This Duchess of Mine Page 34

Elijah was used to accolades from his peers in the House of Lords, and he bowed just as deeply. “You do me too much honor, madam.”

She gasped, and the fox rose into the air, looking as if its sharp glass eyes were about to blink.

Elijah went inside, thinking that he really had to speak to Fowle. A betting circle within Beaumont House was one thing, but involving greater London in such foolishness wasn’t appropriate.

The upper floor of Parsloe’s opened into a large ballroom, now dotted with small tables and chairs. Hopeful members faced the wall, Elijah realized immediately; club members faced into the room and seemed to pride themselves on playing with a certain éclat.

“Mr. Parsloe has been kind enough to allow us to eschew the opening round of play,” Jemma said to him.

The head of the Chess Club bowed. “It is the least I can do, given Your Graces’ famed skill at chess.”

“I don’t see Villiers,” Elijah said, scanning the room. He was disappointed. It wouldn’t be a true battle unless the duke showed up.

“His Grace never attends before the late afternoon,” Mr. Parsloe said. “By that point all the first and second round plays will have been completed. There’s a hierarchy of play, you see, and members are accordingly rated first, second, or third tier.”

“Villiers?” Elijah said, eyebrow up.

“Strictly third tier play,” Parsloe said, “though he does do the honor of dropping by the Chess Club frequently and engaging in play with whomever is available. His Grace is the top-rated player in the club.”

“What fun this is!” Jemma cried. “Well, dear Mr. Parsloe, please do give me an opponent.”

Mr. Parsloe hesitated, but three or four gentlemen were already bounding toward Jemma. Lord Woodward Jourdain was in the forefront, but he was elbowed to the side by Saint Albans, who swept Jemma off to a table.

“The duchess will be fine,” Elijah said, rocking back on his heels. “Could you find me an opponent, Parsloe?”

“Of course, Your Grace. Please forgive me: it’s just that we have only one female member, and I wasn’t quite certain—”

“Her Grace will neither expect nor desire special treatment,” Elijah assured him.

“Lord Woodward would be an excellent partner for Your Grace,” Parsloe said, after one more look at Saint Albans and Jemma. “He is a second tier player who tends toward eccentric but lively play.”

Elijah bowed. “I would be honored.” Two minutes later he knew he had the man, but it was amusing to see how quickly he could bring the game to a halt.

Jemma generally found Lord Saint Albans to be a bit of a dunce, but with an acute eye for clothing, which she truly appreciated. Today he wore a high wig, paired with a coat of iridescent turquoise silk. Obviously, they could not begin the game without a preliminary discussion of their attire. His enameled buttons; her overskirt retroussée dans les poches; even her laylock slippers were admired.

She didn’t expect much of the game. But it turned out that Saint Albans’s clever—albeit often vicious—comments sprang from a quick mind. Of course she won, but only after a bit of delicate manipulation with her rook.

“That was quite fun,” she told Saint Albans, who was blinking down at the board as if surprised. “I thought moving your King’s Knight to Queen’s Bishop Three was inspired.”

“You did?” he asked, and then, pulling himself together, “Your skill at chess is remarkable, Your Grace. You beat me in only eight moves. That has never happened before.”

She smiled at him. “Should I play someone else?” There was by now a deep circle of observers around them.

Mr. Parsloe appeared. “A win, Your Grace? May I suggest that you take Lord Feddrington for your next opponent?”

“I’m rated higher than Feddrington,” Lord Wig-stead pointed out.

“I need you to play another opponent,” Parsloe said, bearing him off.

“I much enjoyed Lady Feddrington’s ball last fortnight,” Jemma told her opponent as a nimble-fingered footman replaced all the chess pieces.

“Chess isn’t as much fun as dancing, eh?” Feddrington had the jovial look of a man who thought a woman didn’t truly have the brains to play such a cerebral game as chess.

“I’m looking forward to playing you,” Jemma said, meaning it.

“Your fame precedes you,” Feddrington said, “but maybe I can still teach you a thing or two. I beat that fellow Philidor when he was here, and he’s reckoned to be the best that France has to offer.”

One of the bystanders snorted, and Feddrington threw him an unfriendly look. “Of course, Philidor beat me a time or two as well. Chess is like that. Even the best can’t win all the time.”

Jemma smiled and moved a pawn. A short time later Feddrington was frowning, and the circle of onlookers around her had grown deeper. “I call that a smothered mate,” she told him sweetly. “And speaking of mates, how is the duke faring?”

Mr. Parsloe appeared to escort Feddrington from the seat across from her, and the footman leapt to action, resetting the board.

“His Grace has just won his second game,” Mr. Parsloe said. “He is now playing Mr. Pringle. May I introduce your next opponent, Dr. Belsize? Dr. Belsize is one of our very best players in the second tier.”

Dr. Belsize was a cheerful-looking gentleman wearing a pair of large spectacles. “I do believe we’ve met,” Jemma said, racking her brain.

“I’m afraid not,” Dr. Belsize said. “But I have common enough features, Your Grace. One nose, two eyes, all the rest of it. People often think I’m a long-lost uncle.”

“You’re a scientist! I heard you give a talk at the Royal Society.”

“I’m honored to think of Your Grace as a member of the audience. And now I am unsurprised to find your interests extend to chess, unlike many of your fair sex. I find that science and chess are intrinsically related.”

Mr. Parsloe inspected the board and stepped back. Jemma knew within a move or two that Dr. Belsize was a formidable opponent. There was actually a moment when she hesitated, thinking she would have difficulty disentangling herself if he…but that was thinking five moves ahead, so she made the play.

He missed the opportunity, and the chance to make the game a truly competitive one. Jemma swallowed a little sigh. This was why she preferred not to play strangers, for the most part.

“You are now on to the third tier,” Mr. Parsloe confirmed a few minutes later. “Would Your Grace wish to rise and refresh yourself, perhaps?”

Jemma stood up amid a chorus of congratulations. She looked around for Elijah, and spotted him sitting opposite a man with a mustache like a kitchen brush. “What’s the next step?” she asked Parsloe.

“Third tier games are played strictly by hierarchy,” he said. “Since you last beat Mr. Belsize, who is rated number sixteen, you will play the next available player with a lower number.”

“And His Grace?” she asked, nodding at Elijah.

“Should the duke win this match, he will be rated above Mr. Pringle at number twelve.”

Jemma swallowed her annoyance at the fact that Parsloe had been giving her opponents at a lower level than he gave to Elijah. It was up to her to prove her skill; she could educate the Chess Club by beating her husband, not to mention Villiers.

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