Love Only Once Page 6

She giggled, delighted. “Stuff! Rakes like you don’t have hearts. Everyone knows that.” Nicholas was enchanted. Could anything he said disconcert her? He doubted it.

“You wound me, love, if you compare my heart to Malory’s.”

“Never think it, sir,” she assured him. “Tony’s heart is as fickle as anyone’s can be. Any man’s heart would be more constant than his. Even yours,” she said dryly.

Thisfrom the man’s mistress? Nicholas couldn’t believe his luck. She hadn’t even sounded peevish about it. She simply accepted that Malory would never be faithful to her. Was she ripe for a change in lovers?

“Aren’t you at all curious as to why I brought you here?” he asked. He was certainly curious. Why wasn’t she upset?

“Oh, no,” she replied lightly, “I have already figured that out.”

“Have you?” He was amused, waiting to hear whatever outlandish explanation she had arrived at.

“You thought I was Lady Eddington,” she said, “and you intended she miss the Shepford ball, while you attended and danced every dance. Did you?”

Nicholas shook himself. “What?”

“Dance every dance?”

“Not one.”

“Well, you must have seen her there. Oh, I wish I could have seen your expression.” She giggled again.

“Were you terribly surprised?”

“Uh… terribly,” he admitted. He was incredulous. How the devil had she put it all together? What had he said when he carried her up here?

“You have me at a disadvantage. I seem to have said a great deal to you earlier.”

“Don’t you remember?”

“Not clearly,” he admitted weakly. “I’m afraid I was good and foxed.”

“Well then, I suppose that excuses you, doesn’t it? But you didn’t really say all that much. It helps to know the people involved, you see.”

“You know Lady Eddington?”

“Yes. Not well, of course. I only met her this week. But she was kind enough to lend me her carriage tonight.”

He came away from the door suddenly then, crossing the room until he stood only inches away from her.

She was even lovelier up close. She didn’t move away, to his surprise, but looked up at him as if she trusted him fully.

“Who are you?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Regina Ashton.”

“Ashton?” He frowned thoughtfully. “Isn’t that the family name of the Earl of Penwich?”

“Why, yes, do you know him?”

“No. He owns a piece of land bordering my own that I have been trying to buy for several years, but the pompous… he won’t return my inquiries. You’re not related to him, are you?”

“It is unfortunate, but yes, I am. At least the tie is quite distant.” Nicholas chuckled. “Most ladies would not think it unfortunate to be connected to an Earl.”

“Really? Then they haven’t met the present Earl of Penwich. I am happy to say I haven’t seen the man for many years, but I doubt he has changed much. He is indeed a pompous…” He grinned. “Who are your people, then?”

“I am an orphan, sir.”

“I’m sorry.”

“As am I. But I do have a loving family on my mother’s side who saw to my upbringing. And now it is only fair for you to tell me who you are.”

“Nicholas Eden.”

“Fourth Viscount of Montieth? Oh dear, I have heard about you.”

“Scandalous lies, I assure you.”

“I doubt it.” She grinned up at him. “But you needn’t fear I’ll think badly of you. After all, no one is quite as bad as Tony, or his brother James for that matter, and I love them both very much.”

“Both? Tony and James Malory?” He was utterly stunned. “Good God, you don’t mean you’re James Malory’s mistress, too!”

Her eyes widened for a moment. She bit her lip hard, but it didn’t work. The laughter broke through in spite of her.

“I fail to see any humor,” Nicholas began coldly.

“Oh, but there is, I assure you. I was afraid you might think Tony and I… oh, this is famous! I must tell Tony… no, I better not. He won’t think it’s funny. You men are so stuffy sometimes,” she sighed. “You see, he’s my uncle.”

“If that is what you prefer to call him.”

She laughed again. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

“My dear Miss Ashton—”

“Lady Ashton,” she corrected him.

“Very well—Lady Ashton. I’ll have you know that Jason Malory’s son, Derek Malory, is one of my closest friends—”

“I know.”

“You do?”

“Yes, your best friend, actually. You went to school with him, though you finished a few years before he did. You took a liking to him when others did not. He loved you for that. I loved you, too, for befriending him, though I was only eleven at the time he told me about it and I had never met you. Where do you think I heard about you, Lord Montieth? Cousin Derek used to go on and on about you when he came home on holiday.”

“Why didn’t he ever mention you, then?” Nicholas snapped.

“Why would he talk about me?” she asked. “I’m sure you and he had better things to talk about than the children in your families.”

Nicholas frowned darkly. “You could be making all of this up.”

“Of course I could.” She left it like that, without trying to convince him.

Her eyes sparkled with laughter. Damnation, she was beautiful.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“So you’re not angry anymore?”

“Was I angry?”

“Oh, my, yes.” She smiled. “I can’t imagine why. I am the one who should have been angry. And I’m nineteen, if you must know, though you shouldn’t have asked.” He began to relax again. She was wonderful. He couldn’t bear much more. He wanted to hug her, yet he was loath to remind her of the impropriety of their situation.

“Is this your first season, Regina?”

She liked the way he said her name. “You are conceding that I am who I say I am?”

“I suppose I must.”

“You don’t have to sound so disappointed about it,” she retorted.

“I’m devastated, if you must know.” His voice became husky and he allowed himself to run a finger along her cheek, gently, so as not to frighten her. “I don’t want you to be an innocent. I want you to know exactly what I mean when I tell you I want to make love to you, Regina.” Her heart began to beat faster. “Do you?” she whispered. She shook herself. She must not lose control.

“Yes, of course you do,” she teased him. “I thought I saw that look in your eyes.” His hand dropped to his side and his eyes narrowed. “How would you know that look?”

“Oh, my, you’re angry again,” she said innocently.

“Bloody hell!” he snapped. “Can’t you be serious?”

“If I become serious, Lord Montieth, then we’ll both be in trouble.” Her dark eyes were inscrutable. Good Lord, there was another girl entirely beneath that effervescent surface.

She stepped past him and moved to the center of the room, and when she turned back to look at him, the gamin smile and teasing sparkle were back in place.

“This is my second season, and I have met many men just as improper as you,” she assured him.

“I don’t believe that.”

“That there are men as improper as you?”

“That this is your second season. Are you married?”

“You imply that I should be, because I was brought out last year? Alas, as far as my family is concerned, there is no one good enough for me. A most annoying circumstance, I assure you.” Nicholas laughed. “It is too bad I sailed to the West Indies last year to inspect some property I have there. I would have met you sooner if I’d stayed here.”

“Would you have tried for my hand?”

“I would have tried for—some part of you.”

For the first time, Reggie blushed. “That was too bold.”

“But not as bold as I would like to be.”

Oh, he truly was dangerous, Reggie thought. Handsome, charming, wicked. Then why wasn’t she frightened of being alone with Nicholas Eden? Common sense told her she should be.

She watched breathlessly as he came toward her, closing the space between them again. She didn’t move away, and he smiled. A tiny pulse was beating at the base of her throat and he had an overwhelming desire to run his tongue over it, feel the pulse beating there.

“I wonder, are you as innocent as you claim to be, Regina Ashton?” She couldn’t give in to him, no matter how strongly he worked his magic on her. “Knowing who my family is, you really can’t doubt me, Lord Montieth.”

“You haven’t been scandalized by my bringing you here,” he blurted. “Why is that?” He studied her face closely.

“Oh, I suppose I saw the humor in it,” she confessed, but then she added, “I was worried for a while, however, when I thought Uncle Tony might find out where you took me and come pounding on your door before you returned to let me go. That would have caused a fine commotion! I don’t see how we could have kept a secret like that for long, and you might have ended up having to marry me. Such a shame, because we really wouldn’t suit.”

“Wouldn’t we?” he asked, amused.

“Certainly not!” she said in mock horror. “I would fall madly in love with you, while you would continue to be a disreputable rake and break my heart.”

“You are undoubtedly right,” he sighed, playing along. “I would make a terrible husband. Nor am I likely to be forced into marriage, by the way.”

“Not even if you have ruined my reputation?”

His mouth turned down. “Not even then.”

She evidently didn’t like his answer, and he was annoyed with himself for being so unnecessarily honest.

Anger with himself made his bright amber eyes even brighter, as if an unnatural light glowed behind them.

She shivered, wondering what he would be like if he really lost his temper.

“Are you cold?” he asked, seeing her rub the gooseflesh on her arms. Did he dare wrap his arms around her?

She reached for her cape and draped it loosely over her slim shoulders. “I think it’s time—”

“I’ve frightened you,” he said gently. “That wasn’t my intention.”

“I am afraid I know perfectly well what your intentions are, sir,” Reggie replied.

She bent down to put her slippers on, and when she straightened, she found herself in his arms. He did it so swiftly that she was being kissed before she could gasp. He tasted of brandy, sweet and intoxicating.

Oh, she’d known it would be like this, so heavenly.

Never had she been kissed with such feeling, or such daring. He actually molded her small frame to his, letting her feel for the first time the state of a man’s arousal. She was shocked and excited, and her br**sts tingled where they pressed against his coat. What was this other, deeper feeling coming from way down inside her?

His lips trailed along her cheek and down to her throat, where he kissed the throbbing pulse, drawing the skin into his mouth, sucking ever so gently.

“You mustn’t,” Reggie managed to whisper. It didn’t sound like her own voice at all.

“Oh, but I must, love, I really must.” He scooped her in his arms.

She gasped. There was nothing amusing about what was happening now. His lips brushed her throat again and she groaned.

“Put me down,” she said breathlessly. “Derek will hate you.”

“I don’t care.”

“My uncle will kill you.”

“It will be worth it.”

That did it. “You won’t think so when you see his weapon across a dueling field. Now put me down , Lord Montieth!”

Nicholas set her down slowly, carefully, causing her body to slide enticingly along his. “You would care, then?”

He was holding her close to him, and the steady heat of his body unsettled her. “Certainly. I wouldn’t like to see you die because of a—a harmless escapade.”

“Is that what you’d call my making love to you?” he chuckled, delighted.

“I was not referring to that, but to your bringing me here. As it is, I will have the devil’s own time talking Tony round to forgetting this matter.”

“You mean to protect me, then?” Nicholas said softly.

Reggie pushed away from him, unable to think clearly with her body against his. Her cape had fallen, and he retrieved it gallantly, handing it back to her with a bow.

She sighed. “If Tony doesn’t know you are the one who absconded with me, then I shan’t mention your name. If he does know, then, well, I suppose I will do my best to save your hide. But I insist you return me to him now, before he does something foolish, such as telling others I am missing.”

“At least you give me hope.” Nicholas smiled. “I may not make a good husband, but I have been told I make an excellent lover. Will you consider me?”

She was shocked. “I don’t want a lover.”

“I will have to follow you this season until I change your mind,” he warned her.

He was incorrigible, she thought as, at last, he escorted her out of the house, incorrigible and very tempting. Tony had better be successful with Uncle Jason on her behalf, because Nicholas Eden could be a girl’s downfall.

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