At which point Lala would move to Dautry’s London house, and everyone would be happy, she thought, pushing away a wave of panic.
She saw Mr. Dautry the moment they entered the room. He was taller than everyone else, and remarkably male, which gave her a sensation that verged on dislike. Why couldn’t he have been a mild fellow, only a little taller than herself?
Her feeling of dread grew when she glimpsed Mr. Dautry’s father, the man who might be her father-in-law someday. The duke was wearing a coat of patterned dark green, which was not extraordinary in itself except for the fact that it was lined in a misty purple silk that showed in the coattails and where his cuffs turned back.
She wanted to run from the room, but he was strolling toward her, followed by the duchess, and there was nowhere to hide. Lady Xenobia started to her feet as well, stooping to help Lady Adelaide.
Confronted by the entire party, Lala dropped into a curtsy before the duke, so deep that she almost turned her ankle, then straightened just enough to turn slightly and curtsy again before the duchess, who wore the most beautiful morning dress that Lala had ever seen. It was made of white chambray, with an overdress of pale yellow silk closely fitted across the shoulders and bosom. Her Grace certainly didn’t look like a woman who had an eight-year-old child. Her figure was exquisite.
She couldn’t make herself meet Mr. Dautry’s eyes, after she curtsied to him. Lady Xenobia was there too, so Lala just kept curtsying until she nearly curtsied to her own mother by mistake.
As they all exchanged greetings, panic started boiling up inside her, bubbling like molten chocolate in a pot. She didn’t want a father-in-law like this, one whose cold, gray eyes looked her over and obviously found her wanting.
He would be able to deduce that she couldn’t read. She knew it.
But he was standing just before her, while her mother informed the rest of the company about the horrors of their journey. So Lala took a deep breath and said, “I trust you had a pleasant journey, Your Grace?”
“Very,” he said. “I suspect this will seem odd to you, Miss Rainsford, but when one is the parent of an extremely active eight-year-old boy, nearly every carriage ride that does not include him is a joy.”
“Ah,” Lala said. She could think of nothing else to say. “Where is the boy at the moment?” she blurted out.
In the dreadful silence that followed, Lala remembered her plan. “Isn’t it awful about Napoleon taking Venice?”
“Awful is one word for it, Miss Rainsford. I was more interested to read in the Morning Post that in a mere three years the Doge had allowed the Venetian fleet to dwindle to three hundred and nine vessels. No wonder Napoleon’s fleet took the city. Did you read that particular article?”
Lala gulped. “No, I’m afraid we don’t take the Morning Post on a regular basis,” she said. “My mother is quite fond of Bell’s Weekly Messenger.”
The duke bowed his head, and another silence ensued. Then he said, “My wife is an inveterate reader of novels; there are evenings when I can scarcely persuade her to retire to bed, as she is deep in a romantic tale.”
Lala opened her mouth to say . . . to say what? “I can’t read?” “I never read?”
Luckily Lady Xenobia turned from the cluster of people surrounding Lala’s mother and cried, “Your Grace, please tell me that you are not castigating your wife for an innocent enjoyment of novels! I told you last month that if you would merely embark on the first chapter of Sicilian Romance, you would soon find yourself trembling in the middle of the night, unable to stop turning the pages.”
“If I am trembling in the night, it has nothing to do with literature,” the duke said, giving Lady Xenobia a teasing smile.
Lala blinked, but Lady Xenobia quirked up one side of her mouth and said, in a mock severe tone, “There is nothing worse than a duke who is determined to be clever.”
“I always think that parents should be seen and not heard,” Mr. Dautry said, looming up at his father’s shoulder as Lady Adelaide took Lala’s mother off to a comfortable seat. “Don’t tell me that you are telling Miss Rainsford ribald jokes. I shall disown you.”
His Grace’s cold eyes warmed when he smiled at his son. Father and son were nearly identical, except that the duke’s hair was more generously streaked with white. They had the same large bodies, and the same air of supreme control. As if each knew every muscle in his body and how to use it.
“A chip off the old duke,” Lady Xenobia said, laughing.
Mr. Dautry slung an arm around his father’s shoulders and grinned at her. “Surely you are not implying that I have achieved a level of elegance akin to dear papa’s? You astonish me, Lady Xenobia.”
Lala felt ill. How could these people be so informal with each other? She’d never seen such behavior, and certainly never imagined it happened in dukes’ families. She wouldn’t dream of putting a hand on her father’s sleeve, let alone embracing him, or addressing him in such a jocular fashion. She had never wanted to be elsewhere more desperately in her life.
“Surely you are not asking for my opinion of your coat?” Lady Xenobia asked Mr. Dautry. Her eyes were dancing, and Lala had the strong feeling that there was a private jest between them. The duke was looking from one to the other, evidently as unenlightened as she.
“I always desire the truth from women, especially beautiful ones,” Mr. Dautry said. “Though I should tell you,” he added silkily, “that I have received little disparagement.”
“I am always startled by how naïve gentlemen can be,” Lady Xenobia replied. “In fact, I quite admire your coat, Mr. Dautry. Would it be a creation of Monsieur Devoulier?”
“I forced Tobias into his workroom for a fitting at age fourteen,” the duke put in, “and now Devoulier simply sends him coats at regular intervals.”
Shoulder to shoulder, the duke and his son looked like an illustration in Gentleman’s Magazine of handsome gentlemen wearing the very latest fashions. Lala stood beside them silently, her stomach twisting, listening as best she could for a moment when she might contribute something to the conversation.
But it was impossible. The subject had changed from men’s haberdashery to a school friend of Mr. Dautry’s, a man named Wilberforce.
“Oh, Wilberforce,” Mr. Dautry said dismissively. “His bark is bigger than his willy.”
Lala wasn’t even entirely sure what a “willy” was.
Happily, Lady Xenobia said, “On that less than polite note, I shall now take Miss Rainsford to Lady Adelaide, who is very much looking forward to chatting with her. Try to behave yourself, gentlemen.”
There was nothing disappointed in the Duke of Villiers’s eyes when he looked at Lady Xenobia. Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? She was brilliant, and there was something luscious about her beauty spot, for all that Lala’s mother insisted it was vulgar.
Lala dutifully followed Lady Xenobia across the room, consumed by the feeling that this party would be even worse than the season. At balls, one didn’t have to engage in true conversation, because the next dance was always about to begin. She simply smiled prettily at her suitors, while they rattled on about whatever they wanted: willies and Doges, for example. Not dogs, doges. Whatever they were.