This Duchess of Mine Page 22


“Me granddad said it was because there’s nothing richer than the dung of a horse fed on grain.”

“Dung heaps do generate heat, though. Sometimes they combust. Perhaps this flower enjoys heat from above and below.” The man didn’t roll his eyes, because one didn’t do that to a nabob wearing a velvet jacket.

“What are these flowers?” Jemma asked. He had a bucket of tall, showy flowers that resembled bluebells, but with heads the color of violets.

“Don’t touch those,” the man barked.

“You are speaking to a duchess.” Elijah’s voice was all the more commanding for being utterly even.

“They’re some sort of pisin.”

“Pissing?” Elijah asked. “A pissing flower?”

“Pisin!” the man said, annoyed. “Dead Men’s Bells, they’re called. And they’re pisin!”

“Poison,” Jemma supplied. “And yet they’re so beautiful. Do you grow them for an apothecary?”

“A doctor. He takes whatever I grows. Some sort o’ medicine he’s cooking up.” The old man gave a sudden cackle. “Don’t mind taking his brass but I’ll be slumgubbered if I’ll take any o’ his medicine!”

“Surely it doesn’t kill by the touch,” Elijah said, his voice still sounding annoyed.

“For all I know, you’ll reach down an’ eat one,” the man said stubbornly. “There’s chillen have died o’ that. You can die even from drinking the water one of these has been sittin’ in.”

“I’ll put bluebells down the dining room table,” Jemma decided. “We’ll take at least half of those, if you please, James,” she told the footman.

Elijah plucked a few of the nodding bluebells. “They’re the perfect color for your hair,” he said, looking down at her. He tucked them on top of her ear. “Your hair is the color of…something yellow. I’m not very good at compliments.”

“Egg yolks?” she said cheerfully.

“Drowsy sunshine,” he said, tucking another flower into her curls.

“How lovely,” she said, startled. “Like poetry.”

He smiled at her and pulled her arm back into his.

“Perhaps I shall write an ode to you. That is what courting couples do, do they not?”

“Well, I’ve never heard of a woman writing an ode to a man,” she said with a gurgle of laughter. “But I could try. I’m afraid I’m sadly unimaginative. It’s the chess player in me.”

“For Jemma, whose hair is like drowsy sunshine,” he said, “and whose eyes are like…are like…”

“Marbles?” she suggested, laughing.

He glanced down at her. “I can see that you have no gift for romance. I shall have to take control of this wooing business.”

“Absolutely not,” Jemma said. “You have control of far too many things. I am in charge of our wooing. Tonight you are going to Vauxhall.”

“I? Don’t you mean we?”

“I shall be there, masked of course. You will have to find me.”

He groaned. “Jemma, I’m an old and respectable duke, too old to—”

“Elijah, what are you saying? You’re thirty-four! When’s the last time you went to Vauxhall?”

“Not long,” he said, extremely unconvincingly.

“I’ve never been there with you,” she said. “And I can’t imagine you going alone. Did you visit before we married?”

“I took up my seat at age twenty-one,” he said. “I had no time—”

“No time! No time for one of the most…I must say, Elijah, it’s a good thing that our parents arranged our marriage when we were young. At this rate, you’d have become a curmudgeonly old bachelor without even entertaining the thought of marriage.”

“Not after I had seen you,” he said.

She felt that, like a drop of joy, all the way to her toes.

“You didn’t look so pleased to marry me at the time,” she said, keeping her voice light. “I was quite infatuated with you, as I’m sure was painfully obvious. But even infatuation couldn’t disguise the fact that you were less than pleased to be married.”

“I was fascinated by power,” he said. “It took me the way strong drink takes other men. My father had disgraced himself, you know.”

Jemma cleared her throat. “Do you refer to the unfortunate circumstances of his death?”

“That, of course. But also in the House. He took up his seat, God knows why. He clearly must have had no interest. And he led a group of men who took delight in delaying measures, in frolicking.”

Jemma frowned, uncertain what he meant.

“If a bill was being debated, they would stand up and make long, frivolous arguments in favor or against, switching their argument halfway through sometimes. They would introduce new bills, arguing for things like providing every man in the country with free French letters, or providing all whores with lessons in Eastern dance.”

“Oh.”

“There were enough of them so that they effectively killed several bills, and caused no end of embarrassment to men who were trying hard to do the work of government.”

“It must have been difficult to take up your seat after that,” Jemma ventured.

“They—my father’s friends—were still around, you see. They hailed me as Bawdy Beaumont. They thought I would continue in his vein, play the young Bacchus to their frolics.”

“Well, you didn’t.”

He smiled ruefully. “I didn’t. But it took time, and much thought and scheming, to play down my father’s reputation and the House’s expectations for me. I’m afraid that marriage wasn’t terribly important under those circumstances. In fact, as I recall, the months before our marriage were particularly fraught, as I was finally establishing myself as a voice in my own right. I could hardly concentrate on anything else.”

Jemma cleared her throat. “I really should apologize.”

He bent over and tucked the bluebells into her hair again. His hand lingered for a moment. “They were slipping.”

“I know that my scandals, in France and here, caused you embarrassment. But I had no idea that you were contending with something like ’Bawdy Beaumont’,” she said. “None. I promise you that I would have been discreet, Elijah.”

“I didn’t share my travails with you, did I? I never told you about my daily problems.”

“No,” she said. “I remember asking about your day, and you would tell me the events being discussed. I wanted to contribute somehow, but of course I knew nothing.”

“It took me a few years to think clearly about the early days of our marriage, but then I remembered. You would lie next to me in the morning and ply me with questions. And I was such a fool that I was eager to be in the House already. I had no time for you. That was one of my greatest stupidities, Jemma.”

“You had other concerns.”

“I deserved to lose you. And I did.”

“I’m here now,” she said, smiling up at him. “And I’ll be at Vauxhall tonight, masked, of course. You do have a domino, don’t you, Elijah?”

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