“He says it’s absurd for a cripple to study as if he were capable of going to school.” Thankfully, Charlie sounded unperturbed by his former guardian’s insult.
“How are you meant to run your estate, if you remain uneducated?”
“Aunt Mia has asked him that. He said that there would be time enough to consider it if I survive to my majority.”
It occurred to Vander that, had he not entered the scene, there was a distinct possibility that Charlie might have suffered from “an unfortunate accident” sometime in the next few years. “You look quite healthy to me. Have you anything wrong with you other than your leg?”
“And what is wrong with it? Oddly shaped, unable to move, too short?” He kept the question direct, but asked it without any special emphasis.
“It isn’t shaped properly below the knee.” Charlie’s mouth tightened. “The villagers all think my foot is a flipper, but it isn’t. It’s a normal foot turned sideways.”
“You have to look on the bright side: if your estate is lost one day you can hire yourself out to a traveling fair.”
With this, he managed to break the defensive calm that surrounded Charlie like a suit of armor. A flush rose in his sallow cheeks. “That isn’t a nice thing to say.”
“Boys don’t say nice things to each other,” Vander told him.
“You’re not a boy. You’re a duke. You ought to be more polite!”
Vander grinned at him. “You’re my ward now. I don’t feel like being polite. What’s the matter? You don’t like traveling fairs?”
“I don’t know; I’ve never seen one.”
“Why not? The fair comes through the village twice a year.”
Charlie shrugged and his eyes went flat again.
“You’re afraid to be seen in public.”
That was good. He had backbone and fight in him.
“Since you won’t let me call you Charlie, perhaps I’ll call you Crip instead.”
“For cripple?” Charlie’s jaw set. “No! You wouldn’t wish to be called Crip, if you were me.”
“When I was at school,” Vander said, stretching out his legs in front of him and looking at his boots, “I was called Horny. And sometimes Vulcan.”
“Vulcan, like the Roman god? Why? And why Horny?”
“They were references to the fact that my mother, the duchess, was blatantly adulterous. Do you know what that means?”
“She was intimate friends with a man who wasn’t her husband.”
“Oh, the way that Venus took lovers and Vulcan didn’t like it,” Charlie said. “Did your father get angry, the way Vulcan did, when he found out? Vulcan used to make a mountain explode every time Venus took a new lover.” Charlie’s voice was bright and interested now.
“My father never learned about my mother’s friendship. Horny is a reference to a cuckold’s horns, a nasty way of identifying a man whose wife’s affections are otherwise engaged.”
“Most of the boys would make this gesture whenever they saw me, particularly in the first year I was in school.”
He showed Charlie how to make horns with his thumb and little finger. Like any boy, Charlie started making horns left and right.
“I could either get on with it, and realize that people were going to call me names because of my mother’s behavior, or I could fight every boy in the school.”
“That’s what I would have done,” Charlie said, showing a sudden bloodthirsty side. “If I were you, I mean, and I had two normal legs.”
“I tried that in my first year,” Vander said meditatively. “I pummeled quite a few of them. Smashed their faces in the dirt and made them swear never to call me Horny again. I didn’t mind Vulcan as much.”
“Did they stop making horns?”
“No. Some people will call you Limpy or Crip and names like that behind your back your whole life.”
The corner of Charlie’s mouth twitched.
“A great many people will be watching me to see whether your aunt falls in love with another man,” Vander continued. “They will be curious about whether the men in my family have some sort of deficit. They think that the Dukes of Pindar aren’t able to satisfy their wives.”
Charlie had been tucked into his corner of the sofa, but he leaned forward and patted Vander’s knee with a thin white hand. “You needn’t worry about that,” he said comfortingly. “My aunt will never fall in love again. She told me so. That means that she’ll never leave you the way Venus left her husband.”
Vander felt a sudden stillness. “So she was in love with her betrothed? What was his name?” he added casually.
“Mr. Edward Reeve,” Charlie replied. “He is the son of the Earl of Gryffyn.”
An icy sensation swept over Vander. It was that possessive instinct, of course. Nothing but that. No man liked to hear about his wife’s affection for another man.
“In the end, he couldn’t face the responsibility of raising me. That’s what he said in his note.” Charlie’s eyes slid off to the empty fireplace.
“He was a selfish fool,” Vander said, his voice harsh. “How did you learn what was in his note?”
“Sir Richard read it aloud.” Charlie’s voice trembled a bit. “He shouldn’t have done that. Aunt Mia shouted at him afterward.”
Vander’s response was blasphemous.
Charlie brightened instantly and asked what two of his words meant.
So Vander defined them, with the proviso that he not share his expanded vocabulary with his aunt.
“The worst of it was that Sir Richard had Mr. Reeve’s note in his pocket, but he waited until the church was full. Then he pretended to remember it had been delivered earlier that morning.”
“Sir Richard should be horsewhipped.”
“Aunt Mia called him a bastard,” Charlie said with relish. “That’s someone whose parents weren’t married. Mr. Reeve was a bastard, too, because his parents weren’t married and he left my aunt in the church.”
The image of his wife waiting in the church for some numbskull while Sir Richard played vicious games was enough to make Vander’s gut burn. “I’ll make him pay.”
The corner of Charlie’s mouth quirked up. “So violence is the solution now?”
“There are times when it is the only thing that satisfies.”
Charlie’s brows furrowed.
Vander guessed what he was thinking. “We’re going to put you on a horse. Build up your muscles. And we’ll find a way for you to defend yourself when you’re on your own feet.”
“Anyone can shove me over.”
“Not if you had a dagger or a rapier,” Vander said, giving him a wolfish grin.
“A rapier?” Charlie’s face lit up. And fell just as quickly. “How would I hold a rapier? I’m always carrying my crutch.”
“We could put a concealed dagger in your crutch. They do it with walking sticks all the time. Not that you want to stab anyone, but a man needs a weapon.”