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When the Duke Returns
Gore House, Kensington
London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont
February 21, 1784
"He's a virgin."
"He's a virgin and—"
"Your husband is a virgin?"
"And he won't bed me."
Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, sank into a chair with a look of almost comical dismay on her face. "Darling, if there ever were grounds for annulment, these are they. Or this is it," she added with some confusion. "Is he some sort of monk?"
Isidore shook her head. "Not that I'm able to see. He says he will bed me eventually—just not until we're married."
"But you are married!"
"Exactly. I may call myself Lady Del'Fino, but the truth of the matter is that in the eyes of the law, I'm Duchess of Cosway." Isidore dropped into a chair opposite her friend. "We've been married for eleven years, last I counted. And it's hardly my fault that my husband is still a virgin. If he hadn't been chasing all over Africa looking for the source of the Blue Nile, we could be utterly bored with each other, like other wellbred English couples."
Jemma blinked at her. "It's unbelievable. Un-believable."
"I spent the last seven years fending off lechers in every court in Europe, waiting for him to return home, and what does he do? Decide we're not truly married."
"So why didn't he fall directly into your bed, virgin or no?"
Isidore glanced at herself in Jemma's glass. Men had lusted for her ever since she turned sixteen, and the particulars hadn't changed: black hair, pale skin, generous bosom. In short, something short of Venus,but delectable enough to send most men into a lustful frenzy.
"One has to assume that Cosway is fascinated by the exotic," Jemma continued, "and you have such a deliciously un-English look about you. Your eyes are a gorgeous shape, not like the little raisins most of us have."
"I don't think of myself as exotic," Isidore said, "and more to the point, he seems to want someone more skilled in a domestic capacity. Not more than ten minutes after we met—for the first time!—he inquired whether I had been doing any weaving lately. Weaving? Was I supposed to whip out a spindle and sew a fine seam?"
"Even I know that one doesn't sew with a spindle, which implies that Cosway has a gross disappointment in store if he's counting on your domestic skills," Jemma said, laughing. "Perhaps he's the type that babbles when faced by a desirable woman. It's a surprisingly common affliction."
"Believe me, I was watching him closely, and he gave no sign of being overcome by lust."
"Even Beaumont, who hardly notes anything outside the House of Lords, told me after my masquerade that you had the most beautiful mouth of any woman in England."
"Beaumont said that?" Isidore said, feeling a little thrill of pleasure. "That's nice. Though I have to say, Jemma, I shouldn't like my husband to praise other women to my face."
Jemma shrugged. "According to your own assessment, as a well-bred English couple, we are merely adhering to type. I don't think you should panic, Isidore. I expect Cosway is madly attracted to you and he's just conveying his deep respect by holding a ceremony in front of a bishop."
"He's deranged," Isidore said flatly. "It must have been all that sun in Africa. We married by proxy, but it was still a marriage. I was only twelve years old, but I remember it perfectly well."
"Well," Jemma said, rallying, "maybe the duke wants a romantic ceremony now that he's returned."
"And maybe he's utterly mad and bizarre," Isidore said, putting her fear into words. "What sort of man stays a virgin until he's near to thirty? That's almost disgusting. How am I supposed to introduce him to the bedroom, Jemma? Men do this sort of thing on their own. Honestly, if he's never used his equipment—well, who's to say that it will function at all?"
Silence answered her.
Isidore could feel her eyes growing hot. "I just want to have my husband go to bed with me so that I can be a proper duchess, use my title, and have a child. Is that too much to ask?"
Jemma reached over and took one of her hands. "No. I'm sorry, darling."
Tears started sliding down Isidore's cheeks. "I was never unfaithful to Cosway. The Comte de Salmont told me—in rhymed couplets—that I was more delicious than a 1764 cognac, and given his cellars, that was a true compliment. I finally returned to Italy because Salmont was so extravagant in his pursuit, but I didn't sleep with him, even when he threatened to kill himself." She sniffed, and Jemma handed her a handkerchief.
"I kept to my part of the bargain, although any woman in her right mind would expect her husband to show himself when she came of age."
"Childhood marriages are a huge mistake," Jemma said. "I shall never allow Beaumont to arrange one for a child of ours. People should be adults when they marry."
"I'm not fussy. Truly I'm not. I may have flirted with men as handsome as Salmont, but I like men of other types too. Even short ones. I've told myself for years that no matter how Cosway looked when he finally staggered out of the jungle, I would do my marital part charitably if not enthusiastically. But—"
"Is he unacceptable?" Jemma asked with some curiosity.
"Oh, oh—no," Isidore said. "That's not the point. His looks are irrelevant. He's manifestly odd. Odd!"
"I have another idea. Perhaps Cosway is just too intelligent to have interested himself in carnal matters."
Isidore gave her a watery smile. "Show me the man who's too intelligent to use his tool, and I'll show you a dunce." The words came out more harshly than she intended.
"The most obvious explanation is that he's following some sort of religious law. Did he say anything about going to church? Likely he's a Puritan. Aren't they terrifyingly severe when it comes to base appetites?" When the Duke Returns. Copyright © by Eloisa James. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.