“Antigone and I shall find our way back to the dower house and await you,” Thorn said gravely.
By the time she and Rose bowled their way back to the dower house, India’s hair had tumbled down her back, and her cunning Italian shoes were pinching her toes. But never mind: Rose’s cheeks were pink, and she was talking so much that India hadn’t said more than a word for the last five minutes.
India limped up to the front door and pushed it open, ushering Rose in before her. The entry led directly into a small, cozy sitting room, where they found Thorn reading a newspaper.
Rose ran to him, leaned against his knee, and told him of her last, triumphant bowl, in which the hoop had rolled all the way down the path until a tiny rock had sent it askew. He put the paper aside immediately, wrapped an arm around her, and bent his head to listen. It was such a tender scene that India’s heart caught.
Characteristically, Thorn hadn’t stood up as she entered, the way a gentleman ought. Instead, he looked her over, then drawled, “It looks as if you ran around the house three times backwards, India.”
Rose said in an urgent whisper, “Mr. Dautry, you must rise in the presence of a lady.”
“That is just what I was thinking,” India said, unpinning her little hat.
“Are you sure she’s a lady?” Thorn asked, rising. “She’s all pink in the face, and her hair is a mess. In fact, she looks a fright.” His eyes were alight with teasing laughter. “Dear me, Lady Xenobia. Please don’t tell me you’ll try to seduce Vander with that gown. You look like an old maid put by in lavender.”
“That is a most objectionable comment,” Rose exclaimed, before India could say anything. “What’s more, it’s not enough to stand up; you must also bow.”
“I generally don’t bother,” he said carelessly. “And Lady X knows it. I promise I’ll be gentlemanly around Laetitia, however.”
“Mr. Dautry hopes to marry Miss Laetitia Rainsford,” Rose told India, putting her hoop to the side. “I have been trying to give him the benefit of my advice, because my tutor was quite knowledgeable about matters of deportment and rank.”
“To my dismay, I’ve discovered that my ward could hire herself out as a governess tomorrow,” Thorn said. “Lady Xenobia, your face is as red as a tomato, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“It’s hot outside,” India said, frowning at him as she took a seat. “And before Rose feels the need to correct you again, I’ll point out that it’s quite impolite to compare a lady to a vegetable or, indeed, make her feel inadequate in any way.”
Thorn dropped into a chair. “Why should you feel inadequate merely because you are an attractive shade of red?”
Rose looked from Thorn to India. “I am going to put my hoop away in my room. I shall ask Clara to bring some lemonade, Lady Xenobia.”
“You have charge of a very interesting little person,” India said, after Rose left.
“She’s a dowager duchess in the making.” Thorn stretched out his legs and put his clasped hands behind his head. “Seriously, India, is that what you intend to wear tomorrow?”
“And if I am?”
“I thought we had agreed that you should entice Vander, otherwise known as the future duke?”
India stared at him. Somehow they’d fallen into a relationship that she’d never imagined having with a man, not ever. Perhaps it was like a brother and sister. Except . . . occasionally she glanced at him and he was so handsome that it made her shiver all over. “Do you speak to your siblings this way?”
“Do they find you as maddening as I do?”
He grinned at her, and her annoyance went up two more notches. She, who had learned to keep calm in the face of domestic chaos, was always losing her temper around him. It was infuriating.
“My siblings adore me.”
“Odd,” she said flatly.
“Let’s discuss your gown. It’s more interesting.”
“Why don’t we discuss what you will wear instead?” She looked him over, nice and slow, to make her point. “Lady Rainsford will not appreciate that woodsman look you’ve adopted.”
“I shall throw on some decent clothes tomorrow. At the last minute.” When Thorn was amused, his voice dropped and took on a rough edge that made him sound even less gentlemanly.
“Rose looks much better,” India said, changing the topic to something less provocative. “Less drawn and less frightened.”
“I force her to eat apple tart for breakfast,” Thorn said. “Though what she really likes are Gunter’s ices. Every afternoon.”
India smiled at him.
“What did I do to deserve that?” Thorn asked, looking both quizzical and completely unmoved.
“Anyone would be happy to see how well you care for your ward,” India said. “Your mother would be—” She broke off, realizing she had no idea who Thorn’s mother was or what she would like.
“Never met her,” Thorn said promptly. “She was an opera singer, and presumably not maternal by nature, given that she left me behind with Villiers—clearly not a model father.”
“What was your mother like?” he asked.
An image of the marchioness flashed through India’s mind, her hair long and free, dancing naked under the moon. What was there to say? “She was quite original.”
“From what I’ve heard, she was mad as a March hare.”
“An unkind assessment,” India said. She raised her chin defiantly.
“I investigated your background after I knew you would be around Rose,” he explained. “Before that, I had decided that anyone calling herself Lady Xenobia was obviously a crook, so I didn’t bother to inquire about your antecedents.”
“You’re not the first to have deduced that from my name,” India conceded.
“What father names his child Xenobia, instead of Margery or Blanche?”
“I’m guessing that madmen are not as parental as one might wish,” he said, leaping into the silence.
“My mother had a tendency to forget I existed,” India heard herself saying. She’d never told anyone that uncomfortable truth. It wasn’t just that people would feel sorry for her; keeping silent made it feel less real. “But she did love me,” she added. She always told herself that.
“My mother did not feel the same toward me,” Thorn said easily. “According to my father, she thought I was a pretty baby, though. I looked better in those days, or she had a temporary flash of maternal feeling.”
“She left you in a warm, safe place where you would be cared for.”
“There is that.”
He had his arms stretched across the back of the sofa, and he was so good-looking that India’s heart skipped a beat. It was stupid, but there was something wonderful about the way he had made himself into Rose’s father. He would never leave behind a child of his.
“My parents died in London,” she went on. “But I didn’t know they were there or why they had left home. They had neglected to tell me they were leaving.”
His eyes darkened. “Did you think that they had abandoned you altogether?”