It wasn’t that he wished to marry. But there had been something interesting about the last few days, during which he felt part of something—of a family, one had to suppose. Yet what a family? Who would want to tie himself to that ridiculous marquess? Clearly, the man felt the same about him.
“I don’t want to play with this piece,” Gordon said, jutting out his lip. “I’ve a good shot at winning with a rook advantage. This piece will just mess it all up.”
“Concubines always do,” St. Albans said. He had pulled over a chair. “You should watch out for Mrs. Rutland, Gordon. Her husband was swearing to revenge his horns the other night.”
“He’ll have a pretty time deciding which man to challenge,” Villiers said idly. He hadn’t really decided whether to play with the concubine. On the one hand, it was a silly piece. On the other, it would irritate Gordon and Lord knows why he had sat down in front of the moribund fool.
“Mrs. Rutland is a praiseworthy woman,” Gordon said.
“Well, you should know,” Villiers said. “You may begin, Gordon.” He placed his concubine in front of his king’s rook. “Quite a brave little piece, isn’t she?”
“She can turn the entire game,” Jourdain said.
“I’ve no doubt. Your move, Gordon.”
Gordon pushed forward a pawn and said with his customary obstinacy, “Mrs. Rutland is no concubine.”
“No one said she is,” Villiers said. It was his move and he decided to try out the concubine by taking one of Gordon’s pawns and then his king’s rook. Why not?
Gordon breathed heavily through his nose in a revolting manner. “Look here, Jourdain,” he said, “how can we play a proper game with that dreadful concubine going about and sweeping up pieces right and left?”
“So true to life,” Villiers said thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have thought you capable of it, Jourdain.”
Jourdain turned a little pink. “Go on, Gordon,” he urged. “Just think it through, man.”
Gordon was incapable of thinking anything through, including his relations with Mrs. Rutland. “You might want to turn the lock next time you decide to shed your breeches in public,” Villiers said, just when he considered that Gordon might be actually concentrating on a move. “Your wife would have been most distressed to walk into the sitting room and see you rutting away like that.”
“Rutting Rutland,” the viscount said with a simpering laugh, showing that he was ever a man who had to say the obvious.
“I don’t care for your phrasing,” Gordon stated, looking up at Villiers.
Villiers felt a lazy spur of interest. Finally the great walrus was listening to him. “But rutting is such an evocative phrase,” he complained.
Gordon pushed back his chair with a scraping noise, shocking in the small room.
Parsloe rushed forward. “My lords, may I remind you of the rules of the London Chess Club? Physical interaction of any kind and the participants lose their membership.”
Gordon paused. Villiers could almost see the cogs turning in his head. Finally he pulled back to the table and said, “At least I didn’t almost marry her.”
Villiers lifted his eyes from the chessboard very slowly. “Since I gather you are unlikely to be talking about your virtuous wife, would you like to clarify yourself?”
Gordon bent over, huffing a little, and swept his concubine forward to take a pawn, followed by one of Villiers’s bishops. “After I left Mrs. Rutland at the ball, I happened into the library. My guess would be that you, Villiers, have lost your fiancée to the Earl of Gryffyn. Of course, I would never soil a lady’s reputation by saying anything about…rutting.”
Villiers knew quite well that the wave of rage he felt was unfair and improper. It was just that if Gordon saw Roberta in the library with Gryffyn—that would be before he asked her to marry him, before he told her to lose her chastity, before he decided to end their engagement. At the very moment she was doing her best to lure him to the point.
There are times when irrational feelings are insuppressible. He felt sick. That was it—sick. He looked up to find St. Albans’s avid little eyes fixed on him like a pig spotting a rotten apple. Albans was watching for the slightest trace of emotion, he knew. He’d be damned if he allowed anyone to think that he cared.
“Queens are so unstable,” he said sweetly. “They careen across the board, and sometimes turn into concubines before one’s very eyes.”
St. Albans laughed. Gordon shook his head. “You’re unnatural, Villiers. You really are. You don’t give a damn, do you?”
Gordon moved forward a rook, so Villiers took it. “Check.”
“Where?” Gordon bleated.
“I have a bishop.”
“Ah, but I’m afraid the concubine will take care of the bishop, as they so often do,” Villiers pointed out.
“One might say that concubines conquer all,” St. Albans said, with his high cackle.
Villiers pushed back from the table. He couldn’t take another moment of this god-awful idiocy. “Gentlemen, at your service,” he said, bowing.
Gordon looked up from where he was glowering at the board. “I shouldn’t have said that,” he said, his pale blue eyes wide. “There wasn’t any rutting involved. In the library, I mean.”
“But there so clearly was this afternoon,” Villiers said gently. “A concubine, you see, will always display her nature, and I am happy to pass my ownership to Gryffyn. Your new piece,” he said, turning to Jourdain, “is dangerous.”
Jourdain shook his head. “You needed the extra bishops to keep her in check.”
Viscount St. Albans’s laugh said it all.
No number of bishops could keep a concubine in check.
Day nine of the Villiers/Beaumont chess matches
From Damon Reeve, Earl of Gryffyn, to the Duke of Villiers:
Your description of my future wife is all over London. Your seconds?
From the Duke of Villiers to the Earl of Gryffyn:
You’re a fool. If you kill me, she will smell no less perfumed to you, and if I kill you, you will soon smell much worse.
From the Earl of Gryffyn to the Duke of Villiers:
Your choice of weapons?
From the Duke of Villiers to the Earl of Gryffyn:
Rapiers. Dawn, Wimbledon Commons, near the windmill. Tuesday. I have a chess game planned with Lord Bonnington tomorrow and can’t bother with this. You are a hot-headed Fool who clearly has no sense of the Importance of Women (none whatsoever) nor of a good Sleep (vastly to be desired). I shall, however, resign myself to killing you.
Day ten of the Villiers/Beaumont chess matches
I t was a noise beside her bed that woke her up. “Mmmm,” Roberta said, reaching out—and waking up instantly. “Teddy! Are you lost again, child?”
“No,” he said. He stood next to the bed like a little ghost in a white nightgown. His face, normally so cheerful, was woebegone.
“What’s the matter?” she said, peering at him. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“Can we sleep with you?” he burst out.