He had never felt like this: dizzy with raw lust, hungry to take her and prove—
With an oath, he released her and backed away, as if that would save him from the hunger that had him wanting to throw her on a bed, any bed, and tuck her body beneath his own.
She turned around slowly. Pale gold ribbons of hair fell around her neck and curled against the drab fabric of her gown. It sent another shock through him.
“Your mother was not a whore,” she repeated, as fierce as ever. “She was in love with my father. It’s not fair to brand her that way!”
“She may not have been, but her son will be. After all, you’re buying my services, are you not? The market price for one duke, in fairly good physical condition, seems to be an incriminatory letter. Perhaps you should search your father’s belongings. Just think what you could do with two such letters. Two noblemen, in the same bed, at the same time.”
“That is a loathsome thing to say,” she said, her voice shaking for the first time.
He plowed his hands through his hair, frustration mixing with his lust. “I’ll give you a dowry, if that’s the problem.” He was grasping at straws, he knew. “I can make you rich enough that you can attract a man by conventional means. You needn’t do this, Miss Carrington. We can forget it ever happened.”
Her eyes narrowed at him, her chin back up in the air. “You think I couldn’t possibly attract a husband without a large dowry?”
Vander eyed her truly awful gown. “If you bought some reasonably fashionable frocks, I’m sure that you could find someone,” he offered. “Hell, I could help there too. I know several gentlemen who—”
“Who are desperate enough to marry someone like me if a duke paid them enough?” she cut in.
He eyed her, then shrugged.
She went stiff all over, like a Greek statue sculpted by the hand of a master. But she likely had a lushly feminine grace when unclothed, a figure that those stalk-thin Greek goddesses would envy. Put it together with lips of deep rose, and those eyes . . . she could certainly have a man at her feet. Maybe a whole crowd.
He wouldn’t be one of them.
“Unfortunately for your scheme, I already have a dowry,” she said. “It is sufficiently large. Moreover, I have . . . I have money of my own.”
He narrowed his eyes. “In that case, why in the bloody hell are you forcing this? You say it isn’t revenge. Or lust. God knows our marriage would be a disaster.” And then it sank in, well and truly seeping in like a stinging poison. “Miss Carrington, you have to trust that there’s someone out there who would fall in love with you in return. You don’t really love me. You don’t even know me.”
“Look, my closest friend Thorn—Tobias Dautry—never thought to marry. He fell in love just this last year, as unexpectedly as if he’d been hit on the head by a cannon ball.”
“Love is like being hit in the head?”
He nodded, warming to the subject. “What if that were to happen to you? When it happens to you,” he amended. “When you meet the man of your dreams, you will be desolate if you and I are already married.”
The sensual, plump curve of her lips tightened into a thin line, suggesting he was making an impression. “There’s no possible way that our marriage will thrive,” he continued. “Not under any circumstances. Hell, I courted Lady Xenobia last year. One of the most beautiful women in all London, perhaps in all Britain. And the daughter of a marquess.”
She didn’t say anything.
“India is tall and willowy,” he said, forcing the issue. “Exquisitely beautiful, with the bearing of a goddess.” Never mind the fact that he’d decided India was a bit too tall for him.
“We are both already aware of what you think of me, Your Grace,” Mia replied, her chin held high and shoulders back, for all the world as if she were facing a judge. “You labeled me a dumpy charity case years ago, before I emerged from behind Villiers’s sofa.”
Actually, what he remembered was her bravery. There had been more than one time when he might have turned away from a challenge, but he remembered little Mia charging around the sofa.
“Your waxing on about love has not changed my mind, nor have your insults.” She picked up her reticule and headed for the door. “Please excuse me.”
With two long strides he was past her, blocking the door. Her green eyes were dark and misty: she wasn’t as unmoved as she had sounded.
“You must give up this mad idea,” he ordered.
Mia took a deep breath. She was trying desperately to think how to respond. Her solicitor had made blackmail sound easy. Wave the letter, and the duke will realize that he has no option, and must meet your requirements.
It was all different now, in the event, when she was actually faced by Vander. She hated doing this. She felt miserable and low, battered by his rage and distaste. But rather than give in, she made herself think of sweet little Charlie. And his uncle, the horrendous Sir Richard.
The thought steadied her, and she managed to hold back her tears. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “But I must marry you.”
A muscle worked in Vander’s cheek.
“My expectations for the marriage are enumerated on the document I left on the table,” she stated, keeping her voice steady through some miracle. “I ask for very little,” she added. “Please, Your Grace, just . . . just do me this favor.”
Vander wasn’t listening; she could tell. The flare in his eyes would have burned her, if such a thing was possible.
He reached out for her and like any silly rabbit, she froze.
“If you’re to be my wife, I might as well have a taste of you,” he said, raw and low.
But before she could say anything else, his mouth came down on hers and he forced her lips to open.
It was an angry kiss, a vengeful kiss.
When Mia had been betrothed to Edward Reeve, son of the Earl of Gryffyn, she had enjoyed his kisses. Edward had been respectful and never strayed beyond the bounds of propriety . . . or not far.
During the months of their betrothal, while they waited for her mourning period to end, there were times when he kissed her until she was flushed and giggling.
That was before he’d jilted her, of course.
This kiss of Vander’s had nothing in common with Edward’s. When Vander slanted his mouth over hers, Mia felt a shock of heat so acute that her scalp prickled.
His tongue slid into her mouth and his big body shoved against hers with none of the gentlemanly restraint that her fiancé had shown. Mia felt as if she’d been thrown into a river without the ability to swim.
Every point at which he touched her felt a glaze of fire, a small ache. Her mouth opened wider, inviting him in, and she tipped her head to give him greater access. Her mind went blank and her hands stopped pushing at his chest and encircled his neck. The brush of silky hair against her fingers set a fever blazing in her stomach.
Trembling, her eyes closed, she didn’t notice at first when Vander pulled away. Not until the arm holding her against the door dropped, and she landed with a jolt that rattled her teeth.
If only she’d kept her eyes closed.
The contempt in his eyes was warring with pity, and she didn’t know which was worse.