This Duchess of Mine Page 18

His smile made her heart beat suddenly faster. “I quite look forward to being nagged by you.”

“You mustn’t give me encouragement of this sort,” Jemma said, striving for a flirtatious tone. “We’ve lived apart so long that you’ve forgotten what a shrew I can be.”

“You were never a shrew,” he said, his voice low. They stared at each other a moment. “You didn’t even scream at me after walking into my office when I was—with my mistress.”

“I didn’t?” In all honesty, Jemma couldn’t remember anything but Sarah Cobbett’s yellow hair, hanging over the edge of Elijah’s large desk.

“You just looked at me, your face white. You dropped the picnic hamper you held, and you fled.”

Jemma gave him a little smile. “Don’t think I’d be as silent again. If I ever encountered such a scene now, I would bring the walls down around your ears.” But she said it knowing perfectly well that Elijah would never do such a thing again. That he’d changed, and she’d changed, and no woman stood between them.

“The look on your face was like a dagger,” Elijah said.

“Surely, you—”

“I’m not exaggerating. I’d seen that look before.”

“You had?”

He waved his fork at the walls. “You’ve taken down all the evidence.”

Jemma blinked at the walls. She’d had them repaneled and painted a dark crimson while they were in the country for Christmas. “They were oak,” she said confusedly. “I would hardly call that evidence of a crime, though they were rather old-fashioned.”

“A large and detailed picture of Judith and Holofernes used to hang directly before my father’s desk,” Elijah said, returning to his plate. “It was a particularly vivid tableau in which Judith waved Holofernes’s severed head with a distinct air of glee. I think my mother liked to believe that it would force my father to notice her rage, but I doubt she succeeded. He was not an observant man.”

“Your mother was angry about your father’s mistress?” Jemma asked cautiously.

“Something of that nature.”

The conversation was not going where Jemma had planned. The former duke’s dubious intimacies were interesting, but not relevant.

“In truth, I had a horrid day,” she said abruptly.

Elijah immediately put down his fork. “I am very sorry if the state of my health caused you any distress.”

“Distress?” For a moment she couldn’t continue; it felt as if her throat were closed to words. “I was quite unkind in the morning to a woman who is an acquaintance, if not precisely a friend. And I topped that piece of goodwill by goading Villiers into taking his illegitimate children under his own roof.”

“He can’t do that,” Elijah said, frowning. “Even his rank won’t inoculate him from becoming a pariah. What were you thinking, Jemma?”

“I wasn’t thinking.” She raised her chin, willing herself not to cry. “I was so angry at you for leaving this morning without even a note, that I behaved—” Despite herself, her voice wavered. She swallowed and continued. “I behaved like the worst sort of person, determined to win in both encounters no matter the damage I caused.”

“Win? What on earth did you hope to win from your friend?”

“It’s unimportant, and I’m afraid that that friendship is at an end.”

“It was most unkind of me to leave you no personal message, particularly after the shock of last night. I apologize.” His eyes were warm and sympathetic. “I shall not behave in such a discourteous way again.”

She was a shrew and he was the perfect husband. “Thank you,” she said. “But I do have a request.”

“I believe I can anticipate you,” he said, raising his wineglass to his lips. “I know we need to have a serious discussion; of course, you wish to address the question of an heir. The next duke. I have already informed Pitt that I will not be available tomorrow.” His eyes caressed hers. He clearly meant to spend the day in bed. With her.

“In fact, that is not my request,” she said carefully, trying not to dwell on the cold-blooded fashion with which Elijah referred to the question of children.

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow.

“I would ask that you give up your seat in the House of Lords. For your health.”

The words hung in the air. The sensual warmth in his eyes disappeared as if it had never been, and she was faced by the consummate statesman. Being Elijah, he didn’t dissemble. “The government faces ongoing prisoner riots, a coming election, an impoverished citizenry. Fox and the Prince of Wales risk the health of the entire nation with their drunken exploits; the king seems unable to rein in his own son. I could not consider such a drastic move.”

“I would not argue with their need for you,” Jemma said. “But I wonder that you need them.”

“I’m afraid that I don’t follow your point.”

“I have no doubt that the Prime Minister faces a difficult year. But Mr. Pitt seems to me to be amply, if not eagerly, able to take on those challenges. In fact, he was elected for just that purpose. But you, Elijah, were not elected.”

“Responsibility is not incurred only from election.” His eyes were grave but utterly resolute.

“Your heart is giving out because of the pressure of being roused at dawn to argue problems that most of your peers merely read of in the papers, if they bother to do so. Villiers never took up his seat in Lords. When he was so very ill last year, after his duel, he recovered in bed.”

Elijah put down his wine. “We are very different men. The ethical compass of Villiers’s life is bounded by the chessboard.”

“You are not listening to me,” Jemma said, feeling her hold over her temper slipping. “Villiers nearly lost his life last year, but he is here today because he retreated to his chambers. Had he pushed himself out of bed at dawn under the mistaken impression that there was no one else able to deal with a public furor, he would be dead.”

Elijah’s jaw was set. “Surely you are not suggesting that I live the remainder of my life in bed? Lying flat, as Villiers did in the grip of fever? Perhaps playing a game of chess now and then?” He pushed his plate away, the food half-eaten.

“That seems an exaggeration.”

His tone was courteous as ever, but she could see the leashed fury in his eyes. “You suggest that I should treasure life so much that I preserve it, as a fly in amber? That I should add to my allotted minutes by staying on my back, by giving up every ambition I had to do something of value with those minutes?”

“You needn’t—” Jemma began, only to be overridden by the steady voice of a man used to shouting down a chamber full of howling statesmen.

“In fact, you would have me become a man like Villiers, a man whose children are negligently scattered about the countryside, a man who cares for nothing but his next game of chess. Though perhaps you consider that an unjust appraisal. After all, Villiers does care about his appearance. So I would be allowed sartorial splendor and chess.”

Jemma straightened her back, trying to force air into her lungs.

“I could walk about with a sword stick and make absolutely sure that every man on the street understood that I was a duke, a man who by the fortune of birth considered himself just under the rank of the Archangel himself. Without lifting a finger to gain that status.” He picked up a silver cover and put it precisely on top of one of the serving platters with a sound like a slap.

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