This Duchess of Mine Page 54


“Of course,” he said courteously, stepping back so her hand slipped from his arm. Then he bowed again and left her there on the doorstep, baby sleeping on her shoulder.

He had a biting headache and a strong inclination to forget this whole idea. He couldn’t have a child named Juby. It was inconceivable. He was Villiers. A duke.

How did he know this child was actually his? A gentleman’s son, she’d said. Surely Templeton would have mentioned that the child’s father was a duke?

Everything in him recoiled from the distastefulness of the entire visit. The slobbering child, the ridiculous nickname, the shabby house.

Gentlemen didn’t worry about this sort of thing. A child born on the wrong side of the blanket was no real child of his.

Even he couldn’t rationalize that assertion, though.

Tobias was his child. He remembered the mother, Fenela, well enough. She was a luscious girl, an Italian opera singer, who had been enraged when she found herself with child.

She had screamed, and he had laughed, and in the end he promised to care for the child when Fenela traveled on. As he recalled, he supported the entire opera company for some seven months. They continued their entirely pleasant nightly encounters until she declared that she hated both him and her swollen ankles.

Eventually Templeton had informed him of the existence of a son, and the child’s settlement in a good establishment, and that was that.

He even knew why Tobias had the name: because Fenela had been singing the part of an innocent maiden, seduced by the dastardly baron, Tobias. The baron courted the maiden’s affections and lured her to an adulterous doom.

Except that the evil baron had turned into the flourishing, fat Juby.

Juby.

Villiers shuddered as he got into his carriage.

Chapter Twenty-one

Later that morning

Elijah woke with the distinct sensation that something was wrong. But what could be wrong? He and Jemma had finally fallen asleep as the first morning light was creeping through the curtains. Now he was lying behind her, her curvaceous bottom tucked against him, his arms around her.

He felt a pulse of joy…and yet the terrible sense of unease lingered. After a moment he slipped out of bed. Jemma made a little moue as his arms left her, and then she rolled farther into the pillows. Her hair was tousled and silky, the color of drowsy sunshine, just as he had told her.

The unease appeared again. Normally just the sight of Jemma fired his loins. But not this morning. With that realization came another.

His heart was misfiring. It had actually woken him up, which had never happened before. He sprang from the bed and walked a few steps. Sometimes even a small amount of exercise was enough to correct the timing. But his heart still bounded in his chest, as if it had forgotten the proper rhythm.

He would have to go for a ride; that often calmed its rhythm. He eased out of Jemma’s chamber and retired to his own rooms.

He had finished his bath and was pulling on a coat when a footman scratched at the door. After a whispered exchange, his valet came back and said, “Mr. Fowle is very sorry to disturb you, Your Grace, but the Honorable Howard Cheever-Chittlesford is waiting below.”

“Oh Christ,” Elijah said. “Sent by Pitt?”

“He didn’t say, Your Grace.” Vickery handed him his wig. “He is accompanied by another gentleman, Lord Stibblestich.”

Elijah groaned inwardly. Cheever-Chittlesford was a petty bureaucrat who prided himself on his eloquence, yet Elijah seemed to be the only one to notice that the man’s eloquence was always employed in the wrong tactics. Cheever-Chittlesford was the sort who would comment, for example, that the slave trade had its place, and that Pitt shouldn’t push too aggressively to abolish it.

Blackguard or no, Cheever-Chittlesford was a close advisor to Pitt, and Stibblestich was the liaison to the chief magistrate, so Elijah straightened his wig and prepared to go downstairs. Thankfully, his heart had settled down and was now dancing to a milder, if irregular, beat: not exactly steady, but not frightening either.

Cheever-Chittlesford was standing at the window; Stibblestich had accepted a glass of brandy. In the morning.

Elijah strode into his library. When he was one of Pitt’s advisors, he felt divided between himself and his rank. In the presence of Pitt, he was more an advisor than a duke.

Now he felt every inch the duke. And Cheever-Chittlesford, wily statesman that he was, realized it immediately. His bow was lower and more respectful than it was when they met in the House.

“Mr. Cheever-Chittlesford,” Elijah said briskly.

“Lord Stibblestich. What can I do for you?”

Cheever-Chittlesford was not a man to rush into speech; Elijah had seen him allow others to instigate conversations thousands of times. Even better, he would provoke a flagrant battle, during which both sides would pour out their best arguments. He would listen silently, saying nothing, and then decide precisely when to seize control of the subject.

Stibblestich, on the other hand, was the perfect man to launch an argument. He rarely thought before he spoke, and therefore his words were invariably insulting. “It’s the hulks,” he said importantly. “We’ve been tasked by the king himself with coming up with a solution to those floating monstrosities.”

Elijah kept his expression pleasant and uninterested. “A difficult problem, as we’ve already admitted,” he murmured.

“I’ve suggested that we fire them,” Stibblestich said.

“That’s the best solution. Fire ’em!” He gave a couple of vigorous nods. “There’s none but bloody-minded criminals aboard. They’re a floating pestilence for the city, like rats…like—like—like rats,” he finished, apparently unable to think of another word.

Elijah turned to Cheever-Chittlesford. “Of course, removing the warships from their current use as prison barges is an excellent idea.”

Cheever-Chittlesford looked discomfited, which was unusual. Elijah’s eyes narrowed. “Precisely what do you mean by ‘fire them’?” he asked, turning back to Stibblestich.

“Burn them down,” he said promptly. “It’ll take care of all our problems. We’ll start over with the same problem, of course, but we can find somewhere else to house the new ones. The king himself was in danger during the riots!” He opened his eyes so wide that his whole face seemed to stretch.

Elijah’s heart gave a great thump. “Do I take you to mean that you are considering burning the ships with prisoners inside?” He could hear the pendulum clock behind him ticking very hard, as hard as his heart was beating. It was inconceivable…it was barbaric. He could feel, deep in his body, the frown that had formed on his face, the fury that was making his back rigid.

Stibblestich started to bluster, something about pestilence. Elijah turned to Cheever-Chittlesford, who looked at him with the shadow of an apology in his eyes, so Elijah knew that indeed the government was entertaining that thought. Something in him raged and despaired at once. They were so stupid, so stupid and violent.

With an effort, he summoned up the logical, calm voice that he used to show madmen the error of their ways. “You intend to burn the hulks.”

“That’s right,” Stibblestich said. Satisfaction reeked in his voice.

“Burning them where they are currently anchored?”

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