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Page 23


India stared at Thorn in horror. “That’s awful! And it could have been dangerous. Were you in danger of drowning when the tide came in?”

“Broken glass was a bigger problem. It lurks in the mud, and if you’re unlucky with your foot or your hand, it will slice you, as easily as I’m slicing this apple.”

“ ‘Slice you’?” India whispered. “Slice you?” she said, louder, because she didn’t believe in whispering, even when the word was frightening.

“Infection took a lot of the boys.” He was watching her over his glass. “There are corpses in the water, and if you went into the water with an open wound, you were likely to get infected.”

“What?” She shouted that. She didn’t mean to; it just came out of her mouth. “He made you go in the river when there were dead people in there? Did you step on them?”

“No.”

“That’s despicable!” she cried. “Despicable! How did he force you to wade into the mud?”

“He was a violent man,” Thorn said, without a trace of emotion in his voice. “Though he never hit me. I would have killed him, and he knew that.”

“You should have.”

“I would have, sooner or later. Just to make him stop shouting at us.” The memories didn’t appear to bother him much, but they had to, somewhere deep inside.

But the story explained for her why Thorn wanted to marry Lala, besides the obvious fact of her beauty. She was such a sweet girl: she would make him feel better. She would smooth over all those bad memories.

India told him that, leaning on her elbow again. “Lala is just right for you. She’s like sugar icing. She’ll make it all sweet again.”

He looked up at her, a bit squinty-eyed. “What are you talking about? Make what sweet again?”

“Life. She’s the perfect antidote to such a terrible experience.” But there was one more thing she wanted to know. “Did he feed you enough?”

The look in his eyes was sardonic, as if she were an idiot. Which she was. Whom she was?

“I hate being hungry,” she said. But really, there wasn’t much to be said about it, and she knew it as well as anyone, so she stood up, just catching the edge of the table before she lost her balance.

“And I never drink to excess,” she added.

“You’re more interesting when you do. What do you know about being hungry?”

India ignored that. “I must go to bed. The carts will begin arriving at six in the morning. I promised a twenty percent bonus for every piece I take.”

He drained his glass. “Bloody hell.”

“You’re supposed to stand up as soon as I do,” she said, letting go of the table and heading toward the door. “It’s never too late to learn, Dautry. Lala will expect you to stand in her presence.”

Then she jumped, because somehow he had got himself to the door before her. “I’m not Dautry,” he said, a big hand curling around her upper arm.

“No, you’re a bastard,” she said obligingly, and giggled. “To be honest, I never said that word aloud before I said it to you.”

He turned her around so they faced each other. Her hands naturally came up to rest on his chest.

“I’m Thorn, not ‘Mr. Dautry.’ Can you remember that?” He gave her a little shake, as if she were a poplar tree and the wind had swooped by.

“Some married couples don’t even address each other by their Christian names!”

“Thorn isn’t my given name, remember? Tobias is.”

He looked rough and dangerous, like a man who would threaten to kill an evil master and mean it. “Tobias is not the right name for you,” she said, leaning in a little bit to make her point.

The corners of his mouth quirked up. “I agree.”

“A Tobias would drink hot cocoa for breakfast and go bald. And I think he would wear flannel drawers, which I find truly abhorrent. You don’t wear flannel drawers, do you?”

His body went still again. “What do you know about men’s drawers?”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she said, stepping away from him because she was within a second of leaning forward and putting her cheek against his chest. “I know precisely the amount of fabric required to make a pair of drawers. Unless the man has a large stomach, in which case, I don’t know how much fabric is needed, and the tailor must measure. But I have to say that I don’t like the idea of flannel.”

“You’ll be glad to know that I don’t wear it.”

“That is irrelevant to me.” She added, just to make the point, “Mr. Dautry.”

“India.”

“Yes?”

“You’re mine for another two weeks. I’m Thorn at meals and in letters. Not in public.”

They would likely never eat together again after Starberry Court was finished, since she scarcely knew Lala.

“I suppose,” she agreed.

His eyes caught hers.

“All right—Thorn,” she said irritably. “Using nicknames makes me feel as if we’re siblings. Next you’ll expect a kiss goodnight.”

Something changed in his eyes, and India suddenly felt a bit more sober.

“I wouldn’t say no.” His hands slipped down her back.

“Are you offering to make me your mistress?”

He was silent for a second, then said, “No. But I am wondering if you have ever been kissed.”

“Of course I have!”

He bent his head, and his lips touched hers.

India was curious, very curious, so she stood still as the kiss happened. Then it was over.

“Well, that was nice,” she said, feeling a little trickle of disappointment. What had she expected? Kisses were kisses and nothing more. Three men had kissed her. Four, including Dautry. None of the kisses had been terribly interesting.

He pulled her closer, which set off a feeling of alarm. “I must go to my bedchamber now,” she told him.

“Did that kiss make you desire to marry me?” he inquired.

“No. Though it was very nice, of course. I think Lala will be very happy with your kisses.”

“I’m not married yet,” he pointed out. “Nor betrothed, because I wouldn’t be kissing you if I was.”

“Good,” she said promptly, and forgot she was standing in the circle of his arms, his hands warm on her back. “Do you know that I once saw Mr. Bridewell-Cooper kissing the vicar’s wife?”

“A bold choice. My guess would be that the gentleman has kissed many women who aren’t his wife.”

“Will you do the same?” For some reason, the answer mattered. Probably because Lala was such a dear, and not all that bright. Other women had to look out for her.

His expression turned dark. “Absolutely not.”

“That was just the right answer,” she said, giving him a lavish smile, her best smile. She stood on her toes and brushed her mouth over his, just as he had. “I quite like being friends with a man. It’s very interesting.” Then, because she felt tipsy and chatty, she added, “And I am glad you kissed me. It was very nice of you.”

Apparently, she’d done something wrong, because he scowled and pulled her against him. “If I’m your friend, India, I can’t leave you thinking that was a kiss.”

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