Losing Vander wouldn’t hurt so much if she hadn’t believed—truly believed—that he was falling in love with her.
Though she might as well be honest, at least with herself.
It wouldn’t hurt so much if she hadn’t cast and recast Vander in the role of hero. In Lucibella Delicosa’s books, Vander always rode to his lady’s rescue, and Vander always married a seamstress of low birth after love triumphed over every accident of fate—and that would have included being short and round, had she created such a heroine.
A low, bitter laugh wrenched itself from her chest as she dropped into a chair.
The real Vander hadn’t even tried to convince her to stay.
She was a fool, who had to stop nurturing a dream of romantic love that didn’t exist in real life. Vander was right: her father and his mother had engaged in a tawdry, sordid affaire that had tarnished everyone in their vicinity.
There was nothing honorable or beautiful about it. At best, it was pitiful, and at worst, it was contemptible. The years she had spent, putting her love for Vander into poetry or fiction? Equally pitiful.
The most ironic point was that An Angel’s Form still needed to be written, no matter how hollow and withered her heart felt. She had to support herself and Charlie when they were jaunting around Bavaria.
She was washing her face when a footman delivered her valise and manuscript, along with a note from Edward apologizing because he would be unable to join Mia for supper.
Presumably he was planning some sort of offensive against Sir Richard. Mia couldn’t bring herself to feel even a shred of concern for Charlie’s uncle. Sir Richard deserved everything he got.
She ordered supper in her chamber and began reading through her manuscript as she ate, scratching out a line here or there. It was appalling to realize just how much her silly girlhood dreams formed the bedrock of the novel, never clearer than when Frederic—on his knees—vowed that he loved Flora because of her inner beauty.
For a few minutes Mia toyed with the idea of throwing the pages—all her notes and chapters and fragments of dialogue—into the fire.
She may have lost faith in love, but readers needed her novels, especially when they were sick at heart, desperate, nearing death, or watching a loved one fade.
They needed to believe in the fairy tale that she no longer believed in herself.
After finishing her meal, she slapped the pages down on the desk in the corner of her bedchamber, trimmed the wick on the lamp, and got to work.
Frederic had to change. He was too mealy-mouthed, too passive. A few hours later the lamp guttered, and she rang for more oil. By then she had turned Frederic into a man who was big and strong and prone to telling Flora what to do—although he loved her to the bottom of her dainty toes.
Rather than roaming English byways in search of Flora, growing thin and wan from hunger, Frederic went galloping after her, his greatcoat whipping behind him as he crouched over his magnificent midnight black steed. Or should it be a stallion?
She wasn’t certain what the distinction was. Something young ladies were not supposed to know, she thought. She began compiling a list of vulgar words that she wanted defined. Stallion. Cock-pit. Lolpoop. Quim. She had a pretty good idea of what the last word meant, but she wanted to be certain. Love custard.
Wasn’t there a dictionary of the vulgar tongue put together by someone named Grose? Obviously, she needed a copy so that she could create realistic characters.
She was searching her memory for more words banned to young ladies, when a leg suddenly appeared over her windowsill. Before she could make a sound, the leg was followed by the rest of Vander.
Mia jumped to her feet, dropping her quill. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, low and fierce. He had thrown her out like yesterday’s bathwater, and it was pure foolishness that the very sight of him set her heart thumping.
He didn’t answer for a moment, his eyes fixed on her.
“What do you want?” she demanded again.
His gaze raked over her, heated, furious. “A nightdress for Reeve?” he growled, ignoring her question.
His words hit her with all the force of a slap. As if a passerby on the street had given her a blow to the chin or called her a whore. “The gown was for you, for my husband. I am not a woman who commits adultery.” She meant to shout it, but her voice betrayed her, coming out ragged with distress.
She saw satisfaction flash in his eyes.
Madame duBois had made the nightgown from black silk, which clung to Mia’s every curve. She usually wore white cotton trimmed with eyelet lace, so Vander did have a point.
“I shall give you the name of the modiste, and you can order one for your next duchess,” she replied, in a voice as chilly as she could make it.
“There will be no ‘next duchess,’” Vander said, finally dragging his eyes from her body and stepping closer. “You are my duchess, my only duchess.”
Before she could grasp what he was saying, Mia caught sight of a darkening bruise on his cheek and realized that his linen shirt had been sliced open by a blade. She gasped and took a step forward before stopping herself. “Are you hurt?” He didn’t appear injured; he was moving with the same graceful power that he always had. “You went to Sir Richard’s house! What happened? Was Edward there?”
His eyes darkened ominously at the last question, but she had never quailed before him, and she wasn’t about to start now.
“Yes, he was.” Vander spoke through gritted teeth. “When I saw him last, Reeve was fine.”
A sudden, horrific thought struck her. “Are you here because something has happened to Charlie?”
“No. Charlie rode all day and went to bed exhausted. I came to see you.”
Mia took an unsteady breath. Right. Her panic drained away, replaced by a desperate wish to protect herself. She literally could not survive any more humiliation courtesy of the Duke of Pindar. “Then why are you here?” she managed.
Vander pushed tumbled locks, dark with sweat, from his forehead. “I won’t give you up.”
Mia’s heart bounded. Stay with Vander . . . live with him. Sleep in his bed, make love to him night after night.
The image snapped her back to herself. Where was her self-respect? Even the fact his ripped shirt revealed his muscled chest made her long for his touch. Something about him was destructive to her.
It was pitiful, she reminded herself, to want a man who was not only disrespectful, but unkind. As pitiful as all those novels she’d written about one duke—Vander—though she’d given him six different names.
“Have you changed your mind so quickly?” She tried for flippant. “Will you change your mind again tomorrow? You never struck me as a fickle man.”
His jaw tightened. “I am not fickle: in point of fact, I am Charlie’s guardian and I don’t intend to give him up.”
Incredulity scorched down Mia’s spine and she drew in a searing breath. “You want me to stay married to you because of Charlie?” The mortification cut like a blade: it seemed that even her eight-year-old nephew was more valuable than she was. She had never felt more unlovable.
“Not merely that,” Vander bit out. Then something else flashed through his eyes. “Look, regardless of what my mother did, my father never stopped loving her, all those years, even when he was in the asylum.”