Although Jafeer was saddled, and his reins were draped around the pommel, there was no one in sight. “Where is Vander?” she asked him, almost expecting the horse to answer.
Jafeer dropped the bonnet and came over. She stroked his nose as she looked around. The inn yard was deserted but for a carriage that stood on the far side of the yard, attended only by a slumbering coachman. Where were all the post-boys and grooms who generally lounged about, waiting for something to do? She narrowed her eyes. That snoring coachman had a distinct resemblance to Mulberry.
“Vander!” she called.
Instead of her husband, she heard a peal of boyish laughter, and Charlie hopped from the open door of the carriage. Jafeer gave an approving whinny.
“Darling!” She held out her arms. “What are you doing here?”
Charlie swung himself across the cobblestones, his entire face alight. “We’ve come to fetch you home!” he shouted.
“‘We?’ Is the duke with you?” Mia asked, pushing back the thick curl that had fallen over Charlie’s face and dropping a kiss on his forehead.
“I have to recite a poem,” he said, giving her a tight hug. “His Grace and I wrote it together. I am going to declaim it, the way Roman orators used to do.”
Mia’s breath caught when she saw Vander step from the carriage; then she looked quickly back at Charlie. He hopped up on the granite slab before the open door of the inn, and turned back to the open yard. With all the majesty of a young lord about to say something to Romans and countrymen, Charlie announced, “Roses are red, violets are blue—”
An arm suddenly emerged from the shadowed darkness behind Charlie and wound around his throat. Mia screamed as a bloodied, disheveled Sir Richard shoved Charlie forward.
He was holding her child tightly against him, a knife against Charlie’s throat. The cultivated Elizabethan air that Sir Richard was so proud of had stripped clean away, leaving a predator with savage eyes.
From the corner of her eye she saw Vander take a careful step toward them. Mulberry suddenly showed himself to be wide awake and leapt from his seat.
“Sir Richard, what are you doing?” she cried, hoping to draw his attention away from the men.
“Oh, merely thinking about killing a little gutter rat,” he answered. Horribly, his voice still had the same cultivated tenor, as if he were speaking of tea and toast rather than murder.
Charlie’s eyes were wide and fixed on her. “Aunt Mia,” he said faintly. Another scream bubbled up in her chest, but she managed to choke it down.
“Surely murder is an extreme solution?” Vander asked. He now stood at Mia’s side. Mulberry was silently circling the yard so he could approach from the rear.
“He’s responsible for all of it,” Sir Richard snarled. “I have to leave the bloody country and it’s all the fault of this crippled little dunce, who should have been drowned at birth.” He gave Charlie a vicious shake and the knife came dangerously close to the child’s throat.
“No!” Mia stumbled forward. “I am responsible. It’s my fault. Please, let Charlie go.”
In answer to her movement, Sir Richard wrenched the child’s head farther back, placing the shining edge of the knife blade just under his chin. She heard Charlie’s crutch strike the cobblestones, though she didn’t dare take her eyes from Sir Richard’s face.
There had been more behind Sir Richard’s perpetual, ferocious lawsuits than she had realized. He was cracked, utterly mad.
“Why Charlie?” she croaked. “Please! He’s your nephew! He doesn’t deserve this.”
“Now,” Vander barked.
To Mia’s utter shock, Charlie’s right arm darted up and back, and he stuck a little dagger into Sir Richard’s arm. He probably didn’t manage to do more than prick him, but Sir Richard’s knife wavered, which gave Vander the second he needed: he exploded forward and wrenched Charlie free, spinning him away.
Sir Richard let out an enraged bellow, and lunged after them, knocking Mia to the ground. Charlie was already safely behind Vander, whose air of a savage warrior, ready to protect his family by ripping an enemy limb from limb, caused Sir Richard to freeze in his tracks.
Then, just as Mulberry sprang forward, Sir Richard veered left, grabbed Jafeer’s pommel, vaulted into the saddle, and sent the stallion galloping out of the inn yard. With a curse, Mulberry charged through the gate after him.
For an instant none of them moved or spoke. Then: “He stole Jafeer!” Charlie shouted indignantly.
“He won’t have him long,” Vander said calmly. With one huge stride, he reached Mia and pulled her up and into his arms.
She couldn’t bring herself to speak; she just leaned against his chest, eyes closed.
“Don’t worry about Jafeer,” she heard Vander say above her head. Had he dropped a kiss on her hair? “Sir Richard will sell him when he reaches the coast, but I’ll offer a reward that will have every man in England looking for him.”
Boots sounded on the cobblestones, and a disgruntled voice growled, “I hope to hell that wasn’t Sir Richard Magruder.”
“Charlie is too young to hear that sort of language,” Mia said, opening her eyes.
“I apologize.” Edward was looking with narrowed eyes at Vander’s arms around her.
“Sir Richard has the justice of the peace for Berkshire in his pocket,” Vander said. “Although that does not explain why he knew we could be found here.”
“I expect that he was looking for me,” Edward said. “He made a number of threats against me last night. After he was in custody, I told the sheriff that I would be staying here in case I was needed to testify.”
Mulberry came back into the yard. “He’s taken the road toward Dover,” he said, panting. “Trying to get to France, I expect.”
Vander nodded and turned to Edward. “If you will forgive me, Mr. Reeve, I should like to take my wife for a short drive.”
The courtyard was silent for a long second.
“Right,” Edward said. His voice was expressionless, but his eyes were bleak. “Charlie, old man, why don’t you come inside with me?”
“Did you see what I did?” Charlie demanded. “The way I stabbed Sir Richard?” He didn’t seem in the least shaken by the experience.
Vander moved away from Mia, picking up Charlie’s crutch, which had apparently fallen in two pieces. She watched numbly as he screwed a little dagger into the crutch, where there had been no dagger before.
“It sounds as if you saved yourself,” Edward told Charlie.
“No,” he replied cheerfully, “the duke saved me. But I stabbed Sir Richard!” He took his crutch from Vander, stuck it under his arm, and started toward the inn door. Then he turned back. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” he asked, the faintest quaver in his voice.
“Within the hour,” Vander promised. That seemed enough for the boy. He swung away with Edward, the story tumbling out all over again.
“Sir Richard was about to kill Charlie,” Mia moaned, swaying where she stood. “No, he couldn’t have meant it! He is Charlie’s uncle, his own blood relative!”
Vander picked her up and strode across the courtyard toward his carriage. Mia should have struggled. In a few minutes, she would definitely assert herself and become her own woman as she had planned.