Naturally, the Duke of Villiers made a grand entrance. He paused for a moment in the doorway, a vision in pale rose, with black-edged lace falling around his wrists and at his neck. Then he swept into a ducal bow such as Fowle could only dream of.
Jemma came to her feet feeling slightly amused and thoroughly delighted to see Villiers. She used to think that he had the coldest eyes of any man in the ton. And yet as she rose from a deep curtsy and took his hands, she revised her opinion. His eyes were black as the devil’s nightshirt, to quote her old nanny. And yet—
“I have missed you during my sojourn at Fonthill,” he said, raising her hand to his lips.
His thick hair was tied back with a rose ribbon. He looked pale but healthy, presumably recovered from the duel that nearly killed him a few months before. She felt a small pulse of guilt: the duel had been won by her brother, after which he summarily married Villiers’s fiancée. Much though Jemma loved her new sister-in-law, she wished that the relation could have been won without injuring her favorite chess partner.
“Come,” she said, leading him to the fire. “You’re still too thin, you know. Should you be upright?”
“I could challenge you for that insult. I’ve knocked on death’s privy and came back to tell the tale, and you’re saying I’m too thin?”
She grinned at him. “Do say that you came to play chess with me? It has been over a month since your fever broke, and that was the length of time for which your doctor issued an embargo on the game, was it not?”
He sat opposite her. She leaned forward, began rearranging the pieces; his large hand came over hers. “Not chess,” he said.
“Not—chess?” If not chess, what? She knew him to be a master at the game, just as she was. What did a master do, but play? “I thought your doctor decreed merely a month without chess; have I mistaken the date?”
He leaned his head back against the chair. “I’ve gone off the game.”
“Believe it. I missed it at first, of course. I dreamed of chess pieces, of moves, of games I played or thought I played. But then slowly the urge left me. I’ve decided to take another month at least before returning to the board.”
“You’re voluntarily eschewing chess?”
His smile was a bit rueful. “I can tell you that it lengthens the days. How do people occupy themselves if they’re not chess players?”
Jemma shook her head. “I’ve never known. So how is the party at Fonthill? Wait! Tell me about Harriet.” And she held her breath, not knowing if Villiers was aware that her friend Harriet was having an affaire with the owner of Fonthill, Lord Strange.
“Happy,” he said, “with Strange. But I’m afraid the festivities are dimmed at the moment, as Strange’s daughter is quite gravely ill. I felt it was rude to tax the household with my presence under the circumstances, so I slipped away. I shall return in a day or two when, one hopes, the crisis will be over.”
“Oh dear! What sort of illness has she?”
“A fever caused by a rat bite,” Villiers said. “But the girl is apparently quite strong, and the doctor is sanguine that all will be well. Harriet is spending her time in the sickroom.”
“Of course Harriet would do that,” Jemma said. “It’s the affaire with Strange that I can’t imagine. Isidore said that the air scorched around them.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I had no idea that the duchess was so poetic in her assessments. I gather Strange and Harriet are in love, a foreign emotion for me.” His eyes rested on Jemma. “And how are you?”
She smiled faintly. “Not in love.”
“But not unhappy?”
He seemed to take some answer from that, perhaps to a question he wasn’t ready to put into words, for he nodded.
“So what of our match?” she asked, surprised by her own keen disappointment in his refusal of chess.
“One move a day…that match?”
“Yes, that match,” she said. “Do you have so many outstanding matches that you don’t remember? To bring it to your recollection, I have won one game, and you have won one game. That leaves one game to break the tie.”
“I do remember now,” he said, watching her under his eyelids. “Let me see…if our match went to a third game, the last one was to be played blindfolded and in bed.”
“Precisely.” Jemma folded her hands. “I’m so happy that it’s come back to you. I have been training my maid, Brigitte, so she can stand next to the bed and move our pieces appropriately.”
“I did not picture the bedchamber occupied by others than ourselves.”
“Life is positively full of disappointments.”
“Precisely so. I’m sure your maid could use more training. I’d prefer not to play chess for at least another month. Besides, I must return to Fonthill; I didn’t even say goodbye.”
“I feel like an old drunk who’d been sitting on a pub stool next to a man for thirty years, only to be told his comrade has chosen sobriety,” Jemma said, feeling distinctly nettled.
“Chess is better than alcohol…more addictive, more inflammatory, more intelligent.”
She looked at him for a moment, and the edge of her mouth curled up. “You’ll play again.”
“I will trust you to wait for me.”
“I was never very good at waiting for men.” Jemma was startled to hear the words come from her mouth. In one sense, she meant her husband. She waited three years for Elijah to fetch her from Paris when they were young, after she had flung herself across the Channel in a rage. He didn’t visit until the fourth year, and by then it was too late. She had found a lover, and put her marriage behind her.
Villiers’s heavy-lidded eyes dropped. “I, on the other hand, am very good at waiting. For you, Jemma…I would wait quite a long time.”
Jemma woke up. The conversation was happening—perhaps had been happening—on two levels for quite a while and she only now realized it. “Beaumont should be home from Lords within the hour,” she said, watching him. “Will the two of you take your rapprochement from the sickroom to a drawing room?”
Villiers smiled faintly. He didn’t look in the least disappointed by her implicit rejection, which rankled her. Surely he ought to show more response to the invocation of her husband? “Unfortunately, I have a previous engagement. But I wanted your advice. I may have temporarily lost my interest in chess,” he said, “but I am compensating by an increased interest in humanity.”
“You?” she asked, startled.
“Yes. I, the eternal bystander.”
“I always thought you found the affairs of others exhausting and uninteresting. My goodness, Villiers, you’re not planning to reform? I shall be so disappointed if it transpires that the only reason to invite you for an evening is because you lend an air of respectability.”
“It would be a terrible come-down,” he said thoughtfully. “But in truth, I feel no Puritanical leanings.” There was a flare of something deep in his eyes that made her want to smile back, reach out her hand…
“Do ask my advice, then,” she said. “I’m sure I’m capable of wise pronouncements on almost any subject, and yet no one asks for evidence of my wisdom.”