Commonsense prodded her. What had she expected?

He was a duke, for goodness’ sake. People probably fawned over him day and night.

Thank goodness, Vander had no idea that he was marrying someone with an undignified alter ego, to wit, Lucibella. He’d probably give up his dukedom rather than endure the shame. Not only was he marrying a dumpy charity case, but one who had turned her talent for maudlin poetry into a career fashioning disreputable fiction.

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She took the letter and broke the seals. So he’d allow his dukedom to “go to hell” if she didn’t agree with his demands? It didn’t matter what his terms were; she had no choice but accept them. What would be, would be.

She read the lines below his signature twice and, against all odds, started laughing. She was marrying a madman, so arrogant that he truly believed she was desperately in love with him and would implore him to bed her.

And he was going to ration her. He would give her four nights.

Implore him?

Her smile disappeared. Vander could wait until all of Dante’s hellish circles froze over before she’d beg for a night from him.

The duke was extraordinarily handsome, no doubt about that, but he was also the most conceited man she’d ever met. By far. She thought back to the moment when he’d unbuttoned his breeches. Was she supposed to be overcome by his magnificence and quiver with fright?

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Presumably, she wasn’t supposed to be gripped by curiosity. (Which she was, shameful and unladylike though it was.)

Obviously, Vander had thought that she would size him up and flee in the other direction. Her previous knowledge of the male anatomy had been limited to a few marble statues and whatever she could imagine lay behind a largish fig leaf.

The size of those leaves did suggest he had a point about his grandeur.

Still, women must have flattered him dreadfully, if he believed one glimpse would terrify her.

Whatever else one might conclude about Vander’s letter, it was clear that he had ignored her letter, in which she had explained the short span of their marriage. Fine. She merely had to get him to the altar, and Mr. Plummer could take over thereafter.

She kept her answer brief.

I agree to your terms for our marriage; to wit, that you and I will be intimate only in the event that I beg you for that privilege, and on no account more than four nights in a year.

The very idea of intimacy made her fingers shake, leaving a blot after her signature. Vander . . . naked. In bed.

She would leave Rutherford Park directly after the wedding, making the question irrelevant. The marriage could not be consummated, as that would threaten its annulment, though not, according to Mr. Plummer, Vander’s guardianship of Charlie.

This marriage wasn’t about pleasure.

Not four nights . . . not any nights.

She sealed the letter and sent it back with Vander’s waiting groom. Then she wrote two more sentences and crossed them out, until she decided that what she ought to do was sit down and reread Miss Julia Quiplet’s novel. That would convince her that there were decent gentlemen in the world.

But first she should see how Charlie was doing. She got up and headed for the nursery. Charlie was far more important than all trivialities such as dukes. Marriage. Wedding nights.

Her nephew was sitting at the small desk in the corner of the nursery. His eyes brightened the moment she entered. “Aunt Mia! Would you like to read my essay on Aristophanes?”

“Certainly,” she said, smiling at him. In the year since her brother had died, Sir Richard had dismissed Charlie’s tutor, after which she convinced the vicar to take over her nephew’s education.

Her brother John would have been appalled. He had been disappointed by his only son’s condition, but he never shirked on his son’s instruction, understanding that Charles Wallace would manage the Carrington estate someday.

Charlie swung across the room on his pipestem legs, stopping next to the sofa and leaning on his crutch. “What’s the matter?”

She reached out, pulled him onto her lap, and hugged him. Soon he would be nine years old. Then ten, then twenty . . .

If she had to marry the devil himself to keep this child happy and secure, she would do it. John’s will required that she be married; luckily it did not specify how long.

“Nothing’s the matter!” she said, trying to sound cheerful. “I’m fine. In fact, I want you to be the first to know that I just accepted a proposal of marriage from a duke.” She pushed from her mind the fact that she was the one doing the proposing. Charlie didn’t need to know that. He had far too much worry in his young life as it was. “Just think, darling, I shall be a duchess. That’s much better than marrying Mr. Reeve.”

“No!” Charlie scowled. “Mr. Reeve will come back; I know he’ll come back! He promised to make me another crutch. He wouldn’t leave without doing that. He promised.”

Mia sighed. Charlie refused to accept that she had been left at the altar. “Mr. Reeve left a note saying he meant to travel to India, remember?”

Her former fiancé, Edward, hadn’t bothered to save her the humiliation of waiting for him in church, for which she would never forgive him. Why couldn’t he have made up his mind to flee the night before the wedding?

That would have been humiliating, but bearable. She would have grieved in private. As it was, the letter was delivered to Sir Richard, who had read it aloud as she was waiting in the vestibule of St. Ninian’s.

Edward hadn’t even informed his parents of his decision to flee the country; the Earl of Gryffyn and his wife had been in the sanctuary awaiting the ceremony. When she’d seen them later that morning, they’d looked as shocked and distraught as she felt.

In a small, secret part of her heart, she wanted to believe Charlie was right. Someday Edward would return. He had loved her. He had looked at her . . . well, he had looked at her the way she used to look at Vander.

One day Edward would wake from the terror of marriage that had sent him running from the altar, but it would be too late.

“I cannot wait, Charlie,” she said, swallowing hard. “Only two weeks remain before the guardianship clause in your father’s will takes effect.” Her brother had named her Charlie’s guardian—but specified that she had to be married to a man of substance and worth within a twelvemonth of his death.

It would not have occurred to her brother that she, Mia, could undertake the repetitive and boring work of estate management. He and her father had always dismissed her airily, calling her books “scribbles.”

Her scribbles earned more than the Carrington estate did last year, but she hadn’t shared that fact with her father, not since her first book came out and he magnanimously granted her the right to keep her pennies to herself.

In his words.

“I wish he hadn’t left,” Charlie said, voicing the obvious. “Mr. Reeve promised to buy a sleigh next winter and pull me over the snow, and he was going to teach me how to invent things.”

Mia’s arm tightened around him. When her brother died, Sir Richard had promptly tried to retain guardianship of his nephew, on the grounds that Mia’s betrothed was illegitimate and consequently not a man of “substance and worth.” That had come to nothing, mercifully.

Sir Richard often won his lawsuits—which were legion—but he lost this one. Instead, Edward’s solicitors had promptly launched a counter-suit for slander. Edward may be illegitimate, but he was the son of an earl. What’s more, he was an Oxford professor who had made a fortune perfecting various machines, including a new type of paper-making machine that was used by printers.

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