Beaumont and Villiers were as dissimilar as night and day. Jemma surveyed Villiers from across the ballroom floor for an hour or so without approaching him. He didn’t dance; he prowled. Elijah danced. She saw him doing his duty with every unattached woman in the room. The only woman in whom Villiers showed interest was Lady Nevill. Jemma didn’t know her, other than by reputation, but she had to admit she was delicious, with her satiny smile and sleepy eyes.
Jemma bided her time. The whole business of avenging Benjamin’s suicide had taken on its own pleasurable edge, giving her a flare of excitement. Would she seduce? Or would she merely beat him at chess? Or both? She danced near Villiers, and he didn’t look at her.
Then, quite suddenly, those heavy-lidded eyes lifted and the shock of it went down her spine. The glitter in his eyes was that of a chess player, the same light she’d seen in Philidor’s eyes, but only when he watched her queen take his pawns.
She whirled away into the steps of the dance, and found her corset felt unexpectedly tight around her ribs. She looked one more time, and he was murmuring in the ear of Lady Nevill. He wasn’t nearly as handsome as Beaumont, but he had an irresistibly wicked look that her straitlaced husband could never achieve.
Roberta danced by, smiling beatifically at a young squire. He looked besotted, as well he might. Roberta raised a cynical eyebrow over his shoulder.
At that same moment, Jemma realized something. Her revenge wouldn’t run parallel to Roberta’s pursuit of Villiers. It would be an integral part of it. She, Jemma, would wrap up the man whom all London had tried to tame—and deliver him to Roberta as part of Harriet’s revenge.
Marriage laid the ground for a hundred—nay, a thousand—petty humiliations of the type that Harriet longed to visit on Villiers.
It was the ultimate revenge.
Suddenly Villiers was in front of her, eyebrow raised. “A black bandit knight at your service.”
“Not a king?”
He took out a cheroot. “Let’s go outside, shall we?” And without waiting for her response, he walked straight outside onto the balcony. He shook back his deep lace cuffs and lit the cheroot from a torch on the balcony. The light flickered against his face. His skin was startling clear and white against the black hair, sleekly pulled back from his face. No, he wasn’t handsome.
And yet he wasn’t the sort of man who would find himself in a friendly cuffing match with the lads down at the pub either. He was altogether more refined and intelligent. No wonder he was the best player in England.
Every instinct told her that he would be a powerful partner. For a moment she couldn’t distinguish between the wish to play him and to have him. A challenge—and what a challenge! Villiers was famous for drifting from woman to woman with limpid disinterest. If Roberta was to marry him, she would have to take the law into her own hands, or rather use the law on her side, because he would never propose due to love.
The truth was that he was in love…with chess. A man bound to the chessboard has little left over, as poor Harriet had found to her distress.
Villiers stood silently, drawing on his cheroot and watching her. Jemma said nothing. She disliked opening conversations. It was such an immediate way to give away one’s strategy. Women, she found, were generally too eager to rush into flirtation.
Instead, she turned and looked over the gardens. The great elms were putting out new leaves that looked almost blue because of swathes of bluebells planted beneath them.
“Black King by a smothered mate,” came a drawling voice behind her.
“An old but pretty trick,” she said, turning around. She was conscious of a slight feeling of disappointment. Did he really need to test her knowledge?
“Do you know,” he said softly, watching her unblinkingly over the glowing end of his cheroot, “that I often walk into Parsloe’s and find there is no one worth playing?”
She shrugged. What was his point? She rarely had a partner at her own level other than Philidor.
“You’ll forgive me, then, for seeming brash in my enthusiasm.”
“Benjamin, the Duke of Berrow, used to play a fine game,” she said, testing him.
His whole face changed. His cheekbones hollowed and his eyes looked haunted. “He was a good match. Better five years ago…”
“Has your skill fallen, as did his?”
“I was best when I was twenty,” he said, taking a long draw on his cheroot. “And you?”
“I am best now,” she said. It was the truth; she met his eyes and knew that he understood it.
“What did Philidor make of you? I heard little of a female chess player in France though”—he paused—“I heard much of you.”
“You’ll find, if you travel to Paris to play him—and you should—that he is ranked among my lovers. We played almost every day, in my bedchamber, at a table beside my bed.”
“I take it he had no interest in that bed,” Villiers said. His eyes were dark, too dark to read.
“Of course not,” she said tranquilly. “We would play a game, or sometimes make a match last by playing only one move a day.”
“That must have been a remarkable pleasure.”
“Who do you play otherwise?”
“Generally, I play myself.”
“All by yourself?” he asked, and suddenly she was unsure whether he was talking of chess or bedroom matters.
“Life is so much less complicated by oneself,” she said, sighing.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. The smoke drifted past his eyes. “I find partners at Parsloe’s or White’s. I would prefer to play with strangers—or those with less skill—than find myself holding my own pawn in the safety of my bedchamber.”
“The difference between a man and a woman perhaps,” she said. “For myself, I find that my knowledge of chess comes from long moments of self-study.”
He grinned at that, the flash of a tiger’s white teeth when it spots its prey.
“I think this game will be very interesting,” he said. “Because there is to be a game between us, is there not?”
She held his eyes. “Let’s make it a match. Two out of three games.”
“You are a formidable opponent,” he said.
There was a rustle of the silk hangings and Elijah came onto the balcony, accompanying a young girl who was feeling faint, apparently. Her mother rushed after them.
Elijah glanced in Jemma’s direction and froze. A second later, the girl was wilting in her mother’s arms, and Elijah was standing beside them. “What an inestimable pleasure,” he said. “My boyhood friend enters my house.”
“That would be I,” Villiers said indifferently. “The one you don’t speak to. Your wife—who invited me to your ball—and I were just extolling the benefits of the solitary life.”
They were like night and day. Beaumont burned with the raw intensity that fueled his political ambitions, that had propelled him to the most important cabinet place under the Prime Minister, that had given him the ear of the King. Villiers drooped against the balcony, his cheroot held in long, lean fingers, his eyelids half open. He had a frown line between his brows and wrinkles by his eyes. Yet Beaumont still looked as he had in his early twenties, though he surely had as many late nights in politics as Villiers did in gaming.