Love Only Once Page 2

She flinched at the boredom in his voice.

“Yes,” she went on bravely. “And I have come to a conclusion. Due to your lack of… shall we say warmth … I believe I would be better appreciated by someone else.”

“No doubt you would be.”

She frowned. He was taking this awfully well. “Well, I have had several offers lately to… replace you in my affections, and I have decided”— she paused a moment before committing herself to a lie, then closed her eyes and blurted—“I have decided to accept one.” She waited several moments before she opened her eyes. Nicholas had not moved an inch on the sofa and it was another full minute before he finally did. He sat up slowly and his eyes fastened on hers. She held her breath. His expression was inscrutable.

He picked up his empty glass from the table and held it toward her. “Would you, my dear?”

“Yes, of course.” She jumped up to do his bidding, not even thinking how autocratic it was of him to expect her to wait on him.

“Who is the lucky man?”

Selena started, spilling brandy on the table. Was his voice just a little sharp, or was that wishful thinking on her part?

“He would like our arrangement to be discreet, so you will understand if I don’t divulge his name.”

“He’s married?”

She brought him his glass, which was precariously full, all the way to the brim, thanks to her nervousness. “No. In fact I have every reason to believe greater things will come of this relationship. As I said, he simply wants to be discreet— for now.”

She should not have taken that tack, she quickly realized. She and Nicholas had also been discreet, never making love in her house because of the servants, though he did call for her there, and never using his house on Park Lane. Yet everyone knew she was his mistress. You only had to be seen with Nicholas Eden three times in a row for that assumption to be made.

“Don’t ask me to betray him, Nicky,” she said with a halfhearted smile. “You will learn who he is soon enough.”

“Then, pray tell, why not give me his name now?”

Did he know she was lying? He did. She could tell by his manner. And who the devil could replace Nicholas? The men of her acquaintance had all steered clear of her once he became her escort.

“You are being obnoxious, Nicholas.” Selena took the attack. “Who he is certainly can’t matter to you, for although it hurts me to admit it, I have noticed a lack of ardor in you lately. What else can I think but that you no longer want me?”

Here was the opening for him to deny it all. The moment was lost.

“What is this all about?” his voice was sharp. “That blasted ball? Is that it?”

“Of course not,” she replied indignantly.

“Isn’t it?” he challenged. “You think to force me into giving you my escort to that affair tomorrow night by telling me this tale. It won’t wash, my dear.”

His colossal ego was going to be the death of her, it surely was. What conceit! He just couldn’t believe that she might prefer someone else to him.

Nicholas’ dark brow arched in surprise and Selena realized horribly that she had expressed her thoughts aloud. She was shocked, but then she stiffened her resolve.

“Well, it’s true,” she said boldly and moved away from him, back to the fireplace.

Selena paced back and forth before the fire, its heat nearly matching the heat of her anger. He didn’t deserve to be loved.

“I’m sorry, Nicky,” she said after a while, not daring to look at him. “I don’t want our affair to end on a bad note. You really have been wonderful—most of the time. Oh, dear,” she sighed. “You are the expert at this. Is that how it’s done?”

Nicholas very nearly laughed. “Not bad for an amateur, my dear.”

“Good,” she said on a brighter note and risked a glance at him. She found him grinning at her. Damn, he still wasn’t buying her story. “Doubt me, then, Lord Montieth, but time will tell, won’t it? Just don’t be too surprised when you see me with my new gentleman.”

She turned back to the fire again, and the next time she turned toward him, he was gone.

Chapter 2

THE Malory mansion on Grosvenor Square was brightly lit, and most of the occupants were in their bedrooms, preparing for the Duke and Duchess of Shepford’s ball. The servants were busier than usual, running from one end of the mansion to the other.

Lord Marshall needed more starch in his cravat. Lady Clare wanted a light snack. She had been too nervous to eat all day. Lady Diana needed a posset to calm her. Bless her, her first season and first ball; she had not eaten for two days. Lord Travis needed help finding his new frilly shirt. Lady Amy simply needed cheering up. She was the only one in the family too young to attend the ball, even a masked ball where she wouldn’t be recognized anyway. Oh, how awful to be fifteen!

The only person preparing for the ball who wasn’t a son or daughter of the house was Lady Regina Ashton, Lord Edward Malory’s niece and first cousin to his large brood of children. Of course, Lady Regina had her own maid to fetch for her if she needed anything, but apparently she didn’t, for no one had seen either of them for an hour or more.

The house had been humming with activity for hours. Lord and Lady Malory had started their

preparations much earlier, having been invited to the formal dinner being given for a select few before the ball. They had left a little more than an hour ago. The two Malory brothers would escort their sisters and cousin, a major responsibility for the young men, one just out of university and the other still attending.

Marshall Malory hadn’t been looking forward to escorting the family females until today when, unexpectedly, a lady friend had asked to join his party in the Malory family coach. A stroke of luck, receiving such a request from that particular lady.

He had been head over heels in love with her since he’d first met her, last year, when he’d been home for the holidays. She had not given him any encouragement then. But now he was through with school, twenty-one, a man on his own. Why, he could even set up his own household now if he was of a mind to.

He could ask a certain lady to marry him. Oh, how wonderful to have reached his majority!

Lady Clare was also thinking about age. She was twenty, horrid as that was to contemplate. This was her third season and she had yet to win a husband or even an engagement! There had been a few offers, but not from anyone she could have considered seriously. Oh, she was pretty enough, with fair coloring, fair skin, fair everything. That was the problem. She was just… pretty. She was nowhere near as striking as her cousin Regina, and she tended to fade away when in the younger girl’s company. Worst fate, this was the second season she would have to share with Regina.

Clare fumed. Her cousin should have married already. She’d had dozens of offers. And it wasn’t as if she weren’t willing. She seemed more than willing, seemed almost more desperate to get settled than Clare was. But one thing or another had brought all the offers to a dead end. Even a tour of Europe this last year had produced no husband. Regina had returned to London last week, still looking.

This year there would also be the competition of Clare’s own sister, Diana. Just short of eighteen, she should have been made to wait another year before being brought out. But their parents thought Diana was old enough to have some fun. She was expressly forbidden, however, to think seriously about any young man. She was too young to marry, but she could enjoy herself all she liked.

Next her parents would be letting fifteen-year-old Amy out of the schoolroom when she was sixteen, Clare thought, increasingly annoyed. She could just see it! Next year, if she still hadn’t found a husband, she would have both Diana and Amy to contend with. Amy was just as striking as Regina, with that dark coloring only a few of the Malorys possessed. Clare would have to find a husband this season if it killed her.

Little did Clare know it, but those were her beautiful cousin’s sentiments as well. Regina Ashton stared at her image in the mirror while her maid, Meg, rolled up her long black hair to hide its length and make it look more fashionable. Regina was not seeing the slightly tilted eyes of a startling cobalt blue, or the slightly pouting full lips, or the slightly too-white skin that set off her dark hair and long soot-black lashes so dramatically. She was seeing men, parades of men, legions of men—French, Swiss, Austrian, Italian, English—and wondering why she still wasn’t married. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Reggie, as she was always called, had had so many men to choose from it was actually embarrassing.

There’d been at least a dozen she was sure she could be happy with, two dozen she’d thought she was falling in love with, and so many who just wouldn’t do for one reason or another. And those whom Reggie had felt would do, her uncles felt would not.

Oh, the disadvantages of having four uncles who loved her dearly! She likewise adored them, all four.

Jason, now forty-five, had been head of the family since he was only sixteen, responsible for his three brothers and one sister, Reggie’s mother. Jason took his responsibilities seriously—too seriously at times.

He was a very serious man.

Edward was his exact opposite, good-humored, jolly, easygoing, indulgent. A year younger than Jason, Edward had married Aunt Charlotte when he was twenty-two, much sooner than Jason married. He had five children, three girls and two boys. Cousin Travis, nineteen, was Reggie’s age and in the middle of his family. They had been playmates all their lives, along with Uncle Jason’s only son.

Reggie’s mother, Melissa, had been far younger than her two older brothers, nearly seven years. But then, two years after her birth, James was born.

James was the wild brother, the one who said to hell with it all and went his own way. He was thirty-five now, and his name was not even supposed to be mentioned anymore. As far as Jason and Edward were concerned, James did not exist. But Reggie still loved him, despite his terrible sins. She missed him sorely and got to see him only secretly. In the past nine years, she’d seen him only six times, the last time more than two years ago.

Anthony, truth to tell, was her favorite uncle. He was also the only one besides Reggie, Amy, and Reggie’s mother who had the dark hair and cobalt eyes of Reggie’s great-grandmother, whispered to have been a gypsy. No one in the family would confirm that scandalous fact, of course. Perhaps he was her favorite because he was so carefree, like Reggie herself.

Anthony, thirty-four and the baby of the family, was more like a brother than an uncle. He was also, quite amusingly, society’s most notorious rake since his brother James had left London. But whereas James could be ruthless, having much of Jason in him, Anthony was gifted with some of Edward’s qualities. He was a dashing blade, an outrageous charmer. He didn’t give a snort for anyone’s opinion of him, but in his own way he did his best to please anyone who mattered to him.

Reggie smiled. For all his mistresses and outlandish friends, for all the scandals that flourished around him, the duels he had fought, the wild wagers he made, Anthony was sometimes the most lovable hypocrite where she was concerned. For one of his rogue friends to even look sideways at her was to receive an invitation into the boxing ring. Even the most lecherous men learned to hide their thoughts when she was visiting her uncle, to settle for harmless banter and nothing more. If Uncle Jason ever learned she had even been in the same room as some of the men she’d met, heads would roll, Tony’s in particular. But Jason never knew, and although Edward suspected, he was not as strict as Jason.

All four uncles treated her more like a daughter than a niece because the four had raised her since her parents’ death when Reggie was only two. They had literally shared her since she turned six. Edward was living in London by then and so, too, were James and Anthony. The three of them had a big row with Jason because he insisted on keeping her in the country. He gave in and allowed her to live six months of each year with Edward, where she was able to see her two younger uncles often.

When she was eleven, Anthony felt he was old enough to demand equal time with her. He was allowed the summer months, which were strictly for play. He was happy to make the sacrifice of turning his bachelor house into a home each year, and that was easily done, because along with Reggie came her maid, her nurse, and her governess. Anthony and Reggie had twice-weekly dinners with Edward and his family. Still, all that domesticity never gave Anthony a longing to marry. He was still a bachelor. And since her coming out, it was no longer proper for her to spend part of her year with him, so she saw him only irregularly.

Ah, well, she thought, soon she would be married. It was not what she particularly wanted. She would so much rather have enjoyed herself for a few more years. But it was what her uncles wanted. They

assumed it was her desire to find a suitable husband and begin a family. Wasn’t that what all young girls wanted? They had had a meeting to discuss it, in fact, and no matter how much she declared that she wasn’t ready to leave the bosom of her family, their good intentions won out over her protestations until, finally, she gave up.

From then on she’d done her very best to please them because she loved them all so much. She brought forth suitor after suitor, but one uncle or another found fault with each of them. She continued her search through Europe, but by then she was so wretchedly tired of looking at every man she met with a critical eye. She couldn’t make friends. She couldn’t enjoy herself. Each man had to be carefully dissected and analyzed—was he husband material? Was he the magic one that all of her uncles would approve?

She was beginning to believe there was no such man, and desperately needed a break from this obsessive search. She wanted to see Uncle Tony, the only one who would understand, who would intercede for her with Jason. But Tony had been visiting a friend in the country when she returned to London and hadn’t come back until last evening.

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