But another part couldn’t ignore that Mia had made it clear, repeatedly, that she loved Reeve and had been heartbroken when he’d left her at the altar. She had only requested a temporary marriage with him in a desperate bid to keep Charlie safe.
But Reeve hadn’t jilted her after all. The man Mia loved had returned.
And Vander wasn’t a man who could accept a woman who loved another.
By all rights, he should prepare Mia for the likelihood that her former fiancé would be waiting when they reached home. He should explain to her that Reeve had never left her at the altar, and, what’s more, had risked his life to return to her.
But the ungovernable side of him—the side that never had been a gentleman—rejected the idea. Hell, maybe the man wouldn’t arrive today. Maybe Vander would have another night with her.
They pulled up at the front entrance, footmen hurrying out to meet them. Leaving the carriage, he said merely, “I shall settle Jafeer and the other horses in the stable, Duchess, and I’ll be in the house directly.”
A smile teased the corners of Mia’s mouth, a reminder of their evening activities. Heat rushed through him, settling low. He nearly reached out and pulled her into his arms.
Instead, he turned and strode away with a muttered curse.
Vander reached the stables to find that Reeve had indeed arrived, several hours before. When the horses were once again safely in Mulberry’s hands, he headed back to the house. Despite everything he knew to be true, a faint hope was beating a rhythm in his chest.
But when Gaunt opened the drawing room door, Vander went cold at the sight of Mia sobbing in Edward Reeve’s arms.
His wife’s head was nestled against the man’s chest, hands clenching his coat. Reeve’s head was bent over Mia, and he was murmuring something, his arms tight, possessive, around her.
Every fiber in Vander rejected what he saw. Barely contained fury rode him hard; he scarcely controlled the impulse to kill the man touching his wife.
But there was the rub: she wasn’t really his wife. He was no more than a temporary husband. A means to an end.
If there had been any doubt as to how he should proceed, the scene made up his mind. He, more than any man, knew that it was impossible to keep a woman who loved another man. Mia had loved her fiancé. Still loved him, as was clear from their tender reunion.
Reeve had been haunting their marriage from the beginning. Now here he was, back from the dead, having fought his way out of prison to return to the woman he loved. It was a romantic twist worthy of Lucibella Delicosa.
Mia didn’t notice when Vander entered the room, but Reeve’s head came up and their eyes met. If Vander had bothered to imagine Mia’s fiancé, he would have pictured a weedy academic, a spectacle-wearing professor stooped from too much reading and too little physical activity. A coward who had run from the reality of raising a disabled child.
Instead, Reeve was as large as Vander. His nose had recently been broken, which gave him the air of a boxer. Yet Thorn had described him as brilliant, and Reeve had the indefinable self-assurance of an Oxford professor, suggesting Thorn was right.
Reeve clearly caught the murderous look in Vander’s eyes, and his own narrowed. They were the eyes of a man who had just broken out of a prison designed to hold the kingdom’s most violent prisoners. This was a man who would fight to the death for his woman.
Hell, that was no surprise. Any man would fight for Mia.
She raised her head, putting one of her hands on Reeve’s cheek. “I simply cannot bear to think how much torment you have suffered,” she said, her voice wavering. “I feel terrible that I ever introduced you to Sir Richard! If it weren’t for me, none of this would have happened.”
Reeve murmured something inaudible, and Mia turned out of his arms, her hands falling to her sides. “Vander, you will not believe what has happened!” she cried. “This is Edward Reeve, who didn’t jilt me after all. Charlie’s despicable uncle threw him in prison on false charges, and he nearly lost his life.” Another sob broke from her throat. “He almost died!”
Vander moved forward the last few paces and bowed. “Reeve,” he said flatly.
“Your Grace.” Reeve bowed after a calculated delay, just enough to turn his gesture into a challenge.
Mia seemed oblivious to the battle of wills vibrating in the air between the two men. Her face was anguished, eyes full of tears. “Vander, this is horrible: Edward escaped from prison just as he was about to be sent to Botany Bay.” She swallowed hard and tears spilled again. “And it was all my fault!”
It was Reeve who stated the obvious. “The fault is Sir Richard’s, not yours, Mia.”
Use of her first name was, to Vander’s mind, a naked declaration of war.
“You could have lost an eye!” Mia cried, reaching out to touch the black bruise that went down Reeve’s face. “To think you might have died in prison, and no one would ever have known where you were.” A sob escaped and she pressed a handkerchief to her mouth.
Watching her, Vander felt an icy calm move through his veins. He didn’t want a wife who sobbed over another man’s pain. She was his on paper, but her heart was Reeve’s.
“I feel so awful that I didn’t have faith in you!” Mia gave Reeve a watery smile. “Yet the whole story is unbelievable. You must admit that it sounds like something from one of my novels.”
“I fully expect to see my adventures in a bookstore one day,” Reeve said. He turned to Vander. “My parents’ Runners are still on their way to India, hoping to find me there. I gather you know that it was your Runner who learned the truth. He had tracked me to Scotland and was trying to decide how to proceed when I escaped from prison. I am indebted to both of you, as he was very helpful in dispersing the guards on my trail.”
Vander saw Mia’s brows draw together, and uttered a silent curse.
“Vander’s Runner?” she said, her handkerchief falling to the floor. “What on earth are you saying, Edward?”
“I hired a Bow Street Runner to find your fiancé,” Vander said. “I thought it unlikely that the man had voluntarily left you at the altar.”
“You did?” She gaped at him. He saw pink coming back into her cheeks. “And you didn’t tell me?” He could see horror dawning in her eyes. “Tell me you didn’t know before today that Edward had escaped from prison. That he hadn’t abandoned me at the altar!”
Judging from her brilliant eyes, her tension and grief had just transformed to a fury not unlike Vander’s own. But before he could respond, Reeve took her shoulders and gently turned her to face him.
“It doesn’t matter, darling,” he said. “I am here. I didn’t leave you stranded. I will do everything it takes to make this right.”
He looked over Mia’s head. “I knew, of course, about the provisions of John Carrington’s will, and Mia has told me of the extreme measures she employed to force you to marry her. I owe you my gratitude.” His jaw visibly clenched, and then he added, “I have strong doubts about how long Charlie would have survived in Sir Richard’s care.”
“I assume you intend to press charges against Sir Richard,” Vander stated.
Reeve smiled, and any remaining hint of a well-polished professor evaporated. His hands dropped from Mia’s shoulders, and his face took on the ferocious anticipation of a lion closing in on a kill. “Of course. I mean to pay him a visit. But Mia came first.” He took one of her hands in his.