In the entry, he informed Nottle that he was leaving for Carrington House in order to collect his wife’s nephew, and told him to instruct the housekeeper to have the nursery in order by evening.

To his surprise, his butler’s face curdled. The change was slight, but distinct. Vander raised a questioning eyebrow.

“The boy is deformed, as I understand it,” Nottle said, lowering his voice. “I’ve heard some around the village say as how he turns the stomach. One leg is more like a flipper than a leg. Amphibious.” He shuddered visibly.

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Vander considered this new information as he waited for his carriage to draw around. It certainly clarified Mia’s desperation. He was fairly certain that she would fight to protect any child, not merely an unsettlingly incomplete one. But the boy’s deformity likely increased her panic.

What’s more, it provided something of an excuse for the absent fiancé. He found it unlikely that a man who had seen through Mia’s ugly clothing and reserved demeanor would jilt her. But now there was the possibility that the blackguard hadn’t been able to face the responsibility of raising a crippled child.

He swung into the vehicle, feeling a bit disturbed. There had been a boy at school who was missing two fingers; other boys had been cruel to him. Vander and Thorn had never joined in, and in fact they had pummeled a couple of fourth-form boys who were being particularly vicious.

But he couldn’t lie to himself and claim he and Thorn were high-minded about the matter. The boy couldn’t wield a cricket bat properly, and so they left him alone.

When Vander arrived at Carrington House, Mia’s butler emerged from the house to greet him. “My name, Your Grace, is Mr. Gaunt.” He paused as if waiting for a response, likely to do with the fact that he was round as a plum pudding.

Vander nodded and handed over his coat. He didn’t care to bandy words with the man about the incongruity of his name any more than he would comment on his nose, which had obviously been broken in the past. Gaunt didn’t look like a butler in a lord’s household, but that wasn’t his concern.

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“May I convey the household’s congratulations on your marriage?” the butler asked.

“Thank you,” Vander said. “I’d like to speak to Sir Richard.”

Sir Richard Magruder turned out to be a slim fellow with a beard trimmed to a stiletto point, a style that hadn’t been fashionable for two centuries. Vander took an instant dislike to everything about him: the shrewd look in his eyes, the way his hair had been coaxed to a curl, the gleaming surface of his boots.

“Your Grace, it is a pleasure to welcome you to Carrington House,” the man said, coming out from behind a large desk with a hospitable air that failed to acknowledge that the desk now belonged to Vander.

Vander bowed, and watched as Sir Richard dipped and stayed down, making a few extra flourishes with his right hand while bent over that, along with his Elizabethan beard, seemed to indicate that he fancied himself living in the past. A servant to the queen, in short.

He’d barely straightened before Vander strode to a chair and dropped into it. “As you know, Miss Carrington is now my duchess.”

Sir Richard seated himself neatly and pressed his knees together. “I offer you my heartiest congratulations,” he said, his face positively wreathed with happiness, quite as if he wasn’t on the verge of filing a lawsuit. Vander’s solicitor didn’t seem to know precisely what the lawsuit would assert, but Sir Richard was famous for using the court to conduct personal feuds. He’d already sued Vander over a horse he bought from the Pindar Stables, though the suit had never made it farther than their respective solicitors’ offices.

After a moment, Sir Richard said, “Look here, Duke, you aren’t still chafing about that lawsuit a few years ago, are you? I was misled by my stable master, who insisted that the horse’s droop ears meant he couldn’t possibly be the product of Matador. He was incorrect, and I fully accepted the evidence submitted by your stables.”

Vander didn’t bother to answer. Sir Richard had claimed that a horse from the Pindar Stables had come with falsified papers, an allegation that Vander’s solicitors had promptly squashed.

Now Sir Richard began to go on and on about droop ears and thoroughbreds, doing nothing more than proving himself an ass.

“Your lawsuit was frivolous,” Vander finally said, cutting him off, “and cost me more than fifty pounds to counter.”

Sir Richard blathered about the prevalence of unfair practices and a man’s entitlement to breach of warranty.

Vander cut him off again. “My solicitor tells me that you are likely considering another lawsuit, resulting from my marriage to Miss Carrington and ensuing guardianship of young Lord Carrington.”

Sir Richard’s face cracked into a smile. “Your Grace, it is clear to both of us, I’m sure, that your eleventh-hour marriage to Miss Carrington—scarcely a month after she was jilted by another man—was cobbled together to enable you to absorb my ward’s estate, which not coincidentally runs alongside your own.”

“In fact, that was not part of my reasoning,” Vander said.

Sir Richard scoffed. “Shall we be honest between ourselves, Duke? You married the woman to get your hands on the unentailed estate, and I do not blame you for it. However, you understand that there will have to be compensation. I had the expectation of living in this house and enjoying the lands for at least ten years and quite likely longer, given the frail health of my ward. As it happens, my lands also adjoin the estate, to the east of here.”

Vander knew he was rough around the edges for a duke. He had a darkness that came straight from his childhood, bred from an instinct that had warned him that his father’s mind was not just chaotic, but dangerous.

That instinct was urging him to squash Sir Richard like a maggot. He stretched his legs, contemplating the situation, allowing the silence in the room to grow. There was no way in hell that Vander would pay him off.

The real question was whether he should thrash Sir Richard now or wait to see whether the ass carried through with his implicit threat of a lawsuit.

Better to wait, he decided, eyeing Sir Richard’s fastidiously groomed face. The man seemed unafraid, which was interesting. Perhaps he knew enough about fighting to offer a proper challenge.

More likely, his lordship was under the illusion that the spring dagger concealed in his pretty walking stick would protect him.

“I will pay you nothing,” Vander stated. He added a silent self-congratulation; he had managed to keep his tone even.

Sir Richard had groomed his eyebrows to a point, hence surprise—feigned or otherwise—made him resemble a pet rat Vander had once had as a child. “Are you quite certain, Your Grace? I will bring a suit of law against you, as I’m sure you are aware, in Berkshire, where I am not unknown.” He paused just long enough to make it clear that the justice of the peace was in his pocket.

If Vander remembered correctly, the Honorable Mr. Roach had been justice of the peace for some fifteen years. The beast inside Vander growled softly, thinking of the many people who had likely been abusively treated in that period.

Sir Richard wasn’t just a man with a feeling that the world owed him, paired with a reckless disrespect for the law.

He was a villain, the sort who would slip a dagger between a man’s ribs and continue on to the opera, completely unperturbed.

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