This Duchess of Mine Page 37


“You wanted formidable competition,” Corbin said firmly. “You have it. She’s witty, a little tipsy, and making it all too clear that she is available.”

Jemma felt herself grinding her teeth. “Well, he’s not available.”

“I suggest that you amuse yourself for a time before making a move toward your husband,” Corbin said.

“It’s not considered appropriate to glower at your spouse. Remember, there’s nothing more aging than desperation.”

Jemma sighed. “I’ll talk to Villiers.”

“About chess, no doubt?”

She nodded. “I expect he’s seething over that combination move I managed this afternoon. We can talk it through.”

“Make it look as if you’re flirting with him,” Corbin said, by way of farewell.

Jemma pranced up to Villiers without even glancing over at Elijah. Her host was leaning against the fireplace, staring down into the fire. “Don’t tell me that you’re truly suffering pangs over losing those chess games,” she said.

He straightened immediately. “Actually, I wasn’t even thinking of them.”

She smiled at him over the edge of her fan. “You played very well. I almost regret cancelling our blindfolded game.”

She’d seen him look at others with a glance so cold and indifferent that it paralyzed; he had never looked at her that way before, but he did now. “Don’t shame yourself, Jemma.”

And, when she opened her mouth to spit back at him, he raised a hand. “You don’t wish to find yourself in bed with me, blindfolded or otherwise. To pretend otherwise is to cheapen the friendship we have managed to build.”

He looked directly at her. “Which I treasure. I have few friendships.”

She stepped forward involuntarily and held out her hand. He stared down for a moment as if he didn’t understand what to do. Then his large, warm fingers curled around hers. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have behaved in such an insincere fashion.”

“I suppose there was a reason for it,” Villiers said, throwing a glance across the room toward where Elijah was talking with the marquise. Jemma could hear her soft giggles.

“So have you really known the marquise since she was a young girl?” she asked brightly.

“She was an awful little thing, as you can imagine.”

“I expect she was one of those children who never smudged her dress and was adored by her governess.”

“She was as small and round as a shrub, one of those shrubs that looks innocent but is kitted out with thorns. I remember playing spillikins with her, and when it appeared she’d lost, she picked up a stick and tried to stab me in the chest.”

Jemma laughed.

“She did!” Villiers protested. “I can imagine that you were a little devil as well.”

Jemma realized that their hands were still linked. But what did it matter? It was a small dinner, and she just heard Elijah laughing at another of the marquise’s sallies. Obviously, he wasn’t worried about her intimacies with Villiers. “I was charming,” she told him. “Whereas you were undoubtedly a dreadful boy.”

He looked at her from under his long eyelashes, and she felt that odd pulse of alarm again. “True enough,” he said, leaning a bit closer. “Fierce, bad-tempered, and, I realize now, inconsolably lonely.”

“Oh, Leopold,” she said, her hand tightening on his.

“I’m so sorry you were lonely.”

“It was hardly a wretched existence. I amused myself by giving the servants assigned to me a terrible time. The only person who could control me at all was Ashmole, my butler.”

“The same butler you have now?” Jemma asked.

“He used to spank me on a regular basis,” Villiers said. “He was fearless, for all that he was just a footman then.”

“You know, you’re not as bad as you let everyone think,” she said.

“Don’t get ideas about my sainthood,” he replied with an indifferent glance. “I keep Ashmole here because I can’t be bothered to pension him off.”

Jemma laughed at that, and reached up to tuck back a strand of Villiers’s hair that had fallen from the ribbon tied at the nape of his neck.

“So how long will you allow the marquise to trifle with your husband?” he asked. “It seems like a strange type of parlor game. Clearly you feel strongly about her behavior.”

“Elijah needs to have fun,” she told him. “I have decided that he has been far too serious all these years.”

“Just how much fun do you intend he should have? This is all sounding alarmingly depraved.”

“Not that much fun!” Jemma said, rapping him with her fan. “I can’t believe you could have such a dissipated thought.”

“Oh, I have many dissipated thoughts,” Villiers said lazily. “They’re practically my stock in trade. I think I’d better tell Ashmole to move supper forward. My cousin has drunk an alarming amount of Champagne, and the last thing I want is a drunken très-coquette losing control of her stomach.”

“Your hair is still falling out of its ribbon, Leopold.” Jemma tucked the lock behind his ear before she turned about, flipped open her fan, and began to saunter across the room. The marquise may have been half dressed, but she considered herself unrivaled in the art of flirtation.

Fifteen minutes later she had woken to a signal truth: she could certainly flirt, but only if the man in question showed interest.

The marquise and Elijah were tucked together on a small sofa. While Elijah stood up when she approached, there was something careless in the way he looked at her, and he immediately excused himself and sat down again, which was so extraordinarily rude that she could hardly believe it had just happened. Elijah was never rude.

Jemma stood in front of the sofa for a moment like a gauche debutante. “Do allow me to join your conversation,” she said, managing to keep her tone calm with an effort.

Elijah glanced up at her. “Of course,” he said, blinking as if he’d forgotten she was there at all. “I shall pull up a chair for you.”

The moment he stepped away to bring a chair, she seated herself beside Louise. “How are you tonight, dear marquise?”

Louise eyed her a little blurrily and then smiled. “I am enjoying myself. Your husband is the sweetest, most attentive man I’ve ever met.”

“I can imagine—” Jemma began, but then Elijah reappeared with a chair.

“We were discussing foolish antics from our childhoods,” he said. His eyes slid directly past Jemma and focused on the marquise again. Perhaps on her bosom; Jemma couldn’t quite tell.

“Villiers and I were just discussing the same thing!” Jemma said gaily. “He insists that he was an extraordinarily naughty boy as a lad.”

At that, Elijah finally looked at her. “Give me the boy and you give me the man,” he said. There was something remarkably cold in his tone.

“Were you naughty?” she asked him, fanning herself slightly. This conversation was not going precisely as she had planned.

“Between the two of us, I expect that you would win that particular ribbon,” he said.

“I was a bit of a madcap,” the marquise put in.

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