Mia closed her eyes. She didn’t know what to think.
“Four nights won’t be enough,” he said, his voice rasping.
She struggled to keep up with what he was saying. “What?”
“This is some sort of erotic madness.” He hesitated. “I think it will burn out. I don’t want you to . . . I don’t want you to fall in love with me again, because I’ll end up hurting you.”
“I won’t,” she said swiftly. “Do you think I could love anyone who would treat me this disrespectfully?” It was a lie. She loved him so much that she ached with it. But she couldn’t let him know. She couldn’t.
He would walk away, leaving her devastated. But at least if he didn’t know how she felt, she could keep the humiliation to herself.
His hand stroked her arm. “I know it can be hard for women to keep their feelings separate when they’re making love.”
Was he feeling sorry for her? Again? Mia straightened and glared at him. “Vander, there is nothing that could get me to fall in love with you after what happened years ago at that musicale, let alone your coarse behavior this morning.”
“That’s good,” he said immediately. Still, she could tell that he believed he was so irresistible that she would fall for him anyway.
“I have been in love,” she told him, keeping her gaze unwavering.
“I know that.” His thumb rubbed across her lip. “You’ve been biting it again. Your bottom lip has turned the color of a ripe strawberry.”
“Not with you. That was a silly infatuation, and I was only a girl. I hardly knew you.”
His thumb stopped.
“My fiancé, Theodore Edward Braxton Reeve, courted me for a year and we were betrothed for another year. I knew him very well—and I fell in love with him.” She wasn’t precisely telling the whole truth, but it didn’t matter.
A dark emotion flashed through his eyes. “You still love the man who jilted you?”
Mia ignored that question. It was none of his business, and he would like her answer too much. “Edward is brilliant, handsome, and very kind. He is a professor at Oxford, and he knows your friend Thorn. In fact, I believe Mr. Dautry bought a machine of some sort from him.”
“The patent for a machine,” Vander said slowly. “I remember now that Reeve was the man who designed a continuous paper-making machine. Thorn made a fortune on it.”
“As did Edward,” Mia said, a trace of pride appearing in her voice, even though the last thing she should do is feel pride for the man who had jilted her.
Vander’s hand slid down to her throat, an indescribably soft caress. “I find it harder and harder to believe that he left you at the altar.”
Was it worse to say cutting things to her, as Vander did, or to leave her, as Edward had done? Mia cleared her throat. “My point is that you needn’t worry that I will become infatuated with you, simply because you made love to me against the wall of the stable. If that is the right word for what we did.”
“It is not.” He leaned down and whispered a different word in her ear.
Mia felt herself turning bright red. “You mustn’t use that word in my presence, let alone to me.”
“It’s part of the madness I fall into when you’re around me,” Vander said, his voice rasping. “I want you, Duchess. I want you so badly that I’m having trouble thinking even right now. You’re telling me that you are still in love with that miserable son of a bitch you were betrothed to, and I’m sorry about that. All the same, the only thing I want to do is lie down and pull you on top of me.”
On top? Mia gave that a second’s thought before returning to the subject at hand. “You see my point, don’t you? You needn’t worry that I will fall in love with you.”
“Because of Reeve.”
“Edward broke my heart.”
His thumb swept along her chin, and he said, “I hate to hear that, Duchess.”
“Yes, well . . .” She suddenly realized exactly what she was feeling under her bottom.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have the most luscious arse in all Christendom?”
“No.” She shifted her weight, just to see that flare of dark lust in his eyes.
“I’m starting to get the idea that you have no idea what effect you have on men.”
Mia stopped wiggling. “I have no effect on men. And I don’t want you to pay me compliments that you don’t mean.” She cleared her throat. “That—what we did earlier—it wasn’t ladylike. But on the other hand, it was real. It hurt to be characterized the way you did, but I can see that the truth is preferable to insincere flattery.”
He frowned down at her. “I would have complimented you, but lust had such a grip on my throat that I couldn’t do more than pant.”
“Don’t start making what’s between us into some sort of romance. Or flattering me. I know what you think of me.”
His arms tightened again. “How can you know what I think of you?”
Mia put his arm aside and pushed herself to her feet. She had to get this straight. It was bad enough when he lashed out, calling her greedy.
But it would be worse if he started whispering things he didn’t mean. That would endanger her heart. She might begin to believe him.
“There’s no need to fuss,” she said, giving him a big smile. “See? I’m fine. I’m not crying. There’s no need to flatter me.”
He stood up. And up. He was so tall, compared to her. She folded her arms over her breasts and looked at him. “I shall see how Charlie is. After I wash my face and change my gown, that is.”
“Perhaps we should retire to a bed and celebrate our newfound truce,” Vander suggested.
Mia felt as if she had been torn apart that morning and clumsily put back together. Not just physically, either. She shook her head.
Vander paused, a frown on his face, as if he guessed how battered she felt. She summoned up another smile. “Perhaps, if you’re very, very lucky, I’ll request the second of your four nights soon.”
He pulled her into his arms. “I’m amending the agreement.”
“Oh?” Mia discovered that she was trembling all over. Being enveloped in Vander’s arms, against his hard chest, was enough to make her want to moan.
“Four nights a month,” he said, leaning down and biting her earlobe.
“Or, hell, four nights a week.”
“You cannot just change the contract whenever you please.”
“I set the rules,” he reminded her. “You agreed to whatever I decreed. As far as you were concerned, my letter could have said you had to appear in my bed seven nights a week.”
“It’s too late to change a legal agreement,” she managed.
His lips brushed her ear again and her knees turned liquid. “Maybe four nights a year, but also four afternoons a week. Starting today.”
“I don’t think—” Mia began.
But Vander cut her off. He hitched her up against his body in such a smooth motion that Mia could tell it was becoming second nature. He kissed her into silence, and when he raised his head, he said only, “Duchess.” His voice was dark as black velvet, and that smooth.