She was like a Renaissance princess. Or a queen like Cleopatra.
She was the most sensual woman he’d ever seen in his life, and he had the women of the Sultan of Illa’s harem for comparison.
If Isidore put on a gauzy dress and a couple of bracelets, she would have thrown the sultan’s first wife into the shade. She was ravishing, with a mouth like a ripe cherry and a body that would make a eunuch weep. She was not what he expected in a wife.
In truth, she was not what he wanted in a wife.
Wandering the East for years had taught him a few things about women and men, and all his conclusions led in one direction: it was much easier for a man if he had a docile wife.
Somehow, without even noticing it, he’d fashioned Isidore into the picture of that wife. Shy, sweet, veiled. Of course he’d been offered women—and women had offered themselves—numerous times over his adult life.
But they had never been tempting enough to overcome the teachings of Valamksepa. Lust, he had said repeatedly, is at the heart of many evils. Simeon had to admit that he probably would have brushed aside the question of evil, except for his inherent dislike of disease. For all he told Isidore that it was a moral decision, he didn’t bother with fooling himself.
He liked to be healthy. Very healthy. And a man has only to be in the East for a day before he becomes aware of just what a syphilitic face looks like without a nose. Or he hears a joke about a private member dropping off the body.
He decided early that it wasn’t worth it. The women he was offered were members of harems. The women who offered themselves were regularly partaking in all sorts of interesting bedroom activities, with a variety of partners.
He could wait.
And he had waited.
Imagining, all the time, his cool, docile wife…the one who would have to be coaxed into kissing him, the one who would scream faintly at the sight of his body. In the month after he decided to return to England, he ran miles across the desert at night, curbing his body, preparing himself for careful, delicate advances to a terrified woman.
Idiot that he was.
His wife burned with sensuality. When he first met her she was wearing a gown that fit like a glove. It was the color of rain in the summer, and it sparkled with tiny diamonds. She had them in her hair too, and on her slippers. Everything about her said, I am delicious. I am expensive. I am a duchess.
And everything about her face said, I don’t want to be a virgin.
The front door to the Duke of Beaumont’s house opened and a footman trotted down the steps. Simeon’s groomsmen had already leapt down and were surrounding the carriage, rigidly at attention, like tin soldiers.
Isidore greeted him at the door to the sitting room. She wasn’t the kind to wait sedately in a chair for a man’s arrival. She was dressed in a gown that resembled a man’s military costume. Huge flaps at the shoulders narrowed to a point at her waist before the skirts belled out again, over panniers, he supposed. He’d seen a few women wearing those in the last few years—mostly missionaries’ wives, trying to preserve a ridiculous way of life while living in the wilds.
But on Isidore he suddenly understood the fashion. It was made to draw a man’s eyes to the waist. Her impossibly small, delicate waist. And then above that, to the way her breasts swelled, with no hoops, just delicious, pink flesh against the military braid of her—
He wrenched his eyes away.
What was he doing? He didn’t care about women’s clothing. Nor the body within. Valamksepa would say such things were mere frivolities.
“Good morning, Isidore,” he said, once the door closed behind the butler.
“Duke,” she said, with a bend of her head.
“Even my mother didn’t address my father with such formality in private.”
“Good morning, Cosway,” she said, meeting his eyes. Her eyes were almond-shaped, and so beautiful that his heart skipped a beat.
A pulse of annoyance followed directly afterwards.
He didn’t want a wife so beautiful that every jackal for miles would be slavering at her heels. No wonder his mother started babbling when she learned that Isidore was at Lord Strange’s house party. Every hound in five countries must have been sniffing after her.
One might worry whether she had lost her virginity—but no. Isidore’s eyes were clear and true. Disdainful…annoyed…virginal. She had waited for him. There was something about that fact that gave him a queer feeling.
“My given name is Simeon,” he said.
“We hardly know each other.” Once you got past her beauty, there was another thing about her. She was angry.
He’d spent years curbing his bodily impulses—but every inch of his body was telling him like a drumbeat, she’s yours, yours, yours…take her! Every bit of native caution, learned from years of dangerous living, was on the alert.
He could do without her.
It would ruin the quality and calmness of his life to have Isidore Del’Fino as a wife. She had turned around and was now sitting down on a little sofa, pulling off her gloves. Her fingers were slender, beautiful, pink-tipped.
“Do you know,” he said, sitting down opposite her, “I think we should discuss the question of annulment.”
She gasped, her eyes flew to his, and one of her gloves dropped to the floor.
“You must have thought of it,” he said, more gently. He picked up her glove and dropped it back in her lap.
“If you would like an annulment, I would not stand in your way.”
She blinked at him for a moment, and then said, “I don’t understand you.”
He didn’t understand himself. He’d been offered one of the most beautiful women on three continents, and he was throwing her away. But she was trouble. The skin prickling all over his body told him that…as much trouble as he’d ever encountered, and that included the crocodile who almost chewed off his toes.
“I know that I behaved in an extraordinarily ungracious way, wandering around foreign parts and not returning to consummate our marriage. The least I can do is offer you another option, should you wish to take it. My mother has made it vehemently clear that I am unfit to marry a proper gentlewoman.”
Her eyes rested on his trousers. He wasn’t wearing breeches. He didn’t mind baring his lower leg when he was running, but he simply couldn’t get used to slipping into stockings. His mother had shrieked, of course. Apparently no one wore trousers except for artisans and eccentrics.
He had replied with the obvious truth: it seemed that he was an eccentric.
“Eccentrics and robbers!” his mother had added. “Yet even they wear white trousers!”
“I am wearing a cravat,” he said to Isidore now.
He couldn’t read her face. She had obviously noted the fact that he wasn’t wearing hair powder or a wig. “I tried on a wig with three rows of little snail shells over the ear. I looked like a lunatic.”
There was just a suspicion of a smile at the corner of her mouth. If he could find rubies that color, he would…
“Do you wear color on your lips?” he asked.
She shot him a look. “Why? Are you averse to women wearing face paint?”
“No, why should I be?” he said, surprised.
She seemed to relax. “There are men who consider themselves an apt judge of what a woman should or shouldn’t wear on her face.”