Lala slipped her hand back into the crook of her husband’s arm and beamed at Dautry. “I fully expect to be disowned, and she will not pay us a visit for a long time, or indeed, possibly ever.”

“A consummation devoutly to be wished,” Mr. Dautry stated.

Lala had no idea what he meant, but John gave him a lopsided grin and said, “I hope that if Lady Rainsford decides to visit, I will choose to be, instead of Hamlet’s not to be.”

Lala leaned her head against John’s arm as they watched Dautry stride back down the street.

“I think he means to be a patron to you,” Lala said. “Perhaps I shall ask him to sponsor a small hospital in the village. He has the money for it, by all accounts.”

John looked down at her, a thrilling frown on his face. “I won’t have you spending time with that man, Laetitia. He obviously adores you, since he drove all the way here in an attempt to stop your wedding. God knows what would have happened if he’d arrived an hour earlier.”

Lala shivered. When they first walked out the door, Mr. Dautry had looked ready to murder John. But once he understood it was too late, he’d shown himself to be a gentleman.

“He will marry,” she said, beginning to walk, because she couldn’t wait to travel back to their own house. “Once Starberry Court has a mistress, I’ll speak to him about a village hospital in West Drayton.”

“I don’t like the fact that the lord of the manor once loved my wife, even if he does marry someone else. I don’t want you ever to be alone with him,” John ordered.

The look in his eyes made Lala feel warm all over. “Kiss me,” she breathed, stopping in her tracks.

John glanced down the deserted street, then he pulled her into his arms. He dropped a sweet buss on her lips, but when they opened beneath his, it all changed.

Mrs. John Hatfield stood in that empty street for twenty minutes, while her husband gave her a kiss so deep and passionate that they both forgot where they were—at least until the heavens opened and they had to dash through a downpour to the carriage, laughing all the way.

Chapter Thirty-four

India woke early in the morning, still exhausted. She wished she were excited about marrying Vander and becoming a duchess someday. She truly did. She had allowed him into her bedchamber the previous evening, thinking that perhaps she would find herself seduced.

It had made sense at the time: if she found herself enticed by the handsome lord with adoration in his eyes, it stood to reason that she would stop thinking about Thorn.

But in the end they hadn’t even kissed.

She would never be Vander’s wife. She just didn’t feel that way about him.

Thorn, though . . .

He would likely be at breakfast. Her heart started beating quickly at the thought. Presumably, he no longer wished to marry Lala after Lady Rainsford’s behavior.

Not that it meant he would turn to her; likely he wouldn’t.

She would wish him well in the future, in a dignified, yet friendly, manner. The only thing she had left was her self-respect, and even that was in shreds and tatters.

Still, she felt better after a bath, not to mention dressing in a close-fitting gown with a violet overlay and a low bosom. It felt as if she were going to war—in which case she might as well dress with her own version of armor.

But in the breakfast room, no one was to be seen besides the butler. “His Grace and Lord Brody have not yet risen,” Fleming announced, escorting her to a seat.

“And Mr. Dautry?” India asked, trying to give her voice a carefree lilt.

“Mr. Dautry is not at home.”

She hadn’t expected that. She paused while unfolding her napkin and looked up. “Not home? Where is he?”

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say, my lady.” Then he added, “He departed in the Duke of Villiers’s carriage last night.”

“Why didn’t he take his own carriage?”

The lines next to the butler’s mouth deepened. “It was in use.”

India frowned. Fleming was Thorn’s butler, of course, but in a certain way, he would always be hers too. After all, she had hired him. “For heaven’s sake, Fleming, surely I might know who was using Mr. Dautry’s carriage?”

The butler closed the door to the breakfast room and lowered his voice. “It was Dr. Hatfield and Miss Rainsford, my lady. At Mr. Dautry’s request, I sent a man two days ago to acquire a blank special license from the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Not even by a flicker in his eye did he reveal that the license had been meant for India and his master, even though he had to know the truth. Years of experience had taught India that butlers always knew a household’s secrets.

“Shortly after the confrontation with Lady Rainsford outside the house,” Fleming continued, “Dr. Hatfield requested a meeting with the lady, and I’m afraid that there was a further exchange of words in the library.”

“Lady Rainsford had a very distressing afternoon,” India observed, not bothering to feign dismay.

“Yes, my lady. Unfortunately, she made a number of vehement—one might even say vituperative—remarks before retiring to her chamber. The door to the library was open, and it was impossible not to hear the exchange,” he added.

India waved her hand impatiently. It would have required superhuman restraint not to listen. “Was Miss Rainsford in the library as well?”

“No, she was not. But the Duke of Villiers was. After Lady Rainsford departed, His Grace offered Mr. Dautry’s special license to Dr. Hatfield, and the doctor accepted it.”

India gasped. “He did? Did he inform Mr. Dautry that he was doing so?”

“At that time, Mr. Dautry was in the dower house with Miss Rose.” Fleming hesitated, and added, “I fear that His Grace may have underestimated Mr. Dautry’s feelings with regard to Miss Rainsford.”

“I see,” India said, her voice faint.

“When Mr. Dautry returned to the house, I was below stairs. But I understand that on learning of the elopement, he made off with all speed in an attempt to catch the pair before the wedding took place.”

India’s heart stopped for a moment. Thorn had gone after Lala. He had desperately tried to stop her marriage to another. He must truly love Lala.

She herself had been nothing more than an available body.

If she was going to become a fallen woman, at the very least she could have kept her heart whole.

But no . . . she never stopped loving her parents, even when they forgot to feed her, and she probably wouldn’t stop loving Thorn either. Right now, she felt like a wounded animal. It hurt to love someone like this.

Despite herself, her eyes filled with tears and her lip trembled. Fleming discarded his butler’s code of conduct and put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes deeply sympathetic.

“I’m all right,” she said, swallowing hard and not even trying to hide the pain. “I’ll be fine. I think . . . I think I shall return to London immediately, if you would be so good as to summon my carriage, Fleming. My maid can follow with my godmother whenever Lady Adelaide wishes to make the journey.”

It was only by a miracle that she managed to avoid bursting into tears before she climbed into her carriage. And the fact that Fleming pressed four fresh handkerchiefs into her hand showed that he knew precisely when those tears would escape. Copyright 2016 - 2024