“I was chasing my own carriage, believing you and Vander were eloping in it.”

His voice was so scathing that it took a moment to absorb his words—and to understood why he’d set out after the carriage. “It doesn’t matter!” she cried wildly. “Don’t you see, Thorn? Don’t you see that? That’s just more competition with Vander. You’re offering this big diamond . . . but that’s not what I want. I deserve better!”

Thorn was listening, groping through the emotion boiling in India’s voice, when he heard words he understood all too clearly: “I deserve better.”

Vander was right. Hell, she was right.

“I was good enough to bed,” he snarled, “but not good enough to marry. Do I have you right, Lady Xenobia?”

Her mouth fell open.

“You’re right, India. I didn’t want to marry someone like you. I wanted a pleasant relationship. I didn’t want a woman who argues with me, who makes me so crazed with lust that I tumble her under the noses of the servants. Do you know what I felt when I thought you’d run away with Vander?” He was shouting now. “Do you have any idea how I felt?”

India would never be cowed, no matter how he shouted. She raised her chin defiantly. “I know exactly what you felt: You felt that you were losing to Vander,” she retorted. “That’s not enough for me.”

A great coldness swept down over Thorn. She wanted better: who the hell was he to argue? “The fact is, India, the last thing I need is marriage to a daughter of a marquess who thinks she’s above me, who wants better.” The words came from some dark part of his soul, and they came with the force that only a bastard could give them.

She stared at him, those beautiful eyes wide and strained. Her beauty hurt his gut, and his voice shifted from cold to lethal. “It would be rank stupidity to marry a woman who lied to me, told me she wasn’t a virgin, told me she’d give away her own child. You demonstrated precisely how much you respect me. Would you have lied to a gentleman?”

She flinched as if he’d hit her. He felt exhaustion coming over him like a shroud. India was . . . what she was. And he the same. That brief dream he’d had—of loving and marrying a woman like her—would count as the greatest of his life’s stupidities. No more.

India seemed frozen, her face white.

“I bid you goodbye, Lady Xenobia,” he said, falling back and bowing with a flourish. “I think we have both said more than we would wish to and more than we ought. I was insane to think of marrying a woman of the titled class. I have no intention of considering it ever again, and I imagine our paths will not cross.”

Caught in a storm of madness, he couldn’t stop himself. He stepped toward her again and cradled her face in his hands. His soul wrenched with the time he’d wasted, the ass he’d been.

He bent, brushed his lips across hers with the respect that a lord would give a lady.

Then he bowed and turned away again without meeting her eyes. There was no point.

Chapter Thirty-seven

Thorn had barely entered his front door before he started to curse himself for being a fool.

Despite everything he’d said, he wanted India more than he wanted his dignity. She wouldn’t lie to him again. Though he didn’t give a damn if she did—as long as she was in his house and bed, at his side.

Fred was manning the entry. “Good morning, sir!”

Thorn nodded, unable to summon a greeting.

“Miss Rose’s carriage arrived an hour or so ago,” Fred said cheerfully. “I believe that Clara plans to take her on a visit to Kensington Gardens this afternoon.”

“Excellent,” Thorn managed, handing over his greatcoat.

“A Mr. Marley is waiting to see you, sir, accompanied by a Mr. Farthingale. Shall I send them into the library?”

At first Thorn had no idea who Fred was talking about, but then he remembered: Marley was the Bow Street Runner he’d hired to investigate the deaths of India’s parents. Farthingale was presumably his partner.

It was bitterly ironic that the man had shown up at this particular moment. It hardly mattered now, but Thorn might as well hear what the man had uncovered.

Mr. Marley was an energetic young fellow, positively trembling with suppressed glee. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, sir,” he said to Thorn, giving him a brisk bow. He gestured to the elderly gentleman at his side, whose spindly legs and long nose gave him a distinct resemblance to a stork. “This is Mr. Farthingale, the proprietor of a jewelry shop in the Blackfriars.”

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Thorn said, bowing. “Won’t you both sit down?”

“You engaged me to make inquiries on behalf of Lady Xenobia St. Clair regarding her father’s death,” Marley burst out.

“I did,” Thorn said, ushering Mr. Farthingale to a settee.

“The Marquess of Renwick drove his curricle off the Blackfriars Bridge eleven years ago, in early 1788,” Marley said once they were all seated. “That bit of reckless driving resulted in the untimely deaths of himself and the marchioness, though the horse was better able to fight the current, and kept his head above water until two lads on the bank were able to cut the reins.”

Thorn remembered the Blackfriars current well; the marquess couldn’t have picked a worse bridge to pitch over in all London.

“You asked me to attempt to locate a valuable article of jewelry that the marquess may have had on his person,” Marley continued. “The intervening years between the accident and your query made my investigation extremely difficult, but I decided to visit all the jewelry shops in the vicinity of the bridge. Mr. Farthingale’s shop is just outside the liberty of Blackfriars.”

The elderly jeweler cleared his throat and adjusted his old-fashioned pantaloons. “I’m afraid that my news will not cheer Lady Xenobia,” he said apologetically. “The marquess and his wife apparently died within minutes of their visit to my establishment, a fact that virtually guarantees that the jewels are at the bottom of the Thames. I am not a great reader of the papers, and unfortunately I entirely missed the announcement of their death.”

Thorn cursed under his breath. “Am I to understand that the marquess had the jewels in his possession when he departed your shop?”

This prompted an avalanche of detail; Mr. Farthingale had the sort of memory that a historian would envy. “His lordship placed the pouch containing the jewels in his coat pocket as he left,” he concluded. “I remember thinking that it was cavalier treatment of such valuable pieces.”

“What were they, exactly?”

Mr. Farthingale launched into a description of the pieces as if he’d examined them only yesterday, rather than more than a decade earlier. “A diamond demi-parure, consisting of a necklace and earrings set in engraved silver mounts with gold embellishment. The pieces constituted a substantial set, with hundreds of foil back rose-, table-, and Indian face-cut diamonds of various carats, shaped in flower heads and foliate spray motifs. I dated the pieces to the mid-1600s. I was prepared to pay a generous sum for the set.”

“So he meant to sell it?”

“As I informed the marquess, I would have been most happy to have it in my possession. But his lordship merely asked for a valuation. He never returned, and I put it completely out of my mind.”

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