She waited, but the right words didn’t come to him. He could only think of crude words.
“To you, I’m not someone worth loving,” she finally said, with a sigh. “Not that I can blame you. I wrote that appalling poem; I blackmailed you; I lose my head utterly when you touch me. I’d rather . . . In time, I’ll lose myself.”
She got up without looking at him and put on a wrapper. “Go now, Vander. Please.”
Vander followed and swung her about, not gently. “Everything you’re saying is wrong. It’s rubbish.”
She gave a crack of laughter. “I suppose you do think that.” She broke free, her chin in the air. At least she didn’t look empty and wooden: now every part of her blazed with fire and determination.
“My feelings are not rubbish, Duke. Just because you do not agree does not mean that my feelings are invalid. In fact, you just confirmed what I already told you: at the heart, you think my opinions, my feelings, are unimportant. And if we remained married, your opinion would always come out in one way or another.”
The pain in her voice made each word feel like a needle piercing his skin. “I don’t think that,” he said, straining to explain to the fiery, rebellious woman whom he’d hurt that—that what? He had never had any use for eloquence; he had paid for his pleasures. But Mia deserved eloquence.
“Go. Just leave me alone. Please.” Her face and her voice were empty again, the charm and strength that everyone from Chuffy to Jafeer had responded to gone.
He tried one more time. “I know your name, Mia, and I don’t want to live without you. I love being married to you. You are mine, my wife.”
“I am no man’s possession!” she flashed. “I am my own person, Vander. Always. And I want a divorce.”
He stared at her hard as he realized something. Mia was right.
He didn’t respect her the way a storybook hero might. He didn’t want to kneel and beg for her hand; he wanted to throw her on the bed again, and do all sorts of disrespectful things to her. He wanted to spend a lifetime arguing with her over anything and everything, giving up and kissing her until neither of them cared about their disagreement.
He wanted to possess her, eat her, fuck her, live with her, die with her. Put his seed into her and have children—not because he needed an heir, but so that they created a child together.
So that someone with her eyes and her intelligence and her deep sweetness would always live in England, on his estate. So that future Pindar dukes would have some of her blood to counter the madness in his.
With a sharp nod, he turned to go.
Only when he was back in his carriage, turning into the drive leading to Rutherford Park, did it occur to him, with a pulse of despair, that the saintly Frederic would never talk about “putting his seed” into Flora.
When it came to it, Frederic wouldn’t want to fuck her either.
That wasn’t romantic. That wasn’t what Mia wanted.
There truly was no saving his marriage.
The next morning, after a few short hours of sleep, Vander entered the breakfast room to find Thorn meditatively spreading preserves on a roll while reading a note from his wife. Thorn and India were constantly sending notes back and forth, via footman if Thorn was in his study and India in her sitting room a few paces away, or groom if he was in London and she in the country.
Vander contemplated sending a letter to Mia, but promptly discarded the idea. She was the writer, not he.
“India is not pleased,” Thorn remarked, looking up from his note.
“Did you tell her about your cracked rib?”
He shook his head. “Only the black eye. We’re supposed to go to a royal drawing room next Monday, and a battered look leaves me at ‘bastard’ without reaching ‘gentleman.’” He said it with distinct satisfaction. Thorn had grown up on the streets, and this morning, he looked as though he’d never left them.
“Why do you want to go to a royal drawing room? It’ll be bloody boring.”
“India is rehabilitating me.”
“She thrives in polite society, and I love her.”
Thorn said that easily: as if his love were a fact of nature. Yet the very word made Vander feel stranded, as if he were on a small island encircled by rough waters.
For most of his life, he would have insisted that his father loved him dearly. But the duke had tried to kill him, multiple times, according to Chuffy.
Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t love. He had loved his mother, even though he had cut her from his life. He had loved his father too, despite the tempests and violence he had conveniently forgotten. He loved Thorn. Chuffy. Charlie.
He loved Mia. In fact, the truth was that talking about fucking her was just a way of saying that he wanted to be in her. The feeling that she was his . . . it was the same. A crude way of saying he loved her. A way of insisting that she could never be taken away from him.
He had the irrational conviction that she had taken all the broken, blackened parts inside him and mended them.
“So I am entering polite society,” Thorn was saying, unaware that Vander’s entire world had just turned upside down.
“What does that mean?” Vander asked through stiff lips. How was he to convince Mia of his feelings?
“A knighthood. My father favors it, so I suspect it is inevitable.”
Vander chewed a piece of ham that tasted like sawdust. He’d no doubt that Thorn’s prediction would be born out: the Duke of Villiers always got whatever he wanted.
He had to return to Mia. Kneel down if he had to. Tell her in the right words. Avoid saying things about bedding and owning her.
“You look like hell,” Thorn observed. “May I take it that your wife is not inclined to return?”
“I intend to make her change her mind.”
“Wasn’t it scarcely more than a week ago that you were incensed at being blackmailed?”
Vander didn’t bother to respond. For a while, there was only the clicking of cutlery as they demolished a great number of eggs, endless slices of beef and ham, and a mountain of rolls.
He had learned long ago that fashionable breakfasts sustained only those who spent the day moving languidly between carriage and sofa. He ate like a man with a mission, because he had one—the most important one of his life.
“I hope I didn’t resemble you before I married,” Thorn said, putting down his fork. “Though I probably did. Are you certain that the duchess does not love Reeve?”
“Yes,” Vander said, sure of that now. “But she says I don’t respect her.” He suspected that when Mia talked about respect, she really meant love. And when he talked of his duchess, he meant the same. Love.
“Can you point out to her that blackmail does not precisely—” Thorn broke off at Vander’s scowl. “Oh, very well; I suppose commonsense is irrelevant. I’ll take it as a given that you’ve made a royal hash of it. That means you’ll have to make a truly grand gesture.”
Vander thought that over. What did he value above all else, apart from Mia? “I could give her Jafeer,” he suggested. “I began to receive offers for him even before his first race was over. At present, he’s the most coveted horse in all England.”