Belying his battered face, he was wearing a coat as extraordinary as any his father had ever donned: he looked ready to dance attendance on a queen.

“What on earth are you doing here, Thorn?” she asked, affecting a casual tone with effort. “Are you . . . did you catch up with Dr. Hatfield?”

“Not in time.”

“Ah.” It was no wonder he looked tired. He had lost his ideal spouse. “I’m sorry. You’ll find someone else,” she offered, feeling the words chip away at her heart.

“I already have.”


“I came to ask you to marry me, India. To pay me the very great honor of becoming my bride.”

India knew why this was happening. The moment Vander had stepped forward and told Lady Rainsford that they were married, she’d seen the look in Thorn’s eyes.

Men like Thorn were ferociously competitive. They didn’t give up, and failure was just a temporary inconvenience. In fact, it was likely the competition had escalated once Lala had removed herself from the equation by eloping with Dr. Hatfield. It left India as the bone of contention.

“Why is your eye bruised?” she asked sharply, unable to respond to the question she had longed for—not when it was simply offered, like a business proposition to be accepted or rejected.

“Vander,” he said, confirming her guess.

Her heart sank. She stood between two snarling wolfhounds. The story never ended very well for the bone.

“You fought over me,” she stated.

“That is irrelevant,” Thorn said. “You are the epitome of beauty and grace, India. I cannot imagine spending my life with anyone other than you, and I beg for nothing more than the honor of your hand in marriage.”

The words rolled out of his mouth with all the passion of a vicar reciting his third service of the day. He was obviously exhausted, his eyes shaded with some emotion that she couldn’t interpret. He took a step closer and held out his hand. “This is for you.”

A diamond ring lay in his palm, a lavish, costly ring. India looked at it, and back at his face.

He hadn’t come to say that he was in love with her, as she had secretly dreamed. He was asking her to marry him because Vander had claimed her, and Lala had got away.

He was here because he wanted to win. She swallowed hard. Her heart was breaking. Lala was the golden fleece and India was apparently the consolation prize.

It was as if the world was presenting her with everything she wanted . . . in all the wrong ways.

Her throat tightened painfully, but she refused to cry in front of him. She was the daughter of a marquess, even if her papa was the oddest nobleman who’d ever held the title. She was Lady Xenobia St. Clair.

Somehow she found her Lady Xenobia voice, the cool, businesslike voice that expected—and received—complete obedience. “I’m afraid that I must refuse your very moving offer of marriage.”

His eyes burned into hers, so intense in their focus that she felt a bit dizzy. “Why? Did I say it incorrectly?”

“Not at all. It was one of the more eloquent I have received.”

A movement caught her eyes, and she saw his right fist clench. The skin was broken over his knuckles, presumably from pummeling Vander.

“Yours is not my first marriage proposal, but it is nonetheless appreciated.” Her heart wanted to give in and say yes. Who cared why he was proposing? Maybe he would fall in love with her later. . . .

But every ounce of practicality in her screamed no. He wouldn’t. Men who slept with an available woman didn’t later declare their love. If she hadn’t succumbed to him like a trollop, she could have pretended to herself that he would love her someday. She could have lied to herself.


Frustration burned through Thorn as he stood before India. She was so damned beautiful. Even though she looked pale and was far too quiet.

Abruptly, he decided to discard his father’s advice. At this point he should kneel and slip the ring on India’s finger, but he had the feeling that she’d back away and he’d be left on his knees like a fool.

He dropped the monstrous ring on a table, and hundreds of pounds’ worth of diamond clinked against a teacup.

“I want to marry you, India.”

Her eyes met his, steady and grave. “Why? Only yesterday you were courting Lala. You threw yourself into a carriage, by all accounts, trying to stop her marriage. Why are you proposing to me?”

Vander’s question resounded in his head. Why would she want to marry you? India was a jewel of a woman in a jewel-like setting that he presumed she’d designed herself. She was surrounded by exquisite objects, the patina of age and wealth on every wall.

He might have been dressed like a bloody peacock to come to her, but it was all just show, covering up who he really was: more beast than man. They were beauty and the beast, the lady and the bastard. . . . It was stupid. Impossible.

But the warrior in him reared up. She was everything to him. All that he had thought mattered—his factories, Vander, that damned house—none of it mattered compared to her.

“I want you,” he stated, the raw note in his voice telling its own truth.

The air burned as India drew it into her lungs. At least Thorn was honest. He desired her. He didn’t pretend to love her, or even declare that she was perfect, the way Lala had been. Her reaction must have shown on her face.

“I’m not talking about intimacies,” he added. “In other ways.”

Fury engulfed her and there was no stopping it, no telling herself to be adult and compose herself the way a lady should. “The hell you’re not talking about intimacies,” she cried. “You bedded me while you courted Lala. Now she’s no longer free and, as you say, you want me. That’s not good enough. I deserve better.”

Finally, it was all clear in her head. Painful, but clear. “I earned my own dowry,” she told him. “I told you why. Do you remember?”

He didn’t say a word, and she just kept going.

“Adelaide wanted me to debut. Some man would undoubtedly have desired me enough to take me without a dowry: after all, he’d get the daughter of a marquess, wouldn’t he? Blue blood sells at a high premium. You know that, since you furnished Starberry Court for Lala.”


She cut him off, feeling her fingernails digging into her palms. “I earned my own dowry so I could buy freedom to choose the man myself rather than taking the first gentleman who held out his hand.”

“Take my hand,” he said. His face could have been carved from stone. “I don’t care whether you have a dowry or not.”

“You don’t love me,” she said flatly. “Even though you’re in the throes of this ridiculous competition with Vander, you haven’t lied about that. You don’t love me and you don’t trust me, which is why you believed that I would give away my own child.”

She felt as if her heart were breaking even saying the words aloud.

Thorn’s brows drew together. “You are not thinking rationally, India. In fact, I think you are blaming me for the sins of your parents.”

“This has nothing to do with my parents!” she cried. “Nothing! If you loved me, you would have come to me after Lady Rainsford made all those accusations, and you didn’t.” Copyright 2016 - 2024