Love Only Once Page 3

Reggie had gone by twice to see him that very day, but he was out both times, so she had left him a note. Surely he had gotten it by now. Then why hadn’t he come?

Even as she had that thought she heard a carriage pull up in front of the house. She laughed, a merry, musical sound.

“Finally!”

“What?” Meg wanted to know. “I’m not done yet. I’ll have you know it isn’t easy gettin‘ this hair of yours tucked away. I still say you should cut it. Save me and you both time.”

“Never mind that, Meg.” Reggie jumped up, causing a few pins to drop to the floor. “Uncle Tony’s here.”

“Here now, where d’you think you’re going like that?” Meg’s tone was outraged.

But Reggie ignored her and rushed out of her room, hearing Meg’s loud “Regina Ashton!” but paying no attention. She ran until she reached the stairs to the main lower hall, and then she became aware of her scanty attire and stopped. She drew back quickly around the corner, determined not to leave until she heard her uncle’s voice. But she didn’t hear it. She heard a woman’s voice instead, and with a hesitant peek around the corner, she was greatly disappointed to see the butler admitting a lady, not Uncle Tony.

She recognized the woman as Lady something-or-other, whom Reggie had met in Hyde Park a few days ago. Bother! Where the devil was Tony?

Just then Meg latched onto her arm and dragged her back down the hallway. Meg took liberties, that was a certainty, but no wonder, for she had been with Reggie as long as nurse Tess had, which was forever.

“If I ever saw anything as scandalous as you standin‘ there in your unmentionables, I’d like to know!” Meg scolded as she pushed Reggie back down on her stool in front of the small vanity. “We taught you better than that.”

“I thought it was Uncle Tony.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“I know, but I must see him tonight. You know why, Meg. He’s the only one who can help me. He’ll write to Uncle Jason and then I’ll be able to relax, finally.”

“And what do you think he can tell the Marquis that will do you any good?” Reggie grinned. “What I’m going to suggest is that they find me a husband.” Meg shook her head and sighed. “You won’t like the man they choose for you, my girl.”

“Perhaps. But I simply don’t care anymore,” she insisted. “It would be nice to be able to pick my own husband, but I learned quickly enough that my choice doesn’t matter if he’s a bad choice according to them. I have been on display now for a full year, going to so many parties and routs and balls that I hate them already. I never thought I’d say that. Why, I couldn’t wait to dance at my first ball.”

“It’s understandable, dear,” Meg soothed.

“As long as Uncle Tony understands, and is willing to help, that’s all I ask. I want nothing more than to retire to the country, to live quietly again—with or without a husband. If I could find the right man this evening, I would marry him tomorrow, anything to quit the social whirl. But I know that’s not going to happen, so the next best thing is to let my uncles find him. Knowing them, that will take years. They can never agree on anything, you know. And in the meantime, I’ll go home to Haverston.”

“I don’t see what your Uncle Tony can do that you can’t do for yourself. You’re not afraid of the Marquis. You can wrap that man around your little finger anytime you’ve a mind to. Haven’t you done so often enough? Just tell him how unhappy you are and he’ll—”

“I can’t do that!” Reggie gasped. “I could never let Uncle Jason think he’s made me unhappy. He would never forgive himself!”

“You’re too kindhearted for your own good, my girl,” Meg grumbled. “So you’ll just go on bein‘

miserable, then?”

“No. See, that’s why I want Uncle Tony to write Uncle Jason first. If I did, and he still insisted I stay here, where would that leave me? But if Tony’s letter is scoffed at, then I’ll know that plan won’t work and I’ll still have a chance to think of something else.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll see Lord Anthony at the ball tonight.”

“No. He detests balls. He wouldn’t be caught dead attending one, even for me. Oh, bother! I suppose it will just have to wait until morning.” Meg frowned then, and looked away. “What’s this? What do you know that I don’t?” Reggie demanded.

Meg shrugged. “It’s… only that Lord Anthony’s likely to be gone by mornin‘ and not back for three or four days. You can wait that long, though.”

“Who said he was leaving?”

“I overheard Lord Edward telling his wife that the Marquis has sent for him. He’s to be called on the carpet again for some trouble he’s gotten himself into.”

“No!” Then forlornly, “You don’t think he’s left already, do you?”

“No, indeed.” Meg grinned. “That scamp won’t be anxious to face his older brother. He’ll put off leavin‘

as long as he can, I’m sure.”

“Then I must see him tonight. This is perfect. He can convince Uncle Jason in person better than by letter.”

“But you can’t go to Lord Anthony’s house now,” Meg protested. “It’s nearly time to leave for the ball.”

“Then get me into my gown quickly. Tony is only a few blocks away. I can take the coach and be back before my cousins are ready to leave.”

The others were in fact ready to leave then and were waiting for her when Reggie rushed down the stairs a few minutes later. This was unsettling, but not daunting. She pulled her oldest cousin aside as she entered the drawing room, giving the others a fleeting smile of greeting.

“Marshall, I really and truly hate to ask this of you, but I simply must borrow the coach for a few minutes before we all leave.”

“What?”

She had been whispering, but his loud exclamation turned every eye their way. She sighed. “Honestly, Marshall, you needn’t act as if I’ve asked for the world.” Marshall, aware at once that they were being watched, and appalled by his momentary lack of control, gathered all his dignity about him and said in the most reasonable tone he could muster, “We have been waiting for you for ten minutes already, and now you propose to make us wait even longer?” Three more gasps of outrage came flying at her, but Reggie didn’t spare a glance for her other cousins.

“I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important, Marshall. It won’t take me more than a half hour… well, certainly no more than an hour. I need to see Uncle Anthony.”

“No, no, no!” This from Diana, who hardly ever raised her voice. “How can you be so thoughtless, Reggie? That’s not like you at all. You’ll make us late! We should be leaving right now.”

“Stuff,” Reggie replied. “You don’t want to be the first ones there, do you?”

“We don’t want to be the last to arrive either,” Clare joined in peevishly. “The ball will commence in a half hour and it will take us that long to get there. What is so important that you must see Uncle Anthony now?”

“It’s personal. And it can’t wait. He’s leaving for Haverston first thing in the morning. I won’t be able to talk to him unless I go right now.”

“Until he gets back,” Clare said. “Why can’t it wait until then?”

“Because it can’t.” Looking at her cousins set against her, and Lady what’s-her-name looking just as agitated, Reggie gave in. “Oh, very well. I’ll settle for a hired chaise or a chair, Marshall, if you’ll just send one of the footmen to fetch one for me. I’ll join you at the ball as soon as I’m finished.”

“Out of the question.”

Marshall was annoyed. It was just like his cousin to try and involve him in something foolish so that he, being the oldest, would be the one to get in trouble later. Well, not this time, by God. He was older and wiser, and she couldn’t talk circles around him anymore the way she used to.

Marshall said adamantly, “A hired conveyance? At night? It’s not safe and you know it, Reggie.”

“Travis can come with me.”

“But Travis doesn’t want to,” the escort in question was quick to reply. “And never mind turning those baby blues on me, Reggie. I’ve no mind to be late for the ball either.”

“Please, Travis.”

“No.”

Reggie looked at all those unsympathetic faces. She wouldn’t give in. “Then I shan’t go to the ball. I didn’t want to go in the first place.”

“Oh, no.” Marshall shook his head sternly. “I know you too well, dear cousin. No sooner do we leave here than you sneak out of the house and walk over to Uncle Anthony’s. Father would kill me.”

“I have more sense than that, Marshall,” she assured him tartly. “I’ll send another message to Tony and wait for him to come here.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Marshall pointed out. “He’s got better things to do than jump at your beck and call.

He may not even be at home. No. You’re coming with us and that’s final.”

“I won’t.”

“You will!”

“She can use my carriage.” All eyes turned to their guest. “My driver and the attendant have been with me for years and can be trusted to see her safely on her errand and then to the ball.” Reggie’s smile was dazzling. “Famous! You really are a savior, Lady—?”

“Eddington,” the lady supplied. “We met earlier in the week.”

“Yes, in the park. I do remember. I’m just terrible with names after meeting so many people this last year. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Don’t mention it. I am happy to oblige.”

And Selena was happy—anything to get them on their way, for heaven’s sake. It was bad enough that she’d had to settle for Marshall Malory as escort to the ball of the season. But he was the only one of the dozen men she had sent notes to that morning who hadn’t put her off with one excuse or another.

Malory, younger than she, had been only a last resort. And there she was in the middle of a family squabble, all because of this young chit.

“There now, Marshall,” Reggie was saying. “You certainly can’t object now.”

“No, I suppose not,” he said grudgingly. “But just remember you said a half hour, cousin. You had better be at the Shepfords’ before Father happens to notice that you’re not. There will be the devil to pay otherwise, and you know it.”

Chapter 3

“BUT I am serious, Tony!” Reggie exclaimed as she eyed him carefully across his sitting room. “How can you doubt me? This is an emergency, Tony.” He was the only one of her uncles who insisted she call him simply by his Christian name.

She had had to wait twenty minutes for him to be roused from sleep, for he had spent the whole day at his club drinking and gambling, then come home and fallen into bed. Another ten minutes had been wasted just trying to get him to believe how serious she was. Her thirty minutes were already up and she’d barely begun. Marshall was going to kill her.

“Come now, puss. You wouldn’t be a week in the country before you were missing g*y old London. If you need a rest, tell Eddie boy you’re sick or something. A few days in your room and you’ll thank me for not taking you seriously about this.”

“I have had nothing but the g*y life for the last year,” Reggie went on determinedly. “I traveled from party to party on my tour, not country to country. And it’s not only that I’m tired of the constant entertainments, Tony. I could withstand that well enough. I’m not even suggesting I spend the whole season at Haverston, only a few weeks, so I can recuperate. It’s this husband hunting that is going to be the death of me. Truly it is.”

“No one said you had to marry the first man you met, puss,” Anthony said reasonably.

“The first man? There’ve been hundreds, Tony. I’ll have you know they now call me the ‘cold fish.’ ”

“Who does, by God?”

“The name is perfectly appropriate. I have been cold and cutting. I’ve had to be, because I refuse to give a man hope when there is no hope.”

“What the devil are you talking about?” Anthony demanded brusquely.

“I hired Sir John Dodsley long before the last season was over.”

“That old reprobate? Hired him for what?”

“To act as, well, an adviser, you might say,” she confessed. “That old reprobate, as you call him, knows everyone. He also knows everything there is to know about everyone. After my sixth serious suitor failed to pass muster with you and your brothers, I felt it was useless disappointing myself or any more young men by having to go through it all again. I paid Dodsley to attend every affair I did. He had a list of what you and your brothers might disapprove of in a man, and he shook his head at me for nearly every single man I met. It saved me time and disappointment, but it got me my quaint nickname, too. It’s impossible, Tony. I can please Jason, but not you… you, but not Edward. Thank heaven Uncle James isn’t also here

to express his opinion. There isn’t a man in existence who would please all of you.”

“That’s absurd,” he protested. “I can think of a dozen off hand who would do very well.”

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