“Oh,” Mia said, startled by the fervor in his eyes. Readers did tend to confide that sort of thing in their letters, but insofar as she’d always had to conceal her real identity, she’d never before met one.
“My refuge,” Chuffy was saying, “and my joy. Where, my dear lady, is An Angel’s Form and a Devil’s Heart? I’ve already ordered it in the matching binding. I’ve been waiting for months!”
Mia withdrew her hand. “I’m afraid the book is yet unfinished,” she told Chuffy, turning to Vander. “You must see how impossible it is that I continue as Duchess of Pindar.”
“As long as you don’t take to publishing odes to members of my household, I can’t see that it matters.”
“‘Matters?’” Mia echoed. “Certainly it matters! I don’t write solemn epic poems or—or historical dramas or great literature. Do you know what Grapple’s Ladies’ Magazine said of my last novel?”
“It doesn’t matter what they said,” Chuffy said instantly. “Your work is genius, my dear, pure genius.”
“They said that it was a mystery that any human being could try to read the book without committing suicide, that’s what they said. They called it a ‘compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’”
“Now that’s just unkind,” Chuffy said. “I’m quite certain that the reviewer had a depraved home life herself. That’s why she couldn’t recognize the true goodness of a Lucibella heroine!”
“My books are depraved,” Mia told her husband, who still did not seem to be registering the import of what she was saying.
“I haven’t read many novels,” Vander said, pouring some brandy into her empty glass and handing it to her, “but I might start. They sound quite informative. Even inspiring.”
“You’ve never read a single novel,” Chuffy corrected.
“That’s unfair,” his nephew replied, unperturbed. “One could make an argument that The Sporting Magazine is akin to a novel: luridly untrue, and fond of recounting unnatural horrors.”
“I shall sully the Pindar name,” Mia insisted. The brandy was quite good, though she had the vague sense that it was supposed to be drunk only after a meal. Her father had never allowed her to drink spirits, on the grounds she was a lady. She took a hearty swallow, in his honor.
“Vander couldn’t divorce you, even if he wanted to,” Chuffy said. “It’s impossible to get rid of a wife. There’s many a British peer who has tried, believe me.”
“I’ll have to read your so-called depravity to judge for myself,” Vander said. “Perhaps I can help you act out scenes for future books.”
She glared at him.
“Just so that you can better visualize them,” he added.
“There’s no escaping marriage, my dear,” Chuffy said, ignoring Vander’s nonsense. “Your bed is made, so lie in it!”
Vander’s eyes had taken on that wicked glint again, and a shock of heat went through Mia. He was just so—beautiful: raw and masculine and proud, even though she’d supposedly defeated him with her blackmailing letter.
No one could defeat Vander.
He cocked an eyebrow, as if he could read her mind.
“Never mind this foolish talk of divorce,” Chuffy said, topping up his glass. “I want to know what’s happened to your new book.”
“I haven’t written it yet,” Mia confessed. “That is, I’ve written bits and scraps of dialogue, but I have a few plot points to resolve.”
“Tell me everything!” Chuffy cried. “I’ll be your muse, your guardian, your mentor, Jonson to your Shakespeare!”
Mia managed a weak smile. “I would rather not discuss it just yet. I have some delicate aspects left to work out.” She managed to stop herself from adding, “around three hundred pages’ worth.”
“At least tell us what happens to the heroine.” Chuffy turned to Vander. “A Lucibella heroine is always in peril. I shiver in terror from the first pages, knowing what’s in store for her. Just give me one hint about the plot,” he implored.
“Her name is Flora, and she is jilted at the altar,” Mia stated.
At that, surprise crossed Vander’s face. “As you were yourself?”
“The circumstances are entirely different.”
“A Lucibella heroine is nothing like our Mia,” Chuffy chimed in.
Mia winced. If she had ever managed to think well of her figure—not that she had—having near and dear relatives like Vander and Chuffy would clearly knock her down to size. So to speak.
“That is true,” she admitted.
“In what way?” Vander asked.
“Oh, my heroines are invariably and incomparably beautiful,” she explained. “Slender, blue-eyed, all the usual. The genre demands it.”
“You are beautiful,” Vander said flatly. Mia blinked at her husband, but he didn’t appear to be mocking her.
“I generally don’t pay much attention to those parts of the book,” Chuffy said, “but now I think of it, Lucibella heroines aren’t precisely beautiful. They’re always emaciated owing to their poverty. Sometimes when I finish a book I take a moment to imagine how happy they will be to have all the food they want.”
“My heroines aren’t emaciated!”
“Starving,” Chuffy said. “Why, one of the heroines floated downstream simply because of all the air in her ribs.”
“The air in her ribs?” Vander repeated, seemingly quite struck.
“I don’t mean ribs. In her stomach, of course! Why, the poor lady had nothing but air in her so she popped to the surface like a bubble. Until a duke towed her to shore, of course.”
“Naturally,” Vander said, taking another swallow of brandy. “I would hope that any man of my rank would do as much.”
“He risked his own life,” Chuffy said. “The adventuresome bits are my favorites. When the duke saw his beloved bobbing downstream like a cork, he dove straight into the river. The icy water closed over his head more than once, but he got her to shore.”
“I would do the same,” Vander said, grinning widely. “Trained for it from the cradle.”
“My novels have nothing to do with real life,” Mia insisted. “The fact my heroine is jilted is purely coincidental.”
“There’s nothing wrong with spinning your novels from real life,” Chuffy said. “Your life is easily as interesting as those of your heroines.”
“Only in the last few weeks, I assure you,” Mia said.
“Are all your heroes dukes?” Vander inquired in a way that suggested she may have modeled her heroes on him.
Which she had.
“No!” Mia exclaimed. “Of course not. My current hero is a count. At any rate, a title is merely a way of conveying a man of worth and substance.”
“Mia’s love scenes are famous,” Chuffy said. “I expect that’s why that perishing magazine got a little tetchy. Her characters go on and on about how much they adore each other.”
“Would you say they are lyrical?” Vander asked, oh so innocently.