Bride for a Night

By: Rosemary Rogers

SLOANE SQUARE WAS not the finest neighborhood in London, but it was respectable and comfortably situated next to the more fashionable areas. As a rule it was occupied by members of the ton who clung to the fringes of society, or those who preferred to avoid the bustle that spilled throughout Mayfair.

And then there was Mr. Silas Dobson.

Claiming the largest mansion on a corner lot, Mr. Dobson was what was delicately known as an “upstart.” Or for those less kindly disposed, as an ill-bred mushroom who reeked of the shop despite his fortune.

He might eventually have been forgiven for his unwelcome intrusion among his betters had Silas been willing to fade quietly into the background and accept that he would always be inferior to those born into the aristocracy.

Silas, however, was not the sort of man to fade into any background.

As large as an ox, with a barrel chest and meaty face that was ruddy from the sun, he was as loud and crass as any of the hundreds of men who worked in his numerous warehouses spread throughout the city. Even worse, he made no apology for the fact he had crawled out of the gutters to make his fortune in trade. The youngest of twelve children, he had started as a dockhand before beginning to invest in high-risk cargos and eventually purchasing a number of properties that were rented out at an exorbitant fee to various shipping companies.

He was a bully without manners who had managed to insult nearly every resident in Sloane Square at least a dozen times over the past ten years.

And while he wasn’t stupid enough to believe he could ever pass as a gentleman, he was willing to use his obscene wealth to foist his only child onto society.

An impudence that did nothing to endear him to members of the ton.

Of course, their ruffled feathers were somewhat eased by the knowledge that, for all of Dobson’s wealth and bluster, he couldn’t make his tiny dab of a daughter a success.

Oh, she was pretty enough with large emerald eyes set in a perfect oval face with a delicate nose and full, rose-kissed lips. But there was something quite…earthy in her gypsy curves and unruly raven curls.

It was, however, her awkward lack of charm that ensured that she would remain a wallflower.

After all, there were always those gentlemen of breeding who were notoriously short of funds. Being a member of nobility was an expensive business, especially if one was a younger sibling without the benefit of large estates to offset the cost of being fashionable.

With a dowry well over a hundred thousand pounds, Talia should have been snatched off the marriage mart her first season, even with a boorish father who promised to be a yoke of embarrassment around the neck of his prospective son-in-law.

But, when a man added in the fact that the female was a dreaded bluestocking who could barely be induced to speak a word in public, let alone dazzle a gentleman with practiced flirtations, it all combined to leave her a source of amused pity, someone who was avoided like the plague.

Society members took pleasure in Talia’s failure. They smugly assured themselves it would be a blow to the odious Mr. Dobson and an example to other encroachers who thought they could buy a place among the aristocracy.

They might not have been so smug had they known Silas Dobson as well as his daughter did.

The son of a mere butcher did not acquire a small financial empire unless he possessed the unbridled determination to overcome any obstacle. No matter what the sacrifice.

Well aware of Silas Dobson’s ruthless willpower, Talia shuddered at the sound of her father’s bellow as it echoed through the vaulted rooms of the elegant house.

“Talia. Talia, answer me. Damned, where is the child?”

There was the muffled sound of servants rushing to provide the master of the house with the information he desired, and with a sigh Talia set aside the book on China she had been studying and cast a rueful glance about her temporary haven of peace.

Arched windows overlooked the sunken rose garden and a marble fountain that sparkled in the late May sunlight. Heavy shelves filled with leather-bound books lined the walls, and the coved ceiling high above was painted with an image of Apollo in his chariot. At one end a walnut desk was set near the carved marble fireplace that was flanked by two leather chairs. And the floor was covered by an Oriental carpet that glowed with rich crimson and sapphire.

It was a beautiful library.

Rising from one of the chairs, Talia smoothed her hands down the teal skirt of her simple muslin gown, wishing she had changed into one of the fine silk dresses that her father preferred.

Not that he would ever be pleased with her appearance, she wryly acknowledged.

Silas’s disappointment in not having a son and heir was only surpassed by his disappointment in possessing a daughter who looked more like a gypsy than one of the elegant blonde debutantes who graced the London ballrooms.

Braced for her father’s entrance, Talia managed not to flinch as he rammed open the door to the library and regarded her with an impatient glower.

“I might have known I would find you wasting your day hiding among these damnable books.” His disapproving gaze took in her plain gown and lack of jewelry. “Why did I spend a fortune on your finery if not to be out preening yourself like the other silly chits?”

“I never asked you to spend your money on my clothing,” she softly reminded him.

He snorted. “Oh, aye, I suppose you would as soon go about looking like a charwoman and have all of society think me too clutch-fisted to properly provide for my only child? A fine thing that would be.”

“That is not what I meant.”

With heavy steps, Silas moved beside the desk, his face more ruddy than usual, as if the white cravat tied around his thick neck was choking him.

Talia felt a flutter of unease. Her father only allowed his valet to wrestle him into that particular tailored gray jacket and burgundy striped waistcoat when he intended to mingle among society rather than devoting his day to his business. A rare occurrence that typically ended with her father in a foul mood and various aristocrats threatening to rid the world of Silas Dobson’s existence.

“Is it not enough that you embarrass me with your clumsy manner and dim-witted stammering?” he growled, pouring himself a generous amount of brandy from a crystal decanter.

She lowered her head, a familiar sense of failure settling in the pit of her stomach.

“I have tried my best.”

“Oh, aye, and that’s why you’re alone on this fine day while your fancy friends are attending an alfresco luncheon in Wimbledon?”

Her heart dipped in familiar disappointment. “They are not my friends, and I could hardly attend a luncheon for which I did not receive an invitation.”

“You mean to say you were slighted?” her father rasped. “By God, Lord Morrilton will hear of this.”

“No, father.” Talia lifted her head in horror. It was bad enough to be ignored when she was forced to attend the events to which she was invited. She could not bear to be a source of resentment. “I warned you, but you would not listen. You cannot purchase me a place in society, no matter how much money you spend.”

The anger suddenly faded from her father’s face to be replaced by a smug smile.

“Now that is where you are wide of the mark.”

She stilled. “What do you mean?”

“I have just returned from a most satisfying meeting with Mr. Harry Richardson, younger brother to the Earl of Ashcombe.”

Talia recognized the name, of course.

A handsome gentleman with brown hair and pale eyes, he possessed a reckless charm and a talent for shocking society with his outrageous pranks and notorious passion for gambling. He was also infamous for being deeply in debt.