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“I wouldn’t know how to speak as she does, going on and on about affairs of state and matters of high culture. There’s something unrefined about it, don’t you agree, Mr. Dautry?”

“I find Mrs. Worsley an interesting conversationalist.”

“Men do, do they not?” Lady Rainsford exclaimed. “That is, she has the trick of talking to every man as if she adored him.”

“And every woman as if she loathed her,” Mr. Dautry said. “I suppose that I fall on the lucky side of that divide. But I come with an ulterior purpose, Lady Rainsford. Your daughter has told me of your exquisite taste.”

Lala had never said anything like that, but she recognized the work of a master and smiled as if she had, indeed, said as much.

“I have recently acquired a country estate, Starberry Court.”

“So we have heard,” Lala’s mother said, adding, with inexcusable vulgarity, “for some twenty thousand pounds.” That was typical of her mother: she chastised Lala for mentioning money, but considered her own social position so secure that she could say whatever she wished.

Mr. Dautry clearly did not like to discuss his finances. But when Lala looked at him with a plea in her eyes, he did not utter the rebuke her mother deserved. Instead, he said, “That rumor was inaccurate. The sum was close to double that; the lands are quite extensive.”

His expression apparently reminded Lady Rainsford just how presumptuous she had been; the handkerchief began fluttering about her face as she peeped over it.

“At any rate,” Mr. Dautry continued, “I should be very grateful to have your advice on restorations you might suggest for the estate, Lady Rainsford. I am thinking of assembling a small house party for just that purpose.”

“We are frightfully idle in this family,” Lala’s mother replied, still playing peekaboo with her handkerchief. “Even so, our social engagements keep us running hither and thither all the time. When will you hold your party, Mr. Dautry?”

“In three weeks, if that will suit you.”

“I shall look at my engagement calendar.” She looked as if she were bestowing a shilling on a vagabond.

Lala could read his eyes without difficulty. He thought her mother horrible. She rose, guessing that her suitor had endured all the intimate time with Lady Rainsford that he could tolerate. “Mr. Dautry, it has been such a pleasure to see you.”

Dautry sprang to his feet with the speed of a racehorse.

“You must forgive me for not rising,” Lala’s mother told him. “My health is a constant concern to those who love me, and I do my best to conserve my energy in order to cause them less worry.”

It wasn’t until after Dautry had departed that Lala realized she hadn’t uttered a word the entire time, other than “hello” and “goodbye.” Her heart sank. So much for being clever and funny.

She’d done it again.

“You’re such a pea-goose,” her mother said, confirming the thought. “How can a man be expected to spend a lifetime with a woman who doesn’t make an effort to entertain him? That’s the least a wife can do, you know. They feed us, clothe us, take care of us, and in return, we entertain them.”

“Yes, Mama,” Lala said.

“We charm them with our beauty and our conversation, soothing away the cares of the day.”

Lala wished her father were there to hear this lecture. It might be the first thing he’d laughed at in weeks.

“Yes, Mama,” she said.

Dear Mr. Dautry,

I have bought silk for the drawing room walls. The cost is approximately £300, but they will send the invoice to you directly.

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair

Dear Lady Xenobia,

The invoice for silk arrived, asking for £350. I also received an invoice from an Italian painter by the name of Marconi, who is charging £150 for painting swallows. Where are these swallows? They must be formed from liquid gold, so I want to make sure I notice them.

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

The swallows will be on the dining room walls. As you seem to be worried about costs, I had your statues assessed. You will be happy to know that the bronze was indeed sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini, and may be worth a great deal of money. I can arrange to sell the piece, if you wish.

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair

Dear Lady Xenobia,

Offer it to the vicar. If for some strange reason he doesn’t want it, I might give it to you as a wedding present.

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

The vicar would be gravely offended, and I shall not do such a thing. Nor do I desire a wedding present of that nature.

Lady Xenobia

Dear Lady Xenobia,

I think I’ll call you Lady X. It has such an exotic sound to it; I feel as if I am writing to the madam of a prosperous brothel. (I’ve never done that before, in case you’re wondering.)

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

I am named after a queen who conquered all of Egypt, not after a brothel owner. Had you paid attention to your history lessons, you would presumably know that.

Lady Xenobia

Dear Lady X,

Please do remember that you are my temporary wife, in other words, at my beck and call for the next three weeks. I begin to see a spiritual purpose in all the money I’m spending to tame the Queen of Egypt. My first command is that you address me as Thorn.

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

We all know you were born on the wrong side of the blanket, but you needn’t have called yourself after a bush. It seems unreasonably humble.

Lady Xenobia

Dear Lady X,

You will have to imagine my response. I cannot put it in writing.

My given name is Tobias, a self-effacing name that doesn’t suit. I was informed of it when I was twelve, at which point it was already inappropriate.

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

I like Tobias. It has an intellectual ring. A man with that name should be able to recite ancient Greek poetry.

Lady Xenobia

I rest my case.

Thorn

Chapter Eleven

June 27, 1799

Evening

Starberry Court

India had never been so tired in her life. The house had been gutted and scoured, and the interior walls replastered, the hardest physical labor completed in record time by crews paid treble their usual wages.

What was left now was the more nuanced work of making Starberry Court into a luxurious residence, with a patina of refinement and respectability. That would start tomorrow, when tradesmen would begin arriving with furnishings. But at the moment she could only think about a bath and her bed at the Horn & Stag.

She was heading outside to summon her coachman when the sound of a carriage made her look up. Perhaps one of the tradesmen had decided to beat the crowd.

But then she recognized Dautry’s glossy black coach and vaguely remembered that he had mentioned an inspection visit. Watching as he leapt from the carriage, she decided that he looked remarkably like the statue of the satyr. Maybe it was exhaustion making her hazy, but his shoulders seemed just as wide.

The satyr’s hair was curlier; Dautry’s tumbled around his ears. Presumably, he didn’t have cloven feet, but one never knew. He might. There was something about his eyes that was just as naughty. Devilish, really.

She corrected herself: Adelaide had explained that the satyr was not a devil, never mind the hooves and tail. In the back of her mind, she was aware that she wasn’t making sense.

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