Vander lay on his back, his face turned away from her, the sheet barely covering his hips. Dawn was creeping into the room, just enough that it clung to the contours of his body, as if the glow originated within him. Bands of muscle marched across his belly in perfect order.

If she dared, she would have traced each band with her fingers, investigating how they knit to his back and shoulders, linking to burly arms stained brown by the sun.

His body was the opposite of hers. There wasn’t a bit of fat on him; his body was like stored motion, shaped to conquer men and pleasure women. Her fingers itched to caress him, feel all that untamed strength under her hands . . . lying still at her command. She imagined him quivering as she drove him to make the unguarded, rough sound that had come from his throat the night before.

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She snatched her hand back just in time. She had already made a fool of herself. It would be different if they were better matched.

The dissimilarities between them couldn’t be more obvious. It was unnecessary to glance down: Her knees were plump and her thighs were plumper. There must be muscle somewhere in her legs, because she managed to stand and sit and walk, but they certainly weren’t visible to the naked eye.

Thank goodness, he hadn’t argued with her about her chemise, though it didn’t hide very much in the growing light of morning. She could see her nipples and the curve of her belly through the cloth.

Lower, where her chemise was still hitched up around her hips, she saw rusty stains on her leg. And on the sheets, she saw with some dismay. Susan—and the rest of the household—would have no doubts about what had happened the night before.

She wiggled backward cautiously, reaching her toe down to touch the floor, eyes on Vander. He breathed slowly, his arms flung out, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. He slept like a man who owned the world, a duke whom everyone desired. It was another dissimilarity between them: she always slept in a ball, tightly coiled.

Once in the bathing room, and with the door to Vander’s bedchamber firmly latched, she stared at herself in all those mirrors. Last night he had spread her out like a feast and done things to her with his mouth and hands . . . things that made her whimper and cry and generally act like a fool.

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The four nights rule was a good one. She knew instinctively that it would hurt to do this more than once every few months. Oh, not hurt in a physical sense, but in her heart.

Making love could too easily become a habit, like some sort of honey dream leading her to believe that her husband adored her, the way Frederic adored Flora in the novel she was writing.

Except Vander was nothing whatsoever like Frederic. She was probably lucky that he remembered her name in the midst of passion. In fact, now she thought of it, Vander might not remember her name, since he always called her “Duchess.”

Whereas for her . . . she stared blankly at herself, acknowledging the truth of it. She was fifty times more in love with him now than she had been as a young girl. Even thinking about him made her heart flutter in her chest.

If she didn’t protect that heart, it would crack into a hundred pieces when he lost interest. Last night was like playing a game, the best game ever invented. She had to keep in mind that it was only a game, and one at which Vander excelled.

At least the four nights were at her discretion. As her husband, he could have demanded marital intimacies whenever he wanted, even if he came straight from another woman’s bed. The thought made her feel ill.

For a moment, a gaping emptiness opened up before her, the conviction that she wouldn’t survive this marriage. Men craved variety; she knew that even with her limited understanding of society and its relations. How could she join him in bed, once she knew that he had turned to another woman?

Ruthlessness took over.

She could. She would.

She wasn’t the first woman to have fallen in love with a beautiful man. Besides, everything might change in a few months. Vander might wake up and realize that he wanted a wife like the one his friend Thorn had: a perfect, exquisite noblewoman.

They would divorce . . . unless she was with child.

For a moment she lapsed into fear, her mind scurrying in circles. But her brother, John, had been married to Pansy for years, and they had but one child. Vander was an only child.

She had a vague understanding that it took repeated attempts over a long time.

The four nights rule would save her from that.

Chapter Twenty-two

NOTES ON FLORA’S EXILE

~ Flora believes Frederic jilted her, made her forfeit the inheritance, from pure malice. (That’s good!)

~ Having spent her last 2d. on a crust of bread, she wanders along the lanes of England, tattered, cold, hungry. Near death? Yes. Faints in a field of bluebells poppies.

“Dear Mother, take me to thy Breast and save me from the Cruel Indignities of this Cruel World,” she breathed, as a single tear slid down her porcelain cheek.

~ ghost of mother? “The dear face hovered above her, just out of reach of her trembling fingers. ‘The Goodness of Heaven will guard you, my Dearest Child, & keep you from the heartless intimacy of a Loveless Marriage.’”

~ More than hunger, thirst, and cold, the spur to her flagging life death was the understanding that the man who should most constitute her Earthly Happiness—he whose love ought to fill her heart and mind—had proved himself an infidel.

~ Infidel? Maybe not.

~ Ruffian. Rake. Roué.

~ Scoundrel?

~ “He whom she had long worshipped had proved himself naught but a Worthless Idol. It was that cruelty that broke the soft heart of this creature, the spirit, the joy of her family and friends. Now fallen lower than the lowest of tavern wenches . . .”

~ Tavern wenches?

Mia bathed, dressed, and escaped her bedchamber without hearing a peep from her husband.

“Aunt Mia!” Charlie shouted when she opened the door to the nursery. “Look what Dobbie is doing now!”

He stood braced against the back of the settee, holding a crust of bread in the air while a shaggy pillow pawed his legs. “I’m teaching Dobbie to roll. Just look at this.” He looked down at the dog at his feet and commanded, “Roll, Dobbie, roll!”

Dobbie sat down and looked up at him, panting with willingness.

Mia waited, but nothing happened. “You’ll get it, old fellow,” Charlie reassured the dog, dropping the bread into his open mouth.

“How did Dobbie and Winky sleep last night?” Mia inquired.

“They love being with me,” Charlie boasted. “They used to be the duke’s mother’s dogs, and His Grace says they’ve been lonely. I let them both sleep on the bed with me, and they weren’t lonely at all.”

And neither was Charlie, apparently.

Mia went over and dropped a kiss on the top of his head. She remembered the duchess’ exquisitely groomed and scented dogs, always tricked out in bright ribbons. A year after her death, the animals were considerably shaggier, with no ribbons in sight.

Winky trotted over to her so she crouched down and scratched his ears. He had thin legs, like the brown cigars that the grooms smoked when they weren’t on duty. Age had brought touches of white here and there, but his eyes were still bright and cheerful.

“Do sit down, sweetheart,” she said to Charlie. “You might fall, especially if Dobbie starts pawing your legs again.”

“I’m trying to stay on my feet as much as possible. It will make me stronger. The duke says so.”

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