“I don’t want to be in this house full of memories, and letters I haven’t answered, and the stupid, stupid things he did.” Her voice was savage. “That stink—it’s the stink of stupidity.”
“My sister, the Dowager Countess of Douglass, keeps an old-fashioned house, perhaps, but it’s the sort that I’m comfortable with. This son of mine, with the way he looks and he acts…I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be here and pretend that I don’t care when traditions are violated, and stupid, stupid men do just as they wish. He runs about the country naked.”
“Not precisely,” Isidore managed.
“They live to humiliate us. Over and over. My husband never trotted about in diapers. But when I think of it now, he might as well have been naked. You may leave now.” She waved her hand.
Isidore backed out of the carriage.
“You’ll find out,” the dowager said. Her gaze was not unkind. “Send my things after me once the maids are able to enter that wretched house. I’ll write Godfrey with my consolations and instructions for his future welfare. You’ll have to cope with the duke’s unkempt ways and his foreignness. God knows I tried but he was never mine. Not really mine.”
Isidore curtsied, the deep, respectful curtsy that one gives to a deposed queen.
The queen didn’t notice.
Gore House, Kensington
London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont
March 3, 1784
It was as if the world froze for a moment. He shook Elijah—and Elijah’s head flopped forward, like a poppy on a broken stalk.
“No!” Without even thinking, Villiers shook Elijah again, hard. “Wake up!” Fear suddenly wrenched his gut.
Elijah woke up.
For a moment he stared straight ahead, as if into a country no one else could see. Then his eyes slipped to Villiers and he smiled. “Hello.”
Villiers stumbled backwards, feeling for a chair, and fell into it. “Christ and damnation.”
Elijah’s smile faded.
“What was that?” Villiers said. “What just happened?”
And, when there was no answer: “Elijah!”
They hadn’t used first names with each other since they were both fifteen, sixteen…whenever that was that they quarreled over a lass and never spoke again.
“I collapsed,” Elijah said bluntly. “I must have fainted. It’s my heart. I’m thirty-four.”
“Thirty-four?” Villiers shook his head. “Thirty-four? What’s that, a terminal date for hearts?”
“My father died at thirty-four,” Elijah said, putting his head back on the chair and looking up at the ceiling. “His heart failed him. I had hopes of surpassing his span, but I have, increasingly, these small episodes. I see no reason to fool myself.”
“Not quite yet,” he said, that beautiful half-smile of his quirking the corner of his mouth. He shook his head. “There’s nothing more to say about it all, Leo.”
Villiers hated being called Leopold. He hated being anything other than Villiers, and he never was, to anyone other than Elijah. The very sound of the name made him feel unbalanced, as if nearly twenty years had vanished.
“I don’t accept that,” he said. The words felt harsh in his throat. “Have you seen a doctor?”
Elijah shrugged. “There’s no need.”
“You blacked out.”
“I’ve been trying to seduce your wife and you never said a word.”
Elijah smiled at that. “What difference would it make?”
“All the world,” Villiers said. His voice grated in his own ears so he got up and walked to the side of the room and stared unseeingly out the window.
“I don’t see why it should. You and I have always had disagreements over women.”
“The barmaid,” Villiers said, making a vain attempt to get hold of himself and yet keep the conversation going.
“You chided me with it when you were in the grip of fever. You told me that I had the barmaid, the dog, and Jemma. I couldn’t make you understand that the dog was long dead. But I could certainly understand why you’d like to take Jemma.”
Villiers turned around. Elijah was still seated, looking at him with that patient, courteous curiosity that was a hallmark of his dealings in Parliament. “Damn it, aren’t you angry?” he demanded.
“Because you allowed my old dog to die while you saved my life?” Elijah raised an eyebrow. “I was angry when I was sixteen and foolish. I’m sorry I retaliated by stealing your barmaid away.”
“Not that. Aren’t you angry about your heart failing?”
Elijah fell silent.
Finally Villiers said, “I am sorry that your dog died.”
“She was all I had, and all that really mattered to me.”
Villiers moved sharply, then forced himself to be still.
“Except for you, of course.” Elijah raised his eyes. “You were my dearest friend, and I stole your mistress and pushed you away because you were ungracious enough to save my life in a river, and not manage to save that of my dog as well.”
“We were both fools,” Villiers muttered.
“There were few things that I treasured in life, and I threw away one. Then I sated myself with government and flurries of power, and I threw away my wife. It seems a remarkable waste of years; I certainly agree in your judgment of my foolishness.”
“I won’t go near Jemma again. It wasn’t for revenge; truly, it wasn’t. It was just that—”
“She’s Jemma,” Elijah said simply.
“Yes. Does she know that you’re ill?”
“No! And she mustn’t.”
“That’s not fair.”
“There’s no fairness in life,” Elijah said, his voice heavy. “I’ll be gone whether she has time to grieve and fear for it, or not. I want the time I have left with her without grief.”
“Of course.” Villiers cursed himself for ever trying to entice Jemma.
“I’m winning, you know.” Elijah’s smile was a beautiful thing. It had helped him triumph during many a difficult battle in Parliament, that smile. It had won the heart of a prickly, ugly young duke by the name of Villiers, back when they were both nine years old. “She’s planning to concede the remaining game in your match when she sees you next.”
“You are winning,” Villiers said. “You are.”
“I’ve been very slow, very tactical,” Elijah said. “I wasted so much time in my life. I’ve planned this like a campaign, the most important campaign of my life. And you played a part, Leo.”
“I needed formidable opposition,” he said. “You provided it.”
Villiers sat down opposite Elijah again. “You must tell her. How often do you have these spells?”
“Oh, once a week or so. More frequently of late.”
“Do you have any idea how much time you have?”
Elijah shook his head. “I don’t want to know.”