“I used to think that as well,” Thorn observed.
“What’s more, I would loathe it if my name became a byword because my wife took lovers. I might well go mad,” Vander said dispassionately.
“Well, there is that. Given the persistence of her adoration, Miss Carrington likely won’t ever think of another man.”
Vander’s smile was probably a bit feral. “There you have it. Perfect marriage for me.”
“You’ll have to get an heir on her—which means you’ll have to bed her. I couldn’t perform, not with a woman who was blackmailing me. Unless she only wants your name?”
“Don’t you remember that poem? If I’m not mistaken, my title is coming in a distant second to my moonbeam.”
Thorn swore again. “That’s intolerable.”
“Not necessarily. I’ve often thought it would be hell to have a frigid wife. I seem to have the opposite. But I do mean to set some restrictions in that regard.”
“I’m allotting her four nights.”
“Per month or per week?”
“Neither,” Vander said, enjoying himself. “Four days per year.”
He looked up to find Thorn’s face alive with laughter.
“I might give her an extra night now and then,” he added. “On her birthday.”
Thorn rarely laughed; it just wasn’t in his nature. But he guffawed now.
“Four nights should be enough to produce an heir,” Vander noted. It wasn’t the end of the world to have an adoring wife. Particularly because the terms of their arrangement meant that he need not dance attendance on her.
“India will hate her no matter what.” Thorn got up from his chair. “She had plans for you.”
“That girl you pushed off on me the last time we went to the theater bleated at me like a goat all night. And her face was beaky.”
“Those are cheekbones, you ass.”
“I didn’t like them.” The girl had been all angular bones and hard edges. He preferred . . .
He preferred a woman who fit under his arm like a sheltering bird. Even Thorn’s gorgeous wife, India, was too tall for him, if the truth be told.
Thorn stared down at him. “Just tell me this: Does Miss Carrington agree with your limit of four nights?”
“I haven’t told her yet, but she will. She’s mad with love, if I recall the phrasing correctly from that poem. She’ll take any scraps I throw in her direction. I think she repeated her proposal three or four times. To be succinct: she begged me.”
“Damn it,” his friend said, obviously disgusted. “This marriage is going to give you a wildly inflated idea of your own importance.”
Vander grinned at him.
NOTES ON FLORA & LONDON
~ Mr. Mortimer’s solicitor buys her jewelry, coach, servants . . . what else?
~ Modiste ecstatic to provide wardrobe for young lady so exquisite. Slender, coltish legs, doelike eyes (watch for too many animal metaphors)
~ in wks, all London at Flora’s feet.
~ Virtuous, farmer impoverished squire, Mr. Wolfington. “My heart is the only gold I offer!”
~ Count Frederic—side of the ballroom—longs for her hand.
~ Frederic and Flora dance once, twice. Ballroom sighs at sight of his celestial beauty, dark locks next to yellow, & etc.
~ Yet even in the scene of mirthful festivity, Flora aware of an unaccountable feeling of Apprehension . . .
Vander had ignored the question of marriage all day, working in his stables from five in the morning to evening. A stallion that he’d bought from Africa, chosen due to his bloodlines, had been delivered that morning. The young horse, Jafeer, had turned out to be both ferocious and completely unnerved by his new residence, and Vander had spent most of the afternoon trying to settle him.
His stable master was convinced that a good night’s sleep would make all the difference to Jafeer’s temperament. Vander wasn’t quite as certain. There was a wild tone to the Arabian’s whinny that suggested true distress.
Marvelous. He’d had the stallion shipped all the way to England . . . and now it was showing every sign of being difficult, if not impossible, to train.
He walked into his study and caught sight of an untouched letter: Mia’s supposed requirements for marriage. Rage ran up his spine like a flame. The woman actually thought that she could dictate the terms of their marriage?
She was blackmailing him into making her a duchess, and on top of that, insisting on her own terms as well? The hell with that. A man is the master of his wife. Once Mia and he married, he would be in control.
She might be able to buy his title, but nothing else. With a sudden jerky movement, he crumpled the sheet and hurled it into the fire. It fell against the logs and within seconds was consumed by flames.
He had never deluded himself about his intimidating size and rough demeanor. He knew he was the least sophisticated duke in the land. But Mia hadn’t shown any fear in response to his explosion of anger, though grown men had trembled in his presence.
Her infatuation was that powerful.
She must have made up her mind as a girl, biding her time until precisely a year after the death of his mother. He balled his fist and tapped it against the mantelpiece, thinking. There was something deeply unsettling about the idea that she wanted him so much, even after all this time, that she was willing to blackmail him.
By all rights, he should feel revolted at the idea of bedding her. But fool that he was, despite his outrage, he still liked her voluptuous figure.
He dropped his hand and turned away, walking back to his desk. She would probably attempt to use his desire to tame him. Every fiber of his being rejected that notion.
It might be time to let the dukedom go.
But . . . he was the duke. It was everything he was, and everything he had. The bones of the house were his. The portraits of his ancestors which lined the walls, the crypt full of those ancestors’ bones . . . the coffin where his mother was interred, his father’s beside her, an ironic pairing, under the circumstances.
He couldn’t let all that history fall into a stranger’s hands over something as trivial as marriage. He wanted to keep the title for his own children, even if those children came from Mia Carrington’s womb.
Something barbaric stirred in him. Her curves, plump mouth, golden hair: it would all be his. He hardened even more at the thought.
Revulsion followed that wave of lust. She was incredibly short-sighted. What if he locked her in the garret? Starved her? Killed her? He had the feeling that a jury of his noble peers would refuse to convict him of murder, if it came to trial and the sordid facts of their marriage emerged.
Not that he would actually harm her; thoughts were one thing, actions entirely another. But she could damn well accept his terms for this marriage, and the hell with whatever demands she’d made on that sheet he’d consigned to the fire.
He dropped into his chair, took up a sheet of engraved stationery, scrawled a letter, and signed it with his full name.
You will find below the parameters of this marriage. Without your express consent to my terms, I will not marry you and the dukedom can go to hell.
Evander Septimus Brody
4th Duke of Pindar