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Three Weeks With Lady X(4)

By:Eloisa James

Predictably, Vander chose the heavier blade, the épée. Thorn was the  better fencer; Vander had the habit of losing his temper and slashing  instead of strategizing.

Once in Thorn's ballroom, they stripped down to shirts and breeches and began circling each other, blades poised.

But even as he calculated every shift in Vander's weight, Thorn kept  thinking about marriage. Laetitia wasn't bright, it was true, but  frankly, he believed that to be a decided advantage in a wife. His  mother had been that rare thing, a strong-minded woman with a vocation,  and her art had mattered more to her than her son.

He didn't have any interest in a woman with a profession. He wanted a  woman who would never dream of leaving her children-for any reason.  Laetitia adored children, and she clearly had no larger aspirations than  motherhood. He had decided five minutes after meeting her that she  would be his bride, though he hadn't yet informed her of the fact.

Her approval was unnecessary, really, since their marriage was a matter  of negotiation between himself and her parents. After meeting with Lord  Rainsford, he understood that he would pay dearly for Laetitia's beauty.  But more importantly, he would pay the highest price for her birth.

The only remaining obstacle was Lady Rainsford; her parents had made it clear that her approval was necessary.

Vander was fighting like a madman, to the point where he had twice  nearly broken through Thorn's guard. His chest was heaving and he was  bathed in sweat. But he looked better than he had earlier: less fraught,  less furious . . . less grief-stricken.


Time to go in for the kill. In a coordinated series of strokes, Thorn  danced around the edge of Vander's blade, sliced his right arm around  and under, feigned an attack, whirled, switched hands, came at him with  the left.


Vander's response to defeat was a stream of oaths that would have made a  sailor blanch. Thorn bent over to catch his breath, watching drops of  sweat fall to the floor. He couldn't best Vander in the boxing ring, but  he could damn well wipe the floor with him when they held swords. Even  better, the air of madness that hung about his friend every year on the  anniversary of his mother's death had evaporated.                       


Thorn pulled off his shirt and used it to mop his chest and face.

"Do you think that Laetitia will like you?" Vander asked.

" ‘Like me?' What do you mean?"

"The way you look. Does she seem attracted to you?"

Thorn glanced down at himself. Long bands of muscle covered his body,  forming ridges over his taut abdomen. He kept his body in fighting  shape, and no woman had yet expressed a complaint. "Are you talking  about the scars?" Like every mudlark who survived into adulthood, he was  covered with them.

"You never go into society, so you wouldn't know, but Laetitia's just  spent the season dancing with a crowd of wand-thin mollies with no need  to shave. We're too big, and we'd both have a beard within the day if we  allowed it."

"Those men were all at school with us," Thorn said, shrugging. "You're  taking marriage too seriously. It's a transaction like any other. I'm  giving her a country house; that will make up for my brute proportions."

"Damn," Vander said, pausing in the middle of rubbing sweat from his  hair. "You really mean it, don't you? I can't see you as a rural  squire."

Neither could Thorn, but as he understood it, children required fresh  air and open spaces. His new estate was close to London, and he could  easily visit.

"What will you do with yourself there?" Vander gave a bark of laughter.  "Go fishing? I can see you fashioning a new rod and selling the design  for a hundred pounds, but reeling in a trout? No."

Thorn had just acquired a rubber factory that was losing money fast. For  a moment, he imagined a rubber fishing rod-he had to design something  profitable that the factory could make-but then dismissed it. "I won't  be there often," he said, tossing his shirt to the side. "I'll leave the  trout for idiots who fancy shriveling their balls in rushing water."

He was an East Londoner to the core, and he'd only catch a trout if he  were starving. Plus, his time as a mudlark had left one indelible mark:  he didn't like rivers. Given a choice, he'd never go in one again, and  certainly never dive to the bottom.

"I like fishing," Vander objected, pulling on one of the linen shirts that Thorn's valet had left stacked on a filigree chair.

"Good, because I'm inviting Laetitia and her parents to the country in a  fortnight or so, and you can come along and fish for your supper. I  have to persuade Laetitia's mother to accept my baseborn blood, and you  can be proof that I know the right sort. I only hope you've never met  each other."

Vander threw his drenched shirt at Thorn's head, but it fell to the floor. Thorn was already heading out the door.

He had a factory to save.

Chapter Three

India made an excuse and did not join the Dibbleshires for tea; there  was no point in risking yet another passionate declaration from his  lordship. Instead, she and her godmother retired to their sitting room,  where India began opening the mail Adelaide's butler had sent over by a  groom. Letter after letter implored her to cure various ills: a  disorganized house, an unfashionable dining room, even (implicitly) a  marriage.

But she resolutely wrote back refusals, mindful of her decision to  marry. She even refused an offer from the Regent's secretary asking if  she would renovate his private chambers in Brighton. The only truly  tempting letter came from the Duchess of Villiers. Eleanor was older  than India, and mother of an eight-year-old boy, but despite these  differences, they had struck up a close friendship. Eleanor was  brilliant, well read, and witty without being cruel, and India admired  and adored her.

In fact, Eleanor was everything India planned to be, once she had time  to read the books she had missed as a child. Someday she would like to  invite Eleanor and her other friends to a country house of her own. They  would spend lazy days in the shade of a willow, talking about  literature. She would understand grammar by then, and never worry about  who and whom again, let alone lie and lay.

But now Eleanor was writing to ask a special favor. "Adelaide, did we  meet Tobias Dautry when we stayed with the Duke of Villiers?"

Her godmother put down her teacup. "No, he was in Scotland at the time.  You must have heard of Dautry. He's the oldest of Villiers's bastards,  and by all accounts, he owns five factories and is richer than Midas."

"Didn't he invent a blast furnace, or something like that?"

"Yes, and sold it to a coal magnate for ten thousand pounds. I must say,  I do feel sympathetic toward Villiers's by-blows. It must be awkward to  be brought up as a lord or lady, with expectations of an excellent  marriage. Who would choose to marry a by-blow? Still, I hear that His  Grace has given the girls outrageously large dowries."                       


India knew she was cynical, but common sense told her that those girls would indeed make excellent matches.

"Dautry is different from the others," Adelaide continued. "Rougher. I  think he was living on the streets when Villiers found him, and he was  already twelve years old. Eleanor never managed to civilize him."

"Why haven't I met him?" India asked. What with one thing and another,  she had been to hundreds of social events in London in the last few  years, although she had never debuted. It was her considered opinion  that the queen had no more interest in meeting her than she had in  meeting the queen.

"He's a man of business. Knows his place, I expect."

"Well, he can't have avoided society entirely," India said, "because  Eleanor writes in this letter that he's courting Laetitia Rainsford."

"Really!" Adelaide's mouth formed a perfect circle. "I wonder how he  came to meet Lala? She's so pretty that I would have thought her parents  could do better. And Lady Rainsford was one of the royal  ladies-in-waiting before her marriage."

"Money," India suggested.

"Money is not everything."

Adelaide could say that because she had never lacked it. India, on the  other hand, had grown up on an estate that had been falling to wrack and  ruin. In her view, money was everything. Or nearly everything.

"Do read to me what she says?"

India looked back at the letter. "She begins by telling me that Theodore  beat his father at a game of chess for the first time, which apparently  made them both very happy-"

"Goodness me, the child is only eight, isn't he?"