“They’re used to going into a house where a man has been dead for a month or two,” Merkin continued, hooking his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets and rocking back and forth a bit. “They take whatever money’s on the corpse, and see it as their due. Same for a floater. If they pick up a knickknack or two in a house of that type, who’s to bother? There’s no relatives, see? Otherwise they would have found the poor dead soul before he moldered away.”
“Absolutely,” Simeon assured him.
“I’ll move everything to the barn,” Honeydew said. “And guard it.”
“That’ll do it,” Merkin said. “They’re not really robbers.”
“Just thieves,” Honeydew put in.
“They might pick up a thing here or there, something left before their eye, but as I say, Yer Grace, they’re doing a job as no one else will do.” He turned. “Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve got to make arrangements. Mr. Honeydew here showed me where the pipes come out on the hillside. We’ll be pulling them from that direction, at least till they break in our hands, while the Dead Watch is doing their job.” And with that, he left.
“I’ll stay in the house, Honeydew. You can put the silver in my study. I’m just turning the tide with my father’s papers.”
“There’s a nice desk in the Dower House,” Honeydew said soothingly. “I’ll have all your papers transferred there immediately. If Your Grace would excuse me, I have a number of arrangements to make. I don’t trust those miscreants anywhere near the silver. It must be removed from the house. That and everything that could be fenced.”
Simeon walked back into his study and sat down. He had left a complicated letter from Mr. Kinnaird open on his desk. He tried to return to its detailed description of the state of the townhouse on St. James Square. Water had broken through the roof and seeped into the attics; rats had made nests in the kitchen…
The smell of the sewer seemed to cling to his skin. He sniffed his sleeve, but it was his imagination. Or—
He stood up. He had had a bath two hours ago, but it was time for another.
March 2, 1784
Isidore entered the house in the late afternoon to find servants scurrying this way and that, their arms full of ornaments and small statuary. Finally she discovered Honeydew, directing traffic. “What is happening?”
“The sewer will be cleaned,” Honeydew said. “By people from London who have requested that we vacate the house. The dowager duchess refuses to leave.”
“Ah,” Isidore said.
“Master Godfrey has been dispatched to spend a night or two with the vicar. The vicar is a Latin scholar, and Master Godfrey needs to refresh his skill since he will be going to school.”
“Should I speak to the duchess?” Isidore asked, only belatedly thinking that it was an odd thing to ask a butler. But Honeydew was something more than a butler.
“I believe that would be inadvisable,” he said without blinking. “If Her Grace has decided not to leave her rooms, she will not leave her rooms. If you will forgive the presumption.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Isidore said. “Where might I find my husband, Honeydew? I want to speak to him about my trip to the village yesterday.” She loved using that word, husband. It made her whole tenuous situation seem less so, though how the use of one word could do that, she didn’t know.
“In his chambers, Your Grace.”
“Oh.” She paused.
“He’s merely checking on some papers,” Honeydew said. “You may enter at will, Your Grace, and you won’t disturb him. Now if you’ll excuse me.” A footman struggled by with a tub filled with silver candlesticks. “We’re removing everything for safekeeping. I must supervise—” And with a hurried bow, he left.
Isidore walked up the stairs, came to the door of the master bedchamber, and pushed open the door. Simeon wasn’t working on papers.
He had his back to her. It was naked.
It was a beautiful back: strong and muscled, and that same golden toast color as his face. Isidore froze in the doorway. As she watched, he reached out for a ball of soap perched on a small table to his left. Water slid over his skin, chasing the hollows of muscles as he flexed, running his right hand up his left arm. Individual bubbles slid over his skin like small kisses.
The air smelled spicy and sweet. She’d never smelled perfume on his skin, not that she’d really had the opportunity to smell—
He ducked his head forward and then raked his fingers through gleaming wet, clean hair. Isidore didn’t breathe as he braced his hands on the sides of the tub and stood up.
His body wasn’t at all like hers. She was all curves, the gift of her Italian mother. Depending on how tightly she laced her corset, her waist was small, and then her breasts and hips swelled above and below—not gently, not in a slim, English style, but with a lush Latin bountifulness.
Nothing was lush about Simeon’s body. It was all rippling muscles, even his bottom. As he stood, the last bubbles ran down his back, down his legs. His bottom was hollowed on the sides. Her fingers twitched and she suddenly realized that, in her imagination, she was tracing the bubbles, down over the muscles of his back that rippled as he reached for a towel. He bent forward…perhaps it was the running that gave him such large thighs? She’d heard of men padding their pantaloons to give themselves bulk. Simeon had the muscles of a dock-worker.
He had one foot out of the bath now, and was drying off his second leg. She started to move soundlessly backwards.
“Don’t leave,” he commanded, not turning his head.
He must have noticed the door open, and probably thought she was a footman. She stepped back again and began to ease the door shut.
Her mouth fell open.
Moving with his usual thoughtful control, he wrapped the towel around his waist and turned around. Isidore snapped her mouth shut.
“I am sorry to have disturbed your bath,” she said, keeping her voice even. “I wished to speak to you about your mother’s refusal to leave the house.” She swallowed. He didn’t have a mat of hair on his chest. She could see the shape and size of each muscle, see the way the human body was designed to be.
“How did you know I was there?” She forced herself to meet his eyes. Of course, they were utterly calm, unreadable.
“Your scent,” he said.
She cleared her throat. “Your soap has a very interesting odor.” That was such a stupid thing to say. The words fell into the air between them. Obviously, this was a perfect opportunity to seduce Simeon.
“Cardamom,” he said.
“I suppose you found the soap in the East somewhere?” She sounded like a fool, Isidore thought desperately.
“India,” he said. “It’s a spice used in cooking as well.”
“Interesting,” she managed.
The white towel settled a little lower on Simeon’s hips and without thinking she looked toward the movement and then jerked her eyes back to his face. He was just looking at her with a pleasant inquiry, as if they were in the drawing room, and he’d asked whether she would like a cup of tea.
She couldn’t seduce him. She didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about it, and what seemed easy when she was in London wasn’t easy at all. He didn’t seem the least interested in the fact that she was in his bedchamber while he was nearly unclothed.