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In other words, when would they go to bed together? Despite herself, Jemma felt a little prickle of interest.

But he kept talking. “I ask because if Villiers were to win his match, Jemma, I think it should alter our plans.”

She stiffened. “You assume that I am the prize for the match, and I assure you that I do not wager myself nor my body on the chessboard.”

She couldn’t read his eyes at all, and cursed silently at his politician’s face.

“Our problem is not whether or with whom you share your favors,” he said evenly, “but the fact that should Villiers win this chess game, all of London will think you are bedding him. Whether you do so or not is irrelevant.”

“I hardly think it’s irrelevant,” she answered, stung. “You’re suggesting that your heir might end up being of Villiers’s blood.”

“You misunderstand me,” he said, patient as always. “I am well aware that you are not the sort to accidentally grow large with child.”

It was a notable insult, delivered with all the calm precision of an arrow to the heart. And yet Jemma always found herself warring between truth and logic. The truth was that she had been unfaithful to him while living in Paris. And of course she had no children of those unions. The fact that he had been blatantly unfaithful to her—and presumably was to this day, with one mistress or another—didn’t carry the same weight.

“If you and I were to conceive a child during this period of intense interest in Villiers,” he continued, “I fear that most people would consider that child a cuckoo. At the very least, they would show an unbecoming interest in the child’s heritage that could damage his or her future happiness.”

She nodded. “I can see that.”

“I thought of asking you to give up the match, but I have made a practice of never asking politicians for the one thing I know they will not give, and I am holding to that policy in the home.”

“If you are feeling unwell,” she said, “I will resign from the match. Have you fainted again, Beaumont?”

“Thankfully, no.”

“In that case, I believe you are right and it would be best to wait until the match is over before we engage in…intimacies.”

He bowed. “In that case—”

“That does not mean,” Jemma said, looking at the chessboard, “that you are free to engage in a flirtation with the estimable Miss Tatlock. I am not like to die of a wasting disease; I feel entirely healthy.”

“I am enchanted to hear it.”

“Somehow I feel that the young woman will not share your pleasure.”

His chuckle was rare and all the more welcome for that. “The Duchess of Beaumont jealous! I never thought to see the day. I must say that this makes me feel even kinder toward Miss Tatlock.”

She rose to her feet. “I’ve never been any good at sharing, Elijah. Surely you noticed that from our early marriage?”

He opened his mouth, but she didn’t want his politician’s words, his apologies. She gave him the smoky kind of look one gave a lover, reached up and pulled his head toward hers.

He tasted wonderful, like blackberries and spice. She meant to kiss him as a warning, as a promise, as a way to control him. But the moment after her hand curled around his neck, and their kiss deepened, she remembered the one important fact she’d managed to forget while living in Paris: Elijah’s kisses weren’t like other men’s. They did something to her. Melted her defenses, remade her into a foolish, vulnerable girl who cried for months after they separated.

She jumped back so quickly that she almost knocked over the chess table, then made sure her face reflected nothing of the utter panic she felt.

“A warning?” he asked, eyebrow quizzical, eyes dark.

He always knew…he always knew what she was thinking. For a moment the pain revisited her like a slim shaft to the heart. Then she smiled. “Precisely, Elijah.Precisely.”

Chapter 19

The same evening, in a

farless fashionable part of London…

When Miss Charlotte Tatlock stopped to think about the last few weeks, she got such a giddy feeling that her head spun. Giddiness was not her sister May’s reaction, alas. May was in a frenzy of doubt and apprehension; she couldn’t countenance the fact that Charlotte’s name was being linked with the Duke of Beaumont. “I just can’t believe it!” she had squealed, over and over in the past fortnight. “As if you ever would…thank goodness, Mama is dead. Oh, thank goodness, Mama is dead!”

After the fourteenth reiteration of May’s gratitude in their parent’s demise, Charlotte almost started wishing the same about the rest of her family: that is, May herself.

“You simply must stay away from him, away, away, away from him!” May screeched many a time. And Charlotte had agreed, of course. May’s ponderous fiancé, Mr. Muddle, had even taken it upon himself to inform Charlotte that a woman’s reputation was her most golden possession. Charlotte had swallowed an angry retort and nodded soberly.

No one seemed to believe that the Duke of Beaumont had, in fact, made no moves to tarnish her reputation in the slightest.

All in all, she thought she behaved admirably—except when she actually ended up in the same room with the Duke of Beaumont, of course. As soon as she saw his face, her heart would start to pound. And then she couldn’t help it; she would tell him what she thought of the Gazette’s report of his last speech in Parliament. He would bend his head just so, a bit to the side, and listen so gravely. And he heard her! He really heard her. They…

They…

They talked far too much, and she knew it.

And she knew, even if no one else did, that the duke didn’t have the faintest interest in her as a woman. He never looked at her that way. Charlotte had never been one to fool herself. Her nose was too long and her fortune was too small to allow her to indulge in fantasies of her own beauty. Or her desirability, financial or otherwise.

“Don’t you see,” she finally snapped at May, “what you’re implying is horribly painful to me. You’re implying that the duke would actually like to—to kiss me. And we both know that dukes simply don’t kiss women who look like me. Not single women, not women with disagreeably small fortunes. Dukes never kiss spinsters!”

“You’re not that,” May had said.

“I am. You know I am. I’m an old maid,” Charlotte said, hating the world. “I’m an ape-leader. And a tabby, and all those other horrible words. The truth is that no one wanted me, May, and when you make play as if a duke would actually desire me, you just rub salt into the wound!” Her voice rose in a way that had a dangerous little wobble to it.

May was never one for physical demonstrations of affection, but she gave her sister a prompt hug and said that if she were a duke, she couldn’t think of a better thing to do than kiss Miss Charlotte Tatlock.

Charlotte smiled a bit mistily and said, “And May, if you happened to have one of the most beautiful women in the ton waiting for you at home…to wit, Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, would you still want to kiss an old maid named Charlotte Tatlock?”

“Of course!” May said stoutly, but Charlotte knew her point had gone home.

The duchess, after all, was exquisite from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Charlotte had actually amused herself one day trying to ascertain the color of the duchess’s hair. She decided it was like an egg yolk. That didn’t sound very complimentary, but Charlotte meant one of the eggs that are delivered straight from the country. And when they crack open in your egg cup, the yolk is a deep rich gold, a kind of burnished brandy color, and yet there’s the shine of good health, a sort of deep, natural beauty that was a year and a day from Charlotte’s drab locks.

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