Mia let go of Jafeer and rose on her toes to look over his door. He instantly backed up to give her room.
Sure enough, his manger was full of oats. “Jafeer,” Mia said, pointing to the box. “You must eat.”
He made a funny noise, almost as if he were talking to her.
Mia leaned against the door. “I suppose I could stay here for a little time,” she told him, “but I must go for a ride. Lancelot is waiting for me.” Jafeer bent his head and began to lip up the oats.
“Well, damn my britches,” Mulberry exclaimed, instantly adding, “Please excuse me, Your Grace.”
Mia laughed. Jafeer had obviously remembered how delicious oats were; Mia patted his neck and he raised his head and whickered at her, but lowered his head again immediately.
After a few minutes, Mia made her way out to the paddock. Mulberry hoisted her onto Lancelot’s broad back just as a groom emerged from the stable on his own mount. Mia’s heart sank. She was desperate for escape, and the last thing she wanted was the quizzical gaze of a bored young groom as she and Lancelot meandered down the path, stopping now and then, which allowed Lancelot to fortify himself with some grass due to the unwonted exercise of carrying her.
“I have no need for an escort,” she told Mulberry. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time,” she added, nodding to the groom.
“Your Grace,” Mulberry objected, “you cannot think to go for a ride without an escort.”
“That’s exactly what I intend,” she said. When he started to protest, she drew herself upright. She might as well practice looking like a duchess. “I shall ride alone,” she stated. “I shall return in an hour or thereabouts. Good afternoon, Mulberry.”
With that, she pointed Lancelot toward the open gate. He ambled through it, resigned to the fact that she was forcing him to take her for a ride.
Mia leaned forward and patted his neck. “Good boy, Lancelot.” Behind her she heard Jafeer’s infuriated bellow and the pounding of hooves. He must have realized that she had left while he was eating.
She followed a path that wound from behind the stables, skirted the edge of the lawns and wandered off into the woods. The moment she was out of sight of the looming house Mia felt as if she were finally able to breathe. It was as if she’d been swept up in a whirlwind, only to find there was no air in the middle of the storm.
A short time ago, she’d been in the local church, waiting to become Mrs. Edward Reeve, when Sir Richard had announced that Edward had fled, and she had instantly plunged into a panic from which she had yet to emerge.
In the last weeks, her every muscle had remained taut with fear. Now she could relax. Whatever happened to her, Charlie would be secure, financially as well as physically. Vander would prudently administer the estate, not like Sir Richard, who would have wasted Charlie’s patrimony in frivolous lawsuits.
Vander would never do that, and Edward wouldn’t have either. For the first time she let herself really think about the fact that her fiancé had left the country rather than marry her.
Her throat tightened. It felt terrible.
Edward had kissed her as if he meant it. After their first kiss, he had pulled back, laughing. And yet he looked at her in such a way . . .
Obviously, desire was not enough to ensure loyalty. She had believed Edward loved her, but in hindsight, he had been temporarily lustful. Like Vander.
For a moment she wobbled in the saddle, struck by the realization that someday Vander would take a mistress, a beautiful sylphlike woman, someone he might love the way Thorn Dautry loved his wife.
Tears began to slide down Mia’s cheeks. There was a reason she wrote Lucibella novels: she longed to be loved, and to fall in love.
Her father hadn’t been adept at paternal duties. But he had loved the late Duchess of Pindar. He was happiest dancing with Her Grace. Mia had seen him circling the dance floor a hundred times, his hair gilt-bright in the light thrown from chandeliers, proud to be holding his love in his arms.
The memory made the tears come even faster. She had hoped—dreamed—that someday she would love someone with the same passion, but within the bonds of marriage. She hadn’t felt overly ardent with Edward, but she had genuinely liked him and she had been certain they would grow to love each other with time.
Now, if Mia were ever to experience love, it would have to be adulterous. Her love would be tarnished like her father’s, hemmed in by shame.
She closed her eyes and let Lancelot go where he would as an occasional sob wracked her chest. She came back to herself only when they stopped moving.
The first thing she saw, blurrily, when she opened her eyes was a large hand holding Lancelot’s reins. She looked slowly from the hand past an expanse of fine wool, a strong jaw, blue eyes. Angry blue eyes.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Vander barked. He had maneuvered his horse beside Lancelot’s side in order to grab the reins. His leg was touching hers.
There was no point whatsoever in trying to pretend otherwise. “Crying.”
“I’ve never seen anyone riding with closed eyes,” he said. “Your horse could have tripped on a mole hole. Though he’s so stubby that you likely wouldn’t have suffered injury. I must get you a decent mount.”
“Lancelot is a perfect horse for me,” Mia managed, blotting her tears with a damp handkerchief.
“As long as you attempt nothing faster than a walk,” he said in a jaundiced tone. Men tended to be unkind to Lancelot. Mia had never succeeded in convincing her brother that she had no need to trot, and that therefore Lancelot’s sluggishness was irrelevant.
“Here.” Vander thrust a large white handkerchief toward her.
Mia took it, glancing sideways. He was as exquisite as ever, whereas she was tear-stained and disheveled.
“Thank you.” She defiantly blew her nose as no lady would do in a gentleman’s presence, and tucked away his handkerchief to give to Susan. “I apologize for causing you concern, Duke.”
He frowned at her. “What made you cry?”
To reveal to him that she was grieving for the love affair she would never have was out of the question. “I was thinking of my father.” Vander was staring at her chest, or possibly her middle, so she straightened her back, rather than sit in the saddle like a bag of flour.
“Your father was a cicisbeo with nothing better to do with his time than dance attendance on my mother in her bedchamber, adulterously, I might add.”
“My father loved your mother! It might not have been right, but that’s . . . that’s the way it was.”
“She was his mistress,” Vander said, his voice cold. “She lent him consequence while they cuckolded my father.”
“That’s a very vulgar way of putting it,” Mia said, jerking herself straight again.
“It’s the truth,” he retorted.
“I think I’ll return to the stables,” she said. She pulled at her reins, but Vander didn’t let go.
His leg brushed hers again as his mount shifted uneasily. “I gather you terminated Nottle’s employment this morning.”
“Yes, I did,” Mia said. “He was very unkind while speaking about Charlie.”
“So Chuffy said. Nottle has been with the family for years, so I dispatched him to do his butlering at the townhouse. I’m rarely there, which will suit him fine. And I sent a groom over to ask your Mr. Gaunt to join us. He should do well.”