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“Right. One more thing,” he said. “I don’t want a bed in Laetitia’s room; she’ll sleep with me.”

“No bed?” India said, incredulous. “Of course I’ll put a bed in your wife’s chamber. What if she doesn’t wish to sleep with you?”

“We’ll sleep together.” He folded his arms again.

“Your wife—”

“I know. She deserves much better than I.”

“Me,” India snapped.

“What?”

“ ‘I’ is ungrammatical; it should be, ‘She deserves much better than me.’ ”

He burst out laughing, so India talked over him. “Privacy is a lady’s prerogative, no matter whether her husband considers her—and treats her like—a possession.”

“You seem to think that Laetitia won’t want to sleep with me,” he said silkily. “Dear me, India. You take such a dismal view of marriage; you must at least feign optimism once you accept a man’s hand.”

She turned on her heel and stamped out of the room, followed by a deep masculine chuckle. “I saw your lips moving,” he called. “Didn’t you tell Lady Adelaide that you never curse? Or were you talking about her butler?”

Choice words rocketed through India’s head.

“Three weeks with Lady Xenobia as my wife,” Dautry said, still laughing as he caught up with her. “I can’t think of a better prologue to a life with Laetitia.”

Chapter Nine

June 20, 1799

The Horn & Stage Inn

Just after sunrise the next morning, India rousted Adelaide from her bed and dragged her back to Starberry Court.

“Why must we be here early?” Adelaide asked, her sentence cut off by a yawn. “I’m in no hurry to see Jupp’s statuary again.”

“I have so much to do; I can’t waste time.” India crossed the entry hall, feeling a rising sense of excitement.

Adelaide trailed after her. “The statues look absolutely revolting in the morning light, don’t they?”

A bird—or a flock of them—had plainly roosted on the marbles’ heads and other bits of their anatomy; all the sculptures were lavishly streaked with white. India didn’t care. Her first order of business was to inventory the rooms. After that she would tackle cleaning, with the help of every chambermaid she could find in the village and vicinity.

Adelaide drifted through the entry, morosely holding her skirts above the dust. She loved to accompany India from house to house, primarily because it gave her an opportunity for a long visit with acquaintances. India loved the challenge, but Adelaide loved the company.

“I’m in no danger of finding myself compromised here,” India said. “By noon today, I’ll be surrounded by laborers, from gardeners to maids.”

“That’s true enough,” Adelaide said, poking at one of the statues with a gloved finger. “I think this one is a copy. It’s plaster, not marble.”

“Why not return to the inn? You could send my lady’s maid back in the carriage and spend the day relaxing in that lovely parlor, reading a book.”

“I couldn’t leave you alone!”

“Marie would be here in no time, Adelaide. And since Dautry rented the entire inn, your presence will give the innkeeper and his wife something to do.”

“Well . . .”

“I insist,” India said firmly, taking Adelaide straight back out the door and leading her to the carriage. “I’ll see you for dinner tonight, dearest. I’d be most grateful if the innkeeper could send a light luncheon.”

Once Adelaide was gone, India returned inside, enjoying the great echoing sense of the house. A surge of excitement bubbled inside her. Furnishing and staffing a great house from the ground up would be the perfect swan song to her career.

She would give Starberry Court a sense of dignity and tradition, with a balance of beauty and comfort. Interestingly, the furnishings that were left in the house did not live up to Jupp’s lurid reputation. There was some unfortunate damask wallpaper in one bedchamber, but that was a question of taste rather than depravity. And if Jupp had hung his bedstead in garish red velvet, the cloth had long since been stolen.

She pulled out a piece of foolscap. One sheet would account for every object in the house, and another would list ideas for walls and furnishings. In the next hour, she opened every drawer in the kitchens, wrinkled her nose at the privies, and investigated the butler’s pantry, only to find empty shelves lined with felt where silver should have been.

When three women arrived from the village, she promised to pay them half again as much as their regular wage. Her maid, Marie, appeared and professed herself happy to help as well. They all began dragging furniture downstairs, and even throwing some out the windows with the help of Adelaide’s grooms.

Dear Mr. Dautry,

I am attaching a list of all the usable furniture discovered in the house. Most important is an extraordinarily beautiful cabinet with pearl-inlaid swans on panels of exotic wood. It bears the mark of the artist Jean-Henri Reisener, who is one of the most notable French cabinetmakers.

As you’ll see, the list is short, as unfortunately most furnishings have been damaged or stolen. I will be buying a great many items in the next week and shall have the invoices sent directly to you. I will also be contracting for wall painting and coverings.

Yours sincerely,

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair

Dear Lady Xenobia,

It’s nice to know that you haven’t crashed through an unstable floorboard and broken your neck. Swans and more swans . . . what have you done with Leda? I can’t say that I’m very fond of swans. Did you know that the males bite hard enough to snap a child’s arm bone?

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

I am sending this note back by the groom who delivered yours. In a piece of luck, we discovered that the cellars are intact. You have a quite fine collection of wine, which includes port laid down twenty years ago. When we find a butler, he will have to fill in gaps in the collection, but of course the sediment in any new bottles would not have settled by the time of your house party.

You will also be glad to know that there are no swans in the river that borders your gardens. I put Leda in the attics; a bosom that size might terrify an unwary chambermaid.

Yours sincerely,

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair

Dear Lady Xenobia,

I speak for all the males in the house when I say that Leda’s bosom was the best thing about her.

Thorn

“There is no response,” India told the groom who had spent the day riding back and forth to London. By all rights, she should throw such a disgraceful missive in the fire.

Instead she folded it and slipped it in her pocket.

Chapter Ten

June 22, 1799

76 Portman Square, London

Home of Lord and Lady Rainsford

and their daughter Laetitia

Miss Laetitia Rainsford, known to her family and friends as Lala, was in the grip of a wave of pure, unadulterated panic. Mr. Dautry would soon arrive for tea. Her mother had already succumbed to three spasms that morning, and Lala felt as if she was on the verge of her very first.

He was coming. Mr. Dautry. The son of the Duke of Villiers. Her suitor. He had made his intentions very clear, although this was the first time he had paid them a call. She had met him a month ago in Kensington Gardens, at which time Dautry had told her plainly that he meant to court her, following that up with an appointment with her father.

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