Somehow, Lala found her tongue. “My mother is quite ill,” she said firmly. And that was true. When her mother got that spiraling look in her eyes and her voice rose, no one could doubt that something was genuinely wrong.
Dr. Hatfield nodded, his eyes grave, and turned back to his patient. “I shall visit you again tomorrow morning, the better to monitor your health, Lady Rainsford. I think you would do best to stay in your chamber and rest for at least two to three days. I’m afraid this visit will be far too taxing for your heart.”
Lady Adelaide jumped to her feet. “There is no reason to be concerned, Dr. Hatfield. I will be sure to keep your patient comfortable and happy. My dear Lady Rainsford, you will join the party in a few days, when you are feeling stronger.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” Lady Rainsford rarely spent time in bed. There was, Lala thought cynically, no audience in a bedchamber.
“You must think of your health above all else,” Lady Adelaide said firmly. “I shall check on you regularly throughout the day, and Dr. Hatfield will visit every morning. That nice butler Fleming can appoint a footman to wait in the corridor, so your maid will be able to ask for anything you might like.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Lady Rainsford said. “Lala can simply run down the stairs.”
“Oh, but dear Lala will be with the party,” Lady Adelaide said, smiling brightly. “I know that the last thing you would want is to prevent your darling daughter from enjoying the country.”
“I recommend absolute quiet,” the doctor said. “Peacefulness. You may ask your daughter to read to you for an hour in the afternoon if you wish, but other than that, I should like you to remain quite calm and entertain only an occasional visitor.”
Lady Rainsford laughed, and before Lala drew a breath, she said, “My daughter can’t read, so that won’t happen.”
“I shall read to you,” Lady Adelaide said swiftly, as Lala tried to blink back tears of pure humiliation.
Her mother wouldn’t reveal such a thing in front of Mr. Dautry. Would she?
Dr. Hatfield met Lala’s eyes and asked kindly, “I trust you do not have a problem with your vision, Miss Rainsford?”
She shook her head miserably. If only stupidity could be cured with spectacles, she would wear them happily.
Dr. Hatfield bent over the bed once more, hand on her mother’s wrist. “I am quite worried by the agitation of your pulse, Lady Rainsford. Those with a weak heart often overtax themselves, not realizing that their loved ones would actually prefer that they live a long and happy life.”
Lady Rainsford opened her mouth again, but this time Lala jumped in. “Mama, I must beg you to take advantage of this opportunity to rest and recover from the journey. This chamber is charming.”
Indeed, it was. A tall window stood open to the warm afternoon breeze, which carried in the fragrance of flowers. The walls were covered in a delicate patterned silk, and the rug on the floor glowed in the sunlight.
Lala had never been in such a tasteful bedchamber in her life, and she didn’t think her mother had either. Well, at least not since those lauded days when her mother had served as a lady-in-waiting to the queen. Lala happened to know that her term of service had been a mere two months, but to hear her mother tell it, she had been the queen’s most beloved companion.
“You needn’t worry about your daughter,” Lady Adelaide was saying. “I shall chaperone her fiercely, my dear, fiercely. I have done the same for Lady Xenobia, and I am proud to say that, even given Lady Xenobia’s adventuresome constitution, not a hint of scandal has ever been breathed about her.”
“Well, as to that,” Lala’s mother said, her voice sharpening, as it did when she was about to impart unpleasant news.
But Dr. Hatfield moved forward and said, “Lady Rainsford, I do not want you to stir from this bed for two days or I cannot be responsible for the consequences. Do you understand me?”
Lala saw her mother’s eyes grow large.
He bowed once again and headed for the door. Lala hurried after him, glad that she had her reticule, because she needed to pay him. And thank him, if she could think how to phrase it correctly.
In the end, it wasn’t hard to thank him, because he refused to hear it. And he refused payment as well, but merely looked at her and asked, “What happens when you try to read?”
His eyes were so sympathetic that Lala told him the truth. “Nothing happens,” she confessed. “I can see letters and numbers, just like anyone else. I simply can’t remember which ones go where. I’m too—I’m too stupid for that.” The last part came out in a whisper, even lower than she normally spoke, because she wished she didn’t have to say it. Not to a man like this.
He had taken his hat from the butler and put it on. But he looked down at her, with his serious face and those beautiful navy eyes, and said, “Miss Rainsford, I am quite certain that you are not stupid.”
That was very kind of him. If untrue. “Please don’t suggest that you can teach me to read,” she said, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Fleming had taken himself away, and they were alone in the entry. “My parents paid dearly for tutor after tutor, but I simply can’t do it.”
“No, I suspect you’ll never be able to read,” he said briskly.
Lala swallowed hard. She knew it; everyone knew it. Still, it was painful to hear, especially from him.
“You’re likely not seeing the letters in the same order as everyone else. Or you see them in a different order each time.”
“I do see them in the same order as others. I can read aloud the individual letters.” She could feel her cheeks glowing. “At any rate, Dr. Hatfield, I want to thank you again for your kind attentiveness to my mother. I know she’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
Lady Xenobia popped her head out of the drawing room and said, “Good afternoon, Dr. Hatfield! I trust Lady Rainsford is simply weary from the journey? Lala, once you have seen the doctor off, I thought you might join us. We’re starting a game of whist, and you can partner Mr. Dautry.” She disappeared again.
“Can you play?” the doctor asked.
Lala shook her head. The numbers on playing cards rattled around and slid off the cards, the same way that letters did from pages. “I’ll make an excuse.” She began to drop a curtsy, but he caught her arm.
“You needn’t curtsy to a country doctor.”
Another stupid mistake. By now, she was probably as red as a brightly painted children’s ball. “I apologize.”
“You needn’t apologize either.” His hand tightened. “You’re to partner Mr. Dautry?”
She met his eyes, knowing that her utter misery was undisguised. “Yes,” she whispered, managing a wobbly smile. She’d never had such an odd conversation in her life, but the important thing was that Dr. Hatfield wasn’t disgusted by her inability to read or play cards. By her stupidity, in other words.
She could tell from the way he looked at her. Just as she could tell that he felt sorry for her, because he had guessed she was supposed to marry Mr. Dautry, and he didn’t think they’d suit.
“I’m going on rounds this afternoon,” he said. “Would you like to accompany me?”