“I have all her novels bound in calfskin editions tooled with gold, with silk inserts and marbled endpapers,” Chuffy said. “Dang it, I cannot believe I forgot her name! In my favorite, the heroine is almost guillotined.”
“Given the fact that you have told me the plot of each and every book you buy,” Vander put in, “I would venture to say that you are speaking of Miss Lucibella Delicosa.” He turned to Mia. “The travails of Miss Delicosa’s fictional heroines are generally our primary subject of conversation for at least a week after a new novel arrives.”
“I only wish it happened more frequently,” Chuffy lamented. “My favorite authors are horribly lazy. I’m sure they could write more quickly if they truly applied themselves. At any rate, Vander is right. Miss Delicosa is my favorite novelist, so I order her novels in special bindings. They cost a pretty penny, but they’re worth it.”
Mia felt herself grinning. She knew to the penny how much her publisher charged for those special editions, because she had authorized production of the three-volume editions at two guineas and five pence, a veritable fortune in the world of publishing.
“I gather you have read those novels,” Vander said.
In that moment, it struck Mia that she had an inspired way to convince Vander that she was not duchess material. “I have a secret identity,” she announced.
“Are you a French spy?” Chuffy asked, his face lighting up.
“Don’t be absurd,” Vander said, scowling at his uncle, and then at Mia. “What in the bloody hell are you talking about?”
“I write novels.”
“You do?” Chuffy was clearly delighted. “My dear, I couldn’t be happier to hear that. I adore novels. Live for them. I can be your muse!”
“You a literary muse, Uncle?” Vander was obviously on the verge of laughter.
“You don’t understand my point,” Mia said, nettled by his amusement. “Novels are scandalous, and duchesses definitely can’t author books of that nature. Some of my fellow novelists have quite irregular lives.”
“Really?” Chuffy cried. “Do tell me everything you know! What about Miss Quiplet? I imagine that she is a young lady of great refinement, but of course I have no real idea.”
“I know nothing of her personal circumstances,” Mia said, “but I can tell you that the author of Ellen, Countess of Castle Howel—”
“I adored that novel,” Chuffy said eagerly. “It was one of the first I ever read, over five years ago now.”
“Lives in irregular circumstances with a vice-admiral,” Mia finished.
“Goodness me,” Chuffy exclaimed, clearly delighted. “How do you know? Have you met her?”
“Irregular circumstances covers so many possibilities,” Vander drawled. “Could you be more explicit so that we can better judge the moral fiber of all living novelists by the vice-admiral’s mistress?”
Mia scowled at him. “You may jest, but I assure you that the greater part of Britain considers female novelists to be little better than concubines.”
Vander looked even more amused. “Concubine is such a delightfully biblical word, isn’t it? Are you saying that the reason I have not yet met a concubine is because I’m not part of a literary set?”
“You are entirely too dismal about the reputation of novelists,” Chuffy said, ignoring Vander’s nonsense. “Miss Fanny Burney was a member of Queen Charlotte’s circle, at least until she married General Alexandre D’Arblay and left the court.”
“That’s very good to know,” Vander said. “I have recently realized that I need a connection at court. All dukes should have them, as my solicitor informed me after the debacle of my father’s letter. We’ll forward your manuscript to Her Majesty immediately.”
“Novelists are scandalous,” Mia told him, marshalling her patience. “My father was appalled.”
“I have to say, Lord Carrington showed a great deal of nerve in expressing distaste over fictional exploits,” Vander observed. “According to Sir Richard, our marriage is practically incestuous, given our parents’ love affair.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Chuffy said indignantly. “Why, my poor brother wasn’t confined to an asylum—and the late duchess didn’t meet Lord Carrington—until you were well out of short pants, Nevvy.”
“Nevertheless, my point stands,” Vander said, tossing back his drink. “Many in polite society will be so scandalized to learn of our union that they might faint upon encountering one of us unaware. Nothing you can do on the literary front will top what my parents did for the ducal reputation—which we have exacerbated by our marriage.”
“He tends to look on the dark side of things,” Chuffy told Mia. “You must forgive him.”
“I think you are underestimating how frightful it would be if my other identity were discovered,” Mia said. She was feeling perversely irritated, because Vander not only wasn’t shocked; he didn’t even turn a hair at the revelation she had a secret identity.
“Vander is right, my dear,” Chuffy said. “My brother and his wife exposed the family to intense scrutiny; your marriage has increased that; frankly, even if you publish a novel one day, it will merely be grist to the mill.”
“In fact, I think you should publish,” Vander said. “Why not? I like the idea that the Duchess of Pindar might be excoriated for something other than adultery. It would throw a luster on the family name that we haven’t managed to this point.”
“Why do you assume that I haven’t published a novel?” Mia inquired.
Vander raised an eyebrow.
“Have you published a novel?” Chuffy cried. “Because I assure you that I shall order bindings for your novel that will put Lucibella Delicosa’s to shame! Jewels—or no, velvet with embroidery!”
“I have published several novels,” Mia said, enjoying herself. “Six, to be precise.”
“You are a published novelist?” Vander asked.
There was a touch of disbelief in his voice that Mia didn’t like. “Not only am I published,” she stated, “but I am Lucibella herself.”
Chuffy gasped audibly and put a hand to his chest.
“So I cannot possibly remain the Duchess of Pindar,” Mia said, trying to study Vander’s expression out of the corner of her eye. Did he look alarmed? Or did he think she was fibbing? It was hard to tell.
He definitely didn’t look outraged, the way her father had been when she told him that her first novel had been published (she had decided it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission).
Given that her audience seemed struck dumb, she added, “It is only a matter of time before one of my readers discovers the truth about Lucibella’s true identity.”
“You refer to yourself in the third person?” Vander asked.
At the same moment, Chuffy seized one of her hands and cried, “You are a treasure! A national treasure! Your books mean the earth to me, and I never thought to meet you.”
“I’m very glad that you enjoy my novels,” she said sincerely.
“Enjoy them? They have saved my sanity, such as it is. Truly, my dear, in the darkness of the last year, when I lost my beloved sister-in-law and my brother shortly thereafter, your books became my refuge.”