Love Only Once Page 16

“Then I shall live to see another day?” Nicholas asked.

Connie laughed. “He’s as arrogant as you are, Hawke, damned if he isn’t. I don’t think you frighten him at all. He’ll be spitting in your eye next.”

“I don’t think so,” Hawke replied coldly. “I might pluck out his own in that case. How d’you think he’d look wearing a patch like old Billings?”

“With that pretty face?” Connie snorted. “It would only enhance his superb looks. The ladies would love it.”

“Well, perhaps I should see to his face, then.”

Nicholas did not even see the blow. Fire exploded on his cheek, the impact staggering him. Connie was there to hold him up, however, and then the other cheek received the same powerful blow.

When his head cleared, Nicholas spat blood. His eyes glowed with a murderous light as he met the pirate captain’s stare.

“Are you angry enough now to fight me, lad?”

“You need only have asked,” Nicholas managed.

“You needed a bit of motivation. I’m here to even the score, not play with you. I demand a good showing, or we’ll only have to do this again.”

Nicholas snorted, though it hurt to make the effort. “Even the score? You forget who attacked whom on the open sea.”

“But that’s my trade, don’t you know.”

“Then how do you dare speak of revenge simply because you were bested?” Nicholas demanded. “Or do I have the honor of being the only man ever to come away with a whole ship after an encounter with the Maiden Anne ?”

“Not at all,” Hawke said honestly. “We have limped into port before. I myself have received wounds in the heat of battle. Though I did not take kindly to having my son injured when you felled my main mast.

But even that had to be accepted for having the boy on board. However, as one gentleman to another—”

“A gentleman pirate?” It was dangerous, but Nicholas had to say it.

“Sneer as you will, but you are clever enough to comprehend why we had to meet again.” Nicholas nearly laughed. It was incredible. The pirate had attacked him first, intending to win the cargo Nicholas was carrying. Nicholas had won that sea battle. He supposed he shouldn’t have taunted Captain Hawke when he sailed away. That had been hitting below the belt. But, it had happened four

years ago, and he’d been young and reckless, heady with victory. Still, those taunts were apparently what had goaded Hawke into evening the score. What gentleman could ignore an insult?

Gentleman! They had met in a darkened alley in Southampton after Nicholas returned to England, three years ago. He had been unable to see his assailant that night, though Hawke took pleasure in introducing himself. That encounter had been interrupted.

Then there’d been a letter, a letter , waiting for Nicholas when he returned from the West Indies last year, expressing regret that Hawke had been unable to renew their acquaintance when he was in London. The letter convinced Nicholas that he had made a terrible enemy.

Why, oh, why, was he so blessed as to have a scum of the earth thirsty for his blood?

“Cut him loose, Connie.”

Nicholas tensed. “Do I fight you both?”

“Come now,” Captain Hawke protested. “That would hardly be sporting, would it?”

“Bloody hell,” Nicholas growled. “Striking a defenseless man isn’t sporting.”

“Did I hurt you, lad? You must accept my apologies, but I thought you were made of sterner stuff. And you must understand, I feel justified after all the bother you’ve cost me waiting for this moment.”

“You will understand if I don’t agree?”

“Certainly,” Hawke replied with a mock bow.

Hawke removed his Garrick. He was dressed for easy movement in a flowing shirt tucked into his trousers. Nicholas was encumbered with cloak, coat, and waistcoat. He saw that he wouldn’t be given the opportunity to remove any of these as he watched the pirate flex his fingers impatiently.

Nicholas couldn’t stop the groan from escaping as his bonds were finally severed and his arms dropped painfully to his sides. There was no feeling in his fingers for several moments, and then too much feeling as the blood rushed into them. And he had assumed correctly. He was not given a moment’s grace to recover before the first staggering blow caught him under the chin. He landed hard.

“Come on, lad,” Hawke complained with a weary sigh. “We won’t be interrupted this time. Give me a good showing and I’ll call it quits.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you may not walk away from here.”

Nicholas took the warning. He threw off his cloak while he was on the ground and then propelled himself at the older man, catching him in the midsection and knocking them both to the ground. He followed with a hard right to Hawke’s jaw, but the impact so jarred his throbbing hand that he was the one who cried out in pain.

Nicholas gave it his best, but Hawke was relentless, and despite Nicholas’ injuries, Hawke was the more furious of the two. He was also heavier and more muscular. His hamlike fists were merciless on

Nicholas’ already bruised face and body. The fight was a hard one for both, however, and as Nicholas lay bleeding in the dust, he knew the older man was hurting, too. Even so, Hawke could laugh.

“I must hand it to you, Montieth,” Captain Hawke panted. “You probably could have beaten me if you’d had a fresh start. I am satisfied now.”

Nicholas heard only some of it before he passed into blessed unconsciousness. Conrad Sharpe leaned over and shook him, but he didn’t stir.

“He’s out, Hawke. You have to take your hat off to the boy, though. For a pampered nabob, he lasted much longer than I would have expected. Conrad chuckled then. ”How does your own body feel now about settling scores?“

“Do be quiet, Connie. Hell and fire, the chap’s got a nasty right.”

“I noticed,” Conrad laughed.

Hawke sighed. “You know, under different circumstances I could almost like him. It’s a shame I had to come across him when he was such a sharp-tongued young pup.”

“Weren’t we all at that age?”

“Yes, I suppose we were. And we all must learn from it.” Hawke tried to straighten to his full height but groaned and doubled over. “Get me to a bed, Connie. I think I’ll need at least a week’s rest after this.”

“Was it worth it?”

“Yes, by God, it sure as hell was!”

Chapter 18

THE last of the officials and the doctor filed out of the room, and Nicholas’ valet, Harris, closed the door. Nicholas allowed himself a smile, but the movement turned to a grimace as the cut on his lip stretched.

“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll manage that smile for the both of us,” Harris offered. And then he actually did, his drooping mustache leveling out as he smiled widely.

“It did end better than I could have hoped, didn’t it?” Nicholas said.

“That it did, sir. Instead of coming before the magistrate on a simple matter of assault, he’ll face the charge of piracy.”

Nicholas wanted to smile again, but thought better of it. Now he knew how Captain Hawke felt about evening scores. Well, Hawke’s victory had been very, very short-lived.

“I suppose I shouldn’t gloat, but the fellow deserves no better,” Nicholas said.

“Indeed not, sir. Why, the doctor said you’re lucky your jawbone is still intact. And I never in all my

days saw so many bruises and—”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter. You don’t think he’s not suffering now, too? It’s the principle of the matter. I never would have met the cur if he hadn’t attacked my ship to begin with. Yet he held a bloody grudge!

But I don’t think he’s laughing about it now, sitting in jail.”

“It’s fortunate the watch found you when they did, sir.”

“Yes. Pure luck, that.”

Nicholas had regained consciousness a few moments after Hawke and the red-haired Connie left in Nicholas’ carriage. And it was only a few more moments when he heard horses’ hooves not too far away. He managed to call out, and the two night watchmen heard him. It took some convincing to get them to leave him and go after his carriage instead. Thirty minutes later they came back for him with the happy news that his carriage was recovered and the injured assailant apprehended— though the other one managed to outrun capture.

Nicholas told the whole story to the good fellows who brought him home, and Hawke’s name nagged at one of them. Sure enough, a host of officials descended on Nicholas while the doctor was still working on him. They announced that Hawke was a felon wanted by the Crown.

“It is also fortunate, sir,” the valet continued chattily as he straightened the bedcovers over Nicholas,

“that Lady Ashton was not with you when you encountered the thugs. I assume the evening went as planned and she left without you again?”

Nicholas did not answer. When he thought of what might have happened… no, it did not bear thinking about. She was safe because George Fowler had taken her home.

Hmm. George Fowler indeed. Unreasonable anger, hot and vicious, took hold of him.


“What?” Nicholas barked, then recovered. “Ah, yes, Harris, the evening went as expected where the lady is concerned.”

The middle-aged valet had been with Nicholas for ten years and was privy to his thoughts and feelings the way no one else could be. He knew Nicholas didn’t want to marry Regina Ashton, though he didn’t know why—nor would he dream of asking. He and Nicholas had discussed the strategy Nicholas was employing to deal with the commitment.

“Lady Ashton had words with you, sir?”

“It didn’t go that well,” Nicholas replied tiredly. The sedative the doctor had given him was starting to take effect. “I am still engaged.”

“Well, surely next time…”


“But there’s not much time before the wedding,” Harris added hesitantly. “The doctor wants you to have three weeks’ bedrest.”

“Bother that,” Nicholas retorted. “I will be up and about in three days, no more.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“I do say so.”

“Very good, sir.”

Never having suffered such a beating before, Nicholas had no way of knowing he would feel ten times worse the next day. He roundly cursed Captain Hawke and would have liked the pirate hanged.

It took a full week before he could move even slightly without pain. And though he was finally up and moving in another week, the cuts on his face were still raw.

He was in no fit condition to see Regina. But he couldn’t afford to lose any more time.

The wedding was only a week away. He had to see her.

He called at the Malory house in Grosvenor Square despite his appearance. He was told Regina was out of the house, shopping for her trousseau. This information increased his panic. He waited for an hour, and when she arrived he very rudely whisked his fiancée away from her cousins the moment she walked in the door.

He led her through the garden and on into the square, saying nothing, his stride long and fast, his expression darkly brooding. Her soft voice breaking into his thoughts brought him to a halt.

“You are recovered?” she asked. A brisk autumn breeze whipped leaves through the air and played havoc with the feathers on Regina’s bonnet. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes sparkled with blue lights.

She was too damnably lovely by far, blooming with health and vitality. She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever encountered.

“Recovered?” Nicholas demanded, wondering how on earth she had found out about the attack when he had avoided her these last two weeks just so she wouldn’t find out.

“Derek told us of your illness,” she explained. “I am sorry you were not well.” Damnation! So he was to receive her sympathy, thanks to Derek’s coloring the truth. He would have preferred her anger.

“Actually, I was visiting a favorite tavern of mine on the waterfront and was set upon by ruffians who beat me soundly for my purse. Still, there is a certain excitement in frequenting unsavory places.” She smiled tolerantly. “Tony was sure you would use your illness as an excuse to postpone the wedding.

I told him that wasn’t your style.”

“You know me so well, love?” Nicholas asked sardonically.

“You may be many things, but cowardly isn’t one of them.”

“You presume—”

“Oh, stuff,” she interrupted. “I won’t believe it if you try to convince me otherwise, so you needn’t try.” Nicholas gritted his teeth and she flashed him an amused grin. Looking at her beauty affected him strongly, as it always did, and his thoughts were quite scattered for the moment.

“I suppose I should ask how you have been getting on?”

“You should, yes,” Reggie agreed. “But we both know that what I do with my time doesn’t interest you.

For instance, you wouldn’t be wounded, would you, if you knew I have been so busy I haven’t missed you? And you wouldn’t care if you knew that other men have escorted me to the affairs my cousins insist I attend?”

“George Fowler?”

“George, Basil, William—”

“Careful, or I will begin to think you are trying to stir my jealousy in retaliation.”

“Retaliation? Oh, I see, you judge me by your own behavior. How amusing, Nicholas. Just because you find other women fascinating—”

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