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Three Weeks With Lady X(8)

By:Eloisa James

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.

Chapter Five

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."

There was a crack as the wax seal broke, and Iffley cleared his throat.  "There has indeed been some mistake, sir," he said, relief ringing in  his voice. "Belying the envelope, the salutation is not addressed to  you."

But Thorn had the same warning feeling that led him to sell stocks when  he met a business owner who was just a trifle too jovial, or one whose  teeth shone in the candlelight. "It's addressed to Juby," he said,  resigned.

Juby was his pre-rescue name, the name of a mudlark who had lived in the  rough and scavenged in the Thames. Juby was, and was not, Mr. Tobias  Dautry, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers. And he was, and  was not, Thorn Dautry, an extraordinarily wealthy bastard who owned six  factories, a couple of houses, and now a country estate.

Now Thorn looked down with a pulse of sadness at the child huddled in  his lap. Presumably, another of his band of boys had died. There had  been seven mudlarks slaving under Grindel-a rapacious, brutish  master-when Villiers had located Thorn. He had been taken to his  father's country estate, and the duke had dispatched the other boys to  good homes. Grindel had gone to prison.

Even so, Fillibert had died that first year of a blood infection. Barty  had gotten in a fight, struck his head on a cobblestone, and had never  woken again. Rattles was gone the following year. After that, there had  been five left, including himself.

There was an enduring bond between them, forged from surviving Grindel's  cruelty, from risking death in the Thames, from coming close to  starvation and frostbite more times than he cared to remember. Yet the  only boy with whom he'd become true friends was Will Summers. Like  Thorn, Will was the illegitimate son of a nobleman, though his father  had never acknowledged his baseborn son.

When they were lads, Will had hair like a duckling's fuzz, an odd yellow  that would fluff up in the sunlight after they emerged, shivering, from  the Thames, their hands full of scavenged treasures like silver spoons  and human teeth-whatever they could find and, more to the point,  whatever their master could sell. Will was the stubborn one, persistent  to the point of madness, diving into the murkiest water to chase a flash  of silver.