Love Only Once Page 9

She hugged him, her delight evident. “And there’ll be no more talk of killing?”

“None that will matter,” he sighed. “Since Eddie is the logical, business-minded one of us, perhaps he can come up with something to bring the man round without resorting to violence.” He disengaged himself and turned to put the gun away. “You said Montieth wouldn’t agree, Reggie, and when a man is stubborn, it takes persuasion to change his mind. You can still change your mind, you know.” He looked at her intently.

“No. The more I think about it, the more I feel this is the right thing to do.”

“He might hate you for it, you know. Have you thought about that?”

“He might, yes, but I will take the chance. I wouldn’t consider marriage if he hadn’t found me attractive.

But he did try to seduce me— try, I said. No, he will be my husband, Tony. Tell Uncle Edward and Uncle Jason that I will have no other.”

“Very well, then,” Tony replied, then added with a sharp look, “But you will keep that blasted scarf on, hear? There is no point in my brothers thinking any worse of their future nephew-in-law than they have to.”

Chapter 9

IT was half past ten o’clock in the evening, and Nicholas sat in his carriage outside Edward Malory’s house in Grosvenor Square, thirty minutes late for his appointment, but making no move to leave his carriage.

He had given up trying to guess what this was all about. He had understood that morning’s summons from Anthony Malory perfectly well, but since that earlier meeting had not come to pass, he no longer knew what to think. He couldn’t conceive of Derek’s businesslike Uncle Edward demanding a duel, but what else could this be about? Bloody hell!

Reggie watched the dark carriage from an upstairs window, her nervousness having increased to terror.

He was not going to like what she had set in motion. No, most assuredly not. He must suspect why he’d been called there. Why else would he hesitate to come inside?

Oh, Uncle Edward had had quite a lot to say about Lord Montieth, emphatic that she know exactly what she was letting herself in for. He had known the Eden family for years, had been very good friends with Nicholas’ father, in fact. So Reggie knew it all now, including the stories of the other young women he had embroiled in scandal because they were weak enough to succumb to his charm. He was irresponsible, he was without conscience, he could be cold and arrogant, or ill-tempered. The charm he showed the ladies was not all there was to the man. Yes, she’d heard it all, but to Uncle Tony’s disgust, she had not changed her mind.

Reggie was using Amy’s room to peek out of the window, thanking her stars that she was alone upstairs.

Aunt Charlotte had gathered her whole brood of children, all of them protesting vehemently, and descended on a friend outside London for the night. Reggie had been allowed to stay so that she would not have to wait until the next day to learn her fate. But she was to remain upstairs and not interfere in any

way. Uncle Tony had been adamant about that. Even if she heard all hell breaking loose, she was not to venture downstairs.

Nicholas was relieved of his hat and gloves and escorted to the drawing room. The house surprised him by being much larger than it appeared on the outside. He knew that Edward Malory had several children; and the house was certainly big enough to accommodate a large family. The top two floors were probably all bedrooms, he thought, and the downstairs big enough to include even a ballroom.

“They are waiting, my lord,” the butler announced as they reached the drawing room door. No expression crossed the servant’s face, but his tone was disapproving. Nicholas nearly chuckled. He knew he was late.

All humor disappeared, however, when the butler opened the door, then closed it behind Nicholas. On a cream-colored sofa sat Eleanor Marston, his spinster Aunt Ellie; and beside her, Rebecca Eden, his formidable grandmother. At the moment, she looked ready to call down the wrath of God upon his head.

So. He was to be called on the carpet, was he? Lectured to by his own family as well as Regina’s? His one surprise was that they hadn’t summoned his “mother,” Miriam. How she would have enjoyed this!

“So you finally mustered the courage to come inside, scamp?” the old dame began without preamble.

“Rebecca!” Eleanor admonished.

Nicholas smiled. He knew his grandmother didn’t doubt his nerve any more than he did. She simply liked to ruffle his feathers. Aunt Ellie was always quick to come to his defense, bless her. She was, in fact, the only one who dared admonish the old dame. Aunt Ellie had lived with the old woman for twenty years as her companion, and he marveled at her stamina, for his grandmother was a true tyrant, ruling all around her with an iron will.

Long ago, Eleanor had lived with Miriam and Charles Eden at Silverley, in the first few years of his parents’ marriage, before Nicholas was born. But the constant bickering between the two sisters had sent Ellie back to her parents. Later, she had gone to visit Charles’ mother, Rebecca, out in Cornwall.

She’d been there ever since that “visit,” coming to visit Silverley often through the years, but only to visit, not to stay.

“How are you, madame?” he asked his grandmother.

“As if you care how I am,” she retorted. “Do I come to London every year at this time?” she asked him.

“You have made that your habit, yes.”

“But have you paid me a visit once since I arrived?”

“I saw you in Cornwall only last month,” Nicholas reminded her.

“That is not the point.” Then she leaned back and said, “Well, you surely have fallen into it this time, haven’t you?”

“So it would seem,” he replied dryly, then turned to face the two Malory men.

The older man came forward to greet him cordially. Big and blond and green-eyed, Edward Malory

looked nothing like his brother Anthony, and everything like his brother Jason. He was an inch shorter than Nicholas’ own six feet, but his build was stockier.

The younger Malory man stood rooted to his place by the fireplace. Dark blue eyes seemed to be envisioning Nicholas’ dismemberment. Malory’s vivid blue eyes and coal-black hair announced to Nicholas that Regina Ashton was Anthony’s blood relation. It was more than that. She actually bore a startling resemblance to Anthony, even to the slight slanting of the eyes. Good God, he wondered, could Regina be his daughter? That would mean he’d sowed his oats a bit young, but it wasn’t impossible.

“We haven’t met, Nicholas,” Edward Malory said and introduced himself. “But I knew your father Charles very well, and I’ve known Rebecca for some years.”

“Edward invests my money for me, and very nicely, too,” Rebecca explained. “Didn’t know that, did you, scamp?”

Well, that explained how they’d gotten his grandmother here on such short notice. The proximity to family was starting to make him nervous.

Edward continued, “And I believe you know my youngest brother, Anthony?”

“We’ve crossed each other’s paths in the clubs from time to time,” Nicholas replied, making no move toward Anthony.

Anthony didn’t acknowledge him at all except to fry him with his eyes. He was as tall as Nicholas, and just as broad in the shoulders, too. A hellion since he was sixteen according to Derek. Nicholas wagered there were worse scandals in Anthony’s past than this silly flap over Regina. What the hell did Anthony have to look so condemning about?

“That one wants your head on a platter, scamp,” his grandmother spoke in the growing silence. Ellie tried to shush her, but she wouldn’t be shushed.

“I am already aware of that, madame,” Nicholas said, facing Anthony. “Do we name the time, my lord?” Anthony chuckled wryly. “By God, I really think you’d rather. But much as I would love to accommodate you, I have promised to let them deal with you first.” Nicholas looked around at the others. Sympathy poured from Ellie’s brown eyes, and Edward looked resigned. Nicholas’ nervousness increased suddenly, and he fixed his gaze on Anthony again.

“My lord,” he said stiffly. “I would like to settle with you.”

“My niece would have it otherwise.”

“She what?”

“She’s too kindhearted by half,” Anthony sighed. “Doesn’t want to see you hurt—more’s the pity.” He shook his head.

“Nevertheless, I do believe—”

“No, by God!” Rebecca thundered. “I wasn’t around to stop those other duels you involved yourself in,

but I’ll stop this one. I’ll have you thrown in jail first, my boy; see if I don’t.” Nicholas tried to smile. “The man wants satisfaction, madame. I can offer no other.”

“Lord Anthony will settle for something other than a duel because he loves his niece. We may be thankful for that.”

“We? I cannot be thankful, madame.”

“We can do without your satirical wit, too,” she said. “You may be a damned arrogant, irresponsible pup, but you are the last Eden. You will get yourself an heir before you go throwing your life away on a dueling field.”

Nicholas flinched. “Nicely put, madame. But what makes you think I don’t already have an heir to give you?”

“I know you better than that. Although it often looks as though you’re trying to populate the world, you have no bastards. And you know I would never accept one, anyway.”

“Is this necessary, Rebecca?” Eleanor asked hastily.

“Yes, it is,” the old woman replied, looking pointedly at the two Malory brothers.

“Nicky?” Eleanor beseeched him, and Nicholas sighed.

“Very well, I admit I have no bastards, either male or female. You are quite correct, madame. It is one thing I am most careful about.”

“The only thing.”

He gave her a slight bow but made no reply. His manner was casual, even bored, but Nicholas was seething inside. He enjoyed verbal battles with his grandmother when they were alone, but not in the company of others. She knew it and was baiting him just to be ornery.

“Oh, do be seated, Nicholas,” Rebecca said testily. “I’m tired of craning my neck to look at you.”

“Is this going to take long then?” He grinned maddeningly before taking the chair across from her.

“Please don’t be difficult, Nicky,” Eleanor beseeched again.

He was taken aback. This, from Ellie? She had always been the one he could talk to, the one who understood the bitterness just below his surface. While he was growing up, she’d always been a shoulder to cry on. How many times had he ridden the long road between Hampshire and Cornwall in the thick of night just to see her? After he grew up, she was still closer to him than anybody. She never even scolded him for the way he lived. It was almost as if she knew why he did the things he did.

She didn’t, of course. Only Miriam knew the reason he was so reckless, why he forever walked a tightrope, never easing up.

Nicholas looked at his aunt tenderly. At forty-five, she was still good-looking, with light blond hair and soulful brown eyes. Her older sister Miriam had once been the prettier of the two, but bitterness had

helped ravage Miriam’s beauty. He liked to think Ellie’s goodness had kept her so nicely.

This was the woman he had secretly pretended was his mother, all through childhood. Her expression told him many things, and she was as easy to read just then as she’d always been. She was sorry for his predicament. She was praying he wouldn’t cause trouble. She was also in agreement with whatever had been decided behind his back. But would she side with his grandmother against him? She had never done that before. Did she really think he had ravished Regina Ashton? Oh, he might have seduced the girl if she’d been willing, yes, but the fact was that he hadn’t seduced her. His conscience could overlook his intentions.

“Did they tell you all of it, Aunt Ellie?” he asked her.

“I believe so.”

“They told you it was all a mistake?”

“Yes.”

“And that I returned the girl unmolested?”

“Yes.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

Rebecca frowned. “Leave her alone, scamp. It’s not her fault you got yourself into this.”

“We know whose fault it is,” Anthony’s contemptuous voice sounded behind him.

Nicholas had had enough. “What is it to be then?” he demanded, turning around in his chair to look at Anthony.

“You already know what must be done, Nicky,” Eleanor said with gentle reproof. “It is unfortunate that any of this happened. No one here believes that you meant to harm the girl, but the fact remains that her reputation has been irreparably damaged. She should not be made to suffer the humiliation of vicious gossip because one of your escapades went awry. You do see that, don’t you?” She took a long, steadying breath. “You can do no less than accept responsibility for your actions. You must marry her.” Chapter 10

“I CAN’T stand it, Meg, I really can’t!” Reggie cried, agitation overcoming her.

The maid ignored the wail, just as she had ignored all the others. “Are you going to sleep in that scarf?” Reggie put her hands to her throat. “Yes, of course. Uncle Edward may come to tell me what happened instead of Uncle Tony. I don’t want anyone else to see it.” Meg frowned and went back to the sewing in her lap. She had seen the lovebite herself. Reggie couldn’t hide anything from her, not for long anyway. She was outraged by the whole affair, and for once she was in complete accord with Anthony Malory instead of siding with the girl who sat cross-legged in the center

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