“ ‘Rubber band’ sounds better,” she said.
He raised his glass, quite certain that his factory would survive after this. “Twenty-six men were in danger of losing employment, but your rubber bands will prevent that.”
The champagne India had bought tasted like apples and had a powerful kick. He still preferred brandy, but this wasn’t terrible.
“Enough about rubber,” he said. He realized his eyes kept drifting over her lush breasts, and his sense of self-preservation abruptly kicked in. “What are you looking for in a husband, Lady Xenobia India St. Clair?”
“He must be kind and very calm,” she said readily to this complete non sequitur. “And I’d prefer that he do something with his life and leave me to run the household.”
“My dear,” Thorn said with a grin, “he’ll do something. I can promise you that.”
His comment didn’t seem to scandalize her in the least, perhaps because she was tipsy again. Lady Xenobia had many virtues, but an ability to handle her liquor wasn’t one of them. He poured the last of the champagne into her glass and reached over to ring the bell.
“Did you know that many men are incapable in private?” She eyed him. “Are you?”
“No.” That word came out more forcefully than necessary. Even though her talk of wilted vegetables and shortfalls—and now incapabilities—sounded like a challenge, India was almost certainly a maiden. True, Lady Adelaide was not proving to be the most assiduous of chaperones, but an innocence about India suggested she had never succumbed to the many men who sprawled at her feet.
“Marriage is not about that,” India said. “Marriage is an understanding, a contract governing behavior and, hopefully, advantageous to both sides, but the advantages to each partner must be weighed. That’s why I—” She stopped.
“Why you what?” Thorn asked.
“I was fifteen when Adelaide asked me to organize the household of a friend of hers,” she explained. “I accepted payment because my father had left me nothing but a title. Without a dowry, I was unlikely to make a good match, let alone an excellent one.”
“Therefore you earned your own dowry.”
She beamed at him, and Thorn felt a chill down his back. When India forgot to smile like a lady . . . He shook it off. “I would say that you now have enough negotiating power to marry whomever you wish.”
She was toying with her glass, her slender fingers playing with the stem as if it were an instrument. The sight made his groin tighten, and he wrenched his attention back to the subject of her ideal spouse. “The most important consideration has nothing to do with title,” he said. “Personal traits make it possible for a marriage to succeed.”
She cocked her head. “That is very wise of you.”
“I have my moments.” He grinned at her. “I’m well aware that Laetitia wouldn’t suit everyone, but she’s right for me. Have you met your perfect man yet?”
“To be honest, I’m generally too busy to give men much thought.”
To Thorn’s mind, that was one reason she had been successful. Wives instinctively realized that India posed no threat to their marriages, even as their husbands acquiesced to her every request.
She had a Cleopatra face, the kind that made men fall on their knees. He’d bet that after she gave a man the glimmering little smile she had on her lips at this very moment, he would simply give her carte blanche to do as she would with his house—precisely as he himself had.
“My husband will have to be good at kissing,” she said, her eyes pure, slumberous devilment. “I’ve been told that I’m not very good at kissing, and I will need to marry an expert.”
“India,” Thorn warned. This game they were playing was dangerous.
She wrinkled her nose at him and looked so adorable that he tossed back the rest of his champagne, letting the cold wine burn a little sanity into him.
Fred arrived with a second bottle, while India handed Thorn a slice of apple pie and took a piece of berry tart for herself. After Fred left, empty plates in hand, Thorn said, “India, you are not bad at kissing.”
“You said I was.” But there was a little smile in her eyes.
“Our second kiss wasn’t just good,” he said, “as you obviously know. It was . . .”
He couldn’t find the words.
“Are you saying that I’m not a terrible kisser?”
She drank more champagne and looked at him, wet lips shiny. “I thought perhaps you’d offer me lessons in the art, which I would refuse, of course.”
Every man has limits to his self-control. Thorn stood up, walked around the table, and drew her to her feet. “India, my kisses are appalling. Terrible. Would you offer me lessons?”
She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Practice makes perfect.” And then she giggled. Lady Xenobia India giggled.
Thorn pulled her into his arms. “You do remember that I plan to marry Laetitia?”
“Do you imagine that a kiss or two might make me want to marry you?” The pure surprise in India’s eyes gave Thorn a quick kick in the arse.
The daughter of a marquess would never look to one such as he, no matter how much she liked his kisses. For God’s sake, had he learned nothing in his years as the bastard son of a duke?
India put her arms around his neck. “We are friends, you and I. I have no true friends, because I’ve never had time for them. I never had them when I was little either, because of my parents. You are my first true friend.”
Then she kissed him. She was tipsy, and a lady, and unchaperoned. . . .
But she wasn’t a bad kisser.
She tasted like berry tart, like sparkling wine, like a woman . . . like India. She leaned into him, buried her fingers in his hair, closed her eyes, and let herself go. There was no tension in India’s body when she kissed; she fell into the act with the same passion with which she seemed to approach everything.
It was the most erotic thing he’d ever experienced. Even so, he kept a strict rein on himself. His hands slid along her arms and felt skin as smooth as satin.
He lifted up one slender arm and placed a kiss at the inner curve of her elbow. She caught her breath, so he licked her there. A small, remote voice in the back of his mind reminded him that they could only kiss.
He had never paid attention to arms before. Now he put a kiss on the delicate blue veins of her inner wrist and felt himself hardening even more, as if he could come merely from the taste of her.
When he straightened, she wound her arms around his neck and began kissing him again, her tongue retreating, setting his blood on fire, dancing forward and making his mind explode with images of what she might do with that tongue. . . .
That’s when he knew he had to stop. It was one thing to kiss India. She was unlike any other woman he’d met: curious, brave, and independent. She was a friend. But he couldn’t take it too far.
He didn’t want to ruin everything.
I am enclosing an invoice from Thomas Sheraton for several thousand pounds. He was kind enough to give you furniture that had been crafted for another customer; I knew that you would wish to repay his generosity by giving him a generous supplement, thus I added it to the invoice. Mr. Sheraton asked me to give you his sincere thanks.