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He was an East Londoner to the core, and he’d only catch a trout if he were starving. Plus, his time as a mudlark had left one indelible mark: he didn’t like rivers. Given a choice, he’d never go in one again, and certainly never dive to the bottom.

“I like fishing,” Vander objected, pulling on one of the linen shirts that Thorn’s valet had left stacked on a filigree chair.

“Good, because I’m inviting Laetitia and her parents to the country in a fortnight or so, and you can come along and fish for your supper. I have to persuade Laetitia’s mother to accept my baseborn blood, and you can be proof that I know the right sort. I only hope you’ve never met each other.”

Vander threw his drenched shirt at Thorn’s head, but it fell to the floor. Thorn was already heading out the door.

He had a factory to save.

Chapter Three

India made an excuse and did not join the Dibbleshires for tea; there was no point in risking yet another passionate declaration from his lordship. Instead, she and her godmother retired to their sitting room, where India began opening the mail Adelaide’s butler had sent over by a groom. Letter after letter implored her to cure various ills: a disorganized house, an unfashionable dining room, even (implicitly) a marriage.

But she resolutely wrote back refusals, mindful of her decision to marry. She even refused an offer from the Regent’s secretary asking if she would renovate his private chambers in Brighton. The only truly tempting letter came from the Duchess of Villiers. Eleanor was older than India, and mother of an eight-year-old boy, but despite these differences, they had struck up a close friendship. Eleanor was brilliant, well read, and witty without being cruel, and India admired and adored her.

In fact, Eleanor was everything India planned to be, once she had time to read the books she had missed as a child. Someday she would like to invite Eleanor and her other friends to a country house of her own. They would spend lazy days in the shade of a willow, talking about literature. She would understand grammar by then, and never worry about who and whom again, let alone lie and lay.

But now Eleanor was writing to ask a special favor. “Adelaide, did we meet Tobias Dautry when we stayed with the Duke of Villiers?”

Her godmother put down her teacup. “No, he was in Scotland at the time. You must have heard of Dautry. He’s the oldest of Villiers’s bastards, and by all accounts, he owns five factories and is richer than Midas.”

“Didn’t he invent a blast furnace, or something like that?”

“Yes, and sold it to a coal magnate for ten thousand pounds. I must say, I do feel sympathetic toward Villiers’s by-blows. It must be awkward to be brought up as a lord or lady, with expectations of an excellent marriage. Who would choose to marry a by-blow? Still, I hear that His Grace has given the girls outrageously large dowries.”

India knew she was cynical, but common sense told her that those girls would indeed make excellent matches.

“Dautry is different from the others,” Adelaide continued. “Rougher. I think he was living on the streets when Villiers found him, and he was already twelve years old. Eleanor never managed to civilize him.”

“Why haven’t I met him?” India asked. What with one thing and another, she had been to hundreds of social events in London in the last few years, although she had never debuted. It was her considered opinion that the queen had no more interest in meeting her than she had in meeting the queen.

“He’s a man of business. Knows his place, I expect.”

“Well, he can’t have avoided society entirely,” India said, “because Eleanor writes in this letter that he’s courting Laetitia Rainsford.”

“Really!” Adelaide’s mouth formed a perfect circle. “I wonder how he came to meet Lala? She’s so pretty that I would have thought her parents could do better. And Lady Rainsford was one of the royal ladies-in-waiting before her marriage.”

“Money,” India suggested.

“Money is not everything.”

Adelaide could say that because she had never lacked it. India, on the other hand, had grown up on an estate that had been falling to wrack and ruin. In her view, money was everything. Or nearly everything.

“Do read to me what she says?”

India looked back at the letter. “She begins by telling me that Theodore beat his father at a game of chess for the first time, which apparently made them both very happy—”

“Goodness me, the child is only eight, isn’t he?”

India nodded. “Then she writes, ‘I know how much you are in demand, but I write with the faint hope that you are free. His Grace’s eldest son, Tobias Dautry, has recently acquired a country estate just outside London called Starberry Court. It likely needs some refurbishing, although Tobias bought it with its contents intact. He is courting Miss Laetitia Rainsford and he wishes to ensure that the house is in suitable condition before he invites her parents to the country. Naturally, I told him that you were the only person I would trust in such an endeavor.’ ”

“Eleanor is not happy about the match,” Adelaide stated. “How interesting! I suspect that means that the duke is equally displeased.”

“What on earth gave you that impression?”

“If Eleanor were happy about Dautry’s courtship, she would say so. And you know how informal Eleanor is; she uses Laetitia’s full name. She doesn’t like Lala.”

“I only met her once, but I thought she was a very sweet girl.”

“She’s beautiful, but not very bright,” Adelaide said with a touch of asperity. “I suppose that explains why the duke and duchess are not in favor. Her parents must have weighed her lack of wits against his unfortunate birth. What did you say that estate he bought was called?”

“Starberry Court.”

“The Earl of Jupp’s country house!” Adelaide exclaimed. “Supposedly he draped the walls in red damask and invited fourteen Italian women to live with him. The naughty sort of Italians. He held very popular parties, by all accounts. No one ever admitted to going to one, but everyone seemed to know the details.”

One quickly lost all naïveté when investigating the antics that could disrupt a badly managed household, so India nodded, unsurprised. “Starberry Court became a bawdy house?”

“Not precisely a brothel, since the services offered were gratis,” Adelaide said. “Jupp died last November, I think it was, and everyone said that he was brought low by the French disease. I expect the furnishings are deplorable.”

“We could strip the damask in a day or two.” A little prickle of excitement went down India’s spine at the idea of tackling such a large task. Of course, there was the issue of finding a husband, but surely that could wait for a few more weeks. These days a small army of craftsmen awaited her command. She could have a house painter, a master wood carver, and a stonemason on the doorstep in a matter of days.

“You could likely make it acceptable,” Adelaide conceded. “Still, I don’t know what Dautry was thinking, buying that particular estate. Given the circumstances of his birth, why buy an estate with such a sordid reputation?”

“It was probably an excellent bargain.”

“I wonder if Lord Rainsford is feeling a pinch. His wife is both spiteful and recklessly extravagant. Perhaps Lala is being sacrificed on the altar of parental excess.”

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