Who went and got a man if she wished.
She wasn’t a mere lass anymore. If she wanted to see her husband, she would do so. And of course she would have his clerks properly announce her, so that in the remote chance he was entertaining a woman, he could bundle her out the back door.
She needed an excuse for paying a visit. In vain she tried to think of something important. Why would she stop by his office? Why would any wife? Only to announce an immediate change of plans. If one, for instance, had suddenly decided to leave London for a few days, and go to the country. She could go to their country house and check on the renovation of the North Wing.
Suddenly a letter on the floor caught her eye, and it came to her: she knew where she was going. Her sister-in-law, darling Roberta, had written her a letter full of laughing, rueful details about Roberta’s father, who was marrying a woman he met at Bartholomew Fair. That might be bad enough, but the woman apparently earned her money by donning a fish tail and speaking in verse—and Roberta’s father was a marquess.
Naturally she had to stop by Elijah’s chambers and tell him that the Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury had lost his heart to a mermaid, and that she meant to pay Roberta a visit and see the mermaid in person. Perhaps she would force Elijah to take her to luncheon, or a ride in the park. She glanced out the window and saw it was drizzling.
A ride in the rain.
She, Jemma, was not leaving London without another kiss.
Sad, but true.
Her husband had kissed her twice in the last nine years, both recently. And she had kissed him once. Stupid beggar of a woman that she was, she treasured those kisses.
There. It was settled. She would instruct Brigitte to pack for a short journey, and meanwhile she would go to Elijah’s chambers. If he wasn’t there, she would wait. And when he finally arrived, she would kiss him goodbye.
The smile on her lips had a spice of joy about it that made her nervous, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
When had all this happened?
She turned away. There was no accounting for the human heart, or so her mama had always said.
The Dower House
March 3, 1784
It was still raining. Isidore sat at her window, watching rain slide off the thorns of the rose briar circling her window. She could live without being a duchess. It would prickle, if she were honest. True, she had thought of herself as a duchess for years, whether she called herself Lady Del’Fino or no.
But what was a duchess, after all?
Just a title. Simeon was merely the only man for whom she’d allowed herself to feel desire. There were likely hundreds of desirable men waiting for her to discover them. She could direct the solicitor to unravel the weave of their marriage lines, go to London, and begin flirting with every man she met.
She felt as sad as the raindrops.
When Lucille appeared, full of excitement about the dismantling of the house, she put on her clothes without saying more than a word. Why should she seduce Simeon as she had planned? Surely that would be the worst possible footing on which to start a marriage. Likely he would blame her thereafter, thinking her a Jezebel who lured him into a marriage he didn’t want.
She rejected the delicious gown her maid suggested and pointed to a blue-black one, sprigged with blackberry vines. It was sedate; it was proper. She wore it to go to church.
By the time she emerged from the bedchamber, Cosway was already seated at the desk in the sitting room, a stack of papers before him. Isidore felt a flash of irritation at him, for being so beautiful, so restrained, so not in love with her.
Not that it was his fault.
“If you will forgive me for my intrusion,” he said, rising, “I thought we might break our fast together. The Dead Watch apparently have entered the pit and cleaning has commenced. Honeydew asked that we serve ourselves, as he has the entire household staff guarding the silver, at least those who are not consigned to guard parts of the house.”
“Goodness,” Isidore said, seating herself at the table before he could help her. “Are we giving hardship pay to those assigned to the fumes?”
“An excellent suggestion.”
She picked up a muffin and buttered it, very precisely. They could be friends. There was no reason for her to feel melancholic. A whole world of men lay before her. “What work need you do today?”
“I have left the most difficult letters for the end,” Simeon said.
“Difficult in what sense? Are their requests unlikely?”
“No. I took your advice and paid all those about which I had doubts.”
She put down her muffin and felt her smile growing. “That was very generous of you, given your fear of being swindled.”
“I didn’t do it out of generosity,” Simeon said. “In fact, I don’t think I am particularly kind.”
She couldn’t think what to say to that, so she took a bite of her muffin.
“I like to keep what is mine,” he continued.
I was yours, she thought, somewhat bitterly.
“These are letters that hint at other transgressions,” Simeon stated.
“Of what kind?” Isidore asked interestedly.
Simeon rose, extracted a sheet of tinted note paper, and handed it to her. It was written in a sloping, elegant hand and still smelled faintly of roses. It wasn’t long, though bitterness made the phrases pungent.
Isidore looked up. “Your father’s mistress, I presume?”
“One of them.”
“One? How many are there?”
“There are four such letters. Then there are five or six of a less imploring nature.”
“Five or six! That’s—”
“At least ten women,” Simeon said flatly.
Isidore bit her lip. “As I understand it, it is a common practice. Ten may seem a great many, but your father was a man of many years, and he—”
“The ten letters are all dated within the last six years of his life.”
“Well,” Isidore said, thinking frantically, “he certainly was a virile man.”
Simeon’s jaw tightened. Clearly he did not appreciate his father’s virility.
“At least your mother doesn’t know,” Isidore said, looking for a bright side.
“Actually, she does.”
“How do you know?”
In answer, he got up and fetched another piece of paper, handing it to her. This letter wasn’t quite so bitter: it mournfully requested that the duke fulfill at least some of the promises he had made, for a small cottage, the writer noted, and a pension. At the very bottom, written in the duchess’s spidery handwriting was a note indicating a payment of four hundred pounds.
“Four hundred pounds!” Isidore said. “At least she got her cottage.”
“Yes.” His voice was so uncompromising and rage-filled that Isidore fell silent again. “Did your father have a mistress?” he asked, finally.
“I don’t believe so. My mother…” Her voice trailed off.
“Would have killed him,” she said. “You said that I was uncomfortably emotional, Simeon. I got it from my mother. She had a terrible temper, and occasionally she would erupt into rages and scream.” She smiled, thinking of it.
Simeon looked appalled.
“My father would argue at first,” Isidore said, “and finally he would start laughing. Then she would laugh too, and it would be over.”