And she wouldn’t settle for less.
Villiers would be useful in her campaign. He and Elijah had been childhood friends and were now estranged. Good. She would use him. She would use any man in London who asked her to dance, if it would fan a spark of jealousy in her husband’s civilized heart.
But it wasn’t jealousy that could do it. It was she: she had to be more witty, more beautiful, more desirable than she ever had been.
Elijah was seated in the opposite corner of the carriage, looking absently out of the window. As always, his wig was immaculate and discreet. Not for the Duke of Beaumont were pyramids of scented curls or immovable rolls perched on top of frizzled locks. He wore a simple, short-cut wig with curls so small they hardly deserved the label.
Underneath, she knew, he had his hair clipped close to his skull. It was a style that would destroy the appeal of almost every man. But on Elijah it brought into focus his cheekbones and the gaunt, courteous, restrained masculinity of him.
By the time they arrived at Lady Feddrington’s soirée, the receiving line had broken up and the ballroom was crowded. They stood for a moment at the top of the steps leading down into the room.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Elijah murmured. “How on earth do you ladies manage to move about a room like this, given the width of your panniers?”
Jemma smiled at him. “’Tis only the unfashionable who have very wide panniers this season. Look at myself, for instance.”
He looked, and she felt his glance as if it were a touch. Not that she showed it. She had spent years in the court of Versailles; if those years had taught her anything, it was that she should never reveal vulnerability.
“Your skirts look as wide as a barnyard door,” he said to her. But she saw the laughter in his grave eyes. He needed to laugh more.
She met his eyes with the kind of smile that told a man she liked him. It felt odd to give it to her husband. “Narrower than many,” she told him.
“I’m sure you are precisely à la mode,” he said, taking her arm again. “Shall we?”
They reached the bottom of the steps just as the first notes of a minuet sounded. “Would you like to dance?” he asked her. “I realize it is a great faux pas to dance with one’s husband, but you could always say that you got it out of the way.”
She looked up at him and had to swallow because of the beauty of his eyes. She put her hand in his. “You do me too much honor.”
He bowed before her as the music continued, and they moved smoothly, together, into the steps of the dance. It separated them; she felt it as a physical ache.
It brought them back together; she was afraid that her pleasure showed too much in her eyes, and she refused to look at his face. “Look!” she cried, her voice witless, “there’s Lady Piddleton, dancing with Saint Albans. He must be gathering material…he is always so cruel about her.”
Elijah didn’t reply. When she stole a look at him, he met her eyes and there was something there.
Surely he would speak to her. Kiss her again. Tell her…
The dance ended and he bowed. Saint Albans was at her right elbow, her friend Lord Corbin at her left. Lord Sosney walked up with Lord Killigrew, veritably shouting over the din, “Duchess!”
She caught Elijah’s eye for a moment, but he turned away.
And she turned away.
A chess player never shows the moment when she realizes that she might lose a game. That the board has turned against her; the black pieces are clustered for attack. The very best chess players revel in the chance to save themselves.
Jemma reminded herself that she was the very best.
She turned, laughing, to Lord Corbin, holding out her gloved hand to be kissed.
The Dower House
February 29, 1784
The table gleamed softly with old silver. Honeydew had conveyed Mrs. Bullock’s promise that the food would be exquisite. The butler referred darkly to some exigencies in the recent past, but Isidore did not inquire further. She found that a combination of blissful ignorance and high expectations was the best policy when it came to household problems.
She was dressed in an informal open gown of the finest wine-dark silk. The overskirts pulled back into great loops of nearly transparent fabric, tied by forest green knots of silk. It was an unusual and charming garment—and perhaps most importantly, the bodice was cut extremely low.
There was quite a lot of Isidore in the chest area. She generally viewed this feature dispassionately, as an attribute that made certain corsets impossible, and others very uncomfortable. But she wasn’t blind to how much men liked to be presented with abundance; if Cosway turned out to be someone enchanted by an expanse of flesh that would suit a worthy milk cow, Isidore was just the right one to enchant him.
In fact, she thought she had the virginal male fantasy in play. Breasts barely covered, with light, billowing skirts that appeared easy to remove, check. Unpowdered hair piled in loose curls, check. Just a touch of haunting perfume—the sort that smelled clean and innocent rather than French and seductive—check and mate.
Years of assessing male attraction were coming in quite useful. She thought it was quite likely that the duke, her husband, would experience her femininity like a bolt of lightning.
There was only one thing she didn’t envision.
Two males appeared at the door. Make that two virgins. And when they both walked in her front door, Simeon bending his head slightly so as not to strike his forehead on the lintel, it was his little brother Godfrey who looked as if he’d been struck by lightning. He stopped short and Simeon walked straight into him.
His mouth fell open. Strange noises came out, resembling frogs singing on a summer night.
“Good evening, Simeon,” she said, moving forward. Didn’t he have any sense? Couldn’t he have guessed—
Apparently not. Without even a flicker of regret in his eyes, Simeon was turning to his brother and introducing him. “Godfrey, stand tall. You haven’t met the duchess for years, but I’m sure you remember her.”
Godfrey bowed so deeply that she was afraid he wasn’t coming back up again. He did, eventually, face red and hair on end.
She dropped into a curtsy that unfortunately put her breasts directly under his nose. He turned purple and cast a desperate look at his brother.
“It’s my pleasure,” Isidore said. She gave him a kindly smile, one that said calm down.
But the duke was moving into the room and suddenly it seemed to have shrunk to half its size. Isidore stopped herself from falling back. It was just that Simeon was so…male. Very male. Very large.
“What a charming little room this is,” he was saying, wandering about just as if she wasn’t there, quivering like a jelly tart fresh out of the oven.
“Yes, charming,” she said, watching his shoulders. They were broad and beautiful. If he didn’t even kiss her good night, she decided, that meant he was incapable.
Alternatively, it could mean that he found her unattractive. No. That option was unacceptable.
He pulled out her chair and she sat down, mentally giving herself a shake. Obviously, her earlier plan wouldn’t work. But she had once boasted of her ability to make any man flirt. Flirtation was halfway to the bedchamber.
This duke wouldn’t see it coming, and Godfrey could take a lesson in adulthood.