Chuffy followed him to his study, clutching the bottle of claret in his hand. “You always had that trick of throwing up at bad news,” he said, leaning against the doorframe.

Vander frowned. He had no particular memories of vomiting.

“You were a bellwether for my brother’s madness,” his uncle said. “When the mania came on, I knew you would lose your meal. I think it saved your life a time or two.”

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“Surely not,” Vander said, his voice rasping.

“Everyone tried to protect you, of course, but you were small, and children are terribly fragile, aren’t they? My brother insisted on going into the nursery, no matter how many footmen were stationed at the door. Mind you, he didn’t mean it. He had delusions, you see. Sometimes he thought it was his duty to kill you.”

Vander searched his memory. “I remember he once mistook me for a burglar . . .”

“That’s what we told you.” Chuffy’s voice was so sad that Vander could hear the tears. “Yet he loved you, and your mother, and me as well.”

Vander cleared his throat. “That’s not enough.” He met Chuffy’s eyes. “He may have loved us, but he didn’t protect us. He didn’t make certain that we were safe. Quite the opposite, it seems.”

The corner of Chuffy’s mouth twitched. Regret and shame were battling in his uncle’s face.

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“I’m glad you told me,” Vander added.

That was a lie.

Chuffy nodded and upended the bottle.

“I’ll be in the stables,” Vander said, and escaped past him into the entry, then out the front door into the shadowy darkness.

Chapter Nineteen

NOTES ON FREDERIC’S REPENTANCE

~ day after Frederic cruelly leaves Flora at the altar, his deceitful friend breaks down and confesses that Flora had never kissed him. It had all been a lie.

~ Frederic realizes All Too Late the plight that his terrible jealousy has led him to. Loss of the Woman of his Heart, etc.

~ Rushes to her house, only to discover it repossessed by Mr. Mortimer’s solicitor, and a new (formerly impoverished) maiden established there.

~ Horrified, he realizes that Flora’s clothes and jewels were delivered to his house before the wedding.

~ She has naught but the gown she had worn for the ceremony.

~ Agony of Repentance. Ha!

~ In a frenzy, Frederic vows to give up his fortune/horses/servants until such time as he recovers his Beloved. Sets out on foot, following stories of a Divinely Beautiful woman in tattered wedding dress, begging for bread.

Vander headed down to the one place in his world where everything made sense, only to be met on the way by Mulberry. A moment later he was running down the path toward the stable. What in the hell was Mia doing, going near that horse again?

He’d made a mistake in buying Jafeer. The animal had clearly been part of a herd, and some horses never recovered after being separated from their family. It was rare, but it happened.

He pushed open the door and ran toward Jafeer’s stall. He didn’t see Mia, and his imagination presented him with an image of his wife crumpled under the horse’s hooves. The double flip his heart took startled him, but there she was.

His duchess was curled up against the shoulder of the most unpredictable stallion that his stables had ever housed. She was fast asleep, as was Jafeer, looking more peaceful than he had since his arrival in England.

In the wan light of a single lamp, Mia’s skin against her dark-colored gown was as white as porcelain but warmer, silkier. Golden hair had fallen all around her shoulders, curling like the wood shavings the grooms shoveled into horses’ stalls.

She probably wouldn’t like that idea, but it was true. Shavings were gold and amber and even buttercup yellow, and her hair had all those colors as well.

But what really caught him was how small she was. Curled up like that, her brave, independent eyes closed, she looked fragile. Which made a rush of protectiveness go through him like a streak of lightning.

“Mia,” he whispered. He had to get her out of the stall. She didn’t stir, so he walked in quietly, bent down, and collected her into his arms.

She weighed about as much as a chicken. Maybe a newborn foal. And she felt good in his arms. She must be exhausted, because she didn’t wake. Her cheek fell against his chest and she nestled in as if he’d been carrying her around for years.

He backed out of the stall and carefully maneuvered the gate shut with his knee, quietly enough that neither horse nor lady woke. Then he set off toward the house.

Granted, he knew nothing about flowers, but he was reasonably certain that she smelled like honeysuckle. Honeysuckle with a dash of vanilla.

Halfway up the house, she stirred, and her brows drew together as if, in her dream, she was scolding him. Her eyes flew open and she gasped, “What are you doing?”

“Carrying you back to the house,” Vander said. His hands tightened around the soft, fragrant bundle in his arms.

He didn’t want to think about Chuffy’s revelations. He’d rather think about the fact that for the first time in his life, he had someone who was his and his alone, inadvertently or not.

Mia.

“Please put me down immediately,” his wife said. Her body had gone tense, which wasn’t as nice as when she had cuddled into his arms.

“I enjoy carrying you,” he told her.

“I’d rather walk.”

“I neglected to carry you over the threshold yesterday,” he told her, enjoying the stern tone in her voice, “so I might as well do it now.”

She attempted to twist free. “I’m not a toy, Duke.”

Her jaw set. Damn, but she had the prettiest face he’d ever seen. It wasn’t angular and stern the way some women’s were. At the same time, he could see strength in every contour.

“I don’t understand why you are acting this way,” she said in a chilly voice.

“Carrying you?”

They were coming up to the wall of the house now. It had been constructed of blocks hewn by some distant ancestor (or, more likely, his serfs); just looking at the stonework was calming.

His father and mother were gone, and with them, all the pain and turmoil of their lives. He was married to the pocket Venus he had in his arms, and someday they would have babies, one of whom would be his heir.

Given the way Mia calmed Jafeer, their children would have the same tingle in their hands and bones that he had: a tingle that told him a particular yearling would race to win, whereas another colt was innately indolent and would do better pulling a dog cart.

He pushed open the swinging door to the deserted kitchens and walked in, belatedly realizing that Mia was still talking and that her voice was rising. “I’ll put you down as soon as we are upstairs,” he told her. For the first time in days, Vander felt happy.

He liked Mia’s softness, her curves, her perfume . . . everything about her. He backed through the door to his bedchamber, which fortunately was empty.

Mia was getting red in the face and thrashing about, so he finally put her down. She whipped around, hands on her hips.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, manhandling me like that?” she demanded.

Vander grinned. “Carrying my wife up the stairs.” He moved nearer to her, wondering how a disheveled woman wearing a grain sack with a ruffled neck could make his entire body taut with lust. “I think we should pretend this is our wedding night.”

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