With trembling fingers, she opened the sheet of paper. The words danced before her eyes. Black dots swam before her eyes.
Frederic had changed his mind.
Vander stared at the dining room door as it closed behind his wife, and felt a leaden sense of guilt settle in his gut. For a moment, before Mia smiled insincerely and bade them goodnight, he had seen misery in her eyes.
He had done that.
“You’re a horse’s ass,” Chuffy confirmed. He had taken up his fork again and spoke through a mouthful of beef. “I know she blackmailed you and all the rest of it, but your bed is made, lad. What are you going to do, spend your whole marriage sniping at her? She doesn’t even fight back. It’s hardly a fair fight.”
Mia hadn’t fought back. A wooden look had slid over her face that he didn’t like. Not at all.
“I’ll have to give you some lessons in how to deal with women,” Chuffy said, waving his fork. “God knows, your mama was unusual, which is probably why you don’t understand ’em.”
“Unusual?” Vander said, bristling. “I don’t think she was unusual.”
Chuffy frowned at him. “What’s your meaning?”
“She was unfaithful to your brother,” Vander said. “She took a lover and cuckolded him in plain sight of all society. There’s nothing unusual about that.”
Chuffy put his fork down. “That’s taking the ugliest possible look at it.”
“What other way is there?” Bitterness swelled in Vander’s heart. “I watched her, Chuffy. I saw my mother swan around ballrooms on that man’s arm. He would stay for months, sitting in my father’s place at the table. Even when I was still in the nursery, I knew it was wrong.”
Whenever his father was to be released from the private asylum, Lord Carrington would vanish back to his own estate. Vander had never spoken to his father about what happened during his confinements.
If the duke had known that every time he fell too deeply into melancholia to bathe himself, after he was banished to the asylum again, Lord Carrington would stride back into the house, a shock of golden-gilt hair waving above his forehead . . . It would have been terrible.
So Vander had unwillingly become a party to deceiving his father. A party to adultery.
“It was complicated,” Chuffy said, interrupting his thoughts. “I suppose we should have discussed this earlier.”
“There’s nothing to discuss,” Vander stated.
Chuffy rose and went to the sideboard, retrieved the bottle of wine, and poured it into the glass he’d carried with him.
“You’re supposed to summon Gaunt to pour,” Vander snapped.
“Are you really going to try to turn your house into a ducal establishment?” Chuffy asked. “Bit late for that.”
That was true. Vander liked to work in the stables all day. He didn’t care to change for the evening meal, though he’d done it today. He had married a woman who dressed like an elderly housekeeper. His uncle was drunk most of the time.
“I suppose not.”
“I loved my brother,” Chuffy said, leaning back against the sideboard and sipping his wine. “When we were young, he was like a god to me: always telling stories, getting into trouble and talking his way out, dragging me along even though I was much younger.”
Vander nodded. “Thank you for that.” He stood. “If you’ll excuse me—”
Chuffy cut him off. “I will not.”
Vander instantly froze. Before this damned marriage, no one—ever—told him what to do. He was not only a duke; he had made thousands of pounds training, racing, and betting on his horses. He commanded, rather than the other way around.
“Nephew,” Chuffy said.
“Of course,” he said, sitting down again. “I apologize. I’m at your service.” He could do this. He hated more than anything to discuss his parents, but he owed this courtesy to his uncle.
“Your father’s illness came on when he was fifteen, though we didn’t understand it at the time,” Chuffy said, rolling his glass between his hands. “He started staying up all night, telling mad stories that would go on for days. At first, I stayed up with him. But I couldn’t . . .” He was silent for a moment. “I couldn’t keep up with him. He would take a horse and ride all night long. When we were in the house in Wales during the summer, he would dive from cliffs and swim back around to the village. You know how long a swim that is, lad.”
“He could easily have died,” Vander said, frowning. “He must have been mad already. Of course, he was mad.”
“Yes.” Chuffy took a gulp of wine and started turning, turning his glass again. “He began to grow angry, flaring up between one word and the next. It wasn’t him, not really. He was never like that as a boy. He was always at my shoulder, defending me.”
Vander nodded. “He lost his temper with you?”
“At first, I thought it was my fault,” Chuffy said. “That if I could somehow be a better brother, more quiet, more helpful . . . he wouldn’t grow enraged. But he always did. The anger, the blows, would come out of nowhere.”
Vander stood again. He didn’t know what to do or what to say. He wasn’t the sort of man who knew how to console another.
Damn it, a tear was sliding down his uncle’s cheek. “I was relieved when he married and moved out of the house,” Chuffy whispered. “My own brother.”
“Anyone would understand,” Vander said, moving around the table to put a hand on his shoulder. “My father was out of his mind. Cracked.”
“He turned from me to your mother,” Chuffy said, his watery eyes meeting Vander’s.
Vander suddenly went cold all over.
“I was so grateful for my release . . . but it just meant that he turned that anger against her. Didn’t you ever wonder why you never had a sibling? Or why your mother never conceived a child with Lord Carrington, since they were together more than twenty years?”
Vander’s jaw tightened. He didn’t like where this conversation was heading.
“After you were born, she couldn’t have any more children, because your father—my brother—took that away from her.” Chuffy’s voice was low, tortured.
Vander turned away instinctively, stumbling as he did.
“With his fists,” Chuffy added, taking a deep gulp of wine.
Vander’s gut convulsed and, unable to help himself, he threw up on the floor.
“Hell,” Chuffy muttered. “I shouldn’t have told you.” He grabbed a cloth from the sideboard and tossed it over the vomit.
“I should have known.” Vander took a glass of water from the table. “How could I not have seen it?”
“He didn’t mean it,” his uncle said urgently. “It wasn’t his fault, lad. The madness would take over . . .”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” Vander put down the empty glass and strode to the door. In the corridor, he paused and said, “Gaunt, I was sick on the floor. Please convey my apologies to whomever cleans it up.”
“The fish soup!” the butler exclaimed.
“No, no, the soup was excellent.”