This Duchess of Mine Page 14


“But what an excellent decision you made to come to Paris. I remember the first year when you arrived; you had no poise, none of the charm that comes with sophisticated taste. And now look at you!” Louise raised an eyebrow. “So much older, and yet still with that sprightly, artless mode of dressing.”

“I learned so much in Versailles,” Jemma said. “Why, you have no idea how innocent I was. I truly believed that the duke loved his mistress. I can hardly believe that I was so foolish as to flee to another country over a matter as paltry as a husband’s lover!”

The marquise took a moment to compose herself. “Dear me, all that agitation for a mistress,” she said, fluttering her damaged fan vigorously.

“I was very young.”

“How fortunate that you retain your memory. So many people find it difficult to think back over that many years.”

“Of course, I am very possessive,” Jemma added.

“What is mine, is mine. I would naturally consider it the worst of insults if a woman dared to approach my husband. Even though my husband merely thought he loved his mistress, I could hardly contain my anger. Very childish of me, I know. In Paris I learned that the way to my husband’s heart was to ignore his unrefined behavior.”

The marquise picked up her third tart. “I consider mistresses to be part of a man’s world, a necessary adjunct, as it were. They parade and trade them the way women might trade fans. They are necessary to their sense of—I don’t know the word in English—amour propre?”

“Their sense of vanity,” Jemma translated. “Yes, I suppose you are right. But I was young and rash, and so I fled to France. Luckily, Elijah quickly learned his lesson. His eyes never stray to other women. I credit that to the fact I went to France and had a few dalliances of my own. He learned that what is sauce for the gander is even better for the goose.”

“I fail to see how your dissipated behavior turned him into a saint,” Louise said acidly.

“Ah, well,” Jemma said. “Just think, Marquise. Your husband has never had to worry that your affections were caught by another man, one who would be a worthy competitor to himself. No, he is free to stray about, to fall in love, to act as foolishly as he wishes—confident that you will be at home waiting for him.”

The marquise chewed her tart rather savagely. “I would never lower myself to his level!”

“I expect you have never met a man whom you considered his equal,” Jemma said soothingly. “I myself am so fastidious about a man’s appearance that I could not countenance your husband’s adorable way of finishing every scrap of food that strays onto his plate. He has such an appetite! It’s admirable in a man, of course,” she added unconvincingly.

“Do you dare to suggest that Henri is fat?” Louise inquired.

“Of course not, of course not!” Jemma said. “Why, a man his age should have a belly. It shows gravity of purpose. Seriousness. That sort of thing. Please do continue to eat, Marquise. I myself never eat sweet things in the morning.”

They both looked down at the plate. “Dear me!” Jemma said. “I hadn’t even noticed they were all gone. At any rate, as we were saying, I do admire your husband. He’s so modest…of course, he has much to be modest about.”

There was a rigidity about the marquise’s jaw that suggested to Jemma that perhaps she should stop before a plate broke over her head.

She sprang to her feet. “What a lovely conversation this has been. I would give you the name of my mantua maker, but I never share her address, even with my very closest friends. She’s by far the best in London, and if I pay her three times the price, she plucks gowns literally out of the air. I’ve had a gown made for the following day!”

Louise managed a good show of indifference. Of course, half of London knew that Jemma frequented the establishment of Madame Montesquieu, on Bond Street.

“I do hope to meet you again soon, Marquise,” Jemma said blithely. “We go to Vauxhall tomorrow night…well, I believe I’ve never seen you there. Do you not care for it?”

“In fact, I had long planned to pay it a visit,” the marquise said. “Does one not wear a domino there?”

“Always.”

“Then no one would note my odious clothing,” Louise said with a marked snap. “I look forward to it.”

Rather than curtsy, Jemma delivered the coup de grâce. She held out her hand to be kissed.

Of course Louise bent her head over her hand with utmost grace. But her eyes swore revenge. Jemma left smiling.

She couldn’t control everything. She couldn’t control her husband’s erratic heart. Elijah was important to the government and she was important to no one.

But she had her own rather particular skills.

Chapter Six

On the way back from the marquise’s house, Jemma remembered that she had one problem left to solve in Francesch Vicent’s 100 Chess Problems. She handed her pelisse to Fowle and headed directly for the library and her chessboard.

“Your Grace,” the butler said. “You have callers.”

But Jemma was already living inside the game. “I can’t talk now, Fowle. I’ll just be in the library for a bit.”

“Your gloves,” the butler said, a wry smile in his eyes.

“Oh,” Jemma said, pulling them off.

“The Duke of Villiers awaits,” Fowle said, to her back.

She turned about, feeling a pulse of extreme annoyance. “Villiers is here? What on earth is he doing here?”

“The duke paid you a call,” Fowle said. “Since the drawing room had a number of ladies waiting in it—and they are still there—he requested to be placed in the library. In front of the chess set.”

“Ah,” Jemma said, smiling. “I think those callers had better take themselves off, Fowle.” She paused for a moment. “Do they know of Villiers’s visit?”

“I believe not.”

“Excellent!” She turned to the library. “I am suffering from a terrible headache, Fowle. Do give my apologies to all my visitors. And you might bring a light luncheon in an hour or so.”

As she walked into the room, the Duke of Villiers rose from the chessboard. Villiers was an odd mix of fashionable and its opposite. He disdained the mania for wigs, wearing his hair tied back in a ribbon, unpowdered of course. And yet he dressed as magnificently as she did.

In some ways, Villiers was the opposite of Elijah. He had none of Elijah’s startling beauty: his face was too rough to be courtly, and his eyes too cold to be alluring. He cared nothing for the world’s opinion, let alone its salvation. He had never taken up his seat in the House of Lords; as far as Jemma knew, his sole passion was the one she shared: chess.

Jemma actually felt a pulse of envy at the sight of his coat, an emotion rarely inspired by men’s attire.

“You’ve outdone yourself, Villiers,” she said, by way of greeting. “Cream silk with interlocking chains in cherry embroidery. I’ve never heard of such a coat. No, I’ve never dreamed of such a coat.”

Villiers fell into a bow as magnificent as his garment. “I dreamed of it, though my tailor complained. It seems he feared I might become besmirched by dirt or spotted by rain.”

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