“A fairy queen,” Jemma amended. “One look at you and mortals lose their wits, forever wandering in the depths of the forest.”
“You are rather odd, Jemma, do you know that?”
“I accept that about myself. And I’m not the one with diamonds pasted everywhere from her bottom to her heels.”
“I just want to make it clear to everyone that I’m—it is ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Everyone knows how much you’re worth, darling,” Jemma said soothingly. “I like the glittering look. It’s a public service. You’ll reflect the candlelight so no one falls overboard. You know, last time the king had a gathering on his yacht, Lord Piddle tripped over his own feet and somersaulted into the water.”
“Did he come back up again?”
“Naturally,” Jemma said. “He floated like a cork.”
“If I fell overboard,” Isidore said, “I would sink like a stone. These diamonds are quite small but put together, they’re quite heavy.”
“I suggest you sit in a throne to receive the admiring hoards.”
Isidore bit her lip.
“Villiers went to fetch him,” Jemma said, guessing exactly what she was thinking.
“What if Villiers can’t convince him?” Isidore said, fear welling up in her heart. “What if Simeon is perfectly happy without me, and has decided I’m just too much trouble?”
“Then we’ll auction your dress in the marketplace and you can buy yourself a new husband.”
By ten in the evening, Isidore was beginning to accept that even the Duke of Villiers couldn’t work miracles. King George III had come and gone, giving his assurance that the bill of divorce her solicitor had submitted would be approved speedily. It should have warmed Isidore’s heart to realize that even a happily married monarch found her bosom appealing, but it didn’t.
Why didn’t Simeon come? She stood up listlessly and put her hand into the hand of some gentleman. She couldn’t even remember his name. There had been so many suitors that she’d taken to describing them to Jemma by their clothes. This one wore a turquoise coat with green buttons. Not a good combination. She managed to find a smile for him.
Turquoise Coat bowed with a great deal of unnecessary hand flourishing, and they eased their way onto the crowded floor. The yacht was ample for a boat, but the king had been lavish with his invitations and there were (in Isidore’s opinion) far too many people onboard. Her panniers kept knocking against those of other ladies, necessitating a constant flow of apologies. What’s more, the gentle rocking motion of the river made dancing all the more difficult, especially when dressed in perilously delicate heels and a cumbersome gown.
She was just twitching her hem out from under the clumsy feet of one of the royal dukes when there was a sudden thump and the entire yacht bounded in the water, as if a giant’s hand had thrown it in the air an inch or two.
The duke frowned as though her gown were to blame and lumbered off to the deck, followed by most of the dancers.
“Peculiar,” her partner remarked. “I wonder what that was about. I suppose we could go look at the water.” The musicians produced one screeching discord, and then settled back to finish the measure.
Some people continued to dance, though most had drifted through the doors that opened onto the deck. She could hear a few shouts from outside. Jemma appeared at her shoulder, her eyes sparkling. “I think another boat has hit us,” she cried over the noise. “I’m looking for Beaumont!” And she was gone.
Turquoise Coat started a running complaint. Drunken river boat captains presented a hazard to everyone on the river…Isidore had a headache, and it wasn’t getting any better listening to prognostications about the rightful punishment that would be meted out to the drunken captain who struck the king’s own yacht.
“If you’ll forgive me, my lord,” she said, “I must retire to the lady’s salon for a moment.”
“I doubt if that is entirely safe,” Turquoise Coat said. “What if the boat has suffered some damage? We should make our way outside.”
“If the boat were damaged, we would be listing,” she pointed out.
“I do hear some shouting and such.”
Isidore slipped her hand out of his arm. “It has been a pleasure, my lord.”
He said something, and she turned about. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not a lord,” he snapped, looking distinctly put upon.
She turned away without answering, which made her feel guilty all the way back across the now empty ballroom floor. The boat was still rocking from side to side. Her guess would be that it had burst free of its moorings and was drifting in the Thames. Which meant that it would strike one or the other bank in a matter of five minutes. Hardly anything to worry about.
At any rate, she didn’t see any reason to join the crowds on deck, where doubtless her gown would be trod on and she might even fall overboard, given the fact that the heels of her diamond-encrusted shoes had proved to be far too high for comfort. She teetered across the polished floor and finally made her way into the ladies’ salon.
The maids had deserted their posts, naturally. She sat down on a chaise-longue and stared at the opposite wall.
She loved him, and she’d lost him. She’d lost him by being a peremptory dragon. “Arrogant,” she muttered to herself. “Fool.” She’d dropped her handkerchief somewhere so she resorted to pulling up her jewel-encrusted skirts and wiping her eyes on her chemise.
“Lost your way?”
She hadn’t heard the door open. She hadn’t heard any footsteps, or sensed eyes watching her. She hadn’t planned anything to say, which was almost the worst of it.
He looked like any other duke of the realm, dressed in a gorgeous coat of dark blue satin, embroidered with pomegranates.
“That’s not your coat,” she said.
“It belongs to Villiers.” He didn’t take his eyes off her.
“You look like a duke,” she said, sniffing a little.
Being Simeon, he didn’t bother with flummery about clothing. “You are free to choose a husband, or so they tell me,” he stated.
She swallowed. Her heart was beating so fast that she could hear it in her ears. “Yes.”
“I could offer myself as part of the horde that Villiers assures me is sniffing about you.”
A tiny tendril of hope sprang up in her heart.
“You could,” she said, nodding. “You’re wearing breeches. I’m sure that was one of my requirements.”
“And powder,” he said, “for meeting royalty. But—”
“But?” she whispered.
“I’m not offering myself.”
Her stomach twisted on a great wave of nausea and shame. “I see,” she said faintly. He was looking at her closely so she couldn’t, she couldn’t cry. She mustn’t. She didn’t.
“Surely that doesn’t surprise you,” he said, moving into the room and closing the door behind him.
“This is the ladies’ salon,” she said. Her voice cracked, which was stupid. She was swamped by a feeling of bewilderment, like a child who just lost both parents in one moment. She had believed him when he said he loved her. Her eyes blurred and she had to bite her lip hard. She turned away from him. “I think it’s time to leave,” she said, forcing the words out of her throat. “Jemma will be wondering where I am.”