Chapter One

June 14, 1799

Number 22, Charles Street

London residence of the Dibbleshires

Lady Xenobia, I adore you!”

Lord Dibbleshire’s brow was beaded with sweat and his hands were trembling. “In vain have I struggled, but I can no longer contain my ardent feelings; I must reveal to you, no, enlighten you about the depths of my emotion!”

India managed not to step back, but it took an effort. She tried to summon up a perfect smile, kind but not encouraging. Though she wasn’t positive that smile even existed.

Whatever she came up with would be better than an utterly inappropriate shriek of Bloody hell, not again! Daughters of marquesses—even deceased and arguably mad marquesses—did not shriek. More’s the pity.

The smile didn’t seem to work, so she trotted out her standard answer: “You do me too much honor, Lord Dibbleshire, but—”

“I know,” he responded, rather unexpectedly. Then he frowned. “I mean, no! No honor is too great for you. I have fought against my better judgment and while I realize that there are those who consider your reputation to be sullied by your profession, I know the truth. The truth shall prevail!”

Well, that was something. But before India could comment on the truth (or lack thereof), he toppled onto his knees. “I will marry you, Lady Xenobia India St. Clair,” he bellowed, widening his eyes to indicate his own shock at this declaration. “I, Baron Dibbleshire, will marry you.”

“Please do get up,” she said, resisting the urge to groan.

“I know that you will refuse me, owing to your inestimable modesty. But I have made up my mind, Lady Xenobia. The protection of my title—and, of course, yours as well—will overcome the ill effects of your unfortunate occupation. A plight to which you were driven, a point I shall make early and often. The ton will accept us . . . they will accept you, once you have the benefit of becoming Baroness Dibbleshire.”

Aggravation marched up her spine like a troop of perfectly dressed soldiers. True, her reputation was tarnished by the fact that she refused to stay home practicing her needlework. But as she was the daughter of a marquess, technically a Dibbleshire would be lucky to dance with her. Not that she cared about such things. Still, her godmother accompanied her everywhere—even now Lady Adelaide Swift was likely within earshot—and if nothing else, Adelaide’s chaperonage had ensured that India remain as pure as the driven snow despite her unfortunate occupation.

Who would have guessed that taking on the task of ordering people’s lives would have tarnished her lily-white wings?

At that moment, the door to the sitting room opened and her suitor’s mother appeared. India’s head began to pound. She never should have agreed to Lady Dibbleshire’s plea that India refurbish her drawing room, no matter how interesting a challenge it was to strip the room of its Egyptian furnishings.

“Howard, what in heaven’s name are you doing?” the lady demanded, making the whole situation even more farcical than it already was.

Dibbleshire sprang to his feet with surprising ease, inasmuch as his center of gravity was quite low slung and hung over his breeches. “I have just informed Lady Xenobia that I love her, and she has agreed to become my wife!”

India’s eyes were met—thankfully—by a gleam of sympathy in Lady Dibbleshire’s. “His lordship has misunderstood,” India told her.

“Alas, I have no doubt of that. Child,” Howard’s mother said, “every time I think that you have demonstrated the depths of your similarity to your father, you astonish me yet again.”

Dibbleshire scowled and looked, spaniel-like, back to India. “I will not allow you to refuse me. I haven’t slept for two nights, unable to think of anything but you. I have made up my mind to rescue you from your life of drudgery!”

He reached out his hand, and India nimbly stepped back. “Lord Dibbleshire—”

“You move from house to house, ceaselessly working.” His pale blue eyes gazed at her with devotion.

“Dear Lord, Howard,” Lady Dibbleshire exclaimed, “if our estate is ever lost, I am happy to think that you will be able to support us by making a living on the stage. However, it is my duty as a mother to point out that you are being rather vulgar.”

Apparently, his lordship had confused vulgarity with honor; he gave his mother a ferocious glare.

“Lady Xenobia is our dear and valued guest,” her ladyship continued, “who has been kind enough to aid me with restoration of the drawing room, as well as persuading the inestimable Mrs. Flushing to be our cook. For which”—she turned to India—“I shall be eternally grateful.”

India had the knack of moving excellent servants into households where they would be appreciated and well paid. Mrs. Flushing had been languishing in the employ of a dyspeptic general, and was far happier cooking for Dibbleshire and his mother.

“And Howard,” Lady Dibbleshire continued, “clearly you too are enjoying Mrs. Flushing’s menus, given your expanding middle.”

He scowled again and pulled at his waistcoat.

India opened her mouth to say something soothing, but at that moment her godmother bustled into the room, accompanied by a stream of words. “Darlings,” Lady Adelaide cried, “that lovely Mr. Sheraton has sent a delectable small mahogany table. Jane, you will adore it, simply adore it!” She and Lady Dibbleshire had been school friends; indeed, nearly all of India’s clients were her godmother’s near and dear acquaintances.

“How splendid,” Lady Dibbleshire said. “Where will you place it, Lady Xenobia?”

India had become famous for designing rooms in which furniture was scattered in unstudied, asymmetrical seating arrangements. “I shall have to see it to be sure, but in the grouping under the south window, I think.”

“Perfect!” Adelaide exclaimed, clapping her hands. “Your drawing room will be the talk of London, Jane, mark my words.”

“We shall come take a look,” Lady Dibbleshire replied, “just as soon as I’ve persuaded my feckless son that your goddaughter has far better things to do than marry one such as he.”

“Oh my dear, you mustn’t be harsh to sweet Howard.” Adelaide moved over to Dibbleshire and took his hand. “I’m certain that India would be ecstatic to marry you, if only the circumstances were different.”

“I would never burden your name with the social opprobrium resulting from the path my life has taken,” India told him, following up with a smile and a gaze that indicated clear-eyed courage and self-sacrifice. “Besides, I saw Miss Winifred Landel watching you last night, though you were tactful enough to overlook her obvious infatuation. Who am I to stand in the way of such an advantageous match?”

Lord Dibbleshire blinked at India and said, uncertainly, “Because I love you?”

“You merely think you love me,” she assured him, “due to your charitable heart. I assure you that you need not worry about my plight. As a matter of fact, I have made up my mind to withdraw from my profession.”

“You have?” This from Lady Dibbleshire, whose mouth actually fell open. “You do realize that at this very moment ladies all over England are imploring their husbands to obtain your services?” Copyright 2016 - 2024