Love Only Once

Page 1

Chapter 1

1817 London

THE fingers holding the brandy decanter were long and delicate. Selena Eddington was vain about her hands. She showed them off whenever a chance presented itself, as it did just then. She brought the decanter to Nicholas instead of taking his glass to the brandy. This served another purpose, as well, for she was able to stand in front of him as he reclined on the plush blue sofa, the fire at her back, her figure outlined provocatively through her thin muslin evening dress. Even a hardened rake like Nicholas Eden could still appreciate a lovely body.

A large ruby winked on her left hand as she steadied his glass and poured the brandy. Her wedding ring.

She still wore it proudly, though she had been a widow for two years. More rubies circled her throat, but even spectacular rubies did not detract from her décolletage, exceedingly low, which allowed a mere three inches of material before the cinched high waist of the empire gown fell in straight lines to her trim ankles. The gown was a deep, dark magenta, and suited beautifully both the rubies and Selena.

“Are you listening to me, Nicky?”

Nicholas had that irritating pensive look about him that she recognized more and more of late. He was not listening to a word she was saying but was deep in thoughts that surely didn’t include her. He hadn’t even glanced at her while she poured his brandy.

“Honestly, Nicky, it’s not at all flattering the way you go off and leave me when we’re in a room alone together.” She stood her ground in front of him until he looked up at her.

“What’s that, my dear?” Her hazel eyes flashed. She would have stomped her foot if she’d dared let him see her vile temper. How provoking he was, how indifferent, how… impossible! If only he weren’t such a good catch.

Mindful of her deportment, she said evenly, “The ball, Nicky. I have been going on about it, but you’re not paying attention. If you like, I will change the subject, but only if you promise you won’t be late coming for me tomorrow night.”

“What ball?”

Selena gasped, truly surprised. He was not foxed, and he was not being blasé. The infuriating man really had no idea what she was talking about.

“Don’t tease me, Nicky. The Shepford ball. You know how much I have been looking forward to it.”

“Ah, yes,” he said dryly. “The ball to outdo them all, and this only the beginning of the season.” She pretended not to notice his tone. “You also know how long I have waited for an invitation to one of the Duchess of Shepford’s affairs. This ball promises to be her grandest in years. Simply everyone who is anyone will be there.”

“So?”

Selena counted slowly to five. “So I will die if I am even the tiniest bit late.” His lips turned up in the familiar mocking smile. “You die much too often, my dear. You shouldn’t take the social whirl so seriously.”

“I should be like you?”

She would have called that retort back if she’d been able to. Her temper was very close to being unleashed, and that would be disastrous. She knew how he deplored excess of emotion in anyone—though it was all right for him to let loose his temper, which could be quite unpleasant.

Nicholas simply shrugged. “Call me eccentric, my dear, one of the few who doesn’t give a bloody damn for the lot of them.”

How true that was. He ignored and even insulted whomever he pleased. He made friends with anyone he pleased, too, even known bastards who were snubbed by society. And he never, ever, pandered to anyone. He was every bit as arrogant as people said he was. But he could also be devastatingly charming—when he wanted to be.

Miraculously, Selena kept a tight rein on her temper. “Nevertheless, Nicky, you did promise to escort

me to the Shepford ball.”

“Did I?” he drawled.

“Yes, you did,” she managed evenly. “And you will promise not to be late in coming for me, won’t you?”

He shrugged again. “How can I promise such a thing, my dear? I cannot foresee the future. There is no telling what might arise tomorrow to delay me.”

She very nearly screamed. There was nothing to delay him except his own perfidious indifference, and they both knew it. It was not to be borne!

Selena made a quick decision and said nonchalantly, “Very well, Nicky. Since this is so important to me and I can’t depend on you, I will find myself another escort and simply hope that you will eventually show up at the ball.” Two could play his game.

“On such short notice?” he asked.

“You doubt I can?” she challenged.

He smiled, his gaze moving over her appreciatively. “No, indeed. I believe you will have very little trouble replacing me.”

Selena turned her back on him before he could see how the remark affected her. Had that been a warning? Oh, how sure of himself he was. It would serve him right if she broke off their affair. No mistress of his had ever done so.

He was always the one to end an affair. He was always the one in charge. How would he react if she dropped him? Would it throw him into a rage? Would it force his hand? This merited serious consideration.

Nicholas Eden stretched more comfortably on the sofa and watched Selena pick up her glass of sherry, then lie down on the thick fur rug in front of the fire, her back to him. His lips curled sardonically. How alluring her pose was, but of course she knew that. Selena always knew precisely what she was doing.

They were at her friend Marie’s townhouse, having enjoyed an elegant dinner with Marie and her current lover, played whist for an hour or so, and then retired to this cozy drawing room. Marie and her ardent gentleman had retired to a room upstairs, leaving Nicholas and Selena to themselves. How many other nights had been spent like this one? The only constant was that the Countess had a different lover every time. She lived life dangerously whenever her husband the Earl was out of town.

There was another difference tonight, though. The room was just as romantic, a fire burning, a lamp in the corner turned down low, good brandy, servants discreetly retired for the night, Selena as seductive as ever. But tonight Nicholas was bored. It was as simple as that. He had no wish to leave the sofa and join Selena on the rug.

He had known for a while that he was losing interest in Selena. The fact that he didn’t especially wish to bed her tonight confirmed his feeling that it was time to end the affair. Theirs had lasted longer than most of his involvements, nearly three months. Perhaps that was why he felt ready to leave her despite the fact that he’d found no one to replace her.

There was no one he felt like pursuing just then. Selena quite outshined all the ladies of his acquaintance, except those odd few who were in love with their husbands and therefore not prone to his charm. Oh, but his hunting field was not limited only to married ladies bored with their husbands, not really. He did not scruple to leave untouched the sweet innocents out for their first or second seasons. If the tender young ladies were prone to succumb, they were not safe from Nicholas. As long as they were eager to be bedded, he would oblige them for however long the affair could escape the notice of their parents.

These were quite his shortest dalliances, certainly, but his most challenging, too.

He had enjoyed three virgins in his younger hell-raising days. One, a Duke’s daughter, was quickly married off to a second cousin or some such lucky gentleman. The other two had likewise been married off before full-scale scandals blossomed. Which was not to say the gossip-mongers hadn’t had field days with each affair. But without challenges issued from enraged families, the affairs remained only gossip and speculation. The fact was that the fathers in question were all afraid to face him on the dueling field. He had by that time already won two duels with irate husbands.

He was not proud of deflowering three innocents, or of wounding two men whose only error lay in having promiscuous wives. But he felt no guilt either. If the debutantes were foolish enough to give themselves to him without promise of marriage, well, so it went. And the wives of noblemen had known exactly what they were doing.

It had been said of Nicholas that he didn’t particularly care who got hurt while he pursued his pleasures.

Perhaps that was true, perhaps not. No one really knew Nicholas well enough to be sure. Even he wasn’t sure why he did some of the things he did.

He paid for his reputation, in any case. Fathers with titles above his would not consider him for their daughters. Only the very daring and people looking for a rich husband kept Nicholas’ name on their social lists.

But he was not looking for a wife. He had long felt he had no right to offer for a young woman of breeding and lineage that his title demanded. In all likelihood he would never marry. No one knew why the Viscount of Montieth was resigned to his bachelor life, so there were still countless hopefuls looking to snag him, to reform him.

Lady Selena Eddington was one of those hopefuls. She took pains not to show it, but he knew when a woman was after his title. Married to a Baron her first time around, she was looking higher now. She was strikingly beautiful, with short black hair surrounding her oval face with delicate curls, in the current fashion. Golden skin enhanced the expressive hazel eyes. Twenty-four, amusing, seductive, she was a lovely woman. It was certainly not her fault that Nicholas’ desire for her had cooled.

No woman had ever managed to keep his ardor burning for long. He had expected this affair to fade.

They all did. The only thing that surprised him was his willingness to end it before sighting a new conquest. The decision would force him to haunt the social scene for a while, until someone took his interest, and Nicholas hated having to do that.

Perhaps tomorrow’s ball would be just the ticket. There would be dozens of new young ladies there, for the season had just opened. Nicholas sighed. At twenty-seven, after seven years of jaded living, he had lost his taste for young innocents.

He wouldn’t break with Selena tonight, he decided, for she was already piqued with him, and she would unleash all of the temper he suspected she was capable of. That was to be avoided. He deplored

emotional scenes, for his own nature was too passionate by half. Women could never stand up to his full rage. They were always reduced to tears, and that was just as deplorable. No, he would tell her tomorrow night when he saw her at the ball. She wouldn’t dare make a scene in public.

Selena held her crystal glass of sherry up to the fire and marveled that the amber liquid was the exact shade of Nicholas’ eyes when he was in an extreme mood. His eyes had been that honey-gold color when he first began to pursue her, but they were also that color when he was either annoyed or pleased about something. When he was feeling nothing special, was calm or indifferent, his eyes were more of a reddish brown, almost the color of newly polished copper. They were always disturbing eyes because even when they were a darker shade, they still glowed with an inner light. The unsettling eyes were offset by his swarthy skin and inordinately long dark eyelashes. His skin tone was dark gold to begin with, and he was bronzed by the sun as well, for he was an avid outdoors-man. He was saved from looking sinister by brown hair streaked with golden highlights. Worn in the currently fashionable windswept style and naturally wavy, his hair had a two-tone appearance in certain lighting.

It was detestable of him to be so handsome that the mere sight of him could start a girl’s heart fluttering.

She had seen it happen many times. Young girls became giggling ninnies in his presence. Older women offered blatant invitations with their eyes. No wonder he was so hard to handle. Lovely females had no doubt been throwing themselves at him since he’d come of age, or even before. And it was not just his face that was so entrancing. Why couldn’t he be short, or even chubby, she asked herself, anything to take away from his devastating effect? But no, he fit the current mode of skintight trousers and cut-away coats as if the style had been created just for him. No having to nip in the coats or pad the shoulders for Nicholas Eden. His body was superb—muscular yet trim, tall yet graceful, the body of an avid athlete.

If only it weren’t so. Then Selena’s heart wouldn’t throb whenever he looked at her with those sherry eyes. She was determined to bring him to the altar, for not only was he the best-looking man she had ever seen, he was also the Fourth Viscount Eden of Montieth, and rich besides. Made to order was what he was, and arrogantly aware of the fact.

What, indeed, could bring him around? Something had to, for it was painfully obvious that he was losing interest in her. What could she do to reignite the flame? Ride na**d through Hyde Park? Join one of the whispered-about Black Sabbaths that were said to be excuses for orgies? Behave even more scandalously than he did? She could break into Whites or Brooks— that would really shock him. Under no circumstances were women allowed in those all-male establishments. Or perhaps she could begin to ignore him. Or even… by God, yes, throw him over for another man! He would die! He would simply not be able to stand the blow to his vanity. It would arouse his rage and jealousy, and he would rashly demand that she marry him!

Selena became excited thinking about it. It would work. It had to. Anyway, she had no choice but to try.

If it didn’t work, she would have lost nothing, for she was losing him as it was.

She rolled over to face him and found him stretched out on the sofa with his feet propped up on one end, boots and all, his hands behind his head at the other end. Going to sleep on her! Famous! She could not remember ever being so insulted. Not even her husband of two years had ever gone to sleep in her presence. Yes, desperate measures were definitely called for.

“Nicholas?” She said his name softly and he answered her right away. At least he hadn’t been asleep.

“Nicholas, I have been giving our relationship a good deal of thought.”

“Have you, Selena?”

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