Husbands were just there, like coal in Newcastle and pigs in the sty.
Which made it all the harder for Jemma, the duchess in question, to decide what to wear to seduce her spouse. After all, Elijah had been her husband for years. True, they had lived apart for some time, but now they'd agreed, in an alarmingly businesslike fashion, that after he returned from a fortnight spent at the Prime Minister's house, they would
Have a baby. Produce an heir, or at least go through the motions that would produce one in nine months.
Go to bed together.
They had come to that decision a year ago. When she had first returned from Paris, she was too angry to contemplate marital intimacies, but then somehow the fury drained away. Still, they kept to separate bedchambers. The humiliating truth was that Elijah didn't seem terribly interested.
First he said he wouldn't bed her until she finished her chess match with the Duke of Villiers, since everyone believed that the match was naught more than a cover for an affaire. Then, when she threw in the chess match, giving the win to Villiers, Elijah announced that he was going into the country with Pitt's wing of the government.
She couldn't imagine another man claiming that he was too busy to bed her. Too busy to seduce the Duchess of Beaumont?
Jemma didn't think she was being overly vain, just realistic. It had been her experience that men were driven by lust above duty. And she had been assured by male attention from age sixteen that she was precisely what a lustful man would like to find in his bed.
She had blue eyes, hair of a deep golden color, a very elegant nose (she particularly liked her nose), and crimson lips. True, the crimson color resulted from lavish applications of lip rouge, but if one were lucky enough not to have a thin hard mouth, one might as well draw attention to it.
And at twenty-eight, she still had the allure of youth, together with a sheen of sophistication and wit that no sixteen-year-old could command.
She even had all her teeth, to lower the subject to the level of cattle.
The problem, it seemed to her, was that to Elijah she was a wife, not a woman.
There was nothing sensual about the word wife. Jemma gave a little shudder. Wives nagged and complained. Wives wore little caps on their fading hair and suffered from broadening hips due to child-bearing.
It was mortifying to be a wife. Even worse, a wife whose husband was reluctant to take her to bed.
It was definitely a new, and rather disconcerting, sensation, to feel that she was more interested in bedding a man than the reverse. She was used to men trying to seduce her. During the years she lived at Versailles, gentlemen considered her ripe for the plucking, given that her husband lived in England. They swiveled before her to display a powerful thigh, flaunt an embroidered coat or an enameled snuff box. They dropped roses, plums, and poems at her doorstep.
She smiled, enticed, laughed, dismissed. She dressed to amuse herself, and to dazzle the court. She dressed for power and admiration. She certainly didn't dress to enchant men: she took that for granted.
But the whole process of making her toilette felt different tonight.
She wanted all the passion and energy her husband devoted to the House of Lords, to the fate of England. She wanted him to look at her with the same hunger that he showed for a new bill in Parliament. She wanted Elijah at her feet.
She wanted what she probably couldn't have. No wife had that.
Brigitte, her femme de chambre, popped into the chamber with a fistful of visiting cards. "All your beaux are below requesting to assist you in your toilette" she said. "Lord Corbin, of course, and Viscount St. Albans. Delacroix and Lord Piddleton."
Jemma wrinkled her nose. "I don't believe I shall admit anyone this evening."
"You shall dress alone, Your Grace?" The look on Brigitte's face was almost comical.
"I am never alone," Jemma pointed out. "I have your assistance as well as that of Mariette and Lucinda. A woman with three maids, each with such decided opinions, can hardly bemoan her lack of guidance!"
Brigitte's eyes narrowed, just for a second. "Indeed, Your Grace. Perhaps you plan a special toilette for the fete this evening. Shall I inform the gentlemen that you decline their counsel?"
But Jemma had already changed her mind, based on that little flash in Brigitte's eyes. Brigitte knew that the duke would be going directly to the king's fete. Servants talked….. servants knew.
Jemma suspected that the house knew of her embarrassing, humiliating infatuation with her husband. In the last month or so she had taken to sitting in the library with a chessboard before her, waiting for Elijah to return from the House of Lords. She had started reading all the papers, with particular attention to accounts of the Duke of Beaumont's speeches. She was…..
She was a dunce. She should behave as if there was nothing untoward about the evening. Her husband had been in the country for two weeks; that meant nothing to her. A fashionable wife would never even note the absence or presence of something as insignificant as a husband.
"It's just that I have a headache," she said, with precisely the right note of lament. "And Corbin and Delacroix can be so trivial. If only Villiers were here."
Suspicion vanished from her maid's eyes. "He would soothe your head, Your Grace. And he"—Brigitte dimpled—"is far from trivial."
Despite herself, Jemma smiled. "But Villiers would never lower himself to join a woman at her dressing. For one thing, I suspect that it takes him longer to dress than it takes me. I suppose I must needs admit Corbin, at least. How do I appear?"
Jemma was wearing a honey-pale corset, adorned with daring bows of sheer black ribbon. Brigitte darted about, pulling a lock of hair over her shoulder so it emphasized her white skin, dusting a touch of powder onto her nose.
Her hair, of course, was already built into a formidable pile of curls, though it awaited ornamentation and powder. One of her three French maids, Mariette, was a genius in that area and had spent two hours earlier that afternoon constructing a style fit for a royal occasion.
Jemma looked at herself again in the glass over her dressing table. To her mind, nothing suited her quite as much as dishabille, to be with her face painted, but her hair unpowdered, her legs showing through the frail lawn of her chemise. If only Elijah visited her at this time in the afternoon….. but he never did.
Only strangers—or at best, acquaintances—thronged below in the drawing room, begging for permission to help her place a patch, or choose a gown.
Presumably husbands were uninterested in seeing their wives dress; their secrets were all known and the thrill of the unfamiliar was lost. Though considering that she and Elijah hadn't seen each other under intimate circumstances for nine years, one might imagine he felt a tinge of curiosity. The last time they had slept together she had been a gauche and, comparatively speaking, flat-chested twenty-year-old.
"If Villiers were below, would you admit him?" Brigitte asked, artfully spilling a box of ribbons onto the dressing table as if she were setting the stage for a play. She snatched up Jemma's silver-backed mirror and laid it carefully across the glowing strands of color.
"Villiers is dangerous," Jemma stated. Villiers was everything Corbin and Delacroix were not. He was a chess master, for one thing. His mind was as nimble as hers, and his machinations were not trivial, and—
And he wanted her.
Villiers's desire wasn't like the light emotions of the men waiting below. His desire was like a dark undertow, pulling at her along with the force of his charm, the wicked beauty of his smile, his French mother's delicious eyes…..
Brigitte sighed, and the sigh said it all. "Of course, he's a Frenchman, and that changes everything."
"Only on his mother's side."
"Assez! Assez! C'est assez."
Brigitte was right. The French blood Villiers inherited from his mother was definitely enough ….. put together with an English manliness and strength. He was truly dangerous to a woman's peace of mind, not to mention her reputation.
"Only Corbin?" Brigitte asked, picking up the cards tendered by those waiting below.
Generally, a lady allowed two, three, even four gentlemen into the dressing room to help her choose patches and lace. To invite only Corbin would invite a scandal, but who could really believe that she was instigating an affaire with Corbin? He was Jemma's favorite partner for the minuet, her comfortable companion of an evening. A brilliant dancer, an exquisite dresser, a notable wit. And she had a shrewd feeling that he had as little interest in her as she had in him.
What if Elijah didn't bother to come tonight, for all they had agreed to meet this evening? What if affairs of state kept him from affairs of the heart?
Besides, one never had an affair of the heart with one's wife.
"Just Lord Corbin," she said decisively.
Brigitte nipped out of the room, down to dismiss the crowd and admit Corbin and no other, and set alive a small blaze of gossip about Jemma's preferential treatment.
A moment later Corbin paused in the door just long enough to allow Jemma to assess his costume, and to allow him to appreciate Brigitte's careful stage setting.
The frank appreciation in his eyes was very soothing to Jemma's fraught feelings.
"I should like a glass of Champagne," she told Brigitte. "Lord Corbin, does that please you?"
"Absolutely," Corbin drawled. He was the son of a country lord, who likely was affronted, if not terrified, by his eldest son. Corbin's wig was a snowy perfection; his heels were higher than Jemma's and graced with large, floppy flowers; he was just saved from effeminacy by the breadth of his shoulders and by a rugged turn to his chin. He was dressed in a coat of antique rose, sewn with narrow cuffs of persimmon. His breeches were the same persimmon, and his stockings—
"Those stockings!" she cried. "Exquisite!" They were pale cream, with rose-colored clocks rising up the sides.
Corbin swept into a graceful bow. "I first saw a pair on Lord Stittle, if you can countenance it."
He sat in a chair at her side, the better to help her pick the perfect accoutrements for her hair.
"I would prefer not to imagine such a thing," Jemma said.
"I know, I know. I told him his thighs were too large. Or was it his feet? At any rate, it was only after sustained insults that I managed to wring the name of his hosier from him. William Low on Bond Street, if you can believe it. I thought Low carried only worsted stockings for country squires."
His eyes laughed, and Jemma felt fifty times better. "I must look my absolute best tonight," she said, hearing too late the fervency in her voice.
"Darling, you always look your best," he said, raising an eyebrow. "But always! Would I be your closest companion were you not the most exquisite duchess in London?"
"The reverse is true as well," Jemma remarked.
"Naturally," he said, grinning. "Speaking of which, do you care for this small accent on my chin? I spent the entire week in the country growing it, and by Thursday I was despairing of achieving an appropriate appearance in time for the king's fete."
Jemma looked at him carefully. Dazzled by his stockings, she hadn't noticed that he now sported the smallest goatee she'd ever seen, just an arrow of silky dark hair below his lower lip, fashioned into a wicked little V. "Yes," she said slowly. "I do like it, Corbin. You'll start a fashion. It makes you look older, and a bit dangerous."
"Ruinous in a woman, charming in a man," he said happily. "At least at my tender age. Dare I ask what makes this evening so fraught with anxiety? I do trust your plans have nothing to do with Delacroix. I had to elbow him out of the way to make my way up the stairs, and I don't like even to stand next to him; I'm afraid all that artlessness will rub off on me."
Jemma laughed. "Don't be cruel, darling. Delacroix considers himself to be the epitome of sophistication."
"One could call it adolescent greenness but for his advanced age. He tries so hard that I feel exhausted at the very sight of him. Such sincerity should be outlawed."
"You are cruel." Jemma picked up three or four ribbons and held them to the light, put them down again. Ribbons were too girlish for what she had in mind.
"Do you plan la grande toilette?" Corbin asked, catching the connotations of her gesture instantly.
"Therein lies my problem," Jemma said, waving a hand at her bed. "I cannot decide."
Naturally, Corbin rose to inspect the two choices Brigitte had laid out.
On one side was a lovely gown of a blue-green watered silk. It was embroidered with green roses, small ones, and the piquancy of the improbable flower made the whole costume all the more delicious. The skirts pulled back to reveal a gossamer underskirt in a lighter shade.
"In your hair?" Corbin asked.
"Roses to match." She tossed one to him.
"Exquisite," he said, inspecting it. "I gather the centers are made of emeralds and not green glass, Duchess?"
"Very small ones," she said, shrugging one shoulder. "Practically invisible."
"I am entirely in favor of luxury," Corbin said, turning the rose in his fingers. "Especially the kind that doesn't herald its worth."
"In truth, they were terribly expensive."
"And thus to be worn only by a woman who need not worry about finances. Though now I think of it, these roses should be worn by a woman deep in debt. Flaunting extravagance is the best way to assuage creditors' anxieties."
"I suppose that they are rather extravagant."
"A duchess's prerogative." Corbin moved to the other costume. "But if with the one gown you flaunt your extravagance, what exactly do what you wish to flaunt—and why—with this gown?" His voice was silky, but delivered its insult for all that. ;
"It's the very newest fashion," Jemma said indignantly, coming to stand next to him. "A chemise gown. Queen Marie Antoinette has at least four, I assure you."
"Ah, but the lucky queen doesn't live in England." Corbin picked up the gown. It was made of a sweet flow of fabric in a pale peach, caught up here and there with bunches of pearls. Rather than being made of stiff satin, the cloth was as thin as a chemise—hence the name. It would barely skim her breasts, flowing down over her body like a delicate night garment.
"Are we so stuffy in England?" she asked.
"So cold," Corbin said. "In both senses of the word. My darling duchess, you will cause the women to thrill with rage and cause the men to thrill with something else. But meanwhile you will freeze."
"Freeze?" Jemma stared down at the chemise gown.
"There is nothing more unattractive than flesh dimpled with cold," Corbin said flatly. "And the king's fete takes place on his yacht. On the river. Unless you wish to spend the evening inside longing for a fireplace and a woolen shawl, you should wear the green gown. Which, by the way, is gorgeous."
"And not so desperate," he continued.
Jemma whipped around. "I am never desperate!"
Corbin met her eyes in the glass. "Then why the desperation?" he asked gently.
"I am not desperate. I am….."
"Interested?" Corbin's eyebrow rose, and his smile was so amused that she couldn't help smiling back.
"In my husband," she told him impulsively.
She surprised him. He dropped into his chair with something less than his usual insouciance. "Your husband? Your husband?"
"No one else's," she said, adding, "I have never meddled with a married man." It was a frail claim to virtue, but all she had.
"I thought you had decided on Villiers," Corbin said.
"No." She didn't say that it was a near miss.
"Your husband. I don't even have the faintest idea what to advise you. I am shocked. Husbands are so—so—"
"Of course, Beaumont is all that is admirable."
Jemma sighed. "I know." She picked up the chemise gown and held it against her body, looking in the glass.
"Essential to the future of the country, from what I hear."
"I didn't say that! He holds deep moral beliefs, of course."
"He's my opposite," Jemma said dismally. She threw the chemise dress back on the bed.
"How clever of you to recognize it," Corbin said. "Life is so much more interesting when people understand how angels and devils differ. I hear His Grace is most sincere in the House. You can—" He hesitated. "—I believe you can trust everything he says." He sounded horrified.
"I know, I know," Jemma said, sighing again. "He's a veritable Puritan."
"We need good people," Corbin said firmly. "It's just a pity that they're so—so—"
"I expect I feel so only because I myself am quite errant. I have never considered taking a seat in Parliament. Everyone—but everyone—wears those snail wigs. The ones with small crustaceans ranked around the ears like soldiers on parade."
"I can easily imagine you in Parliament," Jemma said, moving behind her friend so she could meet his eyes in the mirror over her dressing table. "You're certainly more clever than most of them. I'd much prefer to see you running the country."
He laughed at that. "I hope we are not friends due to some hopeless misconception about my character, Duchess."
"We are friends because you are funny," Jemma said. "And because you tell me the truth if my stockings are at odds with my slippers. And because you gossip cruelly about everyone and pretend to me that you will never do so behind my back."
"It's not a pretense. I can have room for only one woman in my heart at a moment," he said, "and you are she."
Jemma bent and kissed his cheek. "We are admirably suited." She sat back down next to him.
"Except you are so serious this evening," Corbin pointed out. "So passionate."
"Are we allowed to be serious only about stockings?" she asked.
He thought about that longer than she thought necessary. "I am quite serious about scandal," he offered.
"But never about passion itself?"
He wrinkled his nose but his eyes were sympathetic. "Thank God, infatuation has never forced me into seriousness. A beautiful woman should never be serious, Duchess."
"It implies that there is something you cannot have. And we who are not as beautiful prefer to believe that you have everything you wish for in life. That is the essence of beauty, after all."
"I feel myself growing plainer every moment," Jemma said. "Perhaps it is the curse of age."
"Age and passion!" Corbin looked faintly nauseated. "I shall have to ask your maid for a drink of brandy if you continue in this vein."
"So I should not wear the chemise gown," Jemma said.
"Absolutely not. In fact, given what you have just told me, the green silk may be a trifle too revealing in the bosom."
"For a husband?"
"For your husband," Corbin said. "The duke is….." He paused delicately. "Well, were Beaumont a woman, his skirts would be long and his neckline high."
Jemma thought about that and shook her head. "I can't transform into a Puritan wife in order to please Elijah. Hell have to take me as I am."
Corbin paused. "If you don't mind the question, exactly what sort of taking do you have in mind?"
"We need an heir," Jemma said.
"Of course. But that need not, in itself, involve passion on your part, and surely no anxiety. Though you might wish to put a bottle of brandy on the night table and take a surreptitious swig now and then."
"I want more than that."
"Thus the quest for passion?" Corbin asked.
"I'm a fool."
"You're not the first, but you set yourself such a difficult task, Duchess."
"You'd better call me Jemma," she said, rather grimly. "You're the only one who knows."
"I won't advertise it and you shouldn't either. So what you need is lessons in making a husband feel passion for his wife."
It seemed impossible, put so bluntly. "I'll wear the green dress."
"Seductive clothing will never work, not—"
"Not for Beaumont." She picked up a rosy ribbon and started wrapping it around one finger.
"If you wear the chemise dress, you'll likely just make him angry. Or embarrassed. After all, such flamboyant clothing is designed to make a man hunger for what he cannot have, and what he cannot imagine. But a husband….."
"You'll have to surprise him," Corbin said. "Show him a side of you that he's never seen."
"I don't have any sides," Jemma said despairingly. "I play chess; he knows that. We play together occasionally."
Corbin groaned. "Like an old married couple?"
"In the library," she confirmed. "While discussing the news of the day." But there was a look in Corbin's eye, a smile. "What?" she asked.
"You have something that he's never seen."
"You are a woman with a past, Jemma. And better than that, you have a reputation."
She knitted her brow. "He doesn't like my past. And he never liked my wilder parties. Some years ago he paid me a visit in Paris over Twelfth Night. You should have seen his face when I informed him that all the gentlemen were to come to my ball dressed as satyrs! He refused, of course. Every Frenchman wore a satyr's tail, but Beaumont was in a frock coat, precisely as if it were not a masquerade at all."
"Naturally. And I've never heard a breath of scandal attached to the duke."
"He had a mistress, but no one considers that scandalous," she said, dropping the ribbon in a tangled heap back on her dressing table.
"Because it isn't. Mistresses are commonplace. And for a man of Beaumont's character, the presence of such a woman in his life must have been shaming after a time."
Jemma raised an eyebrow.
"They're paid," Corbin said. "Paid to play out the fantasies every man has in the back of his mind."
"Fantasies!" Jemma cried, revolted. "He had a regular appointment with her, in his chambers at the Inns of Court, at lunchtime yet. How could that possibly stem from fantasy?"
"That's just business," Corbin said. "He likely made the arrangement before marriage, and simply forgot to change it. How old was the duke when he inherited the title?"
"Oh, quite young," Jemma said. "Haven't you ever heard of the late duke's death? I'm afraid it was quite a scandal at the time."
"Of course! He died in flagrante delicto with—was it four women?"
"Two," Jemma said. "Only two. But I gather that The Palace of Salome catered to rather specialized tastes, and it was the duke's favorite establishment."
"No wonder your husband made his mistress part of his public life," Corbin said. "Where better to prove that his tastes were not deviant than in his own office?"
Jemma's mouth fell open. "Elijah said he loved her," she added in a smallish voice.
"If you challenged him on the subject, he may have said that from rage. But it is very difficult to love someone whom one pays for the most intimate of pleasures. The money kills joy."
"You are rather terrifying," Jemma said, eyeing him.
"I try," Corbin said smugly. "Do you see what I am suggesting?"
"If you wish to rouse passion in a husband of so many years, I think you will have to show him the side of yourself that you have flaunted only in Paris."
"The chemise dress?" Jemma said, pleating her brow.
"No. That's boldly sexual. For Beaumont, you will have to be imaginative. Playful. Joyful. All the things that never, ever happen in the halls of the House of Lords, and certainly have never happened with his mistress. You need to be spontaneous, naughty, and fun."
"I can't imagine Elijah—"
"Having fun?" Corbin folded his hands. "Neither can I, Duchess. Neither can I. Therein lies your challenge. Oh, and I think he needs to choose you."
"Do you mean that I should encourage Villiers?" She wrinkled her nose.
"Perhaps. But I also mean that someone should flirt with the duke, someone as powerful and beautiful as you."
"You cannot be suggesting that I encourage another woman to court my husband!"
He shrugged. "No woman in London would dare do so unless you make it clear that you are uninterested, and frankly, indifference will only serve your cause. No man wants the woman who lies prostrate at his feet." Corbin's eyes drifted down to his feet, as if seeing feminine hands curled pleadingly around his ankles.
"I would never plead," Jemma stated.
"I am merely suggesting that you do not inform the world of your newfound passion. Let the duke come to you. Win your attentions from another man, if possible. Beaumont married at a young age, and for obvious reasons he never indulged in any sort of exuberant naughtiness."
"He did have a young woman pursuing him last year," Jemma pointed out. "Don't you remember Miss Tatlock?"
"The one you called Miss Fetlock? She of the long nose and abrasive intelligence? Please, Jemma. A true rival would have to be someone of your stature in beauty, wit, and status."
"His mistress's name was Sarah Cobbett," Jemma said.
"That speaks for itself, doesn't it? The poor man has experienced nothing but well-meaning intimacies with a woman graced by the name Cobbett I am moved near to tears at the thought of it."
"Are you certain this is necessary, Corbin?"
"Absolutely. The man has never had women vie for his hand before. He will love it, if only because you are one of the two."
Jemma thought he might be right. "What makes you so wise?" she inquired.
"I take my pleasure in watching others," he said as a shadow passed over his eyes. "Some of us, like yourself, my dear duchess, fling themselves into the midst of life. Others, myself included, spend their time watching."
"I knew it," Jemma said. "You should be taking up a seat in Parliament and manipulating all the poor people like myself who never take the time to develop wisdom."
She'd never given much thought as to why Elijah was tupping his mistress on his desk all those years ago. It was simply the event that tore their marriage asunder, broke her heart and drove her to Paris.
But of course most men did set up their mistresses in houses in the suburbs. They didn't make appointments for them in their offices, appointments that every man working in Elijah's parliamentary chambers must have known about.
Brigitte entered with a silver tray and Champagne glasses.
"Thank goodness," Corbin sighed, accepting his glass. "All this deep thought is making me quite thirsty."
"I've decided on the green," Jemma told Brigitte, standing up so her maid could tie on her panniers.
"Two patches," Corbin said decisively. "A kissing patch near your mouth, and another below your eye."
The watered silk fell over her panniers with the gentle swish. The bodice plumped her breasts and pushed them forward. She raised an eyebrow to Corbin.
"Perfect," he said. "Delectable yet legal. And since you do not clash with my coat, I shall allow myself to stand next to you on occasion."
Jemma smiled at the glass. There was a small tendril of joy in her heart. "Crimson lip color tonight, Brigitte," she said.
"Naughty," Corbin observed.
An hour or so later, that is precisely how she looked. Her curls were powdered and adorned with green roses that glinted mysteriously from their emerald depths. Her eyes laughed above a small patch that drew attention to her crimson mouth. She looked naughty—not overtly available, not scandalous, but mischievous.
"You're perfect," Corbin said, rising to his feet.
"And you're a miracle!" Jemma cried, giving him a kiss.
Corbin's smile was smug. "I have always found it best to create my own entertainments," he remarked. "This evening should be truly interesting, Duchess."
The Right Hon. William Pitt's country home
The Duke of Beaumont had been trying to extricate himself from the Prime Minister's house for the better part of an hour. A group of men, among the most powerful in the kingdom, had spent the last fortnight discussing strategies and laws, ways to thwart Fox's schemes and defeat his proposals, the case for and against every conceivable argument that a man could voice.
Elijah had spent the weeks fighting long hours for the causes he believed just, such as the ongoing effort to halt England's slave trade. He'd won some battles and lost others; it was the nature of politics to weigh inevitable failure against possible gains.
"I will convey your concern to His Majesty," he said now, bowing before the Prime Minister, the Right Honorable William Pitt. "Tactfully, of course. I agree that it is perilous to hold a royal fete in such proximity to the hulks."
"Tell him that those floating monstrosities were never meant to be prisons," Lord Stibblestich put in. He was a florid man with eyes that glinted from the little caves shaped by his plump cheeks. His body was no more than brawny; his face was bloated in comparison. Even his nose appeared engorged in contrast to his shoulders.
Elijah bit his tongue rather than indulge the impulse to snap at Stibblestich. His Majesty was fully aware that the decommissioned warships anchored in the Thames were never meant to be used as prisons. The hulks were aging warships, as tired and broken down as the English navy.
But the presence of hundreds of criminals housed on those ships was a problem that His Majesty was not yet pleased to face. And in truth, Elijah knew it was the Parliament that should be finding a solution.
"There was an attempted prison break just last week," Stibblestich added shrilly, apparently under the illusion that he was saying something original.
"My butler informs me that your valet is recovering from his stomach ailment," Pitt said to Elijah, ignoring Stibblestich. "I will send him to London as soon as he is able to travel."
"I apologize for the inconvenience," Elijah said. "I know that Vickery is also grateful for your forbearance." He bowed again and turned to go. His carriage would go straight to the king's yacht, the Peregrine. Where…..
Where he was due to meet his wife. Jemma.
Tired though he was, exhausted by a fortnight of late nights spent arguing, trying to get his own party to understand the unethical side of their deliberations, he couldn't wait to be aboard. Tucked into the corner of the carriage, he fell asleep, waking only when the wheels started jolting over London's cobblestones.
He pulled his watch from his waistcoat and glanced at it. He had forty minutes to board or the Peregrine would launch without him. The king had a mind to take his revels into the middle of the Thames and then float downstream, the yacht blazing with light and music pouring through the open windows.
At that very moment the carriage lurched and came to a halt. Elijah summoned his patience. London streets were crowded, and obstructions were common.
He waited two minutes before he banged on the roof. "What the devil is going on, Muffet?" he shouted.
"We're through Aldgate, but the street is blocked ahead, Your Grace!" came the shout back from his coachman.
Elijah groaned and pushed open the carriage door. The grooms were off the vehicle and standing at the horses' heads. A crowd was milling about the street, making it hard to see the source of the disturbance. "What's going on?" he demanded, pushing his way to the front.
"We're not entirely sure," Muffet said. "See, Your Grace, they've barricaded Sator Street. And they're still working on the blockade."
Sure enough, entry to the street was barred by a growing wall of furniture, beer barrels, and debris. People milled about cheerfully, handing up a stuffed armchair, ducking out of the way as a barrel came free and bounced around the street. There were a couple of small fires burning to the side, and what looked like a lively trade in baked potatoes.
"Anyone in charge?" Elijah asked.
"Not that I can see," Muffet said. "And Your Grace, it's going to be a proper mess getting ourselves out of here." He jerked his thumb, and Elijah realized that their carriage was merely the first of a tangled mess of carriages streaming in from outside London, now caught inside the city gate. Some people appeared to be backing their carriages, or trying to, but they were hampered by others who had apparently decided to scold their way to the front of the line.
Elijah glanced down at himself. He was dressed in full court attire, as befitted an event held on the king's yacht. His coat was a deep yellow-gold, embroidered with mustard flowers. His buttons were gilded. He would stand out in the crowd like a damned marigold.
He strode toward the flickering but bright light cast from the fires at the foot of the barricade.
The moment he came into the light, the cheerful calls and shouts died. A young man with lank black hair and a mouth like a trout's froze in the very act of hoisting a wardrobe to the top of the barricade. The sturdy fellow hauling it up recovered faster. "Evening!" he shouted down.
"Good evening!" Elijah shouted back. "May I ask for the reason for the barricade?"
"Riots in the city tonight," the man shouted back. He jerked a thumb behind him. "Limehouse ain't never been rioted in, and it ain't going to happen tonight either. We're not letting any of those hellhounds into our houses, nor yet into the square neither."
Elijah eyed the barricade. "It looks remarkably sturdy."
The man beamed. "Like I said, we've never been rioted in yet. I learned me barricading from me pa. We can put it up in under twenty minutes and we does it whenever we thinks it needful. The Watch knows," he added a bit defensively. "They're all back there behind the barricades."
"Is the rioting sure to happen tonight?" Elijah shouted.
"We've never been wrong yet. You'd best get your carriage out of sight. There's many a bastard in these parts would love to snatch those matched grays of yers, yer lordship." He started to haul on the wardrobe again.
"You put that up in twenty minutes?" Elijah bellowed.
"That's right," the man shouted back. He had the wardrobe now, precariously balanced on top of the armchair.
It was going to fall. Elijah moved back. It fell, with a great, splintering crash. Luckily the fish-lipped boy scrambled out of the way.
Elijah cast a glance behind them. The narrow street was entirely blocked by vehicles. Aldgate would be jammed for hours, if not all night.
If there was a riot, he would lose his horses. Unless….. he eyed the blockade. Minus the wardrobe, it wasn't as high as it might have been. Six feet perhaps. He could smell the riot coming, smell it in the excitement of the men, in the frenzy with which they were piling up furniture, and in the utter absence of children.
"You!" he shouted up at the stout man, who was staring down at the wardrobe and cursing in an extremely creative manner.
"Got no time for chatter matter!" the man bellowed back.
"Get off the blockade. I'm bringing my horses over and my men as well. Clear space on the other side!"
Muffet appeared at his shoulder. "Your Grace, a carriage tried to back through Aldgate and the fool hit the wall and shattered his undercarriage. The way out is entirely blocked. You'll have to climb the barricade. You'll be safe on the other side, and the grooms and I will defend the coach and horses."
"Absolutely not," Elijah said. "I won't leave my men or horses behind. Given the situation on the street behind us, there's likely to be a riot started by this very blockade, if for no other reason. There'll be blood at some point."
"They'll never take down that blockade to let us in," Muffet said.
"They won't—and they can't," Elijah said, examining the complicated maze. It held everything from chairs to dining room tables, all bound together with rope in a haphazard way that looked as if it would take days to untangle.
"Take the horses out of the leads. I'll be damned if I allow them to be lost in whatever riot is about to happen. Pull the carriage over against that building. It'll probably burn, but I don't mind that so much. How many grooms do we have? Two? Send them together. Tell them to climb over that barricade and wait for the horses."
"We can't get the horses through," Muffet protested. "I can defend them, Your Grace. I have my pistols."
"I won't leave you," Elijah said. "And I must be on the king's yacht within the half hour. Take the horses from the coach and we'll get them to the other side."
"You can't mean to jump them!"
"Galileo will have no problem with the barrier, so you'll take him over. I'll go first with Ptolemy."
"It's too dangerous, Your Grace! Neither horse is trained for jumping. What if Ptolemy stumbles?"
"Nonsense," Elijah said. "I don't have time to quibble about it, Muffet. I have to ensure that these horses and yourself are safe, and then get to the yacht before she launches. If Ptolemy makes it over, you should have no problem; Galileo is the stronger horse."
A moment later the coachman returned with both horses. "James grew up in Limehouse," he said, "and he can talk his way through. I've sent him over."
"Your Grace—" Muffet began desperately.
But Elijah was already slicing the leads, cutting them to the length of reins. Then he was swinging up on Ptolemy. "I've an appointment with the duchess," he shouted down at Muffet. "Follow me."
He began backing Ptolemy, to give them enough space to gain speed. He felt like a boy again, riding bareback with Villiers through the meadows behind his estate, leaping anything they could find, turning around, and leaping it again.
Ptolemy was trained to draw a carriage, not be ridden, let alone bareback. He pranced madly, trying to pull his head free. Elijah wound the leads around his right hand and calmed the horse with his left. Once he'd backed as far as he could, he turned the horse's head back toward the barricade. It rose, a tangled maze against the houses, lit by leaping flames.
Ptolemy tried to buck again, but Elijah brought him down. Both horses were beloved and expensive, and he'd be damned if he would sacrifice them to a riot, let alone expose his men to the danger of trying to protect them.
"Steady," he whispered. "Steady."
Then he loosed the reins and Ptolemy leapt forward, obediently dashing straight for the barricade. Elijah judged the distance, accounting for possible defects in his abilities due to the shifting light, reached the exact spot, signaled—
He leapt up, powerful rear legs throwing them into the night air. For a moment it seemed as if the snarled furniture was rushing toward them instead of the other way around; Elijah caught sight of a brass pole sticking out at an angle that could impale a horse's stomach. And then they were clearing the furniture, coming down with a hard jolt, a rush of wind, and a sharp snap of his teeth.
James was there, reaching up for the leads. Elijah tossed him the reins. "Keep them safe," he told the footman, who was quickly pulling Ptolemy out of the way so Muffet and Galileo could join them.
"It'll be no problem, Your Grace," he said, tugging his hat. "There's a mews just two streets over."
"I thought they were blocking a square?"
"Oh no, sir. They'll be barricading all of Limehouse, with a good eight thousand souls inside. Limehouse doesn't welcome strangers. It's known for that. Everyone who lives here knows that it's safe. See, there's the Watch."
Sure enough, London's finest were warming their hands over a fire. "I need to get to the Thames," Elijah told James, just as Muffet landed behind him, Galileo having sailed over the barricade with no problem at all. "I don't have the faintest idea where we are."
James chewed on his lower lip. "You'll have to go out by the barricade at Bramble Street," he said. "I'll give the horses to Muffet, Your Grace."
"You'll never make it without me," James said. "These streets aren't like the ones you're used to, Your Grace. They're scrambled up and people like it better that way. It's not far, but it's messy."
Elijah followed the footman from one knotty little street to another. There was a holiday spirit inside the barricades. The windows were all open, and people spilled out of the narrow tip-tilting houses, singing songs in a cant dialect that Elijah couldn't follow, shouting things to each other. They fell silent when they saw him, but not in a unfriendly way.
For the night, their enemies were not the rich, like himself, but the violent. The riot held everyone's attention, from the old men sitting outside boasting of foregone days and foregone barricades, to the young women frying up sausages in a lively trade.
Elijah had a strange, sudden wish that Jemma was with him. His expensive, delicious duchess would enjoy this strange evening. She would love to be following him through these streets.
The barricade at Bramble Street was a better one than the first. It was intricate but ordered. Men were handing up long pointed objects.
"What the devil are those?" Elijah asked.
"Spears," James said, weaving his way through the excited crowd toward the looming barricade.
"Spears? Spears? "
"They'll have a few guns, but in the dark, spears are a better deterrent. Though no one has attacked a Limehouse barricade in some twenty years. You'd have to be mad to do so," James said. "Stark mad, so most rioters hove off in other directions. It makes the men around here quite disappointed, really. They keep extending the barricade, in the hope that someone will prove foolish."
"How are we going through?"
The footman grinned, his face wild in the leaping firelight, "You'll see," he said.
It wasn't until they were in the shadow of the barricade that Elijah realized that there was, in fact, a small trickle of people making their way through a man-shaped hole in the bottom. "They'll only block the hole when they get word that the riot has started," James said, worming his way through the people. "Make way!" he shouted. "It's a duke here. Make way!"
Elijah felt like a fool, walking through the crowd in his brocade—not to mention his high heels and wig—but that was life as a duke. He'd resigned himself long ago to looking and acting in ways that most men found incomprehensible and that he, in the inner sanctum of his study, often found just as foolish.
He strode along, the heavy silk of his coat swinging around him, and the people fell back, letting him pass.
"We'd best make hurry," James said, almost pushing him through the hole. "They say it'll start soon."
"How on earth do they know?" Elijah asked. He checked his pocket watch. The yacht had taken up anchor. But he couldn't—wouldn't—miss his appointment with Jemma.
"They know," James said. "There's the Thames, Your Grace. I'll just ask one of the mudlarks about a boat. Wait a moment."
Some minutes later Elijah sent James back to guard the horses, in the unlikely event that one of the barricades failed, and he climbed into a rowboat owned by a man with the less than inspiring name of Twiddy.
Even hadn't he known of the Limehouse blockades, he could have guessed that something was afoot in London. Fires burned all over the city: not huge, uncontained fires, but small glowing ones, the kind that crowds of men gathered around to warm their hands, to talk and gossip.
Twiddy was a tired-looking fellow in a ripped coat who seemed to have only half his mouth at his disposal, since the other half was frozen by a nasty scar that split his face in two. "You're wanting the king's big boat," he said now, out of the right side of his mouth.
"Yes," Elijah said. "That is correct."
"Riots'll start any minute," the man said. His face seemed to sneer, though it was perhaps only because the left side was immobile.
Elijah thought of asking whether the authorities had been notified, and dropped the idea. They'd be dunces not to have noticed, even if they weren't officially informed. Oh, by the way, Mr. Constable, sir, there's a riot due to start at ten o'clock tonight.
He would make his way onto the Peregrine, inform the captain of the impending riots, and manage to get the yacht steered to a safe place. Then he would take his wife, bring her safely home, and that would be that. London could—nay, London undoubtedly would—burn, but if he could save Jemma, it would be enough.
That was what his world had shrunk to: from his grand plans for the poor and the disenfranchised, to a desperate desire to be home in bed. With his wife.
Twiddy pulled up his oars. "The yacht's gone toward the Tower of London," he said.
Elijah leaned forward. "The royal yacht?"
"It's down where the hulks are."
"Then make all speed after it."
Twiddy shook his head. "I can't do that, Yer Grace." He bent over and spat into the dark water lapping greasily at the small boat. The only light came from a torch burning at his back, affixed to the prow.
"I will pay you double," Elijah said, realizing the moment the words left his mouth that he'd made a mistake.
Sure enough, the man's face darkened and the immobile left lip pulled savagely down. "I stand to be arrested if I goes near the hulks, and I can't do it. Not for yer gold, not for nothing. I got two daughters at home."
"My wife is on that yacht," Elijah said. "Why will you be arrested?"
He spat again. "I'm demobbed."
A former soldier, Elijah translated. Which explained the damage to his face, but not why he couldn't venture near the hulks.
"Iffen a former soldier even goes near the hulks, they shoot him," Twiddy said. "Because it's me friends on those boats. Me brothers-in-arms. I stood with them, out there, and now they're shut up worse than chickens in a coop. I don't do nothing with the riots."
"The riots are coming from the hulks? Tonight?"
But Twiddy hadn't meant to reveal that, clearly, and his face closed like a trap.
"I must get to that yacht," Elijah said. "I will personally guarantee that you are not thrown in jail. I am the Duke of Beaumont one of the highest in the land. I must get my wife off that ship!"
Twiddy stared at him, the left side of his face twitching slightly.
"I have a large estate in the country. If you wish, I will employ you there, and your children and wife can. come with you."
"Wife's dead," he grunted.
"Then your daughters will be all the better for fresh country air and safety," Elijah said. "You sound like someone raised in the dells. Look about you, man! Is this the place to raise children?"
"Are you askin' me if I choose to raise my girls here?"
Elijah cursed himself silently. For someone with a reputation for a silver tongue, he was certainly awkward tonight. "I'll take you out of this," he said, sitting back. His heart was thumping in his chest, and he didn't want to think about that. "I'll take you to the country and give you decent work for decent pay. But you must get me to that yacht, and get myself and my wife off it."
"How's we to do that? Likely they aren't going to let someone like me draw up alongside the king's yacht. Not on a night like this."
"They don't know," Elijah said. "They don't know about the riots, or they've decided to ignore them."
Twiddy spat again.
Elijah felt like spitting too, but dukes didn't spit, and it was too late in life to start. A second later Twiddy picked up his oars and started silently moving them upstream again. He stuck close to the banks as they turned into the main cleft, clearly unnerved by the great floating prison ships anchored in midstream. There were redcoats on all the decks, Elijah was glad to see. Perhaps they would head off the riots.
They tooled silently along, the drip from the oars drowned out by the frequent howling shouts coming from the shore.
"It's up ahead," Twiddy finally said with a grunt.
Elijah leaned forward, braced on the gunwale, and caught sight of the golden pearl that was the Peregrine. From this distance it seemed to be a glistening dream from a fairy tale, shimmering from the touch of a magic wand. But between them and the yacht floated two broken-down hulks, prisons for men who rotted in chains.
"Most of them don't live the first year," Twiddy said. It was like a curse under his breath.
Elijah had argued against the hulks for years now. "In fact, one-fourth die in the first three years," he said.
Twiddy's oars froze. "You know about them? I thought none of you even thought about them."
"I fought for a bill against using the hulks as prisons. I lost."
"A bill." He spat.
"In the House of Lords."
They drifted slowly past the first ship. The decks were thronged with guards. Clearly they, if not the king, knew about the impending riots, though whether they would be able to stop the conflagration hitting their own boat was debatable. One more ship lay between Elijah and the yacht.
Twiddy was edging along the shore, so close that reeds bent into the rowboat and brushed past Elijah's elaborate coat. "Hist," he said, so quietly that his voice was just another shush from the reeds.
Elijah looked. The last hulk had no redcoats on the deck. It wasn't thronged with marauding prisoners either, though.
"Empty," Elijah breathed.
Twiddy shook his head. His oars came up and Elijah saw that his hands were shaking. Elijah took off his signet ring and handed it to Twiddy. They both stared down at the sapphire; it caught the light of the torch and sent back a flare of blue fire.
"Bring it back to me if we're separated," Elijah said. "Tell them it's my pass if you're caught."
Twiddy's hand closed on the ring and it disappeared into his clothing.
They were almost past the hulk, sliding up to the king's yacht on the far side. Music spilled from the deck and Elijah could see brilliantly colored forms meeting and separating. He watched as a bewigged woman laughed, tilting her head so far back that her tall wig was in danger of toppling.
Twiddy steered to the side of the yacht and threw a rope up to a servant, who reeled it in after a quick look at Elijah. "I'll fetch the duchess," Elijah said. "She'll see it as an adventure. We'll continue on—"
At that moment the yacht lurched, as if a giant hand had lifted it slightly into the air and thrown it back down.
"It's started," Twiddy said with a harsh gasp of air.
The black, silent prison ship, the one that had appeared devoid of life, had broken free of its moorings, struck the Peregrine, and rebounded away.
Elijah gave a mighty heave and pulled himself onto the deck. "Two minutes!" he shouted, looking down at Twiddy. The footman had run off, so he tied the rope from Twiddy's bark to the gold-plated railing and plunged into the throng of screaming nobles.
His heart was pounding and he forced himself to walk rather than run. Where was Jemma? He saw many he knew: one of the royal dukes; Lady Fibble fainting in the arms of her husband; Lord Randulf looking particularly idiotic, with his wig knocked askew.
He had to peer around high piles of white curls, looking for his wife. She might wear roses and jewels in her hair, but never sailing ships or replicas of bridges.
There she was. On the other side of the crowd milling at the railings, waiting calmly. She must believe that there had been a small accident, he thought. But in his gut he knew that the silent, dark prisoners' warship, now coming closer to the yacht, wasn't accidentally drifting in the Thames.
Jemma was at the very end of the line to board the small boats for shore, her eyes searching the deck. Looking for him.
Then he was running toward her, twisting through the crush of people. They were flooding to the railing, which made it easier. The king's servants were lowering boats. He caught sight of His Majesty with a boatful of laughing courtiers, being rowed to shore, and still the hulk drifted closer.
Then he had her, gave her one hard kiss and pulled her back to the railing where Twiddy was waiting. The hulk was almost on the boat again. Noblemen were laughingly filling the boats that had come out from shore to rescue them, paying no attention to the seemingly dead ship.
"Why—Why, Elijah," Jemma said, breathlessly.
He picked her up and dropped her into Twiddy's hands as if she were no more than a load of laundry. Then he vaulted the railing himself and landed in the back of Twiddy's boat. There was no need to give the man orders.
Twiddy had an oar ready to push them away from the yacht. He jammed it back down into the water and threw his whole weight against the current to push them ahead of the two boats as quickly as he could.
"Elijah!" Jemma cried, just as a pistol barked.
"Down!" he shouted, and lunged forward, pushing her into the bottom of the boat and covering her with his body. Twiddy swore under his breath, rowing with all his might and main.
Elijah looked up to see the deck of the hulk thronged with prisoners. Five, or perhaps six, had taken a wild leap onto the deck of the royal yacht. A dilatory nobleman yelled and then fell into the water, making a fine splash. Twiddy gave another great heave, and the span of water between themselves and the yacht grew into a dark well.
Elijah let Jemma sit up. Her hair was tumbling about her shoulders, though she looked as beautiful as ever. The shore was brightly lit now, thronged with the king and his courtiers, with the little boatloads still coming ashore. And on the deck of the Peregrine, convicts waved their pistols and roared their defiance.
Twiddy shook his head and looked away, grunting at the force he put into rowing.
"The prisoners," Jemma breathed.
"You could have been hurt," he said. She was so beautiful. It wasn't her golden hair nor the color of her eyes, nor the lush shape of her bosom. It was the way her lips curled, the way her eyes laughed at him, the slender fingers she held out to him. He took her hand and carefully pulled off her glove. Then he pressed her palm to his lips.
The very touch of that small palm against his lips made his heart beat faster than it had while running, while jumping the horse, while diving into the boat.
"Elijah," she whispered, her eyes still on his.
And then she was in his lap, and Twiddy rowed away up the great River Thames while the Duke of Beaumont kissed his wife.
Jemma looked flushed, happy and excited. More happy than Elijah had seen her look in….. oh….. forever. Perhaps since the early days of their marriage.
They didn't show each other joy, not anymore.
And she wasn't happy merely because they were away from the river, and safe on their way home. He caught her off the seat of the hackney and kissed her just because he could. And because the moment when she melted into his arms, when her arms came around his, wasn't anything he remembered from their awkward beddings years ago.
There was only one thought in his mind, beating through his body with the force of a tidal wave. The minute they entered the house, he would carry her up the stairs. The hell with any servants who might be watching. He would take her straight into his bedchamber.
Finally, after years, he was taking his wife. She was his again. His—
"We hardly know each other," Jemma whispered. She was seated on his lap, her head tucked into the curve of his shoulder.
"I do know you. Your name is Jemma, and you are my wife." And soon I mean to know you in another fashion, he added silently.
"We separated for nine years," she said, looking up at him. "We bungled our marriage before. I don't want to rush into this. It's important."
He bent his head and nipped her lip. "I promise you that I never rush."
She gurgled with laughter at that, and then fell silent again when he took her mouth with all the urgency in his heart. Time was finally on his side, had finally brought them together. It felt more important than life, even than death—
She interrupted that thought. "I've decided that we need to spend more time together. Almost as if we were courting, if that makes sense." He couldn't tell her….. No. He wouldn't tell her.
"I'll woo you," he said, snatching up her fingers for a kiss. A horrifying thought crossed his mind. "Jemma, you're not suggesting that we shouldn't sleep together tonight, are you?" Every muscle in his body froze at the thought.
"No." She said it clearly, meeting his eyes. For all her sophistication, his Jemma was not the sort to banter when the subject was most important.
"Ah." He nuzzled her cheek, letting his voice fall to a seductive timbre. "Where will you be sleeping?"
But two could play at that game. She turned her face, caught his lips, breathed into the secret silence of his mouth. "With you." And then, again, even quieter: "With you."
Her eyes had turned a smoky blue, a color he would gladly look at every day of his life.
His heart stopped for a moment, kept going.
"But I shall woo you, Elijah."
"Women don't woo," he said, not really listening. He was trying to ignore the beating of his heart, as syncopated as the raindrops just beginning to fall on the roof of the carriage.
Her smile sent a flare of heat up his spine. "I have never paid much attention to that sort of rule. I do not need to be wooed, Elijah."
"And I do?"
She nodded. "You do. Could you perhaps take some time for yourself in the next few weeks? Persuade Pitt and the rest of them that the country will survive without your help?"
"I'm won," he said. His voice sounded dark and low. "Consider me wooed and won, Jemma. Please."
She was laughing against his mouth, pulling away. "Not yet."
"I don't have a mistress, Jemma. There's no one to win me from, I promise you."
"It's not that. Though I am glad to hear—"
"Not since you discovered us on my desk," he said, coming out with the somber truth of it. "And no one else either."
Her eyes grew round.
"You see, I decided it was you—or no one." She seemed too stunned to speak. He bit back a smile. "Couldn't we consider me won?"
She cupped his face in her hands. "I'm wooing you because I want it to be different than it was nine years ago. Because you and I, Elijah, we will be together until we're old and gray."
It was one of the great acts of courage in his life to smile at her. "And how does the Duchess of Beaumont woo, when she puts her mind to it?"
"That remains to be seen," Jemma said. "I used to enjoy receiving poetry, but somehow I can't see myself breaking into verse. Perhaps we'll start with chess. We have a game left to play in our match. Don't you remember?"
The carriage was swinging around the corner. They would be home in a moment. Blood thrummed through his body with a dark promise of pleasure.
He forced himself to sound light rather than desperate, laughing rather than lustful. "How could I not? You owe me a last game. I seem to remember that there were a few rules attached to that game."
"We're to play blindfolded," she said. He could hear the faintest tremor of desire in her voice, just the promise of huskiness. But he meant to make her cry aloud with pleasure, grip his shoulders, beg for more.
"Blindfolded and in bed," he said slowly, tracing a pattern on her knee. He felt as if his fingers burned through her skirts, as if he caressed the pale perfection of her thigh instead of just rumpling her gown. "An unusual style of wooing, Jemma. But I like it."
"I believe you'll enjoy my wooing," she said, her voice as smug as a little girl with a pocket full of boiled sweets. "Perhaps I'll let you steal my pawns."
He was too hungry to consider her teasing, even to care about it. The carriage was finally, finally, coming to a halt. He curbed himself, drawing on years of self-control practiced in front of the House of Parliament. Of course he wouldn't throw his wife on a bed and leap on her like a wild dog.
Jemma left the carriage before him, bending down to avoid striking her head on the door. Her bottom swayed for a tantalizing moment in the doorway of the carriage. Even given the absurd panniers she wore, the rounding of silk at her rump made him reckless, drunk with the need to touch her. He was in the grip of a raging passion that threatened to turn him into a man that he didn't recognize.
He didn't recognize her either.
In the flick of an eyelash she lost that edge of sensuality and hunger he saw in the carriage. She greeted Fowle at the top of the steps, looking regal, as if she hadn't just been rescued from a yacht at the very moment of disaster. As if she was as cool and uncaring as any other duchess out for tea.
Elijah took the steps two at a time. Jemma glanced over her shoulder at him as she handed her gloves to a footman. "I was just telling Fowle that Mr. Twiddy will be arriving tomorrow to—"
Since he'd lost his mind, he backed straight into the drawing room, grabbing her wrist and swirling her with him, slamming the door in his butler's face.
"Elijah!" Jemma said, sounding amused. "I assure you that—"
He swooped on her. Took her mouth with all the desperate wish he had to claim her, to make her his. In every sense of the word. Me possessed her mouth, kissed her savagely, with all the fear he felt when he saw her on the Peregrine, standing there unprotected, without him. Anything could have happened to her. Anything.
"You're mine." His voice had nothing in common with a statesman's even tenor. It was deep, savage, knowing.
He took her mouth again, stealing her words, telling her silently that she had no choice, that he would be the one to pleasure her, that the danger they had just gone through was only a shadow of what would happen if she ever tried to push him away.
"I let you go, years ago," he said.
"Yes," she gasped. Her voice had a breathy catch in it, an echo of desire that reverberated deep in his body.
"I will never let you go again." His voice grated with the truth of it.
She looked shocked. He didn't give a damn. Then she started smiling, and something deep inside his heart relaxed. That was a wicked smile. There was anticipation there…..
"You can woo me tomorrow," he said, voice guttural, unrecognizable. "Tonight is another kind of event altogether."
She had been shocked but was recovering herself now. "So no chess?" Her pout said that she knew precisely what her deep bottom lip did to him.
"Jemma." He said it low and soft. His heart was dancing a wayward rhythm, and urgency gave his voice an edge.
"I must take a bath!" she said, laughing. He had her backed against the door, hunkering over her like a great beast.
"Indeed, Elijah, I must insist. I have been thrown into a boat and splashed with river water. I am….." She paused and gestured with mock horror. "….. not myself." Vulnerability glimmered deep in those beautiful eyes of hers.
"You'd be beautiful to me if you were bathed in mud," he said. "Let's call for the bath and I'll act as your maid."
Even in the dark, with no light other than that filtering through the windows, he could see a stain of color in her cheeks. "I bathe alone, always."
He bent closer. "After tonight I shall know every nook and cranny of your body, Jemma." His voice roughened. "Bathing will just hasten the process."
"You have a great deal of confidence in yourself," she said, looking a bit uncertain, not like the arrogant duchess who had ruled Paris with her wit and beauty.
He smiled. "You see? You're getting to know me better already. There's no need for a courtship between us."
But his wife was no malleable young miss. She pulled back. "I will welcome you in my bedchamber in one hour, duke."
He couldn't protest again. They weren't children. His Jemma might have taken a lover or two in Paris during the years they were apart, but clearly she had granted the poor Frenchmen no real intimacies.
So he kissed her again. With all the knowledge he had that she was the only woman for him, that she'd been so for years.
With the knowledge that time was not his friend, and that if she took too long to woo him, he wouldn't be there for their last kiss.
Jemma found it hard to formulate sentences, though luckily her maids were so excited about the riots that they didn't notice in the midst of their chatter.
One moment she was starkly terrified, and the next moment her whole body flushed with heat. It felt as if she faced a slide into some sort of delicious madness, a kind of wild state in which one had no concern for what others thought. She had an idea that Elijah was already there. Thinking of Fowle's startled face when Elijah slammed the door almost made her laugh aloud.
She was still in her bath when she heard a discreet knock. Brigitte bustled back into the room a moment later, her eyes shining. "We should finish your bath, Your Grace. The duke is requesting that you join him for a light supper in his bedchamber. The meal is already served and he has dismissed his valet for the night."
Brigitte's voice betrayed her excitement. For a second all three maids froze, and then rushed into chatter about inconsequentials. Jemma rose and allowed herself to be toweled off. How strange it was that four women would all understand exactly what was to happen tonight and still say nothing of it.
The maids knew, of course, that she and Elijah had not slept together for years. They likely knew that she had returned from Paris due to the duchy's need for an heir; they almost certainly knew that she had a foolish infatuation for her husband.
Brigitte drew a nightgown from the wardrobe and held it up for approval. She had chosen Jemma's most extravagant, most French, most utterly delicious garment. It was made of a rosy silk so thin as to be translucent. The neck fell very low, and was embroidered with a thick tangle of red roses that called attention to her breasts.
She nodded, and Brigitte slipped the gown over her head. It followed the curves of her body and then flounced into a tiny train at her feet.
"I'll put roses in your hair," Mariette said, wielding a hairbrush like a sword.
"That seems rather elaborate," Jemma said.
"Just a rose or two." The maid smiled with a Frenchwoman's suggestive charm. "Nothing more than a little one tucked here or there."
Jemma looked in the glass and felt, not for the first time in her life, a bone-deep gratitude for her beauty. As an intelligent person, she had never allowed herself to fall into the trap of thinking that beauty made her a person of greater worth.
But if one had to face appallingly frightening—and yet exciting—events, it helped to be beautiful. It gave one backbone. Her hair fell in lazy honey-colored waves down her back, and the little roses gave her the look of a wanton matron prancing off to some sort of pagan holiday. The kind that involved spring woods and satyrs, Jemma thought, seeing the pink high in her cheeks.
"Quite nice," Brigitte said, coming forward again. "A patch, perhaps? Just one?"
"I am preparing for bed, not a ball," Jemma protested.
But Brigitte wasn't listening. "Just there," she murmured, pressing a small velvet patch just above the corner of Jemma's mouth. "The bisous—the kissing patch. And a touch of lip color."
Jemma reached for her favorite pot of color, but Brigitte presented her with another. "More rose than crimson this evening, Your Grace."
It truly was a strange life, one in which her maids dictated the color of her lips and the flowers in her hair. She turned and gave them a huge smile. There was no need to speak, after all. They were servants and friends, and in their eyes she read the hope that her evening would be a pleasurable one.
"I suppose," she said, "that I should join His Grace before our meal cools. You may all retire for the night."
They curtsied and left, unspoken encouragement floating in the air behind them.
Jemma took a deep breath. Now it came down to herself and Elijah. Their marriage had been an embittering, desolate thing so far. But it had changed—and they had changed. The night could be one of joy.
And tenderness. She had learned in their years apart that while pleasure was desirable, tenderness was far more rare, and far more valuable.
She straightened her shoulders and opened the door to her bedchamber.
Elijah came awake all of a sudden. He always did. The slide into unconsciousness was like drifting into darkness. Generally when he woke after one of these spells, it was to find himself staring into the frightened face of someone who thought he was dead. That was a bracing sensation.
Then he would find his heart beating wildly in his chest, trying, one had to assume, to catch its rhythm again, keep itself going.
When he had fainted in front of the House of Lords, he had woken to find a shocked Lord Cumberland shaking him. The Duke of Villiers had actually slapped him on finding him in the library. Once he awoke in an armchair to find Fowle shouting in his ear. The butler had backed away, dull red rising in his cheeks.
But this was the worst.
Jemma's face was utterly drained of color. Her fingers, wrapped around his wrists, were trembling.
"I'm so sorry," he said, after a moment.
"Oh my God." Her voice wobbled like a child's. "Please, tell me this is a bad dream."
He managed a smile.
"It's your heart," she said. "Your heart….. your heart is faltering, just as your father's did."
"I'm not dead, Jemma. I'm almost accustomed to these spells now. I could live for years like this, fainting occasionally."
He lifted his hands, and her fingers fell from his wrists. She was kneeling by his chair, just where she must have thrown herself. Elijah put a hand on her hair and a small rose tumbled into his lap. Like the roses one throws into the grave at funerals, he thought with a wrenching twist of self-pity.
She still hadn't moved. "Oh God, Elijah, this can't be happening."
"I didn't know how to tell you." Her hair was warm, thick and springy against his fingers.
"How long have you known?"
"Since I fainted in the House last year."
He wrapped a hand behind her neck and gently pulled her toward him. "Come."
"Don't exert yourself!" she cried, terrified.
"There's no need to fear that. The attack is over." He reached down and scooped her up, setting back with his wife curled into his lap.
"I can't believe it!" she said a moment later. "I won't believe it. You're so young and we were going to have children and grow old together."
He put his cheek against her hair. "Life should not be measured by time. The only thing that counts is how one uses the time one has."
"You knew before last year, before you summoned me home from Paris, didn't you?" she asked suddenly. She was shivering in his arms as if a frigid wind were blowing through the room.
"My father died at thirty-four. I'd have been a fool not to question my ability to live much over that date."
"When did you understand that?"
"When I was eight years old."
"No, no." She was moaning it, her hands clutching his shirt.
"It drove me," he said. "It was a passion, to make sure that my life came to something."
"Because your father's didn't."
"He had no time. I hated him for a while. But then I realized that he hadn't my advantage. He had no idea. He was young; he might have proved himself a man had he lived another forty years."
"Life allowed him to be foolish. Oh, Elijah, you never had the chance to be foolish. I'm just so—so sorry."
They were silent a moment. Jemma's eyes were dry, and fierce, like those of a mother hawk. "If you die before me….. Well, whenever you get to where you're going, Elijah, you sit down and wait for me."
He laughed at that. "What do you envision? A bridge?"
"I'm thoroughly unimaginative. But I want to find you waiting for me."
"I will wait for you," he said, kissing her again.
She swallowed. "Does it hurt?"
"You mean, when I fall asleep?"
"That was no sleep," she said. "But yes."
"Not at all. It generally happens when I sit down. It's as if the darkness just gathers itself up and comes over me. There's just a little pain when I wake up, that's all."
"It works hard to bring me back. And it does bring me back, Jemma. In that sense, the attacks are no worse than they were a year ago: I wake up every time."
"Don't be so brave," she said, her hands moving quickly. "I can't bear it; I can't bear it."
He put a hand on her cheek but didn't know what to say. Words came to him easily when he was in front of the House of Lords. But he became tongue-tied at the most important moments of his life, and all of those were with his wife.
"There's nothing to be done, Jemma. I shall just live until I can't anymore. People die unexpectedly every hour." Unfortunately, his attacks were always followed by a headache, and he could feel its iron grip tightening.
"I don't believe you when you say it doesn't hurt, Elijah. Your eyes are tight."
"I have a headache. Fowle has something for it."
She was up in a flash, ringing the bell for his valet. "Fowle knows?"
"I meant to tell you. Eventually."
"And Vickery didn't tell me!"
"I wouldn't allow it. Villiers."
"You told Villiers and not—"
"No. He found me one day, in the library." Elijah stood with some difficulty, given that his head felt as if it were a blacksmith's anvil, pounded by blows from a sledgehammer.
"Sit down," Jemma said. She came back and pushed him a little. "You shouldn't be up."
"Physical exertion is necessary," Elijah told her, brushing her mouth with his. "I have lived past my father's life span because I am fit."
"How you know when an attack is likely to happen?"
"I have begun to entertain the idea that they result from moments of sudden, great exertion. The time I fainted in the House, for example, I felt passionately angry about my subject. And this evening, when I saw you on the yacht, I was so alarmed that my heart lost its rhythm."
"You must stop being so exhausted." Her eyes brightened. "You could stay in bed!"
Elijah smiled wryly. "That's not a cure, but a prison. The attacks don't happen constantly, Jemma. I likely won't have another one for a week." He rolled his head from side to side, trying to ease the pressure that clamped his forehead. "I've found that taking exercise is very helpful. If my heart begins to beat irregularly, I can head off an attack by going for a ride. Forcing my heart into a regular rhythm helps it remember the correct pattern."
He looked down at her. "I have every belief that marital intimacy will achieve precisely the same effect."
But she just scowled at him. "Have you seen a doctor?"
"There's no point to that."
"I don't agree!" she said hotly!
"No one's found a cure for a broken heart," he said. "Not in any sense of the word."
She did cry then, and he found himself cursing his heart, not for the fact that it was broken, but for its ability to break other hearts.
Jemma rose the next morning with the emptiness that follows grief. The night before, she had forced Elijah to drink a posset, and then left. She had returned to her room, plucked a few wilted roses from her hair, washed her face, changed into a nice cotton nightdress—and cried for hours.
Not that crying did any good. She came to only one conclusion: Elijah must leave his work with Pitt. The unremitting work and frantic pace could not be good for his health.
Likely Elijah was right in his assessment that he wasn't going to die today or tomorrow. But if he dropped the frenzied pace and the extraordinary hours of work generated by the House of Lords, he might be alive in a year. Or five years. Or…..
She dressed carefully, avoiding Brigitte's eyes. The household knew of their master's heart problem now, of course. There was a distressed silence perceptible in the very air.
Elijah wasn't in the breakfast room. When Fowle announced that His Grace had been summoned to an emergency meeting at the chief magistrate's office, Jemma felt rage swell into that empty place in her heart.
"Did the duke leave a note?" she asked, and knew the answer already, of course.
Fowle cleared his throat. "Since the messenger came at dawn, His Grace merely asked me to give you his most sincere apologies."
Elijah was killing himself. And for what? So the government of England would run more smoothly for one day, or even a week?
"He was not entirely certain what time he would be able to return," Fowle continued, laying a carefully ironed copy of the Morning Post before her.
It was absurd to feel this angry at Elijah. And yet—how could he simply leave without a word, after what had happened last night? What if he died during the day? Would he leave her without a kiss, without a word? Realizing that thought would just lead to tears, she cut it off.
"My husband said he wouldn't be home for the evening meal, didn't he, Fowle?" she asked, hearing the peculiar deadness of her own voice.
"I'm afraid that His Grace did indicate the possibility that he would not return until late tonight," Fowle replied, jumping straight to another subject with the adroitness of an experienced butler. "The duke left instructions with me about sending Mr. Twiddy to Swallowhill, should that person present himself today. The butler at Swallowhill has told me of the difficulty he has retaining garden laborers. I am sure he will be grateful for the help."
So Elijah had not forgotten Twiddy, though he appeared to have forgotten his wife. Anger burned in Jemma's chest.
The butler put down another paper. "I have also the Morning Chronicle, Your Grace. They are comparing the riots to the Gordon Riots four years ago. Though thank the Lord, there were fewer casualties and the Clink is unharmed."
Elijah had looked so exhausted last night. He was utterly delectable even tired, of course. His dark eyebrows and dark eyes emphasized his cheekbones, giving him the raw beauty of a marble statue of a Roman statesman. Or perhaps it was the expression in his eyes: all that serious passion in the service of good had chiseled his face.
If he had been in the room, Jemma would have screamed at him like a common fishwife.
Couldn't he be selfish for once? He must give up his seat in the House of Lords. Corbin was right, though for the wrong reasons. Elijah needed to enjoy himself, rather than get up at dawn and leave for pressured meetings about riots and floating prisons.
She stared blindly down at the paper, reading one sentence over and over again. It was the beginning of a piece about a hoax carried out near St. Paul's Cathedral. Convinced that the devil had taken up residence in his sitting room,. Mr. Bartlebee gave a conjurer a gold chain to exorcise the unwanted guest, she read. And then read it again.
And then finally moved on to the next sentence. Mr. Bartlebee's son Jeremy was equally convinced of the devils presence…..
How could they have children now? When Elijah was a child he had had white-blond curls, which implied that their children might have had the same. A darling young boy with Elijah's beauty and his serious eyes drifted in her mind's eye. Her throat tightened and she turned back to her buttered toast.
There was nothing she could do—nothing. The knowledge was bitter in the back of her throat. Even the idea of playing chess felt horrible, like fiddling as Rome burned. She was desperate to find a plan, something she could do to help.
The only thing she could come up with was paltry indeed. If her husband didn't have very long to live, then it was up to her to make certain that he enjoyed every moment. That meant following Corbin's plan. Wooing Elijah. Winning him from another woman. Or was Elijah supposed to win her from another man?
She found herself staring at the account in the paper again. Given the lingering smell of sulfur, the constable asserted that a devil of some sort had paid a call to the sitting room.
She could not flirt with another man merely so Elijah could win her. The falseness of it curdled in her stomach. Even if he had cheerfully jaunted off to work, without even bothering to leave her a note, she could not flirt with someone merely for fun. Surely she could orchestrate a seduction—or an attempted seduction—of Elijah. There was only the matter of determining her rival. He knew all the English ladies of her acquaintance, and anyway, they were—
She froze, the toast halfway to her mouth.
For the eight years that she lived in Paris, she had had one great rival, the Marquise de Perthuis. Their sparring matches were known throughout the city.
They compted against each other in fashion, in dress, and in manner. They excelled at insulting each other under the mask of an apparent insult.
The marquise was now in England, and Elijah hardly knew her. Louise was consummately witty, but not so beautiful that she made Jemma's liver curl. The question was only how to drive the marquise to Elijah's side.
It wasn't an easy proposition. The marquise cherished her milk-white reputation. Jemma knew it wasn't for the sake of virtue itself; Louise was so besotted by her loose fish of a husband that she doubted that she'd ever even looked at another man.
The only way Louise would dance to her tune would be out of rage. That posed a challenge: to convince the marquise to attempt a seduction of Elijah, without that lady having the faintest idea of her intentions. It would be a fiendishly difficult task. Machiavellian, really.
Jemma finished her toast, forcing herself to read the paper's account of the prisoners' riot. Before recapture, the prisoners had burned a number of houses, though they were barred from a large area of the city due to the forethought of the citizens, who had defended themselves by erecting impenetrable barriers.
The Morning Post issued a challenge to the mayor of London and to Pitt's cabinet: How had it come to pass that common citizens had to defend themselves, using brooms and trash cans? Why wasn't the Queen's Royal Regiment called in to quell the violence of these criminals?
Jemma couldn't bear to read any longer. It just made her think of the speeches Elijah would undoubtedly be called upon to make in the House. She threw the paper aside and rose.
"I must be at my most elegant," she told Brigitte a moment later. "I shall go to visit the marquise. I caught a glimpse of her on the king's yacht last night, so I know that she is currently in London."
Brigitte's eyes widened and she set to work with the concentrated fervor of a lady's maid whose work would be judged by the best—her rival femme de chambre. A few hours later Jemma tripped into the marquise's drawing room, fit to dine with Queen Marie Antoinette herself.
She was wearing, unusually for her, a wig. Unlike the rather tatty and (she felt) dirty wigs that she commonly saw in ballrooms, hers was made of white curls so delicate that they shone like spun sugar in the morning sunlight. They rose to an exuberant height, but rather than supporting an entire birdcage with its songbird or anything of that ridiculous nature, Mariette had simply tucked a few pale blossoms among the curls.
With it she wore an exquisite morning gown of the same pink as the blossoms, the skirts caught back to show a deeper, rosy underskirt with a border of amber gold. The piece de resistance, to Jemma's mind, was her shoes: delicate high-heeled slippers in rose-colored silk, with tiny gold buckles.
She had been seated a mere twenty minutes before the marquise appeared. Jemma rose, dropping into a short curtsy. It was a signal honor, indicating that she was overlooking their difference in rank. The marquise fell into a deeper curtsy, the sort that recognized the delicate compliment Jemma had just given her, and topped it with an expression of deep respect.
Finally they managed to seat themselves, on opposing sofas, naturally, given the width of their skirts.
The marquise was even more elegantly attired than was Jemma. As a matter of course, the marquise never wore any colors other than black and white, a rather eccentric notion that complemented her dark eyes and hair. This morning her gown was white and embroidered with elaborate swirls of black silk.
Jemma thought about that costume while they went through the motions of drinking tea and chatting about the riots. Hadn't Elijah once said that the marquise looked like a chessboard?
"How do you find yourself?" Jemma asked, watching the marquise over the edge of her teacup. "The last time I saw you, you were on your way to Lincolnshire….." She allowed her voice to trail off in a tactful invitation.
The marquise's eyebrows drew together. "I did locate my husband, or at least where he had been. There was a village where he stayed with this—this putain that he followed to England. I made my footmen inquire."
The pained edge to her voice made her humiliation clear. "Apparently he and the woman were together, and then he suddenly left. She stayed a mere day or two longer—"
"At least they are no longer together!" Jemma exclaimed. "He left her."
"Yes." Louise's tone lightened. "The villagers were very clear about that. Henri simply left. He must have been desperate to get away from her; there was some talk that he discarded his clothing in the inn where they were staying, though I don't hold with that notion. Henri is not the sort to travel without proper accoutrements. I expect he went back to France."
She picked up a lemon tart. "I found it hard to believe that he ever left France for this woman, even in the throes of the deep love he felt." She spat the last sentence.
"Will you follow him across the Channel directly?" Jemma enquired.
"Absolutely not," the marquise said. "Can you imagine? He might think that I pursued him to England because of some anxiety about his degenerate activities." She magnificently ignored the fact that she had followed her husband for just that reason. Instead she gave a careless shrug. "I couldn't be less concerned about what he does, and he is perfectly aware of that fact. I shall stay here for as long as I please. London is an enchanting place, of course."
Jemma translated that statement into a declaration that Louise would stay in London just as long as necessary to assure that her husband dared not question her presence in this country.
It was time for an insult, one ruthless enough to send Louise directly into a towering fury. Jemma shook open her fan and held it so that it covered the lower part of her face, as if she were preparing to say the unsayable. Fans were so useful to the art of the insult. She pitched her voice low and confidential. "My dear marquise, if you'd ever like some guidance in the art of husbands, you need not do more than ask."
Louise narrowed her eyes. "Advice of what sort, dear duchess?"
"It's a mere suggestion," Jemma said. "But have you considered altering your—" She waved her hand as if she couldn't even think of the word.
"We must be frank between ourselves, must we not?" Jemma said, lowering her fan to chin level to bestow a lavish smile. "I mean, of course, between close friends like ourselves."
"Naturellement," the marquise said, every inch of her rigid body showing just how much she disliked frankness.
"You wear the most sophisticated costumes in the French court. Your ensemble is only equaled by that of Marie Antoinette herself. Your face is always exquisite, your—"
"Exactly so." Coldness sliced through Louise's words.
"And yet." Jemma sighed. "One cannot ignore the fact that you look….. oh just slightly….. like a chessboard, dearest marquise. What man wants to sleep with a chessboard? You do not dress like a woman who wants to seduce, but like a woman who wants to impress. To be noticed." Then she added, as a kindly afterthought, "Though you are, of course, a most beautiful woman."
Louise appeared to be grinding her teeth.
"My husband never strays," Jemma said, closing her fan. "And why is that, Marquise? Why is that?"
"It certainly isn't because you yourself have remained chaste," the marquise said flatly.
"Alas, that is so true," Jemma said. "So, so, so true. And yet my dearest Elijah never wandered during all the years I lived in France, never even looked at another woman. I wish for nothing more than for you to have the same happiness." Her smile was guaranteed to scrape the marquise's nerves like the squeal of rats in an alley. "Dear friends should always look out for each other's best interests."
"So you believe that Henri took this woman to Lincolnshire because he dislikes my elegance?" One had to admire the marquise's command over her voice. She conveyed withering scorn with nothing more than a shading of tone.
It was time to move in for the kill. "My husband," Jemma said, "never, but never, looks at another woman. And why is that, my dear marquise? It is not only because my clothing is perhaps, shall we say, just slightly more graceful than your dogged wearing of black and white, but also because I do not wear my heart on my sleeve."
Little white marks had appeared on either side of Louise's nose. "This English term….. I do not know it. Where is my heart?"
"Out for everyone to see. You never flirt. You stay to the side of a ballroom and gaze at Henri with your heart in your eyes. You—"
"So now my heart is in my eyes?"
"Of course, most people do feel sympathy, though there are always the unkind who mock. You might try to seem a bit indifferent, my dear. A passion so flamboyant is bound to garner pity."
"Ah," the marquise said. "Pity."
"Elijah never looks at another woman," Jemma repeated, a bit worried about whether she was overdoing it.
But the marquise's nails had curled in such a way that strips of delicate paper shredded off her fan.
"I know!" Jemma said, sitting up as if suddenly inspired. "You might strive to create a bit of a scandal here in England. Something that would cause a rumor to fly home to Paris, convincing your husband that he is not the only one to enjoy himself with matters of the heart."
Louise gave a savage little laugh. "You don't think that I should have trouble finding someone willing to overlook my chessboard?"
"Oh, no, no, no," Jemma cried. "You mustn't take me too literally. When you say chessboard, it truly sounds as if I meant you were flat in the bodice, and of course I would never say such a thing! I have no doubt but that many men are delighted with a, shall we say, more modest offering." Her eyes gently slid away from the marquise's entirely adequate bosom, as if she were excusing a serious flaw.
She continued, "Of course, women can be so cruel to each other. Why, the other day a bumbling lady of my acquaintance referred to you in the most disparaging terms—she is really hopelessly ill-bred—oh yes, I believe she mentioned a bird. Could it have been a crow?" She gave a shrug. "At any rate, I defended you. I told her that you were the only woman I considered to have the wit and charm to rival the great courtesans."
Louise drew in a sharp breath.
"I mean that as the greatest compliment," Jemma added. "You could have any man you wished. If you put your mind to it."
She paused. "Other than my dear Elijah, of course. He is so very devoted."
"I don't care for English men," the marquise said, chomping down on a lemon tart. "For the most part they are quite brutish in their manners. Their bows are too unformed, too unrefined." She waved her hand in the air. "They lack that sense of elegance that characterizes the French court. The beauty of the French poise and discretion."
"While your point about elegance is absolutely fair, some Englishmen have a kind of masculine beanie that I find appealing," Jemma said. "I have always thought that my husband, the Duke of Beaumont, looks rather like Gerard de Ridefort, but with less affectation. And you know that Marie Antoinette herself called de Ridefort the most beautiful man in Paris."
"Your husband," Louise said broodingly. "Dear me, I remember the strangest rumor. But I am sure it is no more than that." She opened her fan and waved it just below her eyes.
Jemma shrugged again. "Any scandal that involves the duke is surely untrue."
"I know!" the marquise cried. " 'Twas the reason why you moved to France, all those years ago. The foolish man declared himself in love with someone else."
"His mistress," Jemma said, her tone pitched to perfect indifference.
"But what an excellent decision you made to come to Paris. I remember the first year when you arrived; you had no poise, none of the charm that comes with sophisticated taste. And now look at you!" Louise raised an eyebrow. "So much older, and yet still with that sprightly, artless mode of dressing."
"I learned so much in Versailles," Jemma said. "Why, you have no idea how innocent I was. I truly believed that the duke loved his mistress. I can hardly believe that I was so foolish as to flee to another country over a matter as paltry as a husband's lover!"
The marquise took a moment to compose herself. "Dear me, all that agitation for a mistress," she said, fluttering her damaged fan vigorously.
"I was very young."
"How fortunate that you retain your memory. So many people find it difficult to think back over that many years."
"Of course, I am very possessive," Jemma added. "What is mine, is mine. I would naturally consider it the worst of insults if a woman dared to approach my husband. Even though my husband merely thought he loved his mistress, I could hardly contain my anger. Very childish of me, I know. In Paris I learned that the way to my husband's heart was to ignore his unrefined behavior."
The marquise picked up her third tart. "I consider mistresses to be part of a man's world, a necessary adjunct, as it were. They parade and trade them the way women might trade fans. They are necessary to their sense of—I don't know the word in English—amour propre?"
"Their sense of vanity," Jemma translated. "Yes, I suppose you are right. But I was young and rash, and so I fled to France. Luckily, Elijah quickly learned his lesson. His eyes never stray to other women. I credit that to the fact I went to France and had a few dalliances of my own. He learned that what is sauce for the gander is even better for the goose."
"I fail to see how your dissipated behavior turned him into a saint," Louise said acidly.
"Ah, well," Jemma said. "Just think, Marquise. Your husband has never had to worry that your affections . were caught by another man, one who would be a worthy competitor to himself. No, he is free to stray about, to fall in love, to act as foolishly as he wishes—confident that you will be at home waiting for him."
The marquise chewed her tart rather savagely. "I would never lower myself to his level!"
"I expect you have never met a man whom you considered his equal," Jemma said soothingly. "I myself am so fastidious about a man's appearance that I could not countenance your husband's adorable way of finishing every scrap of food that strays onto his plate. He has such an appetite! It's admirable in a man, of course," she added unconvincingly.
"Do you dare to suggest that Henri is fat?" Louise enquired.
"Of course not, of course not!" Jemma said. "Why, a man his age should have a belly. It shows gravity of purpose. Seriousness. That sort of thing. Please do continue to eat, Marquise. I myself never eat sweet things in the morning."
They both looked down at the plate. "Dear me!" Jemma said. "I hadn't even noticed they were all gone. At any rate, as we were saying, I do admire your husband. He's so modest….. of course, he has much to be modest about."
There was a rigidity about the marquise's jaw that suggested to Jemma that perhaps she should stop before a plate broke over her head.
She sprang to her feet. "What a lovely conversation this has been. I would give you the name of my mantua maker, but I never share her address, even with my very closest friends. She's by far the best in London, and if I pay her three times the price, she plucks gowns literally out of the air. I've had a gown made for the following day!"
Louise managed a good show of indifference. Of course, half of London knew that Jemma frequented the establishment of Madame Montesquieu, on Bond Street.
"I do hope to meet you again soon, Marquise," Jemma said blithely. "We go to Vauxhall tomorrow night….. well, I believe I've never seen you there. Do you not care for it?"
"In fact, I had long planned to pay it a visit," the marquise said. "Does one not wear a domino there?"
"Then no one would note my odious clothing," Louise said with a marked snap. "I look forward to it."
Rather than curtsy, Jemma delivered the coup de grace. She held out her hand to be kissed.
Of course Louise bent her head over her hand with utmost grace. But her eyes swore revenge. Jemma left smiling.
She couldn't control everything. She couldn't control her husband's erratic heart. Elijah was important to the government and she was important to no one.
But she had her own rather particular skills.
On the way back from the marquise's house, Jemma remembered that she had one problem left to solve in Francesch Vicent's 200 Chess Problems. She handed her pelisse to Fowle and headed directly for the library and her chessboard.
"Your Grace," the butler said. "You have callers."
But Jemma was already living inside the game. "I can't talk now, Fowle. I'll just be in the library for a bit."
"Your gloves," the butler said, a wry smile in his eyes.
"Oh," Jemma said, pulling them off.
"The Duke of Villiers awaits," Fowle said, to her back.
She turned about, feeling a pulse of extreme annoyance. "Villiers is here? What on earth is he doing here?"
"The duke paid you a call," Fowle said. "Since the drawing room had a number of ladies waiting in it—and they are still there—he requested to be placed in the library. In front of the chess set."
"Ah," Jemma said, smiling. "I think those callers had better take themselves off, Fowle." She paused for a moment. "Do they know of Villiers's visit?"
"I believe not."
"Excellent!" She turned to the library. "I am suffering from a terrible headache, Fowle. Do give my apologies to all my visitors. And you might bring a light luncheon in an hour or so."
As she walked into the room, the Duke of Villiers rose from the chessboard. Villiers was an odd mix of fashionable and its opposite. He disdained the mania for wigs, wearing his hair tied back in a ribbon, unpowdered of course. And yet he dressed as magnificently as she did.
In some ways, Villiers was the opposite of Elijah. He had none of Elijah's startling beauty: his face was too rough to be courtly, and his eyes too cold to be alluring. He cared nothing for the world's opinion, let alone its salvation. He had never taken up his seat in the House of Lords; as far as Jemma knew, his sole passion was the one she shared: chess.
Jemma actually felt a pulse of envy at the sight of his coat, an emotion rarely inspired by men's attire.
"You've outdone yourself, Villiers," she said, by way of greeting. "Cream silk with interlocking chains in cherry embroidery. I've never heard of such a coat. No, I've never dreamed of such a coat."
Villiers fell into a bow as magnificent as his garment. "I dreamed of it, though my tailor complained. It seems he feared I might become besmirched by dirt or spotted by rain."
She laughed. "Rain would not dare spot His Grace, the Duke of Villiers?"
"Dirt is something that happens to others," he said, with that wicked laughter in his eyes. "Like sin and bankruptcy."
"Alas, if you hope to avoid the blemish of sin," Jemma said, sitting down before the chessboard, "I am not the one to give you an education."
"But that is one of the things I love about you," he said amiably. "The only thing I am certain about is the art of dress. Since you dress exquisitely on your own, I need not bother with advice. I do like your wig this morning."
"Delicious," Jemma agreed. She was wondering whether to speak to him of Elijah's heart. Better not. She might cry, a truly horrific thought.
She began swiftly rearranging the chess pieces. "The last time I spoke to you, Villiers, you flatly refused to play with me. I hope that your current position opposite me indicates that you have revoked your ban on the game?"
"Your husband tells me that you have decided to forfeit the final game in our match," he said, sighing.
Jemma looked up quickly. "You discussed our match with Elijah?"
"The final game was to be blindfolded and in bed," he said mournfully. "How it pains me to give up the prospect. You can have no idea."
"But I am throwing the match! You win. Surely that makes you just as happy as being blindfolded."
"To my astonishment, I find it does not," he said, looking faintly surprised.
"In that case, I will give you the pleasure of playing a game," she said, promptly putting the pieces in order. "You may be White, as it agrees with your coat."
"My coat is the color of rich cream," he said with a delicate shudder. "Not White. I abhor white silk, and satin of that hue is even worse. It reminds me of angels. Saints. That sort of thing."
"I don't see anything wrong with angels," Jemma observed. "I've always liked the idea of feathery wings, though perhaps not halos. They sound like a particularly awkward kind of bonnet."
"Then you will like the reason I've come to see you," Villiers said, moving a pawn forward. "I am considering a bid for a halo of my own."
"I'm shocked," Jemma murmured. They played for a moment in silence. Villiers brought forward a rook and she challenged one of his pawns with her bishop.
"I have a problem," Villiers said, not even pausing before he brought a knight into the contest.
Jemma raised an eyebrow. "You, the Great Villiers, has that most plebeian of all human conditions—a problem?"
He sighed. "It's a particularly tedious conundrum, or I wouldn't bring it up."
"They all are. Although I was of the opinion that unmarried men with no encumbrances had the fewest problems of any."
"Alas, I seem to have acquired a few encumbrances, though, as yet, no wife," Villiers said thoughtfully. "I have fallen into respectability without noticing."
"Fallen?" Jemma said with a chortle. "Given those illegitimate children of yours, you should boast of the opposite."
"Vulgar," he said. "Unworthy of you."
Jemma grinned at him. "I find vulgarity so refreshing. From what I understand, children are a problem. Though surely the illegitimate type, tucked away out of sight and mind, cannot present very many problems?"
My thought exactly. His long fingers played with the pawn she had just knocked from the board.
"If you remember, while I was very ill following my regrettable duel last year, I made a promise about my children."
"The deathbed promise! Oh, the very worst kind."
"Adding unkindness to vulgarity," he said with mock severity.
"Precisely," she said. "To whom did you make that promise, anyway? I don't remember hearing that any church folk were tenderly waiting by your bedside."
"It was to Miss Charlotte Tatlock."
Jemma made a face before she could stop herself. "No Puritan. Miss Learned Fetlock."
"The same one who spent too much time adoring your husband," he confirmed. "I asked her to marry me, you know."
"I am glad she didn't accept you," Jemma said with satisfaction.
"Who said she didn't accept me?"
"At my Twelfth Night ball I walked into my own sitting room to find her passionately clasped in the embrace of your heir. She wasn't nearly interesting enough to kiss him and marry you."
"Then why did you fret about whether she would be successful in pursuit of your husband?"
"I wasn't fretting. I would never do something as bourgeois as fret."
"You were fretting," Villiers said. "Eyeing poor Elijah the way a rat eyes cheese. A true dog in the manger, in fact. 'I don't care to have him, but no one else can either.' "
"Let's go back to your problems," Jemma said, taking his rook.
"As it happens, I received a missive this morning informing me that my heir has irresponsibly and inappropriately married Miss Tatlock by special license."
"Very romantic," Jemma said.
"Your tone is distinctly unkind. Unsympathetic, in truth. Do you know that is the second of my fiancees to marry by special license?"
"My brother's wife and now Miss Tatlock. Tut tut, Villiers. Is that the problem you wish me to solve? Finding you a fiancee who will actually stay with you, rather than dash off with a swashbuckling passerby?"
"There's no need to enjoy my plight quite so much," Villiers said, moving a pawn forward. "And no, I don't care for a wife. I have other pursuits in mind."
Jemma caught her breath. He looked up at her, his hand still holding the chess piece, and there was no mistaking which pursuit he was thinking of. All of a sudden her laughing friend was gone; his eyes were smoldering. She raced into speech. "Your problem? What is it?"
He didn't speak for a moment, letting her know that he saw her flimsy evasion. She couldn't help it; the flicker of amusement—and recognition of desire—in his eyes made the corners of her mouth curl into a smile. But there was nothing in her smile that betrayed Elijah. Nothing.
"Children," he said. "I promised Charlotte that I would find her the perfect husband. She showed no faith in my abilities, and insisted that if I managed the task, I would have to turn father, when she turned wife."
"And she just turned wife!" Jemma cried. "You are caught, Villiers, fairly caught!"
"I thought you were going to call me Leopold. I'm sure we had reached that pitch of intimacy."
The air stilled in the room again. She fled back to the subject at hand. "The question is, what did she mean by turning father?"
"She said something about learning the children's names."
"You. do support them, don't you?" she asked, knowing that he did. Even if he didn't entertain guilt, Villiers would never shirk a financial responsibility.
"I gather that you need to understand the word 'fatherhood.' "
"I'm finding the parameters hard to determine."
"I don't believe I ever met your father. Mine taught me to play chess."
"I could do that," Villiers said, something easing in his expression.
Jemma sneaked a glance at him under her lashes. "My father taught me how to fight off an unwanted suitor, and threatened to kill me if I failed."
"Dear me," Villiers said languidly, taking one of her knights. "How very violent."
Jemma felt a prickle of irritation. Her father had been rightfully impassioned on the subject of rakes like Villiers. "Most of what he taught us we learned from living with him. Fatherhood involves propinquity."
Villiers didn't even flinch. "The children are—"
"How many children are we talking about?" Jemma demanded. And, when he didn't answer, "You do know the number, don't you?"
"Of course. But there are complications."
Jemma swept a bishop off the board. "Such as?"
"Six," he said.
"Six? You have six children out of wedlock?"
His eyes focused on her fingers, still holding the bishop. "Considering the number of women I have made love to in my life, it seems a not inconceivable number."
"Inconceivable? Who's vulgar now?"
He blinked. "An inadvertent pun, I assure you."
"I thought you had perhaps two children."
"You need to be more careful," she scolded.
"Didn't you ever give a thought to the lives of those children, born out of wedlock? Or their mothers, bearing children without marriage lines?"
It was Jemma's turn to move, but she hesitated. She felt a bit sick. She liked Villiers. Leopold. She really liked him. She had even—
"I am a duke," he said. His voice was like dark velvet, impenetrable. "Why would I give a damn about that sort of thing?"
"At least you pay for them."
"I could support a foundling hospital, and you would applaud my virtue."
"I didn't expect you to populate your own orphanage," she said, her voice coming out more sharply than she intended. "It's despicable to think so little of the women that you—"
"Bed," he supplied. "I think a great deal of some women I bed. Or hope to bed."
But this bit of gallantry was forced, and she flashed him a look of contempt.
What is the difference between six and two? he asked.
"One child out of wedlock is an error. Two suggests carelessness. Three—and six—is simply wrong. Wrong."
There was something in those dark eyes of his that made her anger diminish.
"You understand that, don't you?"
"You simply don't appreciate the mental cast of a duke."
"Don't you dare tell me that your children's mothers were lucky to be impregnated by you, simply because of your rank!"
There was a brief smile in his eyes. "No. I meant that I was brought up to think that everyone below me was unworthy. That my inherited money, power, and title gave me the right to do just as I please. And as it happens, I dislike French letters and I honored my dislike for some years."
"There's nothing honorable about that," Jemma said scathingly. "You're lucky you don't have fourteen children! Who are they?"
"The mothers. I know that a child of yours was born to a gentlewoman, Lady Caroline Killigrew. And that you refused to marry her."
"In fact," he said, "that particular girl is not mine."
"You mean she doesn't count as one of the six?"
"She does, but merely because she is in my care. I told you there were complications."
"Of course the girl is yours. Lady Caroline told everyone. And her father told my Uncle Edmund that you admitted to bedding her and then refused to marry her. Everyone was so sympathetic and—" She met his eyes and caught herself. "My God. So who was the father?"
Villiers shrugged. "I have no idea. I certainly never bedded her. I think she must have been desperate. It seemed to me that as a gentleman I had to play my part in the script she had written."
"Perhaps she hoped you would be forced to marry her."
"I don't think so. If she wanted to acquire a husband, she would have accused someone of lower rank, someone who would be glad of the large dowry her father would offer."
"Saved by your dukedom," Jemma said. "And yet you played the hero."
"Hardly," he said dryly. "I refused to marry her. I merely restrained myself from pointing out the fact that I hardly knew her. She, for her part, did a wonderful job of lurking at the side of ballrooms and staring at me tragically, until her father whisked her off to Canada. The child was sent back to England a few months later with a quite disagreeable note about my role in its upbringing. What on earth could I do except accept her as my own?"
"You don't know where the mother is now?"
"Why should I?"
"So her child is one of my six."
"Who are the five remaining mothers? Nightwalkers, all?"
He waved a hand. "Play your piece, Jemma. I intend to win. And no, there are no nightwalkers among them. I have a great deal of respect for myself, and the risk of disease in those encounters is appalling."
"You're splitting hairs," Jemma said, moving her king. "Call them courtesans, if you wish."
"Their station in life is irrelevant," he said with emphasis. Just as she hoped, he was focused on the conversation and didn't appear to notice that her remaining bishop would soon have his queen.
"I wouldn't agree, given that they are rearing your children. And I imagine they aren't teaching the children chess. Just imagine all the useful lessons the girls are learning."
"In fact, only one child is being reared by her mother," he said.
"Oh? Then who cares for the others?"
"My solicitor makes sure that the children are well cared for."
"You don't know."
"Why would I? Do you—"
"If I had a child, I would know where he was!"
"So far, we have two items on the fathering list," he said, sighing. He was being surprisingly calm. The old Villiers, the pre-nearly-dead Villiers, would have stalked from the room long ago. "Ascertain who is raising them, and teach them chess."
"I do believe you ought to take them in yourself, as we discussed a few weeks ago," Jemma said, baiting him. "Although I must admit that I thought we were talking of two children at that point." She moved a pawn, calculating the number of moves remaining before she seized his queen.
He looked up. "You were joking then, and I trust you are now as well."
"Absolutely not! Is your hand on that pawn because you intend to move it?"
He looked down with a slight frown and moved the piece.
"Children ought to live with their parents. It's part of the duties of parenthood."
"Don't be a fool. I have no wife."
"Didn't the Earl of Ballston take in at least twelve illegitimate children?"
"He had a wife."
"A couple of the illegitimate children were hers, by all accounts. So, what we need to do is find you a wife….. just the right kind of wife."
"The kind who won't object to my children, you mean, because she has some illegitimate offspring of her own?"
"It would serve you right," she said, breaking into a laugh at the look on his face.
"You think I should live with these children?"
"Well….. no." She moved her bishop. "Check and mate."
He stared down at the trap she'd set. "Christ! You distracted me!"
"But it was so delicious to see your face when I suggested that you move the children into your house. Delicious!"
He blinked at the board and looked at her. "I might take in one child."
"I could take in one. Do you think that would be enough?"
"Enough for what?" Jemma stared at Villiers as if she'd never seen him before. "I was merely trying to win the game. And I won. Do you wish to trace your mistaken move? "
He shrugged. "No. You won. If you'll excuse me, I must think."
She sprang to her feet. "Think about bringing illegitimate children into your house? I was only joking, Villiers! Truly. No respectable woman will marry you under those circumstances. I should never have said such a thing."
He rose and came one step toward her. He was tall, almost as tall as her husband, and she had to tilt her head up.
"I don't want to marry a respectable woman," he said. Slowly.
Oh God. There was something in those black eyes of his that she'd never seen before. They had been flirting for almost a year now, ever since she had returned from France and challenged him to a chess match….. A match that was never finished, and never would be. A match designed to end in bed.
"Leopold," she whispered. "You mustn't—"
"I must be serious," he said. "You're married. You're married to my childhood friend, Elijah. And Elijah—" He seemed to change his mind and took a breath. "He's got you and I haven't. I'm just saying, Jemma, that there aren't a lot of places a man can go after he has met you."
Jemma felt the pleasure of that compliment deep in her gut, in her backbone, in all the silly places that a person can feel a compliment. And she knew why too. Somewhere in her was still the forlorn young woman, desolated to find that her husband enjoyed the company of his mistress over that of his wife.
She shook her head. She would never be unfaithful to Elijah again. "We plan to have a child," she said, pretending there was nothing wrong with her husband's heart.
"I already have some children, and I think it's time I came to know them." Villiers stepped back, and she found herself reaching out a hand without conscious will. His tone was so sad and yet so self-accepting, with that flare of humor.
"You will fall in love with someone, Leopold. Someone will steal your heart before you notice it." He shook his head. "I plan to visit Vauxhall tomorrow night; come and I will introduce you to all loveliest women of my acquaintance."
He bowed, said all the right things, and left.
Jemma sat in front of the game board for a long time, thinking that Villiers had changed. After finishing a game of chess, they used to play it backwards, dissect it three or four different ways, argue over moves. Now he'd walked away after she'd played the oldest, silliest ploy in the book, distracting him with a lively conversation.
The thing that made her uneasy, made her sit staring at the discarded pieces, was that she knew what was in his eyes when he looked at her. Not that she'd seen it all that often.
It wasn't something he was supposed to feel. Not for her. Not for….. not for anyone, except his wife, when he had one.