“His Grace is lucky to have you!” Susan insisted. “From what everyone says, he’s never shown the slightest interest in ladies, only in horses. He doesn’t go to balls or even to London for the season; he just spends all his time in the stables. He’s never even made a pretense of wooing a lady.” She lowered her voice. “Some folk think he’s not interested in women, if you know what I mean.”
Mia felt her cheeks grow warm. Those people were wrong. Vander was interested in women. “You can’t blame the household for being dismayed by this hasty marriage, Susan. They would likely wish him to find someone elegant, like his mother. Someone to match all this.” She waved her hand at the furnishings.
Susan wrinkled her nose. “Her Grace wasn’t from the peerage,” she said, “and you can see it in this room. It says everything about her.”
“We mustn’t say such things,” Mia said. “It isn’t polite.”
“This is an anxious room,” Susan pronounced. She wasn’t wrong about that; there wasn’t a single place in the bedchamber where a person could restfully gaze without being reminded either of the duchess’ status or her passion for miniatures.
“What I’m saying is that the servants likely wish that I were a different woman, Susan.”
“All you need is a new wardrobe,” her maid said, not for the first time. Susan was a dear, and always claimed that her mistress underestimated her own charms, whereas Mia insisted she was merely being practical. Tall women could wear gowns that swirled elegantly down from their breasts, but she was so short that her legs looked stubby no matter the style.
She had the vague idea that it would take three or four fittings to achieve a gown that would actually be flattering. She had never had time for that, and the local seamstress definitely wasn’t up to the challenge.
What’s more, Sir Richard had been in charge of the estate monies for the last year. As he wasn’t allowed to withdraw funds himself until he came into full guardianship, he had contented himself with restricting every expenditure—and had ended her allowance on the pretense that, because she was in mourning, she had no need for new garments.
Her Lucibella money was reserved for possible flight with Charlie. Consequently, she would be wearing an ill-fitting muslin gown to her wedding. Vander would probably be in sackcloth and ashes, so it hardly mattered.
Edward wouldn’t have cared. He was a man of intellect, uninterested in the superficial aspects of a person’s appearance. She was a little surprised to discover that she didn’t feel utterly heartbroken at the idea of marrying a man other than her fiancé.
According to the novels she loved (and wrote), she should still be prostrate on the floor, sobbing. It had been only a month since the jilting, after all. She intended to describe Flora as turning white as parchment, with haunted eyes and newly slender limbs resulting from a vanished appetite.
Mia, on the other hand, was as hungry as ever. In fact, after the first shock of the jilting, she primarily felt irritated rather than grief-stricken, and a temper always made her crave buttered crumpets.
The larger problem was that Mia was petrified by the idea of descending the stairs for her wedding. How could she face Vander again? She had engaged in such unethical conduct toward him. He must loathe her.
Of course he loathed her.
Finally, she made herself leave the room. There was nothing to be done about it: She had to face the irascible duke and say her vows as quickly as possible, after which she could go home and pretend none of this happened.
It was horrifying to reach the bottom of the stairs and hear voices coming from the drawing room. Surely Vander wouldn’t have gathered a wedding party?
Her heroine in Love Conquers All, Petronella—or was it Giuliana?—had had to face the guillotine. Petronella lifted her chin and walked bravely to her doom (though, of course, no doom awaited her, because a duke was overcome by her exquisite beauty and risked his life to save her).
Mia lifted her chin and tried to walk bravely toward the drawing room. It wasn’t exactly the same as moving toward a guillotine, but her heart was certainly thumping as if she faced death. Vander’s butler, Nottle, didn’t make it easier; he looked condescendingly down his long nose before he opened the drawing room door and announced, “Miss Carrington.”
To her enormous shock, the Duke of Villiers stood directly before her. The gentleman—a distant acquaintance of her father, as she recalled—was renowned for his sartorial splendor and true to his reputation, he was dressed like a peacock, in a coat of blue-and-green striped silk taffeta over a waistcoat embroidered all over with flowers.
Mia looked rather wildly for his duchess, but the only other person in the room was Vander, also dressed splendidly, in a coat of dark amethyst silk with embroidery around the cuffs.
So much for the sackcloth.
She was underdressed for her own wedding.
Vander stepped forward and bowed. “Miss Carrington.” Her stomach clenched. He had that kind of voice, a truly masculine voice. “I apologize for not greeting you last evening.”
“Your Grace.” She dipped a curtsy. A deep one because it gave her a moment. She turned and curtsied before the Duke of Villiers. “Your Grace,” she murmured.
“I trust you are well?” Vander inquired, his face utterly expressionless.
She could feel rosy blotches spreading up her neck. “Of course. I am surprised. I did not expect that we would have a wedding party under the circumstances.”
“What’ya saying?” a voice broke in, coming from nowhere. Startled, Mia jumped sideways, straight into Vander.
His big hands came around her shoulders to steady her and he held her there, against his warm body. “Uncle, I had no idea you were in the room. Miss Carrington, may I present my uncle, Sir Cuthbert Brody?”
Sir Cuthbert had just risen from a high-backed chair positioned before the window. He was a short man, about her height, though a great deal rounder. His nose was red, and his cheeks were red, and what hair he had left had once been combed over his bald head but was now standing up like a flag at the prow of a ship. He wore an extraordinary, if crumpled, coat of sage-green paisley silk and carried a matching green cane with a brass top.
“I prefer Chuffy,” he said, with just the faintest slur to his words. “Good morning to you, my dear.” He was drunk. No, he was not just drunk: he was utterly bosky, actually swaying slightly.
Vander groaned. “When I saw you last, at two in the morning, you said you were going to bed, Uncle.”
“Oh, by then it was too late to go to bed. Besides, I would have missed this glorious occasion, this nuptial . . . this marital meeting.”
“Were you planning to change your coat?” Vander asked.
“This coat is good enough to drink in,” his uncle said cheerily. “So it’s good enough to walk you to the altar. Besides, it ain’t as if this is the kind of wedding that’ll involve wiggle-wagging our way up the aisle of Paul’s, is it?”
There was something endearing about his brown eyes, muzzy or not. Mia stepped away from Vander’s hands and the first genuine smile of the day came to her lips. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir Cuthbert.” She curtsied.
“You can call me Chuffy,” he said, listing a bit as he bowed. “You’ll be my—my—my niece, after all. I must have met you before, haven’t I? I mean, back when your father was diddling around with my sister-in-law?”