“Never,” Damon said promptly. “Bores me to tears. The only partner I ever had who could give me a challenge was my sister. How’s the game with her going, by the way?”

Villiers stared at him. Gryffyn was as unmoved by the prospect of a duel as he was by the prospect of death. For the first time, he felt a faint prickling. A faint warning in the back of his mind. “I lost,” he said. “I lost the game yesterday.”

But the earl was already striding out onto the field, hailing their seconds.

Villiers walked out more slowly, rearranging his expectations of the game. He was going to have to kill—or be killed. In the earl’s eyes was the deadly cheer of a man whose future wife has been maligned and who will die to protect her honor. Except that Gryffyn clearly had no intention of dying.

Two minutes later they were circling each other, their boots leaving prints on the wet grass.

“We can wait until the sun dries the grass if you’d like,” Gryffyn offered.

“No.” Villiers couldn’t help but remember himself, offering Gordon a rook advantage.

He started watching for an opening. The earl seemed content to circle forever. Finally Villiers swooped in with an upward-cutting manchette blow. Parried by Gryffyn. He tried a pass in tierce and a redoublement. Parried, and parried again. Finally Villiers fell back, deciding to let the earl make the next move.

When he did, it was supremely smooth, a twisting, swirling demi-volte that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was only luck that Villiers’s blade caught his opponent’s rapier, deflecting the blow.

Gryffyn fell back and they circled once more. But there was something different about him now; the brooding joy of a predator was in every movement of those long legs.

There was nothing so terrible about that, except that Villiers himself didn’t have the energy of virtue behind him. He felt wrong.

He shouldn’t have called Roberta a concubine, not after he told her to go lose her chastity. He was the one who whipped her into Gryffyn’s bed, and then castigated her for it. And then too…there was Benjamin in the back of his mind.

Even as he parried a brilliant time-thrust from the earl, he thought about how nothing had gone right since Benjamin died. It was his infernal arrogance, that was it.

The earl tried a prise de fer; he knocked it to the side. Villiers felt rage rising, finally, from the bottom of his soul. What was he doing on a field in the cold dawn, fighting a duel with a man he was uninterested in killing?

“I’m not going to kill you,” he said, panting, circling, watching the earl’s hands.

“I’m not going to kill you, either,” the earl said. He didn’t appear to be even breathing quickly, which was galling. “I might have, but you apologized.”

They circled again.

“I can’t have Roberta think that her apology was for naught,” the earl said. “The right shoulder should do it.”

Villiers narrowed his eyes, but he didn’t even see the envelopment coming. It came from above, and sang through the air with a melody like death, twisted, flicked at the last second, slid home with a terrible scrape by the bone.

Villiers’s rapier dropped to the ground.

Gryffyn withdrew his blade; it was glossy with blood. Villiers bent over, breathing heavily.

Gryffyn shouted, “We could use the surgeon here!”

Villiers heard feet, and realizing for the first time how close the circle of spectators had come, straightened. Blood was running down his right arm and oddly, it felt cold rather than warm. “I regret any impunity to your lady’s honor,” he said, resorting to the antiquated language used by their grandparents.

“I am at your service,” Gryffyn replied.

The surgeon was upon them, offering Villiers a bottle of brandy and ripping off his shirt. Gryffyn was off, running—he was actually running—toward the Duke of Beaumont’s carriage.

Villiers upended the bottle for a moment with his left arm, and watched him go with disbelief. God forbid that he should ever become so tied to a woman. Or she to him. He shuddered at the thought.

The idea of a woman kneeling to ask for his life…

It was beyond distasteful.

Disgusting, really.

He upended the bottle again.

Chapter 40

T hey returned for breakfast to find the house full of gentlemen shouting congratulations to Damon, ladies sighing over the injury to the Duke of Villiers, servants running hither and fro with glasses and plates.

No one would know from the Duchess of Beaumont’s smiling face that she had been white with terror but an hour earlier. No one would know from her husband’s imperturbable calm that he too had found himself pacing the floor, unable to concentrate on the business of the realm.

She was standing with Viscount St. Albans, discussing the likelihood that Villiers would develop an infection. “A good half of the cases,” St. Albans reported. “But he had the best surgeon available and the man drenched the wound in brandy. I saw to that myself. No use shirking on brandy when a man’s life is at stake.”

Her husband touched her on the shoulder. “I thought we might play our piece,” Beaumont said.

To Elijah’s eyes his wife didn’t look quite right. Her lips were rather pale. She took his arm, which she never did.

He watched her as they settled before the board. “Let’s just sit for a moment,” he suggested. “Does Villiers have a deep wound, then?”

She visibly shuddered. “I can’t abide talk of these things. I believe not. Damon is enormously skilled and apparently he knew precisely where he wanted to place the blade. Villiers should experience no lasting effect.”

Elijah watched her stare at the board and knew that for the first time he was seeing his wife when she could not concentrate on chess. He moved and said, “Check.” She reached out her hand. “Wait,” he said. She was going to move her king’s rook, which would give him checkmate.

She looked up at him. “Let’s just rest for a moment. I am frightfully tired,” he said.

She frowned a little, and her hand fell back to her lap. “I do think you ought to work less, Beaumont.”

“You call me Elijah sometimes,” he said, hardly able to believe his own ears.

Her eyebrows shot up, so apparently she was just as surprised. “Elijah,” she said.

“How will you play your game with Villiers now?”

She swallowed. “I suppose you know that I won the first game in our match yesterday.” She bit her lip. “If I know Villiers he will be chaffing horribly at confinement to the bed. St. Albans told me that the surgeon ordered him to spend a fortnight in his chambers.”

Elijah’s heart sank. Though why it mattered, he couldn’t say.

Obviously Villiers may have lost his match but he had won something else.

“I suppose you’ll have to go to him,” he said, his voice as cool and controlled as ever.

She shot him a quick glance and fell to frowning over the board again. Her hand came out and she moved the rook.

“Checkmate,” he said, in response.

Jemma stared at the board as if she’d never lost before.

Beaumont had the odd feeling that they were experiencing the same thing at the same time.

It was a good thing that Roberta no longer feared making a spectacle of herself, because she could not stop clinging to Damon. Her father grabbed her arm at one point. “Mrs. Grope has decided to return to the theater!” he said, not looking half as miserable as one might expect.

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