This Duchess of Mine Page 23


“I believe so,” he said. “Will you wear a domino as well?”

She nodded.

“What color?”

“That is for you to find out,” she said, laughing. “The first lesson in courting is to be able to identify the woman you wish to woo!”

“But you are wooing me,” he said rather smugly. “I shall just wait until a beautiful woman in a mask approaches me and begins a flirtation.”

“You do that,” Jemma said, laughing.

He eyed her suspiciously, so she gave a little shrug.

“Of course you’ll be able to identify me immediately, Elijah. Who else would try to flirt with you?”

Chapter Nine

The Duke of Villiers, known to himself as Leopold and to everyone else as terrifying, had made up his mind. The one woman he really wanted, Jemma, wasn’t his to win. His old friend Elijah had her, and for all Elijah’s ideas that he might follow his father’s early death, Leopold didn’t think so.

At any rate, some small foolish part of him wanted to be loved by someone who hadn’t loved Elijah better.

After all, the first woman he loved in the world had been a winsome barmaid by the name of Bess. But once Elijah crooked a finger, she traipsed after Beaumont without a backward glance.

’Twas all the fault of Villiers’ face, no doubt. It was a harsh type of face, and not softening with the years. The silver streaks in his hair didn’t help, and neither did his great beak of a nose. In fact, he looked like the damned beast he was, and the hell with that.

He was done with women. He revised that thought. Not done with women until—God forbid—his loins withered. But he was throwing away the idea of a good woman, by which he meant a marriageable woman. Not that Jemma was ever marriageable, given that she was married to Elijah.

So, not marriageable, but otherwise a woman like Jemma. A woman who was worth giving a damn about.

Villiers was very good at dismissing his little black moments. He generally took that sort of emotion and shoved it away with a pungent curse.

His butler, Ashmole, entered the library. He had been in the household for years and grown slope-shouldered and sunken as he grew old. His skin was the color of a wilted celery leaf.

“Would you prefer a pension or a cottage?” Villiers asked, before Ashmole could say anything. He asked him periodically, as a matter of course.

Ashmole gave him the ferocious look of an aging vulture, all bony beak and chin. It struck Villiers that he would probably look the same in his seventies. It was an unpleasant thought.

“Why would I do that?” the butler replied. “Just when you’re having a fit of the vapors and planning to make things interesting around here?”

Villiers eyed him. There was something distinctly disadvantageous about inheriting a butler who had spanked you as a lad, ignoring the fact that you were the future duke and focusing merely on your sins to do with stolen blackberry tarts. The man had never formed a proper sense of awe. “You look like something that fell off a tinker’s cart.”

“You look like a damned parrot,” Ashmole retorted. Then he pulled his shoulders back, which signaled that their charming preliminaries were at an end. “Your Grace’s solicitor, Mr. Templeton, awaits Your Grace’s pleasure.”

“Send him in,” Villiers said. “And for God’s sake, go take a nap. I don’t want to frighten Templeton by the thought you might expire while handing over his cloak.”

Ashmole retired without a word, which meant that he would take a nap, and knew he needed it. Villiers sighed. It was just as well that he hadn’t the faintest inclination to invite anyone to visit his house.

Templeton was a miracle of legal sobriety. His long, jutting chin had surely never lowered to emit laughter. Given his superior attitude, it was hard to imagine him taking a piss. He looked like a mourning bird hatched from a somber black legal tome, and due to be buried in the same.

Villiers nodded, indicating that Templeton might stop bowing and take a seat. “I’ve decided to house my bastards,” he said without further introduction.

Templeton blinked. “I assure Your Grace that they are housed.”

“Here.”

Templeton was the sort of man who had a huge desk containing at least forty pigeonholes. Each of those would be assigned to part of the duke’s estate: bastard children likely off in a lower corner somewhere, in a position of shame. The horror in his eyes surely resulted from a confusion of pigeonholes.

“Your Grace?”

“Collect them,” Villiers said briefly. “Wait—isn’t there one of them living with its mother?”

Templeton coughed. “If you’d given me some warning, Your Grace, I would have brought the list.”

“There aren’t that many, for God’s sake,” Villiers barked. “Surely you know their situations?”

Even a duke could read the criticism deep in Templeton’s eyes.

“I handed those children over to you,” Villiers said.

“They are well cared for,” Templeton said, a little bluster entering his voice. “You can find no fault in the record.”

“I’m not looking to do so. I’ve simply changed course. The children are coming to live here. All but, perhaps, the one who lives with the mother. I’m not having any mothers.”

Templeton cleared his throat, took out a small notebook. “No mothers,” he said weakly.

“Should be easy enough to round them up. Simply go to their addresses, relieve their current minders of responsibility, and bring them here.”

“Here?” Templeton looked around the room a bit desperately, his gaze skewing upwards.

Villiers had to admit that his library almost veered into a parody of himself—but then, so did he. Last year he’d had the vaulted ceiling painted with a riotous mural depicting life on Mount Olympus. He had long thought of Greek myths as a storage house for the male imagination (Jove’s seduction of Danae in a rain of gold coins was a particularly efficient fantasy). It struck him as amusing to house his literature collection in a room that implied it was all about the bed.

Jove was here, there, and everywhere. Now a bull, now a swan, but always in pursuit of a lushly nubile (and naked) nymph. He had instructed the artist to forget the idea of painting any of those little Italian cupids, the ones with limp, small penises, and concentrate on breasts instead.

The painter had taken to his task with a great deal of enthusiasm. Villiers was still discovering new breasts that he hadn’t noticed previously.

Templeton clearly did not approve. Unfortunately for him, Villiers didn’t give a damn about his opinion.

“That will be all,” he said, looking back down at the papers on his desk.

“Your Grace,” Templeton implored.

Villiers layered his voice with a combination of irritation, annoyance, and possible violence. “Yes?”

“Who shall care for these children?”

“Mrs. Ferrers will manage them. You might mention it to her. She’ll hire some nursemaids or some such, I’ve no doubt.”

Templeton gulped.

Villiers raised his eyes again. “If you’re afraid of my housekeeper, Templeton, just let me know and I’ll inform her myself.”

Templeton rose to his feet, regaining a semblance of dignity. “I bid Your Grace a good morning,” he said, bowing.

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