April 20, 2009 12:00 PM

When LuAnn Nadeau of Connecticut married Count Alexandre de Lesseps in 1993, acquiring her now-famous title was the least of her reasons. “My parents have been married for 50 years. My brother’s been married almost 30 years,” says the Real Housewives of New York City star. “When I got married, it was forever.”

Forever was only a fairy tale. Last month, Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, 43, one of six women chronicled on Bravo’s hit reality series, learned that her husband, 59, was dating someone else. Though the couple, who have two children—Noel, 12, and Victoria, 14—had quietly separated three months earlier, “I was ashamed,” she says. “I didn’t want anybody to know.” But her secret was revealed March 31, when the New York Post printed that her globe-trotting entrepreneur husband was openly involved with an Ethiopian beauty in Geneva. “It’s been like a death,” says de Lesseps, sitting down in the living room of her Upper East Side townhouse to discuss the state of her marriage for the first time. “You go through anger, bereavement—it’s really an end to a part of your life.”

What’s worse is de Lesseps can’t simply hide away until the news blows over. She has a book to promote: Class with the Countess, her autobiographical etiquette guide, hits stores April 16—and is not only dedicated to her husband, but also includes an entire chapter titled “How to Get a Man to Stay in Love.” “When I wrote the book I felt really secure,” she says. “And that’s totally changed.”

So why didn’t her own tips work? “You can try all you want, but if you’re not getting reciprocation from the other person, it’s not your fault.”

Some three months ago, de Lesseps says, she began a trial separation from her husband. “We’d been having problems for the last couple of years, because he travels a lot and has been coming home a lot less. I thought this was an opportunity to see if he would miss his family.” (While being on Real Housewives “made things a little more difficult,” she adds, “I don’t think it’s what caused it.”)

Instead, in early March, de Lesseps caught wind that the Count had been spotted in the arms of another woman after Simon Van Kempen, the husband of her Real Housewives costar Alex McCord, noticed rumors on an Internet message board. (Count de Lesseps did not return PEOPLE’s calls for comment.) “I don’t really hang out with Simon,” says de Lesseps. “But all of us on this show, we look out for each other.”

One week later, after failing to get a straight answer by phone from her spouse, who travels often to oversee his micro-financing and real estate projects, de Lesseps finally received an e-mail from him. “It said that he had met someone, and they were serious,” she says. “I was devastated. I knew that we were kind of separating, but I was hoping that things were going to work out.”

Then de Lesseps faced an even tougher task: breaking the news to her children. “That’s probably been the hardest part,” she says. “Victoria figured it out. She was like, ‘I think it’s a good thing, Mom.’ Like, at least you know the outcome now so it’s not as scary. It’s resolved.”

Until now, the de Lessepses’ match seemed made in society heaven. Smitten at a dinner party (“It was love at first sight,” she says), they married after just three weeks. And while Alexandre had wed three times before, this marriage outlasted them all “times five,” says LuAnn. “I know I’m the love of his life. I know that.”

Now, as she explores divorce options, she is vowing to “hold my head up high and concentrate on keeping myself together.” And while she’ll still be called the Countess following a divorce, de Lesseps says she’ll be fine without her Count. “It’s [just] a title,” she says. “It’s not who I am.”

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