This Duchess of Mine Page 13

She picked up a lemon tart. “I found it hard to believe that he ever left France for this woman, even in the throes of the deep love he felt.” She spat the last sentence.

“Will you follow him across the Channel directly?” Jemma enquired.

“Absolutely not,” the marquise said. “Can you imagine? He might think that I pursued him to England because of some anxiety about his degenerate activities.” She magnificently ignored the fact that she had followed her husband for just that reason. Instead she gave a careless shrug. “I couldn’t be less concerned about what he does, and he is perfectly aware of that fact. I shall stay here for as long as I please. London is an enchanting place, of course.”

Jemma translated that statement into a declaration that Louise would stay in London just as long as necessary to assure that her husband dared not question her presence in this country.

It was time for an insult, one ruthless enough to send Louise directly into a towering fury. Jemma shook open her fan and held it so that it covered the lower part of her face, as if she were preparing to say the unsayable. Fans were so useful to the art of the insult. She pitched her voice low and confidential. “My dear marquise, if you’d ever like some guidance in the matter of husbands, you need not do more than ask.”

Louise narrowed her eyes. “Advice of what sort, dear duchess?”

“It’s a mere suggestion,” Jemma said. “But have you considered altering your—” She waved her hand as if she couldn’t even think of the word.

“My what?”

“We must be frank between ourselves, must we not?” Jemma said, lowering her fan to chin level to bestow a lavish smile. “I mean, of course, between close friends like ourselves.”

“Naturellement,” the marquise said, every inch of her rigid body showing just how much she disliked frankness.

“You wear the most sophisticated costumes in the French court. Your ensemble is only equaled by that of Marie Antoinette herself. Your face is always exquisite, your—”

“Exactly so.” Coldness sliced through Louise’s words.

“And yet.” Jemma sighed. “One cannot ignore the fact that you look…oh just slightly…like a chessboard, dearest marquise. What man wants to sleep with a chessboard? You do not dress like a woman who wants to seduce, but like a woman who wants to impress. To be noticed.” Then she added, as a kindly afterthought, “Though you are, of course, a most beautiful woman.”

Louise appeared to be grinding her teeth.

“My husband never strays,” Jemma said, closing her fan. “And why is that, Marquise? Why is that?”

“It certainly isn’t because you yourself have remained chaste,” the marquise said flatly.

“Alas, that is so true,” Jemma said. “So, so, so true. And yet my dearest Elijah never wandered during all the years I lived in France, never even looked at another woman. I wish for nothing more than for you to have the same happiness.” Her smile was guaranteed to scrape the marquise’s nerves like the squeal of rats in an alley. “Dear friends should always look out for each other’s best interests.”

“So you believe that Henri took this woman to Lincolnshire because he dislikes my élégance?” One had to admire the marquise’s command over her voice. She conveyed withering scorn with nothing more than a shading of tone.

It was time to move in for the kill. “My husband,” Jemma said, “never, but never, looks at another woman. And why is that, my dear marquise? It is not only because my clothing is perhaps, shall we say, just slightly more graceful than your dogged wearing of black and white, but also because I do not wear my heart on my sleeve.”

Little white marks had appeared on either side of Louise’s nose. “This English term…I do not know it. Where is my heart?”

“Out for everyone to see. You never flirt. You stay to the side of a ballroom and gaze at Henri with your heart in your eyes. You—”

“So now my heart is in my eyes?”

“Of course, most people do feel sympathy, though there are always the unkind who mock. You might try to seem a bit indifferent, my dear. A passion so flamboyant is bound to garner pity.”

“Ah,” the marquise said. “Pity.”

“Elijah never looks at another woman,” Jemma repeated, a bit worried about whether she was overdoing it.

But the marquise’s nails had curled in such a way that strips of delicate paper shredded off her fan.

“I know!” Jemma said, sitting up as if suddenly inspired. “You might strive to create a bit of a scandal here in England. Something that would cause a rumor to fly home to Paris, convincing your husband that he is not the only one to enjoy himself with matters of the heart.”

Louise gave a savage little laugh. “You don’t think that I should have trouble finding someone willing to overlook my chessboard?”

“Oh, no, no, no,” Jemma cried. “You mustn’t take me too literally. When you say chessboard, it truly sounds as if I meant you were flat in the bodice, and of course I would never say such a thing! I have no doubt but that many men are delighted with a, shall we say, more modest offering.” Her eyes gently slid away from the marquise’s entirely adequate bosom, as if she were excusing a serious flaw.

She continued, “Of course, women can be so cruel to each other. Why, the other day a bumbling lady of my acquaintance referred to you in the most disparaging terms—she is really hopelessly ill-bred—oh yes, I believe she mentioned a bird. Could it have been a crow?” She gave a shrug. “At any rate, I defended you. I told her that you were the only woman I considered to have the wit and charm to rival the great courtesans.”

Louise drew in a sharp breath.

“I mean that as the greatest compliment,” Jemma added. “You could have any man you wished. If you put your mind to it.”

She paused. “Other than my dear Elijah, of course. He is so very devoted.”

“I don’t care for English men,” the marquise said, chomping down on a lemon tart. “For the most part they are quite brutish in their manners. Their bows are too unformed, too unrefined.” She waved her hand in the air. “They lack that sense of élégance that characterizes the French court. The beauty of the French poise and discretion.”

“While your point about elegance is absolutely fair, some Englishmen have a kind of masculine beauté that I find appealing,” Jemma said. “I have always thought that my husband, the Duke of Beaumont, looks rather like Gerard de Ridefort, but with less affectation. And you know that Marie Antoinette herself called de Ridefort the most beautiful man in Paris.”

“Your husband,” Louise said broodingly. “Dear me, I remember the strangest rumor. But I am sure it is no more than that.” She opened her fan and waved it just below her eyes.

Jemma shrugged again. “Any scandal that involves the duke is surely untrue.”

“I know!” the marquise cried. “’Twas the reason why you moved to France, all those years ago. The foolish man declared himself in love with someone else.”

“His mistress,” Jemma said, her tone pitched to perfect indifference.

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