This Duchess of Mine Page 10


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.

Chapter Four

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.”

“But—we—”

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, sitting 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.

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