Love Only Once Page 4

“Would they, Tony?” she asked softly. “Would you really want me to marry any of them?” He pulled an aggrieved face, then suddenly grinned. “No, I suppose not.”

“So you see my predicament then?”

“But don’t you want to marry, puss?”

“Of course I do. And I’m sure the man you and your brothers find for me will make me very happy.”

“What?” He glared at her. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re not putting that responsibility on my shoulders, Reggie.”

“All right then,” she agreed. “We’ll leave it to Uncle Jason.”

“Don’t be foolish. He’d have you married to a tyrant just like him.”

“Come now, Tony, you know that’s not true.” She grinned.

“Well, close to it,” he grumbled.

“You see, Tony, at least I wouldn’t have to keep on summing up every man I meet. I want to enjoy myself again, be able to talk to a man without analyzing him, dance without wondering if my partner is husband material. It’s gotten so that every man I look at, I ask myself, Shall I marry him? Could I love him? Would he be as good and kind to me as—” She stopped, blushing.

“As?” he prompted.

“Oh, you might as well know,” she said with a sigh. “I compare every man to you and my other uncles. I can’t help it. I almost wish you all didn’t love me so well. You’ve pampered me outrageously. I want my husband to be a combination of all of you.”

“What have we done to you?”

He was about to burst into laughter and she lost her temper. “You think it’s funny, do you? I don’t see you facing this problem. And if I don’t get a vacation from it, I swear I will try and reach Uncle James and have him take me away.”

He sobered instantly. Though he was the closest to James, even he had been furious and unforgiving over what his brother had done.

“Don’t say that, Reggie,” he warned. “You’re not thinking clearly. Calling James into this will make matters worse, not better.”

She pressed the point mercilessly. “Then will you tell Uncle Jason I want to come home for a while?

That I’m done with looking for a husband and will wait until the three of you can agree on whom I should marry?”

“Blister it, Reggie, Jason isn’t going to like this any more than I do. You should be making your own choice, finding someone you love.”

“I tried that.” There was an awkward silence.

Anthony scowled. “Lord Medhurst was a pompous ass!”

“Did I know that? I thought he was quite the one. Well, so much for my falling in love.”

“You could have had Newel if Eddie hadn’t been convinced he would make a terrible father.” Tony continued to scowl.

“Yes, well, Uncle Edward was undoubtedly right. Again—so much for my falling in love.”

“You certainly know how to depress a fellow, puss. We only wanted what was best for you, you know.”

“I do know that, and I love you for it. I just know I’ll adore whomever the three of you decide will make a perfect husband.”

“Will you?” He grinned. “I’m not so sure. If Jason agrees to this, for example, he’ll be determined to find a man who’s nothing like me.”

He was teasing. If there was anyone who would disapprove of someone like him for her, that someone was Tony himself. She laughed. “Well, you know you can always convert my husband, Tony—after I’m safely married.”

Chapter 4

PERCIVAL Alden shouted in triumph as he reined in his horse at the end of Green Park, Piccadilly side.

“That’s twenty pounds you owe me, Nick!” he called over his shoulder as the Viscount came charging up behind him riding his bay. Nicholas Eden gave Percy a black scowl.

They began walking their horses around in a circle. The two friends had just come from Boodles, ending a perfectly good game of cards when Percy mentioned his new black stallion. Nicholas was just drunk enough to take up the challenge, and they sent for their horses.

“We could both have broken our bloody necks, you know,” Nicholas pronounced quite sensibly, though his vision was blurred almost double. “Remind me not to do this again, will you?” Percy thought that was terribly funny and began laughing so hard he nearly lost his balance. “As if anyone could stop you from doing what you’ve a mind to do, especially when you’re foxed. But never mind, old chap. You probably won’t remember this daring escapade come morning, and if you do, you won’t believe your memory. Ah, where the bloody hell was that moon when it was needed?” Nicholas looked up at the silver orb just coming out from behind a cloud bank. His head was spinning.

Damnation! The race should have sobered him a little.

He fastened his wavering gaze on his friend. “How much do you want for that animal, Percy?”

“No wish to sell him. I’ll be winning more races with him.”

“How much?” Nicholas repeated obdurately.

“I paid two hundred and fifty for him, but—”

“Three hundred.”

“He’s not for sale.”

“Four hundred.”

“Oh, come now, Nick,” Percy protested.

“Five hundred.”

“I’ll send him round in the morning.”

Nicholas grinned in satisfaction.

“I should have held out for a thousand.” Percy grinned back. “But then, I know where I can get his brother for two fifty. And I wouldn’t want to take advantage of you.” Nicholas laughed. “You’re wasting your talent, Percy. You should get a job in Smithfield Market selling horseflesh.”

“And give my dear mother yet another reason to curse the day she bore a son? No, thank you. I’ll go on as I am, taking advantage of hard bargainers like yourself to turn a tidy little profit. It’s more fun, anyway.

And speaking of fun, weren’t you supposed to put in an appearance at Shepford’s tonight?”

“Bloody hell,” Nicholas growled, his good humor disappearing. “Why did you have to remind me?”

“My good deed for the day.”

“I wouldn’t go near that place if my little bird didn’t need her wings clipped,” Nicholas confided.

“Ruffled your feathers, did she?”

“Would you credit she thinks to make me jealous?” Nicholas asked, outraged.

“You? Jealous?” Percy guffawed. “I would love to see the day, dearly I would.”

“You’re welcome to come along and watch my performance. I mean to give a very good one for Lady E. before I call it quits,” Nicholas said darkly.

“You’re not going to call the poor fellow out, are you?”

“Good God, over a woman? Of course not. But she will think so, while I will in fact give him my blessing of her. She’ll be left to blame herself for her folly, for she will have seen the last of me.”

“That’s a novel way to go about it,” Percy mused. “I must remember to try that. Look, why not give me your blessing of her? Fine-looking woman, Lady E. Oh, I say.” Percy looked off across the street.

“Speaking of… isn’t that her carriage over there?”

Nicholas followed the direction of his nod to see the bright, outrageously painted pink-and-green curricle he knew so well. “Impossible,” he muttered. “She would die rather than be late for that ball, and it’s long since started.”

“Don’t know anyone else who owns such a smart-looking carriage,” Percy remarked. “Been meaning to paint my own those colors.”

Nicholas threw him a horrified look before glancing back at the street. “Who do we know who lives on this street?” he asked his friend.

“No one I can think of,” Percy began. “Wait a minute! I think I know whose house she’s stopped in front of. The house belongs to young Malory’s kin—oh, what’s his name? You know. Not the wild one who hasn’t been around for years, but the other one, the one who’s so good a marksman that no one will—oh, I have it! Anthony, Lord Anthony. Good God! You don’t think she means to make you jealous with him ? Even you don’t dare mess with him, Nick.” Nicholas didn’t answer. Slowly, very slowly, he left the park and crossed the street. If that was Selena, then she was right where she knew he would see her, because he passed this way every night on his way home from his club. As it happened, they had come out of the park that night near the end of Piccadilly, and if Percy hadn’t spotted the carriage, he might not have either. But now his curiosity was aroused.

Was Selena sitting inside the closed carriage, waiting for him to pass, unaware that he had already gone around her? Had she been unable to get an escort to her damned ball, and was again determined to drag him there with her? It was impossible that she could know Anthony Malory. He and his cronies were in a completely different league, rakehells all, thumbing their noses at society. Nicholas might have a tarnished reputation himself, but even he wouldn’t be classed with that group of wastrels.

But what if she had somehow met Malory? But she would not dally here tonight of all nights. The Shepford ball meant too much. It was all she had talked about for the last month.

Yet what if she had come here to tryst with Malory? Nicholas stopped by the curb three houses away.

Percy caught up with him, looking alarmed. “That wasn’t a dare I made back there, you know,” Percy said earnestly. “You’re not thinking of doing anything foolish, are you?”

“I’ve just been thinking, Percy.” Nicholas was grinning. “If that is Lady E. in there, then she’ll be coming out any moment now.”

“How do you know that?”

“The ball. She might be late for it, but she isn’t going to miss it, not she. However, maybe she will miss it after all. Yes, it would do her a world of good to miss it. A woman shouldn’t get so involved with something that she ignores the man in her life. That lesson should be made clear to her, don’t you think?

Yes, quite clear. Very clear. So she won’t make the same mistake again.”

“Montieth! What the devil are you planning?” Percy demanded in alarm.

Nicholas didn’t answer because his attention was drawn by the door opening down the street. His grin

widened as Selena Eddington stepped outside. She was securing a short black domino over her eyes, and she had her hands raised to her face, but he would have recognized that black hair anywhere. She was wearing a long fur-edged cape secured at the throat. The cape was thrown back over her shoulders, revealing a lovely rose-colored gown. Nicholas was taken aback. Rose? That wasn’t one of her colors.

She contemptuously called it the color of innocence, a quality she had long ago lost without regret. He supposed she was out to impress the Duchess of Stepford with her youth.

She turned toward the man standing at her back and Nicholas recognized Anthony Malory. He knew those dark good looks well, saw him often enough at the clubs, though they were not exactly speaking acquaintances. Selena would find him very attractive, Nicholas admitted that. Well, he wished her luck.

Malory was even more determined a bachelor than Nicholas. She would never bring that one to the altar.

Did she realize that?

He watched in amusement as she embraced Malory, then gave him a quick kiss. He was obviously not taking her to the ball, for he was dressed in only a lounging robe.

“Well, what do you make of that?” Percy said uncomfortably, bringing his horse a bit closer. “It is Lady E., isn’t it?”

“Yes, and the carriage is facing this way, Percy, so I’ll be going the other way. Do me a favor and hamper it from turning around as long as you can.”

“Blister it, what are you going to do?”

“Why, take Lady E. home with me, what else?” Nicholas chuckled. “I’ll go around the block and cut through Mayfair to get back to Park Lane with her. Meet me there.”

“Damnation take you, Nick!” Percy exclaimed. “Malory’s standing right there!”

“Yes, but he’s not going to go chasing down the street after me on foot, now is he? And he won’t have a weapon handy if he’s just tumbled her. He may enjoy this entertainment.”

“Don’t do it, Nick.”

But Nicholas wasn’t sober enough to think. He started his mount down the street toward the carriage, picking up just a little speed before he reached it. When he veered off the street and onto the curb, he took everyone by surprise, riding right between the house and the carriage. Slowing for an instant, he grabbed Selena and yanked her across his horse.

Beautifully done, he congratulated himself. He couldn’t have done it any better if he’d been sober.

Shouting erupted behind him, but he didn’t slow down. The woman across his horse started screaming, but he quickly stuffed his white silk handkerchief in her mouth to stifle her, then used his cravat to bind her wrists.

She was squirming so much that he was in danger of losing her, so he twisted her around until she was sitting in front of him, then whisked her cape over her head, bundling her tightly. Just as good as a sack, he thought with satisfaction. He chuckled as they rounded a corner and headed back toward Park Lane.

“Sounds like no one’s following, my dear. Perhaps your driver, Tovey, recognized me and knows you’re in familiar hands.” He chuckled again, hearing the muffled sounds she was making inside the cape. “Yes, I know you’re miffed with me, Selena. But console yourself that you can give vent to a full temper tantrum when I let you go—in the morning.”

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