“Your Grace?” Finchley quavered.
Slowly, slowly Villiers turned his head. His eyes narrowed, and he looked from the very tip of Finchley’s wig, over his cleanly shaven chin, paused for a moment on the reddened skin that showed above his bodice.
“Finchley,” he said, sounding clear-headed and utterly sane, “I think I may be losing my mind. Would you be contributing to that situation for some reason?”
“I’m not Finchley,” Finchley said.
“No? Then the Duchess of Beaumont has truly changed her spots. I can only assume that some distress has led to this change in your apparel.”
Finchley swallowed. “Your Grace has been quite worried that you would miss your move with the duchess,” he ventured.
“I am disagreeably sweaty,” the duke said. “I should like a bath immediately. I certainly couldn’t entertain a duchess in this condition.”
“So I thought.” He had to ask. “Your Grace, why?”
“Why did I regain my wits? The Duchess of Beaumont opened this game with a pawn to Queen’s Four, Finchley. The idea that she would then take a knight to King’s Rook Three was enough to shock me out of a fever dream. She would never move a knight to the edge of the board in the opening moves. I gather that I have not been in my proper head.”
“No, Your Grace.”
He peered around the room. “What day is it?”
“Saturday,” Finchley said, and then added, reluctantly: “You’ve been ill for well nigh ten days, Your Grace.”
The duke’s eyelids closed. “What do they say?”
“The doctors, fool.”
“You could be ill for quite some time,” Finchley said. “Banderspit has seen cases linger for months with this sort of fever.”
“Linger? Linger and then—”
“Recover!” Finchley said, cursing his choice of words.
“Write a note to the duchess and call off our match for the time being,” Villiers said, ignoring him. “And you’d better call my solicitor here as well. Now, while I’m still in my right head.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Finchley said. “You do come out of the fever in the mornings, Your Grace.”
“I’ve no memory of that.” He rubbed his head. “I feel as if that benighted duel took place yesterday.”
To Finchley’s practiced eye, the fever was already coming back again. “I’ll summon your solicitor tomorrow morning.”
His master’s eyes focused on him. “You’d better remind me that I’m dying before he comes, Finchley. I won’t have the faintest idea why he’s there.”
It broke his heart, but he bowed his head and said: “Yes, Your Grace.”
Two weeks later May 15
Jemma was rereading The Noble Game of Chess when her maid Brigitte scratched on the door and told her that the Duchess of Fletcher was asking to see her. She leapt to her feet. “Poppy, darling, how lovely you look!”
“I’m afraid I’m the worst of house guests.”
Poppy certainly was an unusual house guest. She stayed in her room and, by account of the maids, did nothing but read. And cry, Jemma thought. “There’s nothing better than an invisible house guest,” she said reassuringly.
Poppy reached out and touched her book. “I wouldn’t have thought there were books written just about chess.”
“In fact, there are many.”
“You must forgive my innocence. I do know that you are very, very good at the game…And that you are playing matches both with the Duke of Villiers and with your husband.”
Jemma looked at her guest from under her lashes and gave a mental shrug. Poppy might as well know the worst. “One move a day,” she said. “In each match. If either match goes to a third game, the third will be played blindfolded—and in bed.”
There was silence. Then: “Why?” Poppy finally asked. She didn’t look a bit shocked, just surprised. “Why would you want to play in bed? Won’t the pieces tip to the side and you’ll lose your spot?”
Another moment’s silence. “I suppose it was your husband who came up with that idea.”
“Actually, it was the Duke of Villiers.”
“Will you win?”
“Both matches? I grow frightened that this might be a case of pride goeth before a fall,” Jemma said. “I was rather shocked when I lost the first game to my husband. At the moment both games are postponed until Villiers recovers.”
“Why not lose this game as well? Then you avoid the whole third game business,” Poppy asked.
Jemma blinked. “Are you suggesting that I deliberately lose a game?”
The question was inconceivable, but there was a more interesting point behind it. “Would you deliberately lose the game to avoid an encounter in bed?”
Poppy turned a little pink. “Playing chess in bed sounds quite uncomfortable.”
Jemma leaned back in her chair. Her guest was perched upright, her back as straight as if it were soldered with iron. Poppy was exquisite although—now that Jemma looked more closely—rather brittle-looking, as if she might burst into tears.
“I gather the bedchamber is not a place where you and your husband are in accord,” Jemma said.
“I always did my best. But Fletch is not happy with me. And yet, I have tried! If—if my mother only knew the things I did with him, and yet it wasn’t enough!”
Disturbing possibilities raced through Jemma’s mind. She hadn’t lived in Paris for eight years without hearing a great deal about human depravity. And Poppy’s sweet little face and yellow curls looked…young. She felt a little sick. “Perhaps it is better that the duke meandered off to greener pastures?” she asked.
There was a strangled silence on the other side of the table, a silence that did not seem entirely to agree. Yet if Poppy were being veritably abused, she would presumably long to see the back of her husband.
“Exactly what does Fletch request of you, Poppy?” Jemma asked.
“Nothing,” she said wretchedly. “I suppose I am a prude. He said as much once. And after that I tried—I really tried.”
“To do what?”
“I take off my nightgown,” Poppy said.
Jemma nodded. “And?”
“I take it off before getting into bed.”
“And then I lie down on the bed and I never make a fuss about anything he might do.”
Jemma didn’t have a patient nature. “And what exactly is that, Poppy?”
“He rootles about,” Poppy said. “He—he—does what he came to my chambers for. I never make any fuss,” she added. “I hope that he knows that he’s welcome to take as long as he possibly could wish. I—”
Poppy burst into tears. “There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there? I’ve been thinking about it. Other women are different. Except my mother, of course. I must take after her. There’s Louise, flirting with Fletch and it wasn’t a matter of falling in love with him.”