“Who would know? I’ve never met anyone who announced it as freely as you do.”
“I had my palm read on entering the Court, and the court magician shrieked it aloud for all to hear.”
“Were you embarrassed?”
He shrugged a little.
Isidore nodded. “I would have been humiliated too, were I you. It was becoming embarrassing to be a virgin wife at twenty-three. You can’t imagine how many men thought that was a tragedy.”
“Yes, I can.”
“I was starting to think that I’d never make love.”
“There were days when I thought I couldn’t bear it any longer,” he confessed. “Instead of a lion, some poor woman would find me leaping out at her from behind a bush.”
Isidore started giggling. “But it turned you into a magician. Did you think about bedding this princess?”
“You couldn’t not think about it,” he said, a little smile curling his lips. “She is so utterly brilliant: she can speak five or six languages, and quote Hindu poetry for hours.”
Isidore decided she didn’t like the princess. “Hindu? But she’s Abyssinian.”
“She has sent men to India to bring poetry back, which she translates, preserving it for the pleasure of her people and their culture.”
“Admirable,” Isidore said. She forced herself to relax. The princess was back there in the sand somewhere, living in a hut. She could afford to be generous.
“And her palace,” Simeon said dreamily. “You can hardly imagine, Isidore. It’s made entirely of pink marble, and it looks over the banks of a huge rain plain. Sometimes the plain fills with white flowers, thousands and thousands of them. If there’s rain, the plain forms a great blue mirror to the sky.”
“That sounds lovely,” Isidore said, despite herself.
“I’ve never met a woman more intelligent. We argued for hours. She managed to change my mind about several ideas.”
Clearly, to Simeon, changing his mind was practically an unheard-of experience. Isidore sighed and changed the subject. “I am curved in all the places where you are straight,” she said, caressing the line of Simeon’s hip. Their arms brushed for a moment as he reached out to touch her as well.
“I can’t stop touching you,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking of you. The idea of returning to Revels House is inconceivable.”
Isidore laughed and rolled on her back. “Now that the odor is gone I feel much more inclined to consider the possibility. But meanwhile…”
He accepted her invitation, of course.
It was an hour later. The sheets were rumpled, and Isidore was sweaty in places she’d never considered before, like the backs of her knees. If she lay absolutely still, she could feel tiny quivers in the sweetest parts of her body. She felt like the air did after her aunt put down her violin, as if it were still singing, but in silence.
“Do you suppose it’s like this for everyone?” she asked.
“The poets sing of it,” Simeon said lazily. He was lying on his back, one hand over his head, the other on her hip. “There’s an ancient Sufi poet named Rumi…he spoke of desire as a sickness bringing joy.”
“But this pleasure,” Isidore said. “If it always feels this pleasurable, why don’t people do it all the time?”
Simeon stretched. “I think we waited so long that we were like volcanoes waiting to explode. I know that sometimes bedding can be very, very unpleasant,” Simeon said, turning over to face her. “We’re lucky, you and I. Sometimes people just don’t fit, as I understand it. There can be discomfort. Or one person might not find the other attractive.” His sleepy smile said that wasn’t a problem for him.
It wasn’t a problem for Isidore either. Sometimes it felt as if her heart opened up when they made love. Love…
“But do you think it feels like this if the people aren’t married?” she asked, unable to bring the word love to her lips. Did she love him?
He laughed at that and she wrinkled her nose at him. “You are asking whether a wedding certificate increases pleasure?”
“Stupid of me,” she said.
Yet she felt somewhere deep inside her that he was missing the point. Though she wasn’t sure what the point was.
“We do need to talk seriously, Isidore,” he said.
“We have to have a plan.”
“A plan for our marriage. Neither of us is precisely what the other envisioned as a spouse. We’ll simply have to try to change. As much as we can. That way we won’t find ourselves at odds. So if I hadn’t been me, if you were able to pick any man in the ton, what kind of person would you like him to be?”
She giggled. “Red-haired?”
“Must we be serious?” she moaned. “It’s far into the middle of the night. I’m tired.”
“We can sleep late in the morning. No one will dare wake us. It’s important, Isidore.”
She tried to pull herself together. “Seriously? What sort of man would I have chosen?”
“I suppose the more proper question is how would he have differed from me?”
“Isidore,” he said patiently. “I’m not a fool. I’m the man you’ve got and I just made you very happy. I’m not going to feel insulted if you wish I wore a cravat more frequently.”
“Well, now that you mention it…”
“But not a wig,” he said, alarmed. “I’m not sure I could tolerate a wig.”
“How about a little powder for important occasions?”
“Such as going to Court?”
“More than going to Court. Balls in London. Places where your head would be the only unpowdered one in the crowd.”
“Just not a wig. I cannot wear those little rolls of snails over my ears. But I can powder. What else, Isidore?”
“Could you look a bit more respectable?” She grinned at him. “You are mine, which means that not all the ladies get to enjoy the image of you naked.”
“I like that,” he said with a slow smile.
“I’d rather they didn’t have quite such a chance to see your legs in those short trousers of yours.”
He looked alarmed. “I can’t stop running, Isidore. It’s part of who I am.”
“Perhaps in longer trousers?”
He nodded. “What else?”
“I can’t really think of anything,” Isidore said. The most delicious languor was stealing over her.
“I haven’t told you my wishes for marriage yet.”
Sleep was like a gorgeous warm blanket, hovering at the edge of her vision. “Um…” she said. “Whatever you want.”
“That’s it,” he said.
“You said what I want.”
“I did?” Isidore struggled to wake up enough to remember what she just said.
“You said, whatever you want.”
Simeon pulled himself to a seated position. “I had a great deal of time over the past years to analyze marriage. That’s really why I thought we should probably annul our marriage, Isidore: we don’t suit the pattern of successful spouses.”