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When the Duke Returns

By:Eloisa James

Eloisa James



When the Duke Returns

Prologue




Fonthill

Lord Strange’s country estate

February 19, 1784

Women have been dressing to entice men ever since Eve fashioned her first fig leaf. Adam was probably irritable after that business with the apple, so Eve would have done her best with some leaves and string.

So why was it still so hard to decide what to wear? As her maid tossed a seventh rejected gown onto the bed, Isidore, Duchess of Cosway, tried to decide whether her husband would prefer her in a ruby-colored velvet with a low décolletage or a sky-blue open robe with a little train.

The decision would be easier if she’d actually met the husband in question. “Your Grace looked delightful in the white lustring silk,” her maid said, a mulish set to her jaw indicating that Lucille was losing patience with all the tiny buttons, hooks, petticoats, and panniers involved in each change.

“It would be so much less complicated if I only had a few vines to work with, the way Eve did,” Isidore said. “Though my marriage could hardly be called Edenic.”

Lucille rolled her eyes. She wasn’t given to philosophical musings about marriage.

Not only were Eve’s sartorial options limited, but she and Adam went into the wilderness. Whereas she, Isidore, had lured her husband, the Duke of Cosway, out of the wilderness of equatorial Africa, and yet the note she’d received saying he’d arrive tonight sounded just as peeved as Adam. Men never liked to be given directions.

She should probably wear the pale yellow gown, the one embroidered with flower petals. It had a disarming air of female fragility. Isidore plucked it back off the bed and held it in front of herself, staring into the glass. Never mind the fact that docility wasn’t her best virtue; she could certainly look the part. For a while.

“That’s an excellent choice, Your Grace,” Lucille said encouragingly. “You’ll look as sweet as butter.”

The dress was edged in delicate lace and dotted with pale ribbons. “We’ll put flowers in your hair,” Lucille continued. “Or perhaps small pearls. We could even add a bit of lace to the bodice.” She waved her hand in the general area of Isidore’s chest.

Masking her bosom (one of Isidore’s best features, to her mind) seemed like taking wifely modesty too far. “Pearls?” she said dubiously.

“And,” Lucille said, getting into the spirit, “you could carry that little prayer book from your mother, the one covered with lace.”

“Prayer book? You want me to carry a prayer book downstairs? Lucille, have you forgotten that we are currently at the most notorious house party in all England? There’s not a guest at Lord Strange’s party who even owns a prayer book except myself!”

“Her Grace, the Duchess of Berrow, has a prayer book,” Lucille pointed out.

“Since Harriet happens to be at this party incognito—and dressed as a man—I doubt that she will be wandering around with her prayer book in hand.”

“It would give you an air of virtue,” her maid said stubbornly.

“It would give me the air of a vicar’s wife,” Isidore said, throwing the dress back onto the heap.

“You’re meeting His Grace for the first time. You don’t want to look as if you belong at one of Lord Strange’s parties. In that dress you look as young as a debutante,” Lucille added, obviously thinking she’d hit on a powerful point.

That settled it. Isidore was definitely not wearing the yellow gown, nor pearls either. She was no debutante: she was all of twenty-three years old, even if she was meeting her husband for the first time, after eleven years of marriage. They’d married by proxy, but Cosway hadn’t bothered to return when she was sixteen—or eighteen—or even twenty. He had no right to expect that she’d look like a debutante. He should have imagined what it was like to get older and older while her friends married and had children. It was a wonder that she wasn’t as dried up as an apple.

A chilling thought. What if he decided that she really was nothing more than a dried-up apple? She was far beyond the age of a debutante, after all.

The very thought made Isidore’s backbone straighten. She’d played the docile wife for years, preserving her reputation, waiting for her husband’s return. Longing for his return, if she admitted the truth to herself.

And what made Cosway finally come home? Did he suddenly remember that they’d never met? No. It was the news that his wife was visiting a house party more famous for its debauchery than its lemon cakes. She should have thrown away her reputation years ago, and he would have trotted happily out of the jungle like a dog on a leash.

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