“How dare you!”
Isabella was angry enough to strike the man before her, but restrained herself (barely). Nonetheless, her hands balled into fists and she glared at him accusingly. “How dare you cast aspersions on Elvira, call her impure, when you’ve known from the very beginning that she has been married before. You disgust me!”
“That isn’t – that’s not what I meant!” Taddeo wrung his hands, glancing from side to side awkwardly as though searching for an escape route. “I would never—“
Isabella was not listening. Her rage would tolerate none of his excuses. “It’s men like you that keep our society in the dark ages. Judging a woman on her ‘purity’, placing such a high value on her virginity and ignoring the core of her being – I wouldn’t have thought you capable of such a thing.”
“That isn’t—you don’t understand!” Taddeo’s tone was pleading, almost desperate. “Please, Isabella, listen to me. This isn’t about her purity so much as her experience. She is an easterner, and her life before now… I don’t want to…” he trailed off, staring at the floor.
Isabella had a sudden, wild thought, a reason why he would come to her and ask such personal questions about a women he’d been courting for months. “Taddeo, are you trying to tell me…have you never…?”
Taddeo looked away, his face turning pink. “I have never found the right woman. And I am not the sort to bandy about with loose women for pleasure.”
Though ordinarily she would have teased him for his use of the term “Loose women”, Isabella felt that this was not the time. “And so you fear to disappoint her.”
Taddeo nodded, looking absolutely miserable. “I could not bear it if she laughed at me.”
“Oh, Taddeo.” Isabella took his hand in hers, struggling to sound soothing. “Haven’t you noticed how she worships you? She would never laugh at you, not for this or any other reason.”
“But her time with the Bey…the years she spent in the harem…”
“Listen to me, Taddeo.” Isabella grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him to face her. “Think for a moment of how she was treated by her last husband. Think of how many other women he had to serve him and attend to his every whim. Think of how quickly he discarded her when a more appealing woman came his way. Do you think he was capable of loving her the way you so clearly love her?”
Taddeo slowly shook his head and Isabella lowered her voice. “Taddeo, you do know…you’ve surely heard that women often experience pain, their first time with a man.”
Taddeo’s blush deepened, but he nodded. Isabella sighed. “Do you think the Bey cared? To him she was an object, a source of pleasure, not a person with the ability to feel.” Taddeo’s eyes were wide and Isabella smiled up at him sadly. “She has experienced passion, but never tenderness. Never real love. So love her. Treat her kindly, gently, and she will adore you. Algerian customs may have taught her differently than Italians are raised, but no woman can resist a lover who attends to her every need. You have nothing to fear, I promise you.”
Taddeo swallowed hard, but he looked somewhat reassured. Isabella let go of his shoulder and took a step back. “She is upstairs now, in the drawing room, looking over the plans for the wedding. I know she is anxious to see you.”
Isabella watched as Taddeo ascended the stairs. It made sense to her now, his hesitation and the way he flinched slightly whenever Elvira lingered too long in an embrace. She was glad to have tracked down the reason for his reluctance. For a while she’d been worried that he didn’t truly love the young Algerian woman. It was nice to know her suspicions had been in vain. She climbed the stairs herself, more slowly than Taddeo had, and walked down the hall towards her study. She had nearly reached the end when she heard a sound from the drawing room. The door was slightly ajar, and she peered in, scanning the room. By the window stood Taddeo, his arms wrapped tightly around Elvira’s slim waist. Her head rested contentedly on his shoulder, eyes closed, with a blissful expression on her face. Smiling, Isabella shut the door, giving the couple the privacy they deserved.