Love Only Once Page 8

Her name was Regina. He said the name aloud, letting it roll deliciously off of his tongue. Regina. Sweet, fair Regina with ebony hair and china-blue eyes. Those eyes. He had only to close his own eyes to see them smiling at him, laughing. Oh, they possessed such life. Regina, fairest of the fair, beauty beyond compare.

Nicholas chuckled at his fancy. Percy would say he had fallen head over heels. Had he? Well, no, of course not. But he couldn’t remember ever wanting a woman as much as he did Regina Ashton.

He sighed. Aunt Ellie would tell him to marry the girl and be happy. She was the only one since his father had died who cared a damn about Nicholas. Perhaps his grandmother did, or perhaps she didn’t. It was hard to tell about Rebecca, the old tyrant.

And, of course, there was his “mother.” She would be the last to wish him well. It was because of her that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t— marry Regina or any girl of good family. He wouldn’t marry, at least not until the woman who was known to the world as his mother was dead. The threat she held over him would die with her.

Nicholas threw his sheet off and sat up, thoughts of the Dowager Countess ruining his pleasant idyll. It

was because of her that he very seldom went home to Silverley, his country estate in Hampshire. Yet he loved Silverley, missed it to the point of bitterness. No matter, the only times he would go there were when the Countess was away. She was in residence most of the year, just to keep Nicholas away.

He rang for his man Harris and was informed that the Lords Alden and Malory were waiting for him in the breakfast room. He gave no special thought to it, for those two friends often dropped by without prior notice.

When he joined them a short while later, Derek Malory was seated at the table with a large plate of food, and Percy stood by the sideboard sipping coffee. Derek offered a merry hello before he went back to teasing the young maid. Percy beckoned Nicholas to him with a conspiratorial grin.

“I know who the little bird is that you brought home to your nest last night,” Percy whispered, then nodded toward Derek. “He doesn’t know yet, but of course he will before the day is out.” Nicholas felt as if a mighty fist had been slammed into his midsection. He kept his voice calm when he whispered, “Be so good as to tell me how that information reached you?”

“It’s not a secret,” Percy chuckled. “In fact, I’ll wager it will have made the complete rounds by the end of the day. I heard it on Rotten Row myself. Rode up to a couple of pretties I know and they couldn’t wait to tell me the latest on-dit .”

“How?” This came out explosively, loud enough to gain a look from Derek, who then turned back to the maid.

“Lady E., don’t you know. It seems her driver thought she would be most interested in hearing all about your wicked scheme. And wouldn’t you know, she was tickled pink to think you were jealous enough to do something so outrageous. She couldn’t wait to tell all her dearest friends about it—and even those who are not so dear. Oh, she has had a busy morning of it.”

“Damnation take the bitch!”

“Yes, well, if I were you, I would be leaving London for a while.”

“And let the girl face this alone?”

“That never bothered you before.”

For that remark Percy received the blackest scowl. “Don’t bark at me, Nick. She’ll fare better than you, no doubt get married off as your other innocents were, and live happily ever after. But there’s Derek’s uncle to think about, not to mention his father. This girl’s got relatives who will demand your hide. You’re not going to come off without a scratch for compromising this girl like you did the others.”

“Blister it, I didn’t touch the girl.”

“ ‘Course you didn’t, but who’d believe it?”

Percy said pointedly. “Your best bet is to be gone before the challenge comes from one of her uncles.” At that moment Tyndale appeared at the door and announced, “Lord Malory’s servant begs a word, my lord.”

Derek looked up in surprise, seeing the servant standing behind Tyndale. “Oh, I say, Nicky, there must be some mistake. The chap doesn’t work for me.”

“I didn’t think so,” Nicholas muttered, and Percy groaned.

Chapter 8


Anthony Malory looked up as his niece ran into the room and stared wide-eyed at the pistol he was cleaning at his desk. He gave her an impatient look before he went back to examining the weapon.

“It’s too late for nos, Reggie.”

“You’ve already killed him!” she cried.

He didn’t look up, so he didn’t see the color wash from her cheeks. “I’ve sent a man round to his house.

I had no trouble learning the address this morning. He should be here soon to discuss the time and place.”

“No, no, no!”

When he glanced up, her eyes were shooting sparks at him. “Now, Reggie—” he began, but she advanced on him.

“Is that your answer to everything?” She stabbed a finger at the weapon in his hands. “I thought we had this settled last night?”

“That was before Montieth’s escapade became food for the gossipmongers. Or are you not aware that your name is on everyone’s lips this morning?”

Reggie flinched but said evenly, “I do know it. I just left a room full of women who couldn’t wait to offer their sympathies.”

“And what did you tell them?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well deny that it had happened, because Lady Eddington’s driver witnessed the whole thing. But I did lie and say that I was brought right back, that Lord Montieth had realized his mistake quickly.”

Anthony shook his head. “Which they didn’t believe. Did they?”

“Well, no,” she admitted reluctantly.

“Because that bloody driver waited a good hour for you to be returned, and everyone knows it. And it doesn’t take an hour to do what is being said was done. Your lying about it only suggests that you have something to hide.”

“But that’s not true!”

“Since when does the truth matter to passionate gossips?”

“Oh, what am I going to do, Tony?” she cried miserably.

“You will do nothing. You will weather it, with the support of your family. He will pay the price for besmirching your good name.”

“You will not challenge him.”

Anthony’s eyes narrowed. “If I don’t, Jason will, and Jason will get himself killed. He’s not the shot I am.”

“No one is going to be killed, Tony.” She said this as if the matter were entirely up to her. “There has to be another solution. That’s why I came. I thought I would be too late to catch you before you left town, though. How did you find out?”

“I was, in fact, leaving town, and my old friend George hailed me to give me warning that the cat was out of the bag. It’s bloody damned fortunate that I was late getting started this morning. Otherwise I’d be halfway to Gloucester by now, and old Eddie would have been left to deal with this. I can just imagine the mess he’d make of it.”

“At least his answer wouldn’t be to grab the nearest pistol,” she retorted.

Anthony made a face. “Does he know yet?”

“No. He was closeted in his office all morning. He still is. Aunt Charlotte said she would try and keep it from him as long as possible. I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind…”

“Coward. Eddie isn’t the one you need to worry about, though. It’s Jason who is going to fly through the roof.”

“Well, at least he won’t hear about it for some time.”

“Don’t count on that, puss. He’ll know by the end of the day, tomorrow at the latest. You think he doesn’t keep tabs on you when you’re in wicked old London?”

“He doesn’t!”

“Oh, but he does,” Anthony assured her. “He had regular reports on you when you were in Europe, too.

Nothing escapes Jason. Even I am not shielded from his all-seeing eye. How do you think he finds out so quickly about all my bloody scrapes?”

Reggie groaned. This was going from bad to worse. Jason could be just as hot-tempered as Tony.

Besides that, he was a man of rigid principles. When there was any question of honor, his could not be tampered with.

For him there would be only one solution, and if that didn’t work, he would be cleaning his pistols just as Tony was. But that first solution was intolerable. Nicholas Eden would never agree. He would rather face one of her uncles across the dueling field than be forced to marry, she was sure of it.

She worried at her lower lip. “There must be something we can do, Tony, some story we can invent.”

“Any one of a dozen, puss, but not one will be believed. The trouble is that Montieth has seduced innocents like you before. That he was alone with you—never mind that it wasn’t you he meant to be alone with—implies that he took advantage of the situation. He is such a handsome devil, you couldn’t have resisted him. That’s what people will think. And say.” Reggie blushed and looked away uncomfortably.

“I don’t know why I’m even discussing this with you,” Anthony continued curtly. “There is only one thing to be done, and it’s up to me to see it done.”

Reggie sighed. “You’re right, of course. I don’t know why I’ve been resisting the idea so.” He raised a suspicious brow. “No tricks, Reggie.”

“No tricks. You will see that he marries me. That is the only thing to be done.”

“Bloody hell!” Anthony shot to his feet in full fury. “He’s not good enough for you!”


“No! And no again! And don’t think I’m not on to you, Regina Ashton. You think this will solve your other problem, and you won’t have to look for a husband anymore.”

“Now that you mention it… oh, Tony, I really wouldn’t mind having him for a husband, really I wouldn’t.

And he reminds me of you.”

“He is too much like me, which is exactly why he’s not for you!”

“But he reminds me of Uncle Edward, too. And there’s also a touch of Uncle Jason in him. Why, he was quite put out when I suggested that what he had done would ruin me and he would have to marry me.”

“You said that?”

“I was in that kind of mood. And he got angry. He acted just as Uncle Jason would have.”

“Why, that—”

“No, no, Tony. He’s perfect, don’t you see? A little like all of you—just what I have been looking for.

And besides, it will be a challenge to reform him.”

“He’ll never change, Reggie,” Tony insisted. “He’ll never settle down.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She grinned. “We might make that statement about you, but we don’t know for sure about him. And he did like me. That’s a start.”

“Don’t let’s put a nice face on it,” Anthony said. “He wanted you. But he’ll want other women, too, and he’ll go after them. He won’t be a faithful husband.”

“I think I know that,” she said quietly.

“And you still want him?”

She didn’t want him dead. That was the alternative. “After all,” she said quietly, “he should make things right. He has involved me in a scandal, so he should be the one to get me out of it. This is a peaceful solution, and I’m sure Uncle Jason will wholeheartedly agree.”

“This is not what I would call Montieth getting his just deserts.” Anthony glowered. “He’ll be getting you into the bargain, while you will go on suffering.”

“He won’t see it that way, Tony. In fact, I’m positive he’ll refuse.”

“Good.” Anthony smiled and went back to cleaning his pistol.

“Oh, no,” Reggie said. “You must promise me you’ll do your best to convince him, Tony.”

“All right,” he agreed.

He was smiling in a way that made her want to hit him. She knew that smile too well.

“I want Uncle Edward to be with you when you speak to him,” she said suspiciously.

“But your Viscount will be here soon, puss,” he reminded her.

“Then come with me to see Uncle Edward now. Leave a message for Lord Montieth to return this evening. And Tony,” she added slowly, untying her scarf, “I think Uncle Edward should see this, to impress on him the importance of getting Montieth’s consent.” Anthony’s face darkened. “You said he only kissed you!” She tied the scarf again, her look quite innocent. “Well, that was caused by a kiss, Tony.”

“How dare he leave his mark on you?”

Reggie shrugged, carefully avoiding his eyes. “Do you think Uncle Edward will make too much of the mark and assume the worst? I suppose he will feel it’s his duty to inform Uncle Jason of it. You don’t think they’ll want to rush the wedding, do you? I would rather wait a few months, just to be sure my first child is born after a decent interval of time.”

“This is blackmail, Reggie.”

She opened her dark blue eyes wide. “Is it?”

“Jason should have taken a switch to your backside when you first developed this talent for manipulating people.”

“What a terrible thing to say!” Reggie gasped.

He laughed then, shaking his head at her. “You can drop the performance, puss. I’ll get your Viscount to marry you, one way or another.”

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