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He didn’t think her clothing was feminine enough. Not sensual enough, with all his talk of generals and the like. A deeply feminine part of her wanted to prove him wrong. The bodice of her muslin gown was pleated and caught up just under her breasts, and constructed in such a way that every pleat made a statement about her best assets. She wore slippers made in Italy with pointed toes and slender heels. And she carried a blue reticule sewn with metallic threads.

“Do you think I should wear some lip salve?” she asked Marie.

He maid looked up, startled. “You?”

“Yes, me.”

“Why? You are beautiful.”

Marie genuinely believed that every man in the vicinity would fall in love with her mistress. India opened up one pot of salve after another, until she found her favorite shade of peony pink.

“I see no need for lip salve in the morning,” Marie stated.

What she didn’t understand was that most men wanted a woman like Lala: a woman who didn’t say much—and what she said was uttered in a whisper.

India never whispered. She considered whispering girlish. The truth was that she was more likely to yell, at least around Thorn.

Plus, she had a straight nose, instead of an adorable little tip-tilted one. Her hair was too thick and wouldn’t stay up properly. And her lips were too big, though she had the idea that applying pale pink color helped with that problem.

She knew they were too big because she’d been called “fish-lips,” back when she was a child trading mushrooms at Mr. Sweatham’s shop. She would bring him a box of mushrooms from the forest, and he would give her flour and bacon in trade. He always gave her more than the mushrooms were worth, but her pride was never as big as her stomach was empty.

She could still hear that derisive hiss in Sweatham’s son’s voice when he would say, “There’s Lady Fish-lips!” or even worse, “Charity Fish-lips!”

The memory was a steadying influence. Her immediate goal was to see Lala betrothed to Thorn.

After that, she would find just the right husband.

Chapter Twenty-one

By the time the carriage drove up to Starberry Court, Lala was ready to throw herself in front of the horses. Her mother had been suffering from heart palpitations for three days, until she had declared the previous day that she simply could not make the trip to Starberry Court.

It wasn’t until Lala’s father said that he could no longer afford to feed his family that Lady Rainsford gave in. His lordship was probably exaggerating, but he made his point.

Today her mother spent the entire trip from London pointing out that if Lala ate less, her father wouldn’t be so concerned about feeding the family. Never mind the fact that Lady Rainsford couldn’t seem to stop buying bonnets and shoes and even new gowns. And it was the mistress of the house who insisted they have three courses at every meal, as in other fashionable households. And it was Lady Rainsford who retained a doctor to visit the house every single day, the better to listen to her heart.

“I cannot believe that Dr. Belview refused, utterly refused, to accompany us,” she said fretfully as the carriage turned down a long drive that Lala thought must lead to Starberry Court. “He is appalling disloyal! I am strongly considering reminding him of his Hippocritical Oath or whatever that is called.”

Lala sat next to the window, biting her tongue. The line of trees opened up, and Starberry Court came into view. She gasped.

Her mother didn’t notice, since she was busy patting her forehead with an infusion of lavender, which someone had told her was efficacious for headaches.

The house was huge, with imposing wings stretching to the left and right. Two carriages were drawn up on the gravel circle, and a number of footmen milled about in front of the door.

Panic gripped Lala. She could not do this. She simply could not do this. This was not the simple country house she had expected from Mr. Dautry, who didn’t always wear a waistcoat when he walked in the park.

This really was the estate of an earl or a duke. The mistress of this house . . . The mistress of this house would need to be not merely smart, but brilliant. Accomplished. She would have to be able to read.

Her mother finally glanced out the window. “It’s like a bandage,” she said, making even less sense than usual.

Their carriage was slowing.

“A bandage covering a suppurating wound, the wound of bastardy,” Lady Rainsford clarified.

Lala’s heart sank. “Mama, Mr. Dautry is a perfectly respectable businessman. It is not his fault that the duke was not married to his mother. You mustn’t speak in this way before him.”

Lady Rainsford straightened. “Your father threatened me last night.”

“What?”

“He threatened me. He said that if you don’t marry the bastard, he will not pay for another season.” Her voice trembled. “Even though it goes against every part of my nature, I will abandon my daughter to . . . to the filthy lucre of ill-gotten gains.” Her hands were pulling at her lace handkerchief again.

Lala’s hands itched to slap her parent. The impulse was so wrong that she hardly knew what to do with it. “Mama,” she said, taking a deep breath, “I beg you to calm yourself.”

The carriage had stopped now, and any second their groom would open the door. He would find her mother with a wild tinge to her eyes, pulling, pulling at her handkerchief. Lala dropped onto her knees on the carriage floor, her hands over her mother’s restless ones. “Mama, you want me to be happy, don’t you?”

That got her attention. “Of course I do!”

“I want to marry someone and not have to go through another season,” Lala said, whispering it. “I truly do, Mama.”

In the nick of time, sanity poured back into Lady Rainsford’s eyes, and Lala awkwardly retook her seat just as the door opened.

“Why, you shall have him, dearest,” her mother said, sounding almost like a normal woman.

Lala swallowed hard and climbed down from the carriage. Whoever had traveled in the other two carriages had already been escorted into the house. The butler approached and introduced himself, bowing as they shook out their skirts. Lala liked him immediately, just from the way he took their measure with a practiced glance and at once paid her mother lavish attention.

By the time they entered the house, her mother was confiding all the details of her palpitations, and Fleming was reassuring her that the village doctor would be more than happy to pay a call every day.

“He is not an untried practitioner,” he was saying now, as a footman took their pelisses. “Dr. Hatfield is well known and respected in these parts, but also in London. One of the youngest members of the Royal College of Physicians, as I understand it. I’ll take the precaution of sending a message asking him to pay you a visit this afternoon, Lady Rainsford, so that we can make absolutely certain that the arduous nature of the carriage ride caused no problems.”

Lala felt as if a ten-stone weight had lifted from the back of her neck. Fleming opened the drawing room door and ushered in her mother as tenderly as if she were a day-old chick. It was a measure of what a bad daughter Lala was that the only thing going through her mind, other than gratitude, was a bleak guess that if she married Dautry, her mother would probably move to this house in order to bask daily in Fleming’s gentle ministrations.

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