Vander was so dumbfounded that he didn’t stop her.

He stood there, staring at the closed door, the flap of his breeches hanging open, cock throbbing.

What the hell was he going to do now?

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Chapter Four

NOTES ON PLOT

First chapter opens with Flora walking to . . . work as a lace-maker. (Add humble background, orphan, etc.)

A respectable, elderly gentleman, Mr. Mortimer, glimpses her crossing the street in her clean and patched gown. A girl this lovely, gentle, and deserving cannot be left Impoverished, at the mercy of the Cruel World. (I like this!)

He dies the very night after he changes his will to leave her one hundred thousand pounds (too much?), with a single proviso: that she not spend even a ha’penny on someone other than herself. If, e.g., she buys her aged nanny a cottage—or a lettuce leaf—she loses the entire estate.

Interesting. Large dowry on marriage.

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So why would Frederic jilt her?

Who gets the money afterward?

Angry relatives!

Vander stared at the fire, a half-empty bottle of brandy on the side table next to him. It was one of the few times in his life that he cursed his ability to hold liquor.

He wanted to be drunk.

After Mia had left, he had had a grim conversation with his solicitor, who made it clear that he had no choice. Whatever it was Mia was demanding in that bloody letter—which he hadn’t yet opened—he would have to comply.

Or lose his dukedom.

When Thorn walked into the room, Vander didn’t even look up, though he could feel his closest friend’s eyes on him. “What the hell’s going on?” Thorn reached over and took the bottle of brandy from the table, dropping into a chair. “Did you lose a race?”

Vander was silent for a moment. “Do you remember when I told you that I planned to marry for love? One of my more idiotic ideas, I might add.” What the hell had he been thinking? It wasn’t for men, all this passion.

“I don’t consider myself idiotic,” Thorn said, holding up the bottle. “You’re drinking brandy that was laid down in ’78. This calls for a glass.” He got up and returned a moment later with a glass cut with the Duke of Pindar’s coat of arms.

“Your marriage is not the topic at hand,” Vander said, taking a healthy swig of the brandy. “Mine is. You’re here in time to congratulate me.”

Thorn put down his glass without drinking from it. “What the hell? What’s happened?”

“My father was mad,” Vander said, observing how the golden liquid made little streams on the side of the glass as he tilted it. “But it turns out he was also treasonous. Not just ordinary treason, either: My father offered—in writing—to kill the king, thereby enabling Bonnie Prince Charlie to sit on the throne.”

“What?”

Vander was still following his own train of thought. “He was a lunatic. And a cuckold. But I’ll be damned if I let him be blasted as a traitor as well.”

“What does that have to do with marriage?” Thorn asked, looking confused.

“The treasonous letter is in the hands of a woman. And she is demanding marriage.”

“Bloody hell.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“How can they take away your dukedom? You didn’t commit treason.”

Vander shrugged. “My solicitor is confident that the dukedom would be confiscated. Apparently, dukedoms to hand out to favorites are in short supply, and I’ve never been a toady to the Crown.” He wasn’t the type who had bothered to ingratiate himself with George and his court. Or with society in general, for that matter.

Witness the fact that his only friend was a bastard, albeit a duke’s bastard.

“Hell,” Thorn muttered again. “Who is the woman?”

“You’ve met her.”

“I have? What’s her name?”

“The poet.”

Thorn frowned. “Poet? I don’t remember any . . . not Carrington’s daughter!”

“That’s the one.” Vander poured more brandy into his glass.

“The daughter of your mother’s lover is forcing you into marriage?” Thorn sounded genuinely shocked, which was amusing. After growing up on the streets, he was rarely surprised by evidence of criminality.

“That’s an accurate title for her,” Vander agreed. “You could also call her the Lyricist. Or Imminent Duchess of Pindar. If I wasn’t furious, I’d be impressed at her ingenuity. Not to mention tenacity.”

“Let me make sure I have it right: you are being blackmailed with the threat of a charge of treason and loss of your dukedom into marrying the daughter of your mother’s paramour.”

“It sounds like Greek drama when you put it that way.”

“The hell with that,” Thorn said flatly, his voice ringing with distaste. “She wrote that excruciatingly bad poem about you. Her father was a debauched philanderer. Your marriage will be a subject of gossip for your entire life. It’s not worth it. Let the dukedom go.”

“I thought about it.”

“Well?”

“My father’s madness tarnished the name—but it’s still my name. One of my ancestors lost his head defending King Charles against the Puritans. Another fought a battle for King Henry II. A castle—my family’s castle—stood here three hundred years before this house was built. I would just let them go, the history of my family go, because a woman wants me so badly that she’d resort to blackmail?”

“Let me put it this way: Your mother married a madman, and you’re about to marry a madwoman.”

Thorn’s voice was troubled, and Vander paused for a moment. But he knew madness. He had been around it his entire life. He had only to come within earshot of a person with a touch of mania and his scalp began to prickle.

He didn’t feel that from Mia. “She’s not mad,” he said finally. “I’ll be damned if I know how to describe her, but she’s not mad. Obsessed, maybe.”

“We’ll put the best solicitors in the country on the case,” Thorn said. “They’ll discredit her. Mad or not, we’ll have her put in Bedlam. Or—we’ll steal the letter! Give me her direction and I’ll put a lad on it immediately.”

“No need for that,” Vander said, smiling faintly. “She gave it to me.”

“Burn it,” Thorn snapped.

“Can’t,” Vander said. “Code of a gentleman and all that.”

“That’s utter rot. In any case, I’m no gentleman. Hand it over.”

“No.”

“It was a stroke of brilliance to hand you the letter,” Thorn acknowledged. “She must have known you’d find yourself constrained by your own standards. I would have had her house tossed or just burned down the whole place and have done with it.”

“It’s a question of name and lineage,” Vander explained. “It’s bigger than I am. The whole mess has made me think about what I really want. My mother was desperately in love with Carrington, willing to risk everything to be with him. Even though the man was an empty-headed, light-fingered fool.”

“No argument there.”

Vander looked over at Thorn, knowing his face was rueful. “I used to talk vaguely about falling in love—because it was an excellent excuse for avoiding society events where I might find a bride. Frankly, I would be horrified if I was trapped by that sort of passion.”

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