This Duchess of Mine Page 47


“I just don’t understand,” she whispered, saying it again, even though he’d explained before. “You let me go so easily, years ago. What changed?”

“It wasn’t easy to allow you to go.” The muscles in his jaw stood out. “I followed you to Gravesend, did you know that?”

She shook her head. “You said goodbye the night before, if one could call it that. I remember exactly what you said. If it was my decision to go to France, then you would not stand in my way.”

“I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I got in a carriage for Gravesend, arrived at dawn, and questioned the captain to make sure his ship was tight and safe. Then I waited.”

“You didn’t!”

“I stood on the pier where you couldn’t see me. You—”

“I cried,” she said.

“You were crying as you walked onto the ship,” he said flatly. “I knew then that I had ruined everything, ruined our lives. But you had the right to go. It was your choice, and I had to give you that choice.”

“I wish you hadn’t,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around his waist.

“If I hadn’t, I’d be no better than my father.”

“I don’t see that. You could have told me you were sorry…I would have stayed.”

“That would be to treat you as my possession. It would have been unethical.”

She started to laugh, caught against his chest again, listening to his heart. “And now?”

“But now you’re mine,” he said, growling it. His arms tightened. “And Jemma…”

“Yes?”

“You needn’t wear clothing tonight.”

The smile in his eyes was pure arrogance. “I just don’t understand,” she said, staring up at him.

“Maybe I never will understand. What if I said that I wanted to play chess with Villiers tonight instead of you?”

There was an instant flare deep in his eyes. “Don’t think you will ever walk away from me again.” His voice was soft, low.

Jemma had supper in her room, followed by a bath. Two problems came to her mind, and both stemmed from her memories of the first weeks of their marriage. In retrospect their intimacies had been, well, dull. She might not have had many or lengthy affaires in Paris, but to her mind, one learned most about the bed from talking to other women, anyway. And she had learned a great deal.

But meanwhile Elijah had dismissed his mistress and stayed at home by himself. Would he abhor her for the knowledge she’d gained? What should she do, and when should she pretend ignorance?

What if he became enraged, disgusted, thinking her nothing more than a light-skirt? She’d heard many times of women kissing men intimately, for example, though she had certainly never felt the impulse herself. But it felt different when she thought of Elijah. Even thinking of him in the baths made her feel flushed all over.

She would—yes, she would like to—

She couldn’t. The hard-headed side of her brain, the side that had successfully negotiated the intrigues that characterized Versailles, knew it deep down. Unless she played this adroitly, Elijah would feel a prickle of discomfort, a prickle of unease.

She had been an unfaithful wife, for all he kept saying that he allowed her to leave him because she “had the right.”

On the very verge of a panic, she stopped herself.

She was no timid mouse, to be frightened by a man’s emotions. She was Jemma. And if she’d had an affaire, it was more than half the fault of Elijah and his stiff-necked moral thinking that drove her away, by showing such cold indifference. What sort of senseless man waits to visit his wife until he knows she has taken a lover?

The thought was steadying, bitter though it was.

She would simply be herself. In bed and out of bed. She was too old to claim a virginity she no longer had, and too experienced to pretend that she wasn’t interested in pleasure. In fact, she had a veritable passion for it.

And if there was one thing she remembered clearly about their early couplings, it was that there hadn’t been quite enough pleasure for her. It was, after all, easy enough for a man to satisfy himself, but it seemed to be harder for women.

If she pretended to some sort of naiveté, she would risk finding herself in the position of a disappointed woman: in short, without what the French called le petit mort. And that was unacceptable.

She rose from her simple meal, feeling composed. Delicious though she found Elijah’s tone of command, he would simply have to learn to take instructions.

“I’ll serve a small collation to His Grace tonight,” she told Brigitte. “He comes to my room for chess.”

“I know, Your Grace,” Brigitte said. “All of London knows…finally the chess match will be over!”

Jemma was taken aback by that. It was bad enough that the household would encourage the bedding of its master and mistress, but all of London?

“Because of the wagers,” Brigitte explained, catching the look on her face. “There are so many bets placed on the match between yourself and the master. Fowle says that the entire London Chess Club is riveted to learn the outcome. There are only two women in the Chess Club, you know, yourself and Mrs. Patton.”

“I’ve heard as much,” Jemma murmured.

“The majority are betting in favor of you, Your Grace,” Brigitte said happily. “And if you win the match, you will be the top-ranked player!”

“I shall win,” Jemma stated. She had spent years playing herself at chess—with the twist that she played Black (for sin), and Elijah played White (for virtue). Or rather, since Elijah was in England, and she in France, she imitated Elijah, playing White. She knew his style of play: he had foresight, courage, and an uncanny ability to corner an opponent and smash his—or her— resistance.

“How should you like to manage the game?” Brigitte asked rather tentatively. “I mean, with the two of you blindfolded…how will you manage the pieces? Shall you call the moves to me and I shall make the moves you request?”

“Oh no,” Jemma said absently. “Luckily Elijah and I are both masters.”

Brigitte looked confused.

“We don’t need a board,” she said, smiling at her maid. “We’ll play it in our heads.”

“In your heads?” Brigitte had obviously never considered such a thing.

“Unless His Grace feels he hasn’t had enough practice to keep the board in his head,” Jemma said, grinning.

She had no idea whether Elijah had ever played without a chessboard, but he could do it. He was one of the best players she’d faced in her life, better than the French genius, Philidor, better (sometimes) than Villiers. Though to her mind, Elijah, Villiers, and herself were fairly evenly matched.

No, that was a lie.

They each had different strengths: Elijah his steady, rational forethought; Villiers his sweeping battle plans; she her moments of brilliant and beautiful play.

But they had weaknesses too. Elijah would always find himself misled into questions of virtue. It was a passion for him: to carve life into black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.

It was all in the chess game.

Even blindfolded and in bed…She had to raise the stakes.

She knew exactly how Elijah saw tonight’s game: as a means to an end, the end being her body and her bed. He would try to win, but what he really wanted was the last click of the pieces.

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