Somewhat to her relief, Mia discovered that fury was allowing her to view the scene from a distance, as if she had walked into a play.
“I fail to see how that is pertinent to our marriage,” she observed. “If our parents are to be the subject of conversation, I think it’s far more relevant that when I described my father and your mother as loving one another, you countered with an assessment of my father as a bastard who seduced your mother, and moreover, you implied that I was more of the same. A bad apple from a bad tree.”
Another moment of silence followed. “I didn’t say that.”
“In so many words, you did.”
“That wasn’t my intent.”
“You said what you thought at that moment! You said things you believed!”
“Damn it!” The words burst out of him, as if the thread of his control had finally broken. “My whole life, I believed my father was betrayed by my mother,” Vander said, taking another step toward her. “But then I learned he had been beating her.”
Mia flinched. “I had no idea. I’m—I’m so sorry.”
“He injured her so badly that she was unable to have children after I was born.” Something in Vander’s voice told her that he had never said this aloud before, and might never say it again.
“That is terrible,” Mia said carefully. She had been right about all those glass animals. She would have to send someone over to Vander’s house to box up all the fragile little mothers and their crystal offspring.
“When Reeve arrived this morning, all I could think was that I had married a woman who loved another man, just as my mother did.”
He took a final step and curled his hands around her upper arms. His eyes searched hers. “I let you go. Bloody hell, I pushed you away because I was so convinced that you loved another man. But the minute your carriage was out of sight, it hit me. I was wrong. You don’t love him, do you, Duchess? You love me.”
Mia gasped and opened her mouth to hotly refute his statement—but he bent his head and kissed her so ferociously that heat spread like wildfire over her skin. Only a slender instinct for self-preservation gave her the strength to pull away.
“Unfortunate though your parents’ history is, I’m afraid it doesn’t change our situation.” She blurted out everything she’d been thinking about all afternoon. “You and I are not a good match. We’re too volatile and too—” She couldn’t think of the word. “I did things with you that no lady should do, and when you lose your temper, you say things I can’t forgive.”
“I can change,” Vander said, his eyes fierce.
Mia shook her head. “It’s not just that. I lost my dignity when I blackmailed you into marriage, and I lost even more when . . . um . . . well, you know what I mean. If we remain married, over time I would lose what fragments of self-respect I have left.”
Vander’s rough-hewn features were set hard. “There is nothing, and I repeat nothing, in what we did together that you should be embarrassed about. What we did together was a gift, Duchess. And I will have no other duchess.”
“You will not tell me how to feel! Nor can you discard me and then demand to have me back, like a piece of lost luggage. What we shared is not good enough to sustain a marriage.” She stepped to one side and pointed to the window. “Please leave the way you came in.”
Vander’s eyes darkened and without answering, he pulled her back into his arms. Like a flash of lightning, that dangerous warmth spread through her again. When she opened her mouth to protest, he took possession.
Mia didn’t regain sanity for long minutes, coming back to herself only to discover that she was shaking, clinging to her husband, her knees weak. Vander was swearing under his breath as his hands roamed over her body.
Once again she had succumbed to her basest impulses. She was shaming herself again. Ladies didn’t act this way.
She pushed against his chest. “You must go,” she said, her voice cracking. “I cannot do this. You cannot do this to me. I deserve a husband who respects me!”
“I respect you,” Vander stated.
The look in his eyes made her body throb with need. But she managed to clear her head. “You want me, which is not the same. You don’t respect me, not the way a gentleman should respect the woman he marries. The heroes in my books would never say the things that you have said to me. They would never even think them. But you have. A minute ago you asked me if I’d worn this nightdress for another man, even knowing our parents’ history and the toll it took on both of us. You have repeatedly expressed your low opinion of me, no matter what you say now.”
She stepped farther away from him, as though putting physical distance between them would somehow translate to loving him less. “The truth is that I am nothing more than the title to you—the title, and a body to go with it.” Anger once again began to shore up her courage, putting a layer of thick ice between them. “Are you aware that in our short marriage, you have never once used my name? To you, I am always ‘duchess’; at one point I wasn’t sure you even remembered my name. The final proof? Yesterday you and Edward renegotiated our marriage without bothering to ask me about my feelings—though I stood between you in the room.”
“You misunderstood. It wasn’t like that.”
“Neither of you even thought to inquire whether I would prefer to remain married to you, or marry Edward.”
Vander couldn’t bear the look in Mia’s face: her expressive features were lifeless, all her joy and passion locked away so it didn’t shine from her eyes.
His wife was standing before him, telling him to leave, but he would not leave. She was his. With that thought, he picked her up, ignoring her gasp, and carried her to the bed, following her down. The moment his body lay on hers, he felt an exquisite wave of relief.
“I’m at home when I’m with you,” he muttered, kissing her nose, then her cheekbone. Other words eluded him, so he took her mouth.
And her body. When he slipped his hands between Mia’s legs, she was already wet. After a second her eyes glazed over and she pulled him to her, so he slid into her tight warmth, mating with her like an animal, mad with the taste and the smell of her.
It was raw and magnificent, not slow and gentle. But after she had come three times, and he rolled, breathless, to the side, she still wouldn’t meet his eyes. And when she sat up, his heart sank.
“This isn’t right,” she said.
She turned like a flash. “You see? Even now, you don’t use my name.”
Vander hated her hard, frozen look. He sat up and took her face between his hands, as if he could warm her with his touch. “Mia, you are my duchess. It is the greatest gift I have to bestow. My name, my title, everything that’s mine.”
Mia closed her eyes, opened them again. “I need . . .” She trailed off and began again. “That isn’t enough. I need respect, Vander. You can’t know how much I need it. I have to respect myself, and be respected. It’s the one thing my family couldn’t give me, and you do not feel it either.”
“That’s not true,” he said, tempering his voice, keeping calm.