His mouth fell open. “Is this where we’re going to live?” Vander had caught up with them, and Charlie turned. “Is this your house?”
“Never show astonishment, Crip,” Vander said. “But yes, this is Rutherford Manor.”
Mia frowned. “What did you call Charlie?”
“I told you she wouldn’t like it,” Charlie said to Vander.
“Charlie and I are trying out nicknames to decide which one he likes the best,” Vander said. “So far he’s rejected Hop-Along Harry and Peg-Legged Pete, but I have high hopes that he’ll get used to Crip.”
“That is not acceptable,” Mia said, low and fierce. She glanced down to see if Charlie was scarred by this calloused treatment, but he had tipped his head back to see Vander’s face and there was an unmistakable look of hero-worship in his eyes.
Mia opened her mouth to elaborate, but Nottle was standing in the doorway, and Charlie had three marble steps to climb, as well as the sweeping round of stairs leading upstairs. “Let’s investigate the nursery,” she said instead, making up her mind to discuss the subject with Vander when they were alone.
Vander squatted down and said, “Charlie, old man, it’s been a long day, and I think you should take a ride upstairs. Give your crutch to your aunt.”
“Charlie hates to—” Mia began.
“On your back?” Charlie said eagerly, passing her his crutch.
“Yup. The same way we came up from the kitchen.”
As she watched, dumbfounded, Vander turned about, and Charlie wound his thin arms around Vander’s neck and his legs around his waist.
Vander’s embroidered coat probably cost more than a cottager made in three seasons. But he showed no signs of worry about damage from Charlie’s boots.
It took time to settle Charlie into the new nursery, and all the while Mia was awash in contradictory feelings. Part of her was still incredulous about Vander’s demand that they remain married. Another part was fearful. A third was grieving for the husband she had hoped to have someday.
And the marriage she’d hoped to have too: a partnership with a rational, honorable man who would love, cherish, and respect her.
She only had herself to blame. She hadn’t been honorable so, of course, a merciless fate had handed her Vander as a husband. It was like something out of the great myths, the ones in which an awful blunder led to a catastrophic end.
With a proverb at the finish, something about deceitful women, no doubt, and dishonorable men.
Not that Vander was dishonorable. So it went: around and around in a vicious, maddening circle, all afternoon and into the evening until Mia was so desperate that she promptly downed a glass of sherry on entering the drawing room.
Vander was already there, looking none the worse for wear for having engaged in a round of fisticuffs with Sir Richard. Susan had told her the details as Mia dressed for supper, and reported as well that the downstairs was galvanized by a sense of vicarious triumph.
Mia heartily approved. Frankly, if she had been strong enough to pummel Sir Richard, she would have done so long ago—perhaps the first time that he assured her that Charlie had little chance of living more than a few years.
There was no sign of Chuffy in the drawing room, which gave Mia a prickling feeling of unease. Nottle had taken himself away to supervise preparations for the evening meal, and she and Vander were alone.
Vander had changed into a plain black coat. His hair tumbled around his ears in a style that bore no resemblance to the latest fashions but was fifty times more sensual for that. His cravat—well, it was tied. That was about all you could say for it.
Still, she was uncomfortably aware that she couldn’t take her eyes from him. It was preposterous: she was a civilized young lady of the brand-new century, and yet an errant part of her soul was thrilled by his rough edges and brutishness. According to Susan’s account, he had knocked out Sir Richard with one blow.
“More wine?” Vander asked, eyeing her empty glass.
“I shouldn’t,” Mia answered. “I become tipsy very quickly.”
“Chuffy has the monopoly on that particular sin,” Vander said, taking a drink of brandy that smelled far better than the bitter sherry Nottle had handed her. Without asking what she’d prefer, she might add.
She wandered over to say hello to the glass menagerie on the mantel. “If you dislike the animals, have you thought of boxing them up?”
“They will soon perish as clothing flies through the air.” There was something about the way he drawled that which made her pause. What on earth did he mean?
She turned. “Do you often disrobe in the drawing room?” she inquired.
“Only when driven to do so.” His eyes had a truly wicked glint. “I have high hopes for marriage.”
Mia choked. “That sounds like a man who thinks four nights with him are worth a king’s ransom.”
“I suppose that disrobing in a public room is akin to bedding: I shall do so only if my wife implores me.”
“Your valet will be happy to know that I have no plans to disturb his labors,” Mia said, taking a deep breath of the mixture of horse and sunshine that hung about her husband. It made her long to fly into his arms and simply breathe him in. Absurd.
“I am curious to know more about the fiancé who preceded me,” Vander said, just as Chuffy wandered into the room.
“Oh, had you a fiancé?” Chuffy asked genially. He was already equipped with a glass of brandy.
Mia smiled at him, relieved that he had joined them. “Good evening, Sir Cuthbert. Indeed, I did have a fiancé before His Grace was kind enough to come to my aid.”
“Don’t beat about the bush, gal,” Chuffy advised. “Vander didn’t come to your aid as much as you forced him to marry you. I like the turn on an old story. Why, if this got out, it would gladden the hearts of maidens everywhere. Like one of my novels.”
“Your novels?” Mia’s heart bounded. She had never met another novelist, let alone formed a friendship with one, for obvious reasons.
“Chuffy has a weakness for gothic novels,” Vander said. “He reads every one he can get his hands on. The more disreputable, the better, isn’t that right, Chuffy?”
“My taste is not entirely respectable,” Chuffy confided. “I imagine you’ve never read anything so paltry. I say, do you mind if I call you Emilia? I find ‘Your Gracing’ right and left to be taxing. Hard to remember. You’d better start calling me Chuffy now, because I’m getting on in years. In no time I won’t remember my own title.”
“I would be honored, if you called me Mia. But truly, as I have been trying to persuade the duke, our marriage is one of convenience only, designed to safeguard my nephew’s inheritance. I shan’t be here in five years.”
“Convenience!” Chuffy’s eyes rounded. “My favorite plot device! Tell me, my dear, have you read any of Miss Julia Quiplet’s novels?”
“I have read one,” Mia said. “I liked it very much, and—”
Chuffy interrupted her. “There’s another novelist who’s just as good. Though I can’t seem to remember her name at the moment.”
Despite herself, Mia stiffened. It would be disappointing if Chuffy was referring to Mrs. Scudgell’s novels; in Mia’s opinion, those books were hurt by their reliance on implausible situations. Not that her own plots were particularly credible, but at least in her novels it never snowed in July simply because the heroine’s tears affected Mother Nature.