Thorn, Adelaide, and Lala, on the other hand, were engaged in a serious discussion of childhood mortality in the countryside. India found it a particularly unhappy topic, because two years ago she had spent a month with Lady Brestle, who was experiencing a difficult confinement. Alas, she’d lost the child.
India had been the one to order the coffin—a box so tiny that it was painful to think about. She removed the rough cambric the village carpenter used to line it, and replaced it with the finest azure silk she could find, because that was the color of the family’s crest.
She did not want to think about that baby. Instead, she wanted to flirt with Lord Brody under her lashes and look speculatively at his shoulders, and wonder whether he kissed the way Thorn did.
She suspected that no one kissed the way Thorn did, not with his roughness and heat . . . but if any gentleman did, she thought Vander might be that gentleman. Perhaps she would kiss him tonight, and then she would have grounds for comparison. With that thought, she gave him a smile that made him raise an eyebrow and then give her a surprisingly attractive, rather crooked, smile in return.
When dinner concluded, the ladies retired to the sitting room for tea and the men took themselves off to the library for brandy. India listened to Adelaide’s chatter for a short time, before excusing herself. She wanted to drop by the dower house, just to make certain that Rose was comfortable and happy.
In the entry she told Fleming that she’d like the pony cart in order to drive herself to the dower house for a visit. As she pulled on her gloves, Lord Brody walked out of the library.
“That was a quick brandy,” she observed.
“Thorn deserted us—characteristically rudely, without explanation—and the duke began a game of chess with himself, a pursuit that is profoundly tedious to watch. Where on earth are you going at this hour, Lady Xenobia?”
“I mean to take the pony cart for a turn around the estate.”
“Excellent! I shall join you. Fleming, my coat, if you would.”
A minute later, despite India’s protests, they were sitting side by side in the cart. She tried one final desperate appeal. “Lord Brody, I fail to see why you are accompanying me. This is not entirely proper.”
“We are in the country, not town. And no lady will venture alone into the darkness while I am here,” he said, as the groom standing at the pony’s head stood back. “Fleming didn’t like it. One must always listen to the butler; it’s the fundamental rule of polite society.”
Fleming had gently made his disapproval clear.
“Thorn wouldn’t like it either,” he added as they began to head toward the dower house.
“That is irrelevant,” she said, turning her nose up slightly. “Mr. Dautry takes advantage of our long acquaintance. I begin to think he is a bully.”
At that, Vander gave a shout of laughter. “You begin to think? Thorn gets his way. Always. He’s been that way since our first term at Eton, when he was the only one I couldn’t thrash.”
“Men are quite odd,” India said, thinking about that.
“We’ve had each other’s backs ever since,” he said, glancing down at her. “Where would you like to go, Lady Xenobia? And may I say that if you are planning to visit Miss Rose, I would like to meet Thorn’s ward. I know his secret.”
“It was my idea to house the child apart from the party,” India confessed, “but I feel terrible about the necessity.”
“If I were Thorn, I would tell the woman to go to—” He checked himself. “To keep her opinions to herself.”
“If he were to do that, he wouldn’t be able to marry Lala,” she told him. “He told me that she’s perfect for him. And he meant it.” She glanced at Vander. “Lala is not as unintelligent as most people think, and Thorn recognizes that.”
“She’s very sweet,” India went on, although it was oddly painful to admit it. “I believe they’ll have an excellent marriage.”
“Thorn pretends to be cynical, but I believe he’s infatuated,” she said. “It’s very romantic.”
“I must be losing my touch,” Vander said rather obscurely, giving her a grin that made his teeth flash in the growing dusk. “You become suspicious in the horse racing world, you know. You stop thinking that people might actually mean what they say.”
She touched his hand. “Can you take the path to the right, please? We’re almost at the dower house. If you’re referring to Thorn, it’s my impression that he wouldn’t bother lying to anyone.”
The smile in his eyes made her squirm a little, and she had the odd feeling that he knew it.
The pony cart drew up to the dower house and Vander jumped down, reins in hand. As he fastened them to the hitching post, Thorn pushed open the front door.
“We came to say good-night to Rose,” India called.
“You’re just in time,” Thorn said. “Her nursemaid is waiting upstairs to give Rose a bath.”
Vander came around the cart, and before India quite knew what was happening, his hands spanned her waist and he was swinging her to the ground.
“Come along, then,” Thorn said impatiently.
Vander looked down at her for a second longer, then his hands dropped and he and India followed Thorn inside.
Once Vander and Rose had been introduced, Vander launched into a story about a faraway land where paper dolls walked and talked like anyone else. “Their mama is called Lady Cuttenclip,” he told Rose. “She doesn’t just create dolls. She makes them cunning little hats, pelisses, shoes.”
“Ladies do not, as a matter of course, make clothing,” Rose observed. “Is everyone in this land of the same status?”
Vander looked distinctly startled. “Surely we need not be so doctrinaire? My sisters are assuredly ladies, and yet they spent hours designing gowns for their dolls.”
“Did you design clothing for paper dolls?” Rose asked, turning to India.
“No, but that was merely because I had no paints as a child. I would have enjoyed it.”
Rose looked at her thoughtfully and then turned back to Vander. “How does Lady Cuttenclip acquire paints for her dolls if the world is made of paper? Do they trade paper coins?”
“Yes, of course,” Vander said.
“I have very little interest in being a modiste,” Rose announced. “I should rather create a paper house with a nursery and a fireplace with burning logs.”
“The shelves will be full of tiny Greek texts, of course,” Thorn said, laughing.
Rose looked up at India. “Perhaps you could help, since you had no paints when you were small. If you wished, you could make a gown, but I shall make a schoolroom.”
India found herself promising to come back at teatime the following day. Vander invited himself, pointing out that since Lady Cuttenclip was his creation, they couldn’t do without him.
Rose smiled at that, and India realized that she had dimples. Two of them. She wasn’t a pretty child, per se, but those dimples . . .
“My papa used to tell me a story at night,” Rose said, turning to India again. “Mr. Dautry isn’t good at storytelling.”