Love Only Once Page 10

of her bed, wringing her hands in an agony of suspense.

The Viscount Eden of Montieth should be shot, not given this treasure for a wife. Meg had never heard of anything so grossly unfair. Did you give the petty thief your purse with a thank-you-kindly? How could they give her precious Reggie to the man who was responsible for her shame?

“Will you go downstairs and see if you can hear anything, Meg?”

“No, I will not.”

“Then I will.”

“You will not either. You’ll sit right there. Keep on worry in‘, if you like. Soon enough you’ll be told he said yes.”

“But that’s the trouble.” Reggie pounded her knees for emphasis. “He’s going to say no.” Meg shook her head. “You won’t convince me that you want him, my girl, so you can stop tryin‘.”

“But it’s true, Meg.”

“I know you too well, Reggie. You’re just puttin‘ a good face on it, pretendin’ for your uncles’ sake, because this seems to be the only solution.”

“Stuff.” Reggie giggled, her humor breaking through. “You just won’t admit that I’m wicked and shameful in wanting a man I only just met.”

Meg looked up at her. “Now I see what you’re about. You’re for this because it will get you a husband quick and you won’t have to be lookin‘ for one anymore. Admit it, my girl.” Reggie grinned. “That’s an added bonus, yes.”

“A bonus!” Meg snorted. “That’s the only reason you want him. It must be.”

“You won’t say that after you get a look at him, Meg. I think I’m in love.”

“If I believed that, I would go down there and kiss his feet. But you’ve got more sense than to think you’re in love after one meeting.”

“I suppose so,” Reggie sighed, but her eyes twinkled. “It won’t take long, though, Meg, really it won’t.

You wait and see.”

“I hope I don’t see it. I hope I don’t see you married to him. It will be the sorriest day for you and if it happens, mark my words.”

“Stuff,” Reggie retorted.

“Just remember, I warned you.”

“I won’t marry her.”

“Good.” Anthony’s smile was full of wicked pleasure. “I was against the idea from the start.”

“Be still, Anthony,” Edward warned him. “Nothing has been settled.”

“I repeat, I won’t marry her,” Nicholas said evenly, managing just barely to keep calm.

“You will be good enough to tell me why?” Edward’s voice was also a study in tranquility.

Nicholas said the first thing that came to mind. “She deserves better.”

“Agreed,” Anthony put in smoothly. “Under normal circumstances, you would never be considered.” Edward shot him a silencing look, then addressed Nicholas again. “If you are referring to your reputation, it precedes you. I am the first to admit it is unsavory. Yet such things must be overlooked now.”

“I would make the girl miserable,” Nicholas said quickly, with a bit more spirit.

“That is pure conjecture. You don’t know Regina well enough to know what would make her happy or unhappy.”

“You’re just hedging, scamp,” Rebecca said. “You have no good reason not to marry the girl, and you know it. And it’s high time you were married, high time indeed.”

“So I can produce your heir?” he replied.

“Now see here, Nicholas,” Edward broke in. “Do you deny that you have embroiled my niece in a scandal?”

“Your niece?”

“Who the devil did you think she was, scamp?” Rebecca was exasperated.

Suddenly Anthony was laughing. “Tell me, Montieth, were you hoping she was illegitimate? A poor relation you could claim we were trying to foist off on you?”

“That will be enough,” Edward warned again. “Nicholas… well, perhaps I shall have to concede that you didn’t know who Regina was. Not many people remember Melissa, she died so long ago.”


“Our only sister. She was much younger than Jason and I, the middle child. She was… well, I needn’t elaborate on how precious she was to us, being the only girl in the midst of four boys. Regina is her only child.”

“She’s all they have left of Melissa,” Rebecca added. “Do you begin to see how important Regina is to the Malory brothers?”

Nicholas was feeling sick.

“I should tell you, in regard to my brother’s remark, that Regina is quite legitimate,” Edward went on.

“Melissa was happily married to the Earl of Penwich.”

“Penwich!” Nicholas nearly choked on the name he had cursed so many times.

“The late Earl, Thomas Ashton,” Edward clarified. “Some obscure cousin has the title now. A disagreeable fellow, but he has no involvement with Regina. She has been under our care for the seventeen years since Melissa and Thomas died together in a terrible fire.” Nicholas’ mind whirled. Bloody hell. She was in fact Derek’s first cousin, the daughter of an Earl, niece to the Marquis of Haverston. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was also an heiress. She could easily have landed a husband with a better title than his. Could have. But now that he had linked her name to his, she wasn’t quite the prize anymore, not to those families who wouldn’t touch a girl with a scandal behind her. Everyone in the room knew it, including himself. Yet there were other men who would want her, regardless, men less rigid than some.

He said as much to Anthony. “You don’t seem to think she has lost her chance at a good match, so why are you willing to settle for me?”

“Did I say I was, dear boy? No, no. She is the one who wants you, not I.” Nicholas cast about for a reply. “And as a favored niece, she gets want she wants?” he said.

“There is the simple fact,” Edward intervened, “that if she married anyone else, the poor fellow would have to live with the scandal you have created being whispered behind his back for the rest of his life.

That is a bit much for any man to take, and certainly wouldn’t make for a happy marriage.” Nicholas frowned. “But she would tell her husband the truth.”

“What does the truth matter when it is the untruth that is believed by everyone?” Edward replied testily.

“Am I to be held hostage to the narrow-mindedness of others, then?”

“What the devil is the matter with you, Nicholas?” Rebecca demanded. “I’ve met the girl and she is the loveliest little creature I’ve seen in a long time. You will never get a better match, and you know it. Why are you fighting this?”

“I don’t want a wife— any wife,” Nicholas said harshly.

“What you want became irrelevant,” his grandmother retorted, “when you made off with an innocent girl whose family won’t overlook it as others have. You’re damned lucky they’ll let you have her!”

“Be reasonable, Nicky,” Eleanor chimed in. “You have to marry sometime. You can’t go on forever as you’ve been doing. And this girl is charming, beautiful. She will make you a wonderful wife.”

“Not my wife,” he stated flatly. In the silence that followed, his hopes began to rise, but his grandmother dashed them.

“You’ll never be the man your father was. Running off to sea for two years, coming back to live the life of a wastrel, delegating your responsibilities to agents and lackeys. By God, I’m ashamed to admit you’re

my grandson. And I tell you now, you may as well forget you know me if you don’t own up and marry this girl.” She stood up, her expression stony. “Come, Ellie. I have said all I will say to him.” Rebecca’s face remained coldly unrelenting as she left the room, Ellie beside her. But once the door closed behind them, she turned to Eleanor and gave her a huge conspiratorial grin. “What say you, my dear? Do you think that did the trick?”

“That was a bit much about your being ashamed of him. You know you’re not. Why, you delight in his wild escapade more than he does. I swear, Rebecca, you should have been a man.”

“Don’t I know it! But his little escapade is a godsend this time. I didn’t think he would put up this much of a fight, though.”

“Didn’t you?” Eleanor retorted. “You know why he won’t marry. You know how he feels. Nicky refuses to force the stigma of his birth on an unsuspecting wife. He feels he cannot offer for a decent girl, yet his position makes it impossible for him to wed beneath his station. He decided simply never to wed.

You know that.”

Rebecca nodded, impatient, and said, “Which is why this is a godsend. Now he will have to marry, and into a good family, too. Oh, he doesn’t like it one bit, but eventually he’ll be glad. I tell you this girl won’t give a toot if she ever learns the truth.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“If I didn’t, then she wouldn’t be the one for him,” Rebecca said stoutly.

They both knew exactly what motivated Nicholas, though he wasn’t aware that they knew. To the world, Miriam was his mother, and the day she ended that pretense—as she often threatened to do—was the day he could stop living in dread of the revelation and become the pariah he was trying his best to become beforehand. He wanted to be thought wicked so as to become accustomed to the treatment he could expect if the truth came out.

“Someone ought to tell him that it probably wouldn’t matter much if the truth did come out,” Rebecca said. “No one would believe it anyhow, not after all these years.”

“Why don’t you tell him that?” Ellie asked, knowing the answer.

“Not me, my dear. Why don’t you?”

“Oh, no.” Eleanor shook her head emphatically. “He feels too strongly about it.” She sighed. “We’ve been over this a hundred times, Rebecca. And besides, he’s finally going to take a bride and settle down and have his own family.”

“So we hope,” Rebecca added. “But they haven’t got a yes out of him yet.”

“Your attitude is most puzzling, Nicholas,” Edward was saying inside the drawing room. “If I didn’t know for certain that you were a skirt man, I’d begin to wonder.” Nicholas had to smile at that remark, coming from this staid lord. “My inclinations are decidedly female, sir.”

“Yet you don’t want my niece?”

Anthony spoke up harshly. “Look me in the eye when you answer, Montieth, for I’ve seen the mark you put on her.”

“What’s this?” Edward demanded.

“Relax, Eddie. Just something between the Viscount and myself. But what’s your answer, Montieth?” Nicholas flushed darkly in anger. He felt cornered and didn’t like it at all. Had he really marked the girl?

If so, what the bloody hell was she doing letting her uncle know about it? They said she wanted to marry him. Damnation, had she given Anthony the impression that their encounter was less than innocent? Was that why this youngest uncle was hell-bent on his blood?

“There is nothing wrong with your niece, my lords,” Nicholas said tightly, his amber eyes glowing with anger. “But then, you surely know that better than I.”

“Yes, it can be said without prejudice that she is desirable in every way. Still, we can’t resolve this.” Edward sighed here. “Jason isn’t going to like this at all. He is her legal guardian, you see.”

“Jason is going to tear him apart if there isn’t an engagement by the time he gets here,” Anthony said flatly. “Give it up, Eddie, and leave him to me. If Jason gets hold of him, there won’t be anything left.” Nicholas sat down again and put his head in his hands as they went on arguing between themselves. He liked and respected Derek’s father, Jason Malory, had hunted with him at Haverston and spent long evenings with him over good brandy and good talk. He admired the way Jason ran Haverston and dealt with his people. The last thing he wanted was for Jason to be angry with him. But he couldn’t marry the girl, and he couldn’t tell them why.

Never before had the bitterness of his parentage hurt him quite so much. The truth was that he was a bastard. And any woman who became his wife would suffer the stigma of his bastardy. He would be ostracized if the truth came out. Hadn’t he seen it happen to Derek Malory, who was a known bastard?

It was why he felt a closeness to Derek that he didn’t feel with his other friends.

Edward’s voice intruded on his thoughts. “I doubt Regina’s financial status would impress you, Nicholas, for your father’s wise investments and your own have made you a wealthy young man. Suffice it to say she is very well off. But… perhaps this will interest you.” Nicholas accepted the sheaf of papers that Edward brought out of his coat. Letters. His letters to the Earl of Penwich!

“How the devil do you come by these?” he demanded incredulously.

“They were forwarded to me just recently, as a matter of fact. The Earl is notorious for ignoring things that don’t interest him, and that piece of land you want doesn’t interest him.”

“Why you?”

“Because it belongs to a trust that I manage. It’s a nice little piece of land, with nearly a dozen tenants who all pay their rent regularly.”

“It’s a bloody large estate and you know it, and not nearly put to its full potential,” Nicholas retorted.

“I didn’t think you had such a fondness for land,” Edward remarked shrewdly. “After all, you don’t oversee Silverley.”

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