Vander nodded, as if he were actually considering Sir Richard’s threat. He could kill him, of course, but that was messy, unproductive, and might lead to trouble. Even dukes were not encouraged to make themselves judge, jury and, especially, executioner.
And his conscience occasionally reminded him that he had no right to play those three roles.
“We both know it would be best to avoid the courts,” Sir Richard added, his voice oily with confidence. “It might be different if Mia were a great beauty; you could claim to have been stricken with Cupid’s arrow at first sight.” He chuckled quietly. “But given her limited charms and your parents’ scandals . . .”
That did it. Vander was going to kill him. It was just a matter of when. He leaned forward, wielding his body’s leashed power as a weapon. “If my wife’s name passes your lips again, I will become extremely angry, Sir Richard.”
One of those absurdly pointed eyebrows rose again. “I applaud your loyalty. It’s such a rare quality in your family.”
The man had a death wish.
And Vander was damned sick of being blackmailed. “I want you out of this house today.” It was good to realize that he was in complete control of his temper. There were a few moments with Mia when he almost started bellowing like a madman, but here he was, confronted by a veritable weasel, and he was in no danger of going off like a half-cocked pistol.
“I shall bring suit against you today,” Sir Richard hissed. “I shall make your name a byword, not that it isn’t already. After all, isn’t your marriage incestuous? Oh, wait, your mother wasn’t married to your bride’s father.”
“Will you remove yourself on your own feet, Sir Richard, or shall some of my men assist?”
Sir Richard rose and went to the fireplace, silent for a moment. When he turned about, as trim as a china figure on a music box, he said with an appealing catch in his voice, “I feel that we have got off on the wrong footing, Your Grace.”
“I merely wish to be compensated for the losses that you inflict upon me by a marriage calculated to disinherit me.”
“As I said, my marriage was not contracted with the Carrington estate in mind,” Vander reminded him.
“Are you saying you’re in love?”
“It’s none of your damn business why or who I marry, any more than it’s the business of the courts.” Vander rose.
“It’s my business now.” Sir Richard’s face darkened. He lost the air of an Elizabethan and looked like the rodent he was. “You are stealing my estate. Did you really think I wouldn’t fight back? That I would simply hand over the keys with a smile?”
“I can do without the smile.” Vander prowled forward, noting the way that Sir Richard was fingering his cane. If only he would pull out a blade, Vander would be perfectly justified in beating the living daylights out of him.
But Sir Richard had to strike first; Vander had given up on fisticuffs except as a matter of self-defense.
“Everyone will know!” Sir Richard was growing shrill. “Do you think that anyone in polite society will acknowledge your homely wife, given the disgraceful relations between your parents?”
Vander’s fist tightened and gladness unfurled in his chest. If there was ever a man who deserved a beating, it was Sir Richard.
The man fell back a step and, sure enough, he pulled out his tinsel-dagger. “Don’t touch me!” he shrilled. “I’ll sue you for assault and battery. And I’ll tell the world that you attacked me merely because I was brave enough to speak the truth: you married a fat wallflower in order to steal an estate from an orphan.”
A second later the tinsel-dagger was in Vander’s hand and poised at its owner’s throat.
“You have just said a great many things that displeased me,” Vander remarked.
“My servants know you’re here,” Sir Richard gasped. “You can’t kill me.”
“I don’t plan to. Unless you neglect to offer a groveling apology, that is. My wife is a lovely, intelligent woman. She has the kind of curves that a man longs to find in his bed. I may not have been the first to wish to marry her, but I am the one who succeeded.” To his total astonishment, he discovered that he meant every word.
Sir Richard’s eyes narrowed. The wretch was dredging up some sort of nasty and irrelevant retort. Vander thought about perforating him with his own dagger just to shut him up, but daggers were for cowards. He threw it across the room and it pierced the door and stuck there, quivering.
Sir Richard fell like a sack of flour after a single blow to the jaw, a disappointingly quick finish. Vander prodded him with his boot. The man’s head rolled to one side; he was alive, but insensible. Satisfied, Vander walked to the servants’ bell and rang for assistance.
Gaunt materialized within moments. He took in the situation with one swift look, and said, “Dear me. Sir Richard seems to have fallen and injured his head.”
Vander shrugged. “Something like that. Have a footman load him in the carriage. He can recover in his own home.”
“Would you prefer he be sent to his country estate or to his townhouse?”
“Where is his estate?”
“It runs just to the east of here.”
“That’s right,” Vander said, remembering what Sir Richard had said. “What happened to Squire Bevington? His family’s been on that land for generations.”
“I believe that Sir Richard took Squire Bevington’s estate as partial payment for an action he brought for assault and battery against the squire.” Gaunt put his toe in Sir Richard’s ribs none too gently. “He appears to be devoid of consciousness.”
Vander boxed regularly in Gentleman Jackson’s salon. When he struck someone squarely on the jaw, the bout was over.
“Squire Bevington was under the impression that Sir Richard had interfered with his daughter,” the butler said, his face expressionless. “Unfortunately, it was proved in court that the young lady was an impudent young baggage who had made advances to Sir Richard herself, thereby rendering her father’s attack an unjustified action of battery. The Bevingtons have since emigrated to Canada.”
“Christ.” All this had happened under his watch. He damn well should have known about it. Hell, the Dukes of Pindar may be responsible for appointing the justices of the peace in Berkshire, though in view of his father’s condition, Lord only knew how the Honorable Mr. Roach had been appointed. “Pack Sir Richard off to Bevington’s house for the time being, Gaunt.”
The butler summoned a pair of footmen, whose faces revealed a mixture of glee and pure hatred as they hauled Sir Richard from the room.
“Send his things after him within the hour,” Vander said. “He is unmarried, is he not?”
“To the best of my knowledge. His valet can pack his clothing. It’s a matter of a trunk or two.”
“You’d best lay on more men to patrol the grounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sir Richard attempted revenge.”
Gaunt’s face lit up for all the world like a jolly—albeit murderous—elf. “Let him try, Your Grace. Just let him try.”
Sir Richard, it seemed, had not made friends among the servants. “The duchess will want her ward to live with her, so I will reduce this household to a necessary few,” Vander said. “We’ll find employment for people in my other houses; there’s always room for more. Was there anyone you know of wrongfully dismissed after Sir Richard moved in?”