“Absolutely not.” The words shot out like a bullet. “Given our family history, you are the last woman in the world I’d marry. In fact, I believe that you expressed the same sentiment to me some years ago, and I cannot imagine what has changed your mind.”
She was unbalanced. There was no other explanation for a woman’s proposing to a duke, let alone imagining that he would accept. She suffered from delusions.
“I can hardly imagine the scandal that a marriage between us would cause,” he added.
“I am aware that our union would be a subject of speculation,” she said, for all the world as if they were discussing the weather. “I try not to let gossip bother me. Besides, I have come to view our parents’ relationship as something of a star-crossed tragedy.”
“It’s a tragedy, all right,” he drawled. “Your bastard of a father seduced my mother, made her into a whore, and ruined my family name.”
Her grip tightened on the arms of her chair, but she showed no other sign of being intimidated. “Our parents loved each other, Your Grace. Their union was not sanctioned by society, but to the best of my observation, it was positively tedious in its domesticity. If not for the accident that took their lives, I am certain that they would have spent the next forty years together.”
Vander suppressed a shudder. He had loathed Carrington as no other man. He’d worn his hatred for so long it had become comfortable, and he had no interest in reappraising the way it fit.
For years, he had made damned sure that he and Carrington were never found in the same residence, even if he had to bed down in the stables.
Which meant that he hadn’t seen his mother for months before her death.
A stab of guilt made his tone harsher than he intended. “Miss Carrington, I cannot imagine why you believe I would consider your request, let alone agree to it. When—if—I decide to marry, I will both choose the woman, and propose to her myself.”
Damn it—this was absurd. He had no mistress at the moment, but if he had, anyone in England would guess that she wouldn’t be a short, round woman dressed like a missionary.
“Why in the hell do you come to me, of all people, with this request?” he asked, with genuine curiosity. “There are a million men in England whom you could marry, if you have determined to go against custom and do your own wooing. Though, to be perfectly candid, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Under her dreadful gown, he’d guess that she was as lush as she had been at fifteen. Voluptuous, even. If she put her assets on display, she could probably marry almost anyone she wanted. He might prefer the tall, willowy type, but he knew plenty of men who preferred a pocket Venus.
Beyond which, it wasn’t her mother who had been an adulteress. Far less shame attached to a man who made a duchess his mistress.
“You have a dowry, don’t you?” he asked, since she hadn’t responded to his previous question. Her family’s lands ran adjacent to his ducal seat, so he would have heard if there were obvious problems. Last he heard, Sir Richard Magruder was running the estate because the Carrington heir was underage. Sir Richard was not a man he admired, but he’d probably do an adequate job.
“I have a dowry.” She hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and pulled a sheet of yellowed paper, folded many times into a small square, out of her reticule. “I also have this.”
“Bloody hell,” Vander said with a groan. “Not another poem. I’m not a literary fellow, Miss Carrington. You can’t change my mind with a lyric.”
Her cheeks flamed a surprisingly lovely shade of red. “I would never—” She caught herself and started over. “No, it is not a poem. It’s a letter.”
He narrowed his eyes, a drop of ice sliding down his spine as a realization hit him. “You intend to blackmail me? I suppose that is some revolting piece of tripe that my mother addressed to your father.”
He stood up and took one stride forward, leaning over and bracing his hands on the armchair. “Publish and be damned, Miss Carrington. Publish, and go to hell while you do it.”
She was staring at her hands and didn’t look at him, even though he was leaning so close to her that he almost touched her forehead. He caught a delicate whiff of honeysuckle—an unexpected scent for someone thoroughly swathed in thick wool.
“I gather you planned to force me to marry you?” He spoke through clenched teeth, enraged by his body’s disturbing response to being close to her. “To hell with that. Take care you get a premium from whatever Grub Street hack buys your letter, because I give you fair warning: I shall ruin you.”
“Don’t you wish to read the document first?” She finally met his eyes.
“My mother’s fulsome nature practically guarantees that the letter is full of drivel. Moonbeams and pearls, I expect?”
She flinched and her face grew even paler. But she was as brave as he remembered. She cleared her throat and looked him full in the face again. “The letter was not written by your mother, but by your father,” she corrected him.
This was a surprise, but he said, “My father spent most of his adult life confined to a private asylum, a fact you know as well as I do. I doubt you’ll get more than five pounds for publishing one of his rants.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Your Grace,” she said. “I implore you to read the letter.”
Vander stared at her for one second longer, before he took it from her and straightened, falling back a step. The letter was definitely from the late duke; Vander could recognize his hand anywhere. It was dated long before his father had been declared insane, but his handwriting belied that fact.
When his father was suffering from a mad fit, his writing reflected his state of mind. The script hurtled across the page, the letters slanted as if blown by a stiff wind. There had been weeks when twenty- or thirty-page letters arrived from the asylum, each page urgent, demanding . . . incoherent.
He read the letter.
He read it three more times, then carefully folded it back up.
“They’ll take my title and estate if you publish this.”
Her eyes were grave, not at all triumphant. “I believe you are correct.”
Vander felt light-headed. “So my father was a traitor to the Crown.” He’d believed his family had hit rock bottom when his mother died in Carrington’s arms; it turned out that there was a further drop. Madness, adultery—and now treason.
“So it seems.”
“I doubt he could have assassinated the king, even if he had mailed this offer. My father had no entrée to the court. As I understand it, everyone avoided him even during his schooldays; his feelings were too extreme and unpredictable to make him easy company.”
His mind was reeling from the blow. His dukedom was the key to everything that mattered to him: his stables, his estate, his cottagers. Everything would be forfeit to the Crown. After the debacle of his childhood, and the scandals his parents caused, his horses were his life.
Words shot from his mouth without conscious volition. Swear words, rough oaths that he had never used in the presence of a lady.
But was she a lady?
No. She was a damned blackmailer.
Her mouth tightened, though she was pretending not to hear him.