“I gather you’ve reached the part when he talks about my ability to arbitrate standards of respectability,” Villiers said.
“I was just thinking of you, all booted and laced, on board that ship.”
“The letter continues.”
My mother assures me that I stand to blacken the title of Cosway throughout England for the next hundred years. If you could pay me a visit at Revels House, I would be most grateful.
Yours & etc.
Jemma looked up. “What on earth can he be planning? Isidore said that he’d alluded to a wedding celebration that included some sort of animal sacrifice—but he can’t be thinking of enacting a primitive rite here. He would be arrested!”
“Not for animal sacrifice,” Villiers said. “As someone who loves sirloin, I can assure you that many cattle have been sacrificed to keep me happy.”
“You know what I mean,” Jemma said. “And Isidore mentioned orgies.”
“Well, that settles it. I knew you were the person to speak to. I shall have to pay him a visit, if only so that I can be part of the orgy planning.”
“Have you participated in many?”
“Orgies or weddings?” he asked innocently.
“I doubt you have been in any weddings,” she pointed out. “Your engagement to my ward was your first and last, to the best of my knowledge.”
“Alack,” he said. “My experience with orgies is just as thin. This will be such an education for me, combining two pursuits I have religiously avoided.”
“You surprise me,” Jemma said. “I would have thought you had indulged in your youth, and then tired of such passionate pursuits.”
“The problem lies in my dukedom, I suppose, or in my spoiled nature. I have always thought of orgies as opportunities to share—and I don’t do that very well.”
“Then I wonder why you have pursued affaires with married women,” Jemma said.
“Rarely. Very rarely, and only against my better judgment.”
“Only when the temptation is so great that there seemed no other woman in the world,” he added gently.
“In fact, I must tell you that my reputation may be blacker than I deserve. I have, as yet, had no affaires of that nature.” He rose. “I must continue to my appointment, duchess.”
She stayed in her seat for a moment, then looked up at him. “Leopold.”
Only the lowering of his eyelids showed that he registered her use of his personal name.
But she wasn’t sure exactly what to say.
“I almost forgot,” he said. “I brought you a present.”
She rose, unable to find words, unsure what her response should be. “A present?”
He took out a fan and laid it on the table. “A mere token, a nothing. It made me think of you.” He turned to go.
He looked back.
“When do you go to Revels House?”
“I shall return to Fonthill tomorrow. If Strange’s daughter is still ill, I shall travel on to Revels House in a few days.”
“I shall make very sure that you are invited to the wedding, naturally.”
“Beaumont and I shall be happy to attend.” She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to bring her husband’s name into the conversation. It wasn’t as if Elijah didn’t—hadn’t—Elijah himself refused to bed her until the chess game with Villiers was over. He understood the potential that she might have an affaire with Villiers.
Jemma sat for a long time after the door closed behind Villiers and his rose-colored silks…thinking of men. Of husbands, lovers, chess masters, heirs.
Gore House, Kensington
London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont
February 27, 1784
The next morning
Isidore gave the direction to the groomsman, climbed into the carriage, and started pulling off her gloves.
“Do you always take off your gloves whenever possible?” Simeon asked.
Isidore glanced at him. “You aren’t wearing gloves either.” Nor a cravat, nor a wig, nor a waistcoat, but why indulge in specifics?
“I dislike gloves, and it seems you do as well.”
“Yes,” she admitted.
He leaned forward and took her hand, turned it over. His hand was large and callused, like a working man’s hands. He wore no rings, not even a signet.
“Will you tell my fortune?” she asked.
“I don’t know how. I had my fortune told once in India. The whole experience scared me to death and I never toyed with such people again.”
“What did he say?” It was hard to imagine Cosway, who looked large and fearless, quailing before a fortuneteller.
“He told me that it was up to me to make sure that my fortune didn’t turn out as he prophesied.”
Isidore succumbed to curiosity. “Please tell!”
He shook his head. “Maybe when we’re old and gray.”
“If we’re old and gray together!” she pointed out.
“Are you angry at me because I didn’t return when you came of age or because I’m offering you the chance now to annul the marriage?”
“I’m not angry with you,” Isidore said, withdrawing her hand. Her voice sounded petulant, but she felt out of her depth with this huge man.
Shamefully, she kept looking at him and thinking virgin? How could he be a virgin? He looked all man, all male…
She could feel her cheeks getting pink.
“Or are you angry at me because I’m not knowledgeable about conjugal intimacies?”
“No!” she said, turning to the window. “Look, Cosway, we’re passing by Somerset House. If you crane your neck you might see the loggia on the south terrace. It was just finished…The Inns of Court are very close now.”
It was barely an hour before they were back in the carriage again. Isidore was in shock.
“I just can’t believe it!” she said. “You ought to be able to annul a marriage easily on the grounds of nonconsummation. I’m sure everyone told me so a thousand times over the past few years.”
Her husband raised an eyebrow. “I had no idea that people were so interested in the state of our bedchamber.”
“Cosway,” Isidore said impatiently, “I am twenty-three years old. I’ve been jaunting around Europe for years. Unless people actually checked their Debrett’s, they tended to think we were merely engaged, and I never corrected that impression. Even Jemma, one of my closest friends, thought that for a time. It was less humiliating to let people think such.”
“But there are plenty who read their Debrett’s like a Bible, so they know of the proxy wedding. They would inquire when you were returning. Nonconsummation has been mentioned to me many times. I know Villiers brought it up. And now it seems that it isn’t an option.”
“I’m sorry,” Cosway said. “Even if it were legal, I would have to pass a test of my incapability. I can’t.”
Isidore made herself say the words, because she had to know: “Are you sure about that?”