Isidore took the letter back. “She does address him by his first name.”
“She asks him to visit her. She says she misses him.”
“Your poor mother,” Isidore said.
Simeon blinked. “I was just thinking that it was nice to find that my father didn’t wheedle his way into this woman’s bed with financial promises and then disappear. She doesn’t sound angry.”
“No, just lonely. Your father may have acted honorably toward her. Perhaps this mistress is in comfortable circumstances.”
“Perhaps she’s a rich widow,” Simeon said. There was something longing in his voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“As am I.” And that was the end of that.
All afternoon, as the light coming into the room turned from pale yellow to gold, it played in his hair. She was developing a foolish love of unpowdered hair. The light made Simeon’s hair look as if there were streaks of near blue among the curls. When he pushed it back with his hands, one ringlet always fell back over his brow.
She kept shifting uneasily, aware that her body was sending her all sorts of treacherous signals, signals that didn’t agree with her newfound resolution to find a man who would court her.
Because for all Simeon was polite enough to say he liked her, that wasn’t good enough.
She wanted to be loved.
After all the years in which she’d schooled herself into cheerfully accepting whatever type of man her duke turned out to be, she’d discovered that if she had the choice, she would like to be loved with a deep passion. The kind she had seen in her father’s eyes when he bent to kiss her mother.
Why had she never before realized how important love was?
The last thing she wanted was to be betrayed by an unruly lust for unpowdered hair into some sort of indiscretion with Simeon, something that would turn their marriage into a fait accompli.
March 3, 1784
After hours of sorting though the late duke’s delinquencies, Isidore felt as if she were going as mad as her former father-in-law. “I think your mother must be suffocating in that house,” she announced. “I shall see if I can tempt her into joining us for supper.”
Simeon looked up, obviously startled. “You will?”
“I’ll try,” she conceded. “You might clear away those letters, just in case she agrees.”
“She has been adamant in her refusal.”
“It’s not right that she should be in a house full of fumes.” Isidore stood up.
“I’ll lend my voice as well, if you will allow me to finish this note and clear away any letters that might distress my mother.”
“You don’t think I’ll be successful on my own?”
“I’d be shocked, but that’s a commentary on my mother’s stubbornness, not on your persuasive skills. But I’d prefer to accompany you, given the fumes.”
Isidore went outside to wait for him, but after five minutes, she was too restless to wait. She wouldn’t be felled by the smell. Her house in Venice had persistent odor problems, emanating from the canals, and she had never succumbed to the vapors.
She entered the house through the ballroom and was immediately met by the stench. There was a racket in the main hallway, and she cautiously opened the door. A man was trundling a wheelbarrow past her. Isidore’s eyes fell to the barrow, and then she wished they hadn’t.
He didn’t see her, so she slipped up the stairs. If anything, the smell was actually stronger as she climbed the stairs. Her knock on the dowager’s door was met with something resembling a bark. “Your Grace?” she called. “It is the duchess. Would you open the door?”
A moment later the dowager did open the door, the better to glower at Isidore.
Isidore fell into a deep curtsy. “Did the duke not leave a footman to guard you?”
“The fool began to vomit,” the dowager said irritably. “What on earth are you doing here? The stench is enough to make any person vomit, not merely the lower orders. You must leave at once.”
“I came to ask you to join us in the Dower House,” Isidore said. Truly, she did feel a bit faint at the odor. “Supper is being sent from the village. You can’t possibly eat here.”
“I doubt that I could eat.”
Isidore realized that the dowager was distinctly white, with patches of rouge standing out like poppies on her cheeks. “Your Grace, I insist that you accompany me out of this house. You are faint from lack of air.”
“I am faint from the stench,” the dowager said. But she put out a hand to the back of a chair. “I thought I would—”
Isidore took her arm. “You may return to your chambers as soon as they are habitable,” she said coaxingly.
“You needn’t treat me like a child!” the dowager snapped, but she did take a step toward the door. “I can’t leave my jewels.”
“I go nowhere without my jewels. No one understands my attachment to them.”
Isidore nodded. “We’ll take them with us.”
“And I was working on letters,” the duchess said. “I must have them as well. I must finish my correspondence.”
Isidore glanced over at the table stacked high with sheets of stationery. “We can’t carry those. Is this your jewelry box?” She picked up an exquisite little box, rosewood with silver hinges.
“One of them,” the dowager said. “The other is there.” She nodded toward a much larger box, made of leather and trimmed with faded velvet.
“Goodness,” Isidore said a moment later. “It is heavy.”
“I shall carry the smaller one,” the dowager announced. “Give it to me. I suppose all the footmen have fled the house.”
“They’re in the barn,” Isidore explained.
“Stuff and nonsense,” the dowager said, taking the rosewood box. She opened the door of her room and the smell came to meet them, like a blow. The dowager fell back.
“Steady,” Isidore said. “Your Grace, why don’t I fetch your son? Footmen could carry you outside.”
“I am tired of being old,” the dowager stated. “I shall leave this room under my own two feet.”
They started down the stairs. When they reached the bottom, the hallway held a couple of men so filthy that Isidore had never seen the like. Dirt was caked on their legs and splattered on their shirts. Their faces were partially covered with red kerchiefs, but their hair and skin was caked with excrement.
The one closest to the bottom stair grinned, his teeth startling white against the kerchief covering his nose.
The dowager made a strange gulping noise, and her grip on Isidore’s arm weakened. “Your Grace!” Isidore said sharply, pulling her mother-in-law off the final stair.
The dowager opened her mouth, like a fish out of water. “This is—this is—”
“I agree, but we must continue.”
“Oh dear, oh dear, ladies as is seeing what they shouldn’t,” a cheerful voice said.
Isidore looked up and met the eyes of a third man, who had just emerged from the water closet. She knew in an instant that this particular member of the Dead Watch was an utter rogue, due to the peculiar flatness of his eyes, and the way he was smiling without smiling. “Jack Bartlebee, top of the Dead Watch,” he said to her. “And you two must be duchesses. I’ve a tenderness for the nobility. Really I do. When the king passes in his carriage of a Sunday, I always bobs me knee. Don’t I, lads?”