Adelaide giggled, a girlish sound that India had heard only once or twice. “Mr. Dautry, I fear you are quite mistaken. I am Lady Adelaide Swift. May I introduce you to my goddaughter, Lady Xenobia?”
No sooner had surprise flashed across his face than it was gone. “I am honored, Lady Adelaide,” he said smoothly. He turned to India. “My apologies, Lady Xenobia. I assumed you were Lady Adelaide’s companion, judging you far too young to have accomplished the miracles that the Duchess of Villiers credits you with.”
His reference to her youth—welcome though it might have been—did not make up for his assumption about her status. The only thing that made her feel better was that she was almost certain that proper grammar would require “with which the duchess credits you.”
Mr. Dautry bowed to her, though with none of the flourishes that men generally produced when introduced to the daughter of a marquess. Even those who knew something about her father—that is, that he had been as daft as a chicken in the rain—paid obeisance to her title. Yet this man didn’t even bother to brush his lips over her glove.
“It is a pleasure, Mr. Dautry,” she murmured, wishing that she was wearing a gown that would bring a man to his knees. Irritatingly, that image just sent another streak of heat down her legs.
Of course, her godmother tumbled back into speech. “I could never accomplish any of darling India’s miracles, I assure you! Why, when we were at your father’s home . . .” Still talking, Adelaide trotted over to a sofa and happily accepted an offer of refreshment. India followed, watching as Mr. Dautry jerked his head at the butler, sending him off to fetch tea.
As Adelaide talked on and on, scarcely pausing for breath, Mr. Dautry’s face took on a faint air of boredom. India adored her godmother, although she sometimes found herself dazed by Adelaide’s prattle. But that was for her to feel, and no one else was allowed to exhibit the slightest hint of ennui in her godmother’s company. She gave Mr. Dautry a narrow-eyed glance that said without words that his expression was an impertinence.
He just raised a brow, not a bit abashed.
Once the butler returned with a tray, Adelaide engaged herself pouring tea—a ceremony that she took extremely seriously—and there was finally a moment of silence in the room.
“So, Lady Xenobia,” Dautry said, “my stepmother assures me that you are quite proficient at renovating houses.”
Proficient? Eleanor would never have damned her with such faint praise. Clearly, this man was not going to be as easily managed as most of her clients.
Temper was ever her failing, and sure enough a spark of it kindled at his insult. “She has informed me that you are desperate to refurbish a country house,” she replied.
Next to her, Adelaide’s brows drew together. There was nothing that Adelaide disliked more than rudeness, and India’s tone had been slightly impolite—as had Mr. Dautry’s.
He settled back in his chair and gave India the smile with which a tiger greets a gazelle. “Yes, that’s accurate. I hate to wait, you see. I am easily bored.”
He probably never waited—not for a carriage, nor for a woman, nor for anything.
“I was very pleased to hear that you are planning to marry,” Adelaide said, jumping into the charged silence. “Darling Eleanor confided that you have met an irresistible young lady.”
India was watching Dautry carefully, and she saw a flash of irony in his eyes. This man found no woman irresistible.
“I have indeed been lucky enough to meet a lady whom I hope to make mine,” he agreed. “But, of course, I must first ensure that my house provides a suitable setting for such a treasure.”
The man was impossibly arrogant. He deserved to be taken down a peg or two, if only for his condescending reference to Lala as a “treasure.”
But that was not her responsibility, India reminded herself. She merely had to be civil long enough to fulfill her promise to Eleanor. She leaned forward and gave him her “approval smile,” the one that promised she liked him, that said she thought he was marvelous. Men loved that smile.
Dautry’s mouth tightened and his gray eyes became distinctly cold. She sat back abruptly.
All right. That didn’t work.
“What would you like to have done to Starberry Court, Mr. Dautry?” she asked, pitching her voice toward crisp authority.
“I should like it to be habitable in a fortnight.”
“I assume the house is in excellent condition? A fortnight is an exceedingly short period of time.”
“I have no idea,” Mr. Dautry said, draining his teacup in one swallow.
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I sent a man around to ensure that it was structurally sound before I bought it.”
She and Adelaide stared at him.
The irritated look crossed his face again. “It’s a house,” he stated. “In the right location, with a quite large estate attached to it. I was assured that this house is just what a young lady would desire—or perhaps the better word is require. That is where you come in, Lady Xenobia.” He put down the cup. “By the way, is that truly your name? ‘Xenobia’?”
India knew perfectly well that people often thought her name extremely odd, but they rarely said so. For one thing, the name was recorded in Debrett’s. And for another, anyone who had met her father was unsurprised by her name. She considered herself fortunate that she had not been christened “Moonflower.”
“Yes, it is,” she said evenly, and immediately returned to the topic at hand. “Do you truly mean to tell me that you have no idea of the house’s condition?”
He answered her with a look. Apparently, he was not a man who chose to repeat himself.
“My dear sir,” Adelaide cried, “you can’t possibly think to have the house habitable in a fortnight. From what I’ve heard, it served as a veritable brothel in the last years of its occupancy.”
“I fail to see why Jupp’s activities, no matter how unsavory, should affect the condition of Starberry Court. There are brothels that are as elegantly appointed as ducal mansions.”
India had no doubt that the man had seen the inside of many a brothel. “Lady Rainsford is an extremely fastidious woman,” she said. “She judges her behavior above reproach and insists the same of others.”
Dautry raised an eyebrow. “I see. Are you well acquainted with her?”
“Her virtues are widely known,” India said, leaving it at that. “If you wish to marry her daughter, not a hint of ill repute can be attached to your estate. Even if the walls and furnishings are in decent repair, it will be well-nigh impossible to achieve the correct tenor in a mere fortnight.”
“Tenor?” He looked as if he was about to start laughing.
His expression sent pure irritation up India’s spine. “Given your circumstances,” she said, “your house must be not only charming, but also impeccably refined.”
He looked as if he was about to say something derisive, so she added, “Another way to put this, Mr. Dautry, is that every detail must speak to your father’s family, and not to your mother’s.”
At that, his eyes narrowed in a scary way, and Adelaide put down her teacup with a sharp click. “India, dear, there are ways to communicate one’s opinion, and I would beg you to be more respectful.” She rose, wrapping her lacy shawl around her shoulders. “Mr. Dautry, would you be kind enough to bring me to your butler so that I might powder my nose?”