September 4, 1800

Rutherford Park

The Duke of Pindar’s country estate

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Mia hated to admit it, but she was trembling like one of her own heroines. She generally put her poor ladies in Mortal Danger, standing at the brink of icy waters, for example, pursued by a lustful landlord, knees knocking pitiably and delicate hands shaking.

Her readers expected Mortal Danger. In capital letters.

She’d happily choose a plunge over a waterfall to the humiliation that lay ahead of her.

Her own less-than-delicate hands were trembling, so she curled them into fists, watching as her groom announced her name. Vander’s butler—or, to be exact, the Duke of Pindar’s butler—glanced down at her, patently surprised that a young lady had arrived without a chaperone.

Did intense humiliation count as Mortal Danger?

No, because if it were possible to die of humiliation, she would surely be dead by now. After all, she had survived the mortifying poetry incident in Villiers’s library all those years ago, then she’d failed on the marriage market, only to go through an even worse humiliation: being jilted at the altar a month ago.

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The truth was that as an author she was always kind to her characters. Mortal Danger never included jiltings. What’s more, thanks to her heroines’ thin, wispy bodies, they always floated safely downstream, too light to sink. Another author she knew had caused a character to die after an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. Murder by tortoise?

Not in a Lucibella novel!

Her readers knew that there would be no bloodthirsty birds, no one left at the altar. She had never forced any of her heroines to propose marriage, let alone to a duke.

Gentlemen fell at her heroines’ feet, not the other way around. It was a strict requirement of the genre. Lord knows, Lucibella Delicosa disappointed her readers at her own peril: a torrent of indignant letters would pour through her publisher’s door if she were to shame one of her heroines the way Mia was about to be shamed.

But at least, Mia reminded herself, she was not, in reality, falling at Vander’s feet.

She was in charge.

In control.

Before she could think better of it, she took a deep breath, handed her pelisse to the butler, and marched past him into the morning room. Mia had spent a good deal of time in the ducal country estate as a young girl, given the late duchess’ decades-long affaire with her father, and she knew where she was headed.

Even though the principal players in that drama—her father and Vander’s mother—had passed away, it seemed nothing had changed in the manor house. Every horizontal surface was still crowded with animal figurines, evidence of the late duchess’ fascination with small creatures.

She turned to the butler. “Please let His Grace know that my call shall be quite brief.”

“I shall ascertain whether His Grace is receiving,” he said, and left.

Surely Vander would see her? How could he deny her, given their parents’ relationship? Commonsense reminded her that he might well deny her for that precise reason.

She wandered over to look at the glass menagerie that resided on the mantelpiece. The unicorn had lost his horn, but all the animals were still there, silently poised with a paw up or a tail waving—some with little animal families, as though they had paired off and multiplied while the house slept.

But she couldn’t concentrate on the little curl of glass, a tadpole, she picked up. The thought of what lay ahead of her—the marriage proposal—made her feel dizzy, as if her corset was constricting her chest and making it hard to breathe. Years before, when she’d vowed to Vander’s face never to marry him, a gleam of amusement had sprung to his eyes.

What if he burst out laughing now?

She was not exquisitely beautiful, refined, intelligent . . . and she didn’t even have a fortune. Whoever heard of a wallflower asking a duke for his hand in marriage?

Mia took another deep breath. She wasn’t precisely asking the duke to marry her. That would be pitiful. She was blackmailing him, which was altogether different.

More swashbuckling. More perilous.

More criminal.

She should pretend this wasn’t happening to her, but to one of her heroines, the way she did with almost everything else. She already had plenty of practice observing her life as if from outside. She regularly chatted with patently bored gentlemen, simultaneously rewriting the conversation in such a way that a fantastically idealized version of herself left them dumbstruck with desire.

Back home she would jot down the scene precisely as she had reimagined it—giving herself violet eyes and a slim waist. Sometimes she stayed up all night describing the adventures of one of her heroines, a girl so well-mannered, biddable, and pure of heart that only the most discerning readers noticed she was quite intelligent.

In contrast, men noticed that Mia was intelligent, but it seemed to put them off.

If life imitated one of her novels, Vander would stride into the room and after one glance begin wooing her with such passion that the distasteful question of blackmail would never need be mentioned.

His blue eyes would flare with possessive fervor. For the rest of his life, His Grace would regret the thirteen years he might have spent with her, but had lost due to his callow and callous blindness as a boy. He would bitterly reproach himself for his cruel insults.

Unfortunately, that was more than unlikely. In Mia’s experience, people never regretted clever insults, no matter how much they might sting the recipient.

She hated cabbage to this day. As well as Oakenrott.

A queer numbness came over her. She, Emilia Gwendolyn Carrington, was about to coerce a duke into marrying her. An old maid in her twenties, possessed of neither violet-colored eyes nor a slender waist, was—

This was not a helpful train of thought.

She had to stop trembling. The proposal wasn’t for her benefit. Nor was it for an extended period of time. She simply needed Vander to marry her in name only, for a year at most. It was the only way she could take guardianship of her nephew, Charles Wallace.

Nephew? In all the ways that counted, Charlie was her son. Her own child.

She took a deep breath. Women dove from the decks of tall ships to save children fallen overboard. They fought tigers and wild boars.

What was a mere duke compared to a man-eating carnivore? She’d heard some creatures had such large teeth that they could be hollowed out and used as soup ladles.

Right.

The tricky part was that Mr. Plummer, her solicitor, had been adamant that the duke could not be informed of the reasons for her proposal, or His Grace would almost certainly say no.

By marrying her, the duke not only took on guardianship of a small boy; he gained control of an extremely large estate running adjacent to his, which would look highly suspicious to his peers. Their marriage would be a cause célèbre without even taking into account the scandals caused by their parents: Vander would undoubtedly face a lawsuit charging him with theft of the estate from Charlie’s uncle on his mother’s side, Sir Richard Magruder.

Vander—His Grace, the Duke of Pindar—was just another supercilious, privileged, silly man, she reminded herself. He wasn’t a tiger with soup ladles for teeth.

She could do this.

She must do this.

Chapter Two

NOTES ON An Angel’s Form and a Devil’s Heart: a Novel

Heroine is slender, ethereal, willowy . . . another way to say thin? Strangely light for someone who actually eats breakfast.

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