“The worst is over. Your beloved Villiers met him and he didn’t flee from the room shrieking, so what do you care about the rest of the ton?”
“I would like to go to parties,” Roberta said wistfully. “Our neighbors stopped sending us invitation years ago.”
“Oh, you will be. Your papa will take the estimable Mrs. Grope to his house and have a lovely time guarding her against the entreaties of all those gentlemen who will want to take her away from him—”
“Don’t be cruel.”
“I think what would be truly cruel is if Mrs. Grope doesn’t get at least one lure thrown out to her. He’s so hoping for rivalry.”
“He doesn’t truly want rivals.”
“A rival or two would make for some excellent poetry. At any rate, my point is that your papa and Mrs. Grope will take themselves off, and you will be chaperoned by Jemma. No one will close their doors on Jemma, for all she’s flaunted her indiscretions for years.”
“Has she indeed?”
“The fault of her foolish husband and his mistress,” Damon said. “Of course, she is a Reeve. Will the strain breed true in you, do you think?”
“Why I—” She stopped. Would she have affaires?
“Of course you will,” Damon answered her unspoken question. “Villiers is not the sort of man to demand or even desire your entire attention. You see how lucky you are that I did not appear at your New Year’s ball?”
“Why?” she asked, startled.
“Jemma can tell you that I was a most annoying brother,” he said. “I never share. And—I would never share you.”
Roberta opened her mouth to reply but there was nothing to be said.
E lijah came home after the cloth makers and before the Americans, instructing his coachman to dash across London as if the hounds of hell were after him, while inside the coach he bent his head over pieces of foolscap covered with Pitt’s small, crabbed writing. They danced before his eyes: notes about French connections, about the mood in the House of Commons, about the recent election.
He strode into the house with a headache, to find his butler, Fowle, dancing before him in an ecstasy of impatience. “If you’ll please, Your Grace.”
“I have no time,” he said automatically, allowing a footman to take his cloak from his shoulders and tossing his hat on the chair. He didn’t take off his wig. It was beastly hot, but what was the point? Play the chess piece and leave the house within ten minutes and he had a chance of getting to the Americans at the appointed time.
“Your Grace,” Fowle said, “I must speak to you!”
His tone was so desperate that Elijah paused with one foot on the bottom stair.
Two moments later he pounded up those same stairs and threw open the door leading to his chambers. She was seated before the chess table, of course.
He sat down, calming himself with a fierce interior command. Jemma looked up with a smile, but her greeting died—at the look on his face, presumably.
“Am I to understand that you have moved a woman of ill repute into the house?” he said, sitting down and moving a pawn to Queen Four. He had thought out that move in five minutes between one meeting and another, and he certainly didn’t have time to reconsider it now.
She echoed his move just as quickly. Then she sat back, hands folded. “The Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury arrived this afternoon. Surely, you were informed of his imminent visit this morning, as was I?”
“I was not informed that he arrived with a doxy in tow.”
“An unfortunate omission,” she said. “A Mrs. Grope does indeed accompany him.”
The immense injustice of it blocked his throat for a moment. “Do you have any idea,” he finally said, hearing the harsh sound of his voice behind his teeth, “what this will do to my career?”
“I don’t know. Will it cause injury?”
Her look of enquiry fueled his rage. “Don’t play the fool with me, Jemma,” he hissed at her. “You and I have been married far too long for that. I know that you are intelligent; I know that you can easily conceive why it would be a bad idea for a member of the House of Lords to invite a woman of ill repute to live in his house!”
She looked genuinely sorry. “There was nothing I could do about it, Beaumont.”
“Send them to Nerot’s Hotel!”
“I could not be so rude. There may possibly be a few straitlaced matrons who will not visit the house during her stay with us, but I am perfectly happy to hold no entertainments. That way no such matrons can have an opportunity to announce their qualms.”
“How long does she stay?”
“A few days only. The marquess talks of opening his house here in London.”
“I have a dislike of opening myself to entirely valid criticism of my household arrangements,” Elijah said. His throat closed before he could say anything further.
“I could not turn her out. But I assure you that I hadn’t the faintest idea that the marquess might pay a visit to his daughter, nor that such a person as Mrs. Grope existed.”
“How could you, indeed?” he said it woodenly. His wig felt as if it weighed a good stone.
With one swift look at him, Jemma rose and walked behind him. Automatically he began to rise, but she pushed his shoulders down and pulled off his wig. It came away with a little cloud of powder. She fluttered her hands to make it go away.
“Must you?” she asked. “Villiers never wears one.”
“He is hardly decent; he doesn’t even powder his hair. Villiers is no one.” He said it wearily, but truly. Villiers didn’t have the ear of the King, nor even the ear of Fox, Pitt’s great rival. He was no one.
“And you?” his wife said. Her fingers began to gently knead his scalp, touching him here and there. Her touch had the cool blessedness of water.
He leaned his head into her hands, a gesture of weakness and yet…She was his wife. What mattered weakness before her? She didn’t love him, nor he her, but there was a bond there, between husband and wife, that was different from any other bond.
“Perhaps,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically uncertain, “you ought to reduce your appointments, Beaumont. You don’t appear well.”
For a moment he just enjoyed the feeling of her slender fingers working through his hair, taking away the tightness of his scalp. And then her words filtered through to his brain.
“Appointments!” He swore and leapt from the chair. A moment later he snatched his wig and threw it on his head, helter-skelter. Made a leg to his lady, filing away a thought about how very beautiful she was for some other moment, and rushed from the room.
Jemma was left, staring down at the chess table.
Day three of the Villiers/Beaumont chess matches
R oberta felt as if she’d fallen through a hole in the wall and ended up in Miggery’s Traveling Circus. Events swirled around her in which she played no part. She had envisioned a grand seduction campaign. She had planned to bribe Villiers’s footmen and to trap him into marriage. She had schemed to use a substitute wedding certificate. But, in the end, what was necessary? Quote a bit from The Rape of Lucrece, wear a gown that was a trifle too small and suddenly…