This Duchess of Mine Page 35

Two hours later she had just tidily vanquished another opponent when Villiers made his appearance. She was seated facing the wall, and surrounded by a circle of onlookers. She didn’t have to raise her eyes to know of Villiers’s arrival, however. The men to her left suddenly melted away.

And there was Villiers: hair unpowdered, naturally, and tied back with a ribbon. He wore a coat of deep cinnamon, embroidered in black. His heels were high and his legs muscled. She smiled to herself and made a final move.

“Checkmate,” she told her stunned opponent.

As she understood it, there remained only two players between herself and membership. Jemma smiled sweetly at her latest victim, stripping off her gloves to wiggle her fingers.

Mr. Parsloe was looking slightly distraught. “Your Grace,” he said to Villiers, “the Duke of Beaumont has beaten Mr. Potemkin, which means that the duke now challenges you. The Duchess of Beaumont will play Mr. Potemkin in the meantime.”

Jemma rose from her chair and held out her hand for Villiers to kiss. “I advise that you beat my husband with all due expediency. He’s deeply cunning, for all he possesses an honest face.”

“I shall take your advice to heart,” Villiers replied, bowing with a gorgeous flourish of his coat.

“And then I shall beat you,” Jemma said, letting it all go to her head for a moment.

Villiers gave her his customary cool glance. “You are, of course, welcome to try.”

Jemma sat down again, dismissing Villiers from her mind. Mr. Potemkin must be a redoubtable opponent, she thought, rated as he was, at number two behind Villiers. The last thing she wanted was to be cut from the tournament now.

Mr. Potemkin turned out to be a Russian man with a shy smile and a brutal style of attack. His weakness, Jemma discovered, was greed. Through a series of brilliant sacrifices, allowing him to pile her pieces on his side of the table, she closed mercilessly on his queen.

And won.

Mr. Potemkin didn’t blink at the board. Of all her opponents, he was the one who had followed every move, understanding the advantages, the positions, the possibilities.

“You are brilliant,” he said in a heavy accent, rising to his feet and bowing deeply.

“That was a beautiful game,” Jemma said. “I thank you for it.”

Then she turned to Villiers and Elijah. She had been left to win the last game without audience, as the entire population of Parsloe’s was watching with bated breath as the two dukes battled it out.

She strolled over and the men parted before her like the Red Sea. She saw at once that Villiers had control of almost all of Elijah’s pieces, certainly all the rank and file. The audience was murmuring to each other, convinced that Villiers had yet again brought down an applicant to the Chess Club.

“At this rate, we’ll never have a new member!” Feddrington said clearly.

But Elijah looked amused. She knew him, knew that look of deep satisfaction in his eyes.

She turned back to the board with a frown. There wasn’t a sound in the whole building as Villiers reached forward one hand, marked with a deep ruby-colored signet ring, and took a pawn.

Suddenly, she saw it! Villiers would be forced to capture Elijah’s bishop. Elijah raised his eyes and smiled at her. Two more exchanges, and then Villiers, still silent, moved his queen. Elijah reached forward, moved his knight again.

“Checkmate,” he said, his deep voice as unruffled as his face.

The crowd broke out in a sound somewhere between a howl and a squeal.

“You trounced me,” Villiers said, staring at the board. “Damn well trounced me.” He looked up. “Your play has improved since we were boys.”

Elijah shrugged. “I’ve played the occasional game with the duchess. I suppose her brilliance has rubbed off on me.”

Mr. Parsloe was bowing deeply before Elijah. “Your Grace, may I welcome you to the London Chess Club? It is a true honor…you are the first new member in some years. In fact, since the Duke of Villiers did us the honor of joining the club.”

“I’m likely not to be the last,” Elijah said. “After all, my duchess has yet to play the Duke of Villiers.”

“We are free to admit more than one member,” Parsloe told him hastily.

Villiers was kissing Jemma’s hand again. “Ah, what a pleasure to play another Beaumont. I feel as if I am virtually a member of the family.”

Jemma sat down. “And just like the dramas that recur in the best of families, I fully intend to eviscerate you.”

“I have often remarked how grateful I am to have been spared a sibling,” Villiers said.

The footman backed away, and Parsloe quieted the room with one look. Jemma moved her pawn to King Four. In the last year, she and Villiers had played a number of games. They were matched in daring, she knew. He was an inventive player. In order to win, she needed to think far ahead.

He steadily built up a nest of pawns. Jemma watched. She could do herself no good by dashing into a counterthreat without thinking it out first. But finally…finally…she saw it. A brilliant combination, only seven moves ahead.

For the first time, she raised her eyes from the board. Elijah was standing to her right. Their eyes met and she saw that he knew, he’d seen the possibility, he approved.

Marriage, she thought, was a very strange thing.

She won.

“You will come to me for supper,” Villiers said, speaking under the roar of excited voices replaying every move. “No, no, I insist. I absolutely insist. I am, after all, dejected. Positively melancholy. I never lose.”

“You don’t look it,” Jemma said, cocking her head to the side.

“My natural dislike of losing is warring with my knowledge that I will now be able to enjoy excellent games on a more regular basis.”

“We’d be happy to join you tonight,” Elijah said.

Jemma glanced from one man to the other. For childhood friends who hadn’t spoken in years, they were rapidly mending their fences.

“Damn it, Villiers, you must be off your bacon today,” Feddrington roared. He might have slapped Villiers on the back, but the duke was the sort of man not even Feddrington would dare to touch.

Villiers cast him a look under heavy-lidded eyes. “You wound me, Feddrington.”

“We all lose sometimes,” the man said, smirking.

“But here’s a question. The duke and the duchess have both beat Villiers, and he’s rated first in the club. So who’s first?” He turned to Parsloe. “Are they to play each other?”

“Doubtless we shall play each other on many occasions,” Elijah said, smoothly cutting in before Parsloe could name him number one, as Jemma was certain he was about to do. “As it happens, my duchess and I intend to play the final game in our rather widely publicized match in the very near future.”

Villiers gave a little crooked grin. “The duchess had an equally publicized match with me some months ago, but she threw over the game. Shall we assume that she fights to the end with you?”

“Such is the nature of marriage,” Elijah said.

“We shall make the outcome of the duke and duchess’s match the key to rating these two players,” Villiers said, laying down the law. “Should the duchess win, she will become number one, and vice versa.”

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