She would throw herself in front of the carriage first. Had she done this? By marrying Vander, she had ensured that Charlie would endure agonies of humiliation, not just once, but every day, for years?

No.

Charlie’s eyes opened again. “You can’t keep me a baby, Aunt Mia,” he whispered. “I have to grow up.”

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Her heart was thudding in her throat. Her marriage wasn’t consummated. Charlie might be better off with Sir Richard. At least Sir Richard would keep him in the house, rather than throwing him onto the back of a horse or sending him away to school.

No. She had been right to get Charlie away from Sir Richard, no matter what.

Charlie had fallen asleep, so she reached out and smoothed the hair that tumbled over his brow and tiptoed from the room. She had to think, but Susan was straightening her bedchamber. She needed a place where she was unlikely to be disturbed.

Suddenly she remembered Jafeer. He was as distressed and lonely as she was. It took her a while to find a side door, but finally she slipped into the night. It was warm outside, and the sky was full of stars, like shining cherries in a bowl.

She walked the path to the stables, letting the evening air wrap around her shoulders. Weren’t lamps dangerous in a stable? Yet the building was illuminated inside as if by daylight, and as she approached, she heard a shout.

Followed by the high whinny of an enraged horse.

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“Oh for goodness’ sake,” she said, under her breath.

Still, she felt better. Someone needed her. Vander didn’t care to have her around, for obvious reasons, and Charlie was growing up.

A couple of grooms came running toward her, down the corridor away from Jafeer’s stall. They tried to stop her, but she brushed past them.

A moment later she stood in front of the stall. The stallion’s eyes were wild, rolling, both ears flat back, his hide blackened with sweat. Mia put her hands on her hips. When he was two years old, Charlie had gone through a spell when he would lie on the nursery floor and scream.

Jafeer, she decided, was having a tantrum. Just as she had with Charlie, Mia waited until she caught Jafeer’s eyes. Instantly, the wild loneliness drained out of his expression, and he brought his front legs to the floor with a thud.

The groom who had been hauling on his reins, trying in vain to control the horse, let out a string of thankful curses, turned, saw her, and started.

“Your—Your Grace!”

“Jafeer,” Mia said, “just what do you think you’re doing?”

The horse blew air and shook his head. He wasn’t going to throw in the towel immediately. It was all her fault, apparently.

Mia stepped forward. “Come here,” she said, reaching toward him.

He held out for another moment, letting her know that she shouldn’t have abandoned him in a strange place where men shouted at him. With a huge sigh he lowered his head to her.

Mia reached her arms around his neck. “You mustn’t behave this way,” she told him. “It’s not as if I can sleep in the stables with you.”

As if he could understand her, Jafeer gave a little snort and lipped at her hair. Susan had left it down in a style that she swore was all the mode, but Mia thought was merely untidy.

She drew away. “There’s entirely too much light here,” she said, turning to address the stable hand. “Oh, Mulberry, there you are! Wouldn’t it be better to extinguish the lamps? Look at poor Lancelot. He wants to go to sleep.”

In fact, Lancelot was asleep. It would take more than a terrified, homesick horse in the stall next door to keep him awake.

“If I’d known that stallion needed a duchess to make him happy,” Mulberry said, “I never would have recommended we buy him.”

“It’s probably just a woman’s touch,” Mia said, even though she didn’t like that idea. Jafeer was hers.

Mulberry shook his head. “No, Your Grace. Since you were here this morning, we tried all the scullery maids, the downstairs maid, and one of the dairymaids. I tried to lure the cook, but she wouldn’t come.”

Mia ran Jafeer’s velvety ear through her fingers. “I can’t remain in the stables with you all night, silly boy. Mulberry, if you would be kind enough to extinguish all but one of the lamps, perhaps I can quiet him enough to sleep.” She turned her face and dropped a kiss on the horse’s whiskery nose. “You’re sleepy, aren’t you?” The Arabian’s eyes drooped. It couldn’t be easy having a daylong tantrum.

Charlie used to drop to sleep like a stone after his fits, back when he was two years old.

One by one the lamps were turned down and the stable descended into near-darkness. The men all left, with Mulberry the last to go.

Finally it was just the two of them. Well, the two of them and two dozen other animals, slowly breathing in a warm darkness that smelled like horses and clean straw.

Mia unlatched the door to Jafeer’s stall and entered. The moment she was next to his head, he folded up his long legs and collapsed like a house of cards.

“You’re going to sleep,” Mia said, in a calm low voice. She sat on the floor next to him and leaned against his shoulder. He curved his neck around her, and she stroked his cheek. “Pretty soon I shall have to leave, and you will sleep through the night. I’ll visit you in the morning, and perhaps again in the evening.”

Jafeer’s head slid off her shoulder to the straw as he fell asleep.

Mia just sat, hand on his neck, thinking about her life. She had sacrificed everything for Charlie—her self-esteem, her self-respect, her chance at a happy marriage. But it had been the right thing to do; even thinking about his shining eyes made her smile. He wanted to learn to ride, so she’d have to allow it.

Ever since the moment when she’d realized that her newborn nephew might die due to his mother’s extravagant use of opium during birth, and the doctor had chosen not to rouse the baby because of his deformity, she had taken responsibility. It began when she upended a pitcher of water on the baby’s head and woke him up from an opium-induced daze.

As Mia saw it, there were times when only one possible road lay ahead, and so she had snatched Charlie from the arms of the nurse. And eight years later, she had faced a similar conundrum, and married Vander.

She leaned back against Jafeer, pushing the subject of Vander out of her mind.

Perhaps the count jilted Flora because he was an inveterate inebriate, along Chuffy’s lines? But there seemed to be so much pain behind Chuffy’s drinking . . . she couldn’t manage it if Frederic was in that sort of emotional state.

Novels weren’t like real life.

The darkest problems were like syphilis and lice. She couldn’t touch them, not in the pages of her books.

Chapter Eighteen

DRAFT: WEDDING

Having grown up in an orphanage, Flora’s knowledge of the marital state is near to non-existent. The image of a gentleman on his knees knocked together in her head with a vision of herself in a silk gown, being served by a liveried butler footmen in livery.

Flora had long dreamed of a man in an exquisite coat who would sit beside her, vowing eternal adoration.

She had never imagined this . . . this agony.

With trembling fingers she unwrapped the screw of paper the priest handed her, his face riddled with compassion.

(“Riddled” sounds as if he has pox, which no man of the cloth should have.)

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