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She had just greeted Lady Adelaide, who was sitting beside Lala’s mother, when the door opened again and that nice butler announced, “Lord Brody.”

The gentleman had tousled hair and piercing blue eyes underlined by dark shadows, which suggested to Lala that he’d stayed up all night. Doing something naughty, no doubt.

Like Mr. Dautry, he was not the type of man with whom Lala wanted to associate. No matter how striking he was.

Sure enough, Mr. Dautry went over and pounded him on the back by way of greeting, as men did with their friends. Lord Brody started laughing; he was probably the clever type as well. Mr. Dautry said something in that smoky voice of his, and Lord Brody replied, “horny as a peach-orchard boar,” a comment that she didn’t understand at all.

So Lala turned back to Lady Adelaide, her mother, and Lady Xenobia. It was easy to follow their conversation, because her mother never allowed an audience to go to waste. At present she was detailing her palpitations and what the doctor said about them.

Mr. Dautry’s drawing room was as elegant as that in a royal palace. Lord knows how many servants were employed on the estate: she’d seen several footmen, and one had to assume that any number of maids were about as well.

As a child, she had dreamed of living in a smallish house with a picket fence and a little kitchen garden. Like every one of her dreams, that had smashed against the rocks. Her mother—notwithstanding her objections to Mr. Dautry’s base birth—was obviously impressed by Starberry Court, and thrilled to be rubbing shoulders with the Duchess of Villiers.

Lala would have to marry Dautry and live in this perfectly frightful museum of a house, crammed with fancy furniture and servants.

Dautry was bringing his friend across the room toward them. “Lady Rainsford, Lady Xenobia, and Miss Rainsford, may I present an old friend of mine, Lord Brody? Lady Adelaide, I believe you have met this reprobate before.”

Lord Brody dropped back and made his leg, bowing to Lady Adelaide, whom he greeted like a favorite aunt. As he bowed to Lala’s mother, she became girlishly vivacious, recounting the time when they met before. “In fact, you shared a meal with my darling daughter!” she said.

Lady Xenobia showed no overt signs of being awestruck to meet a future duke, but Lord Brody was obviously intrigued by her. He bent his head to the side, as if he saw something he’d never seen before.

Lala knew why, too. Lady Xenobia was astonishingly lovely, with more hair than Lala had imagined one woman could have, all of it piled on top of her head. Plus, she’d painted her lips, and with her beauty mark, and the way her upper lip formed a perfect bow . . . She was probably the most sensual woman Lala had ever seen.

Her mother’s sharp elbow dug into her side. “Why are you staring at Lady Xenobia?” Lady Rainsford hissed. “You’re making a fool of yourself!”

Lala turned hastily back to the conversation about palpitations, only to find that they had moved on to talk of female ailments. Her mother dated all her problems to the birth of her two daughters.

Mr. Dautry, Lord Brody, and Lady Xenobia were having such a lively conversation that they kept breaking into laughter—even Mr. Dautry, who usually looked as if he never smiled, let alone laughed. After a bit, the duke and duchess joined them and all five stood about being clever, while Lala sat, hiding her bottom in a chair and thinking about how she’d like to plummet through the floor into the wine cellars.

“The blood!” her mother said, fanning herself. “You would not believe the blood!”

Lady Adelaide looked queasy; she had no children, and she probably didn’t welcome these details. Lala had heard it all before. She had already decided that if she ever gave birth, she was going to drink a gallon of laudanum and wake up the next morning.

The door opened again, and the butler entered. Lala began wondering if anyone would notice if she choked due to lack of air and died right there. Probably not. Though her mother might notice, insomuch as it would diminish her audience.

When Lala looked up again, she discovered, standing directly in front of her, the very embodiment of the man she had always wanted to marry. He wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old either. His eyes were navy blue, with wrinkles at the corners that showed he knew how to smile. He was almost bald, and she could tell with one look that he wouldn’t have a hairy chest. And he wasn’t as imposing as Mr. Dautry. He was probably only a few inches taller than she was.

The butler was introducing Dr. Hatfield and the doctor was bowing and saying that he would be most happy to treat her mother while she was in residence at Starberry. In fact, if she agreed, he would like to conduct a preliminary consultation now.

Her mother’s eyes shifted, and Lala could see that she was rethinking the seriousness of her palpitations; after all, she was sitting with Lady Adelaide, while a duke and duchess stood close by.

“My mother will not agree to see you, Dr. Hatfield,” Lala said, standing, “because she would never put her health in front of the enjoyment of others. But I must insist that you do examine her; she had palpitations all morning in the carriage.”

Lady Adelaide bounced to her feet as well, likely happy to be released from a discussion of childbirth gore. “Our health is tremendously important after we reach the change of life, don’t you think?”

Lala’s mother gave Lady Adelaide a look so disdainful that it could have frozen lemonade. Her ladyship didn’t appear to notice, and somehow all three of them, followed by the doctor, left the room and went up the stairs. Lala wasn’t quite sure why Lady Adelaide was escorting them, but she was grateful for it; her mother was always more restrained in the presence of other ladies.

Once they were in Lady Rainsford’s bedchamber, Lady Adelaide seated herself to the side while Lala stood by the bed and watched. Dr. Hatfield went through the various motions that she’d seen forty or fifty doctors do in her lifetime. He asked questions, listened to her mother’s chest, and took her pulse.

Her mother talked on and on. Dr. Hatfield had looked at Lala only once, swiftly, when her mother explained that even though it might lead to a palpitation that could prove the end of her, her maternal desire to see Lala settled in life had led to the enormous step of leaving Dr. Belview’s care for a week.

Dr. Hatfield had beautiful eyes and a long, lean face that matched his lanky body. He was perfect: masculine without being overly so. Watching, Lala tried desperately to keep her breathing slow and even, because it wasn’t panic she was feeling now. It was something else, something far more pleasurable.

When the doctor straightened, Lala held her breath. This was the point at which medical practitioners either ruined everything by announcing that Lady Rainsford wasn’t ill at all, or patted her mother’s hand and told her that she needed rest and good care, then charged two pounds and promised to return the next day to collect another payment.

She wanted him to be the first sort. But she also wanted him to be the second sort.

He did neither. Instead, he turned to Lala. “Miss Rainsford, what do you think?” he asked.

She gulped. “What do I think of my mother’s health?” No one had ever asked her that.

“I find that the most perceptive observers of the ill are family members. A daughter can understand, better than a stranger, her mother’s condition.”

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