He was so large. Everything about him was big, from his shoulders to his feet.

She dropped a curtsy, taking refuge in formality. “I beg you to forgive me for interrupting your bath,” she said, backing up one step and then whirling so she could leave. She shut the door so fast that it slammed a bit, the sound reverberating down the corridor.

Inside the room, Simeon unclenched his teeth and then threw away the damned towel with a muffled curse. She hadn’t seemed to notice the way it tented in the front, though she had certainly seen how close he was to utter loss of control. She had fled as if a horde of desert tribesmen had brandished their swords at her.

He glanced down at his personal weapon and then dropped into a chair. Christ, this was a mess. He didn’t dare touch himself for fear he would explode. He had been sitting in the bath, thinking of her: the way her hair gleamed like rumpled strands of black silk, waiting to be woven into the kind of garment a man could bury his face in, stroke his cheek, other parts of his body…

His blood had been raging through his body already when he heard that light knock and then, before he could gather his wits, the door opened and it was she. He knew instantly, of course. Who else in the household smelled of jasmine, like a poem in flowers? Even with the house reeking of sewage, he knew when she was near because her scent came to meet him.

But Isidore’s real scent wasn’t jasmine. Her scent was under the fresh, clear call of the flower, something that teased his senses more than any perfume, made him think deliriously of burying his face in her hair, of kissing her skin, licking her from head to foot.

Embarrassing. That’s what it was.

She was like a firebrand, burning more brightly than any woman he’d ever known. He could accept this marriage—and spend his life circling around her, like a tribesman with a precious donkey, trying, trying to keep her from being stolen.

Did he have any choice?

A man always has choices. If you tell yourself you have no choice, you lie…you lie in the worst possible manner: because almost always a man who tells himself that he has no choices has already made up his mind to the wrong choice. Valamksepa’s voice sounded hateful in his ears, even as he recognized the truth of it. Of course, he had a choice. He knew that he could have the marriage annulled, just as the solicitor admitted, and damn the laws of England. He wasn’t a duke for nothing. As the highest in the land, just under royalty, he could wield his money and power like a club and achieve what other men were unable to do.

But was that the right thing to do? Was it the ethical thing to do? Isidore would no longer be a duchess. But then, it rankled him to hear that she had ever introduced herself as Lady Del’Fino. She was—

He pulled himself back together, realizing that he was clenching his teeth. She was only nominally his. Nominally.

Chapter Twenty-two

Mansfield Place, Number One

London Seat of Lord Brody

March 2, 1784

It was Lord Brody’s soirée in honor of his nubile daughter—a spotty little horror with frizzled hair—and Jemma was wandering the various rooms, trying to look as if she were not searching for her husband.

Madame Bertière hailed her. “Your Grace, do come see who’s just arrived from Paris. Of course, you two know each other so well.”

Jemma’s heart sank. It was the Marquise de Perthuis, one of her least favorite people in all of France. Jemma and the marquise had been viewed as great rivals in the French court, though Jemma was never quite sure what they were competing for. But their undoubted dislike for each other kept people like Madame Bertière happily gossiping.

As always, the marquise was dressed in such a way that she took up more space than the Tower of London. Just to make a point, Jemma looked slowly, deliberately, up the wadded length of the marquise’s wig, pausing on each of four stuffed birds. They were rather charming little birds, black and white, of course. The marquise wore only black and white.

Jemma sank into a deep curtsy. “But of course I am acquainted with the marquise,” she said, her smile hitting a perfect register between indifference and recognition.

The marquise had the near expressionless countenance of a woman who understood face paint and used it with consummate skill. In fact, she would have been alluring except that her penchant for black and white drew attention to her costumes rather than her face. Those affectations, Jemma thought uncharitably, made her appear much older than her twenty-seven years.

“Ah, the délicieuse Duchess of Beaumont! How happy were all the ladies of the French court when you returned to England. As you know,” she said, turning to Madame Bertière, “the duchess provides such formidable competition for the gentlemen!”

A nice hit, Jemma thought. She managed to praise me and yet note my adulterous tendencies. She unfurled her fan and smiled over the edge of it. “What a delightful costume you are wearing, madame. I wish I had the courage to go against fashion the way you do. I’m sure I would be sadly clumsy if my hips were quite as wide as yours, and yet you manage with such grace.”

The marquise was far too sophisticated to stiffen; instead, she threw Jemma a sweet, roguish smile. “And I adore those delicious little flowers on your gown, duchess. I can certainly understand why you keep your panniers so small…when a woman has been gifted with such an ample bosom, large panniers inevitably make her look like an hourglass. Or a haystack. Your skill in dressing is so admirable!”

“Do you intend to pay us a long visit?” Jemma inquired.

“Ah, one travels to escape the ennui of life,” sighed the marquise. “In truth, without your entertainments to enliven Paris, it is a tediously puritanical place.”

Another hit, Jemma thought. Not as potent, though. There was something a little tired about the marquise, as if she had lost interest in the verbal fencing matches, the flares of witty comments, that had shaped her days in Versailles.

In fact, now that Jemma looked beyond her face powder, she saw that the marquise’s cheeks were rather gaunt.

Jemma slipped her hand through the marquise’s, an action she would never have taken in Versailles. She waved off Madame Bertière. “The marquise and I will take a turn or two and allow everyone to admire us. ’Tis an act of great kindness on my part, given the marquise’s elegance will so put mine in the shade.”

Previously, the marquise would have laughed in a way that indicated her complete agreement. Now she said nothing. It was almost unnerving.

They walked through the crowd, lowering their chins at acquaintances. Jemma made her way unerringly toward the ladies’ salon. They entered to find three chattering debutantes, who wisely fled. Jemma turned to the attending maid. “I am feeling quite faint. Please stand outside the door and make certain that no one enters.”

The maid whisked herself through the door.

The marquise sat down heavily, as if the weight of her enormous panniers dragged her to the ground. She had aged from the woman Jemma knew two years ago, the woman who snapped and laughed her way through the French court, grinding insouciant courtiers under her jeweled heels, making—and destroying—a lady’s reputation with one mocking glance.

She had never been a nice person. But all the same, she had been a strong person.

“And now,” Jemma said, sitting down opposite her, “are you quite all right, Madame la Marquise? You do not seem yourself.”

Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance