This Duchess of Mine Page 15


She laughed. “Rain would not dare spot His Grace, the Duke of Villiers?”

“Dirt is something that happens to others,” he said, with that wicked laughter in his eyes. “Like sin and bankruptcy.”

“Alas, if you hope to avoid the blemish of sin,” Jemma said, sitting down before the chessboard, “I am not the one to give you an education.”

“But that is one of the things I love about you,” he said amiably. “The only thing I am certain about is the art of dress. Since you dress exquisitely on your own, I need not bother with advice. I do like your wig this morning.”

“Delicious,” Jemma agreed. She was wondering whether to speak to him of Elijah’s heart. Better not. She might cry, a truly horrific thought.

She began swiftly rearranging the chess pieces. “The last time I spoke to you, Villiers, you flatly refused to play with me. I hope that your current position opposite me indicates that you have revoked your ban on the game?”

“Your husband tells me that you have decided to forfeit the final game in our match,” he said, sighing.

Jemma looked up quickly. “You discussed our match with Elijah?”

“The final game was to be blindfolded and in bed,” he said mournfully. “How it pains me to give up the prospect. You can have no idea.”

“But I am throwing the match! You win. Surely that makes you just as happy as being blindfolded.”

“To my astonishment, I find it does not,” he said, looking faintly surprised.

“In that case, I will give you the pleasure of playing a game,” she said, promptly putting the pieces in order.

“You may be White, as it agrees with your coat.”

“My coat is the color of rich cream,” he said with a delicate shudder. “Not White. I abhor white silk, and satin of that hue is even worse. It reminds me of angels. Saints. That sort of thing.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with angels,” Jemma observed. “I’ve always liked the idea of feathery wings, though perhaps not halos. They sound like a particularly awkward kind of bonnet.”

“Then you will like the reason I’ve come to see you,” Villiers said, moving a pawn forward. “I am considering a bid for a halo of my own.”

“I’m shocked,” Jemma murmured. They played for a moment in silence. Villiers brought forward a rook and she challenged one of his pawns with her bishop.

“I have a problem,” Villiers said, not even pausing before he brought a knight into the contest.

Jemma raised an eyebrow. “You, the Great Villiers, has that most plebeian of all human conditions—a problem?”

He sighed. “It’s a particularly tedious conundrum, or I wouldn’t bring it up.”

“They all are. Although I was of the opinion that unmarried men with no encumbrances had the fewest problems of any.”

“Alas, I seem to have acquired a few encumbrances, though, as yet, no wife,” Villiers said thoughtfully. “I have fallen into respectability without noticing.”

“Fallen?” Jemma said with a chortle. “Given those illegitimate children of yours, you should boast of the opposite.”

“Vulgar,” he said. “Unworthy of you.”

Jemma grinned at him. “I find vulgarity so refreshing. From what I understand, children are a problem. Though surely the illegitimate type, tucked away out of sight and mind, cannot present very many problems?”

“My thought exactly.” His long fingers played with the pawn she had just knocked from the board.

“But?”

“If you remember, while I was very ill following my regrettable duel last year, I made a promise about my children.”

“The deathbed promise! Oh, the very worst kind.”

“Adding unkindness to vulgarity,” he said with mock severity.

“Precisely,” she said. “To whom did you make that promise, anyway? I don’t remember hearing that any church folk were tenderly waiting by your bedside.”

“It was to Miss Charlotte Tatlock.”

Jemma made a face before she could stop herself.

“No Puritan. Miss Learned Fetlock.”

“The same one who spent too much time adoring your husband,” he confirmed. “I asked her to marry me, you know.”

“I am glad she didn’t accept you,” Jemma said with satisfaction.

“Who said she didn’t accept me?”

“At my Twelfth Night ball I walked into my own sitting room to find her passionately clasped in the embrace of your heir. She wasn’t nearly interesting enough to kiss him and marry you.”

“Then why did you fret about whether she would be successful in pursuit of your husband?”

“I wasn’t fretting. I would never do something as bourgeois as fret.”

“You were fretting,” Villiers said. “Eyeing poor Elijah the way a rat eyes cheese. A true dog in the manger, in fact. ‘I don’t care to have him, but no one else can either.’”

“Let’s go back to your problems,” Jemma said, taking his rook.

“As it happens, I received a missive this morning informing me that my heir has irresponsibly and inappropriately married Miss Tatlock by special license.”

“Very romantic,” Jemma said.

“Your tone is distinctly unkind. Unsympathetic, in truth. Do you know that is the second of my fiancées to marry by special license?”

“My brother’s wife and now Miss Tatlock. Tut tut, Villiers. Is that the problem you wish me to solve? Finding you a fiancée who will actually stay with you, rather than dash off with a swashbuckling passerby?”

“There’s no need to enjoy my plight quite so much,” Villiers said, moving a pawn forward. “And no, I don’t care for a wife. I have other pursuits in mind.”

Jemma caught her breath. He looked up at her, his hand still holding the chess piece, and there was no mistaking which pursuit he was thinking of. All of a sudden her laughing friend was gone; his eyes were smoldering. She raced into speech. “Your problem? What is it?”

He didn’t speak for a moment, letting her know that he saw her flimsy evasion. She couldn’t help it; the flicker of amusement—and recognition of desire—in his eyes made the corners of her mouth curl into a smile. But there was nothing in her smile that betrayed Elijah. Nothing.

“Children,” he said. “I promised Charlotte that I would find her the perfect husband. She showed no faith in my abilities, and insisted that if I managed the task, I would have to turn father, when she turned wife.”

“And she just turned wife!” Jemma cried. “You are caught, Villiers, fairly caught!”

“I thought you were going to call me Leopold. I’m sure we had reached that pitch of intimacy.”

The air stilled in the room again. She fled back to the subject at hand. “The question is, what did she mean by turning father?”

“She said something about learning the children’s names.”

“You do support them, don’t you?” she asked, knowing that he did. Even if he didn’t entertain guilt, Villiers would never shirk a financial responsibility.

He nodded.

“I gather that you need to understand the word ‘fatherhood.’”

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