Love Only Once Page 18

“You can’t just leave me here—not tonight.”

“Tonight, tomorrow—what difference?”

“You know what difference!”

“Ah, yes, the wedding night. But we have had ours, haven’t we, love?” She gasped. “If you do this, Nicholas,” she said tremulously, “I swear I will never forgive you.”

“Then we are well met, aren’t we, if we both honor our oaths? You have what you wanted. You bear my name. I give you now my home. Where is it written that I must share it with you?”

“You expect me to stay here while you go on as before, living in London and…” He shook his head. “London is too close for our arrangement. No, I’m leaving England altogether.

Would that I had done so before we met!”

“Nicholas, you can’t. I am—”

Reggie stopped herself before making the one declaration that might change his mind. Her pride stubbornly reasserted itself. She would not follow the path of thousands of other women, just to keep a man by her side. If he wouldn’t stay because he wanted to…

“You are—what, love?”

“Your wife,” she said smoothly.

“So you are,” he agreed, his mouth tightening into a hard line. “But you will recall I didn’t ask you to be, and I warned you not to press the marriage. I have always been plainspoken about this, Regina.” He closed the coach door then and tapped on the roof to signal the driver. Reggie stared incredulously as the vehicle moved away.

“Nicholas, come back!” Reggie shouted. “If you leave… Nicholas! Oh! I hate you! I hate you!” she cried in frustration, knowing he couldn’t hear her anyway.

Stunned, she turned around to face the large gray stone house. It looked like a miniature castle, a gloomy one, in the dark night, with its central tower and corner turrets. This was only a close view, however, so she did not see how it spread out behind and on the sides of the main block in asymmetrical heights and shapes. There even was a large domed conservatory at the back of the house, towering over the servants’ wing on the right.

The arched windows on either side of the door were dark. What if there was no one at home? Famous.

Abandoned on her wedding night, and to an empty house!

Well, there was nothing for it. Squaring her shoulders, she forced a smile and approached the front door as if there were nothing odd about a bride arriving without her bridegroom. She knocked, first quietly and then loudly.

When the door finally opened, Reggie saw the startled face of a young girl, a maid. She was not at all confident about answering doors. That was Sayers’ duty. He took himself so seriously. He would have her hide to know she has usurped his place.

“We weren’t expectin‘ company, my lady, or I’m sure Sayers would’ve been waitin’ round to let you in.

But you’ve such a soft knock… gor, listen to me ramblin‘. What can I do for you?”

Regina grinned, feeling ever so much better. “You can let me in, to begin with.” The girl opened the door wider. “You’ve come to call on the Countess, Lady Miriam?”

“I guess I’ve come to live here—for a while, at least. But I suppose I can start with seeing Lady Miriam.”

“Gor! You’ve come to live here? Are you sure you want to?” This was said with such patent surprise that Reggie laughed. “Why? Are there dragons and goblins here?”

“There’s one I could speak of. Two if you count Mrs. Oates.” The girl gasped, then went vivid red. “I didn’t mean . . . oh, forgive me, my lady.”

“No harm done. What’s your name?”

“Hallie, mum.”

“Then, Hallie, do you think you could inform Lady Miriam that I have arrived? I am the new Countess of Montieth.”

“Gor!” Hallie squealed.

“Precisely. Now, will you show me where I can await Lady Miriam?” The maid let Reggie in. “I’ll just tell Mrs. Oates you’re here, and she’ll go up and tell the Countess.” The entry hall was marble-floored and narrow, with only a single long refectory table up against a wall.

An ornate silver platter was positioned in the center of the table for calling cards, and a lovely tapestry hung behind. A large Venetian mirror dressed the opposite wall with a brace of wall candles on each side, and a pair of double doors directly facing the front door.

Hallie opened the double doors, and a much larger hall was revealed, two stories high, with a magnificent domed ceiling way above. The main staircase was in the center of the right wall. And at the end of the hallway were opened doors that led into an antechamber, and Reggie caught a glimpse of stained-glass windows nearly covering the outside wall. The impression was of an extremely large house.

At the far end of the hall on the left was the library, and this was where Hallie led her. Forty feet long and twenty wide, the library had tall windows along the far wall, giving ample light in the daytime. The other three walls were covered with books, and huge portraits hung high up above the bookcases.

There was a fireplace, and sofas to either side of it. Beautifully crafted chairs, lounges, and tables were spaced near the windows for reading. There was an ancient reading stand in gold lacquer. A carpet in rich browns, blues, and gold covered the floor. A pedestal desk occupied the far end of the room, with chairs around it, and there was a painted leather screen which would turn that far corner into a cozy study set off from the rest of the room.

“It shouldn’t be long, mum,” Hallie said. “The Countess… oh, dear, the Dowager Countess now, isn’t she? Just like the old one, his lordship’s grandmother. But Lady Miriam will be eager to welcome you, I’m sure,” she said politely, not sounding at all convinced. “Can I get you something? There’s brandy

there on the table, and mulberry wine, too, that the Countess likes.”

“No, I’ll just make myself comfortable, thank you,” Reggie replied with a smile.

“Very good, mum. And can I be the first to say I’m glad you’ve come? I hope you like it here.”

“I do too, Hallie,” Reggie sighed. “I do too.”

Chapter 21

REGGIE looked at the morning sun that was just barely peeking into the corner of her bedroom.

Directly below her south windows was the round dome of the conservatory. Beyond was the servants’

court, and beyond that, hidden behind a clump of trees, the stables and carriage house.

She was in the master bedroom in the rear right corner of the central block of the house. That allowed her two walls of windows, all draped in bloodred velvet with gold fringe and tassels. All the colors in the room were dark except for the powder blue wallpaper. Still, when it got later and all the windows let in light, the room would be cheery.

Her other wall of windows looked out over a vast parkland. The view was stunning—trees dotting the lawns, a forest to the left full of orange-and-gold autumn leaves. A small lake to the right was a riot of color, too, with a carpet of late-blooming wildflowers lining its banks and the blue lake sparkling in the sunshine. What a peaceful, tranquil scene, undisturbed at this early hour. It might almost have made Reggie forget her troubles. But not quite.

She rang for a maid, hoping she would not get Mrs. Oates, the housekeeper, who was just as Hallie had described her, a dragon. What a crass, pretentious, annoying creature she was. Imagine, insisting on showing Reggie to a guest room, and a small one at that. Reggie had set her straight quickly. Conceding that the rooms meant for the lady of the house were occupied by Miriam Eden, who couldn’t be expected to vacate them overnight, she pointed out that the master’s rooms were empty and would do very well.

This had appalled the housekeeper. Only a sitting room separated the two large bedrooms, each of which had a door into the sitting room. Lady Miriam had one of the bedrooms.

Reggie won her way after subtly reminding Mrs. Oates that she was the new mistress of the house.

Miriam Eden might have continued to run Silverley after her husband’s death, but Silverley actually belonged to Nicholas, and Reggie was Nicholas’ wife.

Mrs. Oates cautioned her to be quiet when they passed through the sitting room next to Miriam’s room.

Reggie was told that Miriam wasn’t feeling well and had retired early, which was why Reggie hadn’t been properly greeted.

Truth to tell, Reggie was relieved. She was exhausted, embarrassed by the absence of her husband of only a few hours, and so full of bitterness that she was unfit to meet anyone.

She settled into Nicholas’ room, and found it was utterly devoid of personal items. Somehow, that made everything worse.

The servant who answered Reggie’s call was dark-haired and dark-skinned and just the opposite of talkative Hallie. She said hardly a word as she helped Reggie dress and arrange her hair, then showed her to the breakfast room.

This room was at the front of the house and had full benefit of the morning sun. The table was set for one. A slight? On a side wall was a large rosewood china cabinet filled with fine gold-rimmed china with a floral design of pink and white. Between the windows on the back wall was a lovely carved oak and ebony buffet.

Hallie came in, smiling brightly, carrying a large covered platter which she set on the buffet.

“Mornin‘, mum. Hope you had a pleasant night.”

“Indeed I did. Has the Countess come down yet?” Reggie indicated the single setting.

“She’s off on her mornin‘ ride. She never eats this early, mum.”

“Neither do I, really. Why don’t you show me the rest of the house now instead?”

“But there’s all this food,” Hallie said in surprise, removing the lid on the platter to reveal eggs, sausage, kippers, ham, jellies, toast and rolls, even two delicious-looking tarts.

“Heavens!” Reggie gasped. “I wasn’t supposed to eat all of that, was I?” Hallie giggled. “Cook was out to make a better impression, seein‘ as how she only sent up cold dishes for you last night.”

“Well, then I’ll just take this with me, and one of these,” Reggie said, wrapping a fat sausage in a roll and taking one of the tarts. “And now we can have that tour.”

“But shouldn’t Mrs. Oates-?”

“Yes,” Reggie interrupted conspiratorially, “I suppose she should. But I can let her show me around again later. Right now I would like to see just how big Silverley is, and I would like pleasant company along.”

Hallie giggled again. “There’s none of us likes Mrs. Oates too well, but she does run a tight ship, as she’s so fond of sayin‘. Come along then, your ladyship. But if Mrs. Oates should come upon us—”

“Not to worry,” Reggie assured her. “I’ll think of something to explain why you’re with me. You won’t be blamed.”

The house was indeed big. Near the entryway they passed a billiard room with not one but three tables in it. There were more rooms than Reggie could remember, each filled with lovely Chippendale furnishings and Queen Anne pieces. Many of the high ceilings were arched and decorated with lovely gilded plasterwork. Some had large, gorgeously crafted chandeliers.

There was a music room decorated in green and white and, to the right of the drawing room, an antechamber with floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows bathing the room in colors which were sharply set off against the white marble floor. Plush red benches hugged the walls. Reggie was astonished by the beauty of the place.

At the back of the house, off the large, formal dining room, was the conservatory. Along a walkway that circled the room were chairs and sofas and statues on pedestals. There were potted plants at the sides of wide stone steps leading down to a fountain in the center of the room. Everywhere were trees and autumn flowers. Reggie was sorry she had missed seeing the room in summer when the indoor garden would have been in full bloom.

Upstairs, the whole length of the back of the house was taken up by the master suites. From right to left were the lord’s chamber, the sitting room, the lady’s chamber, and then a nursery. There were rooms for a nurse and lady’s maid.

The tour took just under an hour, and Hallie was able to escape back to the servants’ domain in the center of the house right of the main hall before anyone discovered what they had been doing. Reggie settled in the library then to await Lady Miriam.

Her wait was short. The Countess came in straight from her riding excursion, dressed in a deep violet habit and still carrying a riding quirt. She showed only a moment’s surprise at finding the room occupied.

She then proceeded to ignore Reggie while she removed her hat and gloves.

So that was the way it was to be? Well, it helped explain Nicholas’ propensity to rudeness.

Reggie was able to study Miriam Eden while she was being ignored. For a woman likely nearing fifty, she was holding up remarkably well. She was trim and youthful, her posture stiffly erect. Her tightly wound blond hair was fading, but there was no gray in it. Her eyes were a wintry gray. Hard, cold eyes, but perhaps they smiled sometimes? Reggie thought not.

There was a slight physical resemblance to Miriam’s sister Eleanor, but the physical similarity was where it began and ended. The younger sister exuded warmth and gentleness, and there was none in the Countess. How could she possibly live with this woman?

“Should I call you Mother?” she asked suddenly, and there was a perceptible start from the Countess.

She turned and looked at Reggie squarely. The gray eyes were frigid, the lips pursed. She most likely wasn’t used to being addressed before she condescended to speak, Reggie reflected.

In a brittle voice Miriam replied, “Don’t. I’m not your mother any more than I’m—”

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