The rain was merely sprinkling now, rolling down his neck in an unconvincing, yet cold, manner.

“When my mother died,” Isidore said, “I was so afraid that I couldn’t breathe correctly.”

He stopped thinking about how cold his bottom felt and curled his hands around her fingers instead. They were small and warm.

“I used to lie awake at night and think that my breath was filling the room, so there wouldn’t be any air left for me to breathe.”

Simeon thought of saying the obvious, that her fear didn’t make sense, but choked it back. Isidore was not a person who appreciated the obvious. “When did that feeling go away?” he asked instead.

“I finally told my aunt.”

“And she was able to reassure you?”

“No. She couldn’t convince me that I wasn’t right.” He turned to see her smiling up at him, her lips soft and ruby-colored, like a flower on the banks of the Ganges River.

“Ah,” he said hopelessly, falling into that longing state that gripped him around Isidore. She was right in her initial assessment of his sanity. He’d waited too long to sleep with a woman, and now he’d lost his wits.

“My point is that I am not very good at changing my mind,” Isidore said. “I am trying to tell you…”

“How did you get over it?” he asked abruptly. “Was that happening when you were brought here to live, to this house?”

She nodded. “I really was a little crazed. I used to lie in bed and hold my breath, hoping to save enough so that I wouldn’t die before morning.”

He dropped her hand and put an arm around her. “Isidore.”

She sighed and put her head on his shoulder. He smelled flowers and that other thing: Essence of Isidore.

“What did your aunt say?”

“She told me to sing. She said that singing actually created air, that when you filled your lungs and let it out in song, the air in the room expanded.” She looked up at him. “Aren’t you going to tell me that the whole idea is deranged?”

He kissed the end of her nose. It was a small, straight nose. A very beautiful nose. He was aware of a feeling in the back of his head that said that lust for a woman’s nose was probably the beginning of a long list of absurdities. “No.”

She put her head back on his shoulder and he tightened his arm. “I sang and sang. Your mother found it particularly difficult when I sang at the table. But you see, I had to sing because every time that I felt a tightening that meant there wasn’t air enough in a room…” Her voice trailed off. “I know it’s crazy.”

“I never grieved for my father,” Simeon said. “I don’t think I really believed in his death until I came back here, and found the estate as it is.”

“You must be very angry at him.” She said it matter-of-factly.

“I am angry at myself,” he said. “Obviously he was losing his mind, and I never came home to find out. Had I been in England, I would have realized. I would have known.”

“You couldn’t have done anything, though,” Isidore said. “I saw your father at the opera four years ago. He was perfectly sane.”

“To all appearances, perhaps,” Simeon said, rather bitterly.

“And in his own mind. What could you have said to him? Father, I think you’re mad; why don’t I pay the bills?”

Simeon thought about that. Then he thought about how cold his bottom was and pulled Isidore to her feet. She twisted about to look at her backside.

“You’re wet,” he said, and then shocked himself. He put a hand directly on her wet skirts. “And cold.”

She was wearing petticoats under her skirts, of course. And some sort of apparatus that kept her skirts billowing out at the sides. Her skirts were all wet, though, and they collapsed against her skin. He could feel a round, warm curve of flesh under his palm.

With a groan, he put both hands there and pulled him against her, taking her mouth.

“What—” she said, startled, but he took the word away from her, kissed her until she was pressed against him, arms around his neck.

But he didn’t move his hands. He didn’t think he could. She kissed him and talked at the same time. He could hear little bits of words, here and there, his name, a phrase, a little moan. He tried nipping her lip and she pushed against him…she liked it.

Suddenly she put her lips around his tongue and sucked and his blood flared in his body. From some distance he heard the groan in his throat, and ignored it. He was intoxicated by the plump sweetness under his hands. His head was swimming and his blood was on fire. He could take her home now. He could take her to the bedchamber and throw her on the bed. She was his wife, his wife, his—

The word beat sanity into him He forcibly uncurled his fingers and let her dress fall free. She murmured something and pulled him even closer. He waited for one heartbeat and then raised his head.

She looked up at him, her eyes hazy with desire.

“I think you’re right,” he said. “I waited too long.”

She blinked at him. “To bed a woman,” he clarified.

Her arms fell to her sides. A raindrop ran down her cheek. “Why do you say that?”

He answered her honestly. “I don’t feel sane when I’m kissing you.” She liked that. The bleak look went away and her dimple appeared, like a gift. He wanted to kiss it, but stopped himself.

“Perhaps that just makes you one of the family?” she suggested.

He was caught watching her lips and didn’t understand.

“When I was singing all over this house and half the night, I was cracked,” she said, a smile teasing her lips. “When your father was refusing to pay bills, he was cracked.”

“My mother?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“Grief,” Isidore said. “Grief. She’s not cracked, but she honored his memory as best she could.”

“Ah.” There was something important there, but he couldn’t think about it now, so he took her arm and turned back to the house. Raindrops were caught on her long eyelashes. He could see them shining like shattered diamonds. “What did you sing?” he asked, rather desperately. Of course he couldn’t stop here in the path and lick her eyelashes. He was losing his mind.

“Whatever came to me,” Isidore said cheerfully. “I wasn’t very musical, you understand. I wouldn’t want you to think that I added to the general charm of the house.”

“Did it already smell?” he asked, aghast.

“Oh, no!” Isidore said. “Not at all. Didn’t Honeydew say that the water closets were put in five years ago? This was eleven years ago. I remember that your mother was particularly vexed when I would sing a ballad about a forlorn lady who jumped from a cliff because she found herself with child. I learned it from my nanny at some point, but your mother considered it quite indelicate.”

“I can imagine,” Simeon said, feeling slightly cheered.

“Your mother did not feel that I was very ladylike. And I’m not, Simeon. I still sing in the wrong places and at the wrong times. Even if you don’t swear, I do. I take after my mother, and she was a passionate Italian woman.”

“I know.” Simeon knew he should probably take this moment to point out that she wouldn’t want to be with a dried-up old stick like himself, that she would be happier with someone more passionate. But instead he said, “I’m so sorry about your parents, Isidore.” And he put his arm around her again.

Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance