But it was too late. In clambered a small boy and a kitten, who promptly leaped to the bottom of the bed and curled up there, somewhat to Roberta’s relief.
It took her twenty minutes to coax out of him the information that Rummer had given him. “Of course, Papa will win the duel,” he said, snuggling down into the covers, one hand clasping hers. “Papa always wins, that’s what Rummer says.”
“Rummer shouldn’t have told you about the duel,” she said firmly. Her mind was whirling with terror, spinning with the fact of it.
If Damon was fighting Villiers, he was fighting for her honor. And her honor, her honor wasn’t worth a scrap of paper, not in comparison to the way she felt about Damon. It was as if mortal coldness gripped her heart and clenched her stomach. What could she do? What could she do?
She would pull Villiers aside when he came to play his game with Jemma, and she would beg him. Surely he wouldn’t deny her, if only out of whatever fugitive affection that caused him to ask her to marry.
She stared into the darkness for hours, planning what to say, parsing her sentences, praying.
She fell asleep only when the light was peeking through the curtains of her bedchamber. Deep in a sleep of leaden exhaustion, she never heard Teddy scamper out of bed and return to the nursery to be roundly scolded by his nursemaid. She never heard her maid tiptoe in and then decide not to wake her, based on the white stillness of her face. She was far too fast asleep to hear the faint commotion that greeted the arrival of the Duke of Villiers, here to play his piece at chess.
She slept on.
When she finally awoke, she was aghast to see how high the sun had risen. But did it really matter? The world knew where Villiers spent his days: at Parsloe’s, playing chess. He had told her so himself. She’d find him there, if she had to.
She dressed in an utterly charming affair of light silk embroidered with bluebirds. Quite in Villiers’s line, now she thought of it.
She went straight to Jemma’s chamber, bursting into the room, hoping that Villiers was there, only to see the blood drain from Jemma’s face when she told her Teddy’s news.
“Villiers said nothing to me this morning,” Jemma said.
“Villiers has already been here?”
“He left an hour ago.” Jemma swallowed. “Oh God Almighty, why couldn’t you have kept out of Damon’s bed while you were engaged to Villiers?”
Roberta sank into a chair. “I don’t know, I don’t know! I shall die from the guilt of it. I love Damon so much that I lost my head. I didn’t think.”
Jemma’s face softened. “I gather you no longer love Villiers, then?”
“I was a fool.”
“It’s a common condition.”
“I’m going to ask Villiers to back down,” Roberta said. “Do you think it might work?”
“He lost this morning,” Jemma said hollowly.
“He lost the game. All of London will know by this afternoon. He lost to a woman. To me.”
There was no one in the breakfast room. Fowle informed her that Mrs. Grope had gone to the theater again, and her father had gone out. The mermaid, Roberta thought.
Damon had taken Teddy away for the day. A last day with his son, Roberta thought, and her heart flooded with such guilt that she could scarcely breathe. She would stop this duel if she had to kill Villiers herself.
Unfortunately, like chess, she had neglected to study the fine points of swordsmanship.
“I should like a carriage,” she told Fowle, and a few minutes later, a smart chaise awaited her.
Roberta pulled on her gloves. She was icy calm now. She was going to stop this monstrous thing before it happened.
Parsloe’s was a rather ordinary looking place for all the attention it got, to Roberta’s mind. She was met by a butler who asked her if she was a member of the chess club.
“I am not,” Roberta said, rather startled. “I didn’t known there were female members.”
“There are,” he said with a regal bow. “May I help you, Madame?”
“I should like to see the Duke of Villiers,” she said.
“I’m afraid that he is upstairs, in the Members’ Rooms, and no one who is not a member is allowed therein.”
“You will have to make an exception,” Roberta said.
There must have been something in her eye because he stopped being a starched butler and cowered a little. “Of course, you are a lady,” he said.
“I am not any lady,” she told him. “I am engaged to the Duke of Villiers.”
“In that case!” he said, gesturing to the stairs. “After you, my lady, after you.”
She climbed up the stairs and a moment later found herself in a room filled with gentlemen. They were all watching Villiers, which made it easy to find him, at any rate. He was spectacularly dressed, sitting at one end of the table, his legs spread wide. He looked absorbed, elegant—and dangerous.
Roberta dizzily took in the muscled strength of his shoulders and the controlled menace in the way he put down each chess piece. He looked like a man who would slay an opponent with no more emotion than he would take a pawn.
“Your Grace,” she said, coming to stand before the table. The other man looked up quickly and suddenly the whole room was on their feet, bowing and scraping. She ignored them, looking directly at Villiers. “Your Grace,” she said, dropping a curtsy. “I came to beg some private conversation.”
His eyes rested on her, cold, indifferent. How had she ever thought that was an attractive trait in a man? He was loathsome to her now, snakelike in his magnificence.
“I see no reason for that,” he said. “I am in the middle of a match, as you see.”
“Please, Your Grace,” she pleaded.
But he looked at her with something akin to hatred. “If you must speak, speak here. There is nothing, it seems, in my life that is secret—is there, St. Albans?”
The slender young man standing to the side shrugged. “It is the fate of all of us to occasionally find our faces depicted in the windows of Humphrey’s.” His eyes lingered on Roberta, and she realized that he knew precisely who she was, and he was thinking about the cartoons in Rambler’s Magazine that were sold in Humphrey’s Print Shop. Slowly she looked about and while she didn’t see hostility, she did see knowledge. They knew who she was. They knew that she had been cartooned as desperate for a husband, as begging a footman to marry her. They knew that she had spurned Villiers for the Earl of Gryffyn.
She looked back at Villiers. He stood beside his chair, his eyes impenetrable.
She walked a step forward, and then she fell to her knees.
There was a gasp in the room, and a rustle of agitation. Roberta ignored it. “Please, Your Grace. Please do not fight a duel with the Earl of Gryffyn. He is my future husband, and I cannot bear to see him die.”
“I would not have expected this of you,” he said, staring down at her and actually looking rather startled. “I thought you were of different stock than your father, Lady Roberta.”
“You were in error. I find myself more like him every day. Please. I am begging you. I am desperate.”
There was a murmur around the room, a flourishing of whispers. “Raise her up,” someone said to Villiers. And: “This isn’t decent.”