Chuffy had her in fits of laughter every night, suggesting wilder and wilder plot twists. Vander had nothing to contribute but common sense.
“That girl—Flora, isn’t it?—would be a fool to go back to the man who jilted her,” Vander had pointed out the night before. “Frederic is as limp as a noodle. It’s despicable that he is ‘bathed in tears’ after jilting Flora. She should find someone better.”
“Frederic is the hero,” Mia told him. “She can’t simply ‘find someone’! There can be only one hero in a novel.”
In fact, Chuffy and Mia ignored most of his suggestions. Last night they had spent an hour discussing whether the castle should be haunted by the “moaning voice of some unquiet spirit.”
What with the unquiet spirit, the milksop hero, and the evil Lord Plum, the castle sounded like a version of Dante’s hell. Vander had jocosely suggested that the spirits of four slain princes, all heirs to the Crown, should haunt the castle ramparts—only to have his jest taken seriously and put into play with foolish Frederic.
When Mia wasn’t writing—or conspiring with Chuffy—she was sequestered with a seamstress. Making herself into a duchess, by all accounts. It was ridiculous. He didn’t want her to change.
He loped across the yard to Charlie. “Three more times around. Don’t forget to groom your mount.”
Charlie nodded. His eyes shone and both his posture and his seat were good, considering he was a new rider. Vander reached over and tapped his weaker leg. “How’s this feeling?”
“It’s fine,” Charlie said instantly.
Beginning to ache, Vander diagnosed, seeing faint smudges under the boy’s eyes. Charlie was not a complainer. “Three more times,” he repeated, and headed for the house.
To find his wife. Ridiculous though that sounded, he’d hardly seen her except at evening meals, when Chuffy was there, taking all her attention.
Not that he was jealous of his own uncle.
It was merely that his irrational fit of lust had turned her from a near stranger to the only person he cared to spend time with.
Nodding at Gaunt, he ran up the stairs into his bedchamber and straight through to the bathing chamber. The door leading to his wife’s room had been repaired, he noticed. That broken latch had undoubtedly caused a storm of speculation downstairs.
He was devoutly hoping that he’d discover her in dishabille, perhaps naked to the waist while being fitted for a gown.
Alas, no such luck; her bedchamber was empty. He returned to the hallway, went to the top of the stairs, and bellowed down, “Where’s my duchess?”
Nottle had not been the sort of butler who would deign to raise his voice, but Gaunt was not as rigidly formal. He shouted back, “Her Grace is in her study.”
“‘Her study,’” Vander repeated, feeling like an idiot. “Where is that?”
He had no memory of her mentioning it at supper, and when else were they supposed to discuss things? He was out of the house all day working in the stables, and they weren’t sleeping together.
“Her Grace is using the Queen’s Bedchamber as her study,” Gaunt replied, appearing at the bottom of the stairs. “The great bed remains, but we moved a desk from the library.”
A moment later Vander pushed open the door to the Queen’s Bedchamber, only to find this room, too, unoccupied. Sunlight poured through the west-facing windows; he’d forgotten how much light this side of the house received.
He walked over to her desk and picked up a sheet of paper. Mia’s handwriting hadn’t changed much from when she was a girl, writing that love poem. It was a strong hand, with a beautiful, high-flung curve on some of the letters. It hadn’t a trace of the madness that clung to his father’s hand, or the timidity that characterized his mother’s.
After it became clear that he refused to be in the vicinity of Lord Carrington, the duchess began to write letters to him. Her words had been hedged in by excessive curlicues, ornamented with arabesques, and flourishes. He had read her letters impatiently and tossed them aside, condemning her for adultery, for selfishness.
Now his heart bumped at the memory of Chuffy’s revelation about the truth of his parents’ marriage. All those years he had felt burning resentment of his mother’s betrayal of his father, but the situation had been far more complicated and far more tragic than he had known.
With an impatient shake of his head, he focused on the page he had picked up, headed NOTES: Chapter Three.
“I cannot bear to think of it!” Lady Ryldon cried pettishly. “Maurice must marry her. It has come to the very last ebb with us. We shall all be ruined if he doesn’t manage it.”
“How on earth did she come to have such a dowry? I knew her mother, and she was a worthy woman, but their fortunes were sadly depleted.”
“As I understand it, Lord Mortimer glimpsed her in the street and wrote her into his will. It sounds very curious to me; everyone is saying that she must be his natural daughter.”
That startled her friend. “Absolutely not! I knew her mother well before she was disowned by her father, the earl.”
A peal of silvery musical laughter interrupted them. “Here she comes!” Lady Ryldon said urgently. “Now, dear, you must make certain that the little fool marries my son. Our very lives—or at the very least our wine cellar—depend on it!”
Vander stared down at the page in some perplexity. It didn’t seem to match the plot he’d heard discussed over the dining room table. Who was Lady Ryldon? The whole desk was covered with drifts of paper, each sheet containing a scrap of dialogue or a list of notes. He picked up another.
“In the meantime,” said Count Frederic, with a polite bow, “may I not kiss you?”
“Indeed you may not!” Flora cried. She peeped at him over her shoulder, with a captivating giggle. “I do not like kisses.”
“Let me change your mind.” His countenance was not merry: instead, the very air trembled with a solemn—
Unfortunately, the text broke off just when it was getting interesting. Vander sifted through the mess on the desk, trying to locate the next page, but he couldn’t find it. He picked up Mia’s quill and struck through a half line or so, and scrawled a revision.
“My dear, do let me change your mind.” He pushed her back on the table, ran a hand beneath her skirts, and bent to kiss her silken thigh.
She threw her arms around his neck and cried, “But, sir, do you intend to ravish me?”
“Only if you desire such a wanton course,” he replied, quite untruthfully, because he intended to ravish her no matter what she had to say about it.
“Modesty forbids my answer,” she gasped, clapping her legs around his waist.
“Excellent,” he said, debauching her enthusiastically.
This was rather fun. Vander poked around until he found a couple of other scenes which, in his considered opinion, needed correction. Flora should never go back to Frederic, for example. He picked up the quill again.
Vander here: This is rubbish. He’s a fool who jilted her. She should treat him like the idiot he is.
The door opened. He hastily put down the quill and turned around.
It was Mia, naturally, and she was frowning at him. “What are you doing?”