The mere thought of her brought on another irrational flare of desire. Damn it, the woman was the daughter of a marquess. When he’d reached manhood, his father had told him not to look at women in the highest ranks. A cat couldn’t look at a king, after all, nor a bastard at a marquess’s daughter.
Not that he’d been looking at Xenobia.
Though she had looked at him.
Thorn returned downstairs after bathing, thinking that he’d better see how Mrs. Stella was faring and tell Iffley to send for a Bow Street Runner. He needed someone to investigate what had happened to Will, not to mention what had happened to his daughter’s clothing.
It turned out that his new ward had been bathed and fed, and put down to nap in the nursery, a room he had heretofore ignored.
“I was able to find her a little black gown that fit with just a tuck or two,” Mrs. Stella reported. “I have her measurements, and I’ve ordered a proper wardrobe, which should be delivered in a week. You’ll have to hire a governess as soon as you can, Mr. Dautry. And a nursemaid, of course.”
“Would you see to the nursemaid, Mrs. Stella? And tell the agency that I’d like to interview governesses. Not tomorrow, as I’ll take Rose with me to Starberry Court, but the following morning. Where’s Iffley?”
Mrs. Stella’s mouth tightened. “Mr. Iffley was quite perturbed by the child’s arrival. I could not speak to his whereabouts.”
Bloody hell. Thorn had the feeling that the agency would have to look for butlers as well. “Ask Fred to send him to me in the library.”
Sure enough, Iffley had been packing his bags. “I have compromised my standards enough,” he stated, his tone so sour it could have curdled milk. “After giving it some thought, Mr. Dautry, I realized that it matters little whether that child upstairs is yours or another’s. The scandal will envelop you both, and the disgrace will extend far beyond the walls of this house.”
Thorn resisted the impulse to take the supercilious jackass out with a blow to the jaw.
Iffley required no response. “I am one, sir, who prefers to have the distinctions of rank preserved. I compromised my own standards by taking this post; it is with no small amount of shame that I have confessed the same to myself. My eyes are opened to my own ignominy.” He clasped his hands, looking to the heavens with an expression of utmost anguish.
Thorn stopped being irritated and started grinning. It wasn’t often that one had a private farce performed at no cost in such intimate surroundings.
He sent Iffley away and ran back upstairs to see Rose. When he looked in the door of the nursery, she opened her eyes, which were large and framed by curling eyelashes. Not that they made her pretty, not with the grayish cast to her skin and the way her eyebrows cut across her eyes as straight as the flight of an arrow. She sat up as he walked into the room.
“I must go out this evening,” he said.
Rose’s lower lip trembled, but she said nothing and laid her head on her knees.
“For goodness’ sake,” he said, feeling a twinge of guilt. “One cannot take a child to a gentleman’s club.”
A tear caught the light as it slid over the curve of her cheek.
“Bloody hell,” he said, abandoning his intention not to swear in her presence. He sat down on her bed. “Why haven’t you got a doll? When I was growing up, my sisters dragged dolls with them wherever they went.”
Rose didn’t lift her head, and her voice was muffled by her knees. “Mr. Pancras says that there is no useful purpose to a doll. They grow dusty very quickly. He believes that acquiring accomplishments such as Greek is a better use of one’s time.”
“Mr. Pancras, whoever he is, sounds like an ass,” Thorn said. He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. “Come on. We’ve just time to find you a doll before the shops close.”
Rose sat up directly. “But the ribbon broke on my right slipper and Mrs. Stella said I can’t go outside until I have new shoes.”
Sure enough, there was a very tired-looking pair of slippers next to the bed, one of which had only half a ribbon. Thorn helped her from the bed, slipped them on her feet, and tied a knot instead of a bow around Rose’s thin ankle, which she viewed with evident disfavor.
He stood, and she looked up at him. She did not hold out her arms, but it seemed he was expected to pick her up.
“Didn’t you announce that you don’t like to be carried?”
“I make exceptions when I am ill shod.”
The child stared back at Thorn as if there was nothing odd about her speech. He gathered her up into his arms and remarked, “At least you smell better now.”
He glanced down in time to see cool gray eyes narrow.
“So do you,” she said.
Thorn stared down at her. Had she? Yes, she had. “That was not a polite comment,” he told her.
She looked off, into the corner of the bedchamber, but her implication was obvious: he had been impolite to point out her former odor.
“I apologize for mentioning your condition. How old are you?” he asked, with real curiosity.
Another silence ensued, as if she was debating whether to answer. At last she said, “I shall be six very soon.”
“Almost six! I thought you were three. Or four at most.”
She regarded him again. Silently.
“My father will like you,” he said, grinning.
Her nose tilted slightly in the air, and she did not deign to answer.
“You are a mystery,” Thorn said, now striding toward the stairs. “You sound as if you’ve had a governess. But you’re deplorably thin, and you have no clothing. Generally speaking, those things are difficult to reconcile with the having of a governess. Of course, there are always exceptions.”
“I never had a governess,” Rose announced with a crushing air of condescension. “Mr. Pancras was my tutor.”
They had reached the entryway. Thorn took his coat and Rose’s shabby pelisse from Fred (Iffley having taken himself off for good), carried Rose outside, and deposited her in his carriage.
“Have you ever met your aunt?” he asked, once they were underway.
“No. As Papa informed you in his letter, she lives in America.”
“By all accounts, that’s a marvelous place, full of bison.”
“What is that?”
“An animal larger than an ox, and much shaggier.”
“I am uninterested in bisons,” Rose observed. “And I shouldn’t like to live in America. Papa said that the ocean was perilous, and that my mother’s sister was a whittie-whattie twaddle-head.”
At that moment Thorn was struck by the conviction that he was never going to let Rose anywhere near the land of bison. Nor was he going to hand her to Eleanor, as if she were a piece of unwanted china. He was thinking about what that meant for his life when she asked, “Have you traveled to America?”
“I have not. You are very fluent for a nearly six-year-old.”
“Papa said I have an old soul.”
“Nonsense. You have a very young soul, to go with that lisp of yours.”
At this, her eyes narrowed and a little bit of pink stole into her cheeks. “I do not lisp.”
“Yes, you do.” It was very slight—but rather enchanting.