This Duchess of Mine Page 43

“Be careful,” Elijah warned.

“Or what?”

“I’ll leave you a note as well.” He laughed aloud at Villiers’s revolted expression.

Chapter Sixteen

That afternoon

“Where are we going?” Elijah asked, handing his wife into the carriage. It couldn’t be a fashionable destination because as far as he could tell, Jemma was wearing small side panniers if any, and she certainly wore no wig.

She must have forgiven him for the tempest of the previous night because she smiled teasingly. “It’s a secret. I’ve already instructed Muffet as to our destination.”

For the last nine years he had punished himself for having no wife—or rather for having a wife in France. He had ignored the pleasantries of women who sought his company, avoided the eyes of women who sought money…satisfied himself alone, in his room. Infrequently and unhappily.

Now he felt like tinder about to flare. The curve of Jemma’s lower lip, the faint scent of roses that clung to her skin…

“You never used to like perfume,” he commented, climbing into the coach after her. He thought of sitting beside her, but even without large panniers, her skirts still filled most of the carriage seat.

“I rarely wear scent. I did today only because when I’m naked, I feel more protected with perfume.”

Her words seared Elijah’s body and he heard his own hoarse voice as if it were another man’s. “We’re going to be naked?”

She smiled, the eternal smile of the Sphinx. Obviously, she had said all she intended. He spent the rest of the journey tormenting himself by imagining her soft and smooth, creamy white and delicate…

“Don’t look at me like that!” she said crossly just as the carriage stopped.

“I can’t look at you any other way,” he said to her back as she descended from the carriage.

Elijah descended onto a cobblestone street in a part of London he didn’t recognize. It wasn’t even a part of London whose smell he recognized. He knew the smell of coal that hung around the Inns of Court, and the smell of cloth dyes down by the Thames. Hyde Park’s sooty poplars had no odor, and so the park smelled mostly of dust and sweaty horses. He knew when he was in Smithfield from the odor of dung that spread from it like a fetid gift. Limehouse, where the riots didn’t take place…Limehouse smelled like the sea and the cheerful poor, like baking bread and buckets of urine thrown into the street at night.

But this street smelled like lilacs in a country garden. They were standing before a wall with a small door. An old wall, made of round stones and sand that looked old enough to date to the days of Henry IV, or even earlier than that.

He looked at Jemma but she wasn’t going to tell him anything, obviously. So they stood there in the street and smelled lilacs drifting from somewhere, while a footman rang the bell hanging by the door.

A little monk in a rough-woven white robe opened the door. That was interesting, and not what Elijah expected. He hadn’t thought clearly, but the question of nakedness jostled in his mind into a pleasant anticipation of sin, skin, pleasure…

A witch’s brew of sensual experience that monks had no part of.

“As you requested, Your Grace,” the man said, bowing. “The baths are ready.”

Jemma stepped forward. “We are most grateful, Frater.” His grizzled head quickly disappeared back through the door.

Elijah grabbed Jemma’s arm. “There are no monks in England,” he hissed. “I’m quite sure that Henry VIII did away with them.”

She smiled. “That wasn’t a monk. He just looked like one.”

“Then what is he?”

She drew him forward. Inside the old walls there was a great muddy courtyard made of ill-kept pavement though which poked blades of grass and stunted weeds. Lilacs grew in a tangled mess against the wall, pale flowers opening in the first signs of spring. Wild garlic had sprung up around the lilac, adding a touch of pungency to the air.

The door closed behind them. Across the courtyard, square-cut pillars rose to the level of a second floor. Most of the roof was still there, but to the right there was nothing but rubble. Ahead of them the “monk” vanished into the maze of pillars. For an old man, he was remarkably nimble.

“Come on,” Jemma said, taking Elijah’s hand.

“Where are we?” Something was nagging at Elijah’s memory but he couldn’t bring it to the surface. Swallows were diving and reeling in the open courtyard, flying around the standing pillars, under the roof, and out the other side.

“A Roman balineum,” Jemma said.

“Baths,” Elijah said, puzzling it out. “I thought they’d been torn down. Or fallen down, years ago.”

“Just forgotten.”

“What do we do next?”

“The baths are this way.” She led him among the pillars, curved to the right, and a floor paved with half-cracked and dingy blue tiles appeared. There had been mosaics there once. A single blue eye stared up at Elijah from a fractured tile, the curve of a lion’s tail from another.

Jemma descended broad shallow steps and the air turned hazy. She walked ahead of him through a warm mist that clung to her hair and turned her pelisse from a rich ruby to a dimmer mauve.

Then they came out into the bath. It was very large, filled with clear water from which rose tendrils of steam. The room had walls of varying heights on three sides, and was sheltered on the fourth by a great bank of overgrown lilacs. There was no sign of the small monk. Without hesitation, Jemma walked around the bath and stood on the other side. He began to follow her, but she shook her head.

“It’s divided into men’s and women’s baths, don’t you see?” She pointed down into the clear water. The tiles on the bath’s floor were intact, and clearly divided in two. He could see there must have once been a separating wall, but it had either disintegrated or been torn down.

The men’s side, where he stood, depicted a battle scene, a confusion of rearing horses and spears. The women’s side, where Jemma stood, depicted women bent over spindles, listening to a harp player.

Jemma smiled at him and took off her pelisse, dropping it on a bench. Underneath, she was wearing a much simpler garment than usual, one that laced in front. She began unlacing it as Elijah tried to pull himself together.

“We’re—We’re bathing.”

She inclined her head, raising one finger. “Separately. As befits a holy place.”

He looked around. “Holy?”

“Dedicated to Apollo. The Roman god of medicine.”

“How on earth do you know of this place, Jemma?” He was astounded. He wouldn’t in a million years have pictured his sophisticated, urbane wife frequenting a run-down ruin of a bath house. Under the water, brilliantly colored tiles glinted like fish scales sliding against each other. The spring air was just cold enough that steam drifted between them occasionally, like a transparent curtain.

“How is it heated? When did you first come here? Who was that man? And—where is he now?”

“He’s down below, tending the fires,” she said.

And the questions failed in his throat because she had finished unlacing and, with a simple gesture, slipped off her gown. She was wearing neither a corset nor panniers. Her petticoats must have been part of her gown, because now she wore only a chemise, and Elijah could see the lines of her hips, round and lush, the slender curve of her waist, the beguiling weight of her breasts.

Prev Next