Mia sat down and Winky hopped up, curling into a ball in her lap.
“Perhaps I’ll sit down now,” Charlie allowed.
She patted the sofa beside her and he picked up Dobbie and made his way around and sat.
“Mr. Gaunt thinks it best that they be kept out of the drawing room, but they can go everywhere else with me. Just think: that old butler made them sleep in the garden shed the whole last year,” Charlie said, stroking Dobbie’s ears.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Mia agreed. “I gather you rescued them from the potato cellar.”
Charlie nodded. “The duke and I went to the kitchens night before last, because that’s what we always do. We fetched something to eat, because I’m growing.”
“What you always do?” Mia echoed. “You’ve known His Grace for only two days, Charlie!”
“Well, perhaps not every day. But we did it at home, in Carrington House, and last night too.” He paused. “I suppose this is our home now, Aunt Mia?”
Mia cleared her throat. “For now,” she said weakly.
“The duke said Dobbie and Winky look like hairy eggs.” He held Dobbie up by his front paws and leaned forward to rub noses. “You’re not a hairy egg, are you, old fellow?” Dobbie obligingly licked him, giving a little bark.
“Try not to let him lick your mouth,” Mia said. She pulled her feet up beneath her and shifted Winky to the crook of her left arm. “These dogs are smaller than you were when you were born.”
“Really?” Charlie was trying to avoid Dobbie’s enthusiastic licks and giggling madly.
“You had a plump tummy. The duke is right: if Winky didn’t have all this fur, he wouldn’t be much bigger than an egg. Of course, it would have to be a large egg.”
“Perhaps an ostrich egg,” Charlie said. “I have just been reading about them. An ostrich is an enormous bird that can’t fly. It has the biggest eggs of any bird.”
“Where does one find an ostrich?”
“I don’t remember. Not in Berkshire. Was my mother there when I was born?”
Mia opened her mouth and shut it again. Was Charlie still at the age where babies were found under cabbage leaves?
“Do you want to see how I can make Dobbie dance?” Charlie said, already having forgotten his question. “Look at this!”
Winky had gone to sleep, so Mia stopped stroking him. “I think I’ll pay a brief visit to the stables, Charlie. Perhaps you should work on your essay for the vicar?”
“No, I want to come to the stables with you,” Charlie said, dropping Dobbie’s legs. “I want to see the wild Arabian horse who loves only you. Mary—she’s the maid assigned to the nursery—told me all about him. His name means storm, or something like that. I shall ride him. Someday.”
Mia’s head spun. Charlie was thinking of riding Jafeer? Not while she had breath in her body.
He hopped up and put his crutch under his arm. “Let’s go! Winky and Dobbie can come as well.”
“Winky is having a nap,” Mia said, moving the little curl of dog onto the sofa cushion as she rose.
“That’s because he’s older,” Charlie reported. “Winky could be a grandfather. The duke says his mother bought Dobbie to be Winky’s friend.”
“Why don’t you three wait here, and I’ll ask a footman to carry you downstairs,” Mia suggested.
“I can get down the stairs myself,” Charlie said, marching to the door and pulling it open. “Come on, Aunt Mia!”
Mia’s heart sank. He would hang onto the railing and make his way down backward, a step at a time, and agonizingly slowly; it could take an hour to reach the bottom. She was longing for a cup of tea and breakfast. “Have you eaten?” she asked Charlie.
“Not yet,” he said, clumping his way along the corridor.
The stairs curved in a gracious semicircle. “Are you certain you don’t want me to fetch a footman, Charlie? It would be the work of a moment for one of those young men to carry you down.”
Charlie shook his head. “I’m too old for that. His Grace said so.”
“His Grace said so?” What hadn’t His Grace said?
“You may wait for me at the bottom,” Charlie ordered, sounding for all the world like a duke himself.
He was growing up. That was natural, Mia told herself. Charlie issued another order. “Dobbie, you go with Aunt Mia.” The dog frisked around Charlie’s feet, paying no attention.
Mia picked up Dobbie and started down the stairs with a sigh. She would have to discuss this with Vander. He was treating Charlie with cavalier indifference, as if her nephew were a typical boy.
As she neared the stairs’ midpoint, where the steps curved, Mia looked back to check on Charlie’s progress and discovered he was still at the top, waving to a footman in the entry below.
“That’s Roberts,” Charlie shouted. “Hurry up, Aunt Mia, or I shall beat you!”
Before Mia could respond, he tucked his crutch under an arm, threw a leg over the railing, and whizzed past her.
Mia let out a shriek and dropped Dobbie. Mercifully, the animal landed on his feet, barking madly, and bounced down the stairs, ears flapping. For her part, Mia stopped breathing, heart pounding, until she saw Roberts deftly catch Charlie.
She sagged down onto a step, her hand pressed to her heart. Below, Charlie was hopping around the black-and-white marble floor as if he hadn’t been close to bashing his head. Or losing his life.
“You mustn’t worry,” a deep voice said behind her.
Mia looked up, her throat too tight to speak. Vander put a hand under her arm, and helped her to her feet. “Children always hang on tighter than their parents believe they will. Shall we join him?”
She couldn’t respond. She had to have a stern talk with Charlie. From this moment on, he was not allowed to touch the banister. If he did that again, she’d do something . . . something serious. Lock him in the nursery.
Even as the idea came to her, she recoiled from it. Charlie spent too much time indoors already; his skin was porcelain white.
She realized that Vander still held her arm. Shuddering alarm was replaced by a sense of warmth radiating from his touch. “I’m sorry,” she said hoarsely. “I was terrified by that . . . by Charlie, and I didn’t hear what you just said.”
“I merely said that your nephew is a brave fellow. I’m proud of him.”
“You’re—you’re proud of him.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs. Charlie had already made his way through the front door that Gaunt held open, and was waiting for them at the top of three stone steps leading to the drive.
He turned, gave them an impish grin, and shouted, “Look at me!” Then, before she could take a breath, he dropped his crutch and jumped.
She screamed again, freezing in place. When Charlie landed, his right foot couldn’t hold his weight and he collapsed, plunging forward and hitting his face on the cobblestones.
“Oh dear God,” Mia cried, and ran down the steps toward him. Vander preceded her, and was already crouching over Charlie and gently turning him over. A bloody scrape discolored Charlie’s brow and his eyes were closed.
Mia felt a dagger of fear when his eyes didn’t instantly open.