“Were you glad when I didn’t appear at the altar?” His voice was as steady and calm as always.
Guilt ripped through her again. “No! Of course I wasn’t! I loved—I mean, I love you. It’s just that—”
“The result was that you married him.”
“I had no choice,” she cried, wrapping her arms around herself and choking back her tears. But wasn’t he right? Hadn’t she run straight to Vander, the first chance she got? Somehow, she could have found a gentleman to marry her. If worse came to worst, she could have married a total stranger, and bribed Sir Richard not to sue her. “I’m so sorry that I was the reason you almost died,” she added, shame tightening her throat. “I feel terrible about what Sir Richard did to you. And I feel even worse that I didn’t have more faith in you.”
Edward rose and moved across to sit next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “I find it surprising that the duke is willing to give you up.”
His words made another tide of despair wash through her, but an errant part of her wanted to defend Vander. “Before I blackmailed him, he had never been forced to do anything against his will. He told me over and over that I didn’t have the qualities he would choose in a wife.”
Edward’s arm tightened. “He’s a fool. But you should know that the moment I make you mine, I will never give you up. I would never be so foolish as he.”
She closed her eyes and drew a breath, letting his words wash over her. They should have made her relieved. But all they gave her was greater despair.
Finally, she forced back more tears and looked up. “The truth is that I love him,” she said, choking out the words.
She felt Edward go rigid, but she hurried on. “So it’s more accurate to say that I’m the fool, because I knew what he thought about me. How he felt about me.”
The truth was that a woman like her should never have looked at a rich and handsome duke.
The truth of it reeled through her mind. She wasn’t violet-eyed and slender. She wasn’t even very sweet, and no one had left her a secret inheritance.
None of this was Vander’s fault. She had forced herself on him, and then she had made love to him—but he had merely had intercourse with her. Four nights’ worth.
And yet he had been so generous in bed. What other man would have pushed away his rage at being blackmailed, forgiven his wife for her criminal behavior, and consummated their marriage with such tenderness?
He was a good man, and he deserved far better than she. His next duchess might have violet eyes or not, but she should be as forgiving and generous as he was.
Mia drew in a shuddering breath. She would get through this pain. It felt as keen as when her brother died, but that was ridiculous.
There was one thing that she had to make clear, though. She would not continue to make mistakes, and Charlie was safe from Sir Richard now.
“I cannot marry you,” she said, turning to face Edward. “I’m so sorry. I’m just . . . I’m sorry for everything. I didn’t know that I still loved Vander when we were betrothed, but after living with him, and being his wife, it wouldn’t be right to marry you. Someday you’ll find a woman who is much better than I am.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked, frowning at her.
“A real lady,” she explained, a shudder passing through her at the memory of her behavior in the stables with Vander. She forced some enthusiasm into her voice. “Someone beautiful and far more suited to you!” Now she sounded like a barker trying to sell an undersized pig.
“I never could get you to look at yourself in a glass,” he said, shaking his head.
Mia looked down. It had turned out that Madame duBois’s idea of a bodice was little more than a corset with a covering of tulle.
“Not just your breasts,” Edward said, in the detached tones of a scholar, “though those are damned beautiful. You are exquisite, Mia. Every part of you: your spirit, your laugh, your face, your body.”
Mia found herself turning rosy. “You never said anything like that before.”
“I had a lot of time to think in prison.”
She flinched at the thought of where he’d been, and only managed a wobbly smile. Edward took both her hands in his and raised one of them to his lips. “You’re well out of that marriage, Mia. Marry me, and we’ll raise Charlie in a house full of books and children, and the kind of love that grows and deepens.”
“That sounds lovely.” She managed a wobbly smile. “Thank you. But I can’t marry you. I do love you, but—but more like a brother, Edward.”
His eyes darkened. “It may feel familial now, but I assure you that with time a different bond will grow between us.”
Prison had changed Edward. He was more muscled, and he had a ferocious edge that she didn’t remember. He used to look professorial. But even with a broken nose, he was a very good-looking man.
“Don’t answer me now,” he said, before she could reply. “This is no time to make decisions.”
“Very well,” she answered. She was beginning to feel like a teakettle coming on to boil. It wasn’t just tears bubbling up inside her. It was anger too.
Vander had said hurtful things during their marriage, but he had also said other things. He had made her feel beautiful. He had laughed at her jokes. He had not shown even the slightest distaste when he learned that she and Lucibella were one and the same; indeed, he had been fascinated in her writing.
Her father and brother had dismissed her novels. Edward had been supportive, but uninterested. Vander might have poked fun at her characters, but he had listened intently and made suggestions, though none of them were usable.
He had made her feel accomplished. Cherished.
But it was all a lie.
Edward leaned forward and brushed his lips over hers. Before she could stop him, the kiss deepened. Mia froze, letting it happen. She felt no reaction at all. None. Edward had broken out of prison, then returned to her—and ungrateful wretch that she was, she felt nothing for him other than affection.
Mia used to think that love could come after a wedding. But her love for Edward would never be like a wildfire that ravaged everything in its path. It would never strip Mia of all her illusions about herself and the world, and throw her naked onto the ground. Turn her into a woman aflame with desire.
That would never happen to her again.
That’s when the tears came.
After Edward Reeve drove away with his duchess, Vander sent a message to Thorn, informing him of the man’s miraculous reappearance. Then he rooted Charlie out of the nursery for another riding lesson.
He called him “Gimpy” all afternoon, because his ward looked pale and shocked, though Charlie improved after Vander allowed him to trot Lancelot for the first time. Sometime later they groomed the horse together, and Vander showed him how to pick stones out of a horse’s hoof.
One thing led to another, and they ended up in the blacksmith’s shop on the estate. Charlie was not afraid of the pungent smoke or glowing coals, though Mia would have shrieked if she had seen her beloved boy’s jacket smoldering from a flying spark.
Once Vander explained what he had in mind, the blacksmith took Charlie’s crutch apart and inserted a small dagger while they watched. Mia probably wouldn’t approve of that, either.