Mia felt helpless, as if she were one of her own heroines, bobbing in a river that was carrying her somewhere beyond her control. Vander was eyeing her in a way that suggested he knew that she had spun him into the heroes of six novels. The only words coming to her mind were profane.
“You must have really loved that fiancé of yours,” Chuffy said. “Here, have some more brandy. I hope you don’t begin writing tragedies now that you’ve been disappointed in love. He was unworthy of you, my dear. You’re better off with Vander, for all he smells of the stables.”
Mia grabbed onto that lifeline as if it had descended from heaven itself. “That’s why I’ve been unable to finish my current book. A broken heart . . .” She let her voice trail off.
Vander stopped laughing and his eyes went steely. Good. She had suffered all the insults that she could take for one day. Although he did say she was beautiful. She stored that compliment away to think about later.
He set down his glass with a sharp click. “Have you any idea as to your former fiancé’s whereabouts?”
“No,” she said wearily. “He wrote that he planned to travel to India.”
“I certainly hope your heroine—Flora, isn’t it?—won’t return to her jilter, any more than you did the blackguard who treated you so rudely,” Chuffy cried.
“Actually, she will,” Mia said. “She loves the count so much that she forgives him.”
“I think you’re damned lucky that Mia was between fiancés when she thought of you,” Chuffy said, turning to Vander. “You never would have found a woman on your own. You’re too wrapped up in those horses of yours, and last time I checked, there ain’t any ladies out in the stables. Damnation, that’s more good brandy I’ve spilled on my coat. I’d better change.”
He moved remarkably fast for someone in his cups; he was gone from the room in a moment. Mia was forming the distinct impression that Chuffy was sometimes less inebriated than his consumption implied he should be.
“Your Charlie informed me that I replaced an earl’s son,” Vander said, taking a swallow of his brandy. “May I assume that your father did not wave a letter in the man’s direction to inspire a proposal?”
Mia set down her glass so abruptly that liquor spilled over the rim. “I know that our marriage isn’t what you wish, but I would ask that you not mock me because I was jilted.” She paused and added, “Mr. Reeve and I were very much in love, and had been betrothed for months before we were due to wed. I can assure you that he wanted to marry me.”
“Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but his marital intentions are strongly in doubt, considering his absence at the altar.” Vander’s face had taken on that expressionless look again, a trick she suspected he used to mask strong emotion of one kind or another.
“That’s true,” Mia admitted. She was still coming to terms with the fact that Edward was not the man she had believed him to be. She seemed unable to find gentlemen as decent and honorable as those she invented; perhaps they existed only in the world of fiction.
Her readers often complained of the same lack in their letters.
“It wasn’t that he didn’t care about me,” she added, coming belatedly to her own defense. “Edward could not face the responsibility of raising Charlie.”
Vander’s mouth was tight with disgust. It was a pity because she really liked his mouth. Very few men had that deep lower lip. He would hate the idea, but she thought it softened his face and gave him a deep sensuality.
She realized it too late. She’d fallen into the same trap again.
Vander tapped on her nose and she looked up to meet his eyes. “You escaped that marriage by the skin of your teeth. You see that now, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said.
Vander stared down at his wife, wondering why he felt such a blistering sense of relief at the unmistakable ring of honesty in Mia’s voice. Why would he care if she was still yearning for a man who wouldn’t have her?
She was his wife.
A novelist? Who would have thought? He knew she was intelligent, but he wouldn’t have dreamt that she had the talent to become a successful novelist. Frankly, that dreadful juvenile poem made it seem especially unlikely.
Contrary to what she thought, he didn’t give a damn if she was writing depraved novels. Though he would like to read them.
There was just one aspect of her novels that he had to clarify, though. He moved closer. His hands itched to touch her, but he kept them to himself. “You’ll have to teach me something about your work. I’ll read one all the way through. And the depraved bits of the rest.”
“I can’t imagine why you would do so. My father and brother made no attempt to read them. And despite your uncle’s enthusiasm, I am certain that most of my readers are females.”
“I shall read one, or even more,” Vander promised. “But I do have to tell you, Duchess, that you must give up the romantic dreams you have about marriage. I’ll never do any of those other things you envision.”
She put on a mock shocked face. “Your Grace, are you informing me that you will permit me to go bobbing down an icy river?”
Vander let out a crack of laughter. “I promise to throw you a rope.”
“No need,” she said, looking away. “I’d sink like a stone anyway.”
The image of Mia floundering in an icy river was surprisingly unpleasant, so Vander barreled on. “I was referring to romantic gestures like the dukes in your novels probably make. Bringing you posies, writing poetry, showering you with jewels. Your father was constantly giving my mother litters of glass animals. I will never do anything of that nature.”
“All right,” she said readily.
“We won’t have that marriage.” He caught her eyes, because this was truly important. “We can have much more, Duchess. That romantic claptrap is for novels, not for life. For dreamers, like Chuffy. Like my mother, for that matter. She satisfied herself with glass steeds, when there were flesh-and-blood horses in the stables.”
Mia gave a tight little nod.
Satisfied, he recognized that they had reached the point in a negotiation at which his opponent understood that there was no logical reason to continue arguing: Vander was going to win.
On all points.
She would capitulate now, and agree to live with him as his wife.
But she surprised him, raising that firm little chin in the air. “To be perfectly honest, even though you are forcing me to remain your wife, I do not intend to beg you for those four nights. Ever.”
That was a facer, not merely because his body was pulsing with desire to possess his bride, but because he did need an heir at some point. He let some of that desire show in his eyes. “What if I begged you?”
Her expression did not change an iota. “I will say no. This afternoon I came to understand that I cannot fight the fact you are using Charles Wallace to ensure that I acquiesce to our marriage. I made myself vulnerable through my own actions. But you placed yourself at my mercy when you wrote that contract specifying that we would be together only on the nights I implored you to join me.”
A reluctant grin touched Vander’s lips. He had just come face to face with a negotiator who had adroitly circled around behind his defenses.