Love Only Once Page 27

“Nicholas brought him back to you?”

“He did, and I can see you don’t remember. I told you too much wine—”

“Oh, hush,” Reggie cut her short. “Of course I remember. It just took a moment to… oh, never mind.

Take him back to Tess, will you? I feel a headache coming on.”

“Little wonder, with as much—”

“Meg!”

When the door closed, Reggie lay back on the bed. What was wrong with her? She knew Nicholas had spent the night with her. She remembered him coming into the room and falling right asleep. What happened afterward—yes, she couldn’t forget any of that. So why couldn’t she recall feeding Thomas in the middle of the night?

She began to wonder if she was sure about anything. Maybe she had fallen asleep soon after Nicholas did, and maybe she dreamed the rest of it. Then she remembered she’d been wearing her nightgown when she woke up. Oh. So it was all a dream, then?

The disappointment hit her like a wave.

As they rode in the coach later that morning, Nicholas’ mood was black. He kept to his corner, barely deigning to be civil. What a difference from last night at dinner! What had happened to him?

The three women gave a collective sigh when they finally reached Silverley. They were expected. The doors of the great mansion were thrown open, and a troop of servants waited to unload the baggage. It seemed every servant in the house had turned out to welcome their lord home, and even the Countess was standing poised in the doorway.

Belatedly, Reggie realized that some of the fuss had to do with Thomas, the new lord. One by one people tried to get a peek at him as she crossed from the coach to the great double doors.

Miriam gave Thomas a hard look before her frigid eyes took in Reggie and Nicholas. “So,” she said matter-of-factly, “you’ve brought the bastard home.”

Eleanor gasped. Giving her sister a furious look she swept into the house. Poor Tess turned scarlet, thankful that feisty Meg wasn’t near enough to hear.

Nicholas, standing behind Reggie, went totally rigid, but otherwise no emotion cross his face. He was certain the insult was a reference to himself, not the baby. Miriam would never change. Her soul was so full of bitterness that her venom spilled over sometimes. That was Miriam.

Reggie stood still, her face flushed pink with anger, her eyes fixed on the Countess. The woman seemed pleased that she had successfully disturbed everyone within hearing. Her voice low, Reggie said, “My son is not a bastard, Lady Miriam. If you ever call him that again, I shall be moved to violence.” She went on into the house before Miriam could reply. Tess followed her, leaving Nicholas alone to laugh at Miriam’s furious expression.

“You should have been more explicit, mother.” He called her that only because he knew how much it infuriated her. “After all, there are so many of us bastards around these days.” Miriam didn’t deign to respond to that. “Are you planning to stay this time?” she asked coldly.

Nicholas’ smile was mocking. “Yes, I mean to stay. Any objections?” They both knew she wouldn’t object. Silverley was his, and she lived there only through his grace.

After Regina had gone upstairs, Nicholas closed himself away in the library, the room he had always favored at Silverley, his sanctuary. He was thankful to see that nothing had changed. His desk was still in its corner, a well-stocked liquor cabinet next to it. He would go over the books today, see if he could understand Miriam’s figures. He would also get foxed.

Nicholas didn’t actually get drunk. He couldn’t make heads or tails of the books, but that was not surprising. Miriam did it on purpose, he was sure, so that he’d be forced to sit with her for hours while she condescended to explain what she had done with the estate. Her manner always implied that Silverley would fall to ruin without her.

They both knew that she was the reason he’d stayed away from Silverley since his father’s death, depending on his agent to keep him informed of conditions. He simply could not stay under the same roof

with her for very long. Miriam’s threats and barbs made him lose his temper.

She was his father’s widow. To the world, she was his mother, so he couldn’t very well throw her out. It had always been easier just for him to leave. But now he had his wife and child at Silverley, and Miriam was not going to drive him away anymore.

When he went upstairs to change for dinner, he was in a foul mood. He had not been able to keep from worrying over the problems with Regina, and he was also nagged with guilt for getting her drunk. He had put her nightgown back on so she wouldn’t be embarrassed when her maid came in to wake her. But even if she didn’t remember their night together, he knew he had tricked her into accepting his ardor.

Three maids were leaving the sitting room that divided the master suites just as Nicholas approached.

“Where are you going with all that?” he barked. One was carrying a basket of shoes, and gowns galore were draped over the other two maids’ arms.

The servants blanched at his tone, saying nothing. Reggie came up behind them and, after sending them on their way, asked her husband, “What are you snapping at them for?”

“You don’t like your rooms?” he asked, wondering why her clothes were being carted out.

“On the contrary, I like them very well. The servants are removing Lady Miriam’s belongings, as they did once before. I suppose she moved back in there after I left, thinking I wouldn’t return.” That did not appease him. He was too miserable to be appeased. “You wouldn’t have returned if I hadn’t insisted, would you?”

Reggie shrugged. “I never gave it much thought. I returned to London simply because I wanted to be near my family for Thomas’ birth.”

“Of course, your dear family,” he sneered. “Well, your family is a long way from here, madame, and I thank God for that. You won’t be running back to them again.” Reggie stiffened, eyes slanting angrily. “I never ran back to them, sir. But if I wanted to do so, I would.”

“No, you won’t!” Nicholas shouted. “And I’ll have you know right now, your bloody uncles are not welcome in this house!”

“You don’t mean that,” she gasped.

“See if I don’t!”

“Oh! Of all the—” She was too enraged to finish the thought. “Oh!” She swung around and stomped into her bedroom, slamming the door. Nicholas stared at the closed door, his temper past exploding. In two strides he reached it and threw it open.

“Don’t you ever walk away from me when I am talking to you!” he bellowed, standing in the doorway.

Reggie swung around, startled, but not at all intimidated by the fury raging through him. She had held back her own fury too long.

“You were not talking!” her voice rose to match his. “You were shouting, and nonsense, too. Do not think you can place such restrictions on me, sir, for I won’t have it! I am not your servant!”

“And what, pray tell, are you?”

“Your wife!”

“Exactly! My wife. And if I wish to place restrictions on you, I will bloody well do so!”

“Get out!” she screamed. “Out!”

She shoved the door against him until it closed, with him on the other side. Nicholas scowled, but he didn’t try to open the door again. The significance of being banished from her room was too much, symbolizing the rejection he had expected. He looked at the closed door and saw a barrier, solid and unbreakable.

Chapter 34

“I SUPPOSE I ought to mention that I am expecting guests for the weekend.” Miriam’s statement drew all eyes to her. They were dining in the formal dining room, Nicholas at one end of the long table, Reggie at the other. Shouting distance described the length separating the lord and lady of the house. This suited Reggie perfectly. She hadn’t said a word to her husband for three days.

Miriam and Eleanor were seated facing each other at the center of the table. It was much easier to talk that way, but the two sisters had nothing to say to each other.

Sir Walter Tyrwhitt was next to Miriam. The friendly neighbor had stopped by earlier and she invited him to join them. As usual, Miriam’s manner was very different when the debonair gentleman was present. She was almost warm.

Tyrwhitt was in fact a very likable fellow. Middle-aged, a few years younger than Miriam actually, he was a fine-looking man with distinguished silver streaks running along the sides of his dark brown hair.

His eyes were green. He was a farmer at heart, and never tired of talking about the land, crops, the weather. It was amusing to see how serious he could become when he spoke of these things, because he treated all other topics with casual indifference.

Nicholas put himself out to be agreeable to their guest, a great relief to all after three days of surliness.

He humored Sir Walter with a good deal of talk about spring crops. Or was he humoring him? Perhaps he really was interested. Reggie was amazed at how involved he became. Was he, too, a farmer at heart?

How little she knew about the man she was married to.

But his amiability did not extend to his wife. Everyone else benefited. Even Miriam received civil answers. But Reggie he ignored. It hurt. She wasn’t still angry over their argument, for she rarely stayed angry long. She was hurt because she could not forget that dream. It had seemed so real. She could not forget how it felt in his arms, how it was when he made love to her. Fool that she was, she had accepted him in her heart. Why was she such a pushover, to forgive so easily?

Miriam’s statement about guests made Nicholas frown. “The whole weekend? I take it this is not your

usual dinner party?”

“No, actually,” Miriam replied. “I hope you don’t mind. I’m afraid the invitations went out right before you returned. I wasn’t expecting you to come home.”

“Nor were you expecting me to stay, I’m sure of that,” Nicholas said dryly.

Eleanor intervened before an argument began. “I think it’s a fine idea. A bit close to the London season, but that won’t start for another week or so. How many guests were you counting on, Miriam?”

“Only about twenty. Not all of them will be staying, however.”

“This isn’t your usual style, madame,” Nicholas commented. “May I ask what the occasion is?” Miriam turned her head directly toward Nicholas so Walter couldn’t see her eyes. “Must there be an occasion?” Her eyes shot daggers at him.

“No. If you have started to enjoy large gatherings, however, I suggest you visit London this year and enjoy them to your heart’s content. You may even make use of my townhouse, now that my wife has so thoughtfully refurbished it.”

“I would not dream of leaving Silverley unattended,” Miriam said stiffly.

“I assure you, madame, I will force myself to stay here and look after the estate. I am capable of doing so, though you like to think otherwise.”

Miriam did not take the bait. He was beginning to see that she wouldn’t fight as long as Sir Walter was present. What a choice situation. What fun! But Aunt Ellie was frowning at him, and poor Tyrwhitt looked embarrassed. Regina, sweet Regina, looked down at her plate, avoiding his gaze. He sighed.

“Forgive me, mother. I did not mean to imply that I wished to be rid of you, or that you lack confidence in your only son.” He grinned as she stiffened. Perhaps there were a few small pleasures left to him. “By all means have your party. I’m sure Aunt Ellie and my wife will enjoy helping with the arrangements.”

“I have everything in hand already,” Miriam said quickly.

“Then that completes the discussion, does it not?”

Nicholas resumed eating, and Reggie shook her head. She had considered her little battles with the Countess beneath her, yet she had always been provoked. Miriam had done nothing to provoke Nicholas tonight. Why did he dedicate himself to being disagreeable?

As soon as the ladies left the men to their brandies, Reggie retired to her rooms. But Thomas was sleeping, and Meg was in the servants’ wing with Harris, and it was too early to go to sleep. Still, she refused to go downstairs. Being ignored by her husband in front of others was embarrassing.

Nicholas noticed Regina’s absence the moment he entered the drawing room, and approached Eleanor.

“Where is she?” he asked abruptly.

“She mentioned retiring.”

“This early? Is she sick?”

“My dear Nicky, where was this interest in your wife when she was with you?”

“Don’t chastise, Aunt Ellie. I believe I have been run through the mill quite enough.”

“And still you go on in your own stubborn way,” Eleanor sighed. “Which is only making you miserable—admit it.”

“Nonsense,” he said irritably. “And you don’t know all of the story, Aunt Ellie.” She sighed, seeing the rigid set of his chin. “Perhaps. But the way you have ignored that poor girl is still deplorable. Why, I don’t believe I’ve heard you say two words to her since we arrived here.”

“More than two, I assure you.”

“Oh, you can be so exasperating, Nicholas!” Eleanor kept her voice down. “You just won’t admit that you were wrong, that you have a wonderful wife and no good reason not to cherish her.”

“I do admit that. It is my wife who now regrets her choice of husband. I once told her she would. Bitter thing,” he added, “to find yourself proved right about the one thing you wanted to be wrong about.” She watched him walk away, her eyes sad. How she wished she could help. This was something he was going to have to solve on his own.

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