“I would be happy to tell you a bedtime story,” India said, holding out her hand. “I expect that Rose’s nursemaid is waiting, gentlemen, so why don’t you return to the house, and I will join you later? I worry that the other guests will find it odd that the three of us have disappeared.”
“You are not going about the grounds by yourself at night,” Thorn stated.
“I’ve been doing precisely that for weeks,” India pointed out.
Vander intervened. “I am happy to wait for you, Lady Xenobia. Thorn, your parents will be wondering where you are.”
“It would be quite improper for you to escort India,” Thorn said, folding his arms across his chest. “In fact, you shouldn’t have accompanied her here without a chaperone.”
“Yet it wouldn’t be improper for you?” Vander said, clearly irritated.
Since Thorn didn’t elaborate, India said, “Mr. Dautry and I are such old friends that we don’t concern ourselves with propriety.”
“You are feeling protective?” Vander asked Thorn.
“No one is going to compromise India under my roof,” Thorn said.
This was barked more than stated, but Vander’s eyes cleared and he gave Thorn one of those slaps on the back that men give each other. “I was wrong, earlier,” he said. “I apologize.”
“We’ll bid you good-night, gentlemen,” India said. She took Rose away, but not before she heard Vander saying that Thorn had done him the greatest favor of his life.
She smiled all the way up the stairs and through story time, a new experience for her inasmuch as that her mother had never contemplated such a thing. Taking inspiration from Vander’s paper dolls, she came up with a world of civilized rabbits. Runnebunny was a rascal bunny, hopping all over the place and stealing everyone’s cabbage. But he also had the longest ears and the blackest eyes of any rabbit in the county.
“Your story is rather babyish, but I do like Mr. Runnebunny,” Rose said sleepily. “He’s just like Mr. Dautry.”
“Hmmm,” India said, pulling up Rose’s covers. “Well, tomorrow, I’ll tell you more about Lord Parsley, and I’m sure you’ll like him just as much. He’s far more civilized, and you know that’s important in a bunny.”
“I don’t care,” Rose said, snuggling down into her covers, her doll in the crook of her arm. “Antigone and I think that it’s better that a bunny be able to steal lots of cabbage to ensure that his baby bunnies don’t go hungry.”
India lingered for a moment, thinking that she had inadvertently managed to make her story appallingly revealing. Then she kissed the sleeping child on the cheek and headed down the stairs.
Thorn drank two glasses of brandy while he waited for India. He had never felt so damned undecided. In point of fact, he was never undecided. Ever. Generally, he decided which path was best, and took it.
He knew instinctively that Lala was the woman for him. She was warm and sweet and uncomplicated. It was unfortunate that she was also a little boring, especially now that she had learned about infant mortality; Thorn was completely uninterested, but he could live with it.
Her affection would bind his family together. Moreover, her concern with infant mortality suggested that she would make every effort to nourish and raise their children in the best possible fashion.
India, on the other hand, was like a dissected map, one of those new puzzles she had bought for Rose. No piece seemed to fit with another, and half of them hinted at some unknown country, rich, deep, and undiscovered.
Even though he had deliberately invited Vander to his house party, when his friend had thanked him for introducing him to India, his eyes betraying an intensity of feeling that Thorn had only seen when Vander was at the races . . . well, then Thorn had contemplated killing him.
He was losing his mind. He took another gulp of brandy. It was probably all a matter of competition with Vander. India was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen—and she was the daughter of a marquess, intelligent, witty, and rich to boot.
Not to mention the fact that he’d never enjoyed shagging a woman more. Simply looking at her made him fall into a black well where there was nothing but her smell, her taste, the stroke of her fingers.
One should never succumb to one’s lowest instincts. Thorn had learned to curb his desires, to relegate strong emotions to a category labeled “interesting.” Lala would be his wife, whereas India was, and India would be, his friend.
It was odd, having a woman as a friend, but if she married Vander, he would see—
Before he knew it, he was out of the chair, his body taut as a bowstring. His imagination had fed him a picture of India in that blue nightdress, smiling at Vander on their wedding night. With a curse, he hurled his glass directly into the fireplace, shattering it.
“What on earth are you doing?”
He turned to find India in the doorway, looking confused. The rich smell of brandy spread through the room. In one stride he was face to face with her, and then she was in his arms. He didn’t bother with civility, not this time. He didn’t coax her lips open, but took her mouth with all the pent-up force of a man who’s just imagined the unimaginable.
His tongue conquered her mouth, claimed, possessed, made it his own. His. His.
Not Vander’s. Never Vander’s.
One arm clamped tight around her and then he was tasting her, tasting India, and her mouth was sweeter than he remembered, their kiss hotter, wetter, deeper. By the time he dragged his mouth away, he had backed her against the wall, his hips grinding into her softness, one hand bound in that gorgeous hair. His body was roaring with heat and fire, muscles taut, ready for the command to take her to bed. Hell, take her to the floor, to the sofa, even just against the wall.
Just take her.
He looked down to dazed eyes and cherry lips. Reality came crashing into his mind, and he jolted back with a curse. India swayed precariously when he let her go, so he reached out and caught her, carrying her to the sofa.
He meant to sit opposite, but somehow he ended up with her in his lap.
She hadn’t yet said a word.
“India,” he said, and hesitated.
She turned her head, her lips only a breath away from his. “What was that?” Her voice was as unsteady as her legs had been, and he thought she was trembling. Just a little, but trembling nonetheless. “We agreed there could be no repeat of last night.”
She deserved an honest answer. “Competition,” he confirmed.
There was a flash in her eyes—surely not pain? But when she spoke, her voice was steady. “Competition? Over me?”
“Competition between myself and Vander,” he said, forcing the words out.
“You are competing for me?”
She pulled back, the better to see his eyes, and Thorn was appalled to discover that he didn’t even like that small distance between them. Some part of his mind thought talking was a waste of time, and he should kiss that little indent at the base of her throat. Lick it. And lick his way down the curve of her breast.
He wanted to know if she tasted as sweet all over, every inch of her. There were parts of her that he hadn’t had time to kiss the night before.
“It’s instinctual,” he explained, pulling his mind back from the bed. “Vander is my closest friend, and one of the few people I trust in the world. I’ve measured myself against him since we were at Eton.”