Love Only Once Page 22

James chuckled. “You don’t need an excuse to have a go at me, if that’s what you’re itching to do, brother.”

“Don’t do it, Uncle Tony,” Jeremy said as he entered the room. “I would hate to have a row with you when I’ve only just met you.”

“He’s very protective of his old man,” Conrad put in. “Thinks his father can’t manage on his own

anymore after the grueling exercise Montieth put him through.”

“I thought I told you to go to bed, Jeremy.” But James’ scowl was directed at his first mate.

“I thought you said you thrashed Nicholas, Uncle James,” Reggie said.

“Oh, he did, squirt.” Conrad grinned. “He walked away from the encounter—just barely, mind you—whereas your husband, no doubt, did not.”

“No doubt?” she echoed. Conrad shrugged. “We left while he was still out.”

“You mean,” she demanded furiously, “you abandoned him when he was hurt?” Conrad and James flinched. “He got help quickly enough, Regan, fast enough to land me in jail within the hour.”

“What’s this?” Anthony cried.

“Oh, the story should delight you, Tony,” Reggie said crossly. “It seems you’re not the only one who wants my husband’s blood.”

Anthony frowned. “I thought you were done defending that blackguard?”

“I am,” she replied stiffly. “But he’s mine to deal with, not yours . I don’t need my uncles interfering when I am perfectly capable of making Nicholas Eden regret returning to England, if he ever does.”

“That sounds ominous enough,” Anthony agreed.

“Doesn’t it though?” James smiled. “I almost wish he would return to her.”

“Famous!” Reggie snapped. “I’m so glad you two have something in common again.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, puss,” Anthony warned her. “I don’t associate with pirates who abscond with children.”

“Oh, bother, Tony,” Reggie said irritably. “That was years ago. Let go of it, do.”

“Who are you calling a pirate?” Jeremy demanded belligerently.

“Your father is a pirate,” Anthony said reasonably.

“He’s not! Not anymore!”

Anthony looked to James for clarification, but James stubbornly refused to explain himself. It was Conrad who said, “The Maiden Anne retired soon after Jeremy joined the crew. We couldn’t very well raise the lad on board a ship, could we? The only voyages she makes now, aside from a few voyages back here to the homeland, are to take our crops to market. We’ve become planters in the islands.”

“Is it true, James?” a quiet voice spoke behind them in the doorway.

“Uncle Jason!” Reggie cried, seeing her oldest uncle. Jason looked distinctly menacing in a great-tiered

Garrick, and his scowl matched his costume.

“Ah, I’m sorry, James,” Anthony offered.

“Forgot to tell you the elders were close behind me.”

“Not close enough,” Edward puffed breathlessly as he appeared in the doorway next to Jason. “And you didn’t have to rush off ahead of us, Anthony. Nice place you found here, James. What’s it costing you?”

“Still the businessman first and last, eh, Edward?” James grinned. Then he said, “Would you mind telling me how the devil you found me? Let alone how you knew I was in England.”

“Anthony’s doing,” Edward replied. “Saw a sketch Reggie drew. Stopped by when he got back to London this morning to let me know how she was getting on, and it came to him then where he had seen one of the fellows in the sketch. One of your crew when you first bought the Maiden Anne , he remembered. Jason had just come in from Haverston, and he figured out the rest.”

“But how did you know to look here?”

“Easy,” Edward answered. “This is the nearest port. I thought just maybe you were brazen enough to bring your ship into harbor here.”

“Not that brazen,” James replied, stung. “She’s waiting off the coast.”

“Then that’s why we couldn’t find her. Of course, Anthony isn’t one to give up easily. We spent the rest of the afternoon making inquiries from one end of town to the other. Finally lucked onto a gent who had seen you coming and going from this renter.”

“And now what?” James inquired, looking directly at Jason. “Am I to receive a measure from each of you again?”

“Of course not, Uncle James,” Reggie answered quickly. “I’m sure they are willing to forget the past if you are. After all, you have given up pirating. You’ve settled down, and you have a fine son. I know they will want to welcome him into our family.”

“A son!”

“Me,” Jeremy said proudly, looking at Jason and Edward from across the room.

Reggie continued before her older uncles could recover, “I really don’t think I can manage any more excitement today. Why, I could very well lose my baby if—”

“Baby!”

“Why, Tony, didn’t you tell them?” Reggie asked in all innocence.

“Very nicely done, puss.” Anthony grinned at her. “And I see you have recovered from your earlier upset.”

“I just needed to lie down for a few moments.”

He shook his head. “Well, I think you can safely leave us alone now to kiss and make up. Run along and find yourself a cup of tea or something. And take my new nephew with you.”

“Uncle Jason?” She didn’t have to be specific. He nodded. He was wearing his harmless scowl now, so it was all right. “Go on, Reggie. A man can’t get a thing said when you’re in the room.” Reggie smiled triumphantly and hugged James. “Welcome back to the family, Uncle James.”

“Regan, my sweet, don’t ever change.”

“As if you four would let me change without your approval!” She hooked her arm through Jeremy’s.

“Come along, cousin. Your father will tell them all about you, and you can tell me all about yourself.”

“I had best go with them,” Conrad said, and did.

As the three left, they heard behind them, “You still have to be different, don’t you, James?” This was Jason. “Her name isn’t Regan!”

“It isn’t Reggie either! And anyway she’s outgrown Reggie. Regan is more suitable for a grown woman.”

“It sounds to me like you failed to get them to make up,” Jeremy said to her.

“Stuff,” Reggie giggled. “Tell him, Connie.”

“She’s right, lad,” Conrad said as he escorted the two down the hall. “They wouldn’t be happy unless they were arguing about something.”

“So just think how happy you’ve made them, Jeremy,” Reggie added sagely. “Now they can disagree over your upbringing, too.”

Chapter 25

THE stallion left a trail of dust as it galloped over the plantation road. New spring flowers of the European variety joined with tropical blooms along the roadside to create a profusion of wild color. To the right of the road, less than a mile away, the ocean cast huge waves upon a sandy beach. The hot sun glinted off blue waters as far as the eye could see.

Nicholas noticed none of the beauty around him that sultry early April day. He was returning from the island’s small harbor and a meeting with Captain Bowdler, who had reported that his ship would be ready to sail with the morning tide. Nicholas was going home to England, home to Regina.

Six months away had not helped to get her out of his mind. He had tried. He had spent months turning a broken-down plantation house into the showcase of the island, months more in getting the land ready for crops and planting. Nearly every moment had been spent in hard work, but his continuing mood was still dangerously maudlin. A hundred times he had decided to go home. As many times he had talked himself out of it. The situation there would not be changed. Miriam and her threats were still hanging over him and Regina.

But in all this time, Nicholas had overlooked the obvious. Regina probably already knew. Miriam could not live six months with the girl and not try to turn her against him. Yes, she must know by now.

That likelihood had been pointed out to him last week when he got thoroughly foxed with Captain Bowdler and poured out his soul to the man. It took someone objective and just as drunk to make him see that he was sitting on the island brooding like a child because he didn’t have the woman he wanted.

Well, he’d brooded long enough. It was time to go home and see what was what. If his wife detested him, then that would be the end of that.

But if she didn’t? Captain Bowdler asked him that, too. What if she scorned public opinion and judged him on his own merits? Well, the truth was, he had treated her abominably and that was all she had to judge him by. Too, she had buckled under one scandal, causing her to want to marry him. He would like to believe that she had married him for reasons other than propriety, but it wasn’t likely.

So where did that leave him? Nowhere. Until he got home, he couldn’t know how much damage had been done.

A barefoot, chocolate-skinned boy ran out of the large white house to take Nicholas’ horse.

That was the only thing Nicholas hadn’t gotten used to here, owning slaves. It was the one thing about the islands he hated.

“Guests you have, sir, in de study,” his housekeeper told him. He thanked her and moved off down the wide, open hall, a little annoyed. Who was calling? He had packing to do yet and another meeting with his estate agent. He didn’t have time to chitchat.

He stepped into the darkened study, where drawn shades kept out the noon heat. He scanned the occupied chairs surrounding his desk. Rather than believe what he saw, he closed his eyes. This was not to be borne.

“Tell me I’ve imagined you, Hawke.”

“You’ve imagined me.”

Nicholas crossed the room and sat down behind his desk. “Then you won’t mind if I ignore you?”

“See what I mean, Jeremy? He’d spit in the devil’s eye.”

“Is he the best you could do for a third?” Nicholas asked dryly, indicating the young man. “I don’t go in for hurting children. Can’t you and your red-haired cohort manage without help?”

“You don’t seem surprised to see me, Montieth,” James said evenly.

“Should I be?”

“Why, yes. You left England before the hanging.”

“Ah, the hanging.” Nicholas leaned back, smiling. “Did it draw a big crowd?”

“You find it amusing?” Jeremy demanded.

“My dear boy, all I find amusing is my own stupidity. If I had known this fellow was going to make it his life’s mission to plague me, I’d never have arranged for the guards to turn their backs so he could get away.”

“Bloody liar!” Conrad joined in heatedly. “Those guards were unbribable! I offered them enough to know that.”

“Connie, isn’t it?”

“It’s Mr. Sharpe to you!”

Nicholas chuckled. “You should know money isn’t always the answer. It also helps to know the right people.”

“Why?” James asked softly.

“Oh, never doubt that my reasons were selfish, old man,” Nicholas replied. “Since I wasn’t going to be around to attend the hanging myself, I decided to deny the rest of the populace that pleasure, too. If I could have arranged a postponement until my return, you can be sure I’d have done it. So don’t feel you have to thank me.”

“Let me have him, Hawke.” Conrad’s fury was overtaking him. “She’ll never have to know.”

“If you mean my housekeeper, the old girl’s probably got her ear to the door right now. But don’t let that dissuade you, old man.”

Conrad came out of his chair like a shot, but James motioned him to stop. The captain stared thoughtfully at Nicholas for several moments, probing those honey-gold eyes, and then he laughed.

“Damn me if I don’t believe half of what you’ve said, Montieth.” He was probing Nicholas’ eyes with his own riveting gaze. “But I wonder,” he went on slowly, “what your real motive was. Did you figure if you got me out of the mess you’d got me into, I would call it quits? I wouldn’t have.” Nicholas didn’t answer and James laughed again. “Don’t tell me a man of your nature has a conscience? A sense of fair play?”

“Not bloody likely,” Conrad mumbled.

“Ah, don’t forget, Connie, I wasn’t to hang for what I did to him, yet he was responsible for my arrest.”

“Very amusing,” Nicholas said coldly. “Now may we dispense with these pointless speculations? Play your hand, Hawke, or get out. I have things to do.”

“As do we. You don’t suppose I enjoy hunting you down, do you? It seems that’s all I ever do anymore,” James sighed. “The last six months have been most tiresome.”

“You’ll understand if I don’t sympathize?”

“How much of his lip are you going to take, Hawke?” Conrad growled. “Are you ready to reconsider now?”

“Connie’s right,” Jeremy put in. “I can’t see what Regan ever saw in him.”

“Can’t you, lad?” Conrad sneered. “Look at that pretty face.”

“Ease off, both of you,” James warned. “Regan has more sense than to fall for good looks. She had to have seen more in him than that.”

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