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The group surrounding Mrs. Patton turned out to be discussing bookplates and typefaces, none of which Jemma knew the faintest thing about. Finally the discussion of barth-cast fonts (what ever they were) ended, and Mrs. Patton turned to Jemma. “Your Grace, I have been longing to meet you,” she said with a roguish smile. “I have heard so much of your prowess at chess.”

“And I the same of you,” Jemma said, bowing slightly.

“I doubt I’m at your level. I was roundly beaten by Philidor last year when he visited London. But he told me of you, and fired my wish to have you be my compatriot at Parsloe’s. Rather than cede my place in the London Chess Club to you, I am hopeful that we could be the only two of our sex in the chosen one hundred.”

“Is it awkward being the only woman?”

“I don’t find it uncomfortable. Occasionally a topic is broached that I find tedious, such as the relative merits of a given opera dancer. I find that a quick comment about the difficulties of swollen breasts while nursing children will return gentlemen to awareness of my presence.”

“Since I have nursed no children,” Jemma said, “I shall have to echo you.”

“I am certain that you can come up with your own topics by which to distress their sensibilities,” Mrs. Patton said. “Men are so hideously sensitive, you know. It’s easy to throw them off their stride. I try not to do it while playing chess, of course, though sometimes one cannot help taking the advantage.”

“I would relish seeing you discomfit my husband. In fact, I would love to see you play him.”

“Ah, but the Duke of Beaumont is a politician. That’s another breed altogether.” Mrs. Patton’s smile was wry. “I doubt that he plays chess with mere mortals. If he is half as busy as the papers make him out to be, he has little time for games.”

“I am thinking of gathering a house party at Christmas time,” Jemma said. “I should dearly love to both play you at chess and watch you vanquish my husband. I believe I would bet on you over a politician.”

“I am honored by your invitation,” Mrs. Patton said, looking ready to refuse.

“Oh please,” Jemma broke in. “It is months away; you can hardly do me the discourtesy to cry an earlier invitation. I have just returned from eight years in Paris, you know, and I have discovered few people with whom to play chess.”

“Dear me,” Mrs. Patton said, “and here I was under the impression that you had monopolized the market when it came to chess masters. Your paired matches with your husband and Villiers are being rather widely celebrated.”

“I have never played a woman with ability at chess, and I must confess to an unbearable curiosity.”

“I fancy I shall find myself matched in cunning,” Mrs. Patton said.

“Then?”

“I travel with children. Children and—how could I forget—a husband as well.”

“You would all be welcome. One must have children about to truly enjoy Christmas, so yours will fill a need. We shall have a magnificent Twelfth Night party and put a bean in everyone’s slice.”

“There you show yourself to be no mother,” Mrs. Patton observed cheerfully. “It would be the Slaughter of the Innocents as they fought over who got the largest bean and thus got to be King for the Day.”

“In that case,” Jemma said, “I shall promise to manipulate things so that you, dear Mrs. Patton, are Queen of the Pea, if you will come.”

Mrs. Patton laughed. “The chance to play chess and be queen, if illicitly gained? It’s hard to resist. I expect my husband will be agreeable, but if he is not, I shall send you my regrets on the morrow.”

Jemma adored her utter lack of fawning attention. She swept a deep curtsy, a duchess-to-duchess curtsy. “It will be my pleasure.”

Chapter 30

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock November 20, 10 of the clock

Are you still angry at my rudeness? It has been months and I find myself still tied to this bed. In desperation I write to ask if you would read me Bible verses. Such wit and beauty as you have should apply itself to doing miracles, and I’m sure such an influx of heavenly influence would be miraculous. My footman will wait for your answer.

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers ByReturn

You are the most fantastical and unkind man to make fun of me. I leave it to you to judge what our heavenly Savior would think of your behavior.

P.S. I am truly sorry to hear that you are still unwell.

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock 11:30 of the clock

I meant no unkindness. Please come talk to me. I am here with no one but the butler and the servants and some mice who squeak mightily in the night.

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers ByReturn

Your solitude is obviously the reward for a life ill-spent.

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock 1:00 of the clock

You are far too kind to be as priggish as you sound. I am like to die of the tedium. And I have to add that there is many a hanger-on feverish to be admitted to my bedchamber.

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers ByReturn

Admit them. You have nothing to lose, and I have much to gain.

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock 2:30 of the clock

Cruelty, thy name is Charlotte. Don’t leave me to the ill entertainment of such as choose to visit. They come mawkishly only so they can describe my dying sighs, and the pitiful things I spoke, and how white in the face I am. I am persuaded that none of them will tell me I’m a pestilent knave, as you did.

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers ByReturn

Their ignorance is no reason for my discomfort, not to mention the loss of my reputation.

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers November 29 [nine days later], 10 of the clock

I venture this letter because I received the unhappy news of your death this morning. I am surprised to discover that I much hope that the tidings are untrue. I cannot help but write to inquire.

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock By Return

I live chiefly out of spite. My man tells me that I have been credibly announced to be dead three times, and once buried. I thought you wanted no more of me?

Miss Charlotte Tatlock to the Duke of Villiers 11 of the clock

I want nothing of you, but it would sit ill on my soul if I scorned the opportunity to read you a Bible verse.

The Duke of Villiers to Miss Charlotte Tatlock November 30, 10 of the clock

My fever came on yesterday afternoon and prevented my reply. My coach waits, but please do not delay, as I’m afraid the fever is my constant companion. Could you possibly pay me a visit now?

Chapter 31

November 30

Fletch had taken a carriage into Hyde Park because he didn’t want to go home. Lady Flora was always there, springing to meet him. Even the way she said “Your Grace” spoke of withering dislike. Though the worst was when she called him Duke, as if they were intimates. It was wearying. One had to suppose that Poppy—who had never said a word of reproach to him about her mother—encouraged her prolonged visit as some sort of revenge. It was a damned successful one.

Once in the park, he couldn’t stand the small confines of the carriage and took himself out for a walk, though it was gray and drizzling.

He strolled along the Serpentine and watched gray water drops dimple the surface of the water. The rain was cold on his cheeks.

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