Mia swallowed a sigh and sat down. The time had come. “I am fairly certain that you did not read the letter summarizing my expectations for our marriage.”

“I didn’t bother,” Vander said, dropping down opposite her. “You should know, Duchess, that a man is the master of his household. If I decided that you should sleep in the attic, the butler would have a bed up there before nightfall.”

“There is no need to go to such extremes; the bed in the attic can wait for your next wife. We only need be married for six months, at which point Mr. Plummer, my solicitor, will arrange for annulment of our union.” The details tumbled through her head in perfect order, rather like one of her own plots. This was the cue for Vander to rejoice.

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“What?”

“Mr. Plummer is a conservative man by nature, but he is hopeful that he will be able to end this marriage by early next year. I have asked him to pay a call on you tomorrow so he can explain the details.”

Vander leaned forward, eyes glittering. “What are you talking about? You forced me to marry you. You corralled me as deftly as I’ve ever broken a horse.”

He’s like one of the great Norse gods, Mia thought with a literary flourish. Acting as if he might whip out a lightning bolt and cleave her in two. She wouldn’t be surprised to hear a clap of thunder in the distance.

She pulled her attention back to the subject at hand. “We needn’t turn this into a Cheltenham tragedy. We can simply go our own ways. Divorce is allowed only in cases of infidelity or abandon—”

He cut her off. “You are planning to be unfaithful, before we’ve been married one day?”

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When Vander set his jaw, he looked like a prizefighter about to take on an opponent. His gaze seared her, but Mia didn’t let herself be intimidated by his anger. She knew instinctively that his fists might curl, but he would never be violent.

“Of course not, Vander. I thought we could request an annulment.”

“Vander?”

His voice lashed her. This was awful, just awful. She had momentarily forgotten that while she thought of him by the nickname his friends gave him, he scarcely remembered who she was.

“I apologize,” she gasped. “Would you prefer Your Grace? Of course you’d prefer Your Grace. You are a Your Grace.” She was babbling, but she couldn’t seem to stop. “My mother died years ago and I have no idea how married couples address each other in private. Not that we’re truly married. I just . . . I’m sorry.”

A moment of ominous silence followed before he shoved a hand through his hair. “It is I who should apologize. You caught me by surprise. No one addresses me by that name other than my intimate friends.”

“Of course,” Mia said, forcing a smile. “You needn’t apologize. And as I said, my solicitor is fairly sure that he can have the marriage dissolved in a mere six months. There’s no need for us to become intimate in any fashion at all.” She drew out a folded sheet of paper from her reticule. “I drew up another explanation once I concluded that you hadn’t read the letter I initially wrote you.”

He took the sheet from her and skimmed it. “You want to marry me for six months, after which the marriage will end. And you expect no financial support either during or after the marriage.”

“Yes, that’s it,” she said, making her tone bright. Now that he understood, he could stop being angry. His eyes would probably fill with joy.

Instead, his mouth tightened, and slowly, methodically, he ripped her letter into pieces and dropped them on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Mia gasped.

“I plan to go through that farce we endured in the chapel only once in my life.”

“Why would you—what are you talking about?”

“Marriage. A mechanism by which two people are forced to remain in proximity for a lifetime. The truth is that your proposal made me see that a love match is the last thing in the world I’d want.”

“But—”

“As we have discussed, you are not who I would have chosen for myself,” he continued, his gaze drifting from her face to her shabby dress. “But there was always the chance that I would have made my father’s mistake, and married a beautiful woman who would collect lovers the way squirrels gather nuts.”

Mia could feel her face growing hot. There was part of her, the part that wrote love stories, that wanted to believe that not every man found her unlovely. The shallow, naïve side of her.

She raised her chin a notch. “Be that as it may, I don’t wish to remain married to you. You may not dream of a loving marriage, but I do hope for that someday. Your Grace.” The last two words were spoken with a touch of asperity.

He gave a crack of laughter. “You should have thought of that before you blackmailed me into marriage, Duchess. It seems your scheme has turned against you. I believe that is often the case.”

She stared at him, trying to find words. He was serious. He meant to keep her in the marriage. “Please,” she said, beginning to feel genuinely fearful. “I can see that you’re angry at me, and I know I deserve it. But mightn’t we be reasonable about this? I will happily offer proof of adultery, leaving both of us free to forget this marriage happened.”

“My mother spent the latter part of her life jaunting around the country with another man, incidentally, your father.” He leaned forward, his words clipped and furious. “I am neither mad nor incapacitated. My wife will live under my roof. She will never commit adultery.”

Mia took a deep breath. “But I don’t wish to live with you,” she explained. “I don’t consider us truly married.”

A grim smile touched his lips. “The vicar who just married us would not agree.”

Her heart was beating so quickly that she thought she might faint. “You don’t even want me around you. This is supposed to be a temporary arrangement!”

“But it isn’t.”

“You can’t mean that,” she said desperately. “I’m sure that in time you will meet another woman, one whom you will love. Remember? You told me that it was likely to happen, and you’re right.”

“What difference will our marriage make?”

The cruelty in his voice lashed her again. She could hardly claim to be insulted that her new husband would take lovers, considering she’d blackmailed him into making his vows.

“Do you have a mistress now?” she whispered.

His eyes couldn’t have been colder. “That is none of your business, and it never will be. You made your way into my bed, but not into my confidence.” His lips curled, but only a fiend would call it a smile. “Four nights a year, Duchess. That’s what you got from me, in return for my father’s letter. You agreed to that. What you seem to have overlooked is the fact that those four nights will happen annually—for the rest of our lives.”

Mia could hear her blood pounding in her ears. This had all gone terribly, horribly wrong. “A marriage, a real marriage, between us would never work,” she said, her voice rasping with the shock of it.

In a flash he was standing in front of her, pulling her upright, his hands gripping her upper arms so tightly they would be bruised. “You’ve made your bed and you must lie in it four nights a year, with me. I think that’s enough to ensure we end up with an heir, don’t you? My parents didn’t bother with a spare, but in view of your brother’s demise, perhaps we should keep trying after our first child. Heroically, you know. For the good of the name.”

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