But India and her godmother worked like a well-oiled machine when it came to dissuading men from proclaiming their love. “You should ask Miss Landel to marry you,” Adelaide said, patting Lord Dibbleshire’s hand vigorously. “India is already considering three or four proposals, including those from the Earl of Fitzroy and Mr. Nugent—the one who’s from Colleton, not the other one, from Bettleshangler. He will be a viscount someday.”
At this news, his shoulders slumped again. But Adelaide glanced at India, a twinkle in her eyes, before turning back. “Besides, I am not convinced that you two suit each other, Howard, dear. My darling goddaughter does have a bit of a temper. And of course you’re aware that Fitzroy and Nugent are somewhat older than you. As is India. She is twenty-six, and you are still a young man.”
Dibbleshire’s head swung up and he peered at India.
“Miss Landel is barely out of the schoolroom,” Lady Dibbleshire put in, nimbly taking up the ball. “You can guide her into maturity, Howard.”
He blinked rapidly at this idea, clearly reconsidering his infatuation now that he’d learned the object of his adoration was four years older than he.
India suppressed the instinct to pat the corners of her eyes for wrinkles and composed her face to look old. Almost elderly. Presumably her white-blond hair would help; Adelaide was always pestering her to tint it one color or another. “Lord Dibbleshire, I shall hold your proposal sacrosanct, enshrined in my memory.” She held her breath.
His lordship’s chest swelled and he said, “I commend your intention to retire from this invidious profession, if one can call it that, Lady Xenobia. And I wish you all possible good fortune, of course.”
His love for her was dead.
A few moments later India walked upstairs to a small sitting room that Lady Dibbleshire had designated as her and her godmother’s retreat during the renovation process. Catching sight of herself in a mirror, she peered closer to see whether wrinkles indeed radiated out from her eyes. She couldn’t see any. In fact, at twenty-six, she looked fairly the same as she had at sixteen: too much hair, too much lower lip, too much bosom.
There was no visible sign of the hard knot in her chest, the one that tightened every time she thought about accepting a proposal of marriage.
She was good at refusing men. It was the idea of accepting one that made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe. But she had to marry. She couldn’t go on like this forever, moving from house to house, dragging her godmother with her.
After she had been orphaned at fifteen and sent to live in Adelaide’s disordered, chaotic house, India had quickly realized that if she didn’t organize her godmother’s household, no one would. And after Lady Adelaide had lavishly praised India to one of her friends, boasting that they would pay a visit that summer and “straighten everything out,” India had tackled the friend’s household as well. One thing had led to another, and for the last ten years she and Adelaide had made two or three such visits a year.
It was exhilarating to create order from chaos. She would renovate a room or two, turn the staffing upside down, and leave, knowing that the household would run like clockwork, at least until the owners mucked it up again. Every house presented a different—and fascinating—challenge.
But it was time to stop. To marry. The problem was that having sifted through so many households, she had received an intimate view of marriage, without seeing anything that particularly recommended the marital state . . . except children.
That had been the hardest part of her job, finding nannies and refurbishing nurseries for young women her own age. Her longing for a baby had brought her to the decision that it was time to marry.
The only question was who to marry.
Or should that be whom to marry?
She was never certain of her grammar, thanks to her father’s inability to keep a governess. Servants, it seemed, didn’t like going unpaid. Moreover, God-fearing English servants also disliked the fact that their masters danced naked in the moonlight.
India winced at the memory. She had spent years trailing her parents, her vibrant, loving, half-mad parents, longing for affection, attention, even supper. . . . They had loved her. Surely.
Everyone’s parents had good and bad sides. Her parents had loved her, which was good. They had danced attendance on a moon goddess instead of the Queen of England, which was bad.
They had sometimes forgotten to feed her. That was the worst.
Without question, her fear of marriage really went back to her childhood. Marriage meant trusting a husband to take care of her, instead of taking care of herself. It meant accepting that he would be in charge of their accounts. The very idea of a man like Dibbleshire talking to an estate manager made her shiver.
She swallowed hard. She thought she could get used to living with a man. But could she obey one?
Her father had been very dear, but he had played ducks and drakes with the estate, neglecting to pay the baker’s and butler’s accounts, as well as regularly forgetting the existence of his only child. He and her mother had died during a trip to London that they took for an unknown reason, although they’d had no money for such an excursion.
It wasn’t unreasonable for her stomach to clench at the idea of putting herself in the hands of a man.
Still, she could do it—with one minor tweak.
She simply had to find a man who was sweet and kind, and smart enough to realize that she should be the one to run their household.
If she, Xenobia India St. Clair, expert at turning chaos into order, truly put her mind to the task, how hard could it be?
The same day
40, Hanover Square
London residence of Mr. Tobias Dautry, Esq.
By right of birth, a duke’s eldest son should be sleek and self-satisfied, assured of land and titles by England’s laws of primogeniture. He ought to have no worries greater than the threat of split breeches while riding to the hounds, or a mistress who leaves him for a marquess with a better command of his tool.
But that would be an eldest son born within wedlock.
It is an entirely different story if the son in question is illegitimate, born of a ravishing but itinerant opera singer, a woman who had paused at the Duke of Villiers’s country estate long enough to give birth to a son and wandered on like a lark seeking warmer climes.
Thorn Dautry was neither sleek nor self-satisfied. Even when he seemed relaxed, he was alert to possible danger, and with good reason: he’d spent his formative years warding off death.
As an adult, he’d become a man who controlled his world and everything and everyone in it, and he didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know the reason. Not when he was sitting across from his best friend, Vander, whose childhood had had just as formative an effect on him.
A deep voice broke the silence in the library. “I don’t approve, Thorn. While Laetitia Rainsford won’t make a terrible wife for some fellow, she’s not right for you. Why in God’s name did you choose her?”
Evander Septimus Brody, future Duke of Pindar, was sprawled opposite, a brandy glass balanced on his stomach. Vander had been Thorn’s closest friend since Eton, when both of them had been bent on proving themselves with their fists. Their failure to beat each other senseless had led to a lifelong bond.
Sometimes Thorn felt he and Vander were two sides of the same coin: he, a duke’s illegitimate son who had to fight off the world’s opinion, and Vander, a duke’s legitimate son who didn’t fit the mold. Vander was too direct, too male, too violent to suit the sensibilities of English society.