Authors: Eloisa James
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Three Weeks With Lady X
For Linda, in an inadequate attempt
to thank a master of her craft
for hours of analysis, laughter, and mint tea.
y books are like small children; they take a whole village to get them to a literate state. I want to offer my deep gratitude to my village: my editor, Carrie Feron; my agent, Kim Witherspoon; my writing partner, Linda Francis Lee; my Website designers, Wax Creative; and my personal team: Kim Castillo, Franzeca Drouin, and Anne Connell. In addition, people in many departments of HarperCollins, from art to marketing to PR, have done a wonderful job of getting this book into readers’ hands: my heartfelt thanks go to each of you. And finally, my niece, Nora Bly, was extremely helpful in shaping India’s best qualities.
June 14, 1799
Number 22, Charles Street
London residence of the Dibbleshires
ady 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,
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 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. “
Baron Dibbleshire, will marry
“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
will accept us . . . they will accept
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
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?”
But India and her godmother worked like a well-oiled machine when it came to dissuading men from proclaiming their love. “You should ask Miss Landel to marry you,” Adelaide said, patting Lord Dibbleshire’s hand vigorously. “India is already considering three or four proposals, including those from the Earl of Fitzroy and Mr. Nugent—the one who’s from Colleton, not the other one, from Bettleshangler. He will be a viscount someday.”
At this news, his shoulders slumped again. But Adelaide glanced at India, a twinkle in her eyes, before turning back. “Besides, I am not convinced that you two suit each other, Howard, dear. My darling goddaughter does have a bit of a temper. And of course you’re aware that Fitzroy and Nugent are somewhat older than you. As is India. She is twenty-six, and you are still a young man.”
Dibbleshire’s head swung up and he peered at India.
“Miss Landel is barely out of the schoolroom,” Lady Dibbleshire put in, nimbly taking up the ball. “You can guide her into maturity, Howard.”
He blinked rapidly at this idea, clearly reconsidering his infatuation now that he’d learned the object of his adoration was four years older than he.
India suppressed the instinct to pat the corners of her eyes for wrinkles and composed her face to look old. Almost elderly. Presumably her white-blond hair would help; Adelaide was always pestering her to tint it one color or another. “Lord Dibbleshire, I shall hold your proposal sacrosanct, enshrined in my memory.” She held her breath.
His lordship’s chest swelled and he said, “I commend your intention to retire from this invidious profession, if one can call it that, Lady Xenobia. And I wish you all possible good fortune, of course.”
His love for her was dead.
A few moments later India walked upstairs to a small sitting room that Lady Dibbleshire had designated as her and her godmother’s retreat during the renovation process. Catching sight of herself in a mirror, she peered closer to see whether wrinkles indeed radiated out from her eyes. She couldn’t see any. In fact, at twenty-six, she looked fairly the same as she had at sixteen: too much hair, too much lower lip, too much bosom.
There was no visible sign of the hard knot in her chest, the one that tightened every time she thought about accepting a proposal of marriage.
She was good at refusing men. It was the idea of
one that made her feel as if she couldn’t breathe. But she had to marry. She couldn’t go on like this forever, moving from house to house, dragging her godmother with her.
After she had been orphaned at fifteen and sent to live in Adelaide’s disordered, chaotic house, India had quickly realized that if she didn’t organize her godmother’s household, no one would. And after Lady Adelaide had lavishly praised India to one of her friends, boasting that they would pay a visit that summer and “straighten everything out,” India had tackled the friend’s household as well. One thing had led to another, and for the last ten years she and Adelaide had made two or three such visits a year.
It was exhilarating to create order from chaos. She would renovate a room or two, turn the staffing upside down, and leave, knowing that the household would run like clockwork, at least until the owners mucked it up again. Every house presented a different—and fascinating—challenge.
But it was time to stop. To marry. The problem was that having sifted through so many households, she had received an intimate view of marriage, without seeing anything that particularly recommended the marital state . . . except children.
That had been the hardest part of her job, finding nannies and refurbishing nurseries for young women her own age. Her longing for a baby had brought her to the decision that it was time to marry.
The only question was who to marry.
Or should that be
She was never certain of her grammar, thanks to her father’s inability to keep a governess. Servants, it seemed, didn’t like going unpaid. Moreover, God-fearing English servants also disliked the fact that their masters danced naked in the moonlight.
India winced at the memory. She had spent years trailing her parents, her vibrant, loving, half-mad parents, longing for affection, attention, even supper. . . . They
loved her. Surely.
Everyone’s parents had good and bad sides. Her parents had loved her, which was good. They had danced attendance on a moon goddess instead of the Queen of England, which was bad.
They had sometimes forgotten to feed her. That was the worst.
Without question, her fear of marriage really went back to her childhood. Marriage meant trusting a husband to take care of her, instead of taking care of herself. It meant accepting that he would be in charge of their accounts. The very idea of a man like Dibbleshire talking to an estate manager made her shiver.
She swallowed hard. She thought she could get used to living with a man. But could she obey one?
Her father had been very dear, but he had played ducks and drakes with the estate, neglecting to pay the baker’s and butler’s accounts, as well as regularly forgetting the existence of his only child. He and her mother had died during a trip to London that they took for an unknown reason, although they’d had no money for such an excursion.
It wasn’t unreasonable for her stomach to clench at the idea of putting herself in the hands of a man.
Still, she could do it—with one minor tweak.
She simply had to find a man who was sweet and kind, and smart enough to realize that she should be the one to run their household.
If she, Xenobia India St. Clair, expert at turning chaos into order, truly put her mind to the task, how hard could it be?