“No one can blame you for the situation,” Vickery said, clearly meaning to be comforting. “Fox treats his Mrs. Armistead as if she were his very wife, and the world knows she is not.”

Yet Fox’s indiscretions had worked in Elijah’s favor. He had convinced certain straitlaced gentlemen to question Fox’s judgment, based on his inordinate love for a courtesan. Lord Holland once promised him his support purely on the basis of Fox’s indiscreet relation with Mrs. Armistead. “Will Fox never learn the importance of character?” Holland had demanded, looking like a plump pigeon who had eaten a worm not to his liking. Elijah could just imagine what Holland thought of Jemma. Not to mention the naked centerpiece, if news of her pearls and paint was abroad.

Clearly he should no longer count on votes from those scandalized by impropriety. “If you have the Americans after the cloth makers,” Vickery said, “when will you be playing your chess move, Your Grace?”

Elijah tossed him the towel and ran his fingers through his hair. He kept it short as possible to make his wig more comfortable.

He felt slightly better, though it was truly disturbing to realize how much he would have liked to retreat to bed or perhaps wander downstairs for a chat with the marquess. He liked poetry as much as the next person, though come to think of it he hadn’t opened a book of poetry for years. “I don’t know when I’ll fit it in,” he said vaguely.

After a man and master have been together for years, they grow attuned to each other’s moods. It was clear to Elijah by the time he had his stockings on that Vickery was not happy.

Vickery chose the moment when Elijah was positioning his wig to burst into a flurry of exclamations, all of which led to a few key conclusions:

The Duke of Villiers would play his second piece without fail.

The majority of the household had bet in favor of their master winning, Vickery included, and said master needed to play in order to win.

And, finally, missing a day’s play would be taken by all of London as a sign of weakness.

When Elijah thought about it in the carriage, he realized that missing a day would presumably be akin to an admission of impotence. He leaned toward his private secretary, Ransom Cunningham.

“I must return home before the cloth makers,” he said.

Cunningham opened his mouth to protest.

Elijah raised his hand. “The chess game,” he said.

His secretary’s mouth snapped shut. Elijah almost asked him if he had bet on Villiers or himself, but decided it was better not to know. “Do you have any idea how the betting is going in White’s?” he asked casually.

There was a moment’s hesitation. Then: “Well, Villiers is ranked first in England, Your Grace,” Cunningham said with a look of pained apology.

“Humph.” Elijah settled back in his seat.

It had been years since he played a game of chess. But he knew its lineaments and its bones. There had been a day when he had been Villiers’s only serious opponent. Of course, they had last played when they were seventeen, but still, he fancied he had an advantage.

Not because he had once played Villiers.

But because he was Jemma’s husband. To know an opponent was to be able to defeat him. Or her. It was exactly like politics, though he could never seem to make that clear to some idiots in government. He would meet the American diplomats and the cloth makers because, once he knew them, he could move them like little pawns around a chessboard of his own making.

The idea was rather soothing. In fact, one could say that he was better practiced for a game of chess than he had ever been in his life.

The only point that gave him the slightest hesitation was the tingling sense that it could be that he understood Americans and cloth makers better than his wife.

But that was a problem that could certainly be overcome. He added it to the great list of tasks that lived in a corner of his brain, and was consulted every hour or so. The list ranged from the small to the very large, from check the cellars of the house in Portman Square (for he had holdings all over the city) to strengthen connections with France, and Pitt be damned. Somewhere in the middle of the list he added: Get to understand Jemma.

He thought about it and then annotated the entry.

Get to understand Jemma quickly before she wallops me and costs the loyal parts of my household their annual salaries.

Chapter 18

T he Duke of Villiers spent the morning at Parsloe’s. He played a mediocre game of chess with a Russian who happened by, and then spent a solid three hours discussing queen sacrifices with Lord Corbin. It could be that Corbin might become a regular partner, which Villiers hadn’t had since Berrow shot himself.

Damn it.

Regret always struck Villiers as a foolish emotion, suited to poets and those who had nothing better to do with their time than weep over missteps. As in chess, as in life: it was all a vast game of attack, and one should waste no time regretting mistakes. He found it preferable to excise them from his memory.

But that game, that final game with Berrow…His memory stubbornly refused to forget it.

It had started simply enough. He was focused on pawns that year, and soon had his black pawns swirling around Berrow’s white queen like a swarm of hostile ants. It was a brilliant tactical game, played against a weaker opponent, but not the less enjoyable for that.

Except…could he have done it differently?

Could he have headed off the moment when Berrow took himself home and put a gun to his head?

The question nagged and nagged. It visited him in his sleep sometimes, leading to dreams full of black pawns. If Berrow had taken his rook in the fourth move, his pawn attack would have collapsed.

But perhaps he shouldn’t have pointed that out to Berrow after the game was over. Villiers hunched his shoulders, striding down the block toward Elijah’s house. Odd that he still thought of the house as Elijah’s, though the two of them had barely exchanged a word in years, and weren’t on speaking terms, let alone the intimacy of first names.

Yet to all appearances, they were now playing for Elijah’s queen. Whom Villiers didn’t really want. All he wanted was someone to play with.

Or perhaps: all he wanted was Berrow to play with.

It was a maudlin thought and had Villiers banging the knocker with such a fierce scowl on his face that the butler fell back a pace. “Her Grace awaits you,” he said.

But Villiers was already on his way up the stairs. He shook off paltry regrets. Yesterday Jemma had played a pawn to King’s Four, as had he. Likely she would move a knight.

She moved a pawn to Queen’s Four; he promptly took her pawn with his from the day before.

He sat back. “May I see your husband’s board?”

The duchess shook back her delicate ruffles. She really was a remarkably beautiful woman, he noted with a certain detachment.

“No.”

“Tell me about Philidor’s mode of play?”

“He’s a round little man with pince-nez. He is quite bald and—” Her eyes laughed at him.

“He looks like a pawn,” Villiers guessed.

“Slightly. One of the most interesting games I ever saw him play was one in which he was challenged beforehand to checkmate using his queen’s bishop.”

“A contract game…and such a difficult one. Fascinating!”

“He sacrificed his queen, two rooks, a knight and a bishop, but he did it.”


Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance
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