“I wasn’t sure.” It was a relief to put it into words. “Sometimes they would leave home, but they generally told me where they were going, and they’d never been gone for three whole days.”
“You never found out what they were doing in London?”
She shook her head. “No one knows. My father was driving the curricle because we didn’t have a coachman, and he went off Blackfriars Bridge. From what they told me, he tried to rescue my mother.”
“Neither of them survived?”
She swallowed, feeling the same old lump of grief going down her throat again. “He wouldn’t have wanted to live without her.” It was stupid, stupid, stupid, to feel that her father should have wanted to live for her. Half the time he didn’t even remember she was alive.
Thorn reached out and grabbed her wrist. Then he pulled her forward, and she toppled onto his lap.
“What are you doing?”
He wound his arms around her, and India stopped thinking about her parents.
“Your father and mother should have told you they were leaving,” he said into her ear. “They should have wanted to make sure you were safe. I can see that they weren’t wonderful parents. But I am absolutely sure that they loved you.”
“How can you know?” India said, her voice cracking.
“I’ve been in the Thames a thousand times,” he said. “The water is murky at the best of times, and it would have been stirred up by the carriage and horses. A person gets turned around trying to swim in the muck, and there’s a wicked current slashing around the curve just past that bridge. Boys would dive down and never come up, and we never knew what had happened to them.”
India’s eyes were prickling, and she turned her cheek against his shoulder. “I—I think they might have been leaving home for good.”
“Why do you think that?”
“We had no money, but my mother did have some jewelry.”
“You implied once that you had been hungry as a child. They allowed you to go without food, although they had jewelry they could have sold?” His voice was incredulous.
“The set was given to my mother by her grandmother,” India explained. “She couldn’t sell it.”
“She could,” Thorn said bluntly. “She should have.”
India’s mouth wobbled. She had thought that sometimes, but it was terribly disloyal. “She planned to give them to me. Except she must have changed her mind, because they took them to London, and obviously they were going to sell them. I realized later that they must have decided to go to the Barbados. They always talked of it.”
His arms tightened around her, and he asked, “Where was Lady Adelaide during your childhood?”
“She was married and living in London. She had no idea what it was like in the country.” India used to dream that a fairy godmother would arrive, bringing beautiful gowns, or perhaps just a clutch of eggs . . . but it never happened. One day rolled into another, and when one was worrying about food and the coming winter, anxiety made the days blur together. There were whole years of her childhood that she couldn’t quite remember.
Anguish tightened in her chest. Thorn must have realized, because he dropped a kiss on her hair just as the first sob struggled out of her mouth.
“I n-never cry,” she gasped five minutes later.
“It’s all right,” he whispered, his deep voice as soothing as the caress of his hand on her back. “There are parents who make terrible decisions, India, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children. I do not believe for a moment that your parents scooped up those jewels, planning to leave you behind.”
“Father loved the idea of sailing for Barbados,” India whispered.
“They would not have left without you.”
“Why did they take the jewels? They were kept behind a loose stone in the fireplace. When Adelaide came to take me away, I went to retrieve them. And—and they were gone.”
“Perhaps they were stolen,” Thorn suggested.
“No, Father had taken their leather bag as well. It wouldn’t fit behind the brick, so it was always left in a drawer in the side table. No thief would have known that.” She drew in a ragged breath. “For some reason, they took the jewels and left before daybreak without saying goodbye. But I’m—I’m used to it now.”
Thorn didn’t believe she was. He had never known his mother, and even so, the fact that she’d abandoned him had left a sting. India’s parents sounded even more irresponsible. “They loved you, and they wouldn’t have left the country without you,” he repeated.
“How can you possibly say that with such certainty?” She was starting to sound a little cross, which he took to mean that she was coming back to herself.
He’d bet his fortune that her parents fell in love with her the moment they saw her. But love alone didn’t make people good parents. He had a shrewd sense that Vander’s mother had loved him, but you couldn’t convince Vander of it.
“Because you are who you are,” he said, smiling even though she had her cheek pressed to his shoulder and couldn’t see his face. India hadn’t the faintest idea how many people loved her, from her parents to Adelaide, to her workmen, to all those men who had asked her to marry them. . . .
“They shouldn’t have!” she snapped, sounding more like herself. “They should have woken me and told me where they were going.”
“I cannot believe I told you all that,” she said, sighing and straightening up. “I’ve never mentioned it before. It seems disloyal to their memory.”
“Given what is already known about your father, I doubt that anyone would offer praise of his parenting skills,” Thorn said dryly. “I take it the jewels were not found on their bodies or in the carriage?”
She shook her head.
“You never told your godmother? No one instituted a search for the jewelry?”
Thorn’s disbelief must have shown in his face.
“Adelaide was wracked with guilt after my parents’ death,” India said defensively. “Because she hadn’t visited in more than a decade, she had no idea about the state of our house.”
“It wouldn’t have taken much to hire a Bow Street Runner to look into the matter,” Thorn pointed out, making a mental note to do just that himself. If the Runner found nothing to report, India need never know.
“My godmother lives in a cheerful world. She works hard to keep it that way. And she deserves it, because her marriage wasn’t very happy.”
Thorn was on the verge of saying something extremely impolitic about godmothers who didn’t protect their godchildren, when India gently pushed away his arm and rose to her feet.
“I must wash my face before Rose returns.” But she turned around at the door and gave him one of her smiles, the kind that shone from her eyes. “You’re such a good friend, Thorn,” she said. “Thank you.”
She left him thinking about the ways he wasn’t a good friend.
Not at all.
Upstairs, India stared at herself in the glass. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes were swollen, and her throat felt scratchy from all that crying, but all the same . . . she felt a weight had lifted. It was stupid, but it was a relief to have told Thorn. The cold, squeezed part of her heart had eased.