Damon’s eyes were even greener in the sunlight.
“I think we should go onto the river,” Teddy said. “This kitten would like that.”
“I doubt it,” his father said. “Roberta likely has important things to do.”
The river? In truth, Roberta had a singular longing to see more of London. “I have to return to the house by early evening,” she said cautiously.
“Ah, the great Villiers chess match,” Damon said, rising. “Come on, scrap. Let’s give Roberta some time to put on a gown without our help, and then we can all go on the river. Haven’t you ever been out on a river?”
Roberta shook her head.
“On a picnic?”
Roberta did not feel like explaining her disinclination to picnic with Mrs. Grope, so she just shook her head again.
“A woman with much to learn,” Damon said, with a wicked smile that spoke of kisses, not picnics. Then he was gone, leaving behind a red velvet coat with small white hairs sprinkled across the front.
Roberta untied her dressing gown. Perhaps she shouldn’t be going on the river, whatever that signified. Perhaps she should stay at home so that she was definitely here when Villiers arrived.
But she wasn’t quite certain what she meant to do to or with Villiers in order to make him marry her, although the very thought of him made her heart speed up again. Her maid burst into the room, carrying another of Jemma’s gowns. It was a pale blossom pink, and Roberta forgot all about Villiers as she learned the intricacies of a skirt draped à la polonaise.
Some two hours later, Viscount St. Albans bowed his way out of Jemma’s room and minced his way down the stairs. He was a slender man who made the very best of himself. This afternoon he was wearing a magnificent suit of lemon-colored iridescent silk, set with enameled buttons. His coat curved away from his waist; he left it entirely open, displaying all twenty buttons on his waistcoat (matching enamel, naturally). The waistcoat was judiciously padded over the chest, which repaired the one small fault he found with his own physique. Well, that and perhaps the fact that his eyes were just a trifle too close together.
He picked his way down the stairs carefully because there is nothing worse than polished marble when one was wearing high heels, and he judged that height was always desirable. But his mind was racing far ahead of him, already at the coffee house reporting the pleasurable fact that when he announced a previous engagement that meant he must take himself off, though naturally he perfumed the fact with many compliments, Corbin had made no move to leave the duchess’s bedchamber.
In fact, he had left the two of them in a cozy discussion of some chess player from Poland, a god-forsaken country that did not interest the viscount in the least. He wrinkled his nose at the thought of how they tried to fool him into thinking they were actually talking of chess. Clearly, Corbin and the duchess had bored him to tears in an effort to make him leave, which, frankly, he was more than happy to do.
Far be it from him to separate two love birds. Although he would do his best to ascertain just how long Corbin and the duchess would stay in unchaperoned harmony.
He reached the entryway and demanded a mirror. As a footman held the glass for him, he carefully placed his Macaroni hat on top of his curls at a jaunty angle. Then he noticed that a rosette was falling from his shoe; ten minutes later he was seated in an elegant little chair while the duke’s own valet sewed the rosette into a better position. After that, of course, he must needs readjust his stockings in private, and finally, he ended up in front of the glass again, rearranging his hat.
Just when he was about to give up altogether, he heard a brisk clicking of heels and down came Corbin.
“Still here?” Corbin said, with a cheerful grin that—to the viscount’s mind—signaled far too much cheer for a mere discussion of chess.
“I suffered the greatest imposition to my shoe,” the viscount said, taking care to lisp slightly in the new fashion. “It is of all things annoying; these rosettes are prone to falling on the wayside, do you not think?”
“I never wear such things,” Corbin remarked.
“I see that,” the viscount said, larding his voice with disapproval. “Your waistcoat would look so much better with a small fringe.”
“Yours would be greatly improved without it,” Corbin said, with such a gentle smile that at first the viscount didn’t take his meaning, and by the time he did—and would have rejoined sharply with a sharp comment about those buttons!—Corbin had slapped on a round hat and taken himself out of the house.
The viscount huffed and minced his way down the stairs to his waiting carriage. In his mind, there was no question. While the duchess did not seem to be carrying a child, she was clearly carrying a lover. He tittered to himself at his own jest.
In their wake, a perfumed, powdered and altogether delectable duchess wandered downstairs, leaving her bedchamber, strewn with silks and ribbands, flowers and shoes, to be made presentable for her upcoming chess match with Villiers.
To her surprise, her husband was just coming in the front door.
She halted halfway down the stairs, hand on her heart. “Good lord, Beaumont,” she said. “What an odd start to see you here.”
“I finished the day’s business,” he said, looking up at her.
Jemma tripped down the last few steps, conscious of being glad that she looked her very best. Which was a sad reflection on the tedium of her life, if she considered such a thing in connection to her husband.
“Would you like to begin our game?” he said.
“You play Villiers in your chambers,” he said. “I would suppose that mine must do the honors for our game. If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll remove my wig.” And then, when she didn’t move, “You do know the location of my chambers, don’t you?”
Jemma didn’t glance at the footmen who lined the wall, their faces blank and their ears straining for every word. “I shall endeavor to find my way there.”
Elijah watched her go back up the stairs. She was wearing a gown light enough to flutter in the breeze. It was indisputably French, designed to make a man break into an instant sweat.
He couldn’t think of Jemma’s sensual appeal if he meant to win this game. The one thing about his wife that he had never underestimated was her intelligence. In truth, his memories of their early beddings were not that interesting. It was so long ago that he could hardly remember, and everything took place under the covers, and that rarely.
It wasn’t her fault, exactly, that she was a tedious bedpartner. Obviously, he’d been a poor teacher. But it had meant that his mistress Sarah’s bouncing, erotic pleasure in his company provided a sharp contrast to the wife his father picked out for him when he was a lad of seven.
He started up the stairs. Would it have turned out differently had Jemma not found him in his chambers in Westminster with Sarah?
And perhaps not.
Neither of them appeared designed for the narrow straits of matrimony.
She entered his room a few minutes later, as he was setting out the pieces. “Ah, your grandfather’s chessboard,” she said. “I hadn’t remembered it until now, but of course I played many a game on it during our first year of marriage.”