She truly appreciated his clarity and decisiveness, because she always found herself confused when people engaged in clever conversation. Society conversation.

She hated society.

“Lala!” She turned to find her mother standing in the drawing room doorway, clutching a handkerchief, looking the very personification of self-sacrifice. “Is that what you mean to wear?”

“Yes, I am wearing this gown,” Lala replied, clasping her hands behind her back tightly so that her mother couldn’t see that they were shaking. “I’m afraid there isn’t time to change it now, Mama. Mr. Dautry will be here any moment.”

“I suppose that is the best you can do,” Lady Rainsford said, eyeing Lala’s hips. “He must not mind overly about your shape, as he has accepted our invitation to tea.”

“I am of the impression that he does not dislike my form,” Lala said, finding her voice. Her aunt had told her that she had been dubbed the most beautiful debutante of the season, but her mother never said a word about that; she was obsessed with the overly generous shape of Lala’s hips. “My figure is not terrible, Mama.” Where did that come from? She never stood up to her mother.

Surprisingly, Lady Rainsford didn’t burst into an angry retort. Instead, she strolled into the room, sat down, and said, “The man’s a bastard. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lala swallowed and said, “Mama, Mr. Dautry is no beggar; he is extremely wealthy.”

“Daughter! A lady never speaks of money in such a direct and vulgar manner.” Her mother raised a melodramatic hand to her brow, like a bad actor in a penny drama.

As Lala saw it, given that ladies such as her mother took great pleasure in spending money, the subject could not be outlawed. “Julia heard from a friend that he recently bought a country estate because he is planning to marry.”

Her mother straightened. “Which estate?”

“Starberry Court.”

Lady Rainsford sank back onto the sofa again, brow creased in a way that would give her palpitations if she caught sight of it in the mirror. “That’s the Earl of Jupp’s estate—before the line died out, of course. Dautry probably bought it for a song.”

“Twenty thousand pounds,” Lala said, telling the first huge lie of her life. She had made up the biggest sum she could imagine.

“Well, I suppose his money balances his blood,” her mother said, showing no reaction to the sum, though Lala knew she had to be impressed. “Sit down, if you please. You drive me to distraction the way you’re looming about. You must remember, dear, that your bottom is better hidden than revealed in the open air.”

“I understand you dislike talk of money, Mama, but I also know that Father is feeling very strained by lack of funds and would prefer not to pay for another season.”

“Oh, your father,” Lady Rainsford said, allowing her head to droop like an unwatered tulip. “When has the man not fussed about this or that? My ill health is due to his constant laments.”

“Mr. Dautry won’t care that I have no dowry,” Lala said bluntly. “And he’s likely to give Father a very large settlement if we marry.”

“Believe me, Lord Rainsford could talk the hind leg off a donkey on that subject,” her mother cried. “Neither of you seems to understand what a disgrace it would be to marry my daughter to a by-blow.”

“Better married to Mr. Dautry than never married at all.” Lala had been beset by suitors all season, but her father had rejected every one. She knew why: he had decided that her beauty was worth a huge settlement. In short, no one had bid high enough to pay off his debts.

“If only you’d eat less, your season might have had an entirely different outcome!” her mother said, her voice becoming a little shrill. “Why, you were seated beside Lord Brody, the Duke of Pindar’s heir, throughout six courses. You could be a duchess!”

To Lala’s mind, her failure with Lord Brody had nothing to do with her figure. It was because she was stupid. She couldn’t follow conversations that pinged like tennis balls, clever expressions flying back and forth. His Grace had looked bored by the end of the first course.

“Father cannot afford another season,” she said, going back to the only point that might influence her mother. “Thus, if I don’t marry Mr. Dautry, I might never marry at all.”

“There’s no need to play the martyr,” her mother said, clutching her handkerchief in a manner that threatened to shred it. “It’s as if you actually want me to have another nervous spasm. I’m sure we all wish you would marry, even if it is to—”

The butler opened the door and announced, “Mr. Dautry.”

Lala knew perfectly well that her mother’s voice was audible in the entry, even through the door. Whenever she heard that strident tone in the drawing room, she tiptoed up the stairs.

But Mr. Dautry strolled into the room as casually as a lion into its den, Lala thought, with a sudden—and uncharacteristic—turn to metaphor. Except that lions’ eyes were tawny and hungry, and Mr. Dautry’s eyes were the color of the sky on a windy, rainy day: cold, without an ounce of sentiment. His rumpled black hair was a bit longer than the fashion, but then, as far as she knew, he had nothing to do with the ton, so why should he follow fashion? And yet she noted with relief that his coat and breeches had been crafted by a master. Her mother would never forgive a second-rate tailor.

“It is such a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Dautry,” Lala said, risking the revelation of her bottom by rising from her chair. “Mother, may I present Mr. Dautry to you?”

As Dautry bowed, Lala realized that her mother was responding to the masculinity that clung to him like a second skin. Her handkerchief was no longer clenched, but began gently waving about, conveying a sense of fragility.

Mr. Dautry wasn’t the man Lala would have chosen for a husband; he was altogether too rough and masculine, with his hard eyes and the way the air seemed to vibrate slightly around him. But that was irrelevant.

As her mother had said, beggars can’t be choosers.

Throughout the fuss over the tea tray, Lala told herself that she was not going to sit like a stone, without opening her mouth. She was going to be witty. She had rehearsed some clever things to say, and she had asked her maid to read aloud the Morning Post. If the conversation lagged, she planned to say—brightly—“Isn’t it marvelous that those terrible mutinies in the Royal Navy were put down quickly?”

Mercifully, she didn’t have to blurt it out immediately, because her mother was inquiring about the “dear duchess,” Dautry’s stepmother, even though Lala knew perfectly well that her mother had, at best, a nodding acquaintance with the Duchess of Villiers.

Dautry was obviously aware that her mother did not move in such exalted circles. At the same time, he didn’t seem to care that she was claiming acquaintanceship. Despite Lala’s nerves, a smile turned up the corners of her mouth. And Dautry smiled back at her—with his eyes only, but she saw it.

“The duchess is great friends with Mrs. Worsley, is she not?” her mother was saying. “Mrs. Worsley is so lively at the dinner table. She always leads the conversation.”

Dautry did not reply, and neither did Lala. She had learned long ago that replies were not obligatory when conversing with her mother. Copyright 2016 - 2024