“You should stab Sir Richard with a rapier!”

“It’s best to avoid manslaughter except when absolutely necessary,” Vander said, the thought crossing his mind that perhaps he wasn’t the best model for a boy. He was hardly peaceable in his temperament.

Neither, it seemed, was Charlie. “You should kill Mr. Reeve as well. Aunt Mia says that sometimes men are not as courageous as one would hope, but I think he was horrid to leave her like that.”

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“I’ll consider it,” Vander promised. “Your aunt’s fiancé is definitely a scoundrel. He blamed his inadequacies on you, which is a shameful thing to do.” He leaned over and poked Charlie in the stomach. “Don’t you agree with me, Crip?”

Color washed Charlie’s thin cheeks again and he lurched to his feet, his crutch thumping the wooden floor. “I don’t wish to be called that name!”

Reeve’s loss was his gain. Vander genuinely liked this boy. He rose and then crouched down in front of Charlie so their eyes were on a level. “All right, I won’t.”

“Never?”

“No. Can I call you Gammy?”

“No!”

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“Peg-leg?”

“No.”

“I must address you as Lord Carrington?”

Silence. Then, “I suppose you can call me Charlie.”

“Does that make me Uncle Vander, in private at least?”

A tiny smile played on Charlie’s mouth, the first Vander had seen. “I think I’ll call you Vulcan in private.”

Vander snorted. “You call me Vulcan and I’ll call you Crip. That way you won’t give a toss by the time you get to school.”

Charlie blinked. “School! I can’t go to school.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a cripple. You don’t understand. It’s like going to the fair. I might be pushed over.”

“So what? You’ve shown me that you know how to roll. You can’t stay in this room like a fairy-tale princess asleep behind her briars.”

“I’m not a princess,” Charlie said, scowling.

“Then let’s go downstairs and fetch some food from the kitchens, and after that we’ll set out for my house. There’s an art to raiding the larder, Crip, and every young lord needs to know it.”

They made their way to the top of the stairs, and stood for a moment looking down the rounded sweep.

“Is this one of the reasons you spend so much time in the nursery?” Vander asked.

The boy nodded. “It takes me too long to get down. I have to cling to the rail and I feel as if the footmen are laughing behind my back. Mr. Gaunt used to carry me down, but I’m too big for that now.”

“I agree.” Vander put Charlie’s hand on the magnificent mahogany banister. “Do you feel how smooth this is? It is meant for sliding down. I’ll take your crutch this time, but next time you can tuck it under your arm.”

Charlie’s eyes grew round. “Aunt Mia would kill me.”

Vander pretended to look around. “Aunt? Any aunts here?” He grinned at Charlie. “I’ll catch you at the bottom. Turn around and slide on your stomach.”

Charlie was clearly apprehensive, but he was a brave fellow. When Vander reached the bottom and shouted, “On you go, Crip,” he clambered awkwardly onto the banister.

“Let go!” Vander hollered.

He did, with just a little squeak.

Vander watched as the small body slid toward him, black hair flying. He caught Charlie easily before the newel post could inflict damage. “At my house we’ll post a footman at the foot of the stairs and tell him it’s his job to catch you. When you’ve had more practice, you’ll be able to stop yourself.”

Charlie’s cheeks were red and his eyes shone. “That was terrific!”

“Good,” Vander said, grinning at him.

“Aunt Mia will hate it.” Charlie’s smile was reckless and delighted.

“Mothers, and aunts, are generally vexed when their children discover speed. Wait until she sees you galloping.”

“She won’t permit it,” Charlie breathed.

“A man can’t let himself be governed by a woman, can he?”

The boy’s thin chest swelled. “No.”

“Right. Time for bread and cheese. I’m tired of calling you Crip. What do you think of Peg-Legged Pete?”

“I don’t like it,” Charlie said happily.

“Hop-Along Harry?”

“No!”

Chapter Thirteen

From Miss Carrington to Mssrs. Brandy, Bucknell & Bendal, Publishers

September 9, 1800

Dear Mr. Bucknell,

I expect you have seen this in the Morning Post, but you should learn of it directly from me as well: since our last exchange, I have become married to the Duke of Pindar through a series of misunderstandings that could enliven the pages of one of Lucibella’s novels. It is but a temporary arrangement; we shall soon have all this bother unraveled, but it does make it even more imperative that no one discover my identity as a novelist. There may be those who would find the Pindar legacy tarnished by Lucibella’s literary efforts.

I assure you I am working diligently on the novel, and not in the least distracted by my new circumstances. I am sending this missive with one of the duke’s grooms, who will be happy to wait for your response. I would be grateful to receive the Quiplet novels as well.

Miss Carrington. Her Grace, the Duchess of Pindar

Mia spent the afternoon fuming over her husband’s presumptuous ways. She would rather have introduced Charles Wallace to Vander herself.

And what was taking this long? It was a mere hour’s coach ride between their houses, and after three hours turned to four, she began to fret. Perhaps Charlie had objected to leaving home with a stranger.

In an effort to distract herself, she began to write notes toward her novel, working on the little desk in her bedchamber. An hour or so later, she took her writing materials down to the drawing room and, after clearing away a herd of glass rabbits, set herself to writing at a table that faced the courtyard.

Poor Flora was being excoriated by the unpleasant owner of a lace-making establishment when she finally heard the rumble of carriage wheels coming up the drive.

Nottle and two footmen were loitering in the entry when she dashed out of the drawing room. “Open the door, if you please,” she said.

“I shall fetch your pelisse, Your Grace,” he said, managing to convey just what he thought of a duchess with ink-stained fingers and—she glanced down—ink stains on her cuffs as well.

“The door, Nottle,” she said, between clenched teeth.

A groom in splendid livery was just opening the door of the carriage. Vander descended, then he stuck his head back into the carriage and stepped back. Before she could dash down the steps, Charlie appeared in the carriage door, crutch under his arm, and hopped down.

Mia didn’t make a sound, though a scream was caught somewhere in her chest. Of course, it wasn’t a great distance from the carriage to the gravel. But she had always been careful to have a footman place a handy step and hold Charlie’s elbow.

At any rate, Charlie was swinging toward her, his eyes shining. She caught him up when he reached her, swinging him in a circle so that his hair flew into the air. “Charlie, my love!” He tolerated three kisses, but then he struggled away and turned to look up at the ducal mansion.

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