This Duchess of Mine Page 16


“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.”

“Six.”

“You need to be more careful,” she scolded.

“Yes.”

“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?”

“No.”

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 children?”

“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?”

“Good point.”

“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.

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