Love Only Once Page 31

“Tell him,” she said quietly, and Ellie gasped.

“Regina!”

“Can’t you see? It’s time.” She grasped Thomas more tightly and waited.

Nicholas looked from Reggie to Eleanor, misery and confusion mixed in his face.

“Oh, Nicky, don’t hate me,” Eleanor began on a pleading note. “Miriam was being spiteful, but—but she also spoke the truth.”

“No!” The word tore out of him. “Not you. You would have told if—”

“I couldn’t.” Eleanor was crying. “I gave Miriam my word I would never claim you when she gave me her word she would raise you as her own.”

“Is that what you think she did?” he asked painfully. “She was never a mother to me, Ellie, even when I was a child. You were here then. You know that”

“Yes, and I dried your tears and soothed your hurts and died a little every time. Your father didn’t want you labeled a bastard, Nicky, and I didn’t either. Miriam kept her word that she would never tell, so I had to keep mine.”

“She told my wife. And she put me through hell,” he hissed at her.

“She judged Regina correctly. She knew the knowledge would go no further and it hasn’t.”

“She always threatened to let the fact be known.”

“Only threats, Nicky.”

“But I lived with her threats. They governed my life. Even so, I would have taken the label gladly if I could have had a real mother. Didn’t you see that when I poured out my heart to you all those years?

 Why didn’t you tell me ?”

The bastardy stigma wasn’t as important as this war. Both knew it. Eleanor sobbed, “Forgive me,” and ran into the house.

Reggie placed her hand on Nicholas’ arm. “She was afraid to tell you, afraid you would hate her. Go after her, Nicholas. Listen to her calmly and let her tell you what she told me. It hasn’t been easy for her all these years either.”

“You knew?” he asked incredulous.

“Since I gave birth to Thomas,” she answered gently. “She was with me during labor, and she wanted me to know the real reason why you weren’t there. You see, Nicholas, I’m afraid I didn’t believe that anyone could be so foolish as to let his having been birthed on the wrong side of the blanket stop him from marrying.” She smiled up at him. “I’m sorry, but I never appreciated how much it meant to you.”

“It doesn’t mean much anymore,” he conceded.

“Then don’t judge her so harshly, Nicholas, and hear her out without erupting. Please.”

He stood there looking at the house and she went on, “Not every woman has the courage to raise an illegitimate child. Look how you dealt with it, after all. You decided never to marry because you didn’t want a wife to share your burden. Do you think it’s not worse for the mother? And remember how young Eleanor was at the time.”

“You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”

She shrugged. “Yes, but remember we Malorys are already accustomed to having bastards in the family.”

He grunted.

“Go on, Nicholas. Talk to her. You’ll find she’s still the same woman who has always been your best friend. She’s been a mother to you all along. Now it’s your turn to listen to her sorrow.” His hand cupped her face tenderly. Thomas was squirming in her arms, and Nicholas said, “Go feed my son, madame.”

Reggie smiled as he walked away from her, toward the house. Across the lawn, her eyes met Miriam’s and she shook her head as Miriam turned away abruptly. Would Miriam ever change?

She rubbed her cheek against Thomas’ head and began walking toward the house. “Don’t worry, my angel, you will have so much love you will never miss hers. Just wait until you’re old enough to hear about your great-uncles. Why, one was a pirate for a while, and…” Chapter 41

ELEANOR’S bedroom door was closed but Nicholas could hear heartrending sobs from inside. He opened the door soundlessly. She lay across her bed, head buried in her arms, shoulders shaking pathetically. His chest tightened painfully. He closed the door and sat down beside her, gathering her in his arms. “I’m so sorry, Ellie. I wouldn’t have made you cry, not for anything, you know that.” She opened golden-brown eyes shimmering with tears. Her eyes were so like his own. Lord, what a fool he was not to have recognized that before.

“You don’t hate me, Nicky?”

“Hate you?” he echoed. “You, who have always been my solace, the only person I could count on to love me?” He shook his head. “You can’t imagine how many times when I was small I pretended you were my real mother. Why didn’t I realize it was true?”

“You weren’t supposed to know.”

“I should have realized it anyhow, especially when you stopped coming here after Father died. I always wondered why you came here at all. You and Miriam barely spoke to each other. You came because of Father, didn’t you?”

“I think you misunderstand, Nicky. Your father and I were together only once. No, I came to Silverley only to be near you. He kept the peace between Miriam and me, making it possible for me to be with

you in your home. The reason I didn’t come to Silverley after he died was because you were grown. You went to sea for two years, and then you lived in London. You rarely came to Silverley yourself, remember.”

“I couldn’t stand being with Miriam,” he said bitterly. “You saw her all this week. It’s never been any different, Ellie.”

“You have to understand Miriam, Nicky. She never forgave me for loving Charles, and you were a constant reminder that she’d failed with him.”

“Why the bloody hell didn’t you marry him?”

She smiled hesitantly, a mother’s smile for a stubborn child. “Charles was twenty-one when he first came to call on Miriam. She was eighteen, and I, my dear, was only fourteen. I was unnoticeable. He was smitten with her, and I was smitten with him. Fourteen is an impressionable age, you know, and Charles was so very handsome and kind. But they were married the year they met.”

“To everyone’s misfortune,” he said softly, “Everyone’s.” But she shook her head.

“She loved him, Nicky, those first few years of their marriage. They were very happy. And understand this, Nicky. He never stopped loving her, no matter how difficult she was later on. Miriam was wrong about that. Eden men do make exceptional husbands, for they love only once. But Charles wanted a son, and Miriam had only miscarriages, three of them in as many years. This caused a terrible strain. She was frightened to try for the son he wanted, so she began to resent his attentions. I’m afraid fear turned her against Charles. Her love for him didn’t hold up under the strain. But he did love her.”

“You lived here then?”

“Yes. You were conceived here.” She lowered her eyes, even now guilty over betraying her sister. “I was seventeen years old, and I loved Charles. They had a terrible fight that day because she refused to accept him in her bed. By evening he was drunk, and it just… happened, Nicky. I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing, though I did. We both regretted it afterward and vowed that Miriam was never to know. I went home to my parents house, and Charles devoted himself to his wife.” She sighed.

“Eventually Miriam might have gotten over her fear of conceiving. They might have been happy again.”

“But I came along?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “When I realized I was going to have a baby, I was hysterical. One fall from grace and I was pregnant. I even thought of killing myself. I couldn’t tell my parents. I made myself sick with worry. Finally, desperate, I visited Silverley to put my dilemma in Charles’ hands. Bless him, he was delighted! I couldn’t quite believe that at first, but he was. I had been thinking only of myself, of being ruined, but Charles thought first of you. It made me see how selfish I was in wanting to get rid of you.

Forgive me, Nicky, but I did think that was the way out. I was young and terrified, and girls of good families did not have children out of wedlock.”

He hugged her to him. “Of course, Ellie. I understand.”

“Well,” she went on, “Charles wanted you. He was willing to destroy his marriage to have you. He might have done things differently except for Miriam’s three miscarriages. He wasn’t sure she would ever give him a child. And there I was, three months pregnant.”

“So Miriam was told.” He knew that much.

“She was shocked, of course. She couldn’t believe her own sister would do such a thing. How she hated me from that day on! And she hated Charles, too, never forgiving him. Finally she came to hate you, the only innocent person in the whole mess. She was never the same again, Nicky. Her deepest bitterness was that I’d been able to give Charles the son he wanted. She felt she had failed him, but she blamed him, and me, for interfering before she had a chance to try again. Her bitterness became a monster over the years. Miriam wasn’t always the way she is now. I am to blame, for I could have stopped Charles the night you were conceived. I could have, but I didn’t.”

“For God’s sake, Ellie, you already said she had stopped loving him by then.”

“I know, but she might have gone back to loving him.” After a long, thoughtful silence, she resumed.

“We were sisters, remember. That did count for something. She even forgot her resentment during those long hours when I was in labor, for it was a difficult labor, and she thought I might die. I was able to get her to swear then that she would never publicly disclaim you. I hoped she would love you, but even then I was afraid she wouldn’t. So I made her swear, and she did. But she made me swear that I would never tell you I was your mother. I wanted to tell you so many times, but I’d taken a vow, so I couldn’t. And after your father died, Rebecca warned me to leave it alone.”

“She knew the whole story?”

Eleanor nodded. “I still don’t think I would have told you if Regina hadn’t insisted.”

“My wife is a gem, isn’t she, mother?”

It was the first time he had ever called her that, and Eleanor’s face glowed.

“It took you long enough to realize it,” she said.

“Oh, I always knew she was wonderful. I’ve just been ten kinds of a fool about her. How could I blame you for what you did when it was fear of the bastardy stigma that made me almost lose my beautiful Regina? The stigma ruled me as it ruled you.”

“You will make it up to her?” she asked him urgently.

“I swear it. And you, love, are moving back to Silverley for good.”

“Oh, no Nicky! I mean, well… Lord Barrett and I—”

“Bloody hell, you mean I’m losing you to another man when I’ve only just found you?” he cried, but he was thrilled for her. “Who, may I ask, is Lord Barrett?”

“You know him. He lives near Rebecca, and you’ve met him there many times. And it’s not as if Dicken and I won’t visit here often. After all, my first grandchild lives at Silverley.” They looked at each other in complete silence for a long time. He was happy for her. She was happy for him. They had come a long, hard way.

Chapter 42

REGGIE crossed the sitting room and opened the door to Nicholas’ bedroom, quietly slipping inside.

To the right was the dressing room, the door leading out into the corridor, and next to it was the master bath, a big square room with walls and floor of blue marble and numerous large mirrors. Huge shelves held all kinds of jars and bottles, towels, shaving apparatus, and other of the lord’s necessities. The bath itself was large with cupid spouts for hot and cold water.

Nicholas lay inside, relaxed, eyes closed. Harris was laying out towels and Nicholas’ robe and comfortable slippers. It was only nine o’clock, and Miriam’s guests were still in the house.

“Good evening, Harris,” Reggie greeted him cheerfully. The valet was startled, but he managed to nod and return her greeting. Nicholas gave her a lazy grin.

“Meg has been asking after you, Harris,” Reggie continued innocently as though she intruded on a man’s toilet all the time and wasn’t on a romantic errand at all.

Harris perked up. “Has she, madame?”

“Oh, yes. And you know, it’s such a beautiful night. There’s a lovely summer moon. What a perfect night for a stroll around the grounds, Meg was saying. Why don’t you go find her, Harris? I’m sure his lordship won’t mind. Will you, Nicholas?”

“Not at all. Run along, Harris. I won’t be needing you again tonight.”

“Thank you, sir.” Harris made a formal bow before, wholly out of character, he turned and dashed from the room.

Nicholas chuckled. “I don’t believe it. Harris and sour Meg?”

“Meg is not sour,” she retorted. “And they have been very friendly for some time now.”

“Is love blooming there, too? You know about Ellie and Lord Barrett, I assume? You know everything before I do.”

“I’m so happy for Ellie.”

“You don’t think she’s too old to be contemplating matrimony?”

“You can’t be serious, Nicholas,” Reggie giggled.

“I suppose not.” He grinned, watching as she trailed her hand through the water. He caught it as it neared him, bringing it to his lips for a kiss. “I have you to thank, you know, for my childhood dreams coming true. She would never have told me if not for you. You know, don’t you, Reggie, how awful it is to wonder about your mother all the time? Who was she, what was she like? You lost both of your parents when you were only two.”

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