It was the most erotic thing she’d ever seen. Not that she’d seen much. Or anything, really.

Mia fell back a step, and then another. She had to get away.

“Do you believe that I want you?” he inquired.

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“What I believe,” she said, blurting out the truth, “is that you’re one of those men who desires any woman within reach. You think that I will remain faithful to you for the whole of our lives.”

Something savage and primitive crossed his eyes. “You damn well better.”

“But you will go around London and bed whomever you wish, is that right? I merely wish to understand the arrangement clearly. You may take lovers and do whatever you please.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “If I feel so inclined.”

“While I spend my entire life with someone who finds me fat and mousy.” She made herself meet his eyes. “Maybe if I were really in love with you, I would count myself grateful. Or if I had any ambition to be a duchess. But do you know, Vander? I don’t feel grateful. I don’t feel fortunate.”

His mouth tightened.

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“I think there might be someone out there who doesn’t think those things about me. My fiancé, Edward, liked me.”

A big sob rose up, but she forced it back down.

“But now I will never find someone who will love me for myself, because you’re so angry that you want to punish me.”

He began to speak, but she shook her head. “Don’t bother to deny it. You’re happy to be punishing me; I can see it in your face. But I don’t deserve this . . . I don’t.”

“I am not punishing you,” he said impatiently. “Bloody hell, I’d think you had ample evidence that I desire you. Are you always this dramatic?”

“No,” she said shakily. “Only when I find myself being punished for the sins of my father.”

His face froze.

Mia didn’t even feel triumphant at the evidence she was right. “You can see to it that I never have a chance to fall in love,” she cried. “You can take that from me. But you will never know whether I am unfaithful to you. Never!”

Vander’s response was blasphemous.

“You’d better enjoy those four nights with your mousy duchess while you still have me,” she added, “because one day I will find a man who—who respects me.”

“Respects you?” His eyes raked her body. “Does that mean that you’ll never tell him why I married you and how we married? Because he won’t respect you after he knows that, Duchess.”

The sob pressed so hard that Mia could no longer suppress it. He was right. “I’m going to my room,” she managed, running for the door, blinded by tears.

He caught her just as she reached it, spun her around.

“No!” she said with a little scream. “Get away from me.”

“I respect you,” he said in a grim voice. “You did what you had to for your nephew, and any decent person would respect that.”

“Get away,” she gasped. “Let me go.” Tears were pouring down her face, and it wasn’t decorous weeping. It was the kind of sobbing that tears a woman apart. The kind that comes after she’s reminded that she’s not beautiful, and not loved, and not even respected.

She shoved him again, and this time he backed away, a helpless look on his face, the same look that her father got every time she had a female problem. For example, when her father had ruined her debut year by sharing her poem.

Without another word, Mia wrenched open the door and ran up the stairs, ignoring Vander’s butler. Tears were salty in her mouth and she needed a handkerchief . . . ten handkerchiefs.

A moment later she was on her bed, two pillows over her head, sobbing as hard as she had when her brother and father died. Since she’d learned the terms of that bloody will.

“I hate you,” she croaked to her brother, John. “How could you . . . how could you?”

Talking to John sometimes made things easier, but not this time. She didn’t want to hate John. She had loved her brother. She loved his memory, even though he was irritating, with his conviction that a man had to head every household.

He wasn’t there to defend himself.

And yet: “I do hate you,” she said again, her voice cracking.

Her husband had been smug about his ability to get his tool stiff, given the fact he thought she was plump enough to be carrying a child.

When she whispered “I hate you” into her pillow this time, she was aware of two things: the first was that she was no longer addressing her dead brother.

And the second was that she was lying.

She hated Vander. But she didn’t hate those greedy kisses, and the way they made her feel sensual and treasured.

She was a fool.

An idiot to fall under his spell once again.

She hated herself.

That was true.

Chapter Eleven

NOTES ON BEQUEST SCENE

Miss Flora Percival listened with disbelief to the solicitor as he informed her that she had just inherited a fortune with disbelief.

“Sir,” she said, “I am but a poor maiden and . . . (something)”

“Miss Percival, you are now one of the richest young ladies in all England,” the solicitor said, wiping his forehead. “But I must caution you: under the terms of this bequest, you are not allowed to give the money to anyone. You must spend it on yourself.”

“That is a most perplexing stipulation,” Flora replied, knitting her fair brow.

“My client watched you from afar for many months. He had determined to leave his money to a young woman of Excellent Character, with a Noble Mien and Aristocratic Bearing.”

“My grandfather was an earl,” Flora admitted. “The family disowned my mother when she fell in love with an impoverished violinist.”

The solicitor nodded. “Your breeding heritage is reflected in your bearing. I have taken the liberty of buying a furnished townhouse in Mayfair. I have also ordered a carriage enameled in gold, to be drawn by four white steeds.”

(Does gold enamel exist ~ Painted in gold? Gilt?)

Vander leaned his head against the door of Mia’s bedchamber. She was sobbing as if her heart was broken.

The hell, she wasn’t still in love with him. Obviously she was. He’d never kissed a woman who exploded in his arms like a swift flame that singed and consumed. It had taken every bit of self-control he had not to push her onto the settee and rip that ugly gown from her.

Even now, hearing her sob on the other side of the door, blood was pounding through the lower half of his body.

He could make her feel better.

No, he was being the self-righteous idiot that she believed him to be. Had he really said that she was mousy? He couldn’t remember saying that. In the depths of fury, he tended to say things he didn’t mean, as when he had glanced down to see her thick gown bunched under her breasts and said she was plump. He’d never cared much what shape a woman had. He just liked their bodies.

Hell.

He had to adjust himself again. Their kisses had started a wildfire in his loins. Round breasts, curved hips, warm skin, sweet mouth, wet . . . he hoped she was wet.

The involuntary groan that came to his lips was like a splash of cold water. What in the hell was he doing? He straightened and returned downstairs.

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