Love Only Once Page 5

She began to struggle again, but in another few moments he was stopping in front of his townhouse on Park Lane. Percival Alden was stationed by the great dark expanse of Hyde Park across the street, and only he saw Nicholas toss the bundle over his shoulder and carry it into the house. His butler tried not to look too startled.

Percy followed him inside and said, “They didn’t even try to follow you.”

“Ah, that means the driver did recognize me.” Nicholas chuckled. “He’s probably explained to Malory by now that the lady and I are friends.”

“I still can’t believe you did this, Nick. She’ll never forgive you.”

“I know. Now be a good chap and follow me upstairs so you can light a few lamps before I deposit my baggage.” He paused just long enough to grin at his butler, who was staring at the feet hanging over his lordship’s shoulder. “Tell my man to get my evening clothes out, Tyndale. I want to be out of here in ten minutes. And if anyone comes to call, for any reason, say that I left for the Duke of Shepford’s ball an hour ago.”

“Very good, my lord.”

“You’re still going?” Percy asked in amazement as he and the butler followed Nicholas upstairs.

“But of course,” Nicholas replied. “I intend to dance the night away.” He stopped in front of a bedroom at the back of the house on the third floor, checking it quickly to make sure there was nothing of value in the room that Selena could destroy in anger. Satisfied, he told Tyndale to fetch the key, then nodded to Percy to light the lamp on the mantel.

“Be a good girl, my dear, and don’t make too much fuss.” He patted her backside in a familiar manner.

“If you start screaming or do anything else foolish, Tyndale will be forced to put a stop to it. I’m sure you won’t enjoy spending the next few hours trussed up on the bed.” He motioned for Percy to leave the room before he dropped her on the bed. Then he loosened her wrist bonds and left the room, locking the door with a soft click. He knew she would remove the gag sooner or later, but he wouldn’t be around to hear her.

“Come along, Percy. I have extra evening clothes if you would like to join me at the ball.” Percy shook his head in confusion as he followed Nicholas back down to the second floor where his rooms were located. “I might as well, but I don’t see why you’re going on to the ball now that she won’t be there.”

“That’s the crowning touch.” Nicholas chuckled. “What’s the point in Lady E.‘s missing the ball unless she’s told by her dear friends tomorrow that I danced every dance from the time I arrived until I departed.”

“That’s cruel, Montieth.”

“No crueler than her throwing me over for Malory.”

“But you don’t even care about that,” Percy pointed out, exasperated.

“No, I don’t. Still, it warrants some kind of reaction, doesn’t it? After all, the lady would have been devastated if I’d done nothing.”

“If she could choose how you would react, Montieth, I don’t think she would choose this.”

“Oh, well. Better this than my challenging Malory. Don’t you think so?”

“Heavens, yes!” Percy was genuinely appalled. “You wouldn’t stand a chance against him.”

“You think not?” Nicholas murmured. “Well, perhaps not. After all, he has had more practice than I. But we’ll never know, will we?”

Chapter 5

REGGIE wasn’t frightened. She had heard enough to know that her kidnapper was a nobleman. He assumed he’d been recognized by the driver of her carriage, so he meant no real harm. No, she wouldn’t be hurt.

One other thing made Reggie smile with a deliciously wicked grin. The man had made a dreadful mistake. He thought she was someone else—Selena, he had called her. “It’s only me,” he had said, as if she should recognize his voice easily.

Selena? What made this man think she was Selena? He had simply picked her up off the sidewalk, so what made him… “The driver recognized me” ! Good God, Lady Eddington! He knew the carriage so he thought she was Lady Eddington.

This was priceless. He would go to the Shepford ball—and voila , there would be Lady Eddington with Reggie’s cousins. Oh, how she wished she could see his face. It was just the sort of prank she might have played on someone in her younger years.

And then he would come racing back to his house, full of frantic apologies, begging her forgiveness. He would plead with her not to say anything. She would have to agree, for her reputation was at stake. She would go to the ball and simply say she had stayed longer with Uncle Anthony than she’d planned to. No one would ever know she had been abducted.

Having removed her gag and wrist bands, she stretched out on the bed, perfectly at ease, enjoying the adventure. It wasn’t her first, not by any means. She’d had adventures all her life, beginning at age seven, when she’d fallen through the ice on Haverston Pond, and would have drowned if one of the stableboys hadn’t heard her calling and pulled her out. The following year the same boy distracted a wild boar that had chased her up a tree. He’d been gored, and while he recovered quickly, happy to tell his friends all about the dramatic rescue, she was restricted from the woods for a year.

No, even her uncles’ almost religious devotion to her upbringing hadn’t been able to stand in the way of fate, and Reggie had seen more adventure in nineteen years than most men did in all their lives. Looking around her elegant, temporary prison, she smiled. She knew young women dreamed of adventure, yearned to be swept away by handsome strangers on horseback, but she had known the real thing.

Twice, as a matter of fact, this evening’s escapade being the second.

Two years before, when she was seventeen, she’d been attacked on the road to Bath by three masked highwaymen, and whisked away by the boldest of the three. Thank heaven her daring oldest cousin Derek had been in the coach that day and, taking one of the coach horses, had pursued her abductor furiously, rescuing Reggie from… whatever the stranger had had in mind.

And before that, when she was twelve, there had been her high-seas adventure. She was kidnapped for a whole summer, and endured terrifying storms at sea and even an incredible battle.

Well, she was having another adventure, an amusing and fairly safe one this time. And then she sat bolt upright. Uncle Tony! He knew about this! Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore. If he found out who her abductor was, he would come and break the door down. There would be no end of gossip, and then she would be ruined. Anthony Malory wouldn’t let it end easily, either. He would challenge the poor fellow and kill him, mistake or not.

Reggie got up and began to walk, barefoot, around the room. Oh, dear, this was becoming a dreadful predicament. She continued pacing, distracting herself by studying the room. It was done in muted greens and browns, and there were a few modern Chippendale pieces. Her cape was draped over an armchair, her slippers on the floor in front of it, her mask tossed on the padded seat. A single window looked out over a garden, dark and full of shadows. She repaired her hair using a mirror framed in the leaves and flowers of the Rocaille style.

She wondered if Tyndale really would tie her up and gag her if she started shouting for help. Better not to find out. She wondered, too, what was taking Nick so long to discover his mistake. The minutes continued to tick by on the Meissen clock on the mantel.

Nicholas watched her waltz by in the arms of some dandy wearing bright green satin that clashed horribly with Selena’s plum-colored evening gown. With those colors, they were hardly a pair one could miss, even on that crowded dance floor.

“Bloody hell,” Nicholas growled.

Percy, standing beside him, was more articulate. “Oh, good God! You’ve really gone and done it, haven’t you? I knew you shouldn’t have started this, and now you’ve really gone and done it.”

“Shut up, Percy.”

“Well, that is her, isn’t it? Then for God’s sake who’s the bird you’ve got caged at home? You’ve stolen Malory’s mistress, isn’t that it? He’ll kill you, Nick,” Percy informed him. “He’ll bloody well kill you is what he’ll do.”

Nicholas was ready to kill his excitable friend. “You do go on and on, don’t you? The only thing that will come of this is my getting a tongue lashing from a furious woman I’ve never laid eyes on before. Lord Malory isn’t going to call me out over a stupid mistake like this. What harm has been done, after all?”

“The lady’s reputation, Nick,” Percy began. “If this gets out—”

“How will it get out? Use your head, old boy. If she is Malory’s mistress, what reputation has she to lose? What I would like to know, is what was she doing with Lady Eddington’s carriage?” He sighed,

very much the misunderstood, put-upon male. “I suppose I’d better run along home and let her out—whoever she is.”

“Need help?” Percy grinned. “I’m rather curious to know who she is actually.”

“She isn’t likely to be in a receiving mood,” Nicholas pointed out. “I’ll be lucky if I only get a vase thrown at my head.”

“Well, you can manage that on your own, thank you. Tell me all about it tomorrow, all right.”

“I thought you’d feel that way,” Nicholas said wryly.

Nicholas rode home as fast as he could. He was quite sober by that point and regretting the entire evening deeply. He prayed the mystery lady had a sense of humor.

Tyndale let him in and took his cloak, hat, and gloves. “Any problems?” Nicholas asked, knowing there would be a long list. But there wasn’t.

“Not one, my lord.”

“No noise?”

“None.”

Nicholas took a long, deep breath. She was probably saving all her fury for him.

“Have the carriage brought round, Tyndale,” he ordered before starting up the stairs.

The third floor was as quiet as a tomb. The servants had no reason to be in that part of the house after dark. Lucy, the pretty maid he’d been eyeing lately, wouldn’t venture upstairs unless sent for, and his valet, Harris, would be sleeping on the second floor, expecting his master much later. At least no one in the house other than Tyndale knew about the lady’s presence. That was a break.

Nicholas stood outside Reggie’s door for a brief moment, then unlocked the door and opened it quickly.

He was braced to receive a bash on the head, but the jolt he got at first sight of her was just as stunning.

She stood framed by the window, gazing at him in a startlingly direct way. There was no shyness in her look and no fear either on that exquisite, delicate, heart-shaped face. The eyes were disturbing, with an exotic slant. Such dark blue eyes in that fair face, so blue and clear, like colored crystal. The lips were soft and full and the nose was straight and slender. A thick fringe of sooty lashes framed those extraordinary eyes, while black brows arched gently above them. Her hair was raven black, too, in tight little ringlets surrounding her face, giving her fair skin a glow like polished ivory.

She was breathtaking. The beauty didn’t stop with her face, either. She was petite, yes, but there was nothing childlike about her form. Firm young br**sts pressed against the thin muslin of her rose gown. It was not cut as low as some gowns were and stopped short of being provocative, yet somehow it was as tantalizing as anything he’d seen in London. He wanted to pull the rose muslin down a few inches and watch those lovely br**sts spring free. He received another jolt then, feeling his manhood rise against his will. Lord, he hadn’t lost control like that since his youth!

Desperate to bring everything under control, he cast about for something—anything—to say. “Hello.”

His tone implied “What have we here?” and Reggie grinned despite herself. He was gorgeous, simply gorgeous. It wasn’t just his face, though that was striking. There was a sexual magnetism about him that was quite unnerving. He was even better looking than Uncle Anthony, whom she’d always considered the most handsome, compelling man in the world.

The comparison was reassuring. He reminded her of Uncle Tony, not only in height and appearance, but in the way his eyes assessed her. His mouth quirked upward in approval. How often she had seen her uncle look at women just that way. Well, he was a rake, she told herself. What other kind of man would abduct his mistress from the doorstep of another man’s house? Had he been jealous, thinking his mistress and Uncle Anthony were… oh, this was becoming a most amusing situation.

“Hello, yourself,” Reggie said impishly. “I was beginning to wonder when you would realize your mistake. You certainly took enough time about it.”

“I am just now wondering if I have in fact made a mistake at all. You don’t look like a mistake. You look very much like something I did right for a change.” He quietly closed the door and leaned back against it, those beautiful amber eyes boldly moving over her from head to foot. It was not at all safe for a young lady to be alone with a man of his stamp, and Reggie recognized that. Yet for some reason she couldn’t fathom, she wasn’t afraid of this man. Scandalously, she wondered if it would be such a terrible thing to lose her virtue to him. Oh, it was a reckless mood she was suddenly in!

She eyed the closed door and his large frame blocking that only exit. “Fie on you, sir. I hope you don’t mean to compromise me more than you already have.”

“I will if you will let me. Will you? Think carefully before you answer,” he said with a devastating smile.

“My heart is in jeopardy.”

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