This Duchess of Mine Page 20


“You suggest that I am simply waiting for you to die!” she cried furiously. “You insult me as well as Villiers!”

“Leopold is my closest friend in the world,” Elijah said quietly. “Even when he and I were estranged, I still considered him so. The fact is that I have never been and cannot become the charming companion you deserve. But my disinclination to nurse my health doesn’t mean that I am afraid to acknowledge that Villiers would be a better mate for you.”

“I cannot believe your arrogance,” Jemma said. “As you see it, I will prance away from your grave and turn directly to my partner in lazy crime, living the rest of my life in happy indolence?”

“Your characterization is not helpful. What you call arrogance, I would call logic.” He took another quick turn and stopped just before her. “I am merely trying to be honest with you, Jemma. It would be patronizing of me to not share my opinion.”

“I see,” she said, striving to get a grip on her temper.

“But just to make certain that I understand your point of view: although you consider Villiers to be a lack-wit, you have every belief that I will turn directly from your grave to his arms.”

“Poetically put,” he said dryly.

“Moreover, you refuse to take any action that might prolong your life, preferring instead to gallop recklessly toward that grave without a thought for—for those you leave behind.”

“I think of you, Jemma.”

“Do you? Why? I am nothing but a frivolity ensconced at home, a woman who can be quickly dispatched into Villiers’s arms the moment your brief candle burns out.”

“Not only poetic but Shakespearean.”

Jemma turned sharply and stared out the dark window, biting her lip savagely to control tears that caught at the back of her throat. Her heart was beating heavily, in harmony with her new—and wretched—understanding of her importance to her husband.

“I truly wish that I could be the man you’d prefer.” His voice came from somewhere behind her.

She controlled her voice with an effort. “I wonder, Elijah, that you bothered to summon me from Paris at all.”

He cleared his throat. “I do not understand your bitterness, Jemma. If you don’t wish to marry Villiers, you won’t do so. I merely—” His voice broke off and suddenly his large hands were on her shoulders, turning her around to face him. “Damn it, Jemma, the truth is that I envy him. I envy him your cozy afternoon, the chess game, the sympathy in your eyes, the affection between you.”

Jemma angrily dashed a tear away. “You just scorned such intimacies!”

“I am not made to be a courtier.”

What could she say? That she’d been fool enough to think that he was falling in love with her?

She leaned her head back against the cool dark window behind her. It wasn’t Elijah’s fault that his honor came before his wife. She should admire him for it. God knows, the world admired his nobility.

She opened her eyes again and looked at her beautiful, honorable husband. That same stupid, foolish man who thought to pass her over to Villiers like a package that might spoil if left in the rain.

“I am sorry to have caused you distress,” he said. She could tell he meant it.

“Distress.” She had to swallow. “Yes, well, I suppose that goes along with a dying husband.” The words fell harshly from her lips, and he flinched.

“It needn’t be like this between us,” he said, his hands sliding from her shoulders to her hands. “I thought we were…”

“We were what?” she inquired.

He didn’t reply. His eyes were the dark blue of a midnight sky, too beautiful for a man.

“You seem to consider me an appendage of the estate,” she said, charging recklessly, miserably, on. “A cow to be passed from hand to hand.”

“Jemma, you are growing hysterical—”

She interrupted him. “Allow me the grace to finish. Since you consider nothing in life to be more important than your work, the question of an heir cannot truly perturb you. You have known for more than a year that your heart was unstable, to say the least, and yet you refused to bed me until I finished my chess match with Villiers.”

His mouth tightened. “It was for the good of the child. I wouldn’t want the world to think that my heir was not of my blood.”

“Then I shall make this as clear as you have your refusal to leave the House of Lords. I will not sleep with you, Elijah. I am no brood mare, available for breeding during the spare moments you are not with Pitt or the chief magistrate.”

“Jemma!”

She raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“I have been longing to sleep with you.” The words were halting. “As much as if you were a drink of water in the desert.”

Elijah was not a man who wanted to reveal a vulnerability, ever. When she didn’t answer, he kissed first one of her palms, and then the other. His touch burned. “We desire each other, Jemma.”

“No,” she said stonily. “Or rather, yes. We do desire each other. But that’s not enough, Elijah.”

He dropped her hands. His eyes were shaded, dark and impenetrable. “Then woo me.”

“What?”

“I understand courtship. I see it in the House of Lords every day. It takes an elaborate courtship to convince a man that his opinion is wrong. That he has made a grave mistake in backing the slave trade, or the tax on wheat. If you are right, and I am spending my time in a fruitless effort, then convince me.”

“In the five minutes you spare me on your way to the House of Lords?”

“Are you giving up?”

She narrowed her eyes.

“I thought you never gave up. I thought you always wanted to win. I thought you were my equal in that, Jemma.”

“I cannot work miracles.”

“I’ll give you time. I have dropped some of my committees.” He was watching her closely. Her thoughts were tumbling between inconsolable misery and irritation. “I want what you give to Villiers,” he added.

That made her head snap up. “Oh for God’s sake, Elijah—”

“Please. Woo me.”

“Elijah, I don’t woo Villiers.”

“Please.” He caught up her hands again. “Please. I am not going to the House of Lords tomorrow. Allow me to accompany you?”

“Where?”

“Wherever you are going. Whatever you are doing.”

“I shan’t go out and save the world, or even one prisoner tomorrow, Elijah. It’s Thursday, and that means I shall go to the flower market.”

“Will you woo me even though I am a fool who enrages you?” He asked it quietly, but she heard the strain in his voice.

“You make me so angry.” The words spat like fat in the fire. But she found it impossible to harden her heart entirely. She was too infatuated. Of course, it was only infatuation.

She put a hand to his cheek. It was faintly bristly, male, so different from her own. Elijah said nothing, so she let her fingers spread over his cheek, turning her touch carnal. One touched his lips, another the arch of his cheekbone. He closed his eyes, and his dark eyelashes lay against his cheek like the shadow of sin.

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