“It was very kind of you to tell me yourself,” he said. “A mermaid. I should like to meet a mermaid.”

“I had hoped to see you this morning.” That was too blunt, but the sentence just jumped from her mouth.

He was silent for a moment. “I’m been—”

“I know you’re busy,” she said, cutting him off. “We have been married too long to lie to each other, Elijah.”

“I would have thought that the longer a marriage survived, the more the untruths accumulate.”

Jemma hated the fact that her heart lurched at the very sight of his smile. “I would prefer the opposite. I thought your note might have resulted from a misunderstanding about my last words to you.”

Obviously, he was a master of the art of silence.

“I told you that I did not wish to play the last game in my match with the Duke of Villiers.” She held her breath.

His expression didn’t change, and she dropped her eyes to her gloved hands. Fool that she was, she’d probably created the situation out of thin air. Look at all the petitioners he dealt with. He could not come home because he was busy. She was a fool. Her heart beat in tune with her self-recriminations.

He cleared his throat. “May I sit next to you, duchess?”

Jemma could feel a smile curling her lips. It was the gentleness of his tone. “Yes,” she said, rather breathlessly, adding: “Duke.”

“I thought you indicated a wish to discard our last game,” he said, seating himself next to her.

She pulled off her gloves and then reached up to touch his cheekbone. “You look tired again, Elijah.”

“Not our last game?” he said, showing the polite persistence that likely got him to the top of the government.

“Villiers’s,” she said. “I intend to relinquish the match to Villiers without playing the third game.”

“He won’t take that well.”

Jemma laughed. “Pity for your rival?”

“Leopold has always been unlucky in love.”

“I shall play him other games,” she said, “but not blindfolded. And not in bed.”

His lips barely touched hers, just brushed her mouth, but the very touch made Jemma shiver. It wasn’t the sensuality of it, but the affection that was heart-breaking. There had been so much anger between them.

“I have to leave London as well. Pitt has called a meeting in his country house, since Parliament is in Easter Recess for a few weeks.”

The regret in his eyes was deep and unfeigned. “How long?” she asked, wondering if it were possible for married couples to feel as excited as new lovers.

“I’ll tell him that I must return for the king’s fête on the twenty-sixth,” he said, kissing her again. But it wasn’t the kiss she wanted, so she wound an arm around his arm and brought him down to her. He smelled like Elijah. He tasted…oh he tasted like complexity and power and something that seemed awfully suggestive of—

But that thought was gone in the way his lips moved over hers, powerfully, commandingly. There was such a potent sense of homecoming that Jemma felt tears prick her eyes.

He didn’t touch her in any way. Her hands didn’t stray over his shoulders or disrupt his wig. They only touched in that most intimate, most silent of fashions.

They were still kissing when a hard rap sounded at the door and Mr. Cunningham poked his head in. Jemma saw utter surprise cross his face. Of course, Mr. Cunningham was probably more acquainted with the crumbling state of her marriage than she was.

But Elijah didn’t even turn around. “What is it, Ransom?” he said. He kept looking down at her, smiling an odd little lopsided smile.

“There’s been another breakout from the convict ship moored in the Thames near the Blackfriars Bridge,” Cunningham said, whisking himself back out the door.

“I told them it was a damn fool idea to house people in the hulks,” Elijah said.

“Housing criminals on warships? Or the part about the Thames?”

“Did you know about that? You’re a constant surprise to me, Jemma.” And he bent his head again.

“I’ll be gone by the time you come home,” she said, some time later. She was breathless and happy and frightened, all at once.

“I shouldn’t let you leave,” he said.

To Jemma’s mind, it seemed as if the muffled uproar in the outside chambers was growing louder by the moment.

“They’ll want me to address Lords about what to do,” he murmured, cupping her face in his hands.

“What will you say?” she managed.

“I’ve always—” he brushed his lips over hers—“said that the use of warships”—another kiss—“was an outrageous mistake.”

The noise outside rose to something of a crescendo, and Jemma, pulling herself free, stood up. But she couldn’t bear to leave just yet.

“Why?” she asked.

Being Elijah, he took her question seriously. “Most of the convicts are unemployed veterans of our various wars. Unable to find work, they turn to robbery and worse. The warships make terrible prisons: the men spend most of their time trying to escape. And one in four dies during his first three years there.”

“The nests of pestilence,” Jemma said with a little gasp, “I heard men talking about them in the outer chamber.”

Elijah nodded.

“You are a good man,” Jemma said, straightening his cravat.

He caught her hands, turned her right one over and kissed her palm. “Not always.”

“When it’s most important,” she said.

“I begin to think the opposite. It could be that you are most important, Jemma. To me.” He held her hands for a moment, and then let them go. “I shall come directly to the king’s yacht on the twenty-sixth, Jemma. And I shall look for you.”

Jemma never really understood the description of a singing heart until that moment, but as she threaded her way out of the crowded chambers, every man arguing over issues of clemency to convicts, deportation to foreign lands, banishment, execution, hanging…She couldn’t stop the foolish smile on her lips.

Or the song in the general vicinity of her breast.

Chapter Twenty-seven

The Dower House

March 3, 1784

Isidore did not want to have an intimate meal with Simeon. It was too heart-wrenching. After having thought of him as her husband for so many years, some parts of her couldn’t stop thinking of him that way. Mostly, if she were strictly honest about it, her body.

She only had to see him to want to kiss him. If they ate together, just the two of them, she might embarrass herself somehow.

They had spent the afternoon working through the final stack of papers. They had an argument over one of the letters. It talked of love, rather than money. That made it worse, to Isidore’s mind, and she thought that the woman deserved more than the standard four-hundred-pound gift they had agreed upon.

“She may be in no need of funds,” Simeon pointed out. “She doesn’t mention his promises, unlike the rest of them.”

“But she knows he is married. He is a duke, and she addressed the letter to him. Why would she write if she didn’t need funds?”

“She loved him.”

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