“Uncle,” Vander said from behind her, his tone flinty.
Chuffy squinted at him. “What? Are we pretending that we’ve never met the gal before? Though I don’t know as I did meet you, m’dear. Vander’s father was my brother, though his brain was all higgledy-piggledy.”
“She knows that,” Vander stated.
“Don’t mean that we should just stand about and stare at her as if she were a potboy dressed up in a vicar’s cassock,” Chuffy said. He managed to get himself upright and made a wobbly swipe at his head that made his hair fly into the air again. “How’s every little thing, Villiers? Didn’t expect to see you here, I must say.”
It was interesting to discover that the most discriminating peer in London apparently counted a drunkard among his friends. “I had no idea you were in the room, Chuffy,” Villiers said, with a bow and a warm smile.
“Well, I ain’t going to lie,” Chuffy said. “I took a little nap once I realized that the two of you were standing around nattering about the bride-to-be.”
Mia bit her lip. It was one thing to imagine she was facing the guillotine and another to have it confirmed that people were muttering ‘Off with her head.’ So her future husband had been standing around and making fun of her. What had she expected?
Surprisingly, Chuffy came to her defense. “You should be ashamed of yerself, Leo,” he told the duke. “You were not exactly the catch of the season yourself, you know. I never did figure out how you talked that lovely lady into accepting you, what with all those bastards of yours. Nearly a dozen of ’em, wasn’t it?”
Villiers’s countenance had eased. “Only half a dozen. And now I have one legitimate son as well.”
“Am I supposed to congratulate you on sowing seed in your own field?” Chuffy demanded. “You’re not one to call the kettle black, or however that goes.” He took a step closer to Mia, like an unsteady knight in tarnished armor. “Now I ain’t going to stand for any more gibble-gabbling around like a bunch of old women.”
The Duke of Villiers nodded and said, “Chuffy, you’ve made me feel ashamed of myself.” He looked at Mia and said, “I’m sorry that you were made uncomfortable, Miss Carrington. I have known His Grace since he was a small boy, and the circumstances of his betrothal are not what I hoped for him.”
Mia took a breath. “I apologize for those circumstances,” she said, and she meant it.
The duke waited, as if for Mia to change her mind, simply because a duke—another duke—didn’t approve of blackmail. But she couldn’t. Charlie’s welfare was paramount, and far more important than the Duke of Villiers’s opinion.
“I understand why this gal wants my nephew,” Chuffy announced. “She has good taste. The boy speaks any number of languages word for word without so much as a book in the room—”
“No, I don’t,” Vander said quietly.
“He’s not the best looking,” Chuffy said, ignoring his nephew entirely. “But he is a duke, and comes with a title. The problem is that he’s a great quarreler.”
Mia could see that Vander was growing angry.
“Not like his father, though. My brother—God rest his soul—couldn’t keep his temper. But that was the fault of his brains and not he. He was a great eater of beef, and I believe it did harm to his wit.” He paused and looked expectantly at Mia.
She nodded. Was she supposed to play name-that-quotation? She recognized the text, but it wasn’t an appropriate moment to be bandying about Shakespeare.
“The lad has an excellent head of hair, though,” Chuffy said.
That wasn’t Shakespeare; it was simply a statement of fact. Vander had a wonderfully thick head of hair.
“I think that we might as well sit down,” Vander said, impatience darkening his voice. “Miss Carrington and I are to marry within the hour, but the vicar seems to have gone missing. He left to prepare the chapel. It has seen little use in recent years,” he explained to Mia.
She was just grateful not to find herself in the local church, St. Ninian’s, reliving the Great Jilting. She felt distinctly nauseated. She could hardly believe that she was blackmailing a man into marriage. She didn’t want to meet the eyes of his uncle, or think seriously about what it meant for Vander.
The door opened and Nottle reappeared. “Mr. Tobias and Lady Xenobia India Dautry,” he announced.
Mia’s heart sank. Apparently, Vander had invited his friend Thorn, one of the witnesses to the horrible poetry reading years ago.
“Why not invite the whole countryside?” Chuffy demanded. “Here, you, Nottle: this is all hugger-mugger. Where’s the champagne? Your master is getting leg-shackled!”
The butler’s mouth tightened to a thin line. Vander’s chin jerked, and Nottle withdrew, Chuffy trotting after him with a wave in the direction of Dautry and his wife.
Mia felt dizzy watching the Duke of Villiers greet his son and daughter-in-law. What on earth was she doing standing in a room with people this distinguished and beautiful?
Thorn Dautry and Lady Xenobia were remarkably well suited. It hardly needed to be said that they were as decorated as a pair of maypoles, and as tall, too. The kind of people who made her feel like a grubby mushroom.
“Have you invited any other guests?” Mia asked Vander in a low voice.
“Why do you ask?” It was astonishing how clearly his eyes expressed anger, while his words were perfectly civil. “Don’t you wish to celebrate this happy occasion, my dear?”
Of course he was angry. She knew that, and acknowledged that he had a right to be. She just hadn’t realized what it would be like to stand next to a huge man practically vibrating with rage.
“I had imagined that we would have a private ceremony,” she said, not entirely in command of her voice.
“Private? Why on earth would we do that?” Vander turned and gave Thorn one of those brusque clasps that men give each other. “Thank you for coming.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Dautry said, his voice clipped.
At least her heroine in Love Conquers All was saved from the guillotine before she was actually threatened by the blade. Mia had the wild sensation that the blade was flashing down toward her neck.
Too late she realized that she should have insisted Vander read the letter detailing the short term of their marriage.
Vander’s hand slipped under her arm. “Miss Carrington, you will remember Mr. Dautry, though you may not have met his wife, Lady Xenobia India. They are close friends of mine.”
Thorn Dautry was homicidal. With one glance she realized that his wife felt the same way.
When she had made the desperate decision to blackmail Vander into marrying her, she hadn’t envisioned the clear-eyed contempt she now saw in Lady Xenobia’s eyes. After the briefest possible greeting, the lady turned away as if Mia were no more than an impudent scullery maid.
Mia had heard that Lady Xenobia could reorganize a household within two days, and now she knew how she did it; the lady probably just glanced at the servants who were pilfering the brandy, and they confessed on the spot.
Dautry was escorting his wife over to the sofa with the kind of solicitude that suggested she was carrying a child. Vander followed, leading Mia over to sit beside Lady Xenobia, even though anyone could guess that she would prefer to sit anywhere else. In the corner, for example.