“You have never been interested in my skill,” she said, without pity. “I see no reason to boast to you…I shall save my flights of self-congratulation.”
“With whom do you play? Have you a maid who knows the game?”
“In Paris, I had partners.”
“We have all heard of those partners,” he said, and his voice was very even. “The practice of a gentleman and lady playing chess in the privacy of a bedchamber only reached these shores in the last year.”
“How unfortunate,” she said. “I was hoping to have the pleasure of setting all the dowagers’ hair on end by starting the fashion myself. Since I have no partner in England, I play both sides of the game.”
“So you make two moves a day?”
“When I play the other part, I am not myself.”
“I would take it you are White, menacing Black’s bishop.”
“Unfortunately,” she said, “I am Black.”
“You are White.”
The laughter died.
“I had no idea that I was playing,” he said. “Let alone that I would win.”
“Life is full of pleasurable surprises.”
“Did I take my rook to Bishop Two?”
“Why are you letting me win?”
“I didn’t; you are winning fair and square. It was a beautiful set on your part: only five moves.”
“You must be very fair to play like this.”
“The hard part is not being fair, but playing as if I am you.”
“Because?” He looked at her, eyebrow raised.
“You are an excellent chess player. Better when I play you than you used to be on your own.”
He gave a bark of laughter.
“Given that proviso, I rarely win against you.”
“Oh, have we played often?”
She nodded. “Whenever I am without another partner, I turn to you.”
He picked up the rook. “I am, then, a way station between partners?”
“You seem to be confusing bed partners with chess partners,” she said. “Men who can play chess are so infrequently worth the time in bed. It takes a different kind of imagination.”
“Describe my play—at chess?”
“You have foresight, detail and courage. Your fault is that you are not daring enough, but you excel in outwitting, cornering and demolishing your opponent.”
He was silent a moment but she saw a smile in his eyes. “I think my opponents in Lords would agree with you. Your play?”
“I am more brilliant, and more erratic. In our last four games, played by myself, of course, you have won three. I tend to take far too much delight in risk.”
“How interesting that by pretending to be me you curb your own impetuosity.”
“I don’t consider myself impetuous,” Jemma said. “I assure you that when I win, my moves are beautiful. I frequently win, except when I play you. Monsieur Philidor was the only person who beat me on a regular basis, but I also beat him, many times.”
She felt his eyes on her, but refused to look up again. When he spoke again, his voice was rather stifled. “I realize that you didn’t have to return to London, and that you left a great deal behind you in Paris, Jemma.”
“I am grateful.” The words seemed reluctant.
“It is no more than my duty.”
“I confess that I am reluctant to see the estate go to my nephew.”
“Is he still as foolish as ever?”
“He wears a great quantity of false hair,” Elijah said. “False teeth, and—so he tells me—pads his stockings to give himself a proper leg. So false legs as well.”
“I am not yet ready to engage in the intimacies that will lead to an heir,” Jemma said, still not looking at him. “I am accustomed to pleasure for its own sake. Nor am I happy about the inevitable unpleasantness involved in carrying a child. Perhaps after the season. We can retire to the country.” And won’t that be fun, she thought.
He bowed. “I am at your convenience.”
T here hadn’t been such excitement over a ball since Princess Charlotte attended her first public fête at Windsor Castle. Though many were certain that the Duchess of Beaumont would lose her reputation within weeks of arriving in London—after all, they’d all heard stories of the many lovers she deserted in Paris—she had not yet been rejected from society, and thus everyone with an invitation was free to attend.
“We have to take advantage of it,” Miss Charlotte Tatlock said to her sister May. “Lord knows, the duchess may be persona non grata by next week.”
“I wish you wouldn’t speak in riddles,” May replied. She was looking out the carriage window, trying to see whose coach was following theirs.
“That’s not a riddle; it’s Latin.”
“I see no difference. And besides, I know why you wish to attend the ball, Charlotte.”
“For the pleasure of it?”
“Because you’re hoping that her uncle will have come to town to see his niece. Lord Barnabe Reeve.”
“I had forgotten about him,” Charlotte said, less than truthfully. “Didn’t he retire to the country? Of course he won’t be there. You know as well as I do that he’s not right in the head.”
“Like all the Reeve family,” May said. “Did you hear that the duchess is bringing the daughter of the Mad Marquess into society? I expect there are bets in White’s about her eccentricities, to put it kindly. Naturally the Mad Marquess and the Reeves share some part of their family tree. It only makes sense.”
May had the most annoying titter in the entire world. “I want to see the duchess’s arrangements,” Charlotte said. “I heard that she intends to serve a table of fruit embedded in Parma violets. I’ve seen fruit embedded in moss; haven’t we all? But violets? That must cost three hundred pounds.”
“I am more curious to see her clothing,” May said. “That is, if she wears any. She may repeat herself and be delivered on a platter.”
“I discount that tale entirely. It would be most uncomfortable, as one would be in constant danger of falling to the ground.”
May looked unconvinced, but just then the carriage drew up in front of Beaumont House. “Well, you can’t tell me that you have forgotten the Duchess of Claverstill’s ball. Not after making an exhibit of yourself dancing all night with Barnabe Reeve.”
Charlotte had a low opinion of her sister’s intelligence, and this question did not improve it. How could she—Charlotte—have forgotten that ball? ’Twas the one at which she fell in love with Barnabe Reeve. Though he’d never asked for her hand, and left London shortly thereafter, she hadn’t forgotten.
There was a cacophony of noise around them as carriages unloaded and footmen shouted. May was dressed most becomingly in blue, with moderate hoops. Charlotte, who prided herself on being elegant, was resplendent in sprigged silk. Unfortunately, the best they could hope for in terms of compliments were words like becoming and resplendent. It was a far cry from the ball when Charlotte danced all night with Lord Barnabe Reeve, dance after dance, certain she would be married within months.