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Page 24


“Why not?” she asked, confused.

He bent his head.

This kiss was different. India felt as if she were in a dream, one in which Thorn’s eyes closed, and she glimpsed his thick, black lashes. And then his tongue slid between her lips.

She’d never dreamed that a kiss could be so intimate. His tongue was there, in her mouth, as if he were talking to her. As if they were talking to each other. Silently. It made her shiver, and he pulled her even tighter.

India decided that she really liked kissing. It was fun, she thought dimly. Very . . . very . . . something.

“Damn it,” he growled, pulling back.

“What?” she said, giving him another big smile. “I like this. It’s quite nice.”

“ ‘Nice’?”

Her smile dimmed. “Didn’t you like it?”

“India.” He stopped. “No.”

“Why not?”

His eyes were on hers, and she actually caught the precise moment he decided to be honest. “You’re not good at kissing, India. In fact, you’re downright terrible.”

Her heart thumped and her arms fell away from his neck. “Oh.” She’d have to remember not to kiss her future spouse until after he proposed.

“India—”

That’s all she let him say. He was probably going to offer her lessons, or some other absurd thing that only a man would think up. She ducked around him to leave, before realizing that her inadequacies weren’t his fault. She turned and said, “Thank you for telling me, Thorn. I’m sorry about—”

That was all she managed to say, because he reached out and pulled her toward him once again. A large hand clamped on her bottom—where no man had ever touched her!—and he growled in her ear, “I’m not done yet.”

His tongue swept into her mouth. She could actually feel his hunger deep inside her body, making her skin tingle. The hand that wasn’t holding her against him came up and gripped her hair in his fist, tugging her head back.

A little whimper broke in her throat, and without thinking she bent her head sideways and brought her own tongue out to taste him.

The moment she did that, he groaned and his arm tightened around her. That kiss . . .

That kiss did things. To her, to her body. He was surrounding her, all hardness to her softness. The feeling made her hot and restless, and she made that little sound in the back of her throat again and pressed closer to him. She didn’t know why she hadn’t liked kissing before. It was tremendously interesting. It was more than interesting. It was . . .

Thorn cursed and pulled away from her.

India stood there, feeling feverish. “I must be very drunk,” she said, pulling herself together.

He was staring at her, eyes gray-green and wild. “Damn.”

“Good night,” she said, and added, “this did not happen, Mr. Dautry.”

“ ‘Mr. Dautry’?” He growled it.

India realized that her heart was beating fast and her knees felt weak. She cleared her throat. “Right. Thorn. Not that this will happen again.” She walked out the door with admirable steadiness and got herself upstairs and into her bed.

When she woke up in the morning, she lay for a while trying to decide whether she was still a bad kisser, or whether he’d taught her something. But when she ventured down to breakfast and learned that Thorn had set off at the break of dawn without even leaving a letter, she concluded that that spoke for itself.

The truth stung. Perhaps even more sharply because she had no idea what she should have done differently. But over the years she’d learned that not everyone could be good at everything. She finally decided to put the whole subject out of her mind, into the same box as her childhood—things better left unexamined.

Just as she made that decision, Adelaide walked into the breakfast room.

“I understand that you and Mr. Dautry supped together last night,” she said, helping herself to a serving of coddled egg from the sideboard. “I suppose I ought to have chaperoned you, but this wicked cold kept me in bed all day. And in truth I don’t worry about him, since the dear man has such an infatuation with Lala. Do you know that he told me that Lala was his ideal woman, perfect for him? Lala? I am as generous as the next person . . .”

In the back of India’s mind, the sting got a little sharper. One had to suppose that Thorn had kissed Lala—how else could he have deemed her perfect?

After a struggle, India managed to control a bitter pulse of jealousy by telling herself that jealousy was unbecoming. Unladylike.

She ignored the part of her that didn’t give a damn about being a lady and just wanted Thorn to consider her kisses perfect.

Dear India,

Today I received an invoice for Aubusson carpets. Are you nailing them to the roof in lieu of slate? There isn’t enough floor space in the entire house for this number of rugs.

Thorn

P.S. I am sending this letter by one of my footmen, Fred. He’s a country boy. I told him that you are not to be alone in that house at any time. The groom will return with your reply.

Dear Thorn,

The carpets are an investment for future generations. Lala’s mother will appreciate the furnishings, even if you don’t.

India

P.S. Fred is a lovely fellow.

Dear India,

You do realize that I won’t be marrying Laetitia’s mother, don’t you?

Thorn

Dear Thorn,

Count your blessings.

India

Dear India,

I received another collection of invoices, and now I am rethinking marriage altogether. I’m not sure it’s worth it. Did we really need that much champagne? Not to mention the barrel of Colchester oysters, the knitted stockings, and the pound of Fry’s drinking chocolate?

Thorn

Dear Thorn,

Of course you must marry. Many men your age have already been inconsolable widowers, wooed, and won their second wives. You are a laggard in that respect.

India

P.S. The stockings are for your footmen (three begin next week), the oysters for Lady Rainsford (who adores oyster soup, according to Adelaide), and the chocolate for me.

Dear India,

You must be living for pleasure, considering that pound of chocolate. I think I’d prefer to remain unmarried and develop a gluttonous lust for chocolate. In bed. The oysters throw a strange light on Lala’s mother; you do know what they are good for, don’t you?

Thorn

Dear Thorn,

I have heard something of the virtues of oysters, but I believe that they need to be fresh to be efficacious in that respect. I’m surprised that you have need of such a remedy, but I shall hasten to lay in an order for regular shipments whenever you are in residence.

India

Dear India,

You injure me; truly, you do. I would display my virtues, but I’m sure that, as the virtuous woman you are, you might faint.

Or not.

Thorn

Dear Thorn,

I see enough wilted vegetables in the regular course of things.

India

Dear India,

You have thrown down the gauntlet in terms of my vegetables, and my supposed shortfall. I could have proved it to you the other night.

Thorn

Dear Mr. Dautry,

There was no other night. You were dreaming.

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair

Dear India,

I’ll be there tomorrow for another inspection of your progress.

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