Love Only Once Page 21

“So I see.” He grinned. “Look at her, Connie. She’s the very image of my sister, isn’t she?”

“And to think she could have been my daughter,” Conrad said wistfully.

“Oh, Connie, you too?” Reggie asked softly.

“Everyone loved your mother, squirt, even me,” Conrad admitted gruffly.

“Is that why you took me under your wing?”

“Never think it. You wormed your way into my heart all on your own.”

“Then maybe you’ll tell me what this is all about?”

“No, squirt.” Connie shook his head, grinning at James. “This is all his doing. If you mean to ferret out what you want to know, turn those big blues on him.”

“Uncles James?”

“It’s… some unfinished business I have here. Nothing for you to fret about.”

“But isn’t the Countess a bit old for you?”

“It’s not like that, Regan,” James protested. “And what the devil do you mean, old?”

“Well, she’s not really ancient-old, I suppose,” Reggie corrected herself. “She takes very good care of herself, too. But what business can you have with her?”

“Not her. Her husband.”

“He’s dead.”

“Dead? Dead!” James looked at Connie. “Damnation! He can’t be dead!” Reggie looked at Connie, bewildered. “He had a score to settle, squirt, ” Connie explained. “Now it looks like fate has intervened.”

“When did he die?” James asked harshly. “How?”

Reggie was becoming concerned. “Well, I don’t actually know how. It’s been quite a few years though.”

James’ look of fury turned to one of surprise. Then both men began to laugh, confounding Reggie further. “Ah, sweet, you had me going there,” James chuckled. “But I don’t believe we are thinking about the same man. It’s the young Viscount I want.”

“Nicholas Eden?” she cried.

“Now you have it. Do you know him?”

“Very well,” she said.

“Then perhaps you can tell me where he is. Lord knows no one else can. I’ve looked everywhere. I swear the lad is hiding from me—and with good reason.”

“Good God!” Reggie gasped. “You had me kidnapped as a lure to bring Nicholas to you, didn’t you?”

“Not you, sweet,” James assured her. “Those idiots thought you were Eden’s wife.” Reggied moved closer to Conrad, took a long breath, and then said hesitantly, “Uncle James, your men didn’t make a mistake.”

“They—”

“—didn’t make a mistake,” she finished. “I am Nicholas’ wife.” The tense silence that followed wracked everyone’s nerves. James stiffened. Conrad put a protective arm around Reggie, and together they waited for the explosion. Before it came, the door opened and the young man leaned in. “Henri just told me she’s my cousin? Is it true?” James glowered. “Not now, Jeremy!” The boy flinched.

“No! Don’t go. Jeremy.” Reggie caught the boy’s hand and pulled him into the room. “Uncle James is angry with me, not with you.”

“I am not angry with you, Regan.” He tightly controlled his voice.

“You were going to yell at me.”

“I was not going to yell at you!” he exploded.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Reggie said.

James opened his mouth, clamped it shut, and sighed with exasperation. His eyes met Conrad’s and the message was clearly, You handle her. I give up .

Conrad made the introductions. “Jeremy Malory, Lady Regina Mal—ah, Eden, Countess of Montieth.”

“Hell’s bells!” Jeremy grinned. “So that’s why his temper’s flown.”

“Yes, I don’t think he likes… well, never mind.” She grinned up at the handsome young man whose coloring was exactly the same as hers. “I didn’t get a good look at you before. Heavens, you look

exactly like your Uncle Tony when he was younger.” She turned toward James. “Were you going to keep him a secret forever, uncle?”

“There’s no secret,” James said gruffly.

“The family doesn’t know.”

“I only found out five years ago. And I haven’t exactly been on speaking terms with my brothers since then.”

“You could have told me when I last saw you.”

“There wasn’t time to go into it then, Regan. ‘By the way, I have a son.’ You would have plagued me with your endless questions, and Jason would have sent the servants out to hunt you down and find me.”

“I suppose. But how did you find him? It was five years ago?”

“A little less than that actually,” he replied. “And we just bumped into each other in a tavern where he was working.”

“You should have seen your uncle’s face, squirt, when he saw the boy.” Conrad smiled, remembering.

“He knew the boy looked familiar, yet he didn’t quite know why. And Jeremy couldn’t take his eyes off him either.”

“I recognized him, you see,” Jeremy put in.

“I’d never actually seen him before, but my mum described him to me so often I would have known him anywhere. I finally got up the nerve to ask him right out if he was James Malory.”

“You can imagine the reaction,” Conrad said gleefully. “Everyone on the waterfront knew him only as Captain Hawke, and here was this half-pint lad calling him by his real name. And then, to top it, he says he’s his son! Hawke wasn’t laughing along with me, though. He took in the boy’s coloring, asked him some questions, and damned if he wasn’t the proud papa overnight.”

“So I have a new cousin, one nearly full grown.” Reggie grinned. “Oh, this is famous. Welcome to the family, Jeremy.”

He was nearly as tall as his father, which was much taller than Reggie. She leaned up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and was surprised by the exuberant hug that squeezed her breathless. The boy wouldn’t let go.

“That’s enough, Jeremy. Jeremy!”

The lad stepped back. “Can cousins marry?” he asked.

Conrad guffawed. James scowled. Reggie blushed. Now she understood the motive behind that hug.

“Another rake in the family, Uncle James?” she said wryly.

“So it would seem,” James sighed. “And learning all the tricks too early.”

“He only follows your example,” Conrad put in smoothly.

“Well, he’s off to bed now.”

“Hell’s bells,” Jeremy protested.

“Do it,” James ordered sternly. “You can see more of your cousin in the morning if you can mind your manners and remember she’s your cousin, not some tavern wench.” After that set-down the boy might have been expected to leave shamefaced. Not Jeremy. He grinned roguishly at Reggie and winked.

“I’ll dream of you, sweet Regan, tonight and every night hereafter.” She nearly laughed. The audacity! She gave him a pert look and said, “Don’t be obnoxious, cousin. You held me close enough to tell I’m very much married.”

Reggie groaned, damning her heedless tongue. Jeremy cast one look at his father and ran for the door.

She steeled herself, sure James had taken her meaning quite clearly.

“Is it true?”

“Yes.”

“Damnation take him! How did this come about, Regan? How the devil did you come to marry that—that—”

“You sound as bad as Tony,” she cut him short. “You each want a piece of Nicholas. So find him, divide him up between you, cut him into pieces, shoot him, kill him. What do I care? He’s only my husband and the father of my child.”

“Easy, squirt,” Conrad said softly. “Your uncle gave up his plans for the lad the moment he learned you were married to him.”

“What plans?” she demanded. “What is this all about, Uncle James?”

“It’s a long story, sweet, and—”

“Please don’t treat me like a child again, Uncle James.”

“Very well,” he said. “The short of it is I thrashed him soundly for some insults he had dealt me. For this I ended up in jail.”

“And nearly hanged,” Conrad added.

“No,” Reggie gasped, “I can’t believe Nicholas—”

“He gave Hawke’s name to the authorities, squirt. The Maiden Anne might not fly the Jolly Roger anymore, but England never forgets. Hawke was tried for piracy. He managed to escape, no thanks to Montieth.”

“You see why the lads were careful not to mention my name in front of you,” James said. “I had to

arrange my death; otherwise I would have had to leave England immediately. I’m sorry, Regan,” he added gently. “I would have preferred you didn’t now what kind of mess your husband has been involved in.”

“Don’t apologize, uncle,” Reggie said tightly. “It only amazes me how often I am reminded of how wrong I was about him. I just don’t understand how I could have fooled myself into thinking I loved him.”

“Don’t you?”

“No. And don’t look at me that way. I really don’t love him.”

“Does she protest too much, Hawke?” Conrad grinned.

“Uh, you think so?” Reggie said heatedly. “Well, would you love a wife that deserted you the very day she married you? I will never forgive him, never. Even if he didn’t want to marry me, even if he felt justified in leaving, he’s hateful for not… well, he’s simply hateful.” The two men exchanged a glance. “Where is he?” asked her uncle.

“He left England. He couldn’t even stand to be in the same country with me.”

“He has estates elsewhere?”

She shrugged, lost in her own misery once again. “He once mentioned owning property in the West Indies, but I don’t know if he went there. What does it matter? He has no intention of coming back. He made that perfectly—”

She stopped as a commotion started downstairs. James nodded to Conrad to see what it was. The moment Conrad opened the door it was clear the scuffle was going on nearer than the floor below.

James followed Conrad out, Reggie right behind the men.

A fight was taking place on the stairs, between Henri and— Tony ? Good Lord, it was Tony! Artie already lay sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. Henri was about to join him there.

Reggie pushed her way between James and Conrad. “Tony, stop!” Anthony saw her and let go of Henri, who slumped down onto the steps.

“So I was right!” Tony glared, seeing his brother. “You didn’t learn your lesson the last time you ran off with her, did you, James?”

“May I ask how you found us?” James inquired with profound calm.

“You may not!” Anthony retorted.

“Tony, you don’t understand—” she began.

“Reggie!”

She gritted her teeth. Tony was so stubborn. This was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. The brothers were together, and it was a chance for them to mend their rift. But if Tony wanted only to drag her

straight out of here, how could she get him to calm down and talk to James?

“Ohhhh!” Reggie gripped James’ arm with one hand and her belly with the other, doubling over as if in pain. “I feel… ohhhh! Too much… excitement. A bed, uncle. Get me to a bed.” James lifted her gently in his arms. He didn’t speak, but he did give her a doubtful look when his eye caught hers. Reggie ignored this and groaned again, quite effectively.

Jeremy came running down the hall toward them, tucking an open shirt into his trousers, both donned hastily. “What happened? What’s wrong with Regan?” No one answered him as James and Conrad hurried back to the bedroom with Reggie. “Who are you?” Jeremy demanded as Anthony barged past him to follow the others.

Anthony stopped cold. He’d given the boy only a glance, but it was enough. It was like looking into a mirror of the past. “Who the bloody hell are you ?” Conrad laughed and came out of the bedroom. “He’s not yours, if that’s what you’re thinking, Sir Anthony. But he’s family, all right. James’ boy.”

Jeremy covered Anthony’s gasp of surprise with his own gasp. “Uncle Tony? Hell’s bells! I thought I’d never get to meet any of my father’s kin, but here’s Regan first, and now you, and all in one night.” He grabbed Anthony in a bear hug that damned near knocked the breath out of him. Tony gripped the boy’s wide shoulders then and returned the hug, surprising Conrad. “Don’t go away, youngun,” he said gruffly before moving on to the bedroom.

Seeing Reggie stretched out on the bed, James beside her, Tony’s fury returned. “Confound you, James!

Have you no bloody sense a’tall, dragging her around in her condition?”

“He didn’t drag me,” Reggie protested.

“Don’t lie for me, sweet,” James admonished her gently. He rose and faced his younger brother, “You are quite correct, Tony. If I had any sense, I’d have found out who Montieth’s new wife was before I had her brought here to flush him out.”

Tony looked bewildered, then exasperated. “A mistake?”

“A colossal one.”

“That’s still no excuse,” Tony grumbled.

“Agreed.”

“Will you stop agreeing with me!”

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