This Duchess of Mine Page 17


“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.”

“What?”

“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 the 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.

Chapter Seven

By evening, Elijah had not yet returned to the house. Jemma ate in solitary splendor at nine; she dallied over her meal until ten and then retreated to the library. She fiddled with a chess problem and went over the household accounts.

But in reality, she watched the clock. She felt torn in two: one moment desperate just to see Elijah, the next torn by resentment and a furious determination to make him leave the House of Lords.

When her husband finally walked into the library, his face gaunt and exhausted, she wanted to throw herself into his arms, at the same time that she wanted to rail at him. Fortunately, she didn’t have to choose: the presence of Fowle and the footmen made either an impossibility.

Elijah bent over her hand, kissing it as if she were the merest acquaintance. Fowle bustled across the room before they could exchange a word, followed by three footmen carrying a small table, covered dishes, and china.

Jemma walked back to her seat, feeling as if she were walking on broken glass. She, who was never at a loss for words, was struggling to formulate even the most trivial comment. They sat in silence as Fowle set the table before Elijah, uncovered a beefsteak, and poured him a glass of wine.

“If you would be so kind as to leave the dishes, I will serve myself,” Elijah said.

Fowle pursed his lips in a scandalized kind of way, but Elijah sent him from the room with one look.

“How was your day?” Elijah asked as the door closed behind Fowle and the footmen.

Jemma took a sip of brandy. “Oh, quite enjoyable,” she said lightly. “I paid a visit to a friend in the morning, and I beat Villiers at a game of chess in the afternoon.”

A shadow crossed his eyes. “How is the duke?”

“Fine. Though he confessed that he has six illegitimate children.”

Elijah’s hand froze, a piece of steak halfway to his mouth.

“Six,” Jemma repeated. “What’s more, he did not actually father Lady Caroline Killigrew’s child. Do you remember all the fuss when he refused to marry her?”

Elijah nodded.

“It was astonishingly generous of him to allow that story to circulate. He said that he felt it was the gentlemanly thing to do.”

“Not an impulse he feels on a daily basis,” Elijah said dryly.

“Only Villiers would be so careless of his reputation that he allowed himself to be besmirched by a young lady he hardly knew.”

“It is the privilege of the uncaring.” There was a bit of a snap in his tone.

“He’s a great deal more sanctimonious than he allows. I believe that he finds a reputation for immorality useful.”

“He makes being on the side of the sinners look extremely attractive,” Elijah admitted, pulling off a cover and putting a helping of plaice on his plate.

“Whereas you make being on the side of the saints look very exhausting,” Jemma replied, seizing the opening.

He looked at her over the table. “I know what you’re going to say.”

“Then I shan’t ask it, because there’s nothing worse than a nagging wife, saying the things that one knows already.”

Prev Next