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“Your mother—” he said, helplessly.

The coal of rage got a little larger as she realized that the only thing he really gave a damn about was the fact that her mother was living with him. Poppy knew perfectly well that her mother was a rather unpleasant person to live with.

“I’ll speak to my mother,” she said, resolving to do just that. She would thank her for staying with Fletch.

“Poppy!” he said, sounding urgent, for once.

But Poppy was done. He could go to hell, him and his black clothes and the pure beauty of him. She turned her back to him without even saying goodbye and walked to the door.

“Poppy!”

She left.

Chapter 18

BeaumontHouse That evening

Jemma was setting up the pieces, Beaumont opposite her. “I’m happy to hear that Villiers is better.”

“I wouldn’t describe it as better. He’s still in the grip of a fever most of the day, according to a note I had from his valet this morning. He may be out of immediate danger, but he still has to beat the fever. Shall we begin our second game of the match?”

“I don’t think we should start a second game until Villiers is capable once again.”

“Why not? Simply because the first two games played in tandem doesn’t mean that the others have to. It was proximity that lent itself to the distasteful supposition that you were choosing between myself and Villiers.”

She glanced at him, but he was studying the black queen. His eyelashes cast a shadow on his cheek. “You challenged me to a match only on hearing of my match with Villiers,” she said. “That parallel was in your mind, and thereafter in the minds of Londoners.”

“If we play our game now, while Villiers is incapacitated, it will quell the feverish interest in the next occupant of your bed.”

It must be the politician in him; he was utterly dispassionate in discussing his wife’s bed. Of course, his reputation was all important. “Is there a chance that Villiers will not survive?” she asked, fiddling with a bishop.

“The fever has a grip on him. I would think him a lucky man if he lives.”

Jemma felt sick at the thought. “Oh God…” she whispered.

He still didn’t look at her. “Will it break your heart, Jemma? Because if so, I’m truly sorry for it.”

“Break my heart? No. I haven’t known him long. We were getting to be friends, though, and I enjoyed that. I am so sad to hear that he is dying.”

“Perhaps more than friends,” he said. His voice was wooden.

“My heart is a singularly strong instrument,” she said, resenting the conversation, resenting the way he was prying into her feelings. “You broke it long ago, Elijah, and I’ve never given it away since.”

He looked up. “I?”

“Did you not think so?”

“No. You—we shared little, I thought.”

“That’s the worst of it, perhaps,” she said sadly. “We shared little and yet I built a castle out of it. I suppose the word marriage has that nonsensical effect on women sometimes. But it was a salutary lesson.”

“I apologize.”

Jemma studied her husband from under her eyelashes. He didn’t have that whip-thin exhausted look to night, the one where his eyes turned shadowed and his cheekbones stood out. He looked a bit tired, but not sick to the bone. “What’s happening in the House of Lords these days?” she ventured.

“Scots and brandy.”

“Scots?Oh, because of the Scottish representation in Lords?”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been reading about that tangle? I thought you weren’t interested in politics.”

“I am as interested as any sensible person,” Jemma said, startled. “I haven’t a great deal of time to study all the newspapers, but I do my best.” She couldn’t stop herself. “Though I’m sure I have less understanding than your Miss Tatlock.”

“She is an extraordinary woman,” Elijah said, with a hint of pride in his voice. “For someone of her sex and age, she really has an intuitive understanding of politics. She made a suggestion at the Royal Society today that made Lord Rollins take notice.”

“Oh?” Jemma decided she quite disliked Miss Tatlock. “How did that come about?”

“I gave a lecture there today,” Beaumont said. “That’s why I’m not in parliament. Miss Tatlock runs the Ladies’ Membership. Most lectures are reserved for regular members, but the ladies are invited to join us on occasion.”

Jemma thought about whether she was supposed to know about her husband’s lecture and decided not, since no one had bothered to tell her. “How enterprising of her to attend your lecture. Dare I wonder whether she had a hand in your invitation?”

He looked at her. “Enterprising?”

“Is it too harsh a word? The two of you were linked again in last week’s Morning Post, you know. Apparently you drew eyes by having an intimate conversation at Lord Rochester’s musicale. I wonder what she thinks will happen to me if she manages to impress you with her manifold virtues?”

He surprised her by not pretending to obtuseness. “Perhaps she thinks you might be fading due to a wasting illness. I notice that young women in the grip of love have no difficulty thinking that miracles will happen.”

“I feel perfectly healthy,” she said lightly. “Shall we play chess?”

“If you would prefer not to resume our match,” Elijah suggested, “perhaps we might play a game on the side.”

Neither one of them said the obvious: if Villiers could not play out his match, the appetite for their parallel match would die with him.

“A sound idea. We’ll play a game or two for the pleasure of it, and wait for Leopold to improve.”

“Leopold?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Villiers’s given name…surely you knew it?” Jemma asked, her face carefully innocent. “I thought you two were the best of boyhood friends.”

“I had not realized that you were quite as intimate as that.”

Jemma moved a pawn forward, the lovely rhythm of pawn to king, queen and castle swelling into her heart and soul and stealing away all those elusive worries about Beaumont’s health and Miss Tatlock, and Villiers’s fever.

An hour later she grinned at her husband. “Now I feel better,” she observed.

“I don’t,” he said sourly.

“You won our first game,” Jemma said, “the one that counted. This is a game which naught sees but us, and yet I am very pleased to have won.”

“Let’s begin our second game in the match,” Elijah said. “Please. I don’t want to wait for Villiers to die. It’s too ghoulish.”

She nodded, set up the board quickly, and moved a pawn to Queen’s Four.

He moved his pawn to the same position and that was that. For today.

He uncoiled himself from the chair, and stood up, all six feet plus of him. Jemma stayed where she was. Her husband was a tremendously handsome man. It was no wonder, really, that he cut such a wide swath through the Parliament.

“I came here to ask you a question, Jemma.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“You returned from France so that we can create an heir. I wondered if you had any schedule in mind for that?”

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