“I am angry at him too. He should never have treated you so lightly. Nor life either. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t love him, Harriet.”
Harriet’s eyes were all shiny with tears, but she gave Jemma a kiss and made her way out into the darkness. The door of the carriage slammed shut and it moved off through the fog, the sound of horses’ hooves growing indistinct immediately.
Of course she would win. True, Villiers had beaten her today, in a very pretty stratagem. But she would win the match.
Jemma went inside, but when Fowle stepped back, thinking she would rejoin her guests in the ballroom, she shook her head and asked Fowle to give her excuses. She had seen enough of Miss Tatlock giggling at her husband’s every word. Roberta and Damon had disappeared at some point, possibly together, which was a complication she didn’t want to consider. And frankly, a little of Mrs. Grope’s company was more than enough, although her tip about using ceruse to prevent wrinkles was interesting.
What she would prefer would be to work through a few of Francesch Vicent’s 100 Chess Problems. She headed up the stairs.
Forty minutes later she was bathed and wrapped in a comfortable dressing gown, with her hair bundled up in a towel. “You may go, Brigitte.”
“Your hair, Your Grace,” Brigitte said. “It will dry with curls in it.”
But Jemma was seated before her chess board, with a glass of French brandy and her copy of Vicent. She smiled apologetically, and Brigitte (who had strong views about the supreme importance of appearance) banged her way out of the room.
“Come in!” Jemma called impatiently, an hour later, or it might have been two. She expected a weary maid, but instead her husband stood there, looking as perfectly groomed and attired as he had at the beginning of the evening.
“Beaumont,” she said, moving her bishop. “Is there something I can do for you?”
He walked over and looked down at her book. “Vicent?” he asked. “I haven’t thought about that book in years. Villiers and I worked our way straight through it at some point.”
Which was all the more reason for Jemma to do just the same if she meant to beat Villiers as soundly as she wished. Not to mention Beaumont himself.
He sat down without being asked. “What about moving your rook to King’s Four?”
“Two moves with his rook and I would be in check. Are you thinking of setting up that young woman as your next mistress?”
He raised his head from the board, and the look in his eyes almost made Jemma flinch.
“She’s a well-bred young woman,” she said. “I thought you hoped to avoid a scandal.”
“I have no need of a mistress.”
Heat scorched Jemma’s spine. “Of course not,” she said, nodding. “I was not implying that the position was open, but I didn’t expect such loyalty on your part. Your mistress is still with you, then?” She schooled her face to an expression of benign enquiry.
“She is not.”
“But she’s been replaced. You soothe my spirits, Beaumont. Watching you with Charlotte Tatlock I feared that you were about to flare into true scandal.”
His mouth barely moved when he spoke. “I am not intending anything untoward with Miss Tatlock. I merely enjoy speaking to her about politics. She is, you see, interested in what goes on in England.”
She gave him a faint smile. “Unusual in a woman.”
Without looking at the board again, he said, “Queen to King’s Three and you have him in four moves.”
She frowned at the board, saw what he was talking about. “Not if black moves his rook to block me.”
“It’s possible, but it’s the only move I see that will open up your board.”
“You like it because it counters black’s attack,” she said.
“I dislike finding myself under attack, it’s true. At the moment, I am one move away from open warfare on a number of fronts.”
“Due entirely to my return from Paris?”
“Immanent scandal,” he said. “I now house a woman of ill repute and an illegitimate child, and my last ball featured a nearly naked Helen whose songs were hardly proper. My wife is widely believed to be playing a game with the Duke of Villiers, in which she herself is the prize.”
She felt anger sweeping up her spine, making her head reel. “You simply wish everything to be kept silent, is that it? You have your mistress, and flirt with a young unmarried lady until she looks at you with stars in her eyes, but that’s not a scandal, because to you neither woman matters. All I do, Beaumont, is live my life without hypocrisy. Perhaps that is something a politician cannot understand.”
“You live your life with the easy arrogance of someone who has never cared a damn for anything or anyone except yourself.” His tone was crushingly blunt. “I suppose you care for chess, Jemma, but from what I gathered, you never really gave a damn for those men you partnered in Paris.”
She sprang to her feet. “How dare you suggest that I didn’t care for them? You know nothing of my relations!”
“I know you were sleeping with Monsieur Philidor for a matter of years,” he said, rising in his turn. “I could only hope there was no payment involved; his regular visits to your house suggested a relation embellished by francs.”
“How dare you!” she cried. “Philidor—”
“I really don’t wish to know what Philidor was to you. Let’s just assume that I underestimated your ability for emotion and you care a great deal for the man. Should I, as your husband, applaud that?”
“Let me see if I can get this straight. You are suggesting that Philidor was my courtesan? Forgive me; I don’t know the correct term for a male. Paramour, perhaps. Could I ask exactly how my taking a paramour would differ from your relation with Sarah Cobbett?”
And when he didn’t reply, “It’s only been eight years, Beaumont. Surely you remember the name of your former mistress?”
“I am merely surprised that you know it,” he said.
“Believe me,” she said with a shrug, “there were many people happy to tell me all her circumstances after I realized the truth of our marriage. Did you think to keep it secret?”
And when he said nothing, “I see you did. How very odd. Even had I not discovered the two of you in such an awkward way, someone would have told me in the near future. I found myself glad of it, afterwards. Do you know: I was so stupid and young, that I might not have believed it without visual proof? I don’t believe I would have understood that you might bound from my bed to hers—at least figuratively, since you bedded her on a desk.”
She was possessed by an icy fury that no one except her husband had ever inspired in her. “That is quite different from you, Beaumont. You have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Philidor was somehow in my employ, even though you never saw me lying beneath him.”
“Since you show so much curiosity, I will reward you with the gift of information. I have never paid a gentleman for his favors; unlike you, I seem to be lucky enough to attract lovers who need no payment. And I have never led on a man who did not understand the game at hand. Perhaps you are blind enough that you did not see the way Charlotte Tatlock looked at you tonight. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Surely I could simply look back at myself eight years ago and recognize her stupidity.”