Love Only Once Page 7

Chapter 6

“I’M sorry you missed the ball.”

Nicholas stopped his carriage a few doors away from Anthony Malory’s townhouse. His eyes caressed Reggie’s face.

She grinned. “I’ll wager you’re even sorrier that Lady Eddington didn’t miss it.”

“You would lose the wager,” he replied with a sigh. “I don’t know why I did it anyway. The drink, I suppose. It’s certainly doesn’t matter one bit now.”

“Stuff! You were jealous when you thought she was seeing Tony.”

“Wrong again. I have never been jealous in my life, of anyone or anything.”

“My, how fortunate for you.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t see any other reason for your wanting to lock your mistress away for the evening. You didn’t even plan to spend the evening with her.”

He laughed. “You say that with such a worldly air.”

She blushed. “At any rate, you needn’t be sorry that I missed the ball. I’m not.”

“Because you met me instead?” he ventured. “You give me more and more hope, love.” She sat up stiffly. “I hate to disappoint you, Lord Montieth, but that is not the reason. I would as well have stayed at home tonight.”

“As would I have, if you were with me. There’s still time, you know. We can return to my house.” She shook her head at him, wanting to laugh. In fact, since meeting him, she had felt a continual ridiculous urge to laugh for the sheer joy of it. She was bubbling over. But she knew she had to leave him now and put this night behind her.

“I must go,” she said softly.

“I suppose you must.” His fingers closed over her gloved hand, but he made no move to help her down from the carriage. He exerted a pressure on her hand that held her in place. “I want to kiss you again before you go.”

“No.”

“Just a good-night kiss.”

“No.”

His free hand cupped her cheek. He hadn’t bothered to collect his gloves or hat before they left his house, and his bare fingers were hot against her skin. She couldn’t move, and she waited breathlessly for him to steal the kiss she had refused him.

He did, his lips moving in to fasten on hers for a kiss that was nothing like any kiss she’d had before.

Warm and masterful, his lips tasted hers until she thought she would explode.

“Come on, before I forget myself,” he said roughly. Passion made his voice heavy.

Reggie was dazed as he helped her down from the carriage and led her toward her uncle’s townhouse.

“You’d better not come with me,” she whispered. Lamps burned on each side of the door, and she could just picture the door opening and Tony facing Nicholas Eden with a gun in his hand. “It isn’t necessary for you to accompany me.”

“My dear, I may be many reprehensible things, but no one has ever said of me that I was not a gentleman, and a gentleman sees a lady to her door.”

“Stuff! You’re a gentleman only when it pleases you to be one, and now it pleases you to be obstinate.” Nicholas chuckled at her anxiety. “Do you fear for my safety?”

“Yes, I do. Tony is an agreeable fellow most of the time, but there are occasions when he simply has no control over his temper. He mustn’t see you until I have been able to tell him that nothing untoward has happened.”

Nicholas stopped and turned her around to face him. “If he has such a violent temper, then I will not let you face him alone.”

Hethought to protect her from Tony. She might have laughed, but she suppressed the urge. “You would have to understand how it is between Tony and me to know that I am the last person who needs to fear him. We are very close, you see, so close that he regularly turns his life upside down for me when I stay with him. He always has, even abstaining from most of his usual pursuits for months at a time. You should be able to appreciate what that means,” she finished dryly.

He led her forward again, grinning. “I concede your point. Nevertheless, there is a reason for everything I do, and I will see you to your door.”

She started to protest again, but they were already there. She tensed, praying they hadn’t been heard, that the door wouldn’t open. She turned to face Nicholas, whispering, “What possible reason could you—?”

But he interrupted roguishly, “You see, I now have an excuse to kiss you good night again.” He folded her in his arms, his mouth coming down to sear hers. This was passion, hot, blistering passion that melted her into him. Nothing else mattered. In that moment, she was his.

Nicholas ended the kiss with passion riding him hard. He nearly shoved her away from him, though without releasing her, his fingers biting into her upper arms. He held her there at arm’s length, his breathing harsh, his eyes blazing.

“I want you, sweet Regina. Don’t make me wait too long before you admit you want me, too.” It took Reggie a moment to realize that he had let her go and begun walking away. She had the wildest urge to run after him but steadied herself. It wasn’t easy. Her heart was racing and her legs were wobbly.

Get hold of yourself, goose, she scolded herself. You’ve been kissed before . But oh, never like that!

Reggie waited until she saw Nicholas step into his carriage before she reluctantly turned away, opened the door, and went inside. The entry and hall were brightly lit and, thankfully, empty. The door to Tony’s library-study was open and light spilled out of it. She moved toward it slowly, hoping Tony would be there and not out scouring London for her.

He was there, sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, the fingers twined in his thick black hair as if he’d been trying to pull it out. A decanter of brandy and a glass were beside him.

The sight of him looking so woebegone had a steadying effect on Reggie. Guilt helped her pull herself together. While she had been having the sweetest time of her life, the person who meant the most to her in all the world had been worried sick. And she hadn’t even rushed back here. She’d taken her time, enjoying every moment spent with Nicholas. How could she have been so selfish?

“Tony?”

He looked up in shock. Then surprise washed over his handsome features, and relief. He hurried to her and gathered her into his arms, squeezing so tightly she thought her ribs would crack.

“Good God, Reggie, I’ve been half-baked with worry! I haven’t been in such bad shape since James took you with him to—well, never mind that now.” He set her away from him so he could look her over.

“Are you all right? Have you been hurt?”

“I’m fine, Tony, really I am.”

She looked fine too. No rents in her gown, no curls out of place. But she had been gone for three bloody hours, and the things he had imagined happening to her…

“I’m going to kill him first thing in the morning, as soon as I find out where the bloody hell he lives!” So that’s why there had been no pounding on the doors, Reggie realized.

“It was all perfectly innocent, Tony,” she began, “a mistake—”

“I know it was a mistake, Reggie. That idiot driver of yours assured me of that. He kept insisting Montieth would bring you back at any moment, that he and Lady Eddington were, ah… that they… well, I think you know what I mean. Oh, bloody hell!”

“Yes.” Reggie grinned at his discomfort. “I do know what you mean.” Then she hastened to work him round. “The poor man thought you and his—”

“Don’t say it! And that’s no excuse anyway!”

“But can’t you imagine his expression, Tony, when he saw that he had the wrong lady?” Reggie giggled.

“Oh, I wish I could have seen him.”

Anthony frowned. “How is it that you didn’t see him?”

“I wasn’t there. He left me at his house and went to the ball. You see his only intent was to make Lady Eddington miss the ball. You can understand how shocked he was when he saw her there. He didn’t know who the devil he had locked up in his house.”

“He locked you in his house?”

“But I was perfectly comfortable,” she assured him quickly. “And so you see that I wasn’t with him all this time—very little time in fact. No harm was done, and he brought me back here safe and sound.”

“I can’t believe you’re defending him. If I had known where he lives, he’d be dead by now. The fool driver didn’t know. I sent a man round to the clubs to make inquiries, but because of that blasted ball the clubs were nearly deserted. By the time my man got back to report that he hadn’t learned anything, I was bloody well ready to hie myself off to Shepford’s to find someone who could give me that scoundrel’s address.”

“And then Uncle Edward would have been alerted that I wasn’t with you, and all hell would have broken loose,” she finished for him. “It’s a good thing you didn’t do that. This way no one knows I haven’t been here with you all evening. Which means that all that is left to do is decide whether I should stay here or return to Uncle Edward’s house. What do you suggest?”

“Oh, no you don’t, my girl.” He saw right through her ploy. “You are not going to get me to forget about this.”

“If you don’t, then I am ruined,” she said quite seriously. “Because no one will ever believe that I spent three hours in Lord Montieth’s house and came away with my virtue intact. It is intact, by the way.” He glared at her. “Then I won’t kill him. But he will be taught a lesson he richly deserves.”

“But no harm was done, Tony!” she insisted passionately. “And—and I don’t want you to hurt him.”

“You don’t—by God, you’ll tell me why!”

“I like him,” she said simply. “He reminds me of you.” Lord Malory turned livid. “I will kill him!”

“Stop!” she cried. “You would never have forced yourself on an unwilling maid, and neither did he.”

“Did he kiss you?”

“Well—”

“Of course he did. Only a fool wouldn’t, and he’s no fool. I’ll—”

“No, you won’t!” she cried again. “You will pretend you never learned his name, and when you see him, you will ignore him. You will do that for me, Tony, because I don’t know if I would be able to forgive you if you did anything to hurt Nicholas Eden. I enjoyed myself tonight, more than I have for a very long time.” Having said so much, she pleaded with him, “Please, Uncle Tony.” He started to say something, clamped his mouth shut, scowled, sighed heavily, and finally said gently,

“He’s not for you, puss. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. If he were a little less disreputable, though, I would set my cap for him.”

“Over my dead body!”

She gave him her sweetest smile.

“Somehow I knew you would say that.”

Chapter 7

REGGIE sat at her dressing table, staring dreamily at the little bruise on the base of her throat. Nicholas Eden’s love mark. She touched the spot. It was fortunate she had not removed her cape when she returned to Tony’s house last night. As it was, she would have to wear a scarf until the mark went away.

It was late in the morning, and she had slept much longer than was her habit. Her cousins would have breakfasted already, and if they were still at home, she would have to go through the story she and Tony had come up with last night.

Tony had sent a message to his brother Edward before she returned home, saying simply that Reggie

would not be coming to the ball after all. Only that, no reason given. Their story was that Tony hadn’t been at home when she got to his house, so she had waited for him for hours. When he did arrive, they had their talk. As it was so late after their conversation, she had simply gone home to bed. The servants at Uncle Edward’s would confirm that Tony had brought her back there and she had indeed gone right to bed.

Reggie sighed and rang for Meg, then hastily went through her bureau in search of a scarf. Meg mustn’t see her lovebite either.

When she came downstairs a half hour later, it was to find Aunt Charlotte and cousins Clare and Diana receiving. They were in the drawing room with their visitors—the Ladys Braddock, mother and daughter; Mrs. Faraday and her sister Jane; and two ladies Reggie didn’t know. They all stared at her as she entered, and Reggie became most uncomfortable over the lies she was about to tell.

“My dear Regina,” Mrs. Faraday spoke in a strangely sympathetic tone. “How divine you look—considering.”

Reggie felt a tight knot forming in the pit of her stomach. No. It wasn’t possible. Only her own guilty conscience made her think they could know about last night’s escapade.

Nicholas Eden, Fourth Viscount Eden of Montieth, lay stretched out on his large bed, his arms tucked behind his head, only a thin sheet covering his na**dness. He had lain there after waking for nearly an hour, but made no move to get up and face the day. He had long since missed his usual morning ride through Hyde Park. There was nothing immediate that he needed to see to. Another letter to the Earl of Penwich demanding an answer about the land he wanted, but that could wait. It was bound to be only a source of irritation anyway, since he’d never received an answer from the man.

He needed to contact the manager of his shipping firm in Southampton to cancel the ship he had recently ordered made ready for him. He had planned to put London behind him for a few months, to sail to the West Indies again. But as of last evening, nothing could make him leave London.

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