“You guard your heart,” Adelaide said, reaching the top and pausing. “Don’t you, child? You talk about choosing between your various suitors as if you were choosing dining room chairs.”
“How else should I do it?” India replied, stung. “That’s what my father would have done, if he were alive and if he had been an entirely different man.” She was all too aware that had her father still been alive, she might well have been running around his estate without proper shoes to this day, unless she’d been married off to a cowherd.
“With your dowry and title, you have your choice of men. I’m merely saying that you could choose on the basis of love, if you wish.” Adelaide turned into her bedchamber, rang the bell, and sat down before the fireplace.
“That did not work well for my father and mother.” India, who had followed Adelaide into her room, bent over and kissed her on the cheek. “You do know that it was the best day of my life when you took me in, don’t you?”
Adelaide smiled, but shook her head. “It wasn’t the best day of your life, it was the worst, because your dear parents had left you. They didn’t mean to, but they left you.”
Personally, India felt that parents who’d spent their time being artists and worshipping the moon—as opposed to ensuring that their daughter had been properly fed and clothed—had left that child years before they’d run away to London and died in a carriage accident.
But she also knew that Adelaide preferred to believe that the marquess and his wife had been merely flighty. Eccentric. Different.
She kissed her godmother again and went to her own room, falling onto her bed. Unfortunately, as soon as she lay down she proved to have more than enough energy to think about the way Thorn made her feel: silly, and feminine, and weak in the knees. Which was absurd.
She rolled over on her back, biting her lip. She had to stop thinking about him. He was a man who knew what he wanted, and he wanted Lala: a girl who was lovable and uncomplicated, like sunshine. And beautiful. India wasn’t falsely humble about her own looks, but she didn’t have Lala’s perfect features and sunny blue eyes.
What’s more, India had a hard shell, built up over those lonely days while her parents had cavorted and she’d been hungry and hadn’t known what to do with herself. When there had been no cook, and no footmen, and nothing but a huge, decaying house.
She sighed and rang the bell to ask Marie to fetch her some supper. It was stupid to feel slighted by the fact that Thorn wanted to marry someone else.
It wasn’t as if she wanted him, after all.
The next morning Thorn decided to ride to Starberry Court, leaving Rose, Twink, and Clara to follow in the carriage. He was well aware that he was irritable. To begin with, the rubber band machine had broken down yesterday, a disaster that followed a morning drive with Laetitia that left him a little concerned.
She hadn’t said a word. Not a single word. She’d just sat next to him, her hands folded, as beautiful and as mute as an English rose.
India was no English rose. She was a wildflower, something brighter and uncultivated that stirred your heart with its beauty.
Tomorrow, when Laetitia arrived for the house party, she would surely have more to say for herself. Perhaps she had simply been lulled into a companionable silence by the trotting horses, or the fresh air.
As he dismounted before Starberry Court, the great front door opened and a man—clearly a butler, given his lack of gloves—emerged, two footmen at his heels.
The butler bowed. “Mr. Dautry, my name is Fleming. Lady Xenobia engaged me to serve as your butler, should I prove satisfactory.”
Thorn handed Fleming his coat and listened while the man told him that the Ladies Adelaide and Xenobia had not yet risen. After that he asked Fleming enough questions to get the lay of the house; incredibly, in all his visits he’d never managed to go above the ground floor. It seemed the family chambers were situated in one wing, and the guest rooms were in the other. “Isn’t the nursery generally on the third floor?” he asked.
“Lady Xenobia believes that modern mothers prefer a less old-fashioned arrangement,” Fleming stated. “Her ladyship converted a large sitting room in the family wing to a nursery, with a small attached chamber for the nanny.”
Thorn headed up the stairs, thinking about India’s restoration of Starberry Court. She hadn’t simply painted the walls; she had actually made decisions about how he and his new family would live their lives.
He strolled into the nursery, amused to find a large rocking chair on the hearth, flanked by a smaller rocking chair and a tiny chair obviously meant for Antigone. Rose would be delighted.
What’s more, India had lined an alcove with bookshelves and stocked them. Rose would love The Adventures of the Six Princesses of Babylon. He picked up a book of fairy tales and looked at the painting of Cinderella on the cover. Lala was prettier. Hell, India was prettier than that.
Though India wasn’t conventionally pretty. Not with her odd combination of white-gold hair and darker eyebrows. And the beauty mark just next to her lip. She looked like a sensual painting, like one of those Titians for which the painter used his mistress as the model.
Of course, Titian’s mistresses had sleepy, placid expressions, nothing like India’s. She was a pain in the arse, but something about their exchange of letters was as much fun as sparring with Vander. But subtly different—probably because she was a woman.
Back in the hallway, he opened the door to the master bedchamber. He had told India that he disliked red; naturally she had papered his walls a dark crimson. Once inside, he saw she’d had an alcove built there as well. But whereas Rose got books, he got the Cellini.
Strolling over to inspect, he realized that India had turned the sculpture in such a way that anyone lying in the bed had an unobstructed view of both figures, their mouths barely touching in a kiss, their bodies entwined.
There was a note stuck to the satyr’s shoulder.
I tried to make this room a refuge for those of passionate sensibilities. Perhaps it will inspire you to new heights.
He snorted. But he pulled the note off and tucked it in his pocket. He was keeping her letters, if only for the novelty. He had never corresponded with a woman before.
The guest rooms were on the opposite side of the house. No self-respecting person would be in bed at this hour in the morning, so Thorn decided to rouse India. It wasn’t hard to guess which bedchamber was hers; there was a faint trace of her perfume lingering outside the door.
Light filtered through the curtains, and Thorn could see that the bed was hung in translucent amber silk; he only barely made out a sleeping figure through it. Pulling back the bed curtain gave him a peculiar feeling, as if he were discovering an enchanted princess. Like one of the stories India had bought for Rose.
She was curled on her side, all that pale hair of hers spread across the pillow. Surprisingly, she looked sweet in her sleep. But still erotic: her lips were naturally ruby colored, and he could just see her beauty mark. It was a mark that made a man look harder at her lower lip, made him dream about what that mouth could do.
The funny thing was that looking down at her now made him think back to when he was a mudlark, before the Duke of Villiers had come out of nowhere and declared himself to be his father. He had never seen a woman with skin like India’s, like the inside of a flower petal.