Thorn turned the page upside down, just as she had. “What on earth is so fascinating? Except the size of Feather’s tool, which definitely falls in the category of an optimistic daydream.”
India filed that comment away to think about later. Who would wish for something that large to come anywhere near her most delicate parts?
“Do tell, India,” Thorn said, laughing aloud now. He turned the picture the other way.
“I was trying to see whether she was enjoying herself,” India confessed.
“See how her hands are flying out into the air like that? In my experience—which is not slight—she’s having a fine time. Screaming, I would guess.”
Another wave of heat concentrated between her legs. “ ‘Screaming’?” She didn’t know whether to be horrified or envious.
“With pleasure,” he added, turning the pages. “Feather is giving her everything she wants. Hell, look at this one.” He glanced up, his eyes alight with mischief. “She’s screaming here as well.”
India looked at the engraving for a good minute before she realized what Feather was doing with his head between the lady’s legs. And yes, the lady did seem to be experiencing an acute level of happiness. And her mouth was open, as Thorn noted.
She snapped to herself again. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s wretchedly inappropriate.”
Thorn shook his head at her. “Nothing wrong about it, India. You and I are friends.”
That stopped her on the very edge of flight. “Friends? You look at books of this nature with your friends?” Frankly, it was a scandalous notion.
“No, only with you. Come take a look at what he’s doing here. I’ve never tried it.”
“I’ll come to you, in that case.” India rapidly backed away, until she found herself stopped by the bookcase.
“I don’t want to see it!”
Thorn stopped just in front of her, trapping her with his large body, so close his shoulder rubbed against hers, and she could smell his spicy, fragrant male smell, even hear the sound of his breathing.
“I suspect you’ve had to live like a nun in order to avoid being tossed from society, haven’t you? How old are you?” He looked her up and down. “Twenty-two?”
India sighed. “Twenty-six.”
“You’ve had to wrap yourself in virtuous white for twenty-six years. No wonder you’re retiring. That’s hellish.”
His smile, she registered, was dangerous to her peace of mind. And her virtue. She cleared her throat. “I must return to work, Thorn. And this conversation did not happen.”
“You mean that nuns aren’t allowed to ogle Feather’s better parts?” Thorn grinned at her. “I like this picture; don’t you?”
India glanced down and discovered that a young lady was bouncing on top of Feather, their bodies connected only by his extraordinary . . . whatever. And they appeared to be lying on a tree limb. “No!” she exclaimed.
He closed the book and dropped it on a shelf, leaning even closer and bracing his right arm over her head. “Those pictures are exaggerations. You do know that, don’t you, India?”
She scowled at him. “The matter is irrelevant.”
“It’s not irrelevant, because you’re about to marry. During my years at Eton, I saw hordes of men starkers. I can tell you this, India: whoever you marry will not compare to Feather.”
India felt, irrationally, that she should defend her future husband. “You don’t know that,” she objected. “I’m sure that he will be . . . everything that a man should be.”
Thorn’s grin was making that hot and muddled feeling spread all over her body. “It’s really irrelevant,” she repeated crossly.
“Maybe before you decide on the man, I should take him for a dip in the horse pond and take a discreet glance. It would be awful if you went to your wedding night with images of Feather in mind, only to discover your beloved is the size of a thimble.”
“He won’t be!”
“How would you know? I would feel terrible if a book I owned corrupted you and consequently you never enjoyed your marital life.”
India gave him a little push. “Back away, if you please. I’m going to my chamber.”
“I know; you’re about to tell me again that this conversation never took place. Do you know that you’re the first female friend I’ve ever had?”
“I don’t think we’re friends,” India observed.
“In that case, what are we?”
She ducked under his arm and walked away without answering, because there was no good reply to that.
He shouted when she had almost reached the door. “India!”
“You forgot your nighttime reading!” The book hurtled through the air, and she instinctively put up her hand and caught it.
That smile again.
Early the next evening
The drawing room, Starberry Court
India, darling, I insist that you go to bed early this evening,” Adelaide said. “You look half-dead.”
India felt a pulse of pure shame. The truth was that she had stayed up far too late, absorbed in the exploits of Francis Feather. “I cannot. I have only one day left before the duke and duchess join us.”
“I am exhausted myself,” her godmother said. “I shall take supper in my room, and I recommend you do the same. When do Mr. Dautry and Rose arrive?”
“Tomorrow morning,” India said.
“That young man will have to mind his language in the next week. I’m astonished that dear Eleanor wasn’t able to do more with him. After all, he lived in their house from an early age.”
In India’s estimation, it wouldn’t matter at what age Thorn had entered the duke’s house: it would have been too late.
“Of course, he is his father’s son,” Adelaide continued. “Those eyes are his father’s, and that hair, all the rest of it.”
“But for the personality,” India pointed out. “I have always found the Duke of Villiers to be as courteous as he is witty.”
“That’s because you know Villiers only after he married. Years ago he reveled in upsetting people: imagine the scandal when he first appeared in society after bringing six illegitimate children, from five different mothers, to live under his roof.”
“I don’t believe that Mr. Dautry is emulating his father’s footsteps by strewing children across the countryside,” India said.
“I agree.” Adelaide walked out of the drawing room, heading for the stairs. “In my experience, people whose parents led irregular lives tend to be quite conservative. Just look at you, my dear.”
India followed her up, automatically checking to make sure that every speck of dust had been removed from the shining banister. “What have I to do with this? I am not the product of an irregular union.”
“Of course you are not! Your parents were married in St. Paul’s Cathedral on an absolutely beautiful day, though it did rain later in the afternoon, as I recall. But they were not, shall we say, entirely traditional in their nurturing, were they?”
As most parents didn’t send their children out into the woods to forage for mushrooms for supper, India offered no defense of them. Still, “I don’t think my parents’ eccentricities made me conventional,” she observed.