“Did you always win?” India asked Vander, delighted to think of the two of them as boys.
He looked at her with a warm light in his eyes that was remarkably attractive. “The only one I couldn’t beat was Thorn. And that’s because he’s an underhanded fighter—as you can imagine.”
India raised an eyebrow. “Indeed?”
Thorn rocked back on his heels, and the look in his eyes wasn’t warm but scorching, and made her think about the night before. And Feather’s exploits. “Those fellows were bound by the rules of civility,” he said, drawling the words so that he sounded exactly like his father, the duke. “I never have been.”
Vander intervened. “Lady Xenobia,” he said, “I would love to discuss sliding doors, but I see that Lady Adelaide is summoning you.”
“You look exquisite!” her godmother cried a moment later, squeezing India’s hands. She bent close and whispered, “And both those young men are completely smitten, my dear.”
“You are mistaken,” India replied, as softly. “We both know where Thorn’s affections lie, and I have barely met Lord Brody.”
Adelaide chortled. “Oh, really? What do you think they’re discussing right now?”
India glanced over her shoulder to see that Vander and Thorn were indeed talking to each other with unhappy looks on their faces. One might even say angry looks.
“You’ve set them against one another,” Adelaide said happily.
“They are probably discussing the weather,” India said firmly. “I haven’t said hello to Lala yet, and I must inquire about Lady Rainsford’s health.”
Lala and Eleanor were seated in chairs that India had arranged before the great windows looking toward the back gardens. She and Adelaide joined them, and discovered that Lala—who, in India’s experience, was almost always silent—was babbling about having accompanied Dr. Hatfield on his rounds.
“The baby,” Lala was saying, “is no bigger than a scrap.” She cradled her arm to show Eleanor the size. “But she has a tuft of red hair, and she was quite good at nursing!”
“Did Dr. Hatfield allow you to see a child being born?” Adelaide asked, scandalized.
In the normal course of events, no young lady was allowed to witness something so indecorous. Last year, however, Mrs. Carlyle had demanded that India hold her hand, and Adelaide had given in. India had found it fascinating. A bit terrifying, but fascinating.
“Certainly not! Little Martha is two weeks old,” Lala said.
Her eyes shone, and she went on to discuss the medical aspects of the mother’s confinement in a way that made India seriously rethink the commonly held presumption that Miss Laetitia Rainsford was missing a carriage wheel, if not two.
This must be what Thorn sees in Lala, she thought, losing the thread of the conversation when Lala went on to tell Adelaide and Eleanor the proper treatment for scabies. No one in society had glimpsed this side of Lala, but Thorn must understand her better than anyone.
When the dinner gong sounded, the duchess took her husband’s arm and said to Thorn, “Darling, please accompany Miss Rainsford to the table. Lord Brody, would you be kind enough to offer an arm to both Lady Xenobia and Lady Adelaide?”
Adelaide chattered all the way to the dining room; India silently held Vander’s other arm. He glanced down at her and his smile widened. Thorn, on the other hand, was obviously still cross; as he pulled out Lala’s chair, he snapped India a look that held more than a hint of fury.
Though what he had to be angry about, she didn’t know.
True, Starberry was no longer her concern, but she couldn’t help but notice how well the staff had followed her directions regarding the table setting. Lush white peonies in low baskets graced the middle of the table, and the linens—she had bought three different settings—were slate-blue Japanese silk brocade that accented the gray-green walls.
She slid her fingers from Vander’s arm as he pulled out a chair for Adelaide, and in the second before he turned back to her, Thorn appeared at her side and said, “You’re sitting beside me.”
He whisked her around the table so that she was opposite Vander. “That was extremely impolite, even for you,” India observed when he sat down between Lala and herself.
“In truth I am showing my first signs of civilized behavior,” Thorn said. “If that bodice falls off your milky way, I shall throw my napkin over you before Vander ogles you even more than he already is.”
“He is not ogling me!” India hissed.
“Bosh,” Thorn retorted. “He’s eating you alive and you’re oblivious.”
“There’s no call for you to—” India began, but then she realized that the duke, seated at her right hand, was listening with apparent interest. “Please forgive me, Your Grace,” she said, turning her shoulder to Thorn.
“I too find my son to be extremely irritating,” the duke said. “I have nothing but sympathy. Do tell me, Lady Xenobia, who painted the swallows on the walls?”
During the meal India talked primarily with the duke and also with Vander, who completely ignored the protocol that dictated one should not speak across a table. They began by talking of Italian painters, but quickly turned to the duke’s new silk top hat.
“I was hoping to cause a riot by wearing it in public,” he said in a disappointed tone. “But not even one woman fainted.”
“Am I to infer, Your Grace,” India asked, enjoying herself enormously, “that your attire regularly causes loss of consciousness?”
Eleanor clapped her hands, and it turned out that Vander had a most appealing laugh, low and husky.
“You injure me, my dear,” the duke protested. “Not long ago, John Hetherington wore a top hat and caused a riot. He was fined five hundred pounds for creating a public disturbance. I wore a similar top hat to the opera a mere six months after his, and not even a dog barked at me.”
“London is used to you being in the very forefront of fashion,” his wife said soothingly, but there was a twinkle in her eye.
“I grow old, I grow old,” the duke said, not mournfully. “Soon I shall wear flannel waistcoats and my trousers rolled, and all this elegance will be naught more than a distant memory.”
India laughed at that, as did Eleanor, both of them perfectly well aware that when the duke was laid to rest—hopefully many years from now—he would be the best-dressed corpse in all England.
“Do you own a top hat, Lord Brody?”
“I’m decidedly not in the forefront of fashion,” he said, grinning at her.
“I suppose we’re lucky that you’re even wearing a cravat,” the duke said. “The younger generation takes no pride in their appearance.”
“I’m properly dressed,” Vander protested. But anyone could tell by looking at him that he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing lace cuffs like those peeping from the duke’s velvet sleeves.
After that, the conversation wandered, from the new smallpox vaccine, to the new book of poetry called the Lyrical Ballads that the duke declared to be audacious, shocking, and ultimately tedious. The duke’s dry witticisms and Vander’s sardonic parries kept making the three of them break into laughter.