This Duchess of Mine Page 38


“I can’t believe that,” Elijah said, his tone caressing.

“You are, of course, lauded for being exceptionally stylish, but also for your irreproachable reputation.”

The marquise giggled and fluttered her eyelashes at him. “I assure you that I was a bit of a romp. My mother despaired of me. Why, I had a wild infatuation with Villiers. I took every opportunity I could to flirt with him, though my mother made it as difficult as possible.”

“Women have always shown an attraction to Villiers,” Elijah said. “It’s astonishing, from a logical point of view.”

Jemma realized there were undercurrents to the conversation that she wasn’t grasping. Elijah leaned forward and took the marquise’s fan from her hand, acting as if Jemma wasn’t even sitting there. “This is exquisite,” he said. “A lovely dancing scene. It can’t have been a gift from Villiers, of course, given as it is more coquettish than debauched.”

“As if I would accept a gift from Villiers,” Louise said, seemingly remembering her finicky disposition for a moment. “I am a married woman, Your Grace!”

“I have accepted many such small gifts,” Jemma put in. “Villiers gave me an exquisite fan last year…dear me, I wonder what could have happened to it? It was one of my very favorites.” She knew quite well what had happened to it. Her husband had taken one glance, thrown it to a footman, and she never saw it again.

“Perhaps he’ll give you another,” Elijah said. “My dear marquise, you appear a bit flushed. Shall we find you another glass of Champagne?”

Jemma opened her mouth to say that further Champagne was inadvisable, or something along those lines, but the marquise had already bounded up from the sofa and was flouncing away on Elijah’s arm before she could formulate the sentence.

Leaving her alone on the sofa.

“How the mighty are fallen.” Villiers plumped himself down next to her and handed her a glass.

She turned to him and to her horror felt tears rising to her eyes. “He’s angry for some reason, that’s all.”

“Drink your Champagne,” Villiers said. “Of course he’s angry. Elijah has no interest in my cousin, a sweet little drunken duck of a woman. Don’t be a fool.”

His tone was bracing, and the Champagne helped too. “He doesn’t want to flirt with me,” Jemma said a few minutes later, rather sadly.

“That makes two of us,” Villiers said. “Perhaps he wants something more than a light flirtation with you. You are his wife, after all.”

“But I intended to woo him this week,” she said desperately.

“Men can take only so much wooing. Not that I’ve experienced much of it.”

“That was the point. Elijah never had a chance to have the fun of flirting with a seductive woman. It was supposed to be fun!”

“Are you sure that Elijah considers it fun?”

“Well, he’s certainly having a lovely time at the moment,” Jemma said, drinking some more of her Champagne. She could see them across the room, standing close together and seemingly examining something in one of Villiers’s cabinets.

“I don’t think he is. If you want my opinion—”

“I don’t,” Jemma interrupted.

“He doesn’t want to flirt with the marquise, or with you either. Elijah is a serious man, Jemma. You have to understand that if you intend to love him.”

“I—I—” Did she love him?

“You don’t know him very well.”

“Neither do—”

“We were the best of friends for ten years,” Villiers said. “Elijah was never any good at just tumbling around in the mud, for example. He always had to be building something, planning a town or an invasion.”

“He didn’t play?”

“He has never liked to play. It’s not in his nature.”

“He plays chess,” she said, defending him.

“He likes games of strategy. You might want to take that into account before you get your feathers too ruffled tonight. Now…speaking of chess.”

Jemma didn’t want to speak of chess, but it was better than watching her husband laugh with another woman.

“We might view this all as a giant chessboard,” Villiers said.

“So?” All right, she couldn’t stop watching. Did Elijah really have to touch the marquise on the shoulder in that intimate manner?

“Obviously, I am the Black King,” Villiers said.

Finally she looked at him. He had that wicked little smile of his. “And I?”

“The White Queen.”

“That makes Louise the Black Queen,” Jemma pointed out.

“And Elijah, as always, the White King.” Villiers sighed, but his eyes were laughing. “I told you I was becoming a saint, didn’t I?”

“Just what do you mean by that?”

“I shall sacrifice myself,” he said, rising and bringing her to her feet. “The Black King sweeps the Black Queen from the board. It pains me to do it. It’s been such a day for losing at chess. I can hardly countenance my own defeats.”

Jemma watched from the side of the room as Villiers nimbly drew his cousin from Elijah’s side. She didn’t approach Elijah, though. He didn’t like to flirt, and his temper was uncertain. At dinner, Villiers sat at the head of the table, flirting outrageously with the marquise, who looked prettier every moment.

Elijah was engaged in a lively discussion with Lord Vesey about Pitt’s India Act. Jemma and Corbin discussed the plate of fruit that the Duchess of Guise had worn atop her wig during her recent visit to London.

“I preferred Lady Kersnips’s stalks of barley,” Corbin said. “And you are not listening to me, Your Grace.”

In fact, she was eavesdropping on Elijah’s conversation. Lord Vesey was inquiring about the aftermath of the riots. “I was in the office of the chief magistrate day before yesterday,” Elijah replied. “Did you know that Lord Stibblestich is the liaison between the House of Lords and the office of the magistrate?”

“I can’t bear the man,” Vesey grunted.

“Stibblestich’s response to the riot is to suggest that they should all be shot.”

Corbin was listening as well, and he cut in with a comment. “The papers adamantly concurred with that sentence. I had not heard there was dispute about the matter at all.”

Elijah’s gaze brushed over Jemma and turned to Corbin. “Stibblestich doesn’t stop with the rioters. You see, the prisoners were bound to die anyway. The hulks breed disease and despair, and they would likely die within a few months, saving the price of the rounds of lead needed to shoot them. The hulks are not prisons; they are effective ways by which the government of England can dispatch large numbers of unwanted men.”

“That is reprehensible,” Jemma said, pulling his attention back to her.

“Stibblestich maintains that since the rioters had nothing to lose by rioting,” Elijah said, “we must be more aggressive in order to deter future riots.”

“He can’t mean to torture them before shooting them!” Vesey said.

“No. He suggests we take all male members of each man’s family into custody as possible accessories to crime. And place all those men on the hulks,” Elijah continued relentlessly. “Every one of them. Elderly fathers, brothers, brothers-in-law, and male children over the age of eleven.”

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