Lord Strange’s country estate
February 19, 1784
Women have been dressing to entice men ever since Eve fashioned her first fig leaf. Adam was probably irritable after that business with the apple, so Eve would have done her best with some leaves and string.
So why was it still so hard to decide what to wear? As her maid tossed a seventh rejected gown onto the bed, Isidore, Duchess of Cosway, tried to decide whether her husband would prefer her in a ruby-colored velvet with a low décolletage or a sky-blue open robe with a little train.
The decision would be easier if she’d actually met the husband in question. “Your Grace looked delightful in the white lustring silk,” her maid said, a mulish set to her jaw indicating that Lucille was losing patience with all the tiny buttons, hooks, petticoats, and panniers involved in each change.
“It would be so much less complicated if I only had a few vines to work with, the way Eve did,” Isidore said. “Though my marriage could hardly be called Edenic.”
Lucille rolled her eyes. She wasn’t given to philosophical musings about marriage.
Not only were Eve’s sartorial options limited, but she and Adam went into the wilderness. Whereas she, Isidore, had lured her husband, the Duke of Cosway, out of the wilderness of equatorial Africa, and yet the note she’d received saying he’d arrive tonight sounded just as peeved as Adam. Men never liked to be given directions.
She should probably wear the pale yellow gown, the one embroidered with flower petals. It had a disarming air of female fragility. Isidore plucked it back off the bed and held it in front of herself, staring into the glass. Never mind the fact that docility wasn’t her best virtue; she could certainly look the part. For a while.
“That’s an excellent choice, Your Grace,” Lucille said encouragingly. “You’ll look as sweet as butter.”
The dress was edged in delicate lace and dotted with pale ribbons. “We’ll put flowers in your hair,” Lucille continued. “Or perhaps small pearls. We could even add a bit of lace to the bodice.” She waved her hand in the general area of Isidore’s chest.
Masking her bosom (one of Isidore’s best features, to her mind) seemed like taking wifely modesty too far. “Pearls?” she said dubiously.
“And,” Lucille said, getting into the spirit, “you could carry that little prayer book from your mother, the one covered with lace.”
“Prayer book? You want me to carry a prayer book downstairs? Lucille, have you forgotten that we are currently at the most notorious house party in all England? There’s not a guest at Lord Strange’s party who even owns a prayer book except myself!”
“Her Grace, the Duchess of Berrow, has a prayer book,” Lucille pointed out.
“Since Harriet happens to be at this party incognito—and dressed as a man—I doubt that she will be wandering around with her prayer book in hand.”
“It would give you an air of virtue,” her maid said stubbornly.
“It would give me the air of a vicar’s wife,” Isidore said, throwing the dress back onto the heap.
“You’re meeting His Grace for the first time. You don’t want to look as if you belong at one of Lord Strange’s parties. In that dress you look as young as a debutante,” Lucille added, obviously thinking she’d hit on a powerful point.
That settled it. Isidore was definitely not wearing the yellow gown, nor pearls either. She was no debutante: she was all of twenty-three years old, even if she was meeting her husband for the first time, after eleven years of marriage. They’d married by proxy, but Cosway hadn’t bothered to return when she was sixteen—or eighteen—or even twenty. He had no right to expect that she’d look like a debutante. He should have imagined what it was like to get older and older while her friends married and had children. It was a wonder that she wasn’t as dried up as an apple.
A chilling thought. What if he decided that she really was nothing more than a dried-up apple? She was far beyond the age of a debutante, after all.
The very thought made Isidore’s backbone straighten. She’d played the docile wife for years, preserving her reputation, waiting for her husband’s return. Longing for his return, if she admitted the truth to herself.
And what made Cosway finally come home? Did he suddenly remember that they’d never met? No. It was the news that his wife was visiting a house party more famous for its debauchery than its lemon cakes. She should have thrown away her reputation years ago, and he would have trotted happily out of the jungle like a dog on a leash.
“The silver with diamonds,” she said decisively.
Lucille would have paled, but her maquillage didn’t allow for such extravagancies of emotion. “Oh, Your Grace,” she said, clasping her hands like a heroine about to be thrown from the parapet, “if you won’t wear the yellow, at least choose a gown that has some claim to modesty!”
“No,” Isidore said, her mind made up. “Do you know what His Grace’s note says to me, Lucille?”
“Of course not, Your Grace.” Lucille was carefully displacing the pile of glowing silk and satin, looking for Isidore’s most scandalous costume, the one she rarely wore after its first airing resulted in an impromptu duel between two besotted Frenchmen, fought on the cobbles in front of Versailles.
“It says,” Isidore said, snatching up the piece of stationery that had arrived a few hours before: “I discover I have some missing property. And he added a cryptic comment that seemingly announces his imminent arrival: Tonight.”
Lucille looked up, blinking. “What?”
“My husband appears to think I’m a missing trunk. Perhaps he considers it too much work to travel from London to recover me from Lord Strange’s party. Perhaps he expected that I would be waiting on the pier for his boat to come in. Perhaps he thinks I’ve been there for years, tears dripping down my face as I waited for his return!”
Lucille had a hard-headed French turn of mind, so she ignored the edge in Isidore’s voice. She straightened with a gorgeous swath of pale silver silk, glittering with small diamonds. “Will you desire diamonds in your hair as well?” she inquired.
This particular dress fit so closely that Isidore could wear only the smallest corset, designed to plump her breasts and narrow her waist. The gown was sewn by a dressmaker to Queen Marie Antoinette, and it presupposed that its owner would grace the mirrored halls of Versailles—a far cry from the smoky corridors of Strange’s residence. Not to mention the fact that she would be rubbing shoulders with everyone from dukes to jugglers. Still…
“Yes,” she said. “I may lose a few diamonds by the end of the evening. But I want my husband to understand that I am no stray trunk that he can simply throw into his carriage and transport to London.”
Lucille laughed at that, and began to nimbly lace the proper corset. Isidore stared in the mirror, wondering just what the Duke of Cosway expected his wife to look like. She looked nothing like a pale English rose, given her generous curves and dark hair.
It rankled that Cosway had spent years jaunting around foreign lands, while she waited for him to return. Had he even thought of her in the past ten years? Had he ever wondered what had become of the twelve-year-old girl who married him by proxy?