Love Only Once Page 23

“Well, he’s certainly not what I imagined,” Jeremy grumbled.

James smiled. “You can’t judge him by this visit, Jeremy. He’s got his defenses up.” Nicholas felt he’d been pushed far enough. “Hawke, if you have something to say to me, say it. If you want another go at me, get to it. But if you three just want to have an argument over some doxy, you can do that elsewhere.”

“You’ll take that back, Lord Montieth,” Jeremy cried. “She’s not a doxy!”

“Who the bloody hell is this boy?”

James chuckled. “My son, don’t you know. I tried to get him to remain behind on the ship, but he would have none of it. Determined to be here to see how you took our news.”

“I doubt you have news that concerns me.”

“Your wife is no concern of yours?”

Nicholas stood up slowly, his eyes locked with the captain’s. “What about her?”

“She’s very lovely, isn’t she?”

“How could you—?” With a growl of rage, Nicholas launched himself forward, flew over the desk, and grabbed James by the throat. It took Conrad and Jeremy together to pull him away from the captain.

They held Nicholas, each grabbing an arm.

“If you’ve laid one hand on her, Hawke, I’ll kill you!” James rubbed his sore throat, but there was a twinkle in his dark eyes. He was satisfied. “What did I tell you, Connie? Is this the reaction of man who doesn’t care?” he crowed.

“My wife,” Nicholas snarled before Conrad could think what to say, “what have you done with her?”

“Oh, this is famous,” James chuckled. Conrad and Jeremy clutched Nicholas tighter. “What sweet revenge it would be, lad, to invent a tale to torment you with. I could tell you I had kidnapped your dear wife, which is quite true, as a matter of fact. I had meant to use her to bring you to me. We didn’t know you had left the country, you see. And… unfortunately, I didn’t know who your wife was.”

“Don’t tell me the fearless Captain Hawke was intimidated by her family?” This was greeted by such uproarious laughter from the other three that Nicholas was taken aback. He was able to throw off Jeremy’s tight hold, then aim a stunning blow to Conrad’s midsection. It gained his release for a moment, but only a moment.

“Easy, lad.” James put up a hand to stop Nicholas from any more fighting. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

He grinned. “Especially since it took me weeks to recover from the last time.”

“Is that supposed to pacify me? It took me just as long to recover, and it prevented me from discouraging Regina… well, that is none of your business.”

“Depends on how you look at it, lad. I know you tried to get her to jilt you. A shame she didn’t,” he sighed, “but that’s beside the point.”

“Get to the point!” Nicholas snapped. “What have you done with Regina?”

“My dear boy, Regan would never come to harm through me. You see, she’s my beloved niece.”

“Regan? I don’t give a damn—”

“Don’t you?”

There was so much insinuation in his manner that Nicholas stiffened, searching his mind. Suddenly, what he hadn’t noticed before came clear as he stared at Hawke. Hawke and the boy bore a distinctive resemblance to each other and to…

“James Malory?”

“The same.”

“Bloody everlasting hell.”

James laughed. “Don’t take it too hard. Imagine how I felt, finding out you had married into my family.

That put an end to my plans.”

“Why?” Nicholas retorted. “As I recall, your family doesn’t acknowledge you.”

“That was before our reunion. My brothers and I have patched things up, thanks to Regan. She does have a way of getting what she wants.”

“Doesn’t she,” Nicholas murmured, his voice heavy with irony. “What are you doing here then? Came to congratulate me, did you?”

“Hardly, dear boy.” James smiled. “I’ve come to take you home.” Nicholas’ eyes shot fire. “Not bloody likely.”

James’ smile turned sharklike. “You will come with us, one way or another.” Nicholas looked from one to the other of them. He saw that they were serious. “Your escort is not necessary.” He decided to try the truth. “My own ship is ready. I am sailing on the morning tide. I had already decided to return to England, you see, so you won’t be needed, gentlemen.”

“If you say so, dear boy,” James replied doubtfully.

“I am telling you the truth.”

“Sailing out of this port on your own won’t guarantee your reaching England. No, I must insist you come with us.”

Nicholas’ temper was beginning to simmer again. “Why?”

“My brothers don’t like it that you have deserted your wife. They want you back where they can keep an eye on you.”

“Of all the absurdities! They can’t keep me in England if I wish to leave.”

“What you do after you get home is of no concern to me.” James shrugged. “I’m just following Jason’s orders. He said to fetch you home, and so I will.”

As they escorted Nicholas out of the room, Jeremy whispered to his father, “Uncle Jason never said you were supposed to bring him back. He only said you were supposed to tell him about the baby if we found him.”

“I haven’t done my brother’s bidding since I came of age, lad,” his father whispered back. “I don’t want to start now.”

“But if he knew, he might not put up a fuss.”

James chuckled. “Did I say I wanted him to enjoy the crossing?” Chapter 26

“NICHOLAS!” Eleanor came quickly to her feet as the three men entered the drawing room of Nicholas’ London townhouse.

Reggie stood up more slowly, her eyes narrowing. There were men on either side of her husband.

“Uncle James, is this your doing?”

“I just happened to come across him, sweet.”

“Well, you can just take him back to wherever you just happened to come across him,” she said tightly.

“He’s not welcome here.”

“Regina!” Eleanor gasped.

Reggie crossed her arms over her chest, stubbornly refusing to look at Nicholas’ aunt. She had become very close to Eleanor in the last months, had even come to love her. But no one, not her relatives or his, was going to make Reggie accept a man who had been forcibly brought back. The humiliation of that was almost as bad as the desertion.

Nicholas studied Regina covertly, pretending he was looking at his aunt. He felt like smashing his fist into something, anything. He also felt like weeping. Look at her! She evidently knew about his parentage, knew and despised him for it. He saw it in the hard set of her lips; the stiff, unyielding line of her posture.

So, Miriam had told her. Well and good. If she hated the thought of being married to a bastard, it was

what she deserved for forcing him into the marriage.

Nicholas’ being brought home in the hands of her uncle had made him forget that he’d made up his mind to return and had wanted to make amends. He had, in fact, forgotten everything except his fury.

“Not welcome here, madame?” Nicholas said softly. “Am I mistaken, or does this house belong to me?” Her eyes met his for the first time. Good Lord, she’d forgotten how devastating were those sherry-gold eyes. And he looked wonderful, his skin deeply tanned, his hair brightly sun-streaked. But she couldn’t allow him to cast his spell over her.

“You forget, sir, that you refused to share a house with me. To be specific, you gave me your home.”

“Silverley, not my townhouse. And what the bloody hell have you done to this house?” he demanded, looking around at all the new furniture and floral wallpaper.

Reggie smiled innocently, her voice sweet. “Why, Nicholas, don’t you like it? Of course, you weren’t here to help me decorate, but I was very frugal with your money. It only cost you four thousand pounds.” James quickly turned around to hide his mirth. Conrad suddenly found the ceiling fascinating. Only Eleanor frowned. The two young people were now glaring at each other.

“Nicholas, is this any way to greet your wife after seven months?”

“What are you doing here, Aunt Ellie?”

“And is that any way to greet me?” His expression did not soften. She sighed. “If you must know, this house is so big I thought Regina could use my company. It wasn’t right, your wife living here alone.”

“I left her at Silverley!” he thundered.

“Don’t you dare shout at Ellie!” Reggie shouted at him. “And you go live at Silverley with Miriam. I like it fine right here.”

“I think we will both return to Silverley,” he said in a cold voice, “now that I have no reason to avoid my mother anymore.”

“Unacceptable.”

“I wasn’t asking your permission. A husband doesn’t need his wife’s permission—for anything,” he said harshly.

She gasped at the meaning. “You have relinquished all rights,” she said fiercely.

He smiled. “Not relinquished. Just refrained from using… until now. After all, your family has gone to so much trouble to bring us together again, I certainly don’t want to disappoint them,” he said cruelly.

“Lady Reggie,” an older woman servant interrupted from the doorway. “It’s time.”

“Thank you, Tess.” Reggie dismissed the nurse with a nod, then turned to James and Conrad and said,

“I know you meant well, but you will understand if I don’t thank you for your trouble.”

“You did say you could manage very well, Regan,” James reminded her.

She smiled for the first time since their arrival. It was her old impish grin, and she gave both men a hug and kiss. “So I did. And so I will. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I must see to my son.” James and Conrad burst into great gales of laughter as Reggie left the room. Her husband stood stock-still, rooted to the floor, his mouth open, a look of complete stupefaction on his face.

“What did I tell you, Connie?” James roared. “Is the look on his face worth all the trouble he put us through or is it not?”

Chapter 27

NICHOLAS downed his third brandy in twenty minutes and poured another. James Malory and Conrad Sharpe, his shadows for so long, had just left his house, and he was still stinging from the amusement they had derived at his expense. Even so, he told himself, he had more important matters to simmer over.

He sat in what had so recently been his study, now a small music room. A music room! If that wasn’t a piece of malicious spite, he didn’t know what was. A man’s study was sacred. And she hadn’t just changed the study, she’d eliminated it entirely.

Had she expected him never to return? Or had she hoped he would? Damnation take her. His sweet, beautiful wife had turned into a vengeful, hot-tempered woman in the same mold as her two younger uncles. Damnation take them too.

Eleanor paced the room, casting disapproving looks at Nicholas every time he raised the brandy glass to his lips. He was stewing in his resentment.

“What the bloody hell did she do with my papers, my desk, my books?” Eleanor steeled herself to be calm. “You just learned that you have a son. Is this is all you can ask about?”

“Are you saying you don’t know where she put my things?” Eleanor sighed. “In the attic, Nicky. All of it is in the attic.”

“You were here when she turned my house upside down?” he accused.

“I was here, yes.”

“And you didn’t try to stop her?” he asked incredulously.

“For heaven’s sake, Nicky, you took a wife. You couldn’t expect to keep a bachelor residence after getting married.”

“I didn’t ask for a wife,” he said bitterly. “And I expected her to remain where I put her, not trespass

here. If she wanted to redecorate, why the bloody hell couldn’t she satisfy herself with remodeling Silverley?”

“Actually, I believe she liked Silverley the way it was.”

“Then why didn’t she stay there?” he raged.

“Do you really have to ask?”

“What was the problem?” he sneered. “Wouldn’t my dear mother turn over the reins?”

“Regina took her rightful place there, if that is what you mean.”

“Then they got along famously? Well, why not?” he laughed derisively. “They have so much in common, both despising me as they do.”

“That is unfair, Nicky.”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to defend your sister at this late date?”

“No,” Eleanor replied sadly.

“I see. You’re taking sides with Regina. Well, you wanted me to marry her. Are you pleased with the way it’s turned out?”

Eleanor shook her head. “I swear I just don’t know you anymore. Why did you do it, Nicky? She’s a wonderful girl. She could have made you so happy.”

Sudden pain welled up in his chest, choking him. Happiness with Regina could never be his, no matter how much he wanted it. But Eleanor couldn’t understand why because Miriam had never told her the truth. The sisters had been estranged for as long as he could remember. And if Miriam or Regina hadn’t told her, he certainly wasn’t going to. Sweet Ellie would pity him and he wanted none of that. Better she think him the detestable character everyone else thought him.

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