At that point he had lost his temper, after which he felt even worse because Rose burst into tears and said that her father never shouted. He didn’t doubt this was true. Will might have been stubborn, but he was always sweet-tempered.
He wasn’t. He was a prick, who’d just behaved like a prick to a little girl who didn’t deserve it.
They had ended up in a big chair as he rocked her back and forth and tried to explain himself. “The idea that you were lost in London made my gut turn cold. In fact, it’s something of a personal triumph that I didn’t curse like a sailor.”
Rose raised her tearful face from his chest and said, “It’s very ill mannered to congratulate oneself. Particularly when one is at fault.” A little pause, and she added, “Do you think that Papa was sent to heaven because he was a saint?”
“From what my solicitor discovered, the British militia doesn’t train their men well enough. One of them made a mistake, and your father died as a result.” He probably should have lied and said that Will was too good for this world. Which would have made Will roar with laughter and call him all number of names.
Once Rose was promised a governess she liked and handed back over to Mrs. Stella, Thorn went to his rubber factory, only to be told that it was impossible to produce bands of rubber large enough to hold trunks on top of a carriage. Even after three hours of trying to think their way around it, he and his manager couldn’t make it work.
Yet now, here with India at Starberry Court, he was smiling. It was a miracle.
“Show me the dining room, India,” he repeated. “I’m bloody well starving to death.”
It seemed that India was a flouncer when she was cross, given that she flounced her way into the dining room ahead of him, which allowed him to appreciate her truly fine curves from behind. That put him in an even better mood.
Enough so that he poured praise on the swallows, painted by some poor dauber who was obviously in love with India, though she never noticed him. He had figured out that the proposals she’d mentioned—of marriage and otherwise—were likely just the tip of the iceberg when it came to men in love with Lady Xenobia India St. Clair.
She should wear a warning sign on her back. Before you knew it, you’d be in too deep to recover, find yourself on your knees mumbling nonsense, too taken by the way she burned with life and passion to save yourself.
He himself might have ended up in the same bind if he hadn’t decided early on in life what type of woman he wanted to marry. Laetitia was exactly right. She would love him and their children in an uncomplicated way.
India, though, was complicated. Everything about her was complicated. There was even something about her childhood that he didn’t understand. “Where is Lady Adelaide?” he asked, remembering her supposed chaperone.
“She’s gone to London to pick out furniture. Mr. Sheraton is far too grand to send pieces here for my consideration; Adelaide has gone to coax him into giving us pieces that he has made for others.”
“Is that legal?” he asked, not really caring.
“Of course it is.” India grinned, apparently having forgotten that she was cross at him. “You’ll pay him much more than he would have received, so everyone will be happy. Well, except the original purchasers. But he’ll make them other pieces. Everything that comes from his workshop is superb. I told Adelaide that we’ll take whatever he will give us.”
She sat down and began removing the tops from serving dishes arranged down the middle of the table. “Your kitchens should be operating very soon now. The chimneys have been repointed, and there are two new stoves. I am still negotiating with the cook, but I am hopeful.”
Thorn sat down opposite her. “Did Lady Adelaide know that I was coming to see the house?”
“Yes, of course. She asked me to give you her best.”
“She felt no need to chaperone?”
“Your frank adoration of Lala has put you in the category of an elderly uncle. I think of it more as brotherly love. Given the way you greeted me with a kiss.”
He shot her an ironic look. “I have enough sisters as it is, India.”
Fred carried in yet another platter. “Berry tart, Lady Xenobia,” he said cheerfully. Clearly he and India were now the best of friends.
“Thank you, Fred,” India said. She turned to Thorn. “Did I mention that I found a marvelous butler called Fleming, who will arrive tomorrow? Three new footmen should be in residence very soon, and Fred can continue as head footman—unless you’d like to take him back to London.”
“I think I’d rather port him back and forth with me,” Thorn said. “He’s a useful fellow. Just bring the food, Fred, and we’ll serve ourselves. No, wait a moment! I want a bottle of that champagne.”
“That’s for the house party,” India protested.
“I’ll be damned if I waste all that wine on Laetitia’s mother. I’ve been to tea again since I saw you last, and the woman is a shrew.”
She said nothing, which meant she agreed. Hell. No wonder he had sensed Laetitia needed rescuing.
“Champagne,” he repeated.
“You’ll find bottles in the cellars, Fred,” India said, putting a slice of chicken on one plate, half the bird on another, and handing him the latter. “How was your day?”
Thorn didn’t feel like confessing that he’d shouted at Rose. “I spent most of it at one of my factories not far from here that manufactures galvanized rubber. We’ve been trying to create a band strong enough to hold a trunk on top of a carriage, but it won’t work.”
“Is that why you were cross when you arrived?”
“I was not cross,” he told her.
“Irritable? Moody? Gnashing your teeth?”
She was an imp, and the disturbing thing was that he’d like to kiss her into silence.
“What does ‘galvanized’ mean?” India asked.
“Galvanization is a process that stops rubber from melting.” He took a bite of chicken and forced his attention away from the swell of her lower lip.
“Why can’t you make the band work?”
“It’s too large for our machines.” Frustration leaked into his voice.
“Would you be able to make a smaller band?”
“Rubber is elastic, isn’t it? I would love a band I could put around bundles of paper and playing cards. Would it be possible to make a band large enough to put around a box, if not a trunk?”
“Unless a box is extremely well made, the top allows dust to seep inside. It would be wonderful if a band would hold a box together so that the contents didn’t become dusty. For example, I like to have shelving built in the attics of any house I work on, with boxes . . .”
A half hour later, Thorn emerged from a haze, during which he had drilled India with questions about every possible household use for a band of rubber. He looked up from the paper on which he had been jotting down possible dimensions to find that she was smiling at him, cheek propped on her hand.
He was struck by another impulse to kiss her, this time so strong that his body froze for a moment. “I’m being an idiot,” he muttered, shoving the paper into his waistcoat. He poured them both glasses of champagne from the bottle Fred had unearthed. “Let’s drink to India’s band of rubber.”