Charlie turned, and she saw him flinch when he realized that another child had entered the box. The limited contact he’d had with children had invariably been unpleasant.
But he swung his way over and conducted himself with a courteousness that disguised his discomfort at meeting Rose. He even managed to bow without toppling, a skill that Vander must have taught him.
She hadn’t seen Thorn or India since the wedding, but it felt very different to greet them now. She was still the woman who had blackmailed Vander into marriage, but she didn’t feel like that woman any longer.
How could she, when he made love to her so passionately, and woke her this morning with the admission that he had been on his way to the stables when he realized he had overlooked something? It turned out what he had forgotten was a kiss—and that kiss led to such tender, passionate intimacies that Mia had cried a little from pure joy afterward.
Thorn and Chuffy took themselves off: Chuffy, to place his bets; and Thorn, to find Vander and check on Jafeer, promising to return for Mia if it seemed “her” stallion needed calming. Charlie hopped back to the front of the box, and Rose put down her book but not her doll and followed him. Lady Xenobia and Mia sat down and embarked on an awkward conversation about the children.
It turned out that India—as she wished to be called—was as nervous as Mia was about putting the two children together. “Rose has had very few encounters with people her age,” she explained. “She had an unusual upbringing.”
“Charlie, too, has met very few children.”
“Why is he taking notes?”
Mia smiled. “Vander suggested that Charlie could make himself useful by noting down any gossip he hears. Charlie has taken it more literally than Vander intended, perhaps, but it was a brilliant maneuver: Charlie hasn’t been comfortable going into public, let alone in crowds, but he’s forgotten about his wariness because he has been given a task.”
“I gather from my husband that Charlie is the reason you needed to marry Vander?”
“Yes.” Mia hesitated and said, “I suggested a temporary marriage, but the duke was reluctant to go through the bother of choosing another wife. So here I am.”
India turned to her, eyebrow cocked. “His words?”
“Men are idiots,” India said, sighing. “You do know that if Vander didn’t wish to remain married to you, your marriage would be well on its way to dissolution, don’t you? He wouldn’t allow my husband to do anything to rescue him from your proposal, and believe me, Thorn would have found a way to stop the ceremony if Vander truly wished for him to do so.”
“Vander didn’t want to lose his dukedom,” Mia explained. “Actually, I think he cares far more about losing his horses than his title.”
“That is probably true. His decision to buy Jafeer came after months of poring over bloodlines and the like, and I was the silent, bored observer to many of those discussions. But Thorn would have bought Vander’s stables an hour after you made your demand, if Vander had decided to refuse you. For one pound or a thousand pounds, only to sell it back afterward.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Mia said.
“Vander rejected every idea Thorn had, including outright destruction of the letter. Since then, he has refused to divorce you, or annul the marriage. What does that tell you?”
“He’s honorable.” The opposite of her father, to be blunt.
India burst out laughing. “Believe that if you wish.”
“I see no other explanation,” Mia said primly. She decided to change the subject, and soon they were deep into talk of something far more interesting: India’s talent for organizing and refurbishing households. After a few minutes, Mia couldn’t resist, and found herself swearing India to silence and telling her all about Lucibella Delicosa.
It was an entirely satisfactory few hours, broken by a light luncheon with the children, who had become, if not fast friends, intrigued acquaintances. Mia had the feeling that on the way home they would both label the other “quite odd”—but in an admiring way.
When the starting time neared for Jafeer’s debut, Thorn and Vander returned to the box, but only briefly. To Charlie’s huge excitement, Vander hoisted him on a shoulder, crutch and all. “We’ll see you all after the race,” he said, turning to the door.
“We need to be close to the track,” Charlie shouted, waving at Mia. His cheeks were rosy and his eyes shone.
“I should like to accompany them,” a quiet voice said.
India began, “Oh, dearest, I’m afraid—”
But Thorn hoisted his daughter into the air. “You’ll have to hang on tightly,” he told her.
Off they went, two large beautiful men with children perched on their shoulders. It made Mia’s heart clench to see them.
She and India moved to the front of the box in order to watch the race.
As it turned out, Mia missed seeing Jafeer sweep to an easy victory, because she was watching the man standing at the railing below her instead, and the boy leaning trustingly against his head as the two of them yelled and cheered.
By the time Vander and Thorn returned to the box with the children, Jafeer was well on his way to becoming the most notable stallion in England. Journalists had leapt into waiting carriages and were writing copy en route to London, describing in overheated prose the extraordinary purchase by the Duke of Pindar.
The stallion was already the favorite for the Derby. At this rate, he would earn back in purses the exorbitant amount His Grace had paid for him in no time. Vander’s expression remained unchanged, but Mia could sense a deep satisfaction. For his part, Chuffy was downright exuberant: he had bet his entire allowance on Jafeer, despite the long odds, and he now had sufficient funds to back an archaeological expedition to the Andes Mountains.
“Think of the material for your next novel!” he crowed to Mia, waving his champagne in the air.
That evening at Starberry Court, they all drank a toast to the gamble Vander had taken in buying such a costly steed solely on the basis of his bloodlines. When they had drunk, Vander turned to Mia and raised his glass again.
“Without my wife’s attention, Jafeer would be languishing in his stall, ribs showing. She is his family and his heart.”
Mia smiled mistily at him.
After that, Vander broke all decorum, snatched her up from the table, and carried her upstairs. She did not protest, and their hosts only laughed.
Sometime later, Vander said, “This is our fourth night, Mia.”
She had stopped thinking about contracts and nights, and the sentence struck fear in her heart. Her fingers curled to hold him more firmly to her. “Will you deny me if I beg for more?” she whispered, her voice hoarse from the pleasure he had coaxed and demanded from her.
He was silent a moment. “I could never deny you if you beg me, Mia. Never.”
Late the following morning, as the carriage neared Rutherford Park, Vander deliberately put aside all the passion of the night he and Mia shared.
That was over. His four nights were spent . . . used up.
As Mia’s husband, he could demand more nights; he could refuse to let her see Edward Reeve. Some ferocious part of him that cared nothing for right or wrong wanted to lock her in his bedchamber. She was his, damn it.