Mia’s lips involuntarily shaped a curse word that she would never dare say aloud.

Oakenrott whistled. “Pearls? You know what kind of pearls she’s really talking about, right? Pearl drops! Pearly potions, like we used to call it back in first form. No—wasn’t it pearly passion potions? Something like that. Anyway, this is the first poem I’ve ever read that talked about love custard!”

Suddenly all three boys were laughing hysterically.

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“Love custard”? Mia hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant, but she knew instinctively that it was something disgusting. Boys were disgusting by nature; she’d temporarily forgotten that while pining for Vander. When she thought he was godlike.

In reality he was a heartless pig.

“You haven’t gotten under her skirts, have you?” Oakenrott sounded gleeful at the prospect. “Her father could take this line about being lost in your sweetness and pressure you to make an offer.”

“Never!” Vander sounded so appalled that the word slid over Mia’s skin like a snake. “It’s a little odd to think that she’s been lusting after me. What sort of fifteen-year-old girl thinks in these terms? Though I suppose she is her father’s daughter.”

Mia could hardly breathe because she was trying to sob without noise. He made her sound repulsive, saying that she was lusting after him. It wasn’t like that. She wasn’t like that.

“Have you ever noticed her staring at you from the side of the room?” Thorn asked. “Because here it says, Like the bird that gazes all night at the moon, I gaze at you.”

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“Like a bird, or a Bird of Paradise?” Oakenrott put in. “Maybe she can set herself up as a literary light-skirt. One sovereign for a poem and two for a you-know-what.”

“All I can say is she’s a God-awful poet,” Vander said. “Even I know that poems are supposed to rhyme.”

What an idiot. Mia took a shuddering breath. She had to escape. She simply could not stand any more of this.

“I think you should frame it,” Thorn said, “because I can tell you right now that no one else will think you’re pretty enough to rhapsodize about. Especially given the size of your moonbeam.”

That brought on a scuffle and more laughter. At her expense. Mia could feel the air rattling in her throat. Likely it was the death rattle. Maybe she would die, and they’d find her body in this very spot.

“You know, I have to warn the fellows,” Oakenrott said. “Some bloke might be chatting with her right now, having no idea what a jam tart she is.”

Mia stiffened.

“If she’s like that at fifteen, what’ll she be like at twenty?”

“Don’t even jest about it. You’d ruin her,” Thorn said sharply. “You mustn’t say a word.”

“The poetry is evidence for the obvious,” Oakenrott protested. “She’s got a sluttish look about her. It’s all there. Most girls that age have apple dumplings in front, but hers are more like cabbages than cherries!”

Cabbages? Cabbages?

Mia stifled another sob. There was silence for a second, just long enough so that Mia could imagine Vander standing up for her, like a knight in shining armor. Growling, Shut your mouth, Oakenrott. She does not look sluttish.

That didn’t happen.

“There’s no need to issue warnings,” Vander said flatly. “There isn’t a fellow in this house who would bother speaking to that dumpy little thing. The only reason she was invited was that my mother brought along her lover, who dragged along his daughter. She’s a charity case, that’s what she is.”

A charity case. A dumpy one, at that.

She loathed him even more because he was right: she was dumpy. Other girls were tall and willowy, but she was “petite,” which was just a pretentious way of saying that she was short.

And round. He meant she was fat.

He was a beast, a horrid beast.

Rage is a useful emotion. Rage burns away sorrow and disgrace. Rage propelled Mia to her feet, and she came out from around the sofa with her fists clenched.

Even knowing what he thought of her poem, despite her rage, the sight of Vander slammed into her. She had loved him too long to be unaffected by seeing him this close.

He was already tall and broad-shouldered. You could see the man he would someday be in the lineaments of his body and the strength of his jaw.

She looked at him up and down, curling her lip, and then gave his friends the same inspection.

Thorn looked horrified, and Oakenrott surprised, but Vander was utterly expressionless. All the things she’d thought she’d seen in him, every good characteristic that she had believed he had, the gentlemanly nature that seemed an antidote to her father’s indiscretions . . . well, she must have made those traits up. There was nothing readable in his face, and clearly she had seen whatever she longed to find.

“So,” she said, thankfully discovering that her voice was steady. “Three boys whose imaginations are so disgusting that they can read lechery into a silly love poem.” She snatched the crumpled page from Thorn’s hand and tore it in half. The sound seemed very loud in the otherwise silent room. She tore it again, and again, and dropped the pieces on the floor.

“I may have made a fool of myself by falling in love,” she told Vander, “but you have no right to ridicule me for it. Do you know that I was foolish enough to think you a gentleman, unlike—” She caught herself. Her father was her father, no matter his sins. “I should have known better,” she added. “You say I am my father’s daughter. Well, you, Lord Brody, are obviously your mother’s son.”

To her left, Thorn made a protesting movement but she swept him a glance and he shut his mouth.

Vander only stared at her. Why had she never noticed his beautiful eyes were hard and cold?

“I shall now take myself and my cabbages into the drawing room,” she said, head high, though it took every ounce of willpower she could summon to hold it there. “If you would do me the courtesy to remain here for fifteen minutes, I shall find my father and be gone.”

None of them said a word, the pestilent cowards.

One more thing occurred to her. “Moreover, I wouldn’t marry a single one of you,” she said, making her voice as scathing as she could, “even if I were desperate! Even if you were the only men left in all England!”

Chapter One

Thirteen years later

From the offices of Brandy, Bucknell & Bendal, Publishers

August 27, 1800

Dear Miss Carrington,

I am writing to inquire about the prospect of receiving your new novel. As you know, we had hoped to receive the manuscript some six months ago. We are all most sympathetic as regards the tragic death of your father and brother a year ago. But I would be remiss not to tell you that letters begging for Miss Lucibella Delicosa’s next novel are piling up in our offices. Your title, An Angel’s Form and a Devil’s Heart, has proved so enticing that subscriptions already exceed sales of your last two novels added together.

With deep respect, and anticipating a favorable reply,

I remain,

William Bucknell, Esq.

P.S. I am including Miss Julia Quiplet’s latest novel. I believe you said that you had not yet read her work, and we are persuaded that you will find it pleasurable.

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