So desirable that the hero is struck dumb at the very sight of her. Blue eyes, yellow hair, dainty everything.

Lace coming into fashion? Lace-maker. Research how lace is made. Bobbins?

First sight, hero on his knees. In the rain.

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Mud.

Definitely mud.

“Your Grace, a Miss Carrington is requesting to speak to you.”

For a moment Vander had no idea who she was. Then he realized it had to be Mia, the hapless poet. His complete avoidance of polite society in favor of the stables meant that he hadn’t seen her in years.

“Did she give any indication of the reason for her visit?”

“No, Your Grace. She is in the morning room, should you wish to speak to her, or I can inform her that you are busy at this time. I might add that she is unaccompanied. Furthermore, your solicitor is in the library. He has been waiting some time and is becoming impatient.”

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The last time he could remember having seen Mia was that bloody embarrassing thing that happened when they were fifteen.

What in the hell was she thinking, calling on him early in the morning, without a chaperone? Why call on him at all?

“I’ll go to Miss Carrington,” he decided, heading from his bedchamber. He owed the poet an audience, if only because he should have handled that situation better. The very memory made him shudder a little. He had been stupid and young, but even so, he’d behaved like an ass.

Vander strode down the stairs adjusting his cuffs. Mia’s name must have been as besmirched as his by their parents’ deaths a year ago. There was no covering up the fact that the Duchess of Pindar had died in bed with Lord Carrington. All of England knew about the damaged stove flue that had led to their deaths: that flare of scandal had eclipsed the deaths of eight other unfortunates sleeping in the same inn—a list that had included Mia’s brother and sister-in-law, if he remembered correctly. It must have been a terrible year for her.

Just as he reached the final step, his solicitor, Grieg, erupted from the library and accosted him. Vander almost groaned aloud as he listened. Apparently, Sir Cuthbert had made a rash promise to finance an archaeological expedition to the Andes Mountains.

Insofar as his uncle’s sole source of income was the allowance Vander gave him, which Chuffy promptly spent on velvet coats and bottles of sack, he wasn’t in a position to make good on the promise. It seemed that Chuffy had got around that little problem by scrawling a note promising that the Duke of Pindar would back the expedition.

He would have to tell Chuffy that his funds were tied up in his stables and he could not finance an expedition to the Andes at this time. Or, for that matter, ever.

The primary thing he remembered about Mia Carrington was that she had a chubby face and magnificent breasts.

All these years later, her face was thinner. Presumably her breasts were still there, but she was wearing a drab gown of homespun that concealed everything below her chin. She looked like a missionary. Perhaps she’d become one?

He felt a flash of sympathy. Her religious leanings, if she had them, were likely a response to their parents’ blatant disregard for the sanctity of marriage. Though if she had come to try to proselytize—

“Your Grace,” she said, dropping a curtsy. “How very wonderful to see you again.”

Was that a drop of sarcasm in her voice? Surely not. After all, she was the one who had come, uninvited, to his house, not the other way around.

He bowed. When he straightened, he found that she was observing him, gloved hands folded, with the air of someone watching a play.

Peculiar.

“Miss Carrington, what can I do for you?” he inquired.

“I have come to request a favor.”

Vander’s shoulders relaxed. This missionary woman had likely joined a mission in an effort to atone for her licentious father’s sins. She wanted a contribution. He was accustomed to solicitations: virtually everyone in his life except his friend Thorn had asked him for money at some point. It was part and parcel of being a duke.

A donation was a perfect way to assuage the last of that inconvenient guilt he felt due to hurting her feelings years ago.

“I would be most happy to help,” he said. “Would you care to be seated? I could ring for tea if you wish.”

She stood as still as a tree, only her hands twisting together. “You might not feel inclined to be generous after you’ve heard my request.”

“If only on the basis of having known you since childhood, I assure you that I will agree to whatever sort of help you wish.” He gave her a measured smile, wondering how quickly he could bundle her out of the room. His secretary could hand over the actual sovereigns. “How much would you like?”

She had a quite delicate jaw. He noticed because it visibly tightened, as if she were grinding her teeth. As a child, she used to be shaped like a stout pigeon, with a little potbelly and legs that whirled across the lawn as she tried to keep up with him.

Not that she ever could.

“Miss Carrington,” he prompted, when she didn’t answer, “I gather that you are collecting for a charity, and I assure you that I will contribute.”

“No,” she said, her jaw tightening again. “I came to ask for something quite different.”

“I am happy to assist you,” he said, allowing a trace of impatience to leak into his voice.

“Marriage,” she blurted out, and took a gulp of air.

He stared at her for one perfectly silent moment.

“I should like you to marry me.” She said it fast and the words ran together.

He frowned. “I beg your pardon?”

“I am proposing marriage,” she stated. Then she closed her mouth.

Vander had to curb an impulse to shake his head to make sure he had heard correctly. The woman must be touched, though madness ran in his family, not in hers.

But mad she must be, because she was looking at him expectantly, for all the world as if she thought there was a possibility he took her seriously.

He cleared his throat. “Well, how kind of you to offer.” Surely this was some sort of ruse? “However, I regret to inform you that I have no intention to marry at this time.”

Something crossed her face—disappointment? Was that possible?

“I suppose you think I’m mad. I’m afraid that I am, a bit.”

“I see.” Vander was, against all expectations, starting to enjoy himself. After all, her family had ruined his. Her father’s seduction of his mother had made the Duchess of Pindar the laughingstock of the ton.

And now Carrington’s daughter had the temerity to think that he would consider marrying her? Truly, the family had balls.

Even the women.

“So you are looking for a husband,” he said agreeably. “And you thought, hey ho, I’ll have a go at a duke?”

“That is not kind of you,” she said, her eyes narrowing.

Her eyes were a remarkable green, with thick eyelashes. Not that their color made her in the least attractive; rather the opposite. He preferred women with melting blue eyes. Eyes like the sky in summer.

“I must insist that you be seated,” he said. “Wooing is such an arduous business, don’t you think?”

After a long second she moved to a chair opposite his, and damned if she didn’t try again. “Will you marry me, Your Grace?”

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