This Duchess of Mine Page 36

Jemma always meant to win her final game with Elijah. Now the only thing that stood between her and victory was her refusal to bed her husband, because for all that Elijah seemed to enjoy their wooing, she had no real expectation that he would come to understand her point of view.

She could bear being ranked number two. “Tonight,” she said to Villiers, and swept from the room.

She found herself in the carriage, waiting for Elijah, who was engaged in conversation with a couple of elderly women. “Did you know them from somewhere?” she asked curiously once he joined her.

“Not so to speak,” Elijah said. “Mrs. Mogg was kind enough to bet on my winning the game with Villiers, so I felt I had to give her the news in person. She has a shilling sixpence riding on my beating you as well,” he added.

Jemma smiled. “I do hope that she has some money laid aside for a rainy day. Because that shilling is lost.”

Elijah leaned over. “Pride goeth…” he said softly. Suddenly the air in the carriage changed, and every nerve in Jemma’s body jumped to attention.

“Elijah,” she breathed.

The duke was a man who knew when a game was won, without even being played. Anyone who had seen the look in his eyes after he beat Villiers would have recognized his face when the duke and duchess stepped from the carriage in front of Beaumont House.

The duchess looked pink-cheeked, disheveled, and a little dazed.

The duke was smiling.

Chapter Fourteen

London town house of the Duke of Villiers

15 Piccadilly

That evening

“I haven’t been here since Villiers was on the point of death,” Elijah commented as they walked up the steps.

“I’ve never been here,” Jemma said, wondering if she ought to hand her pelisse over to the duke’s butler. He looked extremely old and frail; the weight of it might knock him to the ground. Elijah saved her the decision by taking off her pelisse and handing it directly to a footman.

“His Grace and his guests are in the sitting room,” the butler proclaimed, tottering ahead of them.

Jemma walked into the room and almost checked her step. Villiers had invited the Marquise de Perthuis. And this was not the marquise who would be recognized in the Court of Versailles either. Rather than her customary frizzed, crimped wig, styled to be nearly as wide as it was tall, the marquise was clearly wearing her own hair, albeit powdered. It was dressed in loose ringlets all over her head, with some flowing down each side.

What’s more, she had eschewed her black-and-white attire for a chemise gown, precisely the style that Corbin had declared too sensual for Jemma to wear. The marquise’s gown was made of pale hyacinth blue lustring so delicate that the fabric floated behind her as she turned to rap the gentleman she was speaking to on the shoulder with her fan. He turned his head and Jemma realized it was Corbin. But she couldn’t help noting that the marquise looked utterly delectable and outrageously sensuous.

“The marquise looks much better sober,” Elijah remarked. “Shall we?” Not even waiting for Jemma, he walked forward. The marquise’s roguish smile turned to something else, something delicious and intimate.

Jemma’s mouth tightened. Given the way the marquise’s bodice dipped in the front, Elijah could probably see her nipples.

Villiers appeared at her elbow. “Dear me,” he said, an obvious thread of amusement in his voice. “Did I misstep by inviting my dear cousin to dinner? You seemed to have achieved civility, if not friendship, in the past.”

“Of course, your cousin is always a charming companion,” Jemma said, watching Elijah bend his head to the marquise again. She was flirting with her fan now, eyeing him over the edge. Jemma had to admit that the marquise wielded a fan like a deadly weapon.

Wasn’t this just what she wanted?

Of course it was! She snatched her own fan, shook it open with a snap and sailed forward. She might not be wearing a chemise gown—in fact, she was wearing a dress of silver muslin that covered every inch of her bosom—but she was still the Duchess of Beaumont.

“How lovely you look!” she cried, by way of greeting.

The marquise dropped her a curtsy that had the marked benefit of presenting all three gentlemen—Villiers, Elijah, and Corbin—with an excellent view of her breasts. “As do you,” she said, her tone a little breathless. “I adore muslin; I always have. Why, I was married in a dress quite like that.” She smiled innocently. “Though of course that was quite a while ago now.”

Jemma knew that if she narrowed her eyes, it would honor that insult. “It is hard to countenance how old we have all grown, isn’t it?” she asked, knowing full well that the marquise was only two years younger than she. “We must make a pact never to try to dress with the joie de vivre of the very young. There’s nothing worse than a matron in a dashing style that only the youngest of women can wear with confidence.”

“Confidence is so essential to beauty, isn’t it?” the marquise replied, neatly turning Jemma’s insult on its head. “I think there’s nothing worse than an anxious woman. There can be nothing more aging than desperation.”

“Dear me,” Villiers said, a wicked smile playing around his mouth. “You both look rather purple in the face. It must be the heat from the fire. Madame la Marquise, do let me move you away from this annoying heat.” And he scooped her away while Jemma was still planning her next riposte.

Elijah was called away to greet Lord Vesey, so Jemma turned to Corbin. “Just when did she transform into such a hussy?” she demanded.

Corbin’s eyes were dancing. “Only after the second glass of Champagne. Although that gown she is wearing suggests that the real marquise has been hiding behind all that black-and-white. I find myself very interested in what her husband will make of her transformation.”

“He’s back in France,” Jemma said. “Spared the sight of his wife wearing a gown that a demirep might find too debauched.”

“She’s downing a third glass of Champagne,” Corbin said thoughtfully. “I never should have bought those two bottles at Vauxhall. Do you know, she’s been telling me the last twenty minutes that she wants to visit the gardens again tonight?”

“She and Villiers look quite good together,” Jemma said. “They have that same sort of French insouciance.”

“Which you need to practice,” Corbin said. “You looked like a disgruntled little spaniel when you were watching her flirt with your husband.”

“I never look like a canine!” Jemma cried.

“One who lost her bone,” Corbin added.

“This was your idea,” Jemma said glumly. “I don’t think it’s working very well.”

“That’s because you have to move to the second part of the plan: in other words, the point at which you cut out the marquise and start flirting with Beaumont yourself.”

“Oh, hurrah,” Jemma said. “I don’t think that Elijah is even interested in flirting. He’s such a straightforward type of person—”

“He’s doing a good job of it now,” Corbin pointed out.

Jemma whipped her head around. The marquise had escaped from Villiers and was standing in front of Elijah. He was laughing. “She can be very witty.”

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