Vander cursed under his breath.
“It seems that Mr. Reeve was transported to Old Tolbooth under a falsified order stating that he had been given a life sentence and that he was a recalcitrant, lawless criminal unsafe to keep in England.” Gaunt sniffed. “As if Scottish prisons were any better than English ones. He was about to be transported to Botany Bay when he made his escape.”
Naturally the man broke out of prison to return to Mia. To return to Charlie, too. Reeve had the right to both of them. Nausea broke over Vander, but he fought through it.
“Where is he now?” he asked Gaunt.
“Mr. Reeve is on his way here, Your Grace.” Gaunt’s face was agonized. “To see the duchess. Likely he’ll arrive here tomorrow morning; the Runner sent a messenger ahead.”
“Right,” Vander said. A strange calm had descended on him. Vander had one more day with her. One more night. “Not a word to Her Grace.”
Gaunt’s brow creased.
“I will not have her disappointed again, if the man doesn’t appear,” Vander said grimly. “I will inform her myself, tomorrow morning.”
He had felt like this before: at age nine, after his father supposedly mistook him for a burglar and knocked him into the scullery wall; again one year ago, when the High Constable arrived to report that his mother was dead. “Prepare a bedchamber but tell no one the identity of our possible visitor.”
“You don’t plan to inform her until tomorrow morning?” Gaunt asked.
The last thing Vander wanted to witness was the dawning joy on Mia’s face when she learned that Reeve had never meant to jilt her or to abandon Charlie. That her beloved Edward adored them both, and had broken out of prison to return to them.
He himself would have broken out of the Tower of London to return to Mia.
“No,” he replied, as the truth slammed into him: he was as enthralled by her as his father had been with his mother. The late duke had died within days of the news of his duchess’ death, as if the mere fact she was no longer in the world made him defenseless to pneumonia.
And yet his mother had been in love with another man. His wife, the current duchess, was also in love with another.
In short, he had somehow managed to replicate the domestic ménage à trois that had sent him to Eton reeling with rage.
He had one day left. One night. Suddenly, the irony of it struck him. Tonight would be his fourth night with Mia.
Fourth and final.
“Please inform the household that I shall escort her and Charlie to the Nestleford Races to see Jafeer run his debut. We will depart in an hour or so.”
The butler nodded.
“Gaunt,” Vander warned, “I shall be extremely unhappy if even the slightest hint of this news were to reach Her Grace before tomorrow morning. Have I made myself clear?” He thought he detected pity in Gaunt’s eyes, but he didn’t give a damn.
“The duchess will hear nothing from me, Your Grace. I would note, however, that there is a chance that Mr. Reeve will waste no time. He may arrive earlier than tomorrow morning.”
“We will not be here,” Vander said. “We shall spend the night at Mr. Dautry’s residence, Starberry Court, as it is close to the racecourse. As always, if guests arrive at Rutherford Park, make them comfortable until I return.”
Gaunt nodded and Vander turned to go back upstairs. He wanted to prepare Jafeer, and a hundred other tasks awaited him in the stables as well.
But first, he wanted to wake Mia.
In his own way.
The ducal household was not ready to leave for the races in an hour; at least, the duke and duchess were not, since they were still ensconced in their bedchamber and no one dared enter.
But a couple of hours later, the house and stables were bustling. Charlie was wild with excitement to see his first race. Dobbie’s leash was tied to his crutch and the two of them were milling about in front of the house. Chuffy too had made it downstairs at an unwontedly early hour, resplendent in a gaudy saffron coat and fawn breeches.
Besides Jafeer, the Pindar Stables was running two geldings and a filly. Grooms ran hither and thither with arms full of the duke’s colors; jockeys strode up and down, striking their thighs with their crops.
Mia could barely take it all in. Vander was the calm center of the storm: servants, grooms, jockeys swirled about him. For his part, Jafeer did some sidling and complaining, until Mia and Charlie joined him.
Mia leaned on his cart and Charlie actually climbed inside and sat back against the low wall to rest his leg. Jafeer settled down instantly and looked about with an alert, interested expression.
“He’ll do,” Mulberry said, stopping briefly. “If you’d told me a week ago, Your Grace, that Jafeer would tolerate a child near him, I’d have said you were daft, begging your pardon.”
Charlie had brought a small notebook with him, and was writing down everything he overheard about horses and racing, because—as he had explained to Mia—he meant to train the finest racehorses in all England someday. “Just as the duke does!”
As if answering Mulberry, Jafeer leaned down and snuffled Charlie’s hair.
“Jafeer has adopted my nephew,” Mia said with some pride.
“That’s right,” Mulberry affirmed. “You and he are his herd.” He leaned over and patted Jafeer’s neck. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he won his race this evening. He’s got the heart for it now.”
Jafeer’s coat was shining and he looked like a king among horses, one who could race the wind.
Once they reached the Nestleford racecourse, Vander escorted Mia and Charlie to his special box—which had its own footman—and left them there. “Thorn and India will be along at some point,” he told her.
Something was odd about Vander’s manner, but Mia told herself it was probably nerves over the race. While he exhibited no obvious signs of apprehension, he had paid more for Jafeer than had ever been spent in England on a single horse. Of course he felt some tension.
Journalists from every newspaper in the kingdom including, of course, The Sporting News, were running up and down the racecourse. As far as she could tell, no one was speaking of anything but Jafeer. Chuffy and Charlie were leaning over the front of the box, eavesdropping enthusiastically on passersby.
Mia wore a new gown. Thankfully, her breasts were fairly well covered. She had a shawl as well, and between that and her strongest corset, she felt quite pretty.
Though, if she were honest, the gown was less responsible for her new-found confidence than were her husband’s frank, heartfelt compliments over the past several days. Vander’s remarks were nothing like the elegant phrases uttered by her hero, Frederic, but they had a raw sincerity to them.
She was smiling into her glass of champagne at one particularly vivid memory when the footman presented a calling card for Mr. Tobias Dautry. A moment later, he opened the door at the back of the box and announced—quite as if he were in a drawing room—“Mr. Dautry, Lady Xenobia India Dautry, Miss Dautry.”
Mia put her glass down and rose to greet them. She had no idea that Thorn had a daughter, but sure enough he was ushering in a solemn-looking little girl with a book under one arm and a doll in the other.