His smile deepened.
“Barring any intimacies, of course!” Adelaide cried.
India rolled her eyes. “Mr. Dautry, I assure you that my clients do not think of me as a wife, temporary or otherwise.”
“Actually, that’s probably why they’re always falling on their knees before you, waving a ring,” her godmother said.
“I’m going to pay through the nose for a wife,” Dautry said, looking very amused. “It doesn’t seem extraordinary that I would have to pay for a provisional one first. According to my solicitor, you charge a sum larger than many dowries.”
“That is true,” Adelaide said, nodding. “From the moment that darling India decided to help people in a formal way, as it were, she determined that her services had to be seen as an extravagance, or she would not be treated with the respect she deserved.”
India decided to ignore this unhelpful exchange. She opened the first door to her left and entered a large drawing room. Its moth-eaten damask curtains had fallen to the floor, and only a few pieces of ramshackle furniture stood against the walls.
“Damned disappointing,” Dautry said, following her into the room. “There’s nothing very scandalous to be seen here at all.”
India turned in a circle. The sofa and all the chairs would have to go straight to the dust heap, along with the generations of mice homesteading within. But the writing desk against the wall needed little more than a good polish to be restored to itself.
“The proportions of this room are divine,” Adelaide said, poking at some paneling that had buckled from the wall.
“Unfortunately, I am not going to be able to make a complete tour of the house, since Rose is waiting for me. Lady Xenobia, can you speculate from the condition of this room whether you could transform the house into a background that will disguise the real me?” Dautry asked.
“I can transform the house, but not you,” India replied.
His response made Adelaide’s forehead crease. “My dear Mr. Dautry, you’ll have to curb your language. Laetitia’s mother won’t care for it.”
“Maybe you should delay those Greek lessons,” India said, keeping her voice sincere. “Just until you learn enough English to express yourself properly.”
“I suppose you never curse,” Dautry said, a distinct hint of provocation in his voice.
She was getting to know his measure now: he found her amusing. And not when she thought she was being witty, either.
“Mr. Dautry may not have had all the advantages one would wish,” Adelaide said earnestly, “but that doesn’t mean that he’s less of a gentleman. Why, some of the most gentlemanly men rise from nothing. My butler, for example.”
Dautry was terrifyingly attractive when he grinned; a dimple indented one cheek. Who would have thought such a forbidding man would have a dimple?
Without noticing, Adelaide rattled on about her butler and his exquisite manners. He never took the Lord’s name in vain. “At least, I’ve never heard him do so, and I can’t imagine that he would.” India, having hired him, was quite sure of that.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for me to learn that lesson,” Dautry said. “And now we’ll have to curtail this investigation of the property, because Rose has been in the care of my coachman long enough. Lady Xenobia, I believe that Lady Adelaide would prefer you didn’t take on Starberry Court.”
“I’m sorry, Adelaide, but I have already agreed to do it,” India said, adding, “and I shall not fail.” That sentence came out with a bite. The only time she had done so was after she’d had to ward off Lord Mening’s son and heir with a penknife, which meant she’d vacated the premises before she’d been able to replace the cook.
“But where would we stay?” Adelaide protested. “Surely not here. Our trunks and our ladies’ maids should arrive in an hour or two . . . are we to sleep on the grass?”
“I will take rooms for all of you in the Horn & Stag in Tonbridge,” Dautry said. “It’s a decent place.”
“Splendid,” India said.
Adelaide sighed. “I’m afraid that my goddaughter is used to getting her way,” she told Dautry.
“Perhaps Rose and her nursemaid could stay at the Horn & Stag during the house party?” India asked, still grappling with the issue of Thorn’s ward.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I want her close to me at all times.”
“Are there any outbuildings on the estate?”
“A dower house and a gatehouse.”
“I could renovate the dower house as well,” India said. “She would be very close to you; you could visit her daily. But she would be out of Lady Rainsford’s sight, at least until her ladyship had agreed to your betrothal.”
“Are you ever planning to marry?” Mr. Dautry asked.
“What?” India said, nonplussed.
“Of course she will marry,” Adelaide exclaimed, sounding scandalized. “India has more suitors than she knows what to do with.”
“Incredible,” he murmured. “Miracles never cease. I am always surprised by what my sex will tolerate.”
“How odd,” India said sweetly. “I myself am never surprised by men. Absurdity is so common that it seems characteristic of your sex.”
“My dears, you are squabbling like the children I am happy never to have had,” Adelaide said. “India, I suggest that we retire to the inn and discuss your suitability to take on such a large project.”
India should have followed Adelaide out the door, but she didn’t move. “You will have to be kinder once you marry Laetitia,” she said to Dautry. Something in his eyes told her that he wasn’t thinking about his fiancée at the moment. “She will wither if you speak to her like that. She’s too amiable to stand up to your sarcasm.”
“But that’s precisely why I’ve chosen her,” Dautry said, prowling toward her. “Not because of some absurd wish to enter the peerage. If I wanted to marry a woman merely for her title, I wouldn’t have chosen Laetitia.”
“You’ll be lucky if she accepts your offer,” India said. “Even she deserves—”
“Even she? Are you implying something about my future bride’s virtue?”
She scowled at him. “Of course not! Your mind is in the gutter.”
“Always. So what did you mean?”
India hesitated. She was shocked to see that he was grinning again, his eyes locked on hers.
“If you’re about to inform me that Laetitia is a noodle, I know it already.”
“Ah,” India said carefully.
“Miss Rainsford has a smile so charming that she’s sweeter than honey. She is lovely and, like any red-blooded man, I am, shall we say, enthusiastic to bed her. She will never attempt to change me. She’ll greet me every morning with a smile, offer me whatever I desire, and she’ll do it cheerfully, because that’s her nature.”
India was struck by an emotion she had never dreamed she would experience: jealousy of Laetitia Rainsford. No man would ever describe India as sweeter than honey.
“Why would I give a damn about the fact that she doesn’t know Greek?” Dautry continued. “Or how to multiply sums? I can do that myself.”