This Duchess of Mine Page 26


“What did she say to me?” the woman demanded.

Elijah very courteously translated. “I believe she called you a shameless jade.”

“What?”

But with one triumphant glance, Louise neatly turned Elijah about and hauled him into the throng of dancers.

Jemma’s mouth fell open.

“Christ’s toenails!” the crimson cloak said. “I had him all set, and then that drunk wobbled out of nowhere, and now she took him! It’s because she is French.”

“Really?”

“Men all think that Frenchwomen are on their knees half the night,” she confided. “The worst of it is that he was a nabob.” She grinned at Jemma. “And he had big hands. I was looking forward to dancing with him.”

Jemma turned about and surveyed the assembly.

“You’d best look elsewhere,” the crimson cloak said consolingly. “She had him from the start, I could tell. She made a couple of remarks that made him laugh. And she had herself draped on him. I got only one feel but it was a nice one.”

Jemma blinked at her.

“Love’s dart, so they call it. But this was a great deal thicker than a dart,” she added, with a naughty laugh. “Ah, well, it wasn’t for my benefit.” And she wandered off.

Jemma’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t like to think of that woman touching the dart in question. She turned back to the dancers. Louise seemed to have sobered enough so that she was dancing a reasonable approximation of the minuet, but as Jemma watched, she tripped and fell into Elijah’s arms. He was laughing.

Jemma ground her teeth.

Enough!

Chapter Eleven

Dancing in Vauxhall, at this hour of the night, did not resemble the parallel activities that took place in the ballrooms of Versailles and St. James. The music sounded the same; a large orchestra was sawing away on its raised platform. But the dancers’ movements were entirely more intimate.

Some people seemed to know that the minuet being played at the moment was generally danced in a formal pattern; others seemed to consider it more of a country dance. No one bothered trading partners: why pass your partner to the hand of another if it meant you might not see her again?

Only the Puritanical would insist that those at Vauxhall were drunker than those in elegant ballrooms. Elijah had seen whole rooms full of bluebloods reeling from an excess of punch. And those same Puritans couldn’t honestly call the dancers more lascivious, since lust coursed through the noble soul with the same fury as anyone else’s.

The primary difference, Elijah decided, was that whereas noblemen danced in patterns, those who came to Vauxhall danced in pairs. And pairing allowed for a certain proximity that encouraged groping.

Not that he felt the slightest inclination to approach his partner in that manner. He had recognized her immediately, though without any particular pleasure.

He was supporting the Marquise de Perthuis with one arm, while dancing a lamentable version of the minuet, and wondering where on earth Jemma had got to when he realized that his wife was standing at the edge of the floor, tapping her foot in an irritated fashion.

He swiftly turned the marquise in a circle so Jemma didn’t catch his delighted grin.

“Goodness me,” the marquise said, “you are very quick on your feet!”

“It is because you are so beautiful,” he said to her.

She looked up at him rather owlishly, and Elijah thought that in fact she actually did look beautiful. Maybe it was due to being inebriated. Generally the marquise’s rigid personality precluded anyone from thinking she was beautiful.

It was an odd thought, because rigid was what Jemma had always called him when they quarreled. As well as hidebound, moralistic, and tedious. He looked down at the marquise uneasily. Moralistic people were quite dislikable…though he never thought of himself in those terms.

She took a deep breath and shook her head a bit. “I do believe that I might have drunk a trifle more Champagne than I ought.”

“We all indulge at times,” he told her, looking around to see where Jemma was now. She would be very annoyed to see how closely he was holding the marquise, though in fact he either had to grasp her tightly or let her slip to the ground.

“I never indulge,” the marquise told him. “Indulgence is the province of the devil. My mother said so and I’m sure she was always right.”

She seemed to be brooding about something, so Elijah twirled her again so he could see the space where he had last seen Jemma. She was still there, but no longer alone.

A red-haired fellow in a tired blue domino and matching mask was bowing before her. He looked like a sailor on leave. He had the rakish air of a young man of the town: not a gentleman, not a farmer, but something in between. Elijah began edging the marquise backwards through the crowd.

“Do mind my skirts,” the marquise said. “I must say, have you ever seen so many dissolute women in your life?” She seemed utterly fascinated. “I love it here. Had I known, I would have come long ago. You must have been to Vauxhall many times.”

“Hmm,” Elijah said. The blue cloak was leading Jemma onto the floor, and she was smiling up at him in a way that sent a flare down Elijah’s spine. A moment later he had maneuvered the marquise so that he was shoulder-to-shoulder with his wife.

From the lavish and delighted smile Jemma was giving her partner, she knew perfectly well he was there.

He set the marquise to turn a gentle circle and leaned in toward Jemma’s ear. “I want you.” His voice was somewhere between a whisper and a growl.

She threw him a glance from those laughing, wicked eyes of hers. The man in the blue cloak hadn’t noticed and drew her in the opposite direction. He had red whiskers, a look that Elijah found extremely unattractive.

Now he was bending his head, to say something clever, no doubt. Jemma was laughing. Elijah saw her throat ripple and was seized by a blind wave of lust. He wanted to lick her there, to lick her whole body, feel the vibration of every muscle when she—

Belatedly he remembered the marquise and took her back on his arm. She was growing slightly more sober the longer they danced. “You know, Beaumont,” she pronounced, “I expect my husband Henri adores this place.”

“You do?” Elijah had met the Marquis de Perthuis only once, but he remembered a man with a longing face, the face of someone who wanted more than dissolute dancing. He looked like a frustrated painter, or an inventor of some kind.

“He hates being a marquis. He has all sorts of revolutionary notions about the noblesse and the canaille being alike. Can you imagine?”

Elijah could imagine quite easily. The marquis was a man who hated himself, and apparently he extended that dislike to his entire class. The marquise went on, telling him about her husband’s strange proclivities, while he steered her through the crowd and back over next to Jemma. That fellow she was dancing with was entirely too familiar for Elijah’s comfort. He was looking at Jemma as if she was a tart ripe for devouring.

Elijah could sympathize. Jemma looked succulent and sweet, like a peach. But she was his peach. Finally he managed to get the marquise jostled into the correct position so that he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Jemma again. The marquise was still talking, though Elijah had lost track of the subject.

Elijah Tobier, Duke of Beaumont, was never vulgar. Even when in the company of men who indulged in coarse jokes at women’s expense—or at their own—he invariably smiled, but always remained silent. But now all nature of coarse words surged to his lips, though he didn’t want to share them with a roomful of men, but with only one woman.

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