Love Only Once Page 24

He stared down at the glass in his hand and mumbled, “I don’t like being forced.”

“But the deed was done,” Eleanor pointed out. “You did marry her. Couldn’t you have given her a chance?”

“No.”

“All right. I understand. You were bitter. But now, Nicky, can’t you try now?”

“And have her laugh in my face? No thank you.”

“She was hurt, that’s all. What did you expect when you deserted your bride on her wedding day?” The hand on the glass tightened. “Is that what she told you? She was hurt?” Eleanor looked away. “Actually…”

“So I thought.”

“Don’t interrupt, Nicky.” She frowned sternly. “I was going to say she won’t talk about you to me at all.

But give me some credit for understanding the girl after living with her for four months.”

“She’s wise not to tell you what she thinks of me. She knows you have a soft spot for me.”

“You’re just not going to unbend, are you?” she cried. He refused to answer and she lost her patience.

“What about your son ? Is he to grow up in a household of strife—as you did? Is that what you want for him?”

Nicholas shot out of the chair and hurled his glass against the wall.

Eleanor was too shocked to speak, and after a moment he explained himself by saying in a hoarse voice,

“I am no fool, madame. She may have told everyone the child is mine, but what else can she say? Let her try and tell me the baby is mine!”

“Are you saying you and she… that you never…”

“Once, Aunt Ellie, only once. And that was four months before I married her!” Eleanor’s expression softened. “She gave birth five months after the wedding, Nicky.” He stopped cold, then stated flatly, “The birth was premature.”

“It was not!” Eleanor snapped. “How would you know?”

“Because,” he said reasonably, “she would have told me about the baby in order to keep me here if she’d been pregnant when I left. You cannot tell me she wouldn’t have known if she’d been four months along. Also, she would have shown some sign of it, which she didn’t. She could only have been one or two months pregnant when I left and obviously unaware of her condition.”

“Nicholas Eden, until you can stop being so perverse, I shall have nothing to say to you!” With that, Eleanor swept angrily from the room.

Nicholas grabbed the brandy decanter, about to send it the way of the glass. He tilted it to his lips instead. Why not?

Yes, she’d have told him if she’d been pregnant when they married. He recalled the times she let other men take her home. He recalled George Fowler in particular and the red-hot rage he had felt over that.

Had it been intuition? Had he known the young bastard wouldn’t take her straight home?

Nicholas was so furious he could barely think straight. He had tried not to think about the child from the moment he’d learned of his birth. His son, was he? Just let her try and convince him of that.

Chapter 28

REGGIE smiled absently as the little fist kneaded her breast. Feeding her son had always been such a lovely, satisfying time for her, but tonight her thoughts were downstairs. She didn’t even notice when the

small mouth stopped sucking.

“He’s off to sleep again, Reggie,” Tess whispered.

“Oh, so he is. But not for long, eh?”

Reggie gently lifted the infant to her shoulder and patted his back. His head snuggled there, his mouth sucking air for a moment before it went slack. She smiled up at her old nurse, now her son’s nurse.

“Perhaps this time he will stay asleep,” Reggie whispered to Tess as she put him back to bed. But the moment she laid him down on his belly, his head popped up jerkily, his feet started to wiggle, and those inquisitive eyes opened.

“It’s to be expected.” Tess grinned. “He just doesn’t need as much sleep now. He’s getting older.”

“I’ll have to start thinking about getting you some help then.”

“Bother that,” Tess scoffed. “When he’s six months old and starting to crawl, then I’ll welcome the help.”

“If you say so.” Reggie laughed. “But you go on and have your dinner now. I’ll stay with him until you’re through.”

“No you won’t, my girl. You have company below.”

“Yes,” Reggie sighed, “my husband. But as I have nothing to say to him, I am not going down. Now go on, Tess. And please have a tray sent up here to me, will you?”

“But—”

“No.” Reggie picked up the wide-awake baby again. “This gentleman right here is the only company I want tonight.”

Tess gone, Reggie dropped all pretense of ladylike behavior and got down on the floor to play with her son, imitating his sounds and gestures, coaxing him to smile. He wasn’t quite up to laughter yet, but that wouldn’t be long in coming, for he heard enough laughter around him. His many visitors, from the servants to her uncles, all tried to make him smile with crazy antics that were quite as ridiculous as his mother’s.

How she loved this little person. Right before he was born she had fallen into a terrible depression. But after the birth, which had amazed the doctor by being such an easy labor for a first child, Reggie was filled with euphoria. Plainly and simply, her child brightened her life. In fact, in the last two months she had been so busy learning about and enjoying her new motherhood, that she rarely thought of Nicholas, at least not more than a dozen times a day.

“But now he’s back, love. What are we going to do?” Reggie sighed.

“You don’t expect him to answer that, do you?”

“Oh, Meg, you startled me!”

“D’you want this down there on the floor?” Meg was holding a tray of food. “I caught the maid on the way up here with it.”

“Over there on the table, please,” Reggie directed. “And now tell me all about your outing with Harris.” Nicholas had left Harris behind, to the valet’s endless misery. The poor man had been bereft all these months and especially unhappy after Reggie moved into the townhouse. He was downright hostile, and he and Meg had had a few heated exchanges, defending their territory.

Abruptly, after the baby arrived, all of that changed. Harris warmed to Reggie or, more exactly, to Meg.

Meg and Harris astonished themselves by discovering a liking for each other. They had even been going out together lately and got along famously just so long as Meg said nothing derogatory about the Viscount.

Meg put the tray down with a bang. “Never mind about that hardheaded gent I’ve been passin‘ time with. I don’t think I’ll be doin’ that anymore. What does he do the moment he hears the Viscount is here? He doesn’t give me a by-your-leave, but rushes upstairs to find his lordship! And I could’ve save him the trouble. Tess informed me another bottle of brandy was just delivered to the music room.”

“The music room? Ah, yes,” Reggie giggled suddenly. “The music room. I’d forgotten what I did to his study.”

“Tess said he and Lady Ellie were shouting in there,” Meg informed her.

“Were they? I’m afraid that doesn’t interest me.”

“Posh,” Meg scoffed. “You’d give your eye-teeth to know what they said about you.”

“You assume they were arguing about me.”

“If not you, what then?”

“What indeed?” Nicholas asked from the open doorway.

Meg turned in a huff, cursing herself for not closing the door. Reggie, lying on the floor, tilted her head back for an upside-down view of her husband. She was flat on her back, her son stretched out on her chest. She sat up slowly.

Nicholas approached her, seeing a small head on her shoulder, one fist jammed firmly into his mouth.

Black tufts of hair and vivid blue eyes were unmistakable. A Malory, through and through.

He came around her and offered her his hand. “Do you do this often, love?” She wasn’t fooled by the mellow tone. There was a hard set to his lips, a heated glow in his eyes. Why, he wasn’t pleased about his son at all! How could he stand there looking at him and not be delighted?

Her mother’s pride came rushing to the fore. She held on to his hand and stood up, but the moment she was on her feet, she turned her back to him.

“If you haven’t come here to see Thomas, you can leave,” she announced frostily.

“Oh, but I have come to see him.” Nicholas smiled grimly. “You named him Thomas, after your father?”

Reggie gently put the baby down in his bed and leaned over to kiss him. She turned and faced her husband. “Thomas Ashton Malory Eden.”

“Well, that certainly takes care of your side of the family, doesn’t it?” His sarcasm made her boil. “If you wanted him named after your side, you should have been around for his birth.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her eyes narrowed. In another moment they would be shouting, and this she would not allow in the nursery.

“Meg, stay with Thomas until Tess returns, will you?” Then she said to Nicholas, “My rooms are across the hall. If you care to finish this conversation, you may visit me there.” Reggie didn’t wait for him but stalked across the hall and into her sitting room. Nicholas followed, closing the door loudly. She turned around and glared at him. “If you wish to slam doors, kindly do so in another part of the house.”

“If I wish to slam doors, which I did not do just now, I will bloody well do so in any part of my house.

Now answer me! Why didn’t you tell me?”

What to answer? She wasn’t going to admit that she hadn’t wanted to hold him that way. She wasn’t at all certain just then that anything could have held him, not when he had failed to show the slightest inkling of pleasure in either her or his son.

At last she simply asked, “Would it have made any difference?”

“How will we ever know, since you didn’t tell me?” A sardonic note entered his manner. “Of course, there is the possibility that you didn’t know and therefore couldn’t tell me.”

“Not know that I was four months pregnant?” She smiled. “I did have very few symptoms, it’s true. But four months? Any woman would know by then.”

He moved closer until he was standing directly in front of her chair. “Usually at four months everyone else knows as well,” he said softly. “For the obvious reason of an increased girth. You were lacking that, love.”

Reggie’s eyes met his and widened at what she read. “You don’t think he’s yours!” she whispered incredulously. “No wonder you barely looked at him!” She stood up and he moved back to allow her to pass. She spoke to the room at large. “Oh, this is famous. I didn’t once consider this.” She could see the humor in it, though, and under other circumstances she’d have laughed. What a perfect revenge for his treatment of her, presenting him with another man’s child on his return. But Reggie was in no condition to feel the humorous side of things. There was the shock of seeing him again, and the nastier shock of his ugly conclusion.

He touched her shoulder, swinging her around to face him. “Is this pretended surprise the best performance you can manage, madame? You have had ample time to invent some excuse to explain why

your wedding gown clung to your very tiny waist the day I married you. I am most curious to hear your fabrication.”

The gypsy slant of her eyes became more pronounced as they narrowed to furious slits, but she kept her voice calm. “Are you? There is the obvious excuse of a tightly laced corset, so shall I say that’s what it was? Would you believe that? No? Just as well, since I never lace my corsets tightly.”

“Then you admit it?” he snarled.

“Admit what, Nicholas? I tell you that I had a most unusual pregnancy. It was so unusual, in fact, that I began to worry that something was wrong with my baby when I was seven months pregnant and saw a woman only five months pregnant who was twice my size.” She took a deep breath. “Uncle Jason assured me that my grandmother was the same way. People hardly knew she was pregnant until the babies were born. He said he and his brothers were all born just as tiny as Thomas was, and look how they turned out. And he was right. Thomas is growing in leaps and bounds, perfectly formed, perfectly normal. He will probably turn out just as large as his father one day.” She finished, out of breath, still furious, but a little relieved. She had told him all of it. What he believed or didn’t believe was up to him.

“That was a good, original story, love, certainly better than I expected.” Reggie shook her head. He had formed his opinion and wasn’t going to let go of it.

“If you don’t want to claim Thomas as yours, then don’t. I really don’t care what you think,” she said simply.

Nicholas exploded. “Tell me he is mine! Tell me in plain words.”

“He is yours.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Fine.” She nodded her understanding. “Now if you will excuse me, my dinner is getting cold.” He stared in amazement as she passed him and headed for the door. “You won’t try to convince me?” Reggie glanced back at him and hesitated. His bewildered, faintly hopeful look almost made her relent.

But she had done all she could. The convincing would have to be up to him. “What for?” she answered.

“Thomas doesn’t need you. He has me. And he certainly won’t lack for male attention, not with four great-uncles to dote on him.”

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