He made her feel warm and safe for the first time in years. Years and years.
Rose was back in the sitting room by the time India returned. “I must leave you both,” India said. “Fleming will wish to consult with me before the duke and duchess arrive tomorrow.”
Rose looked a little disappointed, but she hopped to her feet and dropped a curtsy. India knelt down in front of her. “You do understand why you must stay in this little house, don’t you?”
“It would be disadvantageous for Mr. Dautry’s plans to marry Miss Rainsford if her mother believed I was a child born out of wedlock. So I shall stay out of sight.”
“You’re very gracious,” India said, putting a hand lightly on Rose’s head.
“I met Miss Rainsford,” Rose said.
“She is a charming young woman,” India replied.
“She told me that she doesn’t care to read.”
India paused, then rallied. “Then you can read to her, just as you read to Antigone. I think you’ll be comfortable here. I shall stop by every day and see if there’s something I can bring you and Antigone.”
“Mr. Twink and I are working on English grammar, because he says it’s important to learn that before turning to Greek,” Rose reported.
India felt a little pulse of jealousy, which was entirely absurd.
She glanced over Rose’s head. “Thorn, will you return to the house before supper?”
He shook his head. “I’ll stay with Rose as long as I can, if only to make sure that Twink doesn’t drown her in past participles.”
India had no idea what those were, so she merely nodded.
“Don’t forget to hunt out a better gown for tomorrow, India,” he ordered.
She rolled her eyes.
“I think Lady Xenobia looks quite nice,” Rose said.
“She looks like a nice nun,” Thorn said. “She needs to go a different direction in order to catch Vander.”
“Why do you sometimes call each other India and Thorn, and other times, Lady Xenobia and Mr. Dautry?” Rose demanded. “It isn’t proper.”
“We’re quite good friends,” Thorn said easily. “The best of friends, in truth.”
India felt a wobbly smile on her mouth. He was right, of course. She had no other friend like him in the world.
“ ‘Informality is the vice of the masses,’ ” Rose announced.
“Hell’s bells, who told you that?” Thorn asked.
“My former tutor, Mr. Pancras,” Rose said.
Thorn snorted. “That man is quickly becoming my worst enemy.”
“If people call me Rose, and you Thorn, then we are Rose and Thorn.” The child curled her lip in disdain. “I prefer Mr. Dautry. It’s far more dignified.”
India smiled at her. “I like Rose and Thorn.”
“I do not agree,” Rose replied, quite politely. “But I realize that I am too young to be heard on the subject.”
At that, Thorn burst out laughing, and India slipped out of the house while he was tickling his ward.
Late that afternoon, India finished the final preparations for the arrival of the guests. The Duke and Duchess of Villiers were due to arrive in the morning, with Lord Brody, Lady Rainsford, and Laetitia following in the afternoon or early evening. It seemed that Lord Rainsford would not come at all; Adelaide had discreetly confirmed that the lord and lady were only rarely to be found under the same roof.
All chambers were aired and ready; flowers would be placed in each room first thing in the morning. Between India, Fleming, and the housekeeper, they had planned the week like a military operation.
“The duchess will serve as Mr. Dautry’s hostess,” India reminded Fleming, checking through a list of wines that would be offered.
“Yes, my lady,” the butler said.
“I suppose there will be any number of crises, and you may come to me if you must. But please make sure that the other guests don’t know, Fleming.”
“Absolutely not, my lady. Lady Adelaide will take supper in her room again tonight,” Fleming informed her.
India’s exhaustion fell away. That meant she and Thorn would dine alone, without a chaperone. Adelaide’s conclusion that the two of them needed no chaperoning was erroneous, but India had not objected.
Beginning tomorrow, there would be no more kissing—or, for that matter, weeping—in Thorn’s arms. Once Lala entered the house, India would revert to being merely a family friend.
But for tonight . . . a prickling excitement rushed over her. Thinking about the moment when Thorn had caught her up and taken her mouth without even asking sent a wash of heat down her legs.
Neither of them was betrothed. Yet. Tonight, no matter how improper, they could still kiss. She started up the stairs with unbecoming haste and forced herself to slow down. When Marie arrived, she requested a bath. She stayed in the bath a good ten minutes longer than she wished, because the only thing she really wanted was to rush downstairs and find Thorn.
To talk to him.
Or, perhaps, not to talk.
By all rights, she should wear a simple gown to supper and save her more seductive clothing for the arrival of Lord Brody. But instead, she put on her most becoming gown. It was the color of the pearly inside of a seashell, with a low drawstring bodice and a light overskirt of loosely woven linen that pulled away in front.
She felt naughty in it. Not prudish or old-maidish.
Marie helped her put on a pair of slippers whose heels would put her head just at Thorn’s shoulder. At last India descended, telling herself that she would allow a single kiss. Or maybe two kisses. But no more.
Fleming stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Lady Xenobia,” he said, bowing. “Mr. Dautry is waiting for you just outside.” He pushed the front door open for her.
Of course. They would eat in the dower house with Rose. There would be no kisses. It was silly that India felt such a crushing sense of disappointment.
Thorn was leaning against the stone lion at the edge of the drive, waiting for her. “Rose is surrounded by paper dolls,” he said once she joined him. “I have been informed that my presence is neither required nor particularly desired.”
“I thought we would dine with her,” India said.
He took her arm, and they began walking not toward the dower house but in the other direction altogether, away from the house and down the hill. “Clara has a dab hand with a pair of scissors, and Rose is happy,” he said. “I thought that perhaps in all your frenzied attention to Starberry Court you missed the fishing hole.”
“I do not care for fishing,” India said, “particularly not when I’m wearing one of my favorite gowns.”
“We shan’t actually fish,” Thorn said, looking surprised. “I don’t even own a pole.”
“And this is most improper,” India added.
“I thought we put that nonsense away, at least between ourselves.”
“You don’t understand. The house is full of servants now. We could truly be compromised if anyone saw us by ourselves at dusk.”
He kept walking, drawing her forward. “Who would see us?”
“Any of the servants—and gossip of that nature would spread like fire through London. My reputation would be ruined. In fact, we must return to the house immediately.”