Love Only Once Page 11

A muscle jerked in Nicholas’ jaw. Hell and fire! He stood a better chance against his old enemy Captain Hawke without a weapon than he did against these Malorys.

“Am I to understand I will never get my hands on that land if I don’t marry your niece?”

“You might phrase it more delicately, but that’s the gist, yes.”

“Refuse, Montieth,” Anthony tempted in a soft voice. “Meet me in the morning instead. I won’t kill you.

I’ll aim a ways below your heart, so that the next girl you abscond with in the middle of the night will be believed when she says you’ve left her untouched.”

Nicholas had to laugh. Gelding was the threat now? These were his options? He had no doubt that his grandmother could arrange jail, as she threatened. He’d be estranged from her, doubtless, and the truth was, he loved the old witch. Then there was death or grievous wounding if Anthony had his way. Those were the choices.

Or he could marry the loveliest creature he had ever set eyes on. He could probably have the land he wanted. Aunt Ellie was for this marriage. His grandmother and all the Malorys were for it.

Nicholas closed his eyes for a moment, apparently deep in thought. Then he opened them and stood up.

“My lords,” he said evenly, “when is the wedding to be?” Chapter 11

“SO you’ve come to escort your fiancée to Vauxhall Gardens? To a concert? Never thought I’d see you attending a bloody concert, and in the daytime, at that!” Derek Malory was enjoying himself immensely, and the look of pure disgust on Nicholas Eden’s face was perfect. They were in the drawing room at Edward’s house, in the very room where the infamous meeting had taken place the night before, and Nicholas had just arrived.

“This is apparently the only way I’ll get to see her,” Nicholas told Derek. “They wouldn’t let me near her last night.”

“Well, of course not. Wouldn’t have been proper. She was told to go to bed.”

“You mean she actually takes orders?” Nicholas said in mock astonishment. “I thought everyone followed hers.”

“Oh, I say. You really are put out about this. I don’t understand why. She’s first rate, you know, a real gem. Couldn’t do better.”

“I would have preferred to pick my own wife, you understand, as opposed to having one forced on me.”

Derek grinned. “Heard you put up quite a fuss. Couldn’t believe any of this when they told me, especially that you’d given in. Know how you don’t like to be told what to do, not one bit.”

“Stop rambling, Derek,” Nicholas demanded. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“I’m to come along, don’t you know. Cousin Clare and I are coming with you. Orders from Uncle Edward. Didn’t think you’d get her alone, did you? Can’t have any hanky-panky before the wedding.” Nicholas scowled. “What the hell difference would it make? I’m already supposed to have bedded her.”

“No one believes that, Nick, at least no one in the family.”

“Except your Uncle Anthony?”

“Don’t know what he thinks,” Derek said more soberly. “But you’d best watch out for him. They’re especially close, you know, he and your intended.”

“She’s his favorite niece?”

“It’s more than that. He was only three years younger than Aunt Melissa, you see, and they were always inseparable. When she died, he was only seventeen. Her daughter kind of took Melissa’s place in his affections. All my uncles felt that way, including my father. But Uncle Anthony, being the youngest, was more like a brother to Regina. You wouldn’t believe the fights he had with my father once he came of age and moved to London, because the old man wouldn’t let him have her part of each year the way Uncle Edward does.” Derek chuckled. “The old man finally gave in because she wanted it, too, and there isn’t much she wants that he doesn’t give her.”

Nicholas grunted. Regina was going to be impossibly spoiled. “Why is it I never met her at Haverston?”

“She was always with Uncle Edward or Uncle Anthony when you came. They each had her for four months of the year by the time you started visiting me.” Derek laughed. “But you did meet her once, that first time I brought you home. She was the little hoyden who spilled the bowl of pudding in your lap when you teased her.”

“But you called the child Reggie!” Nicholas cried.

“We all call Regina Reggie, and she’s grown now. Do you remember her?” He groaned. “How could I forget? She stuck her tongue out at me when I threatened to blister her bottom.”

“Yes, well, she didn’t like you at all after that. She was at the house once more, I believe, when you came to visit, but she stayed out of your way.”

“She told me that, when you told her about me, she loved me,” Nicholas said dryly.

“Oh, she did love you then, I’m sure,” Derek chuckled. “But that was before she met you. She was especially fond of me, you see, and she was pleased with anyone who befriended me.”

“Bloody hell. Next you’ll tell me she was your playmate.”

“Shouldn’t surprise you, old chap. After all, I was only six when she came to Haverston. I admit I led her astray, there being only the two of us. Dragged her everywhere with me. ‘Course the old man had a bloody fit when he finally realized she was fishing and hunting instead of sewing, out climbing trees and building forts in the woods instead of tending to her music. Did you know he married just to give us a mother? Hoped it would have a steadying influence. Poor choice though. Love the old girl, but sickly, you know. Spent more time at Bath getting the cure than she did at Haverston.”

“Are you telling me I’m marrying a tomboy?”

“Heavens no! Remember, she’s spent part of every year with Uncle Edward’s family for the past thirteen years, and Edward’s got three girls near her age. When she was here with them, she was brilliant at her studies, an angel of decorum and all that. Of course, we still had our fun when she was at Haverston. I can’t even count all the times we got called on the carpet by the old man. And she never got the worst of it, I did. By the time she was fourteen, she had lost her hoydenish ways, though. She was even running the household by then, for our mum was hardly ever there.”

“So she was running one household, studying at another, and what, I’d like to know, did she learn at the third?”

Derek chuckled at his vicious tone. “Now don’t eat me. Actually, her time with Uncle Anthony was like a holiday. He did his best to see she enjoyed herself. And he prob’ly taught her how to deal with chaps like us.” Then he said seriously, “They all love her, Nick. You won’t get around that, no matter what.”

“Am I then to be burdened with interfering in-laws the rest of my life?” Nicholas asked coldly.

“I doubt it will be so bad. After all, you’ll have her to yourself out at Silverley.” The thought was worth relishing, but it would never come to that. Nicholas had given in to their bullying, but he actually had no intention of marrying Regina Ashton. Somehow he had to make her break their engagement. She might have a cousin who was a bastard, but she wouldn’t have a husband for one as well.

Derek was luckier than Nicholas, for he had lived his twenty-three years knowing what he was and not letting it bother him. But Nicholas hadn’t found out about his birth until the age of ten. And before the revelation, the woman he’d thought was his mother had made his life miserable simply because he did believe her to be his mother. He had never understood why she hated him, treated him worse than a servant, continually belittling him, berating him. She’d never even pretended to like him, not even in his father’s presence. It was more than any child should have endured.

One day, when he was ten years old, he’d innocently called her “mother,” something he rarely did, and suddenly she screamed at him, I am not your mother! I am sick of pretending to be. Your mother was a whore trying to take my place — a whore!

His father had been there, the poor man. Little did his father know that nothing could have made Nicholas happier than to learn that Miriam was not his mother. It was only later that he realized how cruelly the world treated bastards.

His father was forced to tell him the truth that day. Miriam had had many miscarriages in the first four years of her marriage to Charles, and the doctor’s warning that it might always be so strained the marriage badly. Charles didn’t actually say so, but Nicholas figured out that Miriam acquired an aversion

to the marriage bed. Charles found comfort elsewhere.

Miserably, Charles explained that Nicholas’ real mother was a lady, a good, kindhearted woman who had loved Charles. He had taken advantage of that love in one night’s drunkenness, the only time he and she allowed themselves that freedom. Nicholas was conceived that night. There was never any chance that the woman might keep the child. She was unmarried. But Charles wanted the child, wanted it desperately. Miriam agreed to go away with the woman until the child was born. When she returned, everyone believed the baby boy was hers.

Nicholas understood her bitterness, her resentment of him, though understanding didn’t make it easier to live with. He endured Miriam for another twelve years, until his father died. He left England then, at twenty-two, intending never to return. His grandmother never forgave him for those two years of disappearance, but he’d loved sailing the seas on his own ships, living through one adventure after another, even fighting in a few sea battles. He finally came home to England, but he couldn’t ever go home to Silverley. He couldn’t live with Miriam and her hate and her continual threats to tell the world the truth about his birth.

To date, no one knew except the two of them and his father’s lawyers, for Charles had had Nicholas declared his legal heir. And it wasn’t that Nicholas couldn’t withstand the scorn if the truth came out; he had prepared himself for it. But his father had taken great pains to keep it a secret, to keep the family name pure. He didn’t wish to damage his father’s reputation.

He couldn’t trust Miriam, however. She might speak out eventually. For that reason, he had no right to marry a girl of good family who would become an outcast if Miriam chose to betray him.

No, Regina Ashton was not for him. He would give anything to possess her, he acknowledged. But he would also give anything not to marry her, not to risk putting her through the horror in store for her if his secret was revealed. He had to find some way out of it.

Chapter 12

“I’M sorry to have kept you waiting, my lord.”

Nicholas whirled around at the sound of her voice. A jolt passed through him. He had forgotten how truly ravishing she was. She stood hesitantly in the doorway, a little afraid. Her cousin Clare was behind her. Tall and blond like most of the Malorys, she was pretty enough, but she faded away next to the exotically beautiful Regina.

Once again he was shocked to feel his body affected by the sight of Regina. Bloody hell . He would have to end their engagement quickly or bed her.

She continued to stand there in the doorway, and he said, “Come, I won’t bite you, love.” She blushed at the endearment. “You haven’t met my cousin Clare,” she offered, coming forward slowly.

He acknowledged the introduction, then said to Regina, “Derek has just been refreshing my memory of you. You should have told me we met before.”

“I didn’t think you would remember,” Regina murmured, thoroughly embarrassed.

“Not remember getting pudding dumped in my lap?” he said, eyes wide in mock wonder.

She smiled despite her nervousness. “I won’t say I’m sorry for that. You deserved it.” Seeing the twinkle in her cobalt-blue eyes, he asked himself how he was ever going to make her believe he didn’t want her when he did want her. She delighted him in every way. Just the sight of her was enough to heat his blood. He had an overwhelming desire to kiss her, to taste the sweetness of her lips again, feel the pulse beating at her throat. Damnation take her, she was too desirable by half.

“Come along then, children,” Derek teased. “This is a lovely afternoon for a concert. Egad! I’m really going to a day concert—and as chaperon, to boot.” He walked out the door, shaking his head comically.

Nicholas would have stolen a word with Regina, but cousin Clare made that impossible, her critical eye never leaving them for a moment. He sighed, hoping Derek would be able to arrange something for him later.

Regina seemed in uncommonly good spirits during the ride to Vauxhall Gardens, keeping up a steady flow of nonsensical chatter with her cousins. Was it nerves or was she really so happy? He enjoyed watching her. Was she really pleased about the marriage? Why had she told her uncles she wanted him?

Why him ?

Reggie was astonished by Nicholas’ friendliness. After being told how many times he had refused to marry her before finally giving in, she’d expected bitterness, even anger. Why was he so warmly accepting? It couldn’t be the land, could it? It wasn’t at all flattering to know it had taken a piece of land to sway him. Tony bellowed that he’d been bought. But Tony hadn’t yet seen the way Nicholas Eden looked at her. Was he bought? And why had he fought so hard against the marriage, then given in?

He must want her; the way his eyes smoldered told her he did. Really, it was shameful the way he looked at her, and he did it even in front of her cousins. She’d seen Clare’s shocked expression and Derek’s amused one. But Nicholas didn’t seem to be aware of what he was doing. Or was he doing it intentionally, to embarrass her? Was his amiability being faked? His desire for her wasn’t faked, she was sure of that.

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