Mia had actually met him in the office of her publisher, when Lucibella Delicosa was visiting London. For a moment she thought wistfully about the heady first days of their romance, when her father and brother were still alive, and she had believed she’d finally met a man she admired.
Then she shook herself. Ironically, Sir Richard had been proven right: Edward was not a man of “substance and worth,” or he never would have jilted her.
“You will learn how to invent things on your own,” she told Charlie. “I have to marry someone other than Mr. Reeve. Luckily for us, the duke has offered to step in.” She pressed a kiss on his forehead. “I will not let you go to Sir Richard, Charlie O’Mine.”
He leaned his head against her shoulder and she wrapped her other arm around him as well. She could feel his bones, thin and birdlike, against her body. He may be on his way to becoming a man, but for now he was still a child, and a frail one.
“I don’t like being Sir Richard’s ward. He looks at me as if I had three fingers, or two noses.”
“We needn’t worry about your uncle ever again. You’ll be a duke’s ward. What do you think of that?”
Charlie looked heartbreakingly uncertain. “I’ve never met a duke. Do you know him well?”
“Of course I do,” Mia said. “I’ve known His Grace since we were children, which is why he is being generous enough to do us this favor, on the basis of our old friendship.”
If only that were the truth. “After this marriage business is over, I thought we might take a trip, the two of us. What do you say about making a tour of Bavaria?” Bavaria had always struck her as a most romantic place with castles that she could use as the setting to future heroines’ adventures.
The sooner she left England after the marriage contract was signed, the sooner Vander could file for divorce on grounds of desertion or annulment on the grounds of non-consummation, whichever he pleased. As she’d explained to him in the letter he hadn’t bothered to read.
It was rather sad to realize that although she would miss her horse, Lancelot, there was no one and nothing else to keep her in England—not if Charlie was with her. Just at the moment, her life seemed oddly thin.
“Yes, please!” His voice rose with excitement. “I should like that above all things.”
“Then that is what we shall do.”
“I might have trouble walking on board ship.”
Mia shuddered at the very thought of Charlie on a slippery deck. “We’ll stay in the cabin and find ourselves across the Channel before you know it,” she said, trying to sound gay.
His slight arms wound around her neck. “It will be all right, Auntie,” he said, putting his tousled dark head, so like her brother’s, against her shoulder.
“I love you,” she whispered.
Charlie’s voice was only a thread of sound. “I love you too.”
NOTES ON PLOT
~ All London at Flora’s feet.
~ Flora unsure of Count Frederic: Could it be that the count, so assiduous in his intentions, was in reality naught but a Cruel Betrayer?
Frederic: “Who could behold such a picture of Feminine Grace and Sweetness, and not recognize one of Heaven’s Perfect Works?”
~ should he declare himself immediately, at the first ball?
“My heart is madly devoted to you,” the count cried. (Ugh. Exclaimed? Protested?)
“By all that is most sacred to my soul, I swear that my heart is madly eternally devoted to you,” exclaimed the count, his heart beating with love the agony of his emotion he felt.
Three days later
The morning of Mia’s wedding was clear with the promise of unexpectedly sultry late summer sunshine. She woke, disoriented, at five, thinking that it was almost time to see if Charlie was awake.
But as she blinked at unfamiliar wallpaper, she remembered that she had kissed her nephew goodnight the day before and traveled to Vander’s estate. It was only a matter of an hour between their houses, but the duke had ordered that she spend the night at Rutherford Park, and she didn’t think it politic to bicker over such a trivial matter.
Her rebellion was to arrive very late at night, whereupon she was ushered—without a welcome from her husband-to-be—straight to a bedchamber, one she presumed had belonged to the late duchess.
Mia looked around with a twitch of distaste at the lustrous gold tassels hanging from the bedposts, the Lyonnaise silk hangings along the dressing table, the silver urn engraved with the ducal seal poised on the mantel.
The urn was surrounded by a clutter of small animals made of china and lacquer and jade, a collection that was beginning to feel desperate to her. Could it be that her father had given his lover china animals because he could not give her children?
It was a morose thought. The duchess had had a sad smile, like a woman with a secret. Perhaps the secret wasn’t her adultery but something sadder. More intimate.
Mia shrugged and hopped out of bed. She would be gone by midday. There was no need to antagonize Vander with her presence more than absolutely necessary. He would be overjoyed to hear that she had no intention of remaining under his roof, and that the marriage was in name only.
Her maid, Susan, popped her head in the door with a smile. “Good morning, miss!” She ushered in footmen carrying cans of steaming water that they took into the adjoining bathing chamber.
For the life of her, Mia couldn’t stop thinking about the late duchess. Why, for example, would Her Grace have wanted a bathtub surrounded entirely by mirrors?
She herself always did her best to not look at her own figure or, indeed, any part of herself. It was impossible not to catch sight of distressing expanses of pink flesh when the walls were adorned with silvered glass wherever one looked.
She refused to soak but washed, climbed out, and wrapped herself in a length of toweling as quickly as she could. Really, she wanted everything about this trip to be got through as quickly as possible.
“What does the household think of this marriage?” she asked Susan.
Her maid’s eyes met hers in the glass and then moved back down to the comb she was drawing through Mia’s long hair. “They daren’t say aught to my face.”
They’d been together for three years, and Susan knew almost everything about her, even the story of that benighted poem. Susan being Susan, she had hooted with laughter over the “pearly potion,” though she agreed that it was fiendish of Oakenrott to tell the world about her infatuation for Vander.
“You’d think they’d be glad to see their master married,” she continued. “But they seem to think that His Grace is making an enormous mistake. It was all I could do not to give Mr. Nottle a piece of my mind last night.” Her cheeks turned pink and she started combing a bit faster.
“It’s that formal downstairs, my lady, you wouldn’t believe it. Mr. Gaunt would fall about laughing if we bowed and scraped to him the way that Mr. Nottle demands. And yet he didn’t stop the servants from chattering about the upstairs in a way that Mr. Gaunt would never allow.”
“I doubt that my father was very popular in this establishment,” Mia pointed out. “I made myself notorious with the love poem, and after my father and the duchess died together, the scandal flared up again.”