This Duchess of Mine Page 19


“Let me put this as clearly as I can, Jemma.” His mouth was a straight line. “I will shoot myself before I become the man that Villiers is.”

“You are unkind,” Jemma said, hearing a slight shake in her voice and hating it. She wasn’t used to battles of this nature. In fact, she never argued with anyone but her husband. Her sanctimonious, infuriating husband.

Elijah obviously heard the tremor in her voice. He rose, walked to the cabinet and poured two tiny glasses of ruby-colored liqueur. Then he returned and handed her one. “It’s made by monks in France, from cherries. Or cherry blossoms.”

Jemma took a taste and choked. The liqueur burned to the bottom of her stomach.

“The particular pastimes of the Duke of Villiers are not relevant,” he said, sitting down again. “But he and I are very different men. I cannot conceive of a life in which I drift around London, impulsively stopping for a game of chess with a friend. Or did you summon him this afternoon?”

He waited, one eyebrow up. Jemma shook her head.

“So the duke happened by and you spent a delightful afternoon together, sharing a bit of light banter about his bastard children, a bit of flirtation, I have no doubt.”

Jemma heard the naked anger in his voice with a shock of surprise. “You couldn’t be jealous of Villiers! Not after I gave up the chess match with him.”

“Jealous of a man who spends the afternoon telling my wife how beautiful she is?”

She opened her mouth and he held up a hand.

“Tell me that Villiers didn’t compliment you, Jemma. Tell me that, and I’ll acknowledge myself a fool.”

She was silent.

“He’s in love with you,” Elijah said flatly.

They were at some sort of queer crossroads. “That doesn’t mean that I would be unfaithful to you. With Villiers or any other man.”

“I know that.”

She took another sip of liquor. It was like a fiery stream of sugar. She hated it.

“Last night Fox called out the Artillery Company and told them to open fire on rioting citizens in Lambeth, his district,” Elijah said.

“That’s terrible,” Jemma murmured.

“I have no doubt it seems a remote problem. But tell that to the young mother whose babe was shot in her arms last night, when she thought they were safe inside her own house. A stray bullet from the company.”

“I am deeply sorry for that poor young woman,” Jemma said. “But must you be so self-righteous, Elijah? Listening to you, one would think that you are the only thing stopping Fox and Pitt and everyone else in the government from turning to a snarling mass of savages. Your sense of importance seems a trifle overblown. After all, you too gained your position due to an accident of birth. Or do you think that you would have the same influence, the same power, were you not a duke?”

She couldn’t read his expression. There was nothing in his eyes. “Has your opinion of me always been this low?” he asked. He sounded curious, as if he were asking about a preference for peas over potatoes.

“I do not have a low opinion of you,” Jemma stated.

“I merely suggested that you might wish to rethink the extent of your personal capacity to cut short the world’s injustices, including Fox’s authorization of an artillery man who accidentally shot a child. Did you personally sanction Fox’s unfortunate decision?”

Anger flared in his eyes, and she welcomed it. There was nothing worse than a dismissive Elijah, the statesman who made her feel like a fool easily quelled by a patronizing word or two.

“Do you want to know what happened today, Jemma?” he demanded. “Do you really want to know?”

“I wait with bated breath,” she said.

“I suppose your sarcasm is warranted. I can imagine it is much easier, and certainly pleasant, to stay at home and win a game of chess.”

Jemma sprang to her feet and walked quickly to the fireplace. She turned around a moment later, certain that she had her breathing under control. She’d be damned if she started panting from pure rage. “Given that women are allowed no part in government, your insults are not only unkind but unfair.”

He had risen to his feet, of course. Elijah would never sit while a woman stood. “I apologize. That is an entirely valid point. In that case, let’s not talk of your day, but of Villiers’s.”

“Oh for goodness sake!” Jemma exclaimed.

“The duke spent a delightful afternoon telling you a sad tale of his children, and his newfound resolution to be a good father. Rousing your sympathy and your interest, he opened his heart. True, he lost the game of chess, but he gained so much more in becoming closer to you. Closer to you than he is to any other person on this earth, I expect.”

His tone was dispassionate. Jemma took a deep breath. “Either you believe that I will be unfaithful or—”

“You’re a fool if you think that infidelity is a matter of bodies alone, Jemma!”

His insult burned in her stomach. “I have always thought that infidelity took forms beyond the obvious! From the moment I—”

“I know. I know. From the moment you found me on the desk with my mistress. What you have never understood is how unimportant that relationship was compared to one of true intimacy.”

“If you’re trying to say that you and I were truly intimate all those years ago, I must disagree.”

“No, we weren’t. In fact, I expect that you and Villiers are now better friends, more intimate, and in sum, more loving to each other, than we were in our early marriage. And yet I know perfectly well that you and Leopold have never entered a bedchamber together.”

Words burned on Jemma’s tongue, but Elijah didn’t wait for her to formulate a response.

“Let me make this very clear. I would not wish for the duke’s pleasant afternoon, idling away his time and yours, even should I die tomorrow. I realized when I was eight years old that either I could die knowing that my life had changed the world around me—or I could die like any trout on a string, leaving the world precisely as it was before I was born. I chose not to be that sort of person, and you will never be able to turn me into Villiers. Never.”

“I didn’t ask you to become Villiers!” Jemma cried. “I merely thought that even in the face of the world’s injustices, there might be a point at which a man is allowed to retreat from the fray. It’s not that you would eke out your remaining moments in bed, but that this life is actually killing you.”

“I consider that unimportant,” Elijah said, after a moment.

“Your life is unimportant?”

“I have always known my life would be short. Why should I betray everything I hold dear in order to gain a few extra, lazy minutes?”

She stared at him, unable to even begin a sentence.

“I see that you would prefer me to throw away the world to stay at your side,” he said, restlessly walking away from her, across the room.

“I would—”

Never had Elijah interrupted her so many times. He swung about and faced her. “We are too old to prevaricate, Jemma. I have no doubt but that after I am gone, you and Villiers will find great happiness together.”

“How dare you say such a thing!”

“I dare because it is true.”

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