A stunned heartbeat passed before Adelaide chirped, “Oh Mr. Dautry, you do remember how you mistook Lady Xenobia for a hired companion? And now she has mistaken Miss Rose for something closer than a ward. Such mistakes do happen!”
India’s heart was beating so fast that she felt dizzy. No matter how she fought it, her temper always seemed to get the better of her. “I apologize for my error.”
“I think Mr. Dautry would make a very good father,” the little girl said unexpectedly. She tucked her hand into his again.
India felt her face soften. “I am truly sorry, Miss Rose. I didn’t mean . . . well, I misunderstood.”
“There is no need to apologize,” she said with dignity. “I like Mr. Dautry very much. In fact, I am going to teach him Greek, and how to dance, and he will be better off.”
If India had held any advantage over Dautry before, she had just lost it. She had the sudden conviction that if she showed the slightest weakness, Dautry would squash her like an unwelcome fly at the breakfast table. “How fortunate,” she said, turning to him. “I shall look forward to seeing the results of this Pygmalion endeavor.”
Pure fury burned in the depths of Dautry’s eyes. He bent and scooped up Rose. “I would be honored if you were my daughter,” he told her, turning away slightly so that the two of them had privacy. “But I know that Will was very happy to have been your papa, and I wish he were standing here with you right now.”
India took a deep breath. She had been an idiot. Dautry was an arsehole, to use his own expression. But in the utter absence of any facts, she’d had no right to leap to that or any other conclusion, and even worse, to allow the words to tumble out in front of the child.
What’s more, now she couldn’t simply walk to her carriage and drive away. She supposed that Rose must have entered Dautry’s life in the last few days—which meant that the child had only just lost her father. How could she not have registered her mourning garment? Presumably she had lost her mother too.
Suddenly the missing pieces fell into place. This was why Thorn believed Lala would make the perfect wife. She would. Lala would be an excellent mother to an orphaned little girl. Lala was just the kind of woman who would take a child in need under her wing, give her a home, love her.
Given that, how could India not do her own part?
She would renovate the house and stay for the party, just long enough to make certain that the betrothal went smoothly. She would do it for Eleanor, and for Lala. And because Rose needed a mother. And—not least—because she was ashamed of herself.
As Dautry continued to speak quietly to his ward, India moved closer to the house. Happily, the mortar was in decent repair. One window appeared to be cracked, but it was in the servants’ quarters and hopefully hadn’t resulted in much water damage. The lawns and gardens were overgrown, but a squadron of gardeners could bring them back to a sufficiently civilized state within a week, and something quite beautiful by the date of the house party.
She began the mental list that would dictate her life for the immediate future. She would send her groom back to London immediately to summon her staff. And she’d send a letter to her favorite employment bureau, informing them that she would need twenty, or perhaps even thirty, people.
She had walked to the corner of the house and was peering down the hill at what appeared to be a dilapidated folly when she heard someone approaching. She turned to find Dautry striding toward her. Behind him, Rose was showing a doll to Adelaide.
He had a loose-limbed way of walking that signaled—in her estimation—that Greek would have no effect on his status as a gentleman. He would never be one. But she doubted Lala would care: he was one of the most handsome men India had ever seen.
“Lady Xenobia,” he stated, coming to a halt.
Earlier she had thought his eyes inscrutable, but not now. They were still outraged. “Mr. Dautry, I apologize again for presuming that Rose was your daughter,” she said.
His mouth tightened. “Your error—”
She cut him off with the same decisiveness with which she might counter an indignant butler. “My error had to do with the fact that your eyes are remarkably similar.”
“I fail to see how such a common eye color would lead to such an error, but it is irrelevant. As you say, your talent lies in refurbishing a room or two, and I have an entire house to staff and furnish.”
“That has been the limits of my experience to this date,” she stated, holding his gaze. “However, I shall renovate this house and find servants for you in the next three weeks so that you can host a party including the Rainsfords, as well as your parents. I shall remain at Starberry Court for one week thereafter, and make absolutely certain that your betrothal comes to pass without Lady Rainsford’s mounting a strong objection.”
His reply was a string of words she’d overheard on the street but had never heard said in her presence.
She waited him out—precisely as she would an incensed butler.
At last he said, “No.”
“Dear me,” India said. “I thought I would have to wait for you to learn Greek before you could express yourself in English.”
“I can express myself,” he said, his eyes narrowed. “Just so we don’t misunderstand each other, Lady Xenobia, I have no need of you.”
India summoned every bit of self-control she had to keep her voice even. “Lady Rainsford will not permit you to marry Laetitia without my help, particularly after she meets Rose. I will not be the only one to mistake the child for your daughter. Rose will have to remain in London during the house party.”
India frowned at him. “What? Why?”
“She spent three days in a beer cart on the way to London. I refuse to allow her to feel lost or neglected again. She remains with me.”
India froze, her heart thumping at the idea of the little girl traveling in such a manner. “Anything could have happened to her!”
“I am well aware of that.”
She took a deep breath. “I am very distressed to hear about your ward’s arrival, but I feel compelled to tell you that while Lady Rainsford may overlook your unfortunate birth, she will not countenance the marriage if she has the faintest suspicion that Rose is yours. And she will have that suspicion.”
“My ward has yellow hair,” Dautry said, folding his arms. “Mine is black. She hasn’t the faintest resemblance to me.”
Against her will, India felt a pulse of sympathy for him. “It’s her manner,” she explained. “I think it would be fair to say that you and she view the world the same way.”
“And what way is that?”
“From an invisible throne.”
He was still furious, but he clearly had little trouble controlling his temper. “If that is the case, and Laetitia’s mother disallows a betrothal, I shall look elsewhere for a wife. To resort to a proverb, there are many fish in the sea.”
“You haven’t time to look for another wife,” India said just as bluntly. “You must marry Laetitia before people realize your ward has a distinct likeness to you. Once gossip spreads about Rose, you will be unmarriageable, in my opinion. I would suggest a special license.”
Thorn was in the grip of a violent wave of disbelief. Had he previously thought Xenobia a she-devil? The names that came to mind now were far more violent. “Are you to accompany me on my honeymoon as well?” he asked. “Will I be allowed to bed my wife without instruction?”