“Do you realize that you are the first lady who has ever said the word ‘bastard’ aloud to me?”
She looked him straight in the eye. “The word has more than one meaning.” It seemed she applied at least two of those meanings to him.
Thorn grinned. “Are all daughters of dukes like you?”
“I’m the daughter of a marquess, not a duke. And precisely what are you implying?”
He saw over her shoulder that Iffley was helping Lady Adelaide with her pelisse. “You are the first person I have employed who refused to be let go.”
“I am extremely fond of your stepmother. I promised her that I would help you, and I shall. Your parents are rightfully concerned about your prospects for a respectable marriage.”
Thorn shrugged. He was fairly sure neither Eleanor nor Villiers gave a damn who he married. “Eleanor instructed me not to inquire about your fee.”
“I never discuss such matters,” she said coolly. “My solicitor will contact yours.”
“You’re a lady, all right,” he muttered. She had probably seen the bulge in his breeches without the faintest idea what it was.
“Do come, my dear,” Lady Adelaide chirped from the doorway. “I have several more calls to make.”
“We shall meet you at Starberry Court the day after tomorrow,” Lady Xenobia said, chin in the air, as if she were Queen Elizabeth addressing Parliament. “First thing in the morning, if you please, Mr. Dautry.”
She leaned a bit closer, lowering her voice. “ ‘First thing in the morning’ in this case will signify nine o’clock, Mr. Dautry. Forgive me for the clarification, but I would guess that your evenings are quite . . . tiring.”
She had seen his erection. And that throaty voice of hers only made him stiffer.
“In the meantime,” she continued, “I would suggest that you place yourself in the hands of Monsieur Devoulier.”
“Why that tailor in particular?” Thorn drawled, thinking with some satisfaction of the various coats Devoulier had made for him over the years. He might not choose to dress like a peacock on a daily basis, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t the clothing to do so.
“He excels in making shortfalls less obvious,” she said coolly. And damned if she didn’t glance at his crotch.
How in the hell did she think his cockstand would become less obvious? And did she think that he walked about like this all day? Actually, he might do so—around her. Her folded arms were making her delectable bosom plump up like a present any man would beg to receive.
Iffley escorted the ladies out of the library, which gave Thorn time to admire Lady Xenobia’s bottom before it was concealed by her pelisse. With a sigh, he looked down at his breeches.
As the front door closed, Lady Xenobia’s actual words sank in: she had called his cockstand a “shortfall.” A shortfall? An involuntary bark of laughter erupted from his throat.
No woman—lady or otherwise—had ever complained about his tool. Lady Xenobia hadn’t even seen it in the flesh.
That was tantamount to a dare.
And he had never refused a challenge in his life.
June 18, late morning
40, Hanover Square
I regret to interrupt you, Mr. Dautry, but a child has arrived.” Iffley’s voice had a sour ring, as if he were a classical actor forced to introduce a burlesque. “By special delivery,” the butler added.
Thorn was wrestling with the design for a band of rubber, to be made at his new factory with all possible speed. He wanted it to be large enough and strong enough to secure a trunk on the top of a carriage, though he had no idea whether that was possible.
He scowled at his butler. “It’s a misdirection. Get out.” He had to do something about the band’s elasticity, as well as rubber’s tendency to melt in warm weather.
“She is accompanied by a letter addressed to you,” Iffley replied with a sniff. He was endowed with a long, thin nose that gave him the air of a well-bred greyhound, and his sniff ably conveyed both reproach and disdain.
There was only one reason a strange child would show up, unbidden, at his doorstep. Yet it couldn’t be a child of his. His father’s lamentable example had made him vigilant in that respect. “How old is this child?”
“I would be reluctant to guess at her age; my knowledge of such matters is negligible.”
The man suffered from a folie de grandeur, in Thorn’s estimation. Perhaps he would banish him to Starberry Court. “Where is she now?”
“Frederick is in charge of all deliveries,” Iffley said, extending the letter on a silver tray. “Therefore, she is at the service door, awaiting your instructions.”
Thorn’s eyes fell to the scrawled handwriting and his heart squeezed, then beat faster. “Bloody hell,” he said softly. “That bollocking arsehole.” Even touching the envelope gave him a terrible feeling in his gut, like the time he ate a pickled herring with a greenish tinge. He’d been too hungry to be put off by its peculiar taste.
“Bring the child,” he said.
Iffley left and Thorn forced himself to look at the handwriting again. But he didn’t open the letter, as if not reading it would somehow change the information he knew was inside.
Moments later, the door opened and the butler reentered, followed by one of his footmen, Frederick, who carried a little girl of perhaps three or four years. Her hands gripped Fred’s lapel so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her face was hidden behind a tangled cloud of yellowish hair, and her legs looked pitifully thin.
Thorn took a deep breath and came from behind his desk. “Well. What is your name?”
Instead of an answer, a stifled whimper broke from the girl’s mouth. The sound was infused with terror, and Thorn’s chest tightened. He couldn’t bear frightened children.
“Here, open this and read it aloud.” He handed the letter to his butler, then plucked the child from the footman’s arms. “Fred, you may return to the entry. Thank you.”
The little girl looked at him for a second; he had an impression of gray eyes and a thin face before she buried her head in his chest. Her bony little back curved against his arm.
“Hell,” he said, walking over to a sofa and sitting down, only belatedly remembering that one shouldn’t curse in front of children. “What’s your name?”
She didn’t answer; he felt, more than heard, a sob shake her body.
Iffley cleared his throat. “Shall I summon the housekeeper?”
“Just read the letter to me.” Thorn curved his arms around the child so that she sat within a nest, tight against his chest. That had generally soothed his sisters, back in the first days after they’d been rescued by their father and would wake up terrified night after night.
He too had been scared by the huge mansion and the odd, eccentric duke who had appeared out of nowhere, scooped him and five other children off the streets, and declared his paternity. After which His Grace had looked down his big nose and announced that his name was Tobias. It was a name he’d never heard before, and he still didn’t like it.
Once Thorn turned out to be the eldest of the Duke of Villiers’s rescued bastards, he rarely sat down without having a child, if not two, hanging on him, and the sensation of holding a small body on his lap came back immediately. He stroked the child’s back and looked up to find Iffley staring at him, jaw slack. “Read the damned letter, Iffley.”