As if sensing his gaze, Mia looked up at him. True, he had promised her only four nights a year together. But he might not mind giving her more.
His eyes drifted lower, to the way her breasts swelled against the tired fabric of her gown. She needed better clothing; she had to dress like a duchess, rather than a governess.
Then India’s gown caught his attention. Her breasts were on display, albeit in a fashionable manner, and he wouldn’t care for Mia’s to be exposed.
“Why are you smiling?” his wife-to-be whispered.
Surprised, he dropped the smile. “Perhaps I’m happy to be getting married.”
“There’s no need to mock me!”
Chuffy bustled up. “You stand over there, Vander.” He gestured toward the altar. “I’ll bring my girl into the chapel from the courtyard, and you pretend that you haven’t seen her this morning. That’s important, you know. Not seeing the bride before getting married.”
Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed Mia’s arm and dragged her straight out of the chapel.
Thorn broke into a crack of laughter. “Shall I stand beside you?” he asked Vander.
A sudden memory of Thorn’s wedding shot into Vander’s head. They had married in St. Paul’s. The cathedral was filled to the dome with members of polite society, eager to witness a marquess’ daughter marry a bastard, albeit a duke’s bastard.
He had stood beside Thorn at the front of the church, watching as India walked toward them, her happiness shining from her face. She didn’t take her eyes from Thorn, even for a moment.
“Yes,” he said abruptly. He turned to the Duke of Villiers. “If you would join me as well, I should be honored.”
“You’re like a son to me,” the duke said, touching Vander’s arm. “Between us, Thorn and I will work out this mess. I promise you.”
“I will stand next to Miss Carrington,” India said grimly.
Vander nodded. “Thank you.”
Chuffy poked his head into the chapel and shouted, “Shall I bring in the bride now?”
The vicar sniffed and turned to face the back of the church. Vander moved to the side, Thorn’s presence warm at his shoulder.
Chuffy started down the aisle with his arm through Mia’s. He was stepping high, apparently aiming for a ceremonial effect. Halfway up the aisle he missed his step and lurched sideways, pulling Mia with him.
India gasped. Luckily Chuffy managed to catch himself on a pew and proceed.
“By God and all the saints at the back door of Purgatory, there was a moment when I thought I might shipwreck us both,” he said cheerfully, when they arrived at the chancel railing and he handed Mia over to Vander. “Losing my balance as I grow older.”
“I would remind you, Sir Cuthbert, not to take the Lord’s name in vain in his own house!” the vicar snapped.
Chuffy gave him a magnificent scowl. “Does thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
At this pronouncement, Mia gave a charming giggle. Vander was still trying to untangle his uncle’s speech—what had cakes and ale to do with anything?—and India was frowning in confusion. But Chuffy and Mia were smiling at each other, and he was patting her arm.
“That one worked, didn’t it, my dear?” he said. “Hit that one on the nail head.”
Vander raised an eyebrow.
“Sir Cuthbert is quoting from Twelfth Night,” Mia explained. “He’s been doing it on and off all morning.”
“He has?” That was from India, apparently as surprised by this information as Vander.
The vicar cleared his throat. Even he seemed amused, if reluctantly. “I could take that reference in offense, Sir Cuthbert. But you must cease your ‘disorders,’ so that I can get on to the business of marrying His Grace to Miss Carrington.”
“Right!” Chuffy agreed. “Time to tie the knot.”
The vicar launched into the text. Clearly, he had grasped that the marriage he was solemnizing had little to do with love or, for that matter, sanctity.
Vander allowed the words to flow over him while he thought about his wife-to-be. Mia knew her Shakespeare. Chuffy liked her. His uncle was an old drunkard, but of everyone in Vander’s family, he’d been most like a parent. Vander had loved him when he was a boy, and he still did.
When it came time for Vander to say his vows, he felt an unanticipated peacefulness. He’d been coerced into this marriage, and likely he’d never be able to entirely forgive Mia.
But he was gaining a wife who would always be true to him. That thought raised a primitive feeling in his chest, a possessive streak that he’d probably developed the moment his mother had first brought another man into the house.
Mia repeated her vows in a clear, calm voice. It was surprising, actually. He would have supposed she’d be in tears, having achieved a goal she’d yearned for since childhood.
She never met his eyes during the ceremony, just looked at her hands. Even so, he enjoyed sliding a ring that had belonged to his great-grandmother onto her finger.
The vicar pronounced them man and wife, snapped his prayer book closed and said, “You may kiss the bride.”
Vander hadn’t considered this part of the rite. His first thought was that he shouldn’t indulge in casual intimacies of that nature—his new duchess might assume that he would regularly engage in affectionate gestures. Mia looked up. Her gaze seared into him, even though there was no reproach there.
Before he could move, Chuffy bellowed, “Well, lad, if you ain’t going to do it, I will!” With that he rounded Mia into his arms and gave her a smack on the lips, making her laugh.
Vander forced himself to relax. For God’s sake, he didn’t give a damn if his uncle kissed his bride.
Thorn, India, and Villiers gathered around, offering measured good wishes. He watched Mia blink when she was addressed as “Your Grace” for the first time. She looked endearingly uncertain.
“Right,” Chuffy said, clearly having taken on the role of master of ceremonies. “I instructed Nottle to lay on the champagne and a decent wedding breakfast, so let’s get ourselves out of here. You can accompany your wife from the chapel, I trust?” he said, giving Vander a narrow-eyed glare that appeared surprisingly sober.
Vander didn’t answer, but simply held out his arm to his wife.
Mia walked down the aisle next to Vander, in the grip of a tremendous sense of relief. It was done. No one—not even the despicable Sir Richard—could gainsay her marriage to a duke. It tied her to a man who loathed her, and to a lonely life after the marriage was formally dissolved, but Charlie’s safety was assured.
No more Sir Richard and his litigious, fault-finding ways. She would hire a tutor immediately and pay him double to accompany them to Bavaria. She would arrange to have the cottages in the village re-thatched; they had leaked last winter, but Sir Richard was of the conviction that cottagers should repair their own roofs, even if owners of those roofs had grown old in service to the Carringtons.
Furthermore, she would dismiss any servant who looked at Charlie as if he had two noses. Thinking of Charlie calmed the feelings cascading through her. She had promised him she would return by late afternoon.
Life would soon settle down to its usual quiet rhythm. She would get back to writing; perhaps she could finish the novel in a month or so. She would pretend this painful episode never happened. She had practice forgetting humiliations . . . this was just another one, albeit acute.