She looked at him with clear amusement in her eyes. “Fletch, if I want to go to Paris by myself, I will do so. Tomorrow.”
“I’ll take you to Oxford,” he said, folding his arms.
“Poppy, if you don’t let me escort you to Oxford, I’ll tell your mother that you’re suffering from a rare blood disorder and you need her by your side.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “I should have known this would all come back to my mother.”
“In more ways than one,” he muttered, and settled back into his chair. Mr. Belsize, refreshed, had launched into another lengthy tirade.
On close observation, Jemma discovered that Lord Strange was as sleekly dressed as Fletch, and perhaps even more elegant.
“Your Grace,” he said, sweeping her a bow.
“Lord Strange,” she said, curtsying.
“What an honor that you came to speak to me,” Strange said. “I see so little of proper women these days.”
“I knew your wife,” Jemma said. “Sally was a dear friend.”
His eyes changed instantly. “Surely you were not sent to school?”
“No, but Sally’s godmother, Lady Fibblesworth, was a great friend of my family, and we happily visited as children.”
“Lady Fibblesworth was an admirable woman.”
“Yes,” Jemma agreed. “Sally used to visit us regularly until I married and then left for Paris. I wasn’t in En gland when she made her debut.”
“She never really debuted. I was too wild, so they married me off. It was the luckiest day of my life.”
“I am so sorry that she is no longer alive.”
He hunched a little. “I share your feelings.”
They appeared to have finished that conversation, so Jemma tried a different tack. “Do you play chess, Lord Strange?”
She liked his brevity. Good chess players rarely squealed about their abilities.
“But”—he added—“when I last played Philidor, he told me that you were the only person who has beaten him three games in a row. I have only beaten him once or twice, so you might not wish to waste your time with me.”
“You played against Philidor?”
He nodded. “Last year in Paris.”
“We must have a game.”
“I only play when I’m at Fonthill or in Paris.”
Fonthill was famous for its beauty, three hundred acres that had been decorated at ruinous expense. Except that for a man with Strange’s fortune, nothing is ruinous. But she said: “Fonthill? You must forgive me; I’ve lived out of the country for the past eight years. Is that your residence?”
“It is. You know, you’re quite interesting, for one of your sex.”
“I make a habit of never returning compliments of that nature. Men are so prone to thinking they are more interesting than the common run of their sex, when invariably they are nothing out of the ordinary.”
His eyebrow raised in appreciation. “I suppose I deserved that.”
“I expect we all deserve a great deal that we are not served.”
“I would like to play chess with you. A shame. But it is one of my foibles: I don’t play a game of chess that doesn’t occur at Fonthill or Paris.”
“I shall have to live without the experience then,” she murmured, letting a little edge tell him what she thought of his foibles and his vanity.
But he surprised her and laughed. “I could invite you to Fonthill, of course.”
“A lovely prospect.”
“Virtuous married women never visit me. Let me see. Could it be that I’ve heard rumors implying that you are not quite so…virtuous?”
“Rumors,” she said sweetly, letting her eyes slide to the golden-haired lady standing to his right like a clothes-peg waiting to be animated. “They can be so imprecise.”
“And yet often so accurate,” he said, grinning at her. He was truly charming when he chose to be. “I leave for Fonthill tomorrow. Perhaps you’d like to pay a visit, Your Grace? I can promise you a great deal of entertainment, especially during the Christmas season.”
Poor Beaumont’s political reputation would never survive such a visit on her part. “While I’d never discount the pleasure of playing chess with you, I would like to discuss another matter. I bought a chess piece from Mr. Grudner.”
“You bought the queen, did you? The African Queen, I call her.”
“I should dearly love to buy her counterparts.”
He laughed and then swept a grand bow. “Has no one told you how remarkably obstinate I am? One doesn’t reach my place in life without nurturing stubbornness. When you visit Fonthill, Your Grace, they will be a gift from your host. In the meantime, I would suggest that you make the acquaintance of Mrs. Patton.” He nodded toward a tall woman standing in the middle of a group. “She is the only woman admitted to the London Chess Club. Presumably you could join her in those august ranks, and play chess whenever you wish.”
“I shall certainly introduce myself,” Jemma said.
“You do know what they say about reputation, don’t you?”
“They say so much. One can hardly catalog it.”
“A fair hit! I like to think of reputation as nothing more than a second maidenhead.”
Jemma smiled faintly. “As with virginity…the loss quickly suffered and the fruits enjoyed thereafter?”
“Precisely! I lost my reputation years ago. ’Twas naught but a word; the word is gone; the pleasure lingers.” He bowed.
He was devilishly charming. If it weren’t for her husband’s reputation and the promises she’d made, she’d go to Fonthill in a minute. Strange had thrown down the gauntlet and it nettled her not to take it up.
He didn’t think she’d visit Fonthill. She saw it in his eyes, the faint disparagement, the unnecessary compliment.
It fired her with the wish to throw societal rules to the wind and pay him a visit. But how could she possibly go to that estate, with its scandals and daily parties, if the stories were true? She couldn’t. She couldn’t do that to Beaumont.
Her French friends would have shrieked with laughter at her concern. They viewed husbands and honor subjects of interest to wives of the bourgeois. Somehow life was much more complicated in London than when she was gadding about the French court.
Jemma had lost the ability to be intimidated years ago. She had arrived in Paris as a young duchess without a husband, made her way to Versailles and began winning chess matches against Frenchmen. Any one of these three circumstances would be enough to daunt most ladies. But not, she was proud to think, a member of the Reeve family.
Thus it was quite interesting to discover that she felt just the slightest bit intimidated by Mrs. Patton. There was no obvious reason for it. Mrs. Patton was a slender woman with brown hair, rather eccentrically dressed, which fact alone ought to give Jemma a sense of superiority.
Most of the ladies in the room were wearing gowns with short ruffles and side bustles of one size or another, but Mrs. Patton had no curls, no ruffles and no bustles. Instead she was wearing a thigh-length jacket, shaped to her figure. Underneath the jacket was a periwinkle blue skirt that flared into long folds in the back. The final touch was the opening at the front of the jacket…which parted to reveal a waistcoat. A waistcoat! Jemma suddenly felt entirely too ruffled and belaced and beribboned.