When the Duke Returns(8)

By: Eloisa James

Simeon Jermyn, Duke of Cosway, expected to feel an overwhelming tide of emotion when his carriage drew up before Revels House. After all, he hadn’t seen his childhood home in well over ten years. He arrived just before twilight, when the lowering sun made every turret and angle (and Revels House had many) look sharp and clear against the fading blue sky.

Of course he was poised to quell any such unwelcome emotion. As a follower of the Middle Way, he understood that to live in peace was to anticipate the danger of chaos. Revels House reeked of chaos: even as a mere child he had longed to escape his parents’ pitched battles, his father’s frenzied speeches, his mother’s fierce claims of privilege. They sent him to Eton, but that meant that he had free access to a library full of books describing countries unlike his own. Families unlike his own.

Of course, it was possible that when he came home to the sleepy, tamed English countryside, with Revels House sitting in the midst like a plump teapot, he would be overcome by a sense of righteous pride.

But instead of pride, he found himself looking at the fields as they drew closer and marking their neglected appearance. The gravel on the long drive wasn’t just unraked; great swaths of the road were nothing more than ruts carved from dry mud. The trees hadn’t been pollarded in years.

Instead of pride—or joy—he felt an unwelcome prickle of guilt, which intensified as he climbed from the carriage to find a broken window in the east wing, and bricks that badly needed pointing.

At least Honeydew, the family’s butler, looked the same. For a moment it felt as if Simeon had never left home. Honeydew’s three-tiered wig still ended in a stubby tail in the back; his frock was cut in the style of twenty years ago, and lined with brass buttons. Only his face had changed: years ago, Honeydew had a youngish, mournful face, from which his nose jutted like some sort of miserable mistake. Now Honeydew had an older, mournful face. It suited him. He used to look like a boy who had unexpectedly discovered a dead body; now he looked like a man who had judged life and found it wanting.

A moment later Simeon walked into his mother’s sitting room. Some of his earliest memories involved interminable lectures delivered in this room. His mother believed in driving her points home with enthusiasm—and repetition. On one occasion she had taken a full hour to inform him that a gentleman does not curl his lip at a portrait of an ancestor. Even if the said ancestor looked like a silly booby in a ridiculous frill.

Like Honeydew, the Dowager Duchess looked the same…and yet not the same.

She sat bolt upright on a settee, her skirts occupying whatever space was not taken up by her bottom. He knew little of current women’s fashions, though styles had obviously changed since he left England. Yet his mother seemed to be wearing clothing from twenty years ago.

She rose and he saw her embroidered bodice, decorated with a ladder of bows down the front, and revised his estimation: more than twenty years ago. In truth, her costume was precisely as he remembered, from her tall white linen cap to her train. It was only her face that had changed. He remembered her bursting with authority and life, her rosy cheeks and sharp eyes epitomizing the model of duchess-as-general. But now she looked wrinkled and surprised, like an apple gone soft after a winter in the cellar. She looked old.

She extended a hand. He fell to one knee and kissed her beringed finger. “Cosway,” she said. “I trust that you recovered your wife from that den of iniquity.” He had arrived in London to find alarmed letters directing him to travel immediately to a country house party to rescue Isidore. Which he had done.

“Mother, I missed you these twelve years,” he said.

Her eyes sharpened and he saw a trace of the woman he remembered, one who abhorred any display of emotion other than disdain and disappointment.

“Indeed,” she said, her voice glacial. Then he remembered how many hundreds—nay thousands—of his comments had been received with that single, damning word. “You will forgive me for doubting your word, since you were at liberty to return at any time.”

It was a fair point. “On receiving your note,” he offered by way of amelioration, “I traveled to Fonthill. My wife was perfectly fit.” He paused for a moment, wondering if he was supposed to report on the state of his bride’s virginity.

“I trust you both left the environs immediately.”

She folded her hands together. It was almost impossible to see her knuckles due to the flare of jewels. He remembered that about his mother too: she was like a magpie in her delight in shiny things, jewels, gold, silver.

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