“She tells me,” Villiers said, “that she beat Philidor many times.”
“To be fair, Philidor beat me as many times,” Jemma remarked.
Elijah lifted an eyebrow. “You must have improved.”
A slow burn went through Jemma’s chest. Since her husband had played her only a few times, in the earliest days of their marriage, how could he know whether she had improved? She said nothing.
Villiers’s eyes slid back to her like sweet honey. “Our match is on, then?” he said, flicking his cheroot into the air. It flew through the evening sky like a glowing spark, landing on the gravel path below. Of course Elijah’s eyes followed it. He would never do such a thing. Why make work for a servant or possibly cause a fire?
“Of course,” she said. “Shall we play one move a day? The match will be slower, but all the more satisfying.”
“If there’s a tie with the first two, the last game blindfolded.”
She couldn’t help a little smile at that. She had played herself blindfolded, but it would be much better to have an opponent.
Villiers bowed with careless ease. His coat was as beautiful as one worn by the finest dandy in Paris.
Elijah was in unrelieved black.
When Villiers walked away, Jemma saw that his hair was tied back with a poppy-red ribbon. It looked shocking against the dark silk of his hair. He must be setting his own fashion; in Paris men used only black ribbons.
“Where will you play chess with him?” Elijah asked. His voice was even, but his eyes were burning with rage.
Jemma mentally shrugged. Elijah was a creature of anger. “I suspect I shall play him precisely where I played Philidor.”
“And where was that?”
“In my bedchamber.”
With some pleasure she watched his eyes smolder. “And the prize?”
She shrugged again, one languid movement that showed her shoulder to creamy advantage. Though why she should bother with such a thing around her husband, she didn’t know. “Need there be a prize?” she asked, and made to leave.
But he was blocking her way. He’d grown bigger in the past eight years. When she had left England, he had lean legs and large shoulders. But now he had turned into a proper man. Jemma pushed away that thought with irritation.
“I gather that you are the prize?” To do him credit, his voice was silky.
“I am no prize of any man’s,” she said, meeting his eyes to make sure that he understood. “I’m a free gift…to those upon whom I choose to bestow myself.”
“A gift many times given is cheapened by its traffic.”
“Dear me,” Jemma said. “It seems to me I’ve heard that before. Yes! It must have been in church. How unusual to find a politician quoting the catechism. Perhaps you missed your calling.”
“If you are playing chess with him—” Beaumont said, and paused.
Jemma was already past him, but she stopped. And then turned, slowly. “You would play chess with me simply because I have scheduled a match with Villiers? Surely you jest.”
“Cannot a man play a game with his wife?” His mouth was set in a firm line. “I see nothing particularly interesting about the fact.”
She laughed. “And will it be on the same terms? One move a day for each of us; best of three games; final game is blindfolded, if played at all?”
“But Beaumont, you have not played chess, to the best of my knowledge, in years. Is it not ill-advised to wager so much on a rusty skill?”
“What do I wager? As you say, there is no prize.”
She closed her lips. Far be it from her to point out that he played from the dislike he felt for Villiers. “You’d have to speak to me civilly,” she pointed out, “and come home every day to play. As I understand it, there are many nights when you sleep in your chambers.”
They both knew that he did not sleep alone when he stayed in his apartments in Westminster.
But he shrugged. Of course, a man in his thirties was presumably not quite as active as a man in his twenties. The day she discovered him on the desk with his mistress, he had risen from her bed but a few hours earlier. It was rather dismaying to realize that the memory still gave her a moment’s heartache, even so many years later.
“I’ll play you,” she said over her shoulder. “But I shall allow you a handicap.”
“I need no handicap.” He said it evenly.
The memory of that day was still like a coal under her breastbone, so she smiled at him. “To make our match a challenge.”
There was a faint color, high in his cheek, that betold rage. But Elijah was much better at containing himself than he had been when they were young.
“No,” he said steadily. “Remember: when you play as me, I frequently win. I would venture to say that I can equal that performance.”
Either he thought to humiliate her, or he completely underestimated her current skill. The latter made much more sense.
She curtsied. “By all means, Your Grace. Shall we begin the game tomorrow?”
“There is an important vote in Lords. But I suppose Villiers will lose no time attending you.”
“Gentlemen rarely do, once I admit them into my presence.”
He bowed. “Tomorrow.”
T he news spread throughout the ballroom within a few minutes. The Duchess of Beaumont was engaged in two chess matches: one with her husband’s enemy, the Duke of Villiers, and the second with her husband himself.
“They say,” May said at one in the morning, “that she’s a remarkably fine chess player.”
“Perhaps that’s the case,” Charlotte said, thinking of the intense eyes of the duke. “But she’s making a fool of herself to play with Villiers.”
May laughed. “Then you must be settling into old age indeed, sister. Even I can see that Villiers is a man to savor.” She looked slightly startled, as if such a word could not have come from her lips.
“The duchess’s young ward, Lady Roberta, seems entirely acceptable,” Charlotte said, changing the subject.
“Yes, a naïve little slip of a girl, isn’t she?”
Suddenly Charlotte realized that May was gazing at her hand. And there, crammed over her glove, was a signet ring.
It seemed that she would now be the only old maid in the Tatlock family. She snapped out of her momentary bleakness, embraced her sister and said all the proper things. In the flurry of congratulations, the docile young ward of the Duchess of Beaumont was quite forgotten.
In truth, Roberta had been forgotten by most of the players of this comedy. She obediently circled the ballroom throughout the night, moving from one gentleman’s arms to another. At first she danced like a feather, and later she began weaving a bit because her toes hurt.
She retreated to the ladies’ retiring room because Jemma’s exquisite French slippers caused blisters, not because she had no one to dance with.
A whole flock of girls were there, chattering like magpies. Their voices died when she walked in.
But then a girl with a sweet, plump face stood up and smiled. “I’m Margery Rowlandson; we met earlier this evening.”
“Good evening,” Roberta said, and curtsied.
Margery introduced her to everyone, and soon she was a part of the giggling group. One girl who couldn’t be more than sixteen was expecting an offer on the morrow; another had danced twice with a young courtier.