India pulled herself back together. “I’ve been in many households in the last decade. I’ve seen plenty of husbands who consider their wives to be ninnies. Over time, in their arrogance, they leach away the sweetness they once loved.”
“They are fools,” Dautry said flatly. “A wife is an investment, like any other, and I take care of my possessions. I will coddle Laetitia, and frankly, I would never speak to her the way I have to you, because I’ve spoken to you the way I speak to a man.”
Outrage surged through India’s body. “Laetitia will not be your possession,” she said between clenched teeth. “She will be your wife. Your partner in life. And for your information, I am not a man.”
“Indeed? I think you may be a general disguised in women’s clothing.”
That did it. Lala was sweet as honey, and she was a general. The words that went through India’s mind weren’t polite ones. “I shall send a note around to your London residence with names of some tradespeople and artisans who should be able to help you,” she said tightly.
Dautry shook his head. “I want you.”
“You cannot have me. Now, if you’ll please move out of the way, I shall join my godmother.”
“You promised to make this house habitable so that Laetitia and her family can be comfortable.”
“You can’t have everything you want.”
“You’re afraid,” he said, taunting.
“There is nothing for me to fear.” She placed a hand on his chest and pushed. “I would like you to step away.”
“Are you afraid of failure? You can’t tolerate being my temporary wife for three weeks?”
India didn’t like the way his gray eyes had turned smoky, like the sky at twilight.
He repeated, “Are you afraid that you’ll fail?”
“Of course I’m not. Move back, or I will shout for help. My coachman is very large.”
“If you did that, we would be compromised,” he said, his voice dropping. “Lady Adelaide seems to have forgotten that she left us unchaperoned. Can you imagine the two of us permanently shackled?”
“No, I cannot,” India stated. “Now, for the last time, will you please allow me to leave the room?”
“You may not be afraid of the work, but you’re afraid of something,” he said, not moving an inch. Instead he braced himself against the wall with a hand by her left ear, which brought his face even closer to hers.
India could smell him, a wild, woodsy smell, like soap and wind.
“Thus, I deduce that you’re afraid of me,” he said.
“I am not afraid of you,” India said, keeping her voice even. “But I believe that Laetitia could do much better than marry a man who considers her a noodle and wants to treat her well merely because he paid for her!”
At that, he threw back his head and roared with laughter. “You’re a romantic! Under all that brass and bluster, you’re a romantic!”
India balled up her fist and struck him on the shoulder as hard as she could. He did not flinch at the blow, but he fell backward a step, still laughing. She turned to go, muttering under her breath.
He caught her arm. “What did you say, India?”
She turned her head and glared at him. “Let go of me!”
“Not until you tell me what you said.” That dimple again.
“I said that you are a bastard,” she told him, straight out.
“You’re correct.” The man was damnably attractive when he laughed. His gray eyes turned warm. And warm was dangerous because it made India feel warm too.
She wrenched her wrist from his grip.
“If you don’t renovate Starberry Court,” he called when she was halfway to the door, “I’ll inform Eleanor that you called me a bastard and used my birth as the reason you fled.”
India froze, then turned around slowly. “That wasn’t what I meant, and you know it!” The Duke of Villiers and his wife were fiercely protective of his illegitimate children. Eleanor might forgive her; Villiers would not. And she liked them. She liked both of them.
“But that’s what you said. I have you in a corner, India. If you’re thinking that my father wouldn’t like it . . . you’re right. Not only would he not like it; he would destroy your reputation without a second thought.”
“Yes, I would. I want Laetitia as my wife. I don’t want to waste time looking for another woman. Her mother is apparently hell-bent on her daughter being kitted out with a country estate, thus I must invite her here before the news about Rose leaks, as you informed me outside. And you have made it more than clear that I need your taste—did you say that it was impeccable? Not just any tradesman can do the job.”
“You are blackmailing me. You are a corrupt—”
He cut her off. “What’s more, you’ll have to renovate the dower house as well. That wasn’t a bad idea on your part. Rose can stay in the dower house during the party so that the Rainsfords don’t jump to the same conclusion you did about her parentage.”
“They won’t like it whenever they meet her.”
“I do believe I’ll take up your idea about a special license. They can meet Rose once I’m their son-in-law.”
India didn’t know what to think. “Very well,” she said, giving in. She would hate it if Eleanor thought she was so insufferable that she wouldn’t associate with Thorn due to his birth. “I’ll help you.”
“You’ll stay for the party as well,” he said, his voice deep and smooth now he’d got everything he wanted. “I’ve invited a friend of mine who will likely fall madly in love with you. You need a husband, and he’s available.”
“I have no need for your help finding a husband!”
“It would only be fair,” he said, his voice pious and his eyes dancing.
India curled her nails so tightly into her palms that they dented her skin. “I want an unlimited budget. I’ll have to hire half of London to get this done quickly.”
“Go ahead. We rich bastards come in three sorts: rich, very rich, and even richer. I’m the last sort.”
“Have you any specific requests as regards decoration of the house?”
He shrugged. “I like every color other than red. My father appreciates luxury, and one guest room should look like a king’s palace, if possible. Get rid of those naked statues, unless you want to keep the satyr for yourself. It’s sad to think of you having grown this old without ever glimpsing a man’s arse.”
“If you ever say anything like that to me again, I will walk out that door and never return,” India stated.
There was a moment of silence, and then he smiled again. It was galling to recognize a drop of admiration in his eyes. “Balls,” he said, “you’ve got them.”
“I am not a general!” she said, and then kept going, made reckless by fury. “How do you know I haven’t seen a man’s arse?”
“If you have, you have untold depths, Lady Xenobia,” he said, his amusement clear.
“Lady Adelaide and I will welcome you back in precisely a week,” she said, ignoring his provocation. “By then, I will know the full extent of what needs to be done.”