This Duchess of Mine Page 2

“Villiers is dangerous,” Jemma stated. Villiers was everything Corbin and Delacroix were not. He was a chess master, for one thing. His mind was as nimble as hers, and his machinations were not trivial, and—

And he wanted her.

Villiers’s desire wasn’t like the light emotions of the men waiting below. His desire was like a dark undertow, pulling at her along with the force of his charm, the wicked beauty of his smile, his French mother’s delicious eyes…

Brigitte sighed, and the sigh said it all. “Of course, he’s a Frenchman, and that changes everything.”

“Only on his mother’s side.”

“Assez! Assez! C’est assez.”

Brigitte was right. The French blood Villiers inherited from his mother was definitely enough…put together with an English manliness and strength. He was truly dangerous to a woman’s peace of mind, not to mention her reputation.

“Only Corbin?” Brigitte asked, picking up the cards tendered by those waiting below.

Generally, a lady allowed two, three, even four gentlemen into the dressing room to help her choose patches and lace. To invite only Corbin would invite a scandal, but who could really believe that she was instigating an affaire with Corbin? He was Jemma’s favorite partner for the minuet, her comfortable companion of an evening. A brilliant dancer, an exquisite dresser, a notable wit. And she had a shrewd feeling that he had as little interest in her as she had in him.

What if Elijah didn’t bother to come tonight, for all they had agreed to meet this evening? What if affairs of state kept him from affairs of the heart?

Surely not.

Besides, one never had an affair of the heart with one’s wife.

“Just Lord Corbin,” she said decisively.

Brigitte nipped out of the room, down to dismiss the crowd and admit Corbin and no other, and set alive a small blaze of gossip about Jemma’s preferential treatment.

A moment later Corbin paused in the door just long enough to allow Jemma to assess his costume, and to allow him to appreciate Brigitte’s careful stage setting. The frank appreciation in his eyes was very soothing to Jemma’s fraught feelings.

“I should like a glass of Champagne,” she told Brigitte. “Lord Corbin, does that please you?”

“Absolutely,” Corbin drawled. He was the son of a country lord, who likely was affronted, if not terrified, by his eldest son. Corbin’s wig was a snowy perfection; his heels were higher than Jemma’s and graced with large, floppy flowers; he was just saved from effeminacy by the breadth of his shoulders and by a rugged turn to his chin. He was dressed in a coat of antique rose, sewn with narrow cuffs of persimmon. His breeches were the same persimmon, and his stockings—

“Those stockings!” she cried. “Exquisite!” They were pale cream, with rose-colored clocks rising up the sides.

Corbin swept into a graceful bow. “I first saw a pair on Lord Stittle, if you can countenance it.”

He sat in a chair at her side, the better to help her pick the perfect accoutrements for her hair.

“I would prefer not to imagine such a thing,” Jemma said.

“I know, I know. I told him his thighs were too large. Or was it his feet? At any rate, it was only after sustained insults that I managed to wring the name of his hosier from him. William Low on Bond Street, if you can believe it. I thought Low carried only worsted stockings for country squires.”

His eyes laughed, and Jemma felt fifty times better. “I must look my absolute best tonight,” she said, hearing too late the fervency in her voice.

“Darling, you always look your best,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “But always! Would I be your closest companion were you not the most exquisite duchess in London?”

“The reverse is true as well,” Jemma remarked.

“Naturally,” he said, grinning. “Speaking of which, do you care for this small accent on my chin? I spent the entire week in the country growing it, and by Thursday I was despairing of achieving an appropriate appearance in time for the king’s fête.”

Jemma looked at him carefully. Dazzled by his stockings, she hadn’t noticed that he now sported the smallest goatee she’d ever seen, just an arrow of silky dark hair below his lower lip, fashioned into a wicked little V. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I do like it, Corbin. You’ll start a fashion. It makes you look older, and a bit dangerous.”

“Ruinous in a woman, charming in a man,” he said happily. “At least at my tender age. Dare I ask what makes this evening so fraught with anxiety? I do trust your plans have nothing to do with Delacroix. I had to elbow him out of the way to make my way up the stairs, and I don’t like even to stand next to him; I’m afraid all that artlessness will rub off on me.”

Jemma laughed. “Don’t be cruel, darling. Delacroix considers himself to be the epitome of sophistication.”

“One could call it adolescent greenness but for his advanced age. He tries so hard that I feel exhausted at the very sight of him. Such sincerity should be outlawed.”

“You are cruel.” Jemma picked up three or four ribbons and held them to the light, put them down again. Ribbons were too girlish for what she had in mind.

“Do you plan la grande toilette?” Corbin asked, catching the connotations of her gesture instantly.

“Therein lies my problem,” Jemma said, waving a hand at her bed. “I cannot decide.”

Naturally, Corbin rose to inspect the two choices Brigitte had laid out.

On one side was a lovely gown of a blue-green watered silk. It was embroidered with green roses, small ones, and the piquancy of the improbable flower made the whole costume all the more delicious. The skirts pulled back to reveal a gossamer underskirt in a lighter shade.

“In your hair?” Corbin asked.

“Roses to match.” She tossed one to him.

“Exquisite,” he said, inspecting it. “I gather the centers are made of emeralds and not green glass, Duchess?”

“Very small ones,” she said, shrugging one shoulder. “Practically invisible.”

“I am entirely in favor of luxury,” Corbin said, turning the rose in his fingers. “Especially the kind that doesn’t herald its worth.”

“In truth, they were terribly expensive.”

“And thus to be worn only by a woman who need not worry about finances. Though now I think of it, these roses should be worn by a woman deep in debt. Flaunting extravagance is the best way to assuage creditors’ anxieties.”

“I suppose that they are rather extravagant.”

“A duchess’s prerogative.” Corbin moved to the other costume. “But if with the one gown you flaunt your extravagance, what exactly do you wish to flaunt—and why—with this gown?” His voice was silky, but delivered its insult for all that.

“It’s the very newest fashion,” Jemma said indignantly, coming to stand next to him. “A chemise gown. Queen Marie Antoinette has at least four, I assure you.”

“Ah, but the lucky queen doesn’t live in England.” Corbin picked up the gown. It was made of a sweet flow of fabric in a pale peach, caught up here and there with bunches of pearls. Rather than being made of stiff satin, the cloth was as thin as a chemise—hence the name. It would barely skim her breasts, flowing down over her body like a delicate night garment.

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