No, his threats entered straight through in the front door, likely because he defrauded men like Squire Bevington, an honorable gentleman who had no idea how to contend with a perfidious villain.

Vander’s mouth curled in faint amusement. He and Thorn didn’t qualify.

Thorn had grown up on the streets, and he had taught Vander a great deal. Vander had had all too many opportunities to practice those skills in the rough world of horse-racing, where a desperate owner could hire any number of thugs to take out the opposition by stealth or outright violence.

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He touched Thorn’s arm, and they rose and made their way silently up to the back of the house. Sure enough, no one appeared to be stationed there at all. Just as they were about to cross to the kitchen window, he saw an indistinct figure against the wall enclosing the kitchen gardens. It seemed Sir Richard had a guard in the rear of the house after all.

As he and Thorn watched, the moon emerged from a cloud and shone directly—on Reeve’s face. Vander swore under his breath and they both stepped out of the shadows and walked over to him.

Reeve was wearing a tattered shirt, so shabby that Thorn guessed he’d had it in prison, and leather breeches of the sort that blacksmiths wear.

A shiver went over Vander’s skin, visceral hatred for the man who had taken Mia. His wife.

Bloody hell.

Reeve showed no surprise at their presence. Instead, he jerked his head at the dim light one story above their heads. Vander took the lead. He would have doubted that a professor had experience in breaking and entering, but Reeve slipped into the shadow of the house like a man trained to robbery from the cradle. Of course, this was child’s play compared to breaking out of Scotland’s most fortified prison.

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A kitchen window had been propped open to allow the heat of the ovens to escape the house. Vander pushed it farther open and put a leg over the sill. In a moment he had a hand clapped over the shoeblack’s mouth.

Large eyes stared at him, more excited than afraid. Vander grabbed a cloth from the table and tied it around the boy’s mouth.

For a brief moment they all stood silently, listening to the sounds of the great house breathing. There was a restless flow to the air. The master of the house was awake; Vander would bet on it. Likely Sir Richard had received word that Reeve had broken out of prison. Likely, too, he was planning to flee; only a fool would imagine no revenge would be taken, and whatever else he was, Sir Richard was no fool.

Thorn and Reeve followed Vander, low and close, down the servants’ corridor leading to the baize door, which in turn led to the entry. There would be guards in the entry, trained for combat, but they wouldn’t be expecting men to attack them from behind.

The three of them came through the door as one. There was a ferocious crack as Vander knocked a man to his knees, a bitten-off cry as Reeve took out another, and the sound of a brief struggle until Thorn dealt a third man a clout from the butt of his pistol. They were tying them up when a foot scraped outside; the man on the porch had heard the disturbance.

As the guard pushed open the front door, a flood of moonlight illuminated his coarse features and slack, thin lips. Sir Richard wasn’t a man to do dirty work himself, so it was unsurprising to find that he’d hired a man who looked capable of anything. Vander took him in a silent rush, knocking him out with one well-placed blow.

At first Vander thought Reeve crossed to his side in order to help in tying up the guard, but instead he heard the sudden sound of a dagger leaving its sheath.

“What in the devil are you doing?” Vander growled, seizing Reeve’s wrist.

Reeve’s jaw hardened but he didn’t resist Vander’s grasp. “He shot two of my grooms, knocked me senseless, and threw me in prison. He kept me from my own damn wedding.”

“Let the authorities take care of him.” Vander had occasionally taken the law in his own hands—no one involved in the horse racing could avoid it—but he had never watched a man being killed in cold blood and he didn’t intend to now. “The price of murder is too high,” he added.

Their eyes held a moment. Then Reeve snarled, “He gut-stabbed my thirteen-year-old post-boy. I was told last night that the boy lived a full day in excruciating agony before he died. He’s a monster.”

“In killing him, you risk becoming a monster yourself.” When the truth of that had registered on Reeve’s face, Vander let his arm go.

They drifted up the stairs as quietly as snowflakes, Vander thinking hard. He loathed Sir Richard Magruder, but Reeve was transported by rage, his body clearly burning with steely fire. Sir Richard’s greed had cost Reeve the life of that boy, of his other servants, nearly cost Reeve his own life, not to mention his marriage.

That same greed had given Vander the best days of his life. It had given him Mia. Even though he’d had her only a short time, it had been worth it. He fell back, ceding the other man’s right to revenge.

Whatever Reeve did to Sir Richard . . . he did.

By the time Vander reached the top stair, it was as if the shock of Reeve’s return had evaporated. Instead, a new truth ploughed into him with a body-shuddering blow. For good or bad, despite the similarities with his father, he could not live without Mia.

She was his.

His woman, his wife.

He stood in the door of Sir Richard’s study as Reeve swiftly and cold-bloodedly pummeled the man into submission.

Watching absent-mindedly, another fact hit Vander hard: something that had been there, but he hadn’t allowed himself to look at. She was his life. In a few short days, she had worked her way into his soul, and for the first time in his life, everything had felt clean and true.

The hell with his past, with his parents’ relationship. He refused to let her go without fighting for her.

If that aligned him with the tragedy of his father’s marriage, the hell with it. He didn’t give a damn. He had been a fool to walk away.

Vander left without bothering to say a word to Magruder. He no longer gave a damn about the man.

Mia was exasperating and fiery. She would likely disagree with him on a daily basis. She would court scandals, and ride with her eyes closed, and write stories in which men fell on their knees at the drop of a hat.

He would go to bed every night of his life hungry for her. And rise from that bed every morning satisfied.

All he had to do was make her realize that she was meant to be with him. He had to take her back, take her away from Reeve.

Make it clear to her that she loved him, and only him.

Chapter Thirty-two

By the time the coach arrived at the Queen’s Minion, the inn closest to Sir Richard’s property, Mia had wept herself to a standstill. Her heart burned in her chest and her throat was sore, but she had no more tears.

She climbed the stairs to her bedchamber, questions pounding through her head. Why was she never good enough? Her father, her brother, now Vander . . . she had been a charity case for all three: easily dismissed, insignificant. Her father never had much love to spare for his daughter; he had spent it all in his adulterous pursuit of the late duchess. Her brother was fond of her, but didn’t trust her with his most prized possession, his son.

And Vander . . .

Vander had genuinely enjoyed her company, especially in bed. But he hadn’t fallen in love with her. She had been just a female body, obtained for a few nights, used, tossed aside.

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