She leaned forward, employing the smile that set half of Paris on fire during her twentieth year. That would be the male half, naturally.

“Do tell me about yourself, Simeon?” she cooed. “I feel as if I hardly know you.” In her experience, there was nothing a man liked more than to talk about himself.

Simeon put his heavy linen napkin in his lap. “I am so uninteresting,” he said blandly. “I would prefer to hear about you. What have you done during the years while I was wandering around Abyssinia and the like?”

He was obviously a worthy opponent. He looked genial, friendly, utterly calm—and about as interested as he would be if she were a nursemaid.

“I traveled Europe with my aunt,” she said. “Surely you remember from my letters?” She let just a tiny edge sharpen her words.

The footman was pouring wine and Isidore noticed out of the corner of her eye that Godfrey was drinking with marked enthusiasm. Did boys of that age drink wine? She had the vague idea they were all tucked away in schools; certainly one never saw them at formal dinners.

“I expect that many of your letters did not reach me. I remember getting a note from my solicitor once informing me of some action he’d taken on your behalf.”

“Weren’t you concerned that I might discuss intimate matters in my letters?”

He looked surprised. “I never considered the possibility, given as we had never met. What intimacies could we exchange? Of course I instructed my solicitors to act on my behalf with regard to any missive from my family that appeared on their desk. One never knew how long it would take to get mail, let alone to return my instructions to London.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder where your wife was?”

He paused for a moment and then said: “No.”

Well, that was straightforward.

“I wondered where you were,” Godfrey said eagerly. “I still remember your stay at our house, though it was brief.”

“Impossible,” Isidore said. He was in that gangly stage, where his legs seemed impossibly long. He had the nose of a man and the eyes of a child. “You were only…how old? It was ’73.”

“I was almost three,” Godfrey said. “Don’t you remember playing peek-a-boo with me? I thought perhaps you had come to live with us.”

“I did,” Isidore said, seeing no reason to lie to him. “But I caused your mother such discomfort that my aunt decided it was better that I travel with her.”

He nodded. “The servants told stories about your visit for years.”

She raised an eyebrow.

He had a funny little grin, this brother of Cosway’s. “No one before or after has called the duchess a termagant to her face.”

“There you see,” Isidore said. “What a good thing it was that my aunt agreed to take me with her. The heart palpitations your mother escaped once I left can only be imagined. I trust,” she added punctiliously, remembering that she was speaking to a child and should add guidance, “that you did not follow in my disreputable example.”

“She’s not so terrible,” Godfrey said earnestly. “Truly. She gets frightened about money, and that makes her sniffy.”

Simeon reached out and knocked his brother on the shoulder in what Isidore assumed was a fraternal gesture.

Honeydew entered, followed by footmen carrying covered dishes. They were placed on the side table, just as she had instructed when she was envisioning a seductive meal. Honeydew waved the footmen outside and served the table himself as the three of them sat in utter silence. Godfrey had finished his wine, so Honeydew poured him another glass before retiring to the great house. Godfrey looked interestingly pink, and Isidore decided he was not used to imbibing.

Simeon’s eyes had a kind of ironic laziness to them that she found rather attractive, given that most men’s eyes took on a feverish gleam if she paid them attention, especially with her bosom on display.

“Did you and your aunt live anywhere in particular?” he asked.

He really had ignored all her letters, or not received them.

“We lived in Venice a great deal of the time,” she explained, “as my family is from that city. But my aunt plays the violin, and so we traveled to various European capitals and performed in the courts.”

“She is a musician? You were travelling around Europe with a performing musician?” Now he looked surprised.

“We always had enough to eat, Simeon. In case you were picturing her playing for pennies by the side of the road.”

“Why didn’t you inform my solicitor if you were in that sort of situation? It was utterly inappropriate for a duchess and I would never have allowed it!”

Godfrey was halfway through his second glass of wine but paused with the glass halfway to his lips. “Did you travel about in fairs?” he asked eagerly. “I love fairs! One came through the village and my mother allowed me to attend. There was a wonderful fiddler named Mr. McGurdy. Did you ever happen to meet him?”

“No, I didn’t meet Mr. McGurdy,” Isidore said, enjoying herself hugely. “Why Simeon, are you saying that you would have travelled back to England before completing your investigation of the Nile had you known I was in extremis?”

He gave her a sour look. “I would have instructed my solicitors to find you an appropriate situation if you didn’t wish to return to my mother’s house.”

“A nunnery, perhaps?” Isidore asked mockingly.

For a moment his eyes lingered on her chest. “They wouldn’t have had you.” She felt a flare of triumph.

“Was it hard sleeping by the side of the road?” Godfrey asked. He had finished his second glass and was sawing away at a piece of chicken in a manner that suggested his coordination was impaired.

“I never slept by the side of the road,” Isidore said, adding primly, “thank goodness.”

“I just don’t understand this family!” Simeon said, putting down his cutlery. “Isidore, you had access to whatever funds you wished. Not only did your parents leave you a considerable inheritance, but you could have drawn on my funds at any point. Why were you travelling with fairs? Why is everyone’s attitude toward money so peculiar?”

“Mother doesn’t know you have all that money,” Godfrey said, turning to his brother owlishly. “She thinks we don’t have any.”

“She knows,” Simeon said grimly. “She sees the books. She simply can’t bring herself to disperse any of it.”

Godfrey frowned. “You mean—”

Isidore shot her husband a look. His little brother had the bewildered look of a child who’s been lied to. “Her Grace showed her respect for her husband by continuing to operate the estate precisely as he had done, I have no doubt,” she said.

Godfrey brightened. “Yes, of course. Father never allowed any untoward expenditures. He considered it a point of honor.”

“There’s little honor in not paying tradesmen for their honest work,” Simeon said.

Godfrey looked stricken again. Isidore took another try. “When I visited this house many years ago, I remember being rather surprised by your father’s frugal attitude. But in a frank discussion with your mother, she informed me that he considered himself merely the guardian of the duchy and hoped to pass on his estates intact, without wasting his substance as so many noblemen do.”

Eloisa James Books | Romance Books | Desperate Duchesses Series Books