She let her eyes slide away from him. She was playing the game of her life, and it would never do to appear eager. “In chess, of course, my lord. I am frequently absent from the house, and would not wish to raise your hopes that I shall choose to be ruined, as you so charmingly offer.”

She turned and then glanced over her shoulder, caught sight of his white teeth—he was laughing—and slid into the crowd. So far she had been dancing rather indolently with whomever presented himself. But now she realized that in order to catch Villiers she must be the very top of the ton. The catch of the season. The most desired of all marriageable women.

He would have to win her over the hands of many men—or he would show no interest whatsoever.

Jemma’s brother appeared before her around an hour later. She had three young lords vying to offer her gingerbread wafers and champagne. In comparison to Villiers, they were easy to enchant. All three of them were giving her swooning looks, and judging from the sullen glances she’d had from young ladies, she was plucking chickens meant for someone else’s supper.

Damon cut her from the crowd adroitly, which she rather appreciated because it was good for her swains to see that she wasn’t theirs for the asking.

“Where are we going?” she asked. He nipped out of the ballroom and down a corridor that she hadn’t even known existed.

“To my sister’s sitting room,” he said, grinning down at her. “Back way.”

He pushed open a door and sure enough, there were the mustard yellow walls (minus Judith and her platter). But just as Roberta entered, she realized that the room was not unoccupied.

Directly before her, leaning over the arm of a chair, was a woman. All she could see was a creamy, rounded bottom because the lady’s violet skirts had been tossed over her head, undoubtedly so they wouldn’t be crushed. There was a gentleman there, of course, and he was—

He was doing her a service.

Roberta clapped a hand over her mouth and froze. Behind her, she heard Damon’s low chuckle.

Roberta just stared. It was almost violent and yet strangely intoxicating. The man was caressing his partner at the same time that he…well, he…The woman, whoever she was, was clearly enjoying herself, given the noise she was making. Roberta didn’t recognize the gentleman; he was rather tubby. But she couldn’t help noting that his thighs were strong, and he too was obviously most happy, and as she watched he shaped his partner’s bottom in his hands and pulled her higher and—

Damon’s arm came around her waist and pulled her silently backwards into the corridor. He was still laughing as he closed the door. Roberta didn’t feel in the least like laughing. She felt odd, as if all the air had been crushed out of her lungs.

Damon peered at her in the dim light of the corridor. “Shocked you to the bottom of your boots, I see. Come along then. We’ll go to the library; there’ll be no one there because it’s so damned hard to find.” He took her hand and pulled her along through a corridor and a turn, and finally through a door.

It was a monstrously big library, all lined with books and hung in somber crimson velvet.

Roberta walked forward feeling slightly unsteady on her legs. There was a sofa before the fire, and Damon pushed her into it. “A brandy, that’s what you need,” he said, going over to the sideboard.

He tumbled a few glasses about and said, over his shoulder, “I take it that was the first tupping you were ever witness to?”

Roberta opened her mouth but no sound came out.

“Poleaxed,” he said cheerfully, coming back and handing her a glass. “Drink that.”

Roberta took a fiery swallow and coughed. “What is it?”

Damon was laughing again. “First brandy, first tupping.”

“I didn’t tup anyone,” Roberta said, taking another sip. She quite liked brandy. Although it made her realize that her stomach was disconcertingly hot, and the drink only made it more so.

“True,” Damon said, throwing himself down next to her. “So, are you shocked, horrified, stricken to the bone?”

Roberta turned and looked at him. He was remarkably like his sister, though his hair was burnished a darker brown, whereas his sister’s was golden. Not that she could see his hair under his wig. He had Jemma’s eyes and her deep lower lip. “It’s rather unkind of you to make jest of me.”

He grinned unrepentantly. “I don’t see why you should be so horrified. It’s entirely natural, after all.”

But was it? Previous to this, Roberta thought she had the facts of procreation and marital intimacy firmly in mind. One of her father’s courtesans had informed her that the man climbs on top of his partner, inserts his private part into the appropriate area, and continues. What exactly continuing meant was rather fuzzy to Roberta, but she certainly understood the mechanics.

Until this.

Because the mechanics might have been—she had to suppose they were—reproduced in a different position…

Under Damon’s interested eyes she felt herself going pink in the cheeks. “It works in many different positions,” he said helpfully.

At this evidence that he knew precisely what she was thinking about, she turned pinker still.

“Any other questions? I am your cousin, after all.”

“Five times removed,” Roberta said rather crossly.

“Actually, it’s more like seven,” Damon said. “As I work it out in my head, you’re about as much related to me as most of the people in the ballroom.”

“Are you implying that I am taking advantage of your sister?”

“If Jemma didn’t want to bring you out, she wouldn’t. Believe me, no one talks Jemma into doing a single thing that she doesn’t care to. Thus, her eight years in Paris.”

“Do you understand why she came back to London?” Roberta asked, desperate to change the topic to something other than tupping peers.

Damon stretched out his long legs. The current fashion for tight knee breeches suited him. His breeches were of a dark crimson and they made his legs, in cream stockings, look remarkably virile.

Roberta caught herself. What was she thinking? It was all the effect of seeing that performance in the sitting room. It made her feel peculiar. Most peculiar, she thought, realizing just what kind of messages her body seemed to be sending her.

“She has to make an heir,” Damon said, “because Beaumont might drop dead at any moment. He collapsed in the House last fall, didn’t you hear? Fell to the ground and everyone thought he was dead. But he wasn’t. Still, the prospect is not too pretty. Fainting is not a healthy man’s activity. His father stuck his spoon in the wall at thirty-four due to something wrong with his heart. Beaumont is living on borrowed time.”

“He looks healthy enough,” Roberta said.

“Doesn’t he? I’m hoping it was an aberration. I like the man, and I think that it’s better for Jemma to have him here to fight with, rather than buried, if you see what I mean. Did you meet the Duchess of Berrow, Jemma’s friend? She was here yesterday afternoon.”

Roberta shook her head.

“She used to be a smiling little thing, and then her husband died—killed himself in truth—and she’s like a little bird with a broken wing now. You can’t coax a smile for love or money.”

Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance