“But you’re so lucky!” Margery exclaimed, turning back to Roberta. “I just realized that you are staying in Beaumont House, aren’t you? That means you are living in the same house with Lord Gryffyn.”
“Yes, he is here,” Roberta said.
“Along with his—his—his—” Roberta thought her name was Hannah. She was giggling so hard that she couldn’t voice it. Among the foolish, she would take a crown, to Roberta’s mind.
“His son is in the house as well,” she said evenly.
“I don’t know how you can!” a shrill voice said. “Why, my mother said that if she’d known of his presence, she might not have let me come to this ball at all!”
“He’s only a child of six years old.”
“You haven’t met him!” That was Margery, her eyes round with horror.
“I met him briefly and there was no sight of devil’s horns anywhere,” Roberta said gravely. “But then, I do not care for children.”
“Neither do I,” the shrill-voiced girl said. “Especially ones of this nature, who should be kept out of sight.”
“I don’t care if Lord Gryffyn does have an illegitimate son,” Margery sighed. “He’s so adorable.”
“I suppose one could think that,” Roberta said. “I believe I prefer someone older…say the Duke of Villiers?”
There was a moment of horrified silence.
“Hasn’t anyone told you of his reputation?” Hannah gasped. “Stay away from him!” She punctuated each word with a stabbing motion of his finger. “Stay away! You haven’t a mama who can tell you these things. Stay away from him!”
Roberta almost fell back a step. “I will. I promise.”
Never had she felt more lonely.
The girls all took her for precisely what she appeared to be: a docile young heiress, brought from the country to be launched onto the marriage market under the aegis of her cousin the Duchess of Beaumont.
Their mothers seemed equally accepting. The dreadful illustrated pictures of her and her father in Rambler’s Magazine were brought up several times, but only by kind matrons intent on reassuring her that no one knew of their existence.
All night Roberta danced and looked for the Duke of Villiers. Then, finally, she curtsied to a partner who had trodden all over her wounded toes, turned away and there he was.
“You must forgive me,” he said. His deep, purring voice went through her like a bolt of lightning. “I might almost have knocked you down.”
She curtsied. “Your Grace.”
“I gather you are a new lamb brought to languish in the London season. Or to triumph over it, as the case may be. Do tell me your name, now we meet again?”
“Lady Roberta St. Giles.”
“My father died some years ago,” he said, in a striking non sequitur. “I can only suppose that yours has come to some unfortunate end since you are consigned to the duchess’s tender care.”
She raised her chin. “My father is enraptured by the duchess’s kindness toward me.”
“Shall we dance? It will come near to ruining your reputation, I should warn you. But I believe I already gave you a warning, did I not?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? I must have forgotten.”
He knew she was lying, but she thought he liked it. “I never seduce impoverished young ladies,” he said, his voice silky and sweet, “but I am more than available for young ladies of ample means.”
“I believe,” she said, allowing just the right amount of time to pass, “that my virtue can withstand the assault of partnering you in one dance. But it is so reassuring to know that if I am overcome by a desire for ruination, you are willing to accommodate. It warms the heart.”
He threw back his head at that and let out a peal of laughter. “Hoist with my own petard! I deserved that. Come on, then. You’re not as wholesome as you look.”
“Since I gather that chastity would set no edge on your appetite, I shall not pretend to horror and dismay.”
“The Rape of Lucrece,” he observed. “Do you play Lucrece then, with beauty and virtue striving in your face?”
“That sounds like an armada in full battle. Absolutely not. Had I been Lucrece, that dagger would have made its home in Tarquin’s heart.”
“Bravo! But have no fear, Lady Roberta, I have never yet had to lower myself to Tarquin’s violent tactics.”
“Ah,” Roberta said. “It’s useful to know that ruination does not always result in feeling like a polluted prison.”
“A terrible use of alliteration on Shakespeare’s part,” he said, frowning. “I assure you, Lady Roberta, that ladies leave my care as assured of their own divinity as they were the day before. If perhaps slightly more so. I find—don’t you?—that pleasure is a divine gift.”
They walked into the ballroom. The main pleasure on Roberta’s mind was the slightly hungry way in which other women looked at Villiers.
“I don’t suppose you play chess, do you?” he asked suddenly. “I am finding myself rather surprised in that respect this evening.”
“I have never played the game,” she said. The chess board had languished in her father’s drawing room forever; it had never occurred to her to study it. If only she had known it was so crucial to London entertainments.
He seemed to guess at her thoughts. “Almost no one in this house”—he nodded at the brilliant silks crowding the dance floor—“can play the game worth a damn, if at all. It is only I, and perhaps your hostess, who seem to have a curious affinity for it.”
They paused just inside the ballroom, waiting for a new measure.
Villiers seemed to feel no need to entertain her. He dropped her arm; when she looked at him he was exchanging looks with a young matron who had an entire ship balanced on top of her hair.
“A nautical miracle,” he murmured, seeing that she had followed his eyes. “And Madame Moore is so very light herself that it’s a miracle she doesn’t capsize more often.”
He was bored by her, and why shouldn’t he be? “As I understand it, light frigates are very easy to board,” Roberta said, unrolling her fan and fluttering it before her face. “I assume that is an attraction for those too clumsy to attract a less sluggish vessel.”
“Definitely unexpected depths,” he said, and there was a strain of amusement in his deep voice that made her lightheaded. A strain of trumpets signaled the beginning of a minuet. He bowed before her; she snapped shut her fan, and curtsied. The steps of the dance kept them apart, turning toward him and his heavy lidded eyes, turning away. Her breath was coming quickly.
At the end of the dance he gathered her hands, kissed both of them, and made a magnificent leg. “My title, Lady Roberta, is the Duke of Villiers. I fancy I may see you one of these days, as I have undertaken to play a prolonged chess match with your hostess.”
Of course she knew he was the top chess player in London; but now it occurred to her that he was deeply competitive in all things. And that such competitiveness was a weakness.
She smiled. “I wish you luck.”
“In seeing you, or in playing chess?”