Throughout the wedding breakfast, the party discussed Twelfth Night, which kept them away from stickier topics.
“I didn’t like the play,” Lady Xenobia confessed. “I thought it absurd that the countess vows to remain in mourning for her entire life merely because her brother just died. But I have no siblings, and perhaps I underestimate the bond.”
“Siblings grow on you in insidious ways,” her husband said. “I count myself lucky to be related to every one of mine.”
“But would you go into mourning and declare yourself unable to marry if one of your siblings passed away?” Lady Xenobia demanded. “The whole premise of the play is absurd. Shakespeare created an improbability and hung the whole story on it.”
“Come away, come away, death,” Chuffy sang.
“The play is about the way grief can overwhelm reason,” Mia said. “Viola is a little mad with grief. When my—” She stopped short, wondering what on earth she was doing. She never talked about her feelings. It must be the champagne.
“I gather you lost your brother, which would explain why I was the one who walked you down the aisle,” Chuffy said. “Older or younger? Can’t say I’ve spent much time poring over Debrett’s.”
“My brother John was older than me. He actually died in the same inn fire that killed my father and the late duchess,” Mia told him, managing a weak smile.
“That was dashed bad luck,” Chuffy said, patting her hand. “I suppose that’s why you went a bit cracked.”
“Oh, did you crack?” Thorn Dautry asked, his eyes innocent, as if the question wasn’t astonishingly discourteous.
“Of course she did,” Chuffy said. “Look, she’s in this house, ain’t she? Marrying the son of her father’s mistress. If that ain’t mad, I don’t know what is. Like to like, they always say, and madness runs rampant in this family.”
After that charming observation, Mia glanced around and realized that everyone’s plates were empty. She and Vander needed to have the last conversation of their married life. Given that he couldn’t even bring himself to kiss her after the ceremony, he would surely rejoice at the news his wife planned to desert him before the wedding night. She might as well give him that pleasure now.
She rose, perhaps with a bit more eagerness than was truly courteous.
The Duke of Villiers’s eyes were wryly amused as he kissed Mia’s hand goodbye. “This has been a remarkably literary morning. I confess I find myself far more interested in you, my dear, than I was earlier. My wife will be truly regretful that she was unable to join us.”
Mia shook her head. “I assure you that there is nothing interesting about me, Your Grace.” She mentally crossed her fingers; some people might consider a secret identity as a writer to be fairly interesting.
“Just a minute,” Villiers replied, laughter running through his voice. “Literature is not my forte. And my memory is not what it used to be.”
“I see,” she said politely.
“O time!” Villiers declaimed, “thou must untangle this, not I.”
“I assure you that there is nothing to untangle,” Mia said, quite untruthfully, “though I applaud your Shakespearean fluency.”
“Marriage has made me more intelligent,” he said, looking almost friendly.
Mia quickly withdrew her hand. The last thing she wanted was to have these people think of her as a friend. She wasn’t. She had done a loathsome thing to Vander, for her own purposes, and she would be out of their lives very soon.
After they left, Mia turned to her husband before she could lose all courage. “Your Grace, we have much to discuss,” she said.
“The possibilities for conversation are endless,” Vander drawled. “Lear? Hamlet?” Unsurprisingly, it seemed he hadn’t enjoyed the literary conversation as much as she and Lady Xenobia had.
“I am serious,” she insisted.
“I can spare you a short time. I want to take off these clothes and get out to the stables. I have a new horse that is having trouble settling in.”
Mia decided on the spot that she was sorry for whoever ended up married to Vander.
The poor lady was going to have to steal minutes of conversation, given that horses were clearly more important than wives. Hopefully, the next duchess wouldn’t have trouble settling in, because Vander would be in the stables coddling a horse.
“Ten minutes,” she promised.
From the offices of Brandy, Bucknell & Bendal, Publishers
September 9, 1800
Dear Miss Carrington,
I eagerly await your response to mine of August 27, but in the meantime, I am including here a number of readers’ letters. I have taken the liberty of opening them, given that unpleasant business last year with the gentleman who felt at a disadvantage compared to your heroes. I wish to bring to your particular attention the letter from Mrs. Petunia Stubbs.
With deep respect,
William Bucknell, Esq.
Brandy, Bucknell & Bendal, Publishers
Mia walked to Vander’s study, trying to ignore the way her heart quickened due to her husband walking beside her.
The worst part of this whole affair—other than the fact she hated herself for forcing Vander to marry her—was Mia’s discovery that, even given all the despair and humiliation and the years that had passed since the poetry debacle, Vander was still able to make her feel . . . something.
It wasn’t infatuation. Of course not.
It must be animal lust. She had read about that somewhere. It was a natural constituent of being a healthy animal, which she was.
Vander was the most healthy animal—or man—she’d ever known. In fact, he appeared to be virtually bursting with life, his legs thick with muscle, his skin darkened by the sun.
Her father had been handsome in a way that Vander was not. Her husband—what an odd word—looked more like a boxer than a gentleman. He would never coax his hair into a smooth wave, the way her father used to. And his fingernails were not shaped and polished to a sheen. Instead, his fingers were callused from holding reins.
They had entered the study, and Vander was saying something to her. She looked up at him, confused. In that moment, watching his lips move without comprehending what he was saying, she understood something very important: her husband had the ability to break her.
Even though she had decided to loathe him after he mocked her poem, he had been her first love.
The weakness of a foolish girl, Mia reminded herself. The wanton side of herself, if she wanted to call a spade a spade. She was a woman now and knew a muscled stature was far less important than a kindly heart.
No one could call Vander kind. It took her a moment before she realized that he was waiting impatiently for a response.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”
“I asked when your belongings will arrive. I have an important race on the fifteenth, and I’d like to have you settled. I can send my men over to Carrington House to gather your possessions, if you haven’t already made arrangements. Oh, and I gather they should collect your nephew. My solicitor informed me yesterday afternoon that I now have a ward.”
The last was uttered in a jaundiced manner that suggested he’d also been informed that Sir Richard Magruder was likely to sue.