Say You Love Me Page 19

It wasn't that he'd decided that Kelsey might enjoy the outing. Likely she would, but that wasn't his motive. It was that he'd tried to put their relationship in perspective, to visit her only in the evenings, as was proper with one's mistress. And having done so for several evenings, he'd found that he didn't enjoy behaving properly where she was concerned. Far from it. As he'd gone about his business, or tried to, as if nothing had changed in his life, he'd had to force himself to leave her in the mornings and fight the urge to stay away until the evenings.

On the day of the race, he'd given in to the urge, telling himself that it wouldn't hurt, just this once. The problem seemed to be that he enjoyed her company too much. She made him laugh. She didn't run on with endless chatter. She was intelligent. They had discussed literature one evening over dinner, and he'd been amazed to find himself in a heated debate with her over philosophy, of all things-and he'd enjoyed every minute of it.

Whether this was going to be a serious problem, he couldn't say. In the back of his mind was the notion that a mistress served one purpose and only one purpose. His last mistress had talked him into being her escort as well, and he had resented that intrusion upon his time. Nor had he enjoyed Marjorie's company outside of her bedroom. But Kelsey was different. She didn't make demands. In fact, she'd never asked him for a single thing, other than that one time when she'd asked him to kiss her.

That was an extremely fond memory. It brought a smile to him every time he remembered it. Actually, he'd been smiling much too often lately, for no good reason. Even his valet had remarked on it. But then Kelsey was never very far from his mind. And the truth was, she'd turned out to be a pleasure to him in every way.

Kelsey quickly dressed for the outing. He liked that about her, too, that she didn't spend endless hours over her toilette, fussing and primpmig and expecting every curl to be just so, and yet she always ended up looking perfect to him, a delight to each one of his senses, and today was no exception.

She had made another visit to the dressmaker's, and had come home this time with several completed dresses, including a bright sapphire velvet with matching spencer. She looked so lovely that it made him wish the weather were warmer so he could take her about in an open carriage to show her off in Hyde Park, a scandalous thought that appalled him even as it occurred to him. Promenading through the park with a lady you were seriously courting-was one thing, with your mistress, quite another. That might have been something his younger uncles would have done without a care, but then neither one of them had ever been bothered by what people said or thought about them. They hadn't been called two of London's more notorious rakes for nothing.

The races were to be held just on the outskirts of London. Arriving, they were able to squeeze their coach in between a barouche and a phaeton right next to the track for ideal viewing, despite the large crowd already gathered. Usually, the high bettors would stand right at the track, so they would park their carriages farther away, leaving the circle around the track for those people who preferred to watch with their ladies from the comfort of their vehicles.

Some ladies did attend with either husband or family, though not many ventured out in the winter. So Derek wasn't too concerned about offending anyone with Kelsey's presence. No one other than Percy and Jeremy would even know she was there, as long as she stayed in the coach, which he'd already cautioned her to do.

They had a brazier going in the coach, but the weather wasn't miserable. Chilly it was, certainly, but there was no wind, and the sun was even making periodic appearances.

Refreshments could be bought, but most of the gentry brought their own along, including Derek. He'd had Mrs. Hershal prepare him a basket with an assortment of snacks and sandwiches, enough to feed his friends as well, and several bottles of wine. The races could last half a day or more sometimes, after all, depending on how many challenges were issued after the official races were over.

Percy and Jeremy soon joined them after the first race. Percy was all smiles as usual. He seemed to have a sixth sense about racing. He not only found exceptional horseflesh to buy, and in the oddest places, but he was rarely wrong in picking a winner, despite the odds. He never took betting seriously, though. For him, it was just a pleasure to have his judgment be proven correct. "I take it you've already collected a few wagers?" Derek remarked as Percy said a mere "How do" before he dug right into the basket of goodies.

Jeremy said drolly, "Need you ask?" Derek grinned. "Percy isn't always right on the mark. I can remember losing a few thousand pounds once when he wasn't, which is why I don't go overboard on his choices anymore."

Percy made a long-suffering face. "And he'll never let me live it down," he said to Jeremy.

The lad chuckled. "I think you enjoyed taking old Nick's wager more'n you did the win on that first race."

Percy suddenly beamed. "Didn't I though. But, then, Nicholas always manages to talk me out of every fine Thoroughbred that comes my way. Don't know how he does it, damn me, but I don't." "Nicholas is here?"

Percy nodded. "He's entered that stallion he just bought off me. Should be coming up in the fourth race." “You should have asked him to join us," Derek said.

Jeremy coughed. "No, actually, that wouldn't be a very good-"

He didn't quite finish because the door opened just then and in climbed Regina Eden, Nicholas's wife-and Derek and Jeremy's cousin. Obviously, this was why Jeremy hadn't thought it would be a good idea to invite Nick over, and Derek couldn't have agreed more. He was, in fact, confounded, wondering how the deuce he could avoid introducing his irrepressible cousin to his mistress. "I thought I recognized your coach, Derek," Reggie said as she leaned forward to kiss his cheek, then plopped down on the seat next to him. And to Jeremy, "And why didn't You tell me he was here?"

Jeremy stuffed his hands into his pockets and slouched down on the seat across from them. "Didn't think of it," he said lamely. "Reggie, what the deuce are you doing here?" Derek asked. "You don't like the races." "I know I don't." She shrugged, then grinned. "But somehow I ended up betting with Nicholas that his new stallion wouldn't win today, so I had to be here to see for myself. You don't think I'd take his word for it, d'you? When he hates losing to me?"

Derek had turned sideways in an effort to try to block Kelsey, who was sitting on his other side, from Reggie's view, an impossible task, considering how bright the sapphire blue of her dress was.

"You could have asked me," he pointed out reasonably, he thought.

She raised a brow at him. "When I so rarely see you anymore?" she said reproachfully. "And how'd I know you would even be here?" Then she practically shoved Derek back so she could lean around him to say, "How nice to see you again, Kelsey. I had no idea you were acquainted with my cousin."

Kelsey had been horribly embarrassed the moment she recognized Regina Eden entering the coach. It was one thing to talk to a stranger and let her assume what she would, because you never expected to see her again. But when you did see her again ...

She had immediately turned to face the window near her, like Derek, hoping the lady wouldn't notice her. It had been a slim hope. "Derek is your cousin, Lady Eden?" "Oh, my, yes, we were raised together, don't you know. And please, just call me Reggie, as the rest of my family-" She paused to glance at Jeremy. "Well, almost the rest of my family does."

Derek was no longer confounded, he was utterly appalled. "Reggie, how do you know Kelsey?" "We met at the dressmaker's the other day-and hit it off splendidly, if I do say so myself. But goodness, what's she doing here alone with you, Derek? You know how vicious gossips can be." "She's-she's-"

Derek drew a complete blank, at which point Jeremy supplied helpfully, "Percy's cousin."

Percy blinked. "She is"-a pinch from Jeremy made him add-"my cousin. Yes, distant cousin on m'mother's side, don't you know." "How delightful," Reggie said. "I knew instinctively when I met her that she and I were going to be good friends, and now I know why. If she's related to Percy, then she's already almost like family, considering that he is. You must bring her by for dinner tonight, Percy. And of course, you're invited too, cousins, the both of you."

The three men each went into full-blown panic. "That wouldn't be-" "Couldn't possibly-" "I've got other-" But Reggie was quick to interrupt, frowning. "You aren't really thinking of giving me excuses, are you, when I'm only going to be in town a few more days? Your father and Aunt George are already coming, Jeremy. So's Uncle Tony and Aunt Roslynn, so this will be a nice little family gathering. Whatever plans you might have had aren't as important as a family gathering, now, are they?"

Jeremy rolled his eyes. Derek slumped back, groaning inwardly. Reggie always had been an excellent manipulator. And she went about it so innocently, the little minx. "Oh, I say, does that mean we're all going?" Percy asked Derek.

Derek could have cheerfully killed his friend just then. Jeremy and Derek might have just been cornered, but Percy could still have made some excuse, since he wasn't really family. But did that half-wit have the sense to realize that? No, not good old Percy.

WELL, IT WAS RATHER STRANGE, IF YOU ASK ME." REGgie told her husband as she prepared to receive her guests that night. "I mean, all three of them hedging, as if they didn't really want to come. Goodness, it's only a dinner, a few hours of their time. It's not as if they can't go on and do-well, whatever they normally do, afterward." "Percy's cousin, you say?" was Nicholas's response, and that with a frown.

Reggie sighed. "Have you even heard one word I said after mentioning his cousin?"

Nicholas blinked. He had become preoccupied with that, considering that Percy had told him once that he didn't have any other relatives, distant or not, yet here suddenly was a distant cousin. But he had heard what else she'd saidvaguely. It was only just registering.

So he assured her, "Of course I heard you, luv. But what makes you think they were hedging? Perhaps they did have other plans."

She gave an unladylike snort. "If they were important plans, then they would have mentioned them, wouldn't they? But they didn't. And they seemed remarkably uncomfortable with the idea of coming here."

He chuckled. "Percy and Derek used to practically live here, they were here so often, so you know that can't be true. It's possible you just caught them with other things on their mind and imagined any hedging." "I did, did I' she said skeptically. "Well, we'll see tonight, won't we, if their behavior is normal or not. And if it's not, I want you to find out why. Obviously, they won't confide in me, but they will you." "Reggie, you're likely making a big to-do over nothing, you know, so do give it a rest for now. If anything is actually amiss, I'm sure it will come to light. And by the by, thank you for inviting Derek and Percy. Don't feel so bloody outnumbered now."

He was, of course, referring to her uncles James and Tony. He had not been looking forward to that night ever since she'd informed him that her uncles were coming.

She poked him in the chest and warned, "No baiting tonight. You promised you'd behave."

He gave her a hug and an innocent grin. "I will if they will."

Reggie sighed, anticipating disaster. After all, when did her uncles ever behave?

Anthony pulled Derek aside before they went in to dinner. They had been gathered in the parlor, where Anthony and his brother James had actually been on their best behavior, a rare thing when they were in the same room with Nicholas Eden. But the fact that the children had been present, James holding his little Jack, and Roslynn keeping baby Judith in hand, likely had something to do with it. It was an amazing thing, the change that occurred in Derek's younger uncles when their daughters were around.

But right then Anthony looked rather serious as he waited for the others to go on into the dining room before he said to Derek, "D'you think it's a good idea to be bedding Alden's cousin?"

Derek felt as if he'd just been gut-punched. "What makes you think-?"

Anthony's chuckle cut him off. "Come now, dear boy, I've been there. It's bloody well obvious with the way you look at her."

Derek blushed. And here he'd thought the evening had been progressing splendidly, all things considered.

Unfortunately, he'd been unable to come up with a reasonable excuse not to attend that wouldn't have Reggie badgering him for the next year and making him feel like the lowest cad. He'd even considered accidents and dire health, but knew his cousin well enough to know she'd be suspicious and insist on sending a doctor.

So after talking it over with Percy and Jeremy, and having Percy assure him that he could carry off the lie that Kelsey was his cousin, he'd decided to risk it. It was only family, after all, and only one evening. And even if something went wrong and they were found out, no scandal would actually come of it-just one very furious Jason Malory.

Nicholas had known immediately who Kelsey was when Derek had introduced her to him, and had looked daggers at Derek. But Nick had relaxed soon enough when he saw how Kelsey comported herself. In no way did she appear other than what Reggie thought her to be. She looked like a lady. She acted like a lady. And informing Reggie right up front that Kelsey would soon be hieing back to the country had put an end to his cousin's plans for The Great Friendship.

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