“Were they good to you?”

“Oh yes. They were Italian, you know, so they had a different idea of family life than do many English parents. There were nursemaids, of course, but both of my parents visited the nursery every day. I spent a great deal of time with my mother, in particular.”

“And when they died, you were sent here, to my mother?”

“Until my aunt took me away again.”

“Probably even if your aunt had been busking at the side of the road, it would have been the right thing to do,” he said, putting down his fork and knife.

“The wife of a future duke playing for pennies along with Mr. McGurdy?” she said, laughing a bit.

“My mother has a difficult character,” Simeon said. “Your aunt was right. I had no right to criticize her earlier. It is no one’s business how you spent your time with your aunt, and certainly not mine, given my lengthy absence.”

Isidore was conscious of a warm glow under her breastbone. It wasn’t a seductive glow, though, and some time later her so-called husband began making his way out of the cottage without taking even the smallest liberty. In fact, without a single flirtatious comment.

“Wait!” she said, when he had a hand on the door.

He turned.

She walked toward him, not with her signature sleepy look, nor with a little smile of interest, none of the tricks she had used to reduce men to their knees in the past. Instead she just walked to him and looked up, assessing the strong line of his jaw, the slightly wild cut of his hair, the breadth of his shoulders. He looked like a man, an adult. A grown man.

It gave her a little pulse of anxiety, as if she’d been playing with boys up until now. There was something different about the intensity and the fire inside Simeon.

“Will you kiss me good-night, please?” she said.

“Kiss you?”

“Yes. It’s customary for married couples.”

She thought he would say they weren’t married, but he didn’t. Instead, he just moved forward and lowered his head, kissed her.

It was over in a second. She had a fleeting sensation of firm lips, a tiny scent of something…him…male, slightly spicy. And he moved back.

She blinked at him, thinking that kissing wasn’t what she expected; it wasn’t as good.

“Damn.” His voice was quiet, but the night was quiet too.

“What?”

“That wasn’t your first kiss, was it?”

“Actually, it was,” she said. “Though—” She caught the words back. Why had she waited, evaded so many lips, never allowed herself to be kissed? It was nothing. Nothing special.

But then he moved closer again. “It’s all right,” she said hastily, sensing that he meant to kiss her again.

This time his arms came around her slowly, and she had time to see the planes of his face, the way he looked straight into her eyes, the way his body loomed over hers…This time when his lips touched hers, they didn’t slide away immediately.

She had seen kissing. She knew that it was done with open mouths, that it made women cling to their lovers, as if their knees were failing them.

She knew that, all that, and yet—

He kissed her hard this time, not a fleeting caress, but a command. His arms slipped past her, braced against the wall, and his body came against hers. She gasped at the strength of it, the heat, and then their mouths were open together. It was like an open flame that rushed through Isidore’s body—the taste of him, the feeling of it, the kiss, his body.

She shivered, made an inarticulate murmur, a noise, a cry. Their tongues met and sang together. Her mind reeled and she wound her arms around his neck. Gone were all her thoughts of seduction, of fragile English brides.

“Yes,” she whispered into his mouth, her body against his. Her breasts didn’t feel like large objects meant to attract men now. They were on fire, tingling from where they rubbed against his coat. He pulled her tighter, and another little moan came from her throat. He kissed her hard, pushing her against the wall. She wanted to open her eyes, but desire swamped her, betrayed her voice and her logical mind and her plans. She could only cling to him and kiss him back, her tongue touching his and retreating.

Growing bolder, responding to the muffled groan that seemed to come from his chest, not from his mouth.

Finally he pulled back.

“Was that your first kiss?” she asked, when she could speak again.

He stood for a moment, the firelight cascading off the gleam of his hair. Half his face was in shadow.

Finally, he said quietly, “No.”

“Ah.” She didn’t know what she had wanted to hear. Of course he was experienced at kissing. How could he—how could they have—

“It was my second,” he said. “The first was a moment or two ago, but I’m not sure they belong in the same category.”

And then he was gone, the door closing on a swirl of evening air.

Chapter Eighteen

Revels House

March 1, 1784

The next morning Isidore rose to find a light rain falling. She had a bath, sat by the fire, and read Tales of the Nile while Lucille fussed with her clothing.

But it was no good. She didn’t want to sit in her cottage while Simeon was off in the main house by himself. She didn’t want to wait for him, like a docile little mouse waiting for the cat to pay a call, to find time to discuss the end of their marriage. Besides, their marriage wasn’t over, even if he didn’t know it yet.

A few seconds later she was shaking the rain from her plumed hat, and handing it to Honeydew. “Your Grace,” he was saying. “May I serve you some tea?”

Isidore shook her head. She was looking around the high entrance hall. It wasn’t in terrible shape, though the marble was cracked, and the paneling on one door looked scuffed. “What happened to this?” she said, walking over to inspect it before she even off took her pelisse.

“The late duke’s dog was a terrible scratcher,” Honeydew said. She was getting to know him now, and that quiet tone implied severe disapproval.

“We need some foolscap,” she told him, giving her dripping pelisse to a footman. “And a quill. I shall make lists of what needs to be done, and I might as well start with the entry.”

She began prowling around the walls, looking at the pictures, the paneling, and the moldings.

“If Your Grace will allow me to act as your secretary,” Honeydew said in a tone mingled with astonishment and gratitude.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. She had discovered a small painting next to the door leading to the drawing room. It was hanging askew and its frame was broken. But it was a lovely treatment of a dog with a pigeon. “Is this the dog in question?”

Honeydew turned from sending one of the footmen running for paper. “Exactly so, Your Grace. The former duke had his dog painted in a variety of poses.”

“This is lovely,” Isidore said. “Was the artist ever paid?”

“Yes,” Honeydew said, rather surprisingly.

Isidore nodded. “Is the duke in his study?”

“He is working. I’m afraid that the maids discovered a great nest of papers in one of the cupboards in the master bedchamber,” Honeydew said. “It appears they include some bills in arrears.”

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