Love Only Once Page 25

“Not bloody likely!” he bellowed. “I won’t have those autocratic bastards raising my—” He clamped his mouth shut, glaring at her furiously. “Go eat your dinner!” As she returned to the nursery Reggie smiled, her humor greatly restored. Well! That certainly gave her something to think about, didn’t it?

Chapter 29

NICHOLAS sat up slowly, frowning at the unfamiliar noise that had wakened him. He shook his head

and lay down again, but in no more than a moment he was fully awake. The infant was crying. He was hungry, wasn’t he?

He had identified the noise, but he remained wide-awake, wondering how often this business of having one’s sleep disturbed occurred. But it didn’t matter. Tomorrow he would pack them all back to Silverley. And if he stayed there as well, his rooms were farther away from the nursery there than here.

If hestayed? Why shouldn’t he stay? Miriam had kept him from Silverley for years, but Miriam had already done her damage in telling Regina about his birth. That done, the rest of the world finding out didn’t matter anymore. Miriam couldn’t hurt him now. And he certainly wasn’t going to let Regina keep him from Silverley. Silverley was, he reminded himself fiercely, his home. He still had some rights in this world!

The house was quiet now, the infant no doubt being fed by his wet nurse. Had Regina been awakened?

He pictured her in the next room, curled up in bed, probably sound asleep. She was probably accustomed to these disturbances and slept right through them.

Having never seen her in bed before, he couldn’t get a clear picture of her. Would her hands be clasped under her chin like a child’s? Would her dark hair be loose or tucked into a nightcap? How long was her hair? He had never seen it other than formally arranged. What did she wear to sleep in? He didn’t know anything about her, and she was his wife.

He had every right to walk the few steps to her room, wake her, and make love to her. He wanted to.

But he never would. She was no longer the passionate but innocent young woman who gave him her maidenhead on a warm summer night. She would reject him, treat him with contempt and scorn. He wasn’t going to let himself in for that.

But… she didn’t have to know if he tiptoed into her room and looked at her, did she? Nicholas was out of bed and into his robe before the thought was finished. Soon he was in the hall between Regina’s sitting room and the nursery. Her door was closed and there was no light beneath it. The nursery door was ajar and soft light spilled out. A woman was softly humming a familiar lullaby.

Nicholas paused with his hand on the closed door, Regina’s door. But he felt a strange pull coming from the nursery. The wet nurse wouldn’t like being disturbed, yet he suddenly had a powerful urge to enter that room instead of Regina’s. He hadn’t gotten a good long look at the boy earlier. What better time than now?

Nicholas nudged the nursery door open. The nurse, Tess, was fast asleep in a cot against the wall. A small lamp glowed on a table next to a stuffed armchair. In that chair sat Regina feeding her son.

It brought him up short. Ladies of quality did not suckle their children. It wasn’t done. She was in profile to him, her head bent to the child, softly humming. The fashionable short curls of the day framed her face, while the rest of her hair was long and gleaming, spilling over the back of the chair in midnight waves. She wore a long-sleeved sheer white robe, open, revealing a nightgown of the same material, pulled down on one side enough to bare one breast. The infant’s mouth was greedily working, and one small hand rested just above the nipple, as if holding the breast in place.

Nicholas was mesmerized. Out of his depth, unfamiliar feelings assailed him, tender feelings, holding him spellbound. Even when she sensed his presence and looked up, he didn’t move.

Their eyes met. For a long time, they simply stared at each other. She showed no surprise and no anger.

He felt none of the old hostility. They seemed to touch each other without hands, a current passing between them that transcended their differences.

Regina was the first to look away. “I’m sorry if he woke you.” Nicholas shook himself. “No, no, it doesn’t matter. I… didn’t expect you’d be here, though.” Then he asked shyly, “Couldn’t you locate a wet nurse for him?” Reggie smiled. “I never looked for one. When Tess told me my mother defied tradition and nursed me herself, I decided to do the same for Thomas. I haven’t regretted it for a moment.”

“It’s rather confining for you, though, isn’t it?”

“I have nothing to do, nowhere I want to go that would keep me away from Thomas for any length of time. Naturally I can’t make many calls, but that’s no hardship for me.” He had nothing to say. But he didn’t want to leave. “I’ve never seen a mother suckling her babe before.

Do you mind?” he asked clumsily.

“He’s your… no, I don’t mind,” she finished, keeping her eyes on the baby.

He leaned against the door for a moment, studying her. Was the child his? She said he was. And every instinct of his own said he was. Then why was he stubbornly denying the truth? Because leaving a wife who had forced herself on him was one thing. But leaving a pregnant wife was something else again.

True, she hadn’t told him. But his leaving was still, in view of the pregnancy she’d borne alone, contemptible. Damnation take it. She had put him in this position by keeping silent about her condition.

How the devil was he to get out of it?

Reggie turned the boy around to give him her other breast. Nicholas caught his breath as both creamy white globes were revealed to him in the moment before she covered one of them.

He approached her slowly, drawn against his will, and didn’t stop until he stood before her chair. She looked up at him, but he didn’t trust himself to meet her eyes. It was all he could do to keep from touching her.

He kept his eyes on the child, but that led his gaze to her breast, and to her open throat, and to her soft lips. What would she do if he kissed her? He bent over to find out.

Nicholas heard her gasp just before his mouth took hers. He kept the kiss short and sweet, the lightest touch, ending it before she had a chance to turn away. He straightened, still without meeting her eyes.

“He’s a beautiful baby, Regina.”

It was several long moments before she replied, “I like to think so.” He smiled hesitantly. “I envy him at this moment.”

“Why?”

He looked directly into those dark, clear blue eyes. “You have to ask?”

“You don’t want me, Nicholas. You made that quite clear before you left. Have you changed your mind?”

He stiffened. She’d like him to beg, wouldn’t she? That would give her a chance to humiliate him. She had sworn she’d never forgive him and she probably wouldn’t. He didn’t blame her, but he was not going to make things worse. He turned and walked away without a word.

Chapter 30

HE was serious! He actually meant for them to pack everything that would go to Silverley and leave within the same day. Nicholas made his high-handed announcement at breakfast, having the unmitigated nerve to use the excuse that he could not remain in a house where he had no study. What could she say, she who had given him that excuse in a long-ago moment of pique? Infuriating man!

Well, she wouldn’t go without Eleanor. All she needed was to be stuck in the country with two unfriendly people. No, Eleanor must come along. But she didn’t tell Nicholas this, she told Eleanor. Ellie refused at first, but Reggie persisted until she gave in.

And so for the rest of the day they were all kept quite busy—except for Nicholas, who simply stood aroundlooking satisfied with the upheaval he had caused. There was no time for Reggie to say any good-byes to her family. Quickly jotted notes had to suffice for that. But even with everyone pitching in to help— everyone except Nicholas—it was nearly evening before the last trunk was loaded onto the extra wagon that had been procured.

Reggie was no longer speaking to the Viscount, but her annoyance with him ran much deeper than today’s nonsense. She was in fact disturbed over her encounter with him last night. Whatever Nicholas had been up to, he’d succeeded in making it nearly impossible for her to get back to sleep. It was not that he had kissed her. If she cared to be honest with herself, it was that he had done nothing beyond kissing.

Therein lay her confusion. How could she still want him after everything he had done to her? But want him she did. She had seen him standing there in the doorway, his silk robe open nearly to the waist, his sun-streaked hair all tousled, an intense look in those honey-gold eyes, and she’d been jolted with a desire so strong it frightened her. Seeing him like that was enough to make her forget all the months of cursing him.

Then what was she to do? It wasn’t as if she were going to forgive him. She wasn’t. She had no business thinking of him amorously.

Eleanor and Tess and the baby rode in the larger coach with Reggie and Nicholas, while Meg, Harris, and Eleanor’s maid occupied the smaller coach. With three women near him, Thomas did not lack for soft bosoms to sleep against. He was a silent passenger most of the time, and the women conversed quietly now that they could relax. Nicholas made a point of appearing bored with their chatter. They in turn ignored him, Reggie to the extent that she didn’t hesitate to lower her dress and nurse her son when he began to fidget. Let him say something. Just let him.

At this point a change came over Nicholas. He had been amused by his wife’s haughty air all day, and even his aunt’s frigid looks, for sweet-tempered Eleanor had never been able to stay angry with him for long. He was a little surprised that she was going to Silverley, for she hadn’t been there since his father’s

death six years before. He supposed Eleanor felt Regina needed moral support, and this amused him while hurting him at the same time.

Humor was only part of the maelstrom of his emotions, however. He must be depraved to be stirred by the simple act of Regina’s feeding the child, but he was stirred. A commiserating voice whispered in the back of his mind that he was being too hard on himself. He was forgetting that Regina had always had this effect on him.

That realization did not help at all. Regina would shun his advances. And he would make a complete ass of himself by trying to woo his own wife, wouldn’t he? If they could share the same bedroom, the proximity might help. After all, she was a passionate woman. But the place they had just left and the one they were going to were both so large that they didn’t need to share a room.

There was only one way he could ever share a room with her, and that was through necessity, which wasn’t likely… or was it? By God, yes! There was one way, and he had almost missed the opportunity, for they were more than halfway to Silverley already. He ran the idea through his mind and concluded it just might work.

Without further analyzing the plan, which would only bring to light possible flaws, Nicholas called out to the driver to stop at the next inn.

“Is something wrong?” Eleanor asked.

“Not at all, Aunt Ellie. I just realized I would prefer a hot meal tonight, rather than the cold fare we can expect at Silverley, arriving at this late hour.”

“But it isn’t that late yet. Aren’t we almost there?” Reggie wanted to know.

“Not quite, love. And I find I am absolutely ravenous. I can’t wait.” The inn they came to soon was a place where Nicholas was well known. He knew the proprietor well enough to tell the man exactly what he wanted. Now, he thought, if only luck would stick around for the rest of the night…

Chapter 31

REGGIE giggled as she made her way to the bed. Meg had left after giving her a thorough scolding as she helped her undress. Meg thought she was drunk. Well, of course she wasn’t. Eleanor was. That was funny, for Reggie had been obliged to help the older woman up to her room where her maid had scolded her , too. The cheek of servants these days.

Eleanor had only consumed—what? a half-dozen glasses of that delicious wine the proprietor had been keeping just for them. He had told Nicholas that. Reggie drank just as much, and she was feeling quite wonderful, but she wasn’t foxed, no. Her tolerance was just greater than Eleanor’s.

She plopped down on the bed, swayed, then righted herself. This wasn’t her spacious room at Silverley, but it would do for one night. Halfway through the meal Nicholas had told them to take their time, saying he had been thoughtless in his haste, his excuse being that he wasn’t used to traveling with such a large entourage. He’d realized how inconsiderate it would be to arrive at Silverley so late and without notice,

for all the servants would have to be roused from their beds to prepare rooms, see to the horses, unload the baggage, and so forth. He had decided they could arrive in the morning, and so he secured rooms for them at the inn.

Dinner was long and enjoyable, Nicholas putting himself out to make amends for the inconvenience he had caused them all. He was quite charming in fact and made his aunt laugh at his humorous anecdotes.

Soon Reggie found herself laughing along with them. She hoped Meg and Tess and the other servants were enjoying themselves as much.

Reggie yawned and reached to extinguish the lamp on the bedside table. Her hand went right past it and she giggled. Before she could manage a second attempt, the door opened and Nicholas stepped into the room.

Reggie was more bemused than anything else when she saw him standing there. He didn’t apologize for his error. Was it an error? Why was he in her room?

“Did you want something, Nicholas?”

He smiled. A glance around the room showed him that one of her trunks had been brought up, but nothing of his had been unloaded from the coach. Harris had protested at the arrangements, especially when he was told he would be sleeping in the stable with the footmen to give truth to the story that the inn was too full to accommodate them all comfortably.

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