“If you’re going to say some idiotic thing about how you can’t eat dinner because a lady shouldn’t eat with a man, or some damned thing along those lines, just don’t. I’m starving. You’re hungry and tired. Furthermore, you’re not a lady right now, but in my employ, and I could eat with my butler if I wanted to.”
Before she decided whether she was more hungry than tired, or more tired than hungry, the innkeeper bustled in with a large covered salver, followed by two maids with china and cutlery.
After they laid the table, India didn’t think about it any longer. She and Thorn sat at the table and ate oyster stew, followed by roast beef, French beans, peas, and a very good cheese pie. She ate more than she’d eaten in days. She drank two glasses of wine, then sipped a third glass more slowly, as she watched Thorn eat more of everything.
“You have an impressive appetite,” she said, somewhat awed.
“As have you,” he said, working on another helping of peas. “I like a woman who doesn’t nibble like a goat.”
“Lala has a very charming figure,” she offered.
He looked up and grinned. He had lovely white teeth. “I know.”
She was beginning to feel owlish and drowsily content, so she put her elbows on the table. Even not having had a governess, she knew it was deeply improper. Actually, worse than that: maybe it was criminal.
Thorn wouldn’t care.
“I think you’ll be quite happy together.” She poured more wine for him, thought about it, and poured more for herself as well. “Will you tell me about growing up in East London?” she asked, propping up her head with one hand.
“It wasn’t fun,” he said. His voice dropped in register.
“I didn’t suppose it was fun. I imagined it was terrible. But I don’t know, which is why I asked.”
He had curious eyes, a gray that looked almost green in the lamplight. With a thick fringe of black lashes. “Why do you want to know?”
“Why not?” She took a sip of wine, feeling heat pool in her stomach. It was his fault for being so damned handsome. She pushed the thought away. “I am curious about any number of things. Almost every moment, I realize something else I don’t know. For example, I don’t know who Leonardo was, any more than I understood Rose’s French verbs.”
“No particular reason why you should know about Leonardo,” Thorn said. “He was an artist, though I don’t care about that. I’m interested in his inventions.”
He was looking down at what remained of the cheese pie as if he were about to take another piece, even though he’d already eaten three. India reached across and took it away. “You’ve eaten enough. You will grow fat.”
“I won’t get fat.” He growled it.
“You’ve probably grown a paunch from all the food you’ve just eaten,” she said, enjoying herself.
His eyes narrowed and he stood up wordlessly, pulled his shirt from his breeches, and bared his stomach.
India barely stopped her mouth from falling open. He looked like . . . like something. Like no man she’d ever seen. Not that she’d seen many men. But she knew they were soft around the middle, the same as she was. Thorn wasn’t. His torso was rippled with muscle under taut skin. Rather than white, it was sun-browned, and a little line of hair led straight into his waistband.
“I trust I have made my point,” he said, sitting down again. “Now I shall have a slice of strawberry tart with cream.” He cut the tart and took half for himself. He cut another quarter and put it before her. And then he poured thick cream on top of both plates.
India never ate sweets because she figured that there was about the right amount of her. Besides, Adelaide was convinced that dessert went straight to one’s breasts, and India was wary of becoming more bosomy than she already was. Speaking of which—speaking of whom?—her godmother must have gone to sleep wondering why she hadn’t returned for supper.
“Eat,” he commanded.
She ate. He poured more wine and she drank that too.
“You appeared astonished at the sight of my stomach,” he remarked, glancing at her from under his eyelashes. There was something sinful in his voice that made her feel muddled.
“If you look at the satyr’s waist from the side, very carefully, his torso is almost as rippled as yours,” India said.
Thorn burst out laughing.
“Most gentlemen’s stomachs are quite different. Lord Dibbleshire’s, for example,” she confided.
“Who the hell is that?” He had finished his tart, but he leaned forward and stole a forkful from the plate, even though it was the public dish and his fork should never have touched it.
“He’s the latest to ask me to marry him,” India said, faintly surprised to hear that her words emerged a bit slurred. She pushed away her wineglass.
“How many proposals have you received?”
“Ten. Or perhaps only nine—I think that Sir Henry Damper didn’t actually mean to ask me to marry him. He meant something else, but Adelaide appeared and he had to change what he was saying very quickly.”
Thorn’s eyebrows drew together. “How many have asked you for ‘something else’?”
“Oh, a few,” India said. “But mostly they ask me for marriage because, you see, it would be much cheaper to marry me than to hire me. I’m very expensive.” As he’d done it first, she decided to take a bite from the dish.
“Will you tell me what it was like to live on the streets?” she asked.
“I didn’t grow up on the streets,” he said, beginning to peel an apple. “I was cared for by a nice woman until I was around six years old, when my father’s solicitor took me away and placed me in an apprenticeship.”
“All right,” India said, thinking this sounded a good deal better than it could have been. “What did you learn?” She pulled her wineglass back and took another sip.
“It wasn’t a real apprenticeship. My master was an old bastard who had a group of boys and forced us to do whatever he wanted.”
Her glass froze in the air.
“Not that. We were mudlarks. Do you know what that is?”
“As I told you, I hardly know anything.”
He shook his head. “You’re an odd duck.”
“No, just an ignorant one.”
Dautry leaned forward. “Who gave me a primer on the differences between plaster, paint, and silk for walls?”
“Those things are not important.”
“How to speak correctly. In French and Greek. Knowing who famous people are, like Leonardo.” She said his name carefully. “And Cellini. You say that with a chee sound in front, but you don’t spell it that way.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t know, because mudlarks don’t have tutors. Do they?”
“Definitely not.” He began to cut the apple into precise slices.
“What does a mudlark do?”
“Scavenge things from the Thames.”
“Do you mean that you went swimming?”
“Sometimes. But mostly we waited for low tide and waded into the mud to pick up whatever we could. Sometimes we found silver spoons and coins. But most of the time it was teeth, scraps of iron, buttons. Even handkerchiefs.”