But she dared not utter any of the things she’d like to say, which included pointing out that no one considered her more than a pretty face, if not a dunce. And that her father was weary and gaunt with anxiety about money. And that he needed Lala to marry quickly, and not cost him another season.
Frankly, her mother should have been kissing Mr. Dautry’s feet. It was a miracle she’d met Mr. Dautry, given that he hadn’t attended the usual events of the season. He’d never seen her stumbling along in a conversation, trying to find the right words, trying to come up with something witty or even merely fitting, and failing. She would try to say something, and her face would begin to feel tight and she could feel color creeping up her neck.
But Mr. Dautry didn’t seem to expect her to be clever, which made it all easier. He was so interesting that she found herself actually paying attention to what he said.
He wasn’t a man she would have selected if she’d been given a choice. She liked men who were far less aggressive and masculine. For almost two years before she’d debuted, she had been infatuated with their vicar, who had a slender, intelligent face and no hair on his head at all. She attended church so regularly that her mother started calling her Goody Two-shoes.
“Dautry is rich,” her mother said fretfully. “But who would have thought that I, I, would have to sell my daughter in the open marketplace to a bastard with a purse of gold? My exquisite daughters should have been snatched up by the highest in the land the moment they debuted.”
“Mariah had four excellent offers,” Lala reminded her, ringing the bell to summon footmen to collect the trunk.
Her mother’s clayey face cracked into a smile at the memory. “Yes, Mariah is a true beauty. What a wonderful season she had! Everyone was whispering about her, casting wagers about who she would accept . . .”
Lala didn’t know why there had been any speculation: her father had simply accepted the largest offer for Mariah’s hand. Unfortunately, he didn’t think that any of the men who had proposed to Lala had offered adequate recompense for her beauty. Instead, he held out for a better offer—and then the season was over.
The very thought of having to endure another season made her heart pound. If Mr. Dautry didn’t marry her, she’d have to go through all of it again, knowing everyone was whispering about her, not because she was beautiful but because they thought she was a simpleton.
She had even overheard some girls giggling and calling her “a spoony Sally.” She hadn’t entirely understood what they’d meant—who was Sally?—but it was obviously no compliment.
Abigail opened the bedchamber door and stood back, letting the footmen fetch Lady Rainsford’s trunk. It would be sent on immediately, allowing the gowns to be aired and re-ironed before they followed tomorrow afternoon.
“I just wish you would be a little more vivacious, Lala,” her mother went on, taking no notice of the men’s presence. Lady Rainsford was not one to notice servants unless she wanted them to do something for her. “Though to be fair, it’s hardly your fault that you’re daft, but you could do something about your hips.”
Lala clenched her teeth and willed herself not to cry. It would be ridiculous to get teary simply because two footmen were watching.
“It gives you such a lubberly air,” her mother went on relentlessly. “I swear it would be easy. If you would just stop eating for a couple of weeks, you could have the same slim figure as your sister. We wouldn’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel like this, lowering ourselves to visit the house of a by-blow.”
“The Duke of Villiers will attend the party, Mother,” Lala said, adding with some desperation, “and I’m certain that he will be greatly offended if you allow your feelings about his son to be evident.”
“No one can say that I’m not the soul of tact,” her mother said, with a blithe disregard for the truth. “Abigail, I’ll thank you to shut the door after the footmen. There’s a draft coming in that will likely go to my lungs and finish me off before I manage to get my last daughter off my hands.”
She swung her legs from her bed and pointed to her silk wrapper. Lala draped it around her mother’s bony shoulders.
“I should like a tisane, brewed with a touch of honey. Meanwhile, it is time for you to take a brisk walk around the park. Three times a day, remember, and you haven’t even been out of doors today. It’s already ten in the morning. Laziness is the downfall of your figure.”
Lala had been dancing attendance on her mother since daybreak, but she bit back a comment. There was no point. No point.
She kept repeating that to herself until she was out the door and heading to Kensington Gardens.
I need a bonnet,” India told her maid, Marie, after Fleming conveyed Rose’s wish that she pay a visit to the dower house. She never went out of doors with a bare head; it was one of the rules she had read in a book about being a lady. In the absence of maternal advice, she had practically memorized the book at an early age.
A short time later, she was walking down a gravel path, cursing herself for having chosen such an elegant—and thus tiny—hat. The warm breeze was already teasing her hair out of its place; she could feel tendrils around her neck. And with her hair, that meant the whole thing would fall apart by the time she reached the dower house.
She was about halfway to her destination when she encountered Thorn and Rose, strolling hand in hand on the path. Thorn held a child’s hoop in his other hand.
“Lady Xenobia,” he said, quite as if he hadn’t been sitting on her bed a mere hour ago. “It’s a pleasure to see you.”
Rose curtsied and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Lady Xenobia.”
India wrenched her eyes away from Thorn’s face—he was the sort of man who commanded all one’s attention—and looked down at the child. Of course, she was still wearing mourning black.
But this time India saw no resemblance to Thorn. Instead, she saw grief lingering in Rose’s eyes. She knelt down and said, “Good morning. How is your friend Antigone this morning?”
“She is not a friend,” the child replied with dignity. “She is my doll, but I pretend that she is my ward.”
“I gather that Antigone has lost her mama and her papa,” India said. “I’m sorry. She looks very elegant in her beautiful pelisse, although perhaps a little sad.”
“She hasn’t had a mama for a long time,” Rose said. “But she is lucky to have me. That makes her lucky, lucky as a lark.”
“My mother and father died as well,” India said, responding less to Rose’s reply than to the emotion in her eyes. “I still miss them. It does get better, though it never really goes away.”
Rose’s lips pressed together in a way that India recognized: she, too, had realized quite young that crying didn’t help.
“I see that Mr. Dautry is carrying a hoop,” India said. “Are you very good at rolling it?”
“No,” Rose replied. “I do not have the control to make it stay up. I told Mr. Dautry this, but he bought it anyway.”
“I am quite adept with a hoop,” India said, straightening up. “Shall we try together? We can leave Antigone with Mr. Dautry. Do you have the dowel? Excellent! Now we must find a nice flat bit of path, because even the faintest bump will send it spinning off into the grass.”