“Eleanor goes on to say that she and the duke will be in attendance when Mr. Dautry entertains the Rainsfords in his new house,” India said. “She invites us to stay as well. I hardly think that accepting an offer of marriage from a duke’s Midas-like son, even if he was born on the wrong side of the blanket, can be termed a sacrifice.”
“You’re wrong there. Lady Rainsford is one of the most arrogant women on God’s earth, obsessed by her connection to the Court. Mark my words: she is mortified to think that one of her daughters is considering marriage to a bastard. What’s more, Eleanor wouldn’t want any child of her beloved Villiers being less than celebrated. She is ferociously loyal and protective of her husband’s motley brood.”
India folded up the letter. “But if Villiers champions the marriage—which he must be doing, given that Eleanor will host the house party—it will take place.” She was reasonably certain that the duke got everything he wanted, whether that meant marrying his bastard son to a lady or to a royal princess. He was that type of man.
“We should do it!” Adelaide exclaimed. “Lala’s so witless that she might spend her whole life dancing attendance on her mother. Eleanor needs our help. That house needs our help. But heaven help her, that girl needs our help too.
“What’s more,” she added gleefully, “the betrothal will take Lady Rainsford down a peg or two. I can’t tell you how many times she’s informed me that her family has attended royalty since the time of Henry VIII.”
“You make Lala sound addled,” India objected. “I think her reputation for witlessness must be overstated.”
“She can’t read,” Adelaide confided. “She told me herself.”
“She needn’t read once she’s married to Midas; three secretaries can read aloud to her. Though I do think her governess should have been more persistent.” India had fierce opinions about inadequate education.
“By all accounts, they tried. She still had a tutor as of last year, but she just couldn’t grasp it. That must be the real reason the Rainsfords are considering this marriage. If she cannot read, she cannot run a household.” Adelaide hesitated. “I wonder if Dautry knows that?”
There was something about this proposed marriage that India didn’t like. The mercantile nature of it was jarring.
On the other hand, her parents had married for love—disastrously. Even though her father’s estate desperately needed an influx of money in the form of a dowry, he had decided that happiness would solve everything. He had been wrong. Love was a terrible reason for marriage, in India’s estimation.
“Eleanor is requesting that we spend the next fortnight at Starberry refurbishing the house, after which they would join us,” India said.
Adelaide’s expression cleared. “An excellent idea! And it would give you time to do something with your hair before we return to London.”
India’s hair was thick and hard to handle, as well as being an unusual color, more like silver than gold. One minute Adelaide thought she should rinse it with rosemary extract, and the next with egg yolks. Or better yet, dye it yellow.
India simply instructed her maid to pin it up as best she could. In her experience, women were of the opinion that her hair could be “brightened up,” but men seemed to like it as it was. India just thought there was too much of it.
As best she could tell, she had her paternal grandmother’s bosom, and there was too much of that too. Fashionable clothing was designed for small breasts, which always caused problems with fitting gowns—but luckily, she hadn’t had reason to dress fashionably. In fact, it was the opposite.
She had to wear gowns that promoted respect, but also trust. In order to do her job, the people who hired her must feel she could be trusted with their homes, and dressing in the very latest styles often frightened them.
Consequently, she traveled with three trunks, because she never knew how she might need to present herself. Sometimes the master of a household responded best if she dressed like a duchess, with an emphasis on diamonds. (They invariably assumed that her jewels were family heirlooms, even though India had bought them herself.)
Other times she presented herself as a docile, modest young lady, who valued every word that dropped from the man’s lips. And then there were times when the seventeen-year-old scion of the house was clearly going to make a nuisance of himself. She would come to breakfast with braided hair, wearing a dress of brown homespun reminiscent of a German governess.
If she took on Starberry Court, she should probably wear something that minimized her rank. A man who wished to rise in the world and overcome his illegitimate birth would be looking for reassurance. She would have to protect Dautry’s sense of amour propre, while giving tactful instruction about the manners and style of a great house.
“All right,” she said, making up her mind. “We’ll say farewell to Lady Dibbleshire and inform Mr. Dautry that we will help him with the renovation. And with catching the woman of his dreams.”
“An excellent plan,” Adelaide said, nodding. “But India darling, I must remind you that time is passing. This house cannot be an excuse to put off a decision about marriage.”
India’s good cheer wavered. She summoned a smile. “The house won’t take long.”
“You must decide between your various suitors, my dear.” Adelaide patted her hand. “They won’t wait forever.”
“I will,” India said, the words hollow even to her own ears. “I mean to find a perfect husband, Adelaide. Just as soon as I have time.”
40, Hanover Square
India was happy to see that the Duke of Villiers’s eldest son lived in a spacious town house built of white marble, its pillars the perfect size and shape to support its portico. There was nothing she liked more than to be given carte blanche in her renovations, and from all appearances, her client had the funds to do so.
But the moment she and Adelaide entered his library and Dautry rose from behind his desk to greet them, she realized she had made a grave miscalculation.
He walked toward them with the effortless confidence of a man who is formidable in every respect, even though he wore no coat or cravat, just a white linen shirt and breeches that stretched over his thigh muscles. Stubble darkened his jaw, and his hair was neither pulled back in a neat queue nor covered by a wig.
He looked like a farm laborer.
Or a king.
India would guess that he dominated any group of men in which he found himself. Birth hierarchy would be displaced by a more primal hierarchy of maleness. He breathed a power brewed from masculinity and intelligence, not from an accident of inheritance.
Still, his bones were knit together with a fineness that spoke of his father, of the Duke of Villiers. In fact, she could see the duke in Mr. Dautry’s every lineament: in his high cheekbones, in the brutal turn of his jaw, even in the white streak that punctuated his black hair.
To her horror, India realized that all that maleness had kindled a sultry warmth in her stomach, and her pulse was thumping to a disgracefully erotic beat. She was both shocked and surprised by her body’s reaction. She was decidedly not a woman who turned weak-kneed over a man.
The feeling, however, was decidedly not mutual. Indifferent eyes flicked over her, and he turned to her godmother. “Lady Xenobia,” he said to Adelaide, bowing, “it is a pleasure to meet you.”