She didn’t say anything, and they walked home through the rain. By the time they arrived at the cottage it had turned into a proper English downpour, the kind that slants sideways.

Honeydew met them at the door to the Dower House and said, “The silver has been removed, as have all small movables, the smaller pictures in the West Gallery, and the Sèvres china.”

“Where have you put them?” Simeon asked, watching Isidore walk away from him. Her skirts were wet and clung to her legs in the back. Now that he knew what she felt like under his hands he would never be the same again.

“The west barn,” Honeydew was saying. “The footmen will sleep there, of course. The maids have all been sent home for a few days. The cook will be in the village, as the bakery kitchen has been kindly opened for our use.”

Simeon dragged his eyes away as Isidore closed the bedchamber door. “My mother?”

“The dowager duchess refuses to leave Revels House. She also refuses to allow her jewelry to be removed; nothing in her room has been touched.”

“I’ll stay with her, of course,” Simeon said with a sigh.

“I took the opportunity of sending all the furniture in the master bedchamber to London for refurbishing,” Honeydew said smoothly. “You and the duchess must stop here in the Dower House. It will be rather intimate quarters, I’m afraid.”

Simeon looked sharply at Honeydew, but his face was impervious.

“Set up a bed in the sitting room,” he said. “I trust you can find me something of that nature, Honeydew?”

He could tell the butler didn’t like it, but Simeon merely left. It would be a sad day when he cowered before his own butler.

Chapter Twenty-four

Gore House, Kensington

London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont

March 3, 1784

Jemma stared sightlessly into the glass above her dressing table. Then she pulled open the crumpled piece of foolscap and read it again.

It read precisely as it had a moment ago.

His Grace the Duke of Beaumont asked to be remembered to the duchess, and apologized for the fact that the note was written by his secretary, but he was unavailable today. And unfortunately tomorrow looked just as busy. With regrets, etc. Signed Mr. Cunningham, Elijah’s secretary.

Elijah had never done that before, never actually written her through his secretary, when they were living in the same house. The note had been delivered, along with a letter from her sister-in-law and an invitation to dine from Lady Castlemaine, as if her husband were no more than another acquaintance.

He had withdrawn. Elijah had retreated back to his chambers in the Inns of Court.

Obviously he had misunderstood her.

Not seeing him was a torment. She’d just come from breakfast, and Elijah wasn’t there. And she had driven her maid to distraction, trying on two breakfast gowns before she chose just the right one, before she tripped into the room looking as fresh and elegant as she possibly could.

Only to be told by the butler that His Grace had eschewed breakfast. Jemma had pretended total indifference, naturally.

Can there be anything more humiliating than living out one’s life in front of servants who are both observant and intelligent? Sometimes Jemma felt as if she were acting in a play, and she seemed to have lost her ability to dissemble. Brigitte, her maid, surely suspected. Her butler, Fowle, quite likely.

It was humiliating to hanker after one’s husband. To be dazzled by his eyes and his attention, until he suddenly withdrew it.

Perhaps Elijah has an appointment with his mistress, she told herself, just to test the pain of it. But she was no better at believing in mistresses now than she had been when they were first married. She would never, ever have thought Elijah had a mistress. She couldn’t have imagined that he rose from her bed only to welcome the woman to his chambers at noon.

Even now…

Even now she couldn’t believe it.

She stared unseeingly into her glass. Was it that she thought she was too beautiful to be scorned? The only person who had ever scorned her, so to speak, was her own husband. Perhaps the right way to put that was that the only person who had ever shown indifference was her husband.

For a moment, an image of Villiers flashed across her eyes. Her revenge was ready at hand. She needn’t watch as her husband turned from her company to the House of Lords, with as much interest as if he had selected a game of billiards over one of macao. She could turn to Villiers. All of London would know within hours of their first public appearance together.

Elijah would be humiliated and it would serve him right.

But she knew even as she envisioned it that she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do it. Villiers was no pawn; he was a man. A dangerous man: beautiful, witty and easy to love. That was where the danger lay, in the fact she could fall in love with him.

Then her marriage would truly be over.

Somehow, it had never been over in her mind, not even when she fled to France and Elijah didn’t follow, nor the first time she found herself in bed with another man. Even when she tormented herself with remembering Elijah’s declaration of love for his mistress.

He never said he loved her, Jemma, his wife. Surely that in itself was enough to end a marriage?

The invisible bonds had grown thin over the years that she lived in France without him. Attenuated by memory and her dalliances with other men.

But they never broke.

And all those memories were fresh to her now: of their wedding, when she hardly knew him, and yet her heart thrilled at the sight of him waiting for her in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of their wedding night, when she was so awkward and he thoughtful, if (she thought in retrospect) rather reserved. But of course he was in love with another woman. Still…

There was a habit of mind, a way of thinking and talking, that came from being married to someone. A sort of bone-deep intimacy that survives even blows such as their marriage had taken.

Love, it could be called.

Odd, fugitive, undeserved. She had done nothing to deserve his love, and she rather thought he hadn’t given it. Sometimes she thought, recently, that she saw something tender in his eyes, almost longing, but…

But somehow she had poured out her love when they first married, and there was no taking it back, no matter how she tried.

And no matter how he rebuffed her.

Perhaps…perhaps she was making a mountain from a mouse. Elijah worked too hard. He always worked too hard; that was why he had fainted in the House of Lords last year. Overwork and lack of sleep.

Perhaps he needed to be reminded that life was not work. She could…

But the idea of going to his chambers in the Inns of Court made her physically ill. She could remember what his mistress’s hair looked like, flowing over the edge of his desk. Surely he still had that desk. It was a large solid oak one, good for the weight of a sturdy woman.

It hadn’t been making a creaking sound as she entered, though he was surely thrusting with some strength…

It was all so far in the past, and yet close enough to touch.

She couldn’t go to his chambers. What if she did and there was some evidence of his current mistress, if he had one?

Or had he told her that he had no mistress these days?

She couldn’t even remember: such a crucial detail and it was gone.

Jemma rose to her feet; her letters fell to the carpet. She was not a woman, she told herself, to sit around bleating and wringing her hands. She was a person who—

Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance