“That’s a brilliant solution,” Mia said with relief. “Charlie will never go to London, and they needn’t encounter each other.”

Vander’s brows drew together. “Why would you say that? Of course, Charlie will visit the townhouse. But believe me, Nottle will never say an untoward word about your nephew again, upstairs or downstairs. He knows full well that he will leave without a letter of recommendation if I hear a whisper.”

“Excellent!” Mia said, giving him a beaming smile. “I try to surround Charlie with positive influences at all times. He can learn about the world’s cruelties when he’s older.”

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“‘When he’s older,’” Vander echoed. “How much older?”

“Twenty, perhaps? As long as I can possibly shield him. And now he has you as well!”

“No, he hasn’t,” Vander said flatly.

Mia’s heart fell to her feet. Vander was forced into marriage; he was hardly likely to take on the role of guardian with any sort of enthusiasm. “Of course, I understand. If you’ll excuse me, Duke, I shall return to the house.”

“You haven’t understood me.”

“Yes, I have,” she said. “Do you think that you’re the first who found Charlie too much of a burden?”

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“I only meant that I will not join you in coddling your nephew.”

“Oh.” She nodded. “I understand. I’ll return to the house now.” She had had all the marital conversation she could put up with. Besides, she could feel the heat of his leg through the skirts of her riding habit and it muddled her brain.

With one swift movement, Vander dropped both his and her reins, caught her around the waist, lifted her from her sidesaddle, and pulled her up and over until she was seated in front of him.

Mia gasped. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He looked at her silently, and then his mouth came to hers, the kiss open-mouthed, as if they were speaking to each other. Her right side was plastered against Vander’s chest and he had one of his hands tangled in her hair, and his tongue . . .

Feeling swept through her body, crashing into her like a thunderstorm.

The way two tongues met . . . it was carnal. She had clutched his coat, certain she was about to fall; now her fingers curled into thick, soft hair.

Another moment, and parts of her body were hotter than others. A sound like a growl came from Vander’s throat. Mia responded as if a piece of silk were being drawn across her naked body.

She pressed even closer and Vander’s grasp tightened. Mia melted against him as if she had no bones. As if he could do whatever he wished to her.

Then he stopped. “Any interest in requesting one of those allotted nights?” he asked, his eyes impenetrable.

It took her a moment but she croaked, “Request? Don’t you mean that I should beg for a night? Never.”

With one swift movement, he deposited her back in her saddle. It was lucky that Lancelot’s back was broad, because she might have toppled straight off the other side. Her knees felt wobbly.

No matter how wonderfully Vander kissed, there was nothing particularly interesting about him.

If she told herself that enough times, she might come to believe it. She looked up at Vander again, and opened her mouth to say as much, but somehow everything had changed again.

When he had tossed her back onto Lancelot’s back, her skirt had caught around her knees, and now her legs—clad in pale pink silk stockings—were exposed right up to her thighs, and creamy flesh above that. Vander’s eyes were smoldering, as if he wanted not just to kiss her, but to do something truly scandalous. Heat surged up her middle as she pulled her skirts back down.

“Hello, hello!” A deep voice broke the moment as effectively as a rock might smash a window. “Who have we here? Well, if it isn’t the newlyweds, having a little tête-à-tête.”

“Hello, Chuffy,” Mia said, managing a smile.

The muscle was working in Vander’s jaw again. Mia felt a perverse stab of satisfaction.

“Good morning, my dear,” Chuffy asked. “Shall I continue to the village by myself, Nevvy?”

“No, no, I’ll be off,” Mia said hastily.

Vander’s eyes narrowed again. “I just realized . . . Where’s your groom?”

“I chose to ride alone,” Mia said. “Goodbye.” She would have liked to gallop down the path, but she knew better than to try. There was silence behind her as she and Lancelot plodded away, which gave her time to wonder whether her bottom looked absurdly round in her tight habit.

Vander was probably watching her go and wondering if she even had a waist.

She couldn’t turn to look. She mustn’t.

She had almost reached the curve in the pathway when she heard the rumble of Chuffy’s voice. “Gal has extraordinary hair. Took that from her father, I suppose.”

She rounded the bend and brought Lancelot to a halt, dying to know what Vander would say in return. Chuffy continued, “I’m never certain of my gossip, but isn’t she the one who was madly in love with you when you were only a lad? I couldn’t remember for sure.”

Mia froze. All she could hear was her own breath, choppy bursts of air; she missed Vander’s response entirely.

“You’re right about that, lad,” Chuffy said. “Right about that. You’re a duke, after all.”

“It wasn’t about the title.”

Oh good. At least Vander recognized that she hadn’t been—

“But yes, she used to be in love with me,” he finished.

“Not pretty enough for you?”

Mia’s heart thumped.

“She had a round face in those days, and I was fifteen,” Vander said flatly. “I wasn’t interested in young ladies of quality, any more than I cared for poetry.”

Her fists clenched. That self-righteous, bumptious ass. He had yanked her onto his horse, for goodness’ sake.

He had kissed her, round face and all, not the other way around.

Mia had heard enough. She loosed Lancelot’s reins and the horse ambled on, swishing his tail. She didn’t deserve this sort of treatment. She may not be the prettiest girl in the world, or even in the country, but no one except Vander had ever made her feel downright homely.

After the poetry incident, she had tried a thinning regimen, but all it did was whittle her waist, which made her breasts seem even larger. In short, this was as alluring as she was ever going to get.

Damn it, she was crying again, so hard this time that she began hiccupping.

Marriage was awful.

She hated it . . . nearly as much as she hated her husband.

Chapter Sixteen

From the offices of Brandy, Bucknell & Bendal, Publishers

September 10, 1800

Your Grace,

I write to offer the most hearty congratulations of myself and my partners on your recent nuptials. We are honored to have you on the roster of our authors.

I was also most happy to learn of your excellent progress on An Angel’s Form and a Devil’s Heart. If I might offer editing suggestions on the first one hundred pages, rather than wait for the full manuscript, I would be most happy to do so. I am certain I could find lodging in the village, where I would be readily available and better able to offer encouragement and advice, as well as editing the pages as they come from your pen.

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