She was no longer a virgin. That statement meant about as much to her as she had thought it would. Virginity, like many things connected to men, was obviously vastly over-rated. And frankly, so was sexual intimacy.

No wonder Villiers didn’t care if she’d had previous experiences. It was all a matter of a minute at most. Yet there was something alarmingly intimate about it, for all its speed.

Damon’s shoulder, for example. He was lying on his side, and his shoulder had a beautiful curve. She ran a finger along it. What she wanted now was a bath. There was a sticky feeling between her legs that she disliked. And, in truth, the experience wasn’t entirely comfortable. In fact, she likely wouldn’t do it again until marriage.

“Thank you,” she whispered, touching his face. The angle of his cheek was beautiful. For a moment she thought about kissing him again; somehow, he’d started touching her breasts, and they’d never really kissed, and that was her favorite part of it all.

But if she kissed him, he might wake up. And though it was kind of him to offer, she didn’t feel like doing that again.

So instead she teased her gown out from under his body, holding her breath when he seemed as if he might wake up. When she got it free, she stood up and wrapped the gown around her like an enormous towel.

The servants in her father’s house had been used to all sorts of extraordinary behavior; she could only hope—and in truth, expect—that Jemma’s servants were equally imperturbable. There was one footman standing in the hallway, so she gave him a smile and sailed up the stairs.

Once in her room she dropped her gown and rang the bell. Her maid appeared, looking rather sleepy, and quite surprised to find her mistress wearing a dressing gown. After all, she couldn’t have removed her stays by herself.

“Ellen, I’ve left some of my clothing in the yellow sitting room,” Roberta said, not wasting breath on feeble explanations. “We should probably send someone to fetch it, but not yet.”

Ellen nodded, showing that she was just as well trained as Roberta would have expected. “Would you like a bath, my lady?”

“Absolutely,” Roberta said. “Thank you.”

A few minutes later three footmen staggered in carrying a zinc bath and buckets of water, and Roberta was able to climb into the scented water with a sigh. Ellen helped her wash her hair, and then Roberta told her she could go to bed. “You must be exhausted.”

“Oh, I couldn’t leave you in this state,” Ellen said, looking sleepy. “How will you prepare for bed?”

“The same way I got myself into bed these last twenty years,” Roberta said. “My maid at home was quite old and couldn’t manage late nights, and so I always tucked myself in bed. In fact, I prefer it.”

“Will you call a footman to remove the water?”

“Of course I will. You go to bed.”

Ellen curtsied and left. Then she stuck her head back around the door. “I forgot to say that everyone below stairs is that pleased that you will be a duchess?”

Roberta smiled at her. “Thank you.”

“And no one will think the less of you for anticipating the wedding night, my lady…I’ll ask Martin, the second footman, to fetch your clothing in an hour or so. He can stow it where no one can see.”

Roberta’s smile was a little crooked this time. One had to hope that Damon would get himself out of that room without being seen by Martin or anyone else.

The moment the door closed she leaned her head back against the edge of the bath with a sigh. She was half asleep by the time she pulled on a dressing gown and called a footman to remove the bath.

The bath was gone, and she had just sat down on the bed, still in her dressing gown, and was thinking about where her nightgown might be when the door swung open.

“Oh,” she said, blinking up at him. “It’s you.” And then, with a squeak as she woke up, “What are you doing in my bedchamber?”

Chapter 31

V illiers stood quietly in the doorway, one eyebrow raised.

Jemma deliberately looked him over from head to toe: the sulky bottom lip, the dramatically streaked hair, the languid yet powerful stance. He was wearing a plum-colored coat embroidered with fire lilies; his hair ribbon matched. He wore one patch, high on his right cheek. He looked inexpressibly elegant even to her, who had lived for eight years in the shadow of the French court.

There was something about Villiers…about his penchant for clothing embroidered with peacock brightness, about his patch and his colored hair ribbon, about the deep intelligence in his gamester’s eye, and the coiled power of his body.

“Do come in,” she said, indicating the chess board. “A game, another side game, if you are not too tired?”

His heavy silk coat sounded like a distant seashore as he walked. He closed the door behind him and then swept into a magnificent bow, as low as that one might give to a queen. “You do me too much honor, Your Grace.”

“Jemma,” she said.

His heavy-lidded eyes paused on her face for a moment. “Jemma.” Her name sounded odd on his lips, and Jemma suddenly remembered the first time she was unfaithful to Beaumont. It had been in Paris, of course, after she fled England in rage and tears. Two years after she moved to Paris, it finally became clear to her that Beaumont was not coming after her to beg her to come home—fool that she was, she had thought he would. In fact, he didn’t even pay her a visit for three years, and by then it was too late.

She had fallen into bed with a merry French gentleman who taught her the pleasures of her own body and his. And yet that first night, her heart had been as heavy as it was now.

Why should it be heavy? She had the right to do precisely as she wished. She watched him sit opposite her, tossing his coat-skirts behind him so they wouldn’t crease. “You may perhaps think that I do you more honor than I intend,” she said.

“Dear lady,” Villiers said, “I will take whatever scraps you throw from your table.”

More of his curfluffle. Perhaps she should just tell him that she disliked his practiced gallantry.

“A game?” she asked. “I have given you the advantage, as you see.”

He played a piece and so did she. Again, and again. The rhythm of the game soothed her, wrapped her in the sweet complexities of knights and rooks and the powerful queen. Slowly her rage and mortification ebbed as her focus on the game sharpened. Her bishop was menaced. She rushed to save him, only to find that her queen’s pawn was threatened. A troublesome move…she slowed to think. Paused, her fingers still on her rook, until she suddenly saw a path, took his rook.

He fought back, but her bishop took his queen…four moves later it was over. She won.

Then they parsed the game, playing it backwards.

“When your rook took my pawn…that was a beautiful play,” Villiers muttered.

“What if you had threatened my queen, so?”

“No, because knight takes bishop…”

It was almost more fun dissecting the game than playing it. Almost, but not quite. At the end, he leaned back and smiled at her. “Sometimes I think that chess is better than sex.”

“I think so always,” she said, startling herself.

“Someone should change your mind on that subject.”

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