“You have a reasonable suspicion that my pizzle is not in working condition. Out of shape. Withered from lack of use. Tired from my own handling—”
“So I would have to prove it to you, obviously, before I could expect you to commit to our marriage.”
“But you yourself are not committed, since I’m not a docile little hen-wit.”
There was a moment of silence in the carriage. Her summary of his marital ambitions seemed unnecessarily harsh. “It’s not that I want to marry an unintelligent woman,” he began painstakingly, but she interrupted him.
“You just don’t want to marry me.”
“It’s not a question of you, Isidore.”
He had that look again, the one of total calm and control. Isidore understood Simeon a bit better now—and pitied him for it. Her husband thought he had anger and lust under control, not to mention fear. He thought he had life under control.
He was a fool, but that wasn’t the same thing as being a madman, the way she and Jemma had thought he might be. And from what he was saying, he wasn’t incapable. Clearly, she needed to think about what to do next.
“If we call it off, I’ll go back to Africa directly,” he offered. “Sign the papers and keep out of your hair while you find another husband.”
She nodded. “Very generous of you.” She looked down and found that her hands had curled into fists. We call it off? Simeon clearly thought that he was as much in control of the end of their marriage as he had been of the first eleven years.
“I expect it might put the new husband off his feed to have the old husband hanging around assessing him,” Simeon said. “I might want to engage in a pizzle contest, for example.”
Isidore smiled stiffly. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw such a contest in Smyrna.”
“On the Mediterranean sea, part of the Anatolian Empire. I met a vizier and his brother who were traveling to present themselves as possible spouses to a sheikh’s daughter. The decisive factor? A pizzle contest.”
“Size and endurance,” Simeon said. “The sheikh made his entire harem available for the duration of the contest. He invited me to join the contest.”
“Was the sheikh just taking anyone? Not that they shouldn’t have offered it to you, but you are married,” Isidore pointed out.
“Oh, the sheikh wouldn’t have cared about an English marriage. In order to enter the contest, you had to offer a tiger ruby. And as it happened, I have something of a collection. I do believe that some of the gentlemen in question had no expectation of winning the princess’s hand but they were happily offering up tiger rubies anyway.”
“Because of the harem,” Isidore asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Beautiful women,” Simeon said. “Exquisite in every way.”
“Wonderful.” Her tone could have curdled milk. “How did you ever resist the temptation?”
He grinned at her. “I had you.”
“Well,” Isidore said, “You didn’t—”
“Have you,” he put in. “You’re right. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t have you. Yet. But you were worth more than a night in a harem and a tiger ruby.”
Isidore thought of various remarks she might make, comparing her worth to that of the hen-wit, and stopped herself. “What does a tiger ruby look like? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Gorgeous: rubies with a tawny yellow streak through them. They’re tremendously rare. In the end the sheikh was able to garner only eight such rubies even with the lure of his harem.”
“How on earth do you know? Did you go to the wedding?”
“Of course! Vizier Takla Haymanot won, and after eleven days of feasting (Takla needed a rest after the contest), he married the sheikh’s daughter. Then I bought the eight rubies from the sheikh and we were all happy.”
“Will you show me one?”
“Not at the moment. They’re in the bank.”
“In a bank? If I had rubies like that—though of course their history is rather disagreeable…”
“Disagreeable? They were traded for pleasure.”
“I doubt the ladies of the harem felt so.”
“If they didn’t, they did a good job disguising it. They got to choose, you know.”
Isidore felt herself turning a bit pink, but she was fascinated. “They got to choose?”
“You have to understand that this particular sheikh had two hundred and thirteen wives in his harem. And he himself was rather elderly. So the young ladies in his harem had little entertainment. The eight suitors were brought forward, and the ladies were allowed to choose. That was another aspect of the contest: if no lady chose to bed a suitor in a given round, he was out of the competition.”
“You would look lovely in a harem veil,” he remarked.
If she forced a consummation to the marriage by prancing about wearing nothing but a veil, Simeon would never be granted an annulment. It was something to think about.
“I rather like the way that sheikh managed things,” Isidore said.
“Though if I were the princess, I would have talked the sheikh into changing the contest.”
“And?” Simeon prompted.
“I think it would be very interesting if the princess too had been able to choose her future consort, the way the ladies of the harem were. I presume the gentlemen in question were not dressed?”
He looked genuinely surprised, which was very satisfying. He needn’t think he was the only one who could talk about bawdy things.
The carriage drew to a halt and she automatically started putting her gloves back on.
Simeon reached over and pulled one away.
Then he snatched the other. And finally, when the carriage door opened, he flung them straight out into the street. They flew past the face of a startled groomsman, who gave a little shriek and stumbled backward, falling onto his bottom.
“You are utterly deranged!” Isidore said with conviction, leaning forward to look at the street. “I can’t go to my appointment without gloves.” Sure enough, her blue gloves were lying in a puddle of blackened rainwater.
“You hate them,” Simeon said, leaping out of the carriage and holding out his own ungloved hand.
She ground her teeth and then put her hand in his.
The shock of heat she felt was entirely unreasonable.
65 Blackfriars Street
February 27, 1784
They were before a row of houses, in a part of London Simeon didn’t know. Not that he really knew London. “Doesn’t your mantua-maker own a shop?” he asked. The groomsman was standing at the door of a small house.
“We are visiting Signora Angelico’s studio, Cosway,” Isidore told him. “This is a great honor, extended only to her countrywomen, so please try to behave yourself.”
“Couldn’t you call me by my given name?”
“It’s not polite.”
He ignored that. “My name is Simeon. It’s a good, workable name and I thank God I didn’t end up Godfrey, like my poor brother.”