Isidore raised her eyes. “You think—”
“I think,” Jemma said firmly. “It’ll be a matter of one beckoning glance and you’ll have all the gentlemen you want on their knees before you.”
Isidore sniffed again. “Then why isn’t my own husband that way, Jemma? I’ve tried kissing him, and putting my arms around him like the most frightful hussy, and he just pushes me away.”
“I don’t know,” Jemma admitted. “I’ve never encountered anyone precisely like your husband, Isidore.”
“I suppose I should be glad he’s unique.”
“It would be much easier if he weren’t,” Jemma pointed out. “I prefer the lapdog model of husband myself.”
Isidore managed to smile at her. “The kind of husband you have, you mean?”
“I didn’t say I had one of them. Just that they were enormously appealing.” Jemma’s smile was a rueful acknowledgment that her husband, Elijah, had never come at her whistle.
“Lady Farthingward is having a ridotto tonight,” Jemma said. “You can bask in adoration.”
“But Simeon won’t be here to see me get kissed. He bid me goodbye, in the politest of fashions. It’s been two days and he hasn’t come to London.”
“Perhaps not tonight,” Jemma said. “But soon. It won’t take him long to think through your final conversation, Isidore. He’ll be here.”
Simeon didn’t come to London that night. Nor the night after, nor the night after.
A whole week had passed.
Fine, Isidore told herself. It was fine. She wanted a man who would care about her. Simeon said he loved her, but she started to doubt her memory. Had he said he loved her? Was it a fevered creation of her brain?
Probably. Because if he loved her, he wouldn’t have let her go. He would lie awake the way she did, thinking about the way he smiled, or the way his brow furrowed when looking at one of his father’s absurd letters. He would wake damp with sweat, the sheets twisted around his legs, having dreamt that she was caressing him.
She longed with an ache that seemed not in the heart but in the bones, for something she couldn’t have.
For a husband.
For wasn’t that what she always wanted from him? To be a husband. To come back from Africa, bed her, love her, acknowledge her.
After another week she set her jaw and started looking at men in earnest. There were men, lots of them. All of England seemed to know that her marriage was to be annulled, thanks to the dowager duchess’s vivid descriptions of her son’s brain fever. Isidore hardened her heart against worrying about what Simeon thought about his mother’s betrayal.
He had made his own bed, as the dowager had said. He must lie in it. Alone. Of course, he was likely happy, practicing the Middle Way, organizing the household…
Another week passed. He was never coming. Jemma finally admitted that she must have been wrong.
“It’s not his fault,” Isidore said helplessly. The nights of lying awake had clarified things. “He really can’t help being a person who hates disorder. I think it must be because he sensed what his father was like, even as a boy.”
“How could he not, given the stench of the sewer?” Jemma said. She had taken a sharp dislike to the entire family. “His mother is extremely common, given those letters she is writing.” The dowager had not been sparing in her description of Simeon’s fighting skills. “His father was a complete rotter and cracked to boot. And he is—”
“Don’t,” Isidore said swiftly. “Don’t.”
Jemma sat down on the bed. “Marriage is an enviable state,” she said. “You will enjoy it, the next time.”
“I’ve thought so for years,” Isidore said.
“How long will this annulment take?”
“The solicitor says that since His Majesty himself has taken an interest, it should take only a month or so. He already met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, given the king’s request for prompt action. Lady Pewter annulled her marriage in a month once her husband started dressing in women’s clothing on the open street. The solicitor sent a note that he will like to visit tomorrow. I expect he has news on that front.”
Jemma nodded. “Is Cosway aware that matters are moving so quickly?”
It was all so humiliating. “I expect so.”
“Then it’s over.”
Isidore could feel her body drooping, like a plant without water. Which was foolish, foolish, foolish. “I feel like taking to my bed and never getting out,” she whispered.
“I can understand that,” Jemma said.
They sat in silence for a while.
“It smells,” Jemma said, finally. “I don’t mean the water closets, Isidore. I mean your husband. There’s something off here.”
“You know what I don’t understand?” Isidore said. “He said that he loved me. He said that.”
“You never told me that before!”
“I didn’t believe him.”
“You should have believed him,” Jemma said. “Men never say that sort of thing unless they mean it. They have rigid defenses prohibiting displays of emotion.” She was smiling. “He is just being a fool.”
“He’s not a fool,” Isidore said.
“He doesn’t know what he wants. Well, I expect he knows just what he wants, but he’s afraid to reach out and take it.”
“Simeon is not afraid of anything,” Isidore said, almost sadly.
“He’s afraid of you.”
“He’s afraid of you because his mother is an old cow who is telling all of England that he’s crazy. And his father was even worse, with all his mistresses, and irresponsibilities.”
“That has nothing to do with me.”
“Then why didn’t he come back, all those years, when his mother was writing him letters describing the paragon waiting for him at home?” Jemma pounced.
“Because he was looking for the source of the Nile,” Isidore offered.
“Nonsense! Years passed. He could have nipped back here, snatched you up and taken you back to die of a Nile fever. He could have come back here, annulled the marriage, and returned to paddle around the river some more. He never came back.”
“I’m aware of that,” Isidore said, thinking that Jemma could be awfully dictatorial at times.
“I think that he’s afraid to own you. To own anything.”
“He doesn’t own me,” Isidore said, with dignity. “I am a human being, not a heifer.”
Jemma waved her hand. “Think like a man, Isidore. Think like a man! I expect he never really wanted the paragon. You saved him from the tiresomeness of perfection.”
“I’m too much,” Isidore said glumly.
“I think you may have been just a wee bit overbearing,” Jemma said. “Men like to conquer, you know.”
“It’s so stupid,” Isidore said, feeling tears prick her eyes. “If I understand you, you’re saying that he’s throwing me away like yesterday’s tart simply because he finds me too overbearing. I—I—” She meant to say that she deserved better, but she forgot the sentence and floundered into tears instead.