She reached out and turned his hand over. “Perhaps you could be the one to change my mind,” she said, tracing a path on his palm with her finger. “That is, I would be pleased, but you are Roberta’s fiancé, and the bonds between friends are stronger than those between lovers, in my opinion.”

“I have few friends. The closest friend of my life was your husband, and that many years ago.”

She glanced at him, but he was staring at her fingers on his hand. “I know that you were close once…”

“In the way of boys and small animals. Without thought for the future nor our differing personalities. But still, I find I have a fragment of honor left in me. I am not the person to show Beaumont’s wife that the body is greater than the mind, and games of chess pale next to games in bed.” He took her hand and kissed it, and there was something so sad in his eyes that she didn’t even mind the fact she had been turned down.

Though that had never happened before.

“Why don’t you speak to him?” she asked impulsively. “Elijah needs friends. He needs someone to tell him to slow down, to drag him away from his work.”

His smile was rueful. “He and I are centuries apart, in personality and taste. In all honesty, and without offense, I wouldn’t wish to be particular friends with the Duke of Beaumont now. If it were a matter of being fourteen again, and playing a game of chess by the river…that I do miss. But those days are gone.”

“I have no wish to be fourteen again.”

“Life was simpler. I do not let myself entertain regrets nor think about mistakes. My father always said, and he was right, that regret is a useless practice. But I find that in my thirties, regrets chase me down the street sometimes. It’s not so easy to shrug them away.”

He was talking about Benjamin, perhaps. She thought about whether to mention his suicide too long, because Villiers asked her, “What do you regret, Oh Duchess?”

That made her grin. “So many things!”

“Such as?”

“The absurd Italian hat I bought yesterday in Bond Street with Roberta.”

“Ah, Roberta.”

His eyelids dropped and she couldn’t see his expression. “Your fiancée,” she prompted.

“A charming young lady.”

“I gather,” she said wryly, “that the dew is off the rose, for you.”

“Yet another regret.” He sighed. “They are like bad dreams; once you allow one, they come as thick and fast as leaves in autumn.”

“She will make you an excellent wife.”

“I did it to make you angry.” He raised her hand and put one kiss in her palm, and then replaced it on the table, all without looking at her. “I admit with some shame: You won our first game of chess.”

She shook her head at him. “You asked someone to marry you out of pique?”

“Are you suggesting that I take this game too seriously?”

She found herself laughing, and then he joined in.

“One never knows,” he said a moment later. “There’s many a slip between an engagement and the church.”

“She loves you, you know.”

“Or something of that nature,” he agreed.

“It would take an act of God,” Jemma said. “But I think she will be the making of you, Villiers. Perhaps you will have the real marriage that I can only imagine.”

“Unfortunately, I cannot imagine such a thing,” he said with some disdain. “I shall pray for an act of God.” He was at the door when he turned and said, “I have had many lovers, Jemma.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I am the more disconcerted to be left out of the legion, then.”

“That’s not what I meant. I’ve had many lovers…but few friends.”

And he was gone, before she thought how to reply.

Chapter 32

“W hat happened to you? Where did you go?” Damon demanded.

Roberta blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Why did you sneak off like a housemaid in the night and leave me in the sitting room?”

She couldn’t help laughing a little. “Are you telling me that you wanted me to stay around and watch you snore? Perhaps until the footman came in to bank the fire? I took a bath, just as you apparently did,” she said, looking at his wet hair.

“I didn’t get a chance to show you what making love can be like.”

“Oh, yes you did,” she said hastily. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. Truly. I was simply—”

He swallowed all her words, and her protests, and her sensible points, just by pulling off his shirt, and then his breeches. A protest died in her throat. Without a word he lowered his hard masculine length on top of her. It was unsettling. A sort of hunger settled deep in her stomach that made her feel uneasy.

Then Damon started kissing her, and with a little moan, she opened her lips to him. She could taste his hunger, as if they passed it back and forth to each other. The uneasiness in her stomach was turning into something else, some sort of restlessness that brought her hands up to his powerful forearms. Her fingers trembled as she traced his muscles.

The feeling alarmed her, and with a sudden twist she rolled out from under him and sprang away from the bed. “I’d prefer not to be intimate again,” she said, dismayed to realize that her breath was coming fast.

Damon didn’t even seem to hear her. He started padding toward her, without a word, like a predator.

Roberta backed up as far as she could go, against her little armchair. “Damon!” she cried, trying to make her voice sound commanding. “I prefer not—”

But he was kissing her again, fierce in his possession, and all her flimsy words blew away because the mere touch of his hands had her shivering.

“No,” she gasped, but it was like throwing kindling on a fire; he laughed, deep in his throat and kissed her again, kissed her until she was trembling, her mind swirling, her body rocking against his, her voice strangled with the need to beg him—

She never begged.

Never.

But then he stopped touching her and suddenly her body raged with the memory of his large hands shaping her breasts, rubbing her. He was just kissing her. That’s all. As if—

Of course, she wasn’t touching him either. They were standing together, and the only thing touching was their mouths and it wasn’t enough.

“Damon,” she said, her voice husky.

“I’ve never lost control like that.”

“It had nothing to do with your control. I think I just didn’t enjoy that part of it very much. It’s—It’s so fast, isn’t it? And not—”

He groaned. “Can we talk about aberrations?”

“What?” she said, confused.

But he was there, scooping her up. “This one’s for you, Buttercup,” he said, putting her back on the bed and sitting down next to her.

Roberta was still trying to think what to say when he pulled open her dressing gown. Instinctively, she grabbed it back. “No!”

“Yes.” His eyes were full of slumberous intent, but she hung on. “Roberta,” he said slowly, “if you don’t let go, I’m going to bite you.”

“What!”

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