It was a calculated gesture. The metaphorical gauntlet hit the pavement with a clatter.
Mia looked down at the fingers encircling her hand and then up at Reeve. Her lips parted.
Before she could speak, Reeve said, “We must expeditiously unravel the unfortunate circumstances that resulted from my abduction.”
Vander watched, his jaw tight. But it wasn’t his wife that he saw: it was his mother, gazing at Lord Carrington. That tableau put him in the position of his father, seething with impotent rage.
“I am confident it can be dealt with quickly,” Vander confirmed, not letting on by a flicker of an eyelash that the only thing on his mind was murder. He refused to become his father.
He felt Mia’s eyes on him. “But we’re married,” she whispered.
Vander looked at her and blessedly, felt nothing. He had closed off that part of himself. “As you yourself have told me time and again, Duchess, a divorce can be arranged within six months.” He kept his tone easy and reasonable.
“Especially in this situation, sweetheart,” Reeve added. “The king himself will dissolve the marriage, if my father requests it. The earl is quite close to His Majesty.”
Vander nodded. “In that case, I’ll trust your connections to take care of this.” He had had enough of the tender reunion. “I doubt that you are carrying a child,” he said to Mia. “Barring that, I will raise no barrier to a dissolution.”
Mia pushed away from Reeve, taking a step toward Vander. “That’s all you have to say?” Her voice was rising.
“Yes,” he said, his lips hardly moving. “The man you love has come back to you, Duchess. You were never jilted. You no longer have need of my protection or name.”
She leapt forward, one of those small fists raised, and hit him squarely in the chest. “We are married! I. Am. Your. Duchess!”
He had walked into the room to find his duchess in the arms of another man. The similarity to his parents’ marriage brought on another tidal wave of anger that threatened to pull him under. “By vows that you begged me to annul,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but after that—”
“For God’s sake, Duchess, you’re getting what you wanted,” he bit out. “I’m getting what I wanted. This was a mistake from the beginning, and you know it.”
She fell back a step. “It will be a scandal.”
If he had hoped there was any chance that she meant more by her declaration that she was his duchess, that sentence disabused him of that notion. No woman wanted a scandal, any more than his mother had, but his mother’s fears had come second to being with the man she loved. Still, his mother managed to remain a duchess and keep her lover.
He tightened his hand into a fist, forcing himself to speak calmly. “It may take a few years, but the scandal will settle down. You’ll have Reeve, and I’ll find another duchess. I’m in no hurry.”
She flinched. “I see,” she said, her eyes searching his face.
“You’ve been together for only a few days,” Reeve put in, “so it’s hardly a marriage. It isn’t as if you’ve shared much.”
Mia gasped. Reeve’s brow knitted at the sound, and Vander said nothing, just looked at him steadily. That’s right, you bastard, he thought in some deep, primitive part of his brain. I had her first. She sobbed my name. I took her up against the stable wall and she begged for more.
But Vander’s pulse of triumph evaporated like mist in the sun.
Reeve was taking everything that mattered. He had Mia’s love. He had all her laughter and tenderness. All the courage that meant Mia had never feared him, as a duke or as a man. All the intelligence and creativity and passion that she poured into her novels. All the kindness that had made Chuffy and Jafeer fall promptly in love with her.
Vander bowed and turned to summon Gaunt. He felt like a dead man as he walked across the room.
“One more thing,” Mia said, from behind him.
Vander stilled, halfway to the door.
“You already knew that Edward did not jilt me, but you said nothing.” Her words broke the silence like the sharp crack of a pistol. “Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you learned the truth?”
His mouth tightened before he forced himself to relax. He turned to face her. “I found out yesterday, but I wanted my fourth night, Duchess. I had paid for it.”
“You paid for it?” she repeated slowly. “I paid for those nights, or don’t you remember your accusation?”
“Four nights was the charm.”
“Four nights,” she whispered. “That’s all I was to you: four nights?”
“Don’t make me into a hero, Duchess. You can have only one of those in a story, remember?”
This time, when he walked to the door, no one called his name.
Perhaps all the tears Mia had shed in her short marriage had dried up the supply. Or perhaps there is a kind of grief too bitter for tears. She had been shredded by the world, torn into scraps, and tossed onto the toll road.
Mere scraps of humanity can’t cry.
She departed Rutherford Park with her manuscript and a valise packed with Madame duBois’s creations. She even left Charlie behind, reassuring him that she would send for him as soon as she possibly could. It would be different if she was traveling to Carrington House directly, but Edward didn’t think it was advisable until Sir Richard was in custody. She couldn’t confuse and upset Charlie by dragging him off to an inn with Edward, especially when Sir Richard was still a threat. Instead, she left Susan behind to take care of him.
For the first several minutes as their carriage bowled down the road, Mia stared silently out the window, trying in vain to harden herself. Her treacherous heart was screaming, demanding that she stop the carriage and return to Vander. Plead with him to keep her, seduce him if she had to . . .
Had she no pride? The man had taken his four nights and turned his back. Grief and rage were battling, but misery was threatening to win and pull her under when Edward leaned forward and put a hand on her knee.
“I’ve been in prison, Mia, but there hasn’t been one hour as painful as that conversation with the duke. I’m sorry it happened.”
“Vander just handed me off.” Her voice caught and she took a deep breath. “He didn’t even argue. I was no more to him than a wrongly addressed parcel.”
“Some men do not give wedding vows the same weight as do women,” Edward said carefully.
Mia felt as if a hole had opened up inside her, a well of pain that went back to her father’s dismissive attitude and her brother’s refusal to even consider her as an appropriate guardian to Charlie.
At the same time, her whole body ached at the idea of never seeing or touching Vander again. It was inconceivable. Impossible. He couldn’t have really given her away.
But he had.
“He never asked what I thought,” she said, her voice strained with pain. She hated the pity in Edward’s eyes, so she added, “We only married a week or so ago, and he was beastly to me most of the time. I’ll recover.” It wasn’t true. She’d never recover.
“Yet he was the man for whom you wrote that poem. The poem you told me about.”