This Duchess of Mine Page 33

“Because she’s a young woman.”

“She flirts with them.” He reached out and picked up her hand. “I like your hands without gloves, Jemma. And I love your idea about the helmet. I think we can make that work.”

“You can figure it out, and then make sure that all the glassblowing factories start using them,” she said, beaming at him.

“What I want to do is flirt with the most beautiful duchess in London,” he said, turning her hand over and placing a kiss in the middle of her palm.

“I flirt best over a chessboard.”

“Then chess it shall be,” he said. “Do you ever play out of doors, Jemma?”

“Chess? And a picnic, you mean? That sounds lovely.”

“I must be at my chambers in the morning. But I could arrange a picnic for the afternoon.” There was a world of meaning in his voice.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. The carriage came to a halt. “I have an appointment for tomorrow afternoon, though you’re more than welcome to join me. Parsloe’s is holding an open session of the Chess Club and I intend to become one of the members.”

“They allow women? How marvelously forward-thinking of them.” A footman opened the carriage door.

“Not at all,” Jemma said. “I believe that it was entirely in error. They simply never thought that a woman could possibly play chess. Until the redoubtable Mrs. Patton came along. You do remember her from our Twelfth Night party, don’t you?”

“Eccentric and thoroughly intelligent,” Elijah observed. “With a sharp edge to her. Mrs. Patton told me that the House should be ashamed of itself for ignoring a Quaker bill outlawing the slave trade, and she was right.”

“Mrs. Patton realized that there was nothing barring a woman from going to an open session and simply playing everyone there until she won a spot.”

“Which she did,” Elijah said, laughing.

“She took herself there for a visit last year. No one can join until they win all offered games at an open session. I shall do so tomorrow,” Jemma said serenely. “And you are welcome to try for a spot as well.”

“I assume the open session is to replace a deceased member? As I understand it, Parsloe’s ruthlessly maintains its members at one hundred precisely. In that case, we cannot both successfully join the Chess Club tomorrow.”

Jemma took Elijah’s hand as she stepped down from the carriage. “I shall ask Fowle to make sure there is a particularly lovely meal tomorrow night, so as to assuage your disappointment.”

Elijah loved the look in her eyes. It was just too bad that he was going to have to puncture her expectations. “Aren’t you fond of gooseberry tarts?”

“They are my favorite.”

“Fowle, do inform Mrs. Tulip that Her Grace will be in need of comfort tomorrow night,” he told the butler.

“Pride goeth before a fall!” Jemma said, but she was laughing as she climbed the stairs.

The footmen were all staring. Elijah paused for a moment. “Whom will you bet on, Fowle? And don’t try to tell me that the household won’t engage in a very lively series of bets if Her Grace and I both try for a spot in the Chess Club.”

Fowle raised an eyebrow, ever the imperturbable butler. “I could not bring myself to bet against one of mine own masters,” he said, bowing.

“In that case?”

“The Duke of Villiers,” Fowle said.

“But he is already a member.”

“Just so.”

“You mean that unless one of us wins the tournament, we won’t become a member?”

“I’m afraid that His Grace has been responsible for keeping many aspirants from joining Parsloe’s. I believe that in fact there are only seventy-three standing members at the moment.”

“Good lord,” Elijah said, startled. “Do you happen to know how many people have managed to beat Villiers and join Parsloe’s?”

“Mrs. Patton joined after His Grace did not attend an open day,” Fowle said. “But Mrs. Patton has beaten him thereafter. There’s many a man who has rued the day that His Grace decided to join the London Chess Club.”

“You’re a positive fount of information, Fowle.”

Fowle bowed. A butler of the very best caliber would count it a failure not to anticipate all the questions his master might ask. But he never anticipated the duke’s next inquiry.

“Do you think I should lose?”

He blinked. “Lose, Your Grace?”

“To the duchess.”

The duke appeared to be perfectly serious. It was the first time Fowle had been asked to give marital advice, but he drew himself upright. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Her Grace would be appalled.”

“Thank you, Fowle.”

The butler was still staring at the duke’s back, trying to remember the last time he saw his master smile like that, when Beaumont paused on the stairs and turned.

“You know, Fowle…”

“Yes, Your Grace?”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t put your wages on a bet in favor of the Duke of Villiers.”

He was grinning again.

Chapter Thirteen

March 30

Parsloe’s, on St. James’s Street, was a rather nondescript establishment for an organization that wielded such power over the hearts of English chess players. Elijah stepped down from the carriage and held out his hand for Jemma. Perhaps forty people were jostling for space around the path leading to Parsloe’s, held back by some annoyed-looking footmen.

“May the best man win,” she said to him.

“That’s her, all right,” came a shout. “That’s the duchess! Look at that hair!”

Jemma’s twinkling smile disappeared from her face and she began walking up the path, suddenly looking like a duchess rather than a mere woman. As if duchesses were a breed apart, Elijah mused, following her up the path. Beings whose hair towered and who walked as if their feet were not quite touching the ground. Jemma did it brilliantly. She looked sublimely beautiful and outrageously expensive.

Belying Elijah’s assessment, a portly woman in a tattered stole said, “She’s not wearing that many joowels.”

“She wears them on her slippers,” Elijah told her.

The portly woman’s mouth fell open but nothing came out of it, even when the sharp-nosed woman behind her said, “Mrs. Mogg, you be talking to a duke!”

“Why on earth are all of you here?” Elijah asked Mrs. Mogg, seeing that Jemma was inside the door and beginning the lengthy process of removing her pelisse, chip hat, gloves, and all the other accoutrements worn by a duchess out-of-doors.

Mrs. Mogg didn’t seem able to summon words, so her friend spoke up. “It’s all over London. A duke and a duchess are going to battle another duke for a place in this here club.”

“They won’t let anyone watch the game,” Mrs. Mogg said, finally opening her mouth.

“It’ll take hours,” Elijah said. “You should come back around…oh…four of the clock.”

“Elijah!” Jemma called.

“She’s calling you,” the sharp-nosed woman said.

“Just like I might call my Henry,” Mrs. Mogg said, still staring at Elijah. Her tattered stole rose and fell with her breaths, giving its little fox head the odd semblance of life. “I’m putting my money on you,” she breathed.

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