Isidore smiled kindly at her. “I will do my very best to get the dirt out of this room, not to mention this house, which smells worse than most slums.”
“A duchess does not lower herself to such inconsequential matters.”
“Your—and I use the word advisedly—your house looks like the tumble-down shack owned by an impoverished peasant. The house stinks like a privy, the furniture is falling apart, and the servants haven’t been paid. I may not have been raised by a duke, but my father would have been ashamed to treat his dependents as you have routinely treated your staff.”
She paused, but the duchess didn’t seem ready to take up her side of the argument yet, so Isidore continued. “My father would also have been ashamed to allow the house of his forefathers to fall into such disrepair.”
“It is not in disrepair,” the duchess said, her voice a growl. “There might be a piece of rackety furniture here and there that could use repair, but problems with the—”
But Isidore was just beginning. “Broken windows,” she said. “Warped wood that will need to be replaced. The chimney in the west wing seems to have toppled in on itself, from what I could see. My father, Your Grace, would call it a disgrace!”
Her mother-in-law was red in the face and seemed to have blown up slightly, as a frog does before croaking. Isidore reached out and picked up her gloves. “You might be more comfortable retiring to your chambers,” she said, her voice even. “All the furniture in the downstairs rooms will be removed in the next few hours and sent to London for refurbishing or replacement.”
That goaded the duchess into speech. “By whose authority do you dare that action!” she shouted.
Isidore stood. “By my own.” She pulled on her gloves, snapping them onto each finger. “That of the Duchess of Cosway.”
“You’ll bankrupt the estate!”
“Nonsense. The Cosway estate is one of the richest in the kingdom, and even if it were not so, I inherited my father’s entire estate. I, Your Grace, am likely the richest woman in this kingdom, barring their royal highnesses. Not to mention the fact that your son brought back a fortune in tiger rubies from Africa. If we wish to gild this entire house so that they can see the glow from London, we can afford to do so.”
“So that’s the way of the world! The young waste the substance that the elderly worked so hard to build up, on fripperies, trivialities, gilded walls…”
“In this case,” Isidore said briskly, “the young make a necessary outlay of funds to repair the neglect and damage by the uncaring—”
“Don’t you call me uncaring!” the duchess said, leaping to her feet with a great creaking of corsets. “I may not have thought that the broken window was terribly important, and I certainly never prided myself on being one of the richest women in the kingdom, the way you do, but I cared for this estate. I love it. It’s—”
She turned, very precisely, and walked from the room, closing the door behind her.
“Oh…hell,” Isidore said. Obviously she had bungled that. “It’s my temper,” she said out loud, staring down at her gloves.
The door opened again to Honeydew, ushering in a bevy of strong-looking men. “If Your Grace would help us select furniture for the cart, that would be most kind.”
By the end of the morning, the downstairs had been emptied. Even the dining room table was gone. “It’s scarred,” Isidore told Honeydew. “I love that black oak, but it needs work. And frankly, I would prefer a table with more graceful lines. I have a mind to order a complete dining room set by Georges Jacob. He created a beautiful set for Queen Marie Antoinette in her Petit Trianon.”
Honeydew gulped. “From France, Your Grace?”
“Yes, of course,” Isidore said. She was ticking off a mental list on her fingers. “The furniture is dispatched to Mr. Seddon’s workshop. This afternoon I’ll send to Signora Angelico about an appropriate person to sew new curtains, and another to Antoine-Joseph Peyre about the broken statuary in the ballroom.” She paused because Honeydew looked confused. “Monsieur Peyre did some work on my palazzo in Venice, and it so happens that he’s in London. I’m sure that he will help us.”
“Palazzo?” Honeydew enquired.
Isidore smiled at him. “If only it were closer, I would have furniture shipped from there. Monsieur Peyre worked all my walls in Venice with delicious flowers, in the style that I most prefer.”
“By next week?” Honeydew said faintly.
“He won’t finish by then, of course.”
She turned about as she heard the study door open: the study was the only room on the first floor that they had not yet stripped of its furnishings. Simeon walked out. His hair was standing on end and there were dark circles under his eyes. “Honeydew,” he said, apparently not even seeing her, “have you ever heard of the Brothers Verbeckt?”
“They are asking for a large sum and though the reference is rather obscure, they seem to be talking of hunting. I thought perhaps the author was German.”
“That would be Verby, down in the village,” Honeydew said, his face clearing. “Now that’s a pack of nonsense! For hunting, does he say? Verby used to go along with your father as a gun-cleaner now and then, and only when the duke had no one better to take with him. Brothers Verbeckt indeed!”
Simeon turned to Isidore and bowed. “Forgive me, duchess; I didn’t see you were there.”
That was a lie. Isidore knew the moment his door opened. She could feel his presence even behind the door, as she made her lists. And the moment they were standing together in the same room, desire strung between them like an invisible thread.
But she smiled at him. He wanted to preserve the illusion of his life without desire, without fear. “Good morning.”
His eyes drifted over her and even though she was rather dusty and tired, suddenly, under his gaze, she felt all curves and female beauty.
“I’ve heard mysterious thumps,” he said, recovering first. “What on earth has been happening, Honeydew?”
“Her Grace has sent all the furniture to London,” Honeydew said. He was no fool, and was backing toward the hallway. “If you’ll forgive me, Your Graces, I must see to luncheon.” He stopped. “The table!”
“We’ll eat in the Dower House,” Isidore said soothingly. “Her Grace will undoubtedly wish a light luncheon in her chambers, just as she did last night.”
“What happened to the table?” Simeon asked, once Honeydew disappeared. “Did a leg fall off?”
“Oh no,” Isidore said. “I’ve sent everything to London, just as Honeydew said. Wouldn’t you like to see?”
They walked into the dining room. Without furniture, and with the moldering curtains torn down, it was a wide, echoing room. Honeydew had sent maids in the moment the furniture was gone, and even the walls glistened.
“The house should be ready to receive guests in a few weeks at most,” Isidore said, since Simeon seemed to be silenced by the total lack of furniture.
“You got rid of all the furniture?”
There was a kind of controlled anger in his voice that made Isidore’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t get rid of it,” she said. “Well, I got rid of some it. But everything that could be refurbished has been sent to London.”