India knew that by leaving the room, Adelaide hoped to bring an improper subject to a close. But Dautry returned from escorting Adelaide, walked straight back to the sofa, sat down, and said, “I gather you are trying to inform me that Miss Rainsford is above my touch?” His tone still held a hint of mockery, and the last of the simmering heat India had felt on first meeting him dissipated. This man was breathtakingly arrogant and quite dislikable.
“I think we can both agree on that point, Mr. Dautry.” Since he was setting her teeth on edge, she gave him a deliberately patronizing smile. “You have made an excellent choice, but your social deficit means that you face obstacles in winning the lady’s hand.”
He folded his arms across a chest that was far broader than it should have been. He had to be fifteen stone, and all of it muscle. “I’d be grateful to know what considerations you think make the lady such an excellent choice,” he said. “I suspect that our reasons differ.”
Dautry couldn’t have made it more obvious that he was prodding to see whether she was too missish to speak the truth aloud.
“It scarcely matters, does it?” India asked, stalling.
For his part, Thorn was reconsidering his conviction that ladies were tedious. This one, in particular, seemed to have a fiery temper that matched Vander’s. And she became even more beautiful as her color heightened and her eyes sparked with irritation.
“One might say I fell in love at first sight,” he said, quite untruthfully. “I met Miss Rainsford in Kensington Gardens and was so enchanted that I cannot imagine marrying another. But that doesn’t explain why you consider her such an excellent choice.”
She raised an eyebrow, revealing patent disbelief in his declaration of love. But he had managed to goad her into an answer. “Your birth presents an obvious and unavoidable challenge: you cannot marry just anyone. At the same time, your father is a duke, which means that your children—if you marry well—will be accepted in society by all but the most rigid sticklers.”
“Good to know,” Thorn said dryly.
“I fail to see why you are feigning naïveté,” she snapped.
“So Miss Rainsford is of birth sufficient to paper over my ‘deficit,’ as you termed it? I generally think of it as bastardy, but I know there are some ladies who do not care for the word.”
Lady Xenobia didn’t even flinch. She was dressed in a white, fluttering thing that made her look impossibly young, but it was becoming increasingly clear that, whatever her age, she had a steel backbone. No wonder Eleanor liked her.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, Lady Rainsford served as a lady-in-waiting to the queen. Yet her daughter is not pretentious in the least. Hopefully, she will not mind your disheveled appearance . . . much.”
“I gather it does bother you,” Thorn said, letting his amusement show.
The lady ignored that. “Insofar as Lord Rainsford is not well off, and you have no need for a large dowry, this is an ideal match. I suggest we meet in two days to assess the condition of Starberry Court. I would estimate that the work will take from one to two months, depending on the state of the plumbing.”
She was clearly in a temper. Her eyes had turned squinty, which paradoxically just made her more attractive. It was hard not to wonder what all that passion would be like in bed.
When Lady Xenobia had first entered the study, Thorn had noticed her figure and her mouth—no man alive would ignore that mouth. But he had been thinking of this as a cursory interview with a faux-titled charlatan who would demand a great deal of money for beautifying Starberry Court.
Now, though, he had a strong suspicion that if he checked Debrett’s, “Xenobia” would appear, likely engraved in gold.
His indifference had evaporated. Something about those furious blue eyes was giving him an erection. A very unwelcome erection, since he hadn’t bothered to put on a coat when the ladies were announced.
Damn it, there was a reason men wore coats, and his reason was getting bigger every moment. Thank God they were sitting down. He had to get his body under control before Lady Adelaide returned and he was forced to stand.
“That was a very enlightening assessment, Lady Xenobia. And I appreciate your approval of my chosen spouse.”
Her eyes flashed again, and Thorn felt an answering throb in his cock. Damn it. “But inasmuch as you are unable to refurbish my house in a fortnight,” he continued, “I am forced to reconsider.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said no.”
“You seem not to understand me. I’m sure I can find someone to smarten up the house within the next two weeks. I’m grateful for your advice, and I will certainly instruct whomever I engage to remove any trace of debauchery they may find.” He couldn’t stop himself. “Swinging chairs or a mirrored ceiling, for example.”
He had the keen sense that most young ladies would—at the very least—look curious at this glimpse into the further reaches of erotic customs. Not Lady Xenobia. Her eyes flared again, though she took a deep breath, clearly making a valiant effort to overcome her temper.
“No?” No one contradicted him. Certainly not a woman.
That lush mouth of hers pressed into a flat line and she rose. Hell. That meant he too had to stand. His prick was still trying to burst his breeches, even though he was dueling with a she-devil.
“I am withdrawing my request that you refurbish my house,” he said. “Starberry Court merely needs to be made habitable; it needn’t be transformed into a residence fit for a duke.”
Luckily, she was busy glaring at his face. “You are wrong, Mr. Dautry. If your house is not impeccably furnished and adequately staffed, Lady Rainsford will not agree to this betrothal, no matter how much money you have. What’s more, the house is not your only challenge. It will take you at least a month to acquire a wardrobe that will persuade Laetitia’s mother you are a gentleman.”
Her eyes swept over him, from hair to boots.
But she didn’t appear to notice anything untoward—other than his lack of a cravat and coat. “You should think of Starberry Court as a background that will disguise who you really are,” she continued, seeming to discard the idea that he could conceal his true status with a new coat.
A man would probably spend a lifetime teasing her just to get that heated look in response. Thorn gave her a smile that—he had been reliably told—made women weak at the knees, and therefore was practically guaranteed to make her even more furious. “Do tell me, Lady Xenobia: who exactly am I?”
Her eyes glittered. “Are you attempting to intimidate me?”
“Absolutely not. I’m merely attempting to clarify your thoughts on the subject. Because since I haven’t managed to sack you—not that I ever officially hired you—I might as well know my new employee’s opinion of me.”
She looked at him with about as much warmth as you might expect from a wild boar. That was the way it was in the peerage: they were all man-eating carnivores, to his mind. Except his father. And Eleanor. And a few others.
“First, Eleanor hired me, not you. And second, you are the bastard son of a duke,” Lady Xenobia said bluntly, showing that she had balls, to put it equally bluntly.