This Duchess of Mine Page 39


His eyes slid away from Jemma as he turned to Vesey. “Yes, eleven. He has specified that age.”

“I always thought he was a blackguard,” Vesey grunted. “His father was the same. Hope you managed to head him off, Your Grace?”

“Luckily, while Stibblestich doesn’t give a damn about the opinion of elected officials, he’s still cowed by my rank.”

“Oh God,” Jemma whispered. That was what Elijah had been doing at dawn, when he left her without a note.

He turned away as if he were too tired, or too disgusted, to even look at her any longer.

Corbin launched into a meandering monologue that touched on everything from the newest hats to the price of shoe buckles, as Elijah and Lord Vesey continued their conversation.

“Surely this meal is almost over,” Jemma said, interrupting Corbin a moment later. “It seems endless.”

“Not even the rather extraordinary sight of our host flirting so outrageously with the marquise helps your ennui?” Corbin asked. “Her husband will learn of this by next week, even if he is in France. Just look how Lady Vesey keeps peering at them.”

Well, that was what the marquise wanted. And in a way, the Duke of Villiers was an even better person for such a rumor, as Henri would never believe that Villiers wouldn’t seduce his wife, whereas Elijah’s Puritanical reputation might blunt the marquis’s jealousy.

“I have such a headache,” Jemma said, truthfully.

“I’m afraid that the dear marquise probably feels worse,” Corbin said thoughtfully. “She’s looking quite white. And swaying. Oh, dear.”

In the fracas that followed the Marquise de Perthuis’s collapse from her chair, Elijah appeared at Jemma’s shoulder. “You look exhausted.”

Wonderful, Jemma thought. She looked like an old hag compared to the luscious, drunken marquise. “In truth, I should like to go home,” she said, rising.

Elijah was nothing if not efficient. Two minutes later they were sitting in the carriage, heading home in total silence.

She spent most of the trip reminding herself that there were many reasons that people didn’t like being married, and this just proved their point: spouses suffered black moods, and one simply had to endure them.

“Will you retire directly?” Elijah asked, helping her off with her pelisse after they entered the house.

The only thing she wanted was to get away from all these emotions that she didn’t understand. “I was intending to repair to the library,” she said. “I have a new chess set that I’m eager to try out.”

He prowled after her, without saying whether he would play or no. Fowle had set the chessboard by the fire. The pieces were made of gorgeously carved ivory and jasper, each one a small work of art.

Jemma sat down quickly. “Isn’t it lovely?” She picked up the king. He was standing with one leg forward, arms crossed, a ferocious scowl on his face. His body was dwarfed by his crown, which loomed over him: a remarkable sphere, carved with open work.

“You see,” she said, holding it up, “if you look inside you’ll see another sphere, and another, smaller and smaller.”

Elijah took it from her while she looked at a knight. He too was the embodiment of rage: riding his horse with a small hand raised above his head in a posture of utter fury.

“Where did you acquire this?” he inquired.

“Oh, it was a gift,” Jemma said. “Look, Elijah, the rook has a tiny person inside the window.”

“Would you say that I am a restrained person?”

Jemma looked up. Her husband sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth. “Yes, of course I would, Elijah.”

“In short, my face never takes on a seething expression like that on the face of this king.”

She was starting to wish that she had just gone to bed.

“This is a gift from a man, isn’t it?” Elijah said, still with that curiously flat intonation.

“If you are planning to boil with rage over that fact,” she said, “I believe we should cancel our game until tomorrow.”

“This chess set is worth a small fortune.”

Jemma put down the piece she was holding and rose to her feet.

“I know exactly who sent it to you. And I won’t have it.”

“I find this display of matrimonial jealousy somewhat surprising after the lavish attentions you paid to another woman this evening,” she said. “Not to mention her bosom.”

“Don’t be a fool.”

“Don’t call me names!”

“You know, and I know, that the kind of relationship the marquise and I have—if one could even call it that—was limited to a mild flirtation.”

“It certainly didn’t look like that to me!” Jemma interrupted.

“Whereas you and Villiers only exchanged commonplaces?”

So that was the problem. “It was different,” Jemma said. “We talked of chess.”

“I saw the two of you together,” Elijah said. “Do you know, Jemma, that I am besotted?” He was speaking between clenched teeth.

Her heart thumped. “Is that a compliment?”

“It means that I can’t stop watching you. It means that I watched you near the fireplace, touching Villiers, smoothing his hair, talking to him. That was no ripe, easily dismissed flirtation between a drunken woman and a man she decided to compliment!”

Jemma opened her mouth but he swept on.

“May I ask exactly why you set that woman to flirting with me? I felt as if I were a steak on a string, being dangled before a dog. Just what did I do to deserve that, Jemma?”

“How did you know?” Jemma cried. “It wasn’t supposed to be a punishment! I was trying to give you some fun! I thought if another woman wooed you, it would be fun for you!”

“Do you want to know the truly ironic thing about this?” Elijah asked.

Jemma was fairly sure she didn’t want to know, but he didn’t wait for her to answer. “I told Villiers to go ahead with his seduction. I told him to try his best, because I was winning you.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Jemma said, losing her temper entirely. “You discussed me? You discussed which one of you could have me? Were my feelings in the matter ever taken into consideration at all?”

Elijah held up his hand. The chess king stood on his palm, arms folded, glaring. “I told him to go ahead and court you, and look what happened.”

Jemma frowned.

With one swift movement, Elijah hurled the white king straight into the fireplace. It shattered against the bricks. Jemma gasped, but by then the white queen was also in shards. Words choked her throat, but rather than utter them, she just folded her arms and waited. It was too late for the set. Once the king was gone, the set was gone.

She would have thought that Elijah might get tired of it, but no. Every single ivory piece smashed against the back of the fireplace, followed by the black pieces. They smashed more easily; she had to suppose that chalcedony was brittle.

Then her husband turned back to her. “Now is my face calm and reasonable?” he demanded.

“No.”

“I have my limits, Jemma. I will not watch you and Villiers express your—your love for each other in front of my very eyes. You played with his hair.”

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