Love Only Once Page 32

She smiled gently. “I had four wonderful uncles to tell me everything I wanted to know about them—including faults, of which they spared no detail. But you did have your mother all along, you just never knew it.”

“One of the things Ellie told me is that we Eden men only love once. That should delight you.”

“Should it?”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Reggie said evasively. “I’ll let you know after we have our talk. Care to have your back scrubbed?”

She scooped the sponge out of the water without waiting for an answer and moved behind him. She was grinning, but he couldn’t see her expression.

“I suppose you would like an apology?” he began uncomfortably.

“That would be nice.”

“I do apologize, Regina.”

“What for?”

“What do you mean what for?” he growled, turning to look at her.

“If you would be a little more specific, Nicholas.”

“I’m sorry I was such a dolt during our engagement.”

“No, you weren’t very nice at all. But I can forgive you for that. Go on.” She began running the sponge along his back, then up around his neck, very slowly.

“Go on?” He sounded bewildered, and Reggie threw the sponge at his head.

“You left me. Or have you forgotten?”

He grabbed hold of the sponge. “Blister it, you know why I did.” Reggie came around to the side of the tub and looked down at him, hands on hips, her eyes glittering. “I beg to differ. I do not know why. It is the only thing I have not been able to figure out.” In a quiet voice, with no fight in him, he said, “I couldn’t remain near you without…” She prompted him. “Without?”

“Without making love to you.”

There was utter silence. Then she said, “Why couldn’t you make love to me?”

“Bloody hell!” he swore. “I was certain you would despise me as soon as you learned of my parentage.

I knew I couldn’t bear your scorn. I was a bloody fool, I admit it. But I knew Miriam wouldn’t keep her mouth shut. I was right about that. I was just wrong about your reaction to my birth.”

“Very well. Your explanation will do. You may go on.”

He racked his brains. “I told you the truth about Selena. She really did contrive that scene you witnessed in the conservatory.”

“I believe you.”

This was apparently not what she was waiting to hear. “Oh! Your friend George. I—I suppose I was a bit unreasonable with him, but it wasn’t the first time his being with you has rubbed me the wrong way.”

“Were you jealous, Nicholas?” Her humor resurfaced.

“I… yes, blister it, I was!”

“Duly noted. You may go on,” she said, her eyes intent on his face.

“But what else have I done?” he asked, exasperated.

The cobalt eyes sparked. “You are forgetting you had to be returned to me by force.”

“No!” His temper exploded. “Now there, you’re wrong! I was coming back. My ship was ready to sail.

I had decided to tell you everything, explain why I behaved as I did. Your bloody uncle and his thugs arrived the night before I was to sail.”

“Oh, dear. I suppose you were too angry over Uncle James’ interference to talk to me honestly?” Nicholas scowled. “I don’t like that particular uncle of yours, not at all.”

“He’ll grow on you.”

“I’d rather you grew on me.”

“That might be arranged.”

“Then you don’t mind that I am destined to love only once?” he asked very seriously. But she wasn’t ready to declare herself to him, not just then.

“If you could be a little more specific…”

“Haven’t I told you what you want to hear?”

“You have not,” she informed him.

“Then come here.”

“Nicholas,” she gasped. “I’m not dressed for bathing.” He grabbed her and pulled her into the bath on top of him. “I love you, love you, love you, love you. Is that enough or do you want more?”

“That will do—for tonight.” Reggie wrapped her arms around his neck. Their lips met.

After some delightful kissing, he demanded, “Well?”

“Well, what?” she teased. He whacked her bottom. “Oh. Well, I guess I love you, too.”

“You guess ?”

“Well, I must, mustn’t I, if I put up with you? No, no!” she shrieked as he began tickling her. “All right. I love you, you impossible man. I set my cap for you, didn’t I? And I never gave up hoping you would return my love. Now aren’t you glad I’m such a stubborn fellow?”

“Stubborn fellow, but delightful all the same.” He kissed her soundly. “You were right, love, you’re not dressed for bathing. Shall we remedy that?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Chapter 43

AFTER bidding farewell to the last guest, Nicholas and Regina stood kissing at the door. “Peace at last,” he said with a long sigh.

“Well, not quite,” Reggie replied hesitantly, twining a finger in his lapel. “I—I sent a message last night to invite my family out here for the day. Don’t be mad, Nicholas. George told me he saw Tony last week and Tony was very upset. I know it was because of us.”

“Couldn’t you have just written them a letter?” he asked wearily, “and told them you were all right?”

“Letters aren’t the same as seeing for themselves how happy I am. They worry about me, Nicholas, and I want them to know everything is finally all right now.”

“Then I suppose I will have to bear it for one day.” He sighed again.

“You’re not angry?”

“I don’t dare get angry with you, love.” He said this so seriously that she frowned in puzzlement. “You get angry right back.”

“Devil!” she retorted.

Nicholas grinned at her. Then, patting her backside, he pushed her gently toward the staircase. “Now run along for a while. You’ve reminded me that I have some family business of my own to take care of.” He caught Miriam just as she was leaving for her morning ride, delayed until her guests departed. “A word with you, madame, in the library, if you please.” Miriam started to tell him she was too busy, then thought better of it. His manner invited no argument.

They walked down the stairs together without a word. “I hope this won’t take long,” she said curtly as he closed the library door behind them.

“It shouldn’t. Do sit down, Miriam.”

She frowned. “You have never called me anything but ‘mother.’ ” Nicholas observed the cold glitter in her brown eyes. It was always there when they were alone. This woman really did hate him. Nothing would change that.

“Imagine,” he said, “overnight, two sisters have switched places.” Her face went pale, so he said, “I guess you haven’t had a chance to talk to Ellie this morning, have you?”

“She told you?”

“Well, you did suggest I ask every lady present if she was my mother.” He couldn’t resist the barb.

“You didn’t!”

“No, Miriam, I didn’t. After you opened the wound, my wife healed it. She forced Ellie to confess. I have the whole of it now, finally, and I want to say that I’m sorry for what you’ve been through, Miriam, now that I understand it all.”

“Don’t you dare feel sorry for me!” she cried, stunned.

“As you wish,” he replied stiffly, no longer uncomfortable over the decision he had come to during the night. “I asked you in here to inform you that, under the circumstance, it is no longer desirable that you live at Silverley. Find yourself a cottage somewhere far from here. I will buy it for you. My father left you a modest income. I will match it. I owe you no more than that.”

“Bribery, Nicholas?” she sneered.

“No, Miriam,” he said, tired of it all. “If you want to inform the world that it was not you who provided your husband with his heir, by all means do so. My wife knows and doesn’t care, and that is all that matters to me.”

“You really mean this, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“You bastard,” she said furiously. “You think you have it all, don’t you? But wait a few years and your precious wife will hate you—just as I hated your father.”

“She’s not like you, Miriam.” He smiled.

“I always hated it here at Silverley,” she said savagely. “I only stayed to keep you away.”

“I know that, Miriam,” he said quietly.

“I won’t stay here a moment longer,” she retorted. “And you can be sure it won’t be a cottage I’ll find, but a mansion!”

She stalked out of the room, and he took a deep breath, grateful to have her gone. It would be worth a fortune to finally have his home back, free of Miriam’s bitterness.

A few hours later, a coach rumbled down the driveway with Nicholas’ Aunt Miriam in it. The three people on the doorstep breathed a collective sigh as they watched it go. Eleanor went back into the house then, but Nicholas stood there a moment longer, his arms around his wife, holding her close to him, her cheek resting against his chest.

They stayed there too long, for soon two carriages and a coach appeared at the end of the long drive.

Nicholas stiffened, then relaxed. What the hell. If Regina loved them, perhaps they weren’t all that bad.

“Invaded again,” he murmured dryly.

“Don’t you dare run away, Nicholas Eden,” Reggie scolded.

She held on to him, bubbling with excitement. Jason and Derek and half of Edward’s brood alighted from the first carriage. Jason was the first to clasp Nicholas in a hearty embrace.

“Glad to see you came to your senses, my boy. James said you were eager to see your son. Hope your business won’t be calling you away too often in the future.”

“No, sir, it won’t,” Nicholas managed to reply cordially, though his hackles rose over what James had told him. Bloody liar.

Derek was next in line, and he got a bear hug.

“About time you got around to sending out an invitation, old man.”

“Good to see you, Derek.”

The cousins were next, and Edward and his wife, all trooping toward the house chattering happily. But then Nicholas caught sight of James and Anthony standing by a carriage glowering at him. He turned to enter the house, muttering about uninvited guests. Reggie heard him and frowned at her younger uncles.

“Don’t you dare, either of you!” she warned, knowing she didn’t need to be explicit. They understood. “I love him and he loves me. And if you two can’t make friends with him, I’ll—I’ll never speak to you again!” She followed her husband into the house, leaving Anthony and James outside.

James looked at his brother and grinned. “I think she means it.”

“I know she means it,” Anthony replied, clapping James on the back. “Come on then. Let’s see what we can do about patching it up with the bounder.”

A few minutes later, they cornered Nicholas in the drawing room, dragging him away from the others, one on each side of him. Nicholas sighed in exasperation. Were these Malorys always going to gang up on him? “Yes?”

“Regan wants a truce, lad,” James began. “And we’re willing if you are.”

“Blister it! It’s Reggie, not Regan,” Anthony snapped at his brother. “When will you ever—”

“What is wrong with Regina?” Nicholas interrupted.

The two men looked at him and began laughing. “Nothing at all, old chap,” Anthony conceded. “You can call her anything you like. It’s this stubborn fellow here who insists on inventing new names all the time.”

“And what is ‘puss’ if not an invention of yours?” James retorted.

“An endearment, that’s what.”

“And Regan isn’t an endearment?”

Nicholas left the brothers to finish the argument on their own. He caught his wife and pulled her down on a sofa beside him.

“You know, love, when I married you, I didn’t think I was marrying the Malory brothers, too.”

“You’re not angry with me for inviting them, are you? I just wanted them to be part of our happiness.”

“I know. And I also know you said they were staying only for the day. Your family does take getting used to, especially those two.” He nodded toward the corner, and she watched Anthony and James having their heated discussion.

She grinned impishly. “They don’t mean half of what they say. And they won’t be here that often anyway. Why, Uncle James is sailing next week. He probably won’t be back more than once a year from now on.”

“And Anthony?”

“Well, Uncle Tony will drop by from time to time to check on me, but you’ll get to like him, I promise you will. How can you not when you two have so much in common? Why, the reason I lost my heart to you so quickly was that you reminded me of Tony.”

“Bloody hell,” he growled.

“Oh, don’t sulk,” she teased, wrapping her fingers in his. “That’s not the only reason I love you, you know. Shall I tell you some more reasons?”

“Can we escape for a while?” he asked eagerly.

“I think that can be arranged.”

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