Love Only Once Page 28

Much later, Nicholas entered the sitting room which divided the master bedrooms and was startled to find Regina curled up on the sofa, reading. She wore a bright aqua satin dressing gown belted at the waist, clinging enticingly to her small frame. Her midnight hair lay about her slim shoulders in sensual disarray. She lowered the book and looked at him.

Her gaze was direct. It had its usual power to jolt him. Bloody hell. Another night he’d have to spend tossing and turning.

“I thought you’d gone to bed.” Frustration made his voice sharp.

Reggie slowly lowered the book to her lap. “I wasn’t tired.”

“Couldn’t you read in your own room?”

She managed to appear unperturbed. “I hadn’t realized this room was for your exclusive use.”

“It isn’t, but if you are going to lie about half-dressed, do it in bed,” he snapped. He scowled at her for a moment, then went into his room.

Reggie sat up. So much for being available to him. What ever made her think she might be able to entice him? All she managed to arouse in him was anger. She had better remember that, she told herself.

Chapter 35

“I JUST love your house, Nicky,” Pamela Ritchie gushed when she found him in the library. “It’s—so grand! Your mother was such a dear to show me around.” Nicholas smiled tightly, saying nothing. With anyone else, he’d have been proud to hear his home praised. But he’d learned something about this luscious brunette during their torrid two-week affair of several years past, and that was that she rarely meant anything she said. Oh, she was impressed with Silverley, but she was surely peeved not to be the lady of the manor.

When their affair ended, he heard through the servants’ grapevine that she destroyed her bedroom in a fit of temper. He’d seen her occasionally after that. She always had a warm smile for him, but to catch her unawares was to see Pamela fuming.

Women like Pamela and Selena always clashed with his own quick temper eventually. In his wilder days he had known every kind of female temperament, but there was only one he’d been in real danger with, and that was the lovely Caroline Symonds. But fortunately, she was married to the old Duke of Windfield. He had not seen Lady Caroline for three years, and the pain of their separation was long gone.

“We were wondering where you had gone off to, Nicky,” Pamela was saying. She perched, uninvited, on the edge of a chair near his desk. “Tea is being served in the drawing room. More people have arrived. Don’t know them, some squire or—oh! And your lovely wife finally made an appearance. A charming, sweet girl. Of course, I’d met her before, don’t you know, season before last. She was all the rage then. The young bloods were falling all over themselves just for one of her smiles. I was even a little bit envious until it became apparent that something was, well… wrong with her, poor thing.” He had known the silly chattering thing was leading up to something, but even so he found himself stiffening. “Am I supposed to guess what you mean by that?” She laughed, a tittering sound. “I was hoping you would tell me . Everyone is simply on tenders to know.”

“Know?” Nicholas said curtly.

“Why, to know what you found wrong with her.”

“I find nothing wrong with my wife, Pamela,” he said coldly.

“So you won’t fess up? Gallant of you, Nicky, but not very enlightening,” she sighed. “You can imagine the stir you’ve created. It isn’t every day one of our most eligible bachelors marries and then leaves his wife practically at the altar. It is rumored that one of Lady Reggie’s uncles handed you over to her in chains.”

It was not easy for Pamela to be assured that she had scored. Only the tension in his hands showed his anger. She had wanted him to fly into a rage. Pamela harbored more spite for this man than she did for all her other lovers come and gone combined. She had formed serious plans for Nicholas Eden, and he had laid them to ruins. Bloody philandering cur. She was delighted he had ended up with a wife who didn’t suit him.

“That particular rumor is an absurdity, Pamela,” Nicholas said tightly. “I returned to England in James Malory’s company simply because he was kind enough to offer me berth on his ship when he found me stranded in the West Indies. And,” he went on quickly before she could say anything, “I hate to

disappoint you, but it was business that took me away from my bride. An emergency on an island property that couldn’t wait.”

“Another man might have taken his bride along, extended honeymoon and all that,” she interjected.

“Odd you didn’t think of it.”

“There wasn’t time to…” he began, but she smiled and rose to leave.

“It will be interesting to watch the two of you, though. Strange that you should be entertaining so soon after your wedding.”

“This little gathering was not my idea.”

“Yes, your mother sent the invitations, but you were already here, so I assume you wanted a party.

Well, they do say the best way to relieve boredom is to have a party. I just hope you weren’t thinking of a personal party between the two of us when you had me included on the guest list. Married men don’t attract me, if you know what I mean.”

She whirled out of the room before he could reply. Nicholas remained seated, staring at the door. He had been turned down flat, without his even making an offer. The cheek!

A fierce protectiveness rose in him. Something wrong with Reggie, indeed! He left the library with every intention of finding his wife and devoting himself to her fully for as long as a single guest remained in the house. But when he stepped out of the library, glancing toward the entry hall, he saw Selena Eddington alighting from her carriage. Fuming, he went to find Miriam. “What I find amusing is that you kept such close tabs on me all these years,” he told her. “Such devotion. Of course it enabled you to know exactly which people I would not wish to see.”

“Not at all,” she replied with a tight little smile. “There are, in fact, many kind souls who feel a mother should be informed of what her son is doing in wicked London… and with whom. You can’t imagine how many good intentions I had to sit through, appearing grateful, when I didn’t care if my so-called son drowned in the Thames.” She gave him a look of pure hatred. “Yet, bits of information do sometimes have uses.”

Fury flashed in his eyes. He turned and headed for the stairs, Miriam’s delighted laughter following him.

“You can’t hide all weekend, Lord Montieth,” she called scornfully.

Nicholas didn’t look back. What the bloody hell did the conniving, spiteful old bitch hope to accomplish by inviting two of his ex-mistresses to his home? And, good God, how many more surprises awaited him?

Chapter 36

THE drawing room was quite crowded, Miriam’s twenty people having turned into thirty. The music room was open and sounds of someone tinkering with the harp drifted from it. The dining room was open, the long table set up for a buffet. Guests drifted from room to room.

Selena Eddington had changed little in the year since Reggie had seen her. Dressed in a frilly pink lace

creation that made Reggie feel matronly in her dark blue gown, Selena had all the men hanging on her every word. From time to time, she turned toward Reggie with a satisfied smirk.

“Cheer up, my dear. It was bound to happen one day.”

Reggie turned to Lady Whately, an acquaintance from years past. She was sitting beside Reggie on the sofa. “What was bound to happen?” Reggie inquired.

“You meeting up with the women from your husband’s past, there being so many of them. ”

“If you mean Lady Selena—”

“Not just her, my dear. There’s the Duchess there, and that Ritchie tart, and Mrs. Henslowe, though Anne Henslowe was just a fling, or so I’m told.”

Reggie’s eyes flew to each woman the old tabby named, widening when they fell on Caroline Symonds, Duchess of Windfield, a stunningly beautiful blond only a few years older than Reggie. The Duchess sat demurely next to a man in his late seventies. He had to be the Duke of Windfield. How utterly miserable the young woman must be with that old husband, thought Reggie.

Pamela Ritchie, Anne Henslowe, Caroline Symonds, and Selena Eddington. Four of Nicholas’ past mistresses in the same room with his wife! This was asking too much. Was she supposed to converse with them? Act the gracious hostess?

Nicholas made an appearance just then, and she wished she could glower at him, but that was out of the question. While she watched, Lady Selena took Nicholas’ arm and held on tightly.

“That doesn’t upset you, does it, my dear?”

Reggie turned to find Lady Whately gone and Anne Henslowe in her place. Was she now to be comforted by one of his mistresses? “Why should it upset me?” Reggie answered stiffly.

Mrs. Henslowe smiled. “It shouldn’t. After all, she lost him and you have him. She was upset about it.”

“And you?”

“Oh, dear. Someone has been whispering in your ear. I was afraid of that.” Reggie simply could not remain vexed. The woman was genuinely sympathetic, her brown eyes compassionate. She wasn’t a bad sort. And her affair with Nicholas had happened long before Reggie met him.

“Don’t give it another thought.” Reggie smiled.

“I won’t. I just hope you don’t. Be assured, my dear, that Nicholas never goes back for second helpings.”

Reggie giggled, shocked. “Nicely put.”

“And true, to the lamentation of the women in his past. Many have tried to get him back, and all without luck.”

“Did you?” Reggie asked bluntly.

“Heavens, no. He wasn’t for me and I knew it. I was thankful for my one night with him. It occurred soon after I lost my husband, I was close to losing my sanity as well and Nicholas helped me see that my life wasn’t over after all. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.” Reggie nodded and Anne Henslowe patted her arm. “Don’t let it get to you, my dear. He is yours now, forever.”

But he wasn’t hers, and he hadn’t been hers after that one night nearly a year ago.

She thanked Mrs. Henslowe and looked around for Nicholas. He wasn’t there, and he wasn’t in the dining room or the music room. That left the conservatory, and she retraced her steps back through the dining room and quietly slipped into the glass-walled sun room. It was warm and dark, the only light coming through the far windows of the dining room. It was just light enough to see as far as the fountain, to see the pink lacy gown and short black curls of Selena Eddington, whose arms were wrapped around Nicholas’ neck.

“Are you enjoying your tour of the house, Lady Selena?” Reggie called out, approaching them.

Her voice drew them apart. Selena had the grace to look embarrassed. But Nicholas didn’t seem at all contrite. In fact, he turned dark with anger. Seeing his anger, Reggie’s outrage turned to throat-tightening pain. Ninny! He hadn’t wanted to stop holding Selena.

She turned and left as quickly as she could. Nicholas called after her, but she only hurried her step. The philandering libertine! How could she have been so stupid—so foolish—as to hope?

When she reached the antechamber, Reggie stopped short. No, she would not run and hide as if her heart were breaking. Malorys were made of sterner stuff. They did not make the mistake of falling in love with the same person twice. Love wasn’t why she had this tight knot in her throat. No, indeed, she was choking on anger, that was all.

She stepped into the drawing room again, the smile she had worn most of the day right back in place.

Calmly, she took a seat and plunged into conversation with Faith and Lady Whately.

Nicholas entered the drawing room the moment after Reggie sat down. He took one look at her tranquil expression and his heart sank. What had he expected? Tears? In order to be jealous, a person had to care. The devil take Selena straight to hell for throwing her arms around him and catching him off guard like that. Had she known Reggie was nearby? He hadn’t wanted to escort Selena through the house in the first place, but she had challenged him, hinting that he was afraid to be seen with her, whispering that he was no longer his own man. Like a bloody fool, he dragged her from room to room, giving her the tour. Idiot!

She wanted to see what was behind the closed doors of the conservatory, and once inside, a single flower on a twisting vine caught her eye. Nothing would do but she must have it. After two attempts to reach it herself, she had pleaded sweetly for him to get it. He went for the bloody bloom, and no sooner had he plucked it and turned to hand it to her than she had her arms locked behind his neck. Two seconds had passed, and then Regina spoke. It was unbelievable, the worst piece of luck imaginable.

He looked at Regina again and her eyes met his. In that moment before she turned away, her eyes shot

blue flames at him.

Nicholas’ hopes soared. He grinned. She didn’t care? Then why was she so furious with him?

Determined now, he approached the threewomen on the sofa. “May I join you, ladies ? What with all the duties of the host, I haven’t had a moment to spare for my lovely wife.”

“There isn’t room, Nicholas,” Reggie said flatly.

And there wasn’t, not with the ample posterior of Lady Whately taking up half of the sofa. But he was not deterred by that or by Reggie’s stiff tone.

He caught her wrist, tugging her up to stand, then sat down and pulled her down onto his lap.

“Nicholas!” she gasped.

“Don’t be embarrassed, love.” He grinned, holding her firmly in place.

“Scandalous, Lord Montieth!” Lady Whately was even more embarrassed then Regina. “If you are so eager to be near your wife, you may have my seat.”

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