“She doesn’t want a horse, you idiot.”
Chuffy rolled into the room and fell into a chair, looking the worse for wear. His hair resembled a graying bird’s nest.
“Lads,” he said blearily. “Don’t ever challenge the village baker to a game of darts. I didn’t win a single game until an hour ago, and that was merely because I hold my ale better than he does.”
“Vander must win back his wife,” Thorn said, without greeting. “Have you any ideas?”
Chuffy’s head slowly sank down onto the table. “Not sure it’s possible.”
Vander’s heart thumped. “Mia hates me that much?”
“No. But you don’t measure up to a Lucibella hero.” Chuffy’s voice was muffled by the tablecloth.
That wasn’t news to Vander, but Thorn frowned, clearly confused. “Measure up to a what?”
“Mia is an immensely popular novelist who publishes under another name, Lucibella Delicosa,” Vander explained. “My uncle has read every one of her books.”
“Novels and Shakespeare. Not exactly your forte.”
“I realize that,” Vander said grimly.
“So how does he fall short of a fictional hero?” Thorn asked Chuffy.
“He hasn’t a poetic soul.”
That was exactly the conclusion that Vander had come to.
“Kinross swears that he wouldn’t be married except for some poem by John Donne,” Thorn said. “You could always memorize a poem. Or”—he grimaced—“you could try to write one.”
“Are you referring to the Scottish duke?” Vander asked. “I have a very difficult time imagining Kinross reciting poetry.”
“He told me one night that he considers Donne responsible for the happiness in his marriage.”
“Poetry would be a start,” Chuffy put in, straightening up, though he had the distinct look of someone who might pass out in the butter at any moment. “But there’s more to it than that. At the climax of a Lucibella novel, the hero always does something heroic. In the one Mia is writing now, Frederic saves Flora from mortal peril.”
“Frederic is an unmitigated ass,” Vander said grimly. But he asked the obvious question anyway: “How does Frederic do it?”
“Presumably he saves her from the burning orphanage or something along those lines,” Thorn said.
“No, a wild tiger,” Chuffy said, stumbling to his feet. At some point during the night he’d lost his cravat, and his waistcoat was both unbuttoned and inside out. “I have to go to bed,” he muttered.
“The tiger comes in at the end of the novel?” Thorn asked.
“Flora is fleeing the ghost-infested castle, but the villainous Lord Plum is enraged by her rejection of his unsavory advances—even though he has a wife in the attic—so he looses the half-starved, man-eating tiger he keeps in a cage in the castle courtyard.” Chuffy rattled off the plot without pausing for breath.
“What’s the heroic part?” Vander asked.
“Frederic sees his beloved about to be eaten by the tiger, so he hurtles into the courtyard to distract the beast, and as the animal is racing toward him, the man draws out a bow and arrow and shoots it dead. I tried to convince Mia that a pistol would do better, but she thinks arrows are more romantic.”
A moment of brief silence followed as Vander (and presumably Thorn) tried to imagine this singularly unlikely sequence of events.
Chuffy added defensively, “It sounds a bit melodramatic, but that’s because the two of you don’t understand the genre. I assure you that readers all over the kingdom will be shivering with terror during that scene.”
“Unfortunately, there’s a scarcity of tigers in Berkshire,” Thorn said, “so Vander can’t reproduce that thrilling denouement.”
“In one of Mia’s most popular books, Esmeralda, the villain leaps from a stallion onto the heroine’s moving carriage, which ends up in the river,” Chuffy said, looking more alert. “The hero—that would be you, Vander—dives into the black and icy waters in order to recover the heroine, reaching her at the very instant she starts to drown.”
“Ridiculous,” Vander said impatiently, coming to his feet.
“Write your own ending, Nevvy!” Chuffy exclaimed. He thrust out a trembling but declamatory hand. “‘The Duke, the Duchess, and the Orphan’! To be sold in fine leather with a gold-stamped binding.”
“I think you should memorize some poetry,” Thorn said, ignoring Chuffy. “Try for someone less quoted than John Donne and you might even be able to pass it off as your own.”
“Can you really see me falling on my knees and reciting a poem?”
Thorn and Chuffy looked at him, and Vander knew exactly what they saw: a burly man with no resemblance to a duke. At best his smile was wolfish; at worst it was downright menacing.
He had never read a Lucibella novel, but he had spent years listening to Chuffy recite breathless summaries of the plots of his favorite books. An idea began to take shape.
It would need Charlie.
Mia rose at four in the morning and began writing, the words flowing out of her as if a river had been undammed. Flora was proving to have a surprisingly practical bent. After a few encounters with a spectral bride—who had been drifting about the castle weeping ever since being jilted in 1217—Flora had come around to the opinion that spending her life grieving for Frederic would be a waste.
By midday, Mia was missing Charlie so much that she decided to fetch him and move back to Carrington House, on the grounds that Sir Richard was surely no longer a threat. Once downstairs, the innkeeper informed her that Edward was waiting in their private dining room, where luncheon would be served in a few minutes.
“Good day,” she said, walking in the door.
Edward immediately stood, bowed, and kissed her hand. “You will be happy to know that a somewhat battered Sir Richard is now in custody of the justice of the peace, awaiting the Assizes,” he said, guiding her to a seat.
A Lucibella heroine would feel horror at the mention of Sir Richard’s condition, but Mia rather liked the idea that punishment had been served. “I am glad to hear it,” she admitted. “I hope that you didn’t suffer any damage?”
“Given those circumstances, I shall fetch Charlie immediately. I’d like to re-establish us at Carrington House without delay.”
A throb of misery shot through her at the very idea of walking in the door of Vander’s house. But she had to be strong.
She was her own woman, she told herself for the hundredth time that morning. She was not just a title—“duchess” or “wife,” or even “daughter” or “sister.”
She was Mia, and Lucibella too. And Charlie’s mother. That would have to suffice.
After the meal, Edward went to settle accounts with the innkeeper, and she took herself out into the courtyard, tying on her bonnet as she walked. The moment she cleared the doorway, she heard a familiar whinny.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” she exclaimed, unable to stop herself from smiling as Jafeer pranced over to her. “What are you doing here?” He looked tremendously pleased with himself. Before she could stop him, he caught her bonnet in his teeth and danced backward, shaking it as if he were playing a game.