The marquise started to laugh, her response to everything. But it broke off, and the sound that emerged sounded like a violent hiccup instead. Jemma waited.
“Have you seen my husband?” she finally asked. Her voice was hoarse.
“No,” Jemma replied. “He is not in London, to the best of my knowledge.” She hesitated.
But the marquise intervened before she could think of a tactful question. “He left. He followed une femme to England. He said it would be a brief visit, some weeks. It has been eight months.”
“I did hear such a rumor,” Jemma said cautiously.
The marquise had a delicate lace handkerchief clutched in her hand. For a moment Jemma thought she was going to start tearing it apart, ripping it to shreds like a madwoman in a play. But no: she opened her hand and let it fall to the ground.
It lay on the floor, crumpled, and their eyes met over it. “That is how he treated me,” the marquise said. “Like a piece of dirty linen, to be thrown to the side after it has been soiled.”
“I must find him. I must.” There was some sort of suppressed rage about her that made Jemma twitch, and long to leave the room.
“Do you wish him to return to you?” Jemma asked.
“That—that salaud! Never. But I want to tell him to his face what sort of man he is. I want to tell his petite amie what sort of woman she is. I want—I want to—”
Jemma reached forward and put a hand on her arm. “Forgive me,” she said gently, “for my impertinence. But what will the conversation change?”
The marquise raised her head. “He left me.”
Jemma suddenly remembered that the marquise was the daughter of a duke, and connected to French royalty. She looked, in that moment, like a queen whose subjects had inexplicably snuck away and crossed a border to another kingdom.
“He had no right to leave me!”
“Men are prone to extreme foolishness,” Jemma said.
“He has humiliated me in front of the court. He has—he has caused me great distress.”
For the marquise, Jemma thought that was probably close to saying that her husband had beaten her in the open marketplace.
“But what do you hope to—”
“Repentence,” the marquise said, “is too much to ask. No one repents anymore. It is as out of fashion as fidelity. But he has degraded me, brought me to his level. He must—”
Jemma nodded. “I faced the same problem, many years ago. My husband had made clear to me his utter lack of respect, his love for another woman. I lived in France for years as a result. It took me a great many years to understand that marriage lines do not control the heart.”
The marquise’s face twisted.
“My husband was in love with someone else,” Jemma repeated. “There was nothing I could say or do to change that circumstance. My advice, and I mean this seriously, is that you do not choose to follow him. Fashion a life of your own. I was not always happy in Paris, but I was often content.”
The marquise snapped open her fan, but not before Jemma saw the glint of tears in her eyes. Jemma rose to her feet and held out her hand.
“We must return to the ball. It is too demoralizing for the men to discover that women are talking amongst themselves. Their fear of conspiracy moves them to overprize virtue in the female sex. They grow more conservative as a result.”
The marquise chuckled. It wasn’t the laughter that Jemma remembered, but it was a reasonable approximation.
Elijah was leaning casually against the wall just outside the door when they emerged. Jemma couldn’t help it; a smile leapt from her heart to her lips. The marquise threw her a sour look. “It seems that men are not the only ones with ambitions to virtue,” she said. “Beware lest you grow conservative, duchess.”
It was almost worthy of her former waspishness.
Elijah was bowing before the marquise, taking her hand to his lips. “You are as exquisite as ever,” he said, using his politician’s voice, the one that sounded as sincere as if he were prophesying rain while drops fell on his hat.
The marquise sauntered away. She looked back, over her shoulder, and caught Jemma’s eye. There was something like envy—or rage—on her face.
“Do not ever imagine yourself comfortable, duchess. A mistake I committed.”
Then she turned with a swish of her skirts and disappeared into the ballroom.
“Dear me, what an uncomfortable woman she is!” Elijah says. “All in white and black like that. She reminds me of a chess board.”
Jemma closed her fan. “She’s beautiful, though. Don’t you think?”
“Undoubtedly.” He hesitated. “Villiers is here. He asked me whether you and I had begun our third game in the match.”
“And you told him?” She looked up at Elijah’s face, at his stark cheekbones, deep eyes, tired intelligence.
“I told him that I only wished I had you blindfolded and in bed,” he said, looking down at her. It should have been a joke…
It wasn’t a joke.
His eyes were serious.
“You do?” she said. It was hard even to force the air into her lungs to say that.
“And I told him that I would prefer that he complete his game immediately, under the circumstances.”
“You mean because if people suspect that I am having an affaire with him, they will not countenance our child as our own.”
He nodded. But there seemed to be so much more going on in the conversation, so much that was unsaid. Jemma’s heart was beating rapidly in her throat. “I don’t…” She cleared her throat and tried again. “I don’t wish to play that final game.”
His face went utterly still. He stayed there for a moment, looking down at her. Then his utterly charming smile appeared and he bowed.
“In that case, my lady, I certainly will never urge the unpleasantness on you.”
He was gone, Jemma staring after him.
“The game with Villiers,” she clarified. But he was gone.
The Dower House
March 2, 1784
Simeon’s papers had been transferred to the Dower House. He was seated at a small desk and stood up when Isidore entered, keeping one hand on the desk, a sheet of paper in his other hand.
Isidore sat down, trying very hard to forget that the last time she saw him, he was naked. “As you didn’t join me for dinner last night, I had no chance to tell you that I went to the village. I bought one hundred and thirty-five yards of wool, and twenty-seven meat pies.”
He blinked and put down the paper. “Do we have a sudden need for meat pies? Or wool?”
“They are gifts from the duchy to the villagers, to mend relations. Everyone in the village will receive a meat pie and five yards of wool, courtesy of the duke and duchess.”
“Ah.” He looked down at the sheet before him. “Did you go into Mopser’s shop?”
“Yes. He sold me the wool.”
Simeon’s jaw clenched. “I have a letter from him demanding back payment for candles.”
“I can imagine there must be many such letters. People apparently believed that your father would have them taken up by the magistrates if they failed to provide the duchy with his requests, even when he didn’t pay,” Isidore said cheerfully. She pulled off her gloves and smoothed them on her knee.