“Charlie,” Vander said. “You’re frightening your aunt. Open your eyes.”
Mia sank to her knees. “Darling?”
“That hurt,” Charlie said, his eyelids flying open.
Her heart began beating again. That was the voice her child used when he bruised something, stubbed his toe, sprained a wrist breaking his fall. He had been falling since he could stand—but she’d never once seen him do anything deliberately dangerous the way he had today.
The timbre of Vander’s voice was dark and commanding. “Look at me, Charles Wallace.”
Charlie turned his head and looked up at him.
“That was exceedingly foolish. You had no way of knowing whether your leg would be able to support you, and it was possible that you could concuss yourself on the stones, or stab yourself with your crutch. And to try such a thing while your aunt watched showed callous disregard for her. I am disappointed.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference if I hadn’t seen it,” Mia said, her voice wavering. “You must promise never to do something so dangerous ever again, Charlie. Never!”
Charlie sat up, rubbing his weak leg. “I won’t get strong if I don’t test myself.” He sounded sulky.
“That’s true,” Vander said, “but you must go about it intelligently. Your leg has to be strong enough to bear your weight first. Remember when you told me that if you bowed, you would topple?”
Charlie nodded, his bottom lip jutting out in a way that made a pang of pure love go through Mia. When he was two years old, he had that expression almost every day, every hour, as he fought to walk. The doctors said he would never manage it, but they had been wrong.
“You knew how to fall and roll. That’s how confident you have to be before you take a risk of any kind.” He hoisted Charlie to his feet. “Do you think you can walk?”
“Yes!” Charlie said stoutly, leaning against Vander.
Mia blotted the scrape on his forehead with a handkerchief. Then she scooped up Charlie’s crutch and handed it to him.
Tears were pressing on the back of her throat, and she longed to give him a tight hug, but instinct told her to keep silent. Charlie needed advice from a grown male, and no one was more male than Vander. The duke crouched again and ran his hand along Charlie’s leg.
Mia straightened and turned away. Seeing Vander lean intently toward Charlie, without the faintest sign that he considered her nephew lame or deformed in some way . . . This was as dangerous to her heart as making love.
In fact, it tore at her defenses as nothing else could have. She decided to return to the house.
A large hand curled around her wrist. “Where are you going?”
Charlie plunked his crutch in place and leaned on it, testing his leg. “You said we’re going to the stables, Aunt Mia. You mustn’t go inside now.”
“You frightened me,” Mia said, the words coming out against her will.
Vander said quietly, “Apologize, Charlie. You are lucky to have someone who loves you as much as your aunt does. One of a man’s duties in life is to try not to frighten the people who love him.”
Charlie thought about it for a moment, before he said, “I’m sorry, Aunt Mia.” He dropped his crutch, took a hop, and wound his arms around her waist.
A tear rolled down Mia’s cheek. She met Vander’s eyes over his head and smiled shakily.
“Hello, hello!” Chuffy charged out of the front door and down the steps. This morning he was wearing a black coat with a waistcoat of gaudy purple visible beneath. He carried a purple stick with a large stone in the top, and he was swinging it like a man without a care.
Or a headache from imbibing a vat of brandy, which, frankly, Mia thought was miraculous.
“This must be Master Charlie!” he bellowed.
Charlie pulled back from Mia and stared, awestruck.
“Just look at that,” Chuffy exclaimed. “We’re both in need of an extra leg.” He waved his elegant stick.
“That’s not a crutch,” Charlie pointed out loftily.
Chuffy spun it in the air. “No, because I can do this with it. Can you do that with yours?” He spun it again.
Charlie laughed, a boy’s high laugh. Clinging to Mia’s sleeve with one hand, he retrieved his crutch, and tried to twirl it. To no one’s surprise, it clattered to the ground.
A minute later, Chuffy had Charlie in fits of laughter, promising to teach him how to spin his crutch on the palm of his hand.
“The boys at school will love it,” Chuffy said. “We’ll have to get you a crutch with proper balance, of course. Not to worry; I know all the cane-makers in London. You’ve found your way into the right family, son!”
“Shall we go to the stables?” Vander asked.
“Pay no attention to him,” Chuffy said, winking at Charlie. “He’s my nevvy, but people have given him entirely too much attention since he became a duke. Poisoned his brain. So do you think you can beat me to the stables? They’re right around the turn of the path.”
“Of course I can!” Charlie cried. “You have to let me start first, though, because I’m younger.”
“Don’t you think I should get an advantage because I’m fatter?”
“No,” Charlie said. “I also deserve more time because I have a bad leg.”
“I have a bad body,” Chuffy countered ruthlessly. “I can’t drink nearly as much as I used to be able to. No advantage on that front.”
“Well, then,” Charlie said triumphantly. “I’m an orphan!”
“So am I!” Chuffy exclaimed, wagging his bushy eyebrows. “Oh go on, I’ll give you a bit of a lead, purely from the kindness of my heart.”
Charlie grinned and took off, swinging as fast as he could. Dobbie followed, barking madly.
“A fine lad!” Chuffy said, patting Mia’s arm. He waited until Charlie was halfway up the path, and then took out after him.
“Did I correctly understand that you were escorting your nephew to the stables in order to introduce him to Jafeer, the most violent horse I own?”
“Jafeer is not violent,” Mia said, trying not to think about how much she wanted Vander to drop her arm and kiss her. Kiss her the way he had last night.
He glanced down at her, eyebrow raised. “He’s not the first horse I’d choose for Charlie to ride.”
“Ride? Absolutely not! I must speak to you about that. I’ve never even put Charlie on Lancelot. He could never ride a proper horse: perhaps a pony, a very small pony.” She gestured to a level near her waist.
“There are no ponies that size; you’re talking about a large dog.”
She heard the amusement in his voice and frowned. “In that case he must learn to ride on Lancelot. I’m entirely serious.”
“As am I. Charlie has to go to school, and I mean to ensure that he’ll be the best rider at Eton by the time he gets there. We’ll send a thoroughbred along with him, so all the boys can see his prowess.”
Mia inhaled sharply. “That’s another thing. Charlie can’t go to school, certainly not boarding school!”
“Of course he can.”
Vander simply didn’t understand. He hadn’t watched as Charlie grew up, or seen how cruel other people—including the boy’s own mother—had been to him. She glanced ahead and saw that Chuffy and Charlie had disappeared around the bend leading to the stables.