Reggie handed over her sketch pad. “Just a hound chasing falling leaves. He ran off into the woods a few minutes before you arrived. I’ve been getting some good poses of the gardeners, though, and the grooms exercising the horses.” He turned the pages and admired her work. “That’s Sir Tyrwhitt, a neighbor,” she said when he got to her sketch of a middle-aged dandy. “Would you believe he and the Countess—?”

“No!”

“Well, I don’t know for certain, mind you, but she’s like a different person around him, actually girlish, if you can believe that.”

“I can’t,” he said firmly.

Reggie laughed. “And that’s Squire Gibbs and his young wife Faith. I like her a lot. Miriam is furious that she and I have become friends. An invitation to Silverley has always been an honor, you see, and so when I gave Faith an open welcome, the Countess took to her room for two days to express her displeasure.”

“Likes to lord it over the lesser gentry, does she?” he asked.

“Oh, she’s very serious about it, Tony.”

Anthony turned another page. “Good God, who are those characters?”

“Two of the gardeners, I guess. There are so many servants here I haven’t met them all yet. I drew these men yesterday down by the lake.”

“You must have been particularly gloomy yesterday. You made them look so sinister.” Reggie shrugged. “It wasn’t my mood. They were sinister-looking. They moved on when they saw me drawing them, so I had to finish the sketch from memory.”

“They look like waterfront brawlers,” he said, “not gardeners.”

“Oh, stuff. All the people here are really nice, once you get to know them.”

“Except the cold fish.”

“Don’t be unkind, Tony. I don’t think she’s led a very happy life.”

“That’s no excuse for forcing her unhappiness on others. And speaking of—”

“Don’t,” she said stonily. “I’m perfectly fine, Tony, really.”

“You can’t lie to me, puss. Look at you. You wouldn’t be putting on weight if you were exercising, and the only time you mope about and ignore your health is when you’re unhappy. I know you, remember?

You’re just like your mother in certain ways. But you don’t have to stay here, you know that. You can come home.”

“I know I’ve made a mistake, Tony, but I don’t want the world to know it. Do you understand?”

“For his sake?” he asked sharply.

“No,” she replied, then added hesitantly,

“The weight you keep harping on isn’t what you think, Tony. I’m pregnant.” There was a moment’s startled silence. Then he said, “You can’t know this soon. You’ve only been married a month.”

“I am pregnant, Tony. Very, very pregnant.”

His cobalt-blue eyes, so like hers, grew wide, then narrowed furiously. “He didn’t! I’ll kill him!”

“No, you won’t,” she replied, vetoing his favorite solution. “This is going to be your first great-nephew or niece. How could you explain to the child that you’d killed his father?”

“He deserves a sound beating at the very least,” growled her uncle.

“Perhaps,” she agreed. “But not for seducing me before the wedding. I was a willing participant in the making of this child.”

“Don’t bother defending him, puss. You forget he’s just like me and I know all the tricks. He seduced you.”

“But I knew exactly what I was doing,” she insisted. “I… it was foolish in the extreme, I know that now, but I thought it would help to change his attitude. He kept trying to get me to break the engagement, you see. He never deceived me into thinking he was willing to marry me.”

“He agreed!”

“Yes, but he thought he could make me jilt him before the wedding.”

“You should have.”

“Should haves don’t count, Tony.”

“I know, I know, but blister it, Reggie, how could he desert you, knowing—”

“I never told him! You don’t think I would try to keep a man that way, do you?” She sounded genuinely shocked.

“Oh,” Anthony said, brought up short. Then he said somberly, “Honestly, puss, you really are just like your mother. Melissa gave birth to you only a few months after her wedding, too.” Reggie gasped. “Really? But… why didn’t any of you tell me that?” Anthony turned red and looked away. “Well, were we to say, ‘By the way, dear, you only just made legitimacy.’ ”

She giggled and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Well, thank you for telling me. I’m glad to know I’m not the only promiscuous one in the family—besides Uncle Jason, I mean,” she teased.

“Promiscuous! At least your father didn’t desert Melissa. He adored her. He would have married her sooner if her stiff-necked pride hadn’t kept them apart.”

“I never heard any of this,” she whispered, shocked.

“They had some terrible rows, they did. She broke the engagement three times, swearing each time that she never wanted to see him again.”

“But everyone always told me how much they loved each other,” Reggie protested.

“They did, puss,” he assured her. “But she was as hot-tempered as I am. The slightest little disagreement got out of hand. Thank God you didn’t inherit that from her.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Reggie mused. “If he ever does come back, I’m not going to forgive him. He made me love him, and then he wouldn’t even give our marriage a chance. I do have some pride, even if I did practically beg him not to leave. My love has turned to… well, it infuriates me even to think about him.”

“Good for you. Think about coming home, will you? There’s no reason you can’t be with your family for the birth. We’ll keep outsiders well away from you.”

“Well, I do have Meg, and I—”

“Think about it,” he ordered sternly.

She grinned at him. “Yes, uncle.”

Chapter 23

IT was another damp November morning, and Reggie walked down to the lake with her sketch pad.

Uncle Tony had spent the night, and she had seen him off early, promising again to think about coming home. She would think about it, or at least think about returning to London, where she would be closer to the family. She could keep up appearances by moving into Nicholas’ townhouse. That was an idea.

And it would even give her something to do, now that she was restricted as to physical activities. She could redecorate his London house, spend some of his money.

Trouble was, she had come to enjoy the tranquility of Silverley. At least it was tranquil when Miriam wasn’t around. Reggie got along well with the servants, too. Even Mrs. Oates had unbent surprisingly the moment she learned Reggie was expecting a baby. It seemed Mrs. Oates loved babies. Who would have guessed?

Reggie looked at the gray mansion wistfully. She might have been truly happy there. She pictured her children running across the Silverley lawns, sailing little boats on the lake in summer, ice-skating in winter.

She even pictured their father giving them their first ponies and showing them their paces. Somehow she knew Nicholas would have a gentle hand with children. She sighed, a deep, long sigh, pulling up the hood of her fur cloak and casting a look at the heavy bank of clouds above her. Meg was right. It was getting too cold to be sketching outdoors.

She tucked her sketchbook under her arm and turned to go back to the house. She would sketch the lake another time. It was then that she saw one of the servants hurrying toward her, coming not from the house but from the woods.

On the other side of those woods lay her own estate. She hadn’t gone there yet. The melancholy caused by thinking about that place where her parents had died was too much. She would go there eventually, she told herself. Eventually, yes. And someday she would show it to her child. The estate had belonged to his… her grandparents.

As he got closer she recognized the servant as one of the men she had sketched the other day. He was carrying an oversized sack used, she guessed, to gather dead leaves. He looked as strange as she remembered. A vague sense of danger rose in her.

Maybe it was the full, unkempt beard and long shaggy hair. Or maybe it was his bold demeanor.

Whatever, she decided not to wait for him to reach her. She would run to the house.

She stopped, calling herself a ninny. She was letting her imagination run wild. Silly of her. He was only a gardener, after all.

Reggie had no sooner finished the thought than the man reached her, took a moment to catch his breath, then smoothly yanked the sack he carried over her head and shoulders. Her first impulse was to scream, but surprise overtook her until the sack was yanked all the way down her body, and her scream was only a tiny muffled sound.

Her assailant wasted no time shouldering his prize and rushing back into the woods. An expensive, well-sprung coach waited there, hidden, with two high-stepping grays straining to be off. A man was in the driver’s seat, ready to crack the whip at the first sign of pursuit. The man on the ground glared up at him.

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