The last time she’d been here Benjamin had been alive. He’d run up the stairs, always ahead of her, and banged the knocker himself.

Then, Benjamin had leapt ahead of her in every way, and now footmen were the only men who accompanied her to parties.

The door opened and she gave herself a mental shake. The last thing she wanted to do was lower Jemma’s spirits. Benjamin was gone, had been gone these many months and after she did just one thing in his memory—just the one—she would forget him. Put him away in her memories, or whatever it is you do with a dead husband.

Truly, a dead husband was an inconvenient presence, she realized, not for the first time.

The butler led her to a small dining room and then stood to the side. “The Duchess of—” he intoned. Suddenly he lunged forward, words forgotten.

Jemma was standing on a chair, with her back to them. She was in the process of unhooking a very large painting from the wall. Even as they watched she staggered back, her heel on the very edge of the seat, the huge frame waving in the air.

“Your Grace!” the butler shouted. He caught the huge gold frame just as it began toppling toward the ground.

Harriet rushed forward as well, just in time to stand directly under Jemma as she fell off the chair. They both hit the ground with a whoosh as their hoops swelled up around them. Simultaneously the butler lost his grip on the painting and it crashed into a sideboard.

“Oh no,” Jemma said, laughing. “Is that Harriet?”

Harriet scrambled to her feet. Jemma’s butler was shouting, presumably for a footman.

“It is indeed I,” she said, smiling down at Jemma. Her friend had changed; her beauty had a modish edge that was a long way from Harriet’s childhood memories. But the sleek blonde hair, the deep lip and most of all, her litup, intelligent eyes, those were the same.

With one practiced slap, Jemma collapsed her right pannier and then rolled to that side to get up. Harriet held out a hand. With another whoosh, Jemma’s panniers exploded as she stood up and there she was: as sophisticated and elegant a French lady as Harriet could imagine.

She swallowed her up in one of the lightning quick hugs Harriet remembered so well. “You are as beautiful as ever, but so thin, Harriet. And the black.”

“Well, you do remember…”

“But it’s been almost two years since Benjamin died, hasn’t it?” Jemma pulled back. “Did you get my note after his funeral?”

Harriet nodded. “And I had your lovely note from Florence too, with the drawings.”

“Well, it had been a year,” Jemma twinkled at her. “I personally think that David has a lovely physique although perhaps slightly, shall we say, under-endowed?”

Harriet laughed a bit hollowly. “Only you would notice.”

“Nonsense. It’s enough to make one eye Italian males in a most suspicious manner, I assure you. After all, it might well be a national trait.”

“What were you doing with that portrait?” Harriet asked.

“Ghastly thing. I stared at it all the way through luncheon and then promised myself that I would take it off the wall directly.”

Harriet glanced at it, but couldn’t see that it was particularly depressing; it depicted a man asleep on a bed while a woman stood next to him with a flask of wine.

“Look more closely,” Jemma said. “Do you see her knife?”

Sure enough, hidden in the folds of her skirt was the wicked, curved tip of a knife. And on close observation, the woman’s face was rather disturbing.

“The house is bestrewed by versions of Judith and Holofernes. I would ask Beaumont about his mother’s penchant for the subject, but I’m terrified of his likely answer. In this one, she’s about to saw his head off. If you’d like to see the event itself, that is hanging in the grand salon in the west wing. The aftermath—i.e., his head apart from his body—appears in various versions all over the house.”

Harriet blinked. “How—how—” and closed her mouth.

“I gather you don’t know the Dowager Duchess of Beaumont,” Jemma continued blithely. “Let’s go upstairs, shall we? We can have some tea in my rooms.”

“Why, this is quite lovely,” Harriet said a moment later. The walls were white with pale green trim, and painted all over with little sprays of blossoms. “Did Beaumont have the room made over for your return?”

“Of course he didn’t,” Jemma said. “I sent a man from Paris two months ago, as soon as I decided to return to London. My mother-in-law had this room very grand in gold-and-white. Naturally I had to have all new furnishings. I am so fond of French panniers, you know. I wouldn’t have been able to fit into the chairs designed thirty years ago.”

Harriet paused beside a small marble chess table. It was set out with a game in progress. “You haven’t given up your chess.”

“Do you remember enough of the game to see where I am? I’m playing white, and my queen is in a veritable nest of pawns. I’m almost certainly beaten.” Jemma dropped into a comfortably wide chair, her panniers effortlessly compressing under her silk skirt.

Harriet sighed. It had always been so, even when they were young girls growing up on adjoining estates. She and Jemma would go for picnics, and she would come back having been bitten by stinging ants, with her hair down her back. Jemma would traipse back to the house wearing a posy of daisies and every hair in place. Sure enough, when she lowered herself cautiously into the chair opposite Jemma, her right-side hoop sprang into the air like a huge blister. She forced it into place.

“I’ve missed you,” Jemma said, stretching out her legs. “I love Paris, as you must know. But I missed you.”

Harriet smiled, a rueful smile. She’d lived a country mouse’s life for the past few years. “You have been in Paris,” she said. “You needn’t tell me flummery like that. Those are the most gorgeous little slippers, by the way.”

“Paris is full of Frenchwomen. They are nice slippers, aren’t they? I like the embroidery. I have them in three different shades.”

“The fact that Paris is full of Frenchwomen surely came as no surprise?”

“That’s my Harriet! I missed your peppery little comments. You always deflated my absurdities.” She leaned forward. “Are you all right? You seem tired.”

“I should be quite over Benjamin’s death,” Harriet said. “It’s been twenty-two months. But somehow thinking of him makes me tired, and I can’t stop thinking, no matter how I try.”

“Thinking of Beaumont makes me tired, and he’s not even dead. At any rate, Frenchwomen make difficult friends. They’re given to thinking that Englishwomen are, by nature, inelegant and rather foolish. But even if one overcomes the prejudices of one’s nationality, I have never felt as easy with a Frenchwoman as I do with you, Harriet.” And as if to demonstrate her point, she stood up, reached under her skirts and untied her panniers. With a little clatter they fell to the ground and Jemma curled bonelessly back into the chair. “Go on,” she said, “you do it too! You are spending the day with me, aren’t you? I must introduce you to Roberta; she’s a young relative come to live with me and make her debut.”

Eloisa James Books | Romance Books | Desperate Duchesses Series Books