Villiers sat for a moment, imagining the chess pieces flashing from place to place. He couldn’t be certain how that game had gone, naturally, but he could see the beauty and complexity of it.
“He taught me a great deal about sacrifice,” she continued. “In one game he took from me, he sacrificed his queen, promoted a pawn to a new queen, and won my queen rook.”
“Did you sleep with him to celebrate his victory?” he enquired.
She seemed unoffended. “No.”
“I think if I met someone who could play like that I would do everything in the world to bed her,” he said, watching her.
She looked like a classic Greek statue, every feature in perfect symmetry. “Playing chess is like music and passion. It gives one a reason for living. Surely to combine two of them would be heaven.”
“I have made love while a violin played,” she said. The secret smile playing at the corner of her mouth turned his blood hot.
“But have you made love to a master chess player?”
“It depends on one’s definition.”
“I fit the definition. Philidor as well.”
“A chess master with a resemblance to a pawn is not in my purview. And I feel I should add that Philidor is happily married and Madame Philidor would likely resent any encroachment upon her king.”
“Unfortunate,” he said. “Though I should warn you that I myself have never viewed queens as being possessed by a king. Queens have so much more flare and daring: they move in every direction; they attack and counterattack.”
“They can certainly operate independently,” she agreed and rose.
Villiers rose as well, conscious of a feeling of disappointment. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay in Jemma’s bower, talking in double talk about chess and desire. “Why don’t we play a game on the side?” he said impulsively. “A private game…one that is not being played out by days? Or do you only play games involving a daily move?”
“If you mean by that do I need an entire sunset in order to think out my next move, the answer is no.”
“Then play with me,” he appealed. “I’m tired of playing idiots. I have nothing particular to do. Let’s play together.”
“I should have to offer my husband the same courtesy.”
He shrugged. “Do so. My impression is that Beaumont has no time for the games of mere mortals.”
Jemma sat down again before the board. “He did once say something of the sort to me.”
“He told Gentleman’s Magazine that his chessboard was England.” He started putting the pieces in place before she changed her mind.
Jemma turned back the ruffles that fell over her fingers, leaving her slender fingers and wrists free.
“So intriguing,” he commented, watching her closely.
“Why do you say so?”
“It makes me think of undressing you. Women wear so much clothing…one lusts for the small amounts of flesh that make themselves visible.”
“I am beginning to think that you find everything sensual.”
“To my mind, there are two things worth doing, one out of bed and one in. Perhaps we should change the rules of the final game?”
She turned the board around. “Your advantage this time.”
“The final game blindfolded,” he said, “and in bed.”
“And how precisely would that work?” she said, her mouth curving in a delicious lopsided way. “Would my maid stand beside us, moving the pieces? You did say blindfolded, did you not?”
“I never pay the slightest attention to servants. But if you would feel discomposed by her presence, we’ll set up the chess board in the corridor and I shall call out our moves.” Villiers caught himself before he started begging like a bishop blocked by a pawn. What was that about? He never begged. He took.
He scowled at the board and leaped his knight over the row of pawns. He didn’t believe for a moment that she was as good as she claimed.
It incensed him that something in her eyes suggested she knew precisely what he was thinking.
“Do you ever resist the feeling?” she asked some time later, as he was frowning down at the board. Her queen had just taken one of his knights. There was no good move that he could see.
“Resist what?” he asked absentmindedly. Perhaps if he moved his queen to Bishop’s Two…
“Resist women. Or a woman. Resist a woman whom you desire.”
He looked up at her. She had to know that her intelligence made her more luscious. She made no effort to hide it, never simpering or giggling, as far as he could see. Yet there was something odd about their match prickling the back of his mind. Why had she summoned him to her ball? Why was she challenging him?
It might have been simply for the pleasure of a match, of course. He looked back at the board.
She leaned toward him, and the curve of her breast was enticingly plump above her stiff bodice. “Do you ever resist desire, Villiers?”
“Very occasionally. I have felt impulses that I have not pursued; I feel that impoverished women would come to my bed with desperation, and the emotion is enough to dampen my appetite.”
He bent forward and moved his pawn to take one of hers.
“Women resist desire as a matter of course,” she said almost dreamily, taking a pawn of his in return.
“There are so many more consequences for the female sex.” Suddenly he was scowling down at a game that had flipped from comfortable to…otherwise.
“Damn it,” he said. It was the first comment either of them made for a few minutes.
Until: “Checkmate,” Jemma said.
She leaned back in her chair and smiled at him. “To answer your earlier question…there won’t be a third game unless we each win one.”
Villiers nearly growled. Did she really think he would go down in both games? This was nothing but a side game, and he hadn’t properly concentrated.
“It would have been amusing,” she said, “if you had moved that pawn to King’s Bishop Three.”
“I would have won,” he agreed. He was already playing through all the moves in his head. “I would have won, except that was the moment when you raised the question of desire.”
Her mouth had a mocking curve to it that burned him to the bone. “If you survive to a third game,” she said, rising again, “your proposition might be a very interesting one.”
“What proposition?” he asked, rising automatically, but still thinking through the game.
“To play our third game blindfolded, and in bed? It certainly would amuse the staff banished to the corridor. I shall consider it.”
Villiers had never come quite so close to hating someone after whom he lusted. It was true that he hated—if momentarily—every person who beat him at a game of chess, but to have that person be a woman who seemed supremely insouciant about his offer to take her to bed was infuriating.
He walked behind her down the stairs, moodily assessing her narrow frame, the elegance of her shoulders, the beauty of the dull gleam of her hair…
He’d met a woman whom he really wanted—and she was the first female to beat him at chess.
Quite possibly the two facts were not unrelated.