This Duchess of Mine Page 40


“But—”

“You held hands with him. In front of a dinner party of some six persons. In front of your husband, you took his hand! I am a man, Jemma. You are mine, not his.”

“I belong to no one,” Jemma protested. She felt extraordinarily tired, and rather sad. This all confirmed her notion that Elijah’s relation with Villiers was far more important to him than that with his wife. “May I inquire why my chess set had to go the way of the fireplace?”

“You know why.”

“Because it was a gift from a man?”

“Not any man. Villiers. I lost my temper—” He caught himself, looking surprised. “I lost my temper because—”

“Villiers didn’t give me that chess set,” Jemma said. She folded her arms across her chest.

“Of course he did. He—”

“Lord Strange sent me the chess set.”

There was a moment of silence—and she enjoyed every second of it. Finally, Elijah said, “I apologize. I’m sorry about the damn chess set, Jemma. But you can’t behave like that in front of me—”

“Why not?”

“Because—Because you’re mine.” His eyes claimed her with the same ruthlessness as his words.

“Am I yours because you care about me, or because you don’t want to share anything with Villiers?”

There was a moment of stark silence in the room. “Why on earth would you think such a thing?” he asked finally.

She turned away, picked up the poker and stirred the shards in the back of the fireplace. “Because it is true. Because your possessiveness has more to do with Villiers than with me.”

“Not so. I cannot share you with any man, Jemma. I cannot.” The words seemed wrenched from his chest.

“Good night, Elijah.”

He caught her arm as she turned. “Tomorrow?”

“Surely Pitt is demanding your presence?”

“I told him I would be unavailable.”

“You mean…in the future? You told him that?”

“No! I cannot simply put aside everything that is important to me, Jemma.”

She flinched.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” he said quickly.

“There’s no need to qualify. I understand what you find important.” She felt an overwhelming sweep of exhaustion. “I suppose I can plan a diversion for tomorrow.” Her tone was bleak rather than bitter, which was a triumph in itself.

“I can’t bear it when you look like that,” Elijah said, his voice savage. Then his arms were like steel bands around her and his lips took her mouth, hard and demanding. He lifted her off her feet, wrapping her in lust and desire.

There wasn’t a sound in the room, in the world, except for their hard breathing and little murmurs or groans. Only a tinkle from the jeweled flower in her hair striking the ground woke Jemma.

“No,” she said. And then a bit stronger: “No, Elijah.”

His voice sounded thick and strained. “Why not?”

She pushed away. “I won’t—I can’t. I just can’t.”

He made a hungry sound in the back of his throat. But he let her go. “Let me be with you tomorrow.”

Suddenly she remembered where she planned to go in the afternoon. It was as if life itself was conspiring to break down the last protection she had against him. She knew instinctively that going to bed with her husband would break her. It would leave her vulnerable to utter despair, not only because of his passion for work. But because when his heart—

Her throat closed and she turned. “I must go to bed.”

“Please.”

Elijah never begged.

“All right,” she said, not turning around as she almost ran for the door, intent on reaching her room before she wept. “You may accompany me. I have an appointment at three in the afternoon. I leave an hour beforehand.”

Outside the room, she took a shaky breath and concentrated on climbing the stairs. Elijah was stripping away her defenses, one by one. And unless she was fortunate, tomorrow’s excursion would break down the very last of them, leaving her broken.

She knew she wasn’t being logical, or even fair, given that she was his wife. She’d returned from Paris explicitly so her husband could bed her and create an heir.

It was practical. The honorable thing to do. And yet terror caught in her throat at the very idea. It had all made sense before…

Before she loved him so much.

She ran all the way to her bedchamber, but even so, a footman saw the tears on her cheeks.

Chapter Fifteen

March 31

Elijah turned over from a confused dream in which Jemma was riding a white horse far ahead of him, disappearing into a wild, bramble-strewn forest. He was calling to her to wait, but she was too far ahead—

“Wake up, damn it,” a cold voice said.

He opened his eyes to find Villiers standing by his bedside. Vickery, his valet, was hurriedly throwing open the curtains.

As always, Villiers was magnificently dressed, from his coat to his snowy neck cloth. “You’re a deep sleeper,” he said, tapping his sword stick.

“It’s early.” Elijah pulled himself up in the bed. Then he added, “I’m shocked. I thought you were the sort who didn’t rouse until ten of the clock at the least, and after that would take the morning to dress.”

“I don’t,” Villiers said, all evidence to the contrary.

Elijah squinted at the windows. It couldn’t be later than seven or eight. Jemma had promised to take him with her at two o’clock.

“Stop smiling in that nauseating fashion,” Villiers barked. “You make me feel ill. I’ll wait for you downstairs. We have an appointment in forty minutes, so make your toilette a brief one.”

“Appointment?” But he was talking to an already-closed door, so he swung his legs from the bed.

Vickery was nervously pulling clothes from the wardrobe. “Will you wear the velvet today, Your Grace?”

The coat was black, like most of Elijah’s clothing. “I need an appointment with my tailor,” he said. “I no longer wish to look so funereal.”

“Yes, of course, Your Grace.” He drew out stockings, boots, a shirt.

“You don’t appear as nervous when I am in a hurry to go somewhere,” Elijah observed, pulling on smalls.

Vickery actually shivered. “His Grace the Duke of Villiers is so proper, so rigid in his dressing and clothing!”

Elijah waited.

“Perfect in every way,” Vickery added, his voice hushed. “And his valet…everyone knows Mr. Finchley is the best in London.” He sounded as if the man were an alchemist who could turn lead into gold.

“Is Villiers so difficult to dress, then?” Elijah pulled pantaloons over his stockings.

“Everything—but everything!—must be perfect,” Vickery said. “He has been known to tie his neck cloth fourteen, fifteen times. A fresh cloth each time, you understand. And everything next to his skin is the finest linen. Once he threw a pair of smalls out the window because they were inadequately ironed.”

“Bloody absurd,” Elijah murmured. “Do you iron my smalls, Vickery?”

His valet looked offended. “I iron only your neck cloths, Your Grace. I cannot trust anyone else with those. A laundry maid irons your intimates, of course.”

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