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It was a hot day in Boston when the curtain finally lifted from Regina Landers O'Ryan's eyes and she realized that she had made the biggest mistake of her life nearly a year ago. Now, because of her mistake, marrying the wrong manor rather allowing him to marry herher husband was paying the price. That had become clear this past week.
"Well, no more," she whispered to herself as she watched the clock hands move forward. Dell would be home soon. Normally she wasn't here when he arrived. She usually stayed in the darkroom developing photos for The Wedding Belles, the business where she and her friends worked making wedding dreams for other people come true.
The irony of the situation didn't escape Regina. Her business dealt in the kind of romantic dreams she no longer believed in. Still, she wasn't the one at issue.
Dell might still find the woman he would have chosen had he been given a choice. It was long past time to free her husband from his bonds.
Regina sat down to wait.
* * *
The minute Dell walked through the door of the tasteful mansion where he'd lived his whole life, he knew that something was different. And it wasn't the ghosts of old O'Ryan aristocrats that were raising the hair on the back of his neck.
Regina was perched in the hallway on a Victorian settee that had been in his family for generations and was just as uncomfortable as it looked. That in itself set off warning bells. Regina was never waiting for him when he got home. She rose to meet him now.
He looked into her concerned brown eyes. She was holding a sheath of papers.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"We need to talk." Her soft voice came out unevenly.
"We need totalk now," she repeated, clearing her throat and managing to sound firm and determined though she was clearly on edge.
She shook her head. "No, you don't, but I do. Finally."
Regina held out her hand and he saw that the top sheet was a page torn out of a local magazine. "Have you seen this?" she asked.
He hadn't. The publication masqueraded as an event guide for the city of Boston, but the real draw was the bits of gossip sprinkled throughout its pages.
Dell lifted a brow. "Not my usual cup of tea."
She blushed slightly, and Dell realized that he'd rarely seen her blush. But then, he didn't really know Regina all that well. Their brief marriage had been entered into hastily for the sake of convenience, and they had spent very little time together. Like his parents had, they occupied this house as virtual strangers. But the delicate pink that tinted Regina's cheeks and dipped into the shadows at the vee of her pale yellow blouse definitely made him aware of her in ways he hadn't been when he'd entered the room. That was a surprise. It was also obviously bad timing.
Regina nodded, and for a moment Dell wondered if she had read his mind. "No, I suppose this wouldn't be the kind of thing a man like you might read," she said, "but I've verified the facts. They're true."
She turned away, her voice muffled, but she held her head high, her straight brown hair brushing her shoulders. Regina was a woman with generous curves, but she seemed thinner than he remembered her being when she'd fallen into his world just over a year ago. Was it any wonder? She'd been through a lot these past few months.
Dell rubbed a hand over his jaw. If Regina had suffered unhappiness, the blame was partly because of events that he had unintentionally set in motion. "You've verified the facts? So, tell me what they are, Regina." His voice came out too rough, and she turned to face him again.
"You were well on your way to marrying Elise Allenby when youwhen we"
"When we wed," he offered.
"Yes, but you did that to help me. You were supposed to marry Elise. Everyone was expecting an engagement announcement from the two of you. I didn't know. If I had, I wouldn't haveat least I hope I wouldn't have said yes." Distress filled her voice.
"Don't do that, Regina," he commanded. "You didn't destroy my love life if that's what you're thinking, and Elise and I hadn't even discussed marriage. I'm not a heartbroken man." But she was right in a way. Before the events of the past year had changed everything, he had wondered if he should deepen his relationship with Elise. It had been a purely practical consideration. Dell had never been a romantic man. His life revolved around the O'Ryan empire, and Elise came from a highly respected family and was an intelligent and beautiful woman. She knew how to conduct herself at events and would have graced his table admirably when he had to entertain. He hadn't done any entertaining since his marriage to Regina.
But that had been his choice and not Regina's fault. He hadn't wanted to make demands given the circumstances. He hadn't felt he'd had the right to demand anything of her.
"Is she a heartbroken woman?" Regina asked, lifting her chin.
He blinked. "I don't know." What he didn't tell her was that Elise had come to his office the day after he'd married Regina in a private ceremony. It was the most emotional he had ever seen Elise. It was, in fact, the only time he'd seen Elise give vent to her emotions. But that had been almost a year ago. Still, it rankled that in trying to keep from hurting one woman he might have inadvertently hurt another.
Dell grimaced. "Why is this rag writing that kind of story now?" he demanded, taking a different tack. "It's old news."
"It's not old news to me. I don't want to think that I might have been the cause of another woman's pain."
"You weren't. It wasn't like that." Dell took a step toward her. "Elise might have thought we would eventually marryothers might have thought that as wellbut I never suggested that to her. And if there had been reason if I had made promises or if she'd been pregnant, I would have done what was right, Regina."
Regina sank back down on the hard mahogany of the settee, her breath whooshing out on an audible sigh. "I know you would have. You're you believe in duty. You rescued me."
But it hadn't helped, Dell realized. Regina was no longer a woman in sudden desperate need, as she had been when they had wed. She had security and work that she enjoyed. But her eyes didn't light up the way they had when she'd shown up on his doorstep with some of his mail that had mistakenly been delivered to her house almost eighteen months ago. Unfortunate things had happened to her since that day, and he had been the unwitting author of some of those things.
"You know I haven't always done the right thing where you're concerned."
Regina's soft brown hair slid against the pale yellow of her blouse as she shook her head. "I haven't always done the right thing where you're concerned, either. Last week" She frowned and began to pace.
Dell walked toward her, blocking her progress. He tilted his head, trying to see her expression, hidden as she refused to look at him. "What happened last week?" he asked.
Crossing her arms, Regina blew out a deep breath. "I was shooting a wedding when one of the guests, an older woman named Adele Tidings, noticed my name tag. She wanted to know if I was related to you, and once she knew that we were married, she wondered why she hadn't seen me around when she'd been at several functions lately which you had attended, alone. I realized how awful the truth would sound, and I didn't know what to say, so I just lied. I told her that I'd been horribly ill for a long time."
"Regina, Adele is nice but nosy. She had no business asking you personal questions. Don't worry about it." But Regina shook her head.
"No, you and I both know that I wasn't sick. You helped me out when we wed, but I never even considered accompanying you to any of your social functions, even though I knew they were a part of your business. I didn't hold up my end of the bargain."
"We didn't make a bargain, Regina. We got married for good if unconventional reasons, and this year hasn't been your happiest. You have nothing to apologize for."
But the look in her eyes told him that she wasn't buying his argument.
"You never mentioned anything," she said, "but this article was written because there's a rumor that you've been approached to open a new store in Chicago. I assume it's true that one of your wealthiest customers is petitioning you to expand into her area and that she's started a campaign with her friends to entice you into moving. They're willing to wine you and dine you, to provide you with free advertising and do whatever it takes, but you've resisted even though it's a great opportunity. The city of Chicago would consider it a coup to get you, and the article says that people at the highest levels are wondering why you haven't at least looked into the matter."
Dell blew out a breath. "People often wonder about things that don't concern them."
"They're saying it's because your wife has a business in Boston and you don't want to upset her with a move."
She looked so deliciously miffed that Dell almost wanted to laugh.
"Maybe I should remind them that I have a business headquartered in Boston and a fine old family home. Perhaps I simply don't want to expand to the Midwest."
She frowned, her nose wrinkling in that cute way it had. "Is that why?"
It wasn't. He loved Chicago and he had been thinking of expanding there for a while, but it would have been unconscionable to desert his new and fragile bride in her hour of need while he left town for the long periods of time that would be necessary to embark on such a venture. The gossips were right, at least partly right. No matter the circumstances, O'Ryans took care of their families and they took care of the family name. Leaving a wife alone so soon after they had wed would have stirred up more gossip than breaking it off with Elise had.
"I'm just pointing out that there's often more than one reason for doing or not doing something," he said, evading the question. "And I don't want you to worry about this. I'll handle it."
Regina stood suddenly and took a step toward him. "When I was ten and you were six, we didn't know each other, but like everyone else in the area, I knew who you were. One day I was walking past this house and your father was explaining to you why an O'Ryan couldn't run around barefoot in the summer the way the rest of us did. You had this longing look in your eyes and, not realizing that we lived in vastly different worlds, I felt sorry for you. I think I just saw a fleeting glimpse of that same look. The gossips are right. You'd like to pursue the Chicago connection, but you feel responsible for me. Well, no more. I don't want to continue our marriage, Dell."
Dell had been opening his mouth to dismiss her arguments, but that last sentence caught him by surprise.
As if someone had unexpectedly punched him square in the chest with a jab that was sharp and surprisingly painful. He blinked. "Excuse me?"
Then her words caught up to him. "Why?" he asked.
A sad smile lifted her lips. Her brown eyes looked equally sad as she held out her hands, then let them fall to her sides. "We married for the wrong reasons, ones that seemed important at the time. Partly it was because you wanted to protect me. And I" She shook her head. "I was scared and lost and it was too easy to say yes, to want to be protected. I appreciate all you've done for me, all you've given up. You can't know how grateful I am. But I'm not lost anymore, and I'm not the type of woman who was made to be protected. Dell, we don't have a thing in common."
"We have a marriage in common." He didn't know why he was arguing. They were completely different kinds of people.
Regina laughed, a soft, pretty sound. "You know that's not enough. You're old money, good family, following the rules, doing what's required, what's right, while I'm a bit of a wild and fluffy mess and always have been."
He opened his mouth. She put up her palm to stop him.
"You don't need to defend me. I spent a lifetime trying to be what my parents expected and then finally realized that I was different. What's more, I'm good at being different, and I like the fact that I've finally accepted my creativity and my tendency to be unpredictable, but I don't fit into your world at all. I may be four years older than you, but you've always been the grown-up while I'll always be I don't know. Me."
"There's nothing wrong with you."
"You're right. There isn't, but I'm not right for you, and"
"I'm not right for you," he said, completing her sentence.
Dismay crept into her expression. "I didn't mean it that way. I'm not looking for romance. I don't even want it anymore, so you're not interfering with my love life."
"I'm just interfering with your life?"
"No!" Her voice was a bit too vehement, Dell couldn't help thinking, and he did smile then, even though he didn't feel at all like smiling.
"Liar. Being an O'Ryan probably isn't fun if you're not used to it."
She looked down at the magazine she still held. "People judge you, and I'm not helping your standing."
"Regina, I'm not worried." At least not about that. There had been good reasons why Regina hadn't appeared at his side this year. But theirs had not been an ordinary marriage. It certainly hadn't been what either of them would have chosen. And it hadn't been rewarding.
A pained look came into her eyes. "Every day women come into the shop. They're happy. They're marrying because it's what they want above all else, and that's as it should be, but it's not us.Admit it, Dell. This isn't working out. We're not a real couple. We don't even touch."
She muttered the last part, and Dell's senses began to sizzle. "We could touch," he told her, even though he had touched her only as a friend before their wedding night and never since. She had cried that nightlong silent sobs she had tried to hold back. He had stopped. Since then he'd concentrated on just being a provider. He'd been willing to wait and be patient. "No, we can't," Regina said softly. "It would be a lie. It wouldn't work."
He studied her. She'd obviously thought this through. "How do you know it wouldn't work?" he asked.
She blinked, clearly startled.
"The marriage, I mean," he continued. "Not the touching. How do you know the marriage wouldn't work?"
Regina's gaze met his. "It hasn't," she said softly, and he was pretty sure she was remembering the past months.
So was he, and what he was remembering was that Regina had been happy until she fell into his life and things had gone awry. He'd spent a lifetime learning to be a proper O'Ryan and protecting the O'Ryan reputation from any hint of scandal. But after he had married Regina and scandal had been averted, he had abdicated his responsibility as if his duty had been done. There had been no satisfaction in this marriage and yet
"We haven't really tried to make our marriage work, have we?" he asked. "You mentioned that Adele wondered why she hadn't seen you around, but very few people have seen us together. Our marriage has been solely on paper, hasn't it?"
"There were reasons for that. You were practically forced to marry me."
Somehow Dell kept from reacting to that. "I chose to marry you, Regina." But he knew deep down that he was lying, at least partially. There had been numerous reasons why he had married Regina, but guilt, duty, honor and the need to protect the family nameand herhad been supreme.
But had he really protected her? Had he done anything right where she was concerned?