But right now she was trembling from head to foot, and it felt wonderful to be held by a man of strength, a warrior who had protected her and her child.
“Sir Richard is mad,” Vander said, seating himself in the corner of the carriage and pulling her onto his lap, “and he may well have meant his threat. Apparently, my father posed a danger to me. I have no memory of it, but Chuffy says the duke periodically tried to reach the nursery, and they had to put footmen on the door day and night.”
“That’s awful!” Mia choked. “Thank goodness your father didn’t manage to injure you! I’m sure it would have broken his heart.” Something in his eyes made her add firmly, “And thank goodness you didn’t inherit his condition.”
“I inherited his temper,” Vander said flatly, thumping the roof to tell Mulberry that they were ready. “I used to break furniture, but these days the worst I do is occasionally engage in fisticuffs with Thorn.”
The image of two beautiful men grappling with each other came to Mia but she pushed it away. “You would never injure someone in a rage,” she replied with utter certainty. She leaned her cheek against the crook of his shoulder, soaking in his strength.
“But I do say things that I don’t mean. I’ve been a bastard to you, Mia,” Vander said, pulling away just enough so that their eyes met. “You’re the most beautiful, intelligent woman I’ve ever met, and I have hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.” The words were gruff, with an edge of ferocity.
She knew instinctively that Vander had never spoken words like this before. Mia swallowed hard. How could she reject him? But she had to.
“After I make love to you,” Vander said, bringing one of her palms to his lips, “the only thing in my head is the desire to be inside you again, any way I can.”
This was the hardest thing she’d ever done. “I can’t,” she whispered. It was what she’d dreamed of—but not in the right way. The aching tone in her voice was humiliating, and he remained silent, so she kept talking to fill the charged air. “It’s not enough.” Tears pricked her eyes. “I can’t just be a woman in your bed.”
Vander’s voice sounded like a rusty gate. “My love for you has nothing to do with my bed.”
“What did you say?” Mia gasped.
“I haven’t loved many people, and I’m not very good at it. I loved my father, but he tried to kill me several times. I loved my mother, but I was caught between my parents, so I always felt as if I was betraying my father by being civil to her.”
He paused, his eyes searching hers. “I love Thorn. I love India. Chuffy, of course. Charlie. And you. You most of all, Mia.”
Mia’s mind reeled. “But you said things that hurt me.” That sounded like a petulant child. “You always called me ‘Duchess,’ as if I were merely the role, not the person.”
“When I call you my duchess, I meant that you were mine to love, to hold, to make love to. That means— That means everything to me.” She could hear the deep truth in his words. “Do you love me, Mia? If you don’t, I’ll walk away and I won’t bother you again. I promise you that.”
Her heart pounded as indecision swept through her.
“But if you do love me,” he said, his hands tightening on hers, “I’ll never let you go. Not until the end of our lives. Not if Reeve writes you a hundred love poems and says all the things I can’t. Not if that blasted Frederic himself shows up. Do you understand?” His eyes burned into hers.
Biting her lip, she looked away. “It’s not just—”
His hand cupped her cheek and gently turned her back to him. “There’s only one important question, Mia. Do you love me?”
The words were a demand, yes, but she heard a trace of vulnerability as well, as if she were seeing deep inside him, a part of him that he had rarely if ever shown anyone. She couldn’t lie to him.
“Yes,” she said huskily. “I do love you, Vander. I’m yours.”
“Thank God,” he said, low and rough, pulling her close and burying his face in her hair. “I’ve been such a fool. Tell me that you will never leave me.” His voice was raw with emotion, as if the ferocious warrior had finally been brought to his knees.
“Never.” The word felt as right as sunshine, as right as Charlie’s smile. “I love you,” Mia told him again. “Always.” What had seemed shameful was now a simple fact. “In fact, I have loved you since we were both fifteen years old, if you want the truth of it. Perhaps even before that.”
“I don’t deserve you,” Vander said, pulling back, under control once more. “But I have this.” He reached into his coat pocket, and brought out a handful of yellowed and torn scraps of paper.
The handwriting on them wasn’t elegant, but it was earnest.
It was her handwriting.
“I fancied you back then,” Vander said, spilling the poem into her hands. “Mostly your breasts, but I liked your laugh, and the way you made me less angry even if your father was in the room.”
“Oh,” Mia breathed.
“One of the worst things that can happen to a boy is to be mocked. I had had so much of it in school that by fifteen I had a very thin skin. After Rotter came in the library that day, I couldn’t think straight. He said he was going to tell everyone. You would have been ruined, so I said the only thing I could think of to make him stop. Of course, it made everything worse.”
Mia stared down at the scraps of paper. “You kept my poem all these years?”
Vander nodded. “I’d be damned if I would let my poem—the only poem anyone would ever write for me—be swept up like rubbish. So I took it.”
Mia’s smile was so large that it felt as if her face might crack. “Where has it been, all this time?”
“I put it in a box, and there it stayed. Until Thorn said I should make a grand gesture, and write a poem. Charlie helped me, but we both knew our verse was a failure. Then I thought of this.”
“How on earth did you come up with the idea of wooing me with poetry?” She couldn’t help giggling. The smile in her heart couldn’t be kept down.
“I was desperate,” he said simply. “But I have another plan in reserve as well, in case verse isn’t persuasive enough.”
Of course he did. “What is it?” she asked.
“Here.” He handed her a letter. It was stamped and sealed and looked entirely ducal.
Mia crooked an eyebrow at him, and then broke it open. She read it once. Three times. “You’re blackmailing me?”
He nodded. “If you leave me, I will send that letter to The Times. The entire world will know Lucibella Delicosa’s real name. Everyone from the king to the littlest scullery maid reading by the kitchen fire.”
She laughed, and let the letter fall.
“Do you know what I want most?” she whispered.
“I will give you anything I own, Mia. Anything you desire.”
He meant it.
“A kiss,” she breathed.
Vander surged forward, taking her mouth as he pushed her backward onto the carriage seat. His body felt wonderful on hers, and her blood sang with the pleasure of it, so much so that tears came to her eyes. Her arms curled around Vander as if her life depended on it.