She shook her head dolefully. “And still a man invariably expects that a woman will kneel in front of him with…utmost enthusiasm.”
Fletch had a sudden, enlivening idea of precisely what she would do, kneeling before him. The smile lurking on the edge of her lush lips suggested she might even enjoy it.
“You haven’t guessed my name yet,” she prompted.
“I know you are Lady Nevill,” he said. “But I don’t know the most important thing of all.”
“And that is?”
“Your proper name, of course.” He picked up her hand. “One learns much from a woman’s intimate name. I hope you aren’t a Mary…so puritanical.”
She giggled at that, and the sensual sound of it raced down his legs. “I’m not Mary.”
He traced a small pattern on her wrist. “There are many English names that evoke a kind of sturdy Englishhood,” he said. “I find it hard to put you together with a name like Lucy or Margaret.”
“Surely I don’t look like a sturdy Englishwoman!”
He took up her invitation and surveyed her from head to foot. Her eyes had a wicked slant, tipped up at the edges and emphasized by the kohl. Her lips were lushly red, crimson almost. Her bodice was stiffly laced and low; her breasts were much larger than Poppy’s and plumped above their restraint, as if begging for a man’s hand.
“No,” he said slowly, feeling desire as a palpable ache. “No, you don’t look sturdy to me.”
“I’ll give you a hint,” she said. “It begins with an L.”
“Lily,” he said, “like a flower.”
“Too wholesome.” Her eyes danced again.
She put up her nose. “I am not a garden vegetable.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had a great-aunt named Lettice and I’ve always liked it. Laetitia?” She shook her head. “Lorelei?” A nice name, she declared, but not hers. “Liliane?”
Finally, she gave in and told him. “Louise.”
“Louise…” He rolled the word on his tongue. “Very nice.”
Her throaty giggle was reply enough.
Fletch laughed—they were both laughing—
When Poppy suddenly appeared with Gill and St. Albans beside her. “Hello,” she said.
She wasn’t smiling.
THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)
Such is our plight when duchesses of a desperate disposition—wild to a fault and liable to obey no man’s word—are nurtured on the Continent, and return to our shores. One can only hope that such virtuous young duchesses as the esteemed Duchess of Fletcher, noted throughout the land for her charitable activities, will not find herself drawn into this circle of Amazons.
Jemma could feel a weight fall from her shoulders that she hadn’t realized was there. Yes, her brother was fine. But her friend…her chess partner…Villiers?
The duke stood in the doorway, seemingly oblivious to the scrutiny of several hundred pairs of eyes. He looked, perhaps, a trifle white, but otherwise he was as extravagantly elegant as ever.
The word cloak brings to mind black velvet: but Villiers wore a sweep of rosy silk, edged in a stiff little ruffle of deep violet taffeta. The ruffle bore a gorgeous pattern of embroidery that resembled iron lattice work; in all Jemma’s years in Paris, at the Court of Versailles, she had never seen such an exquisite costume. His black hair, streaked with white, was pulled back and tied with a velvet ribbon that perfectly matched his cape.
“The cape will protect his shoulder injury,” Damon murmured as they both made their way toward the door. “Smart fellow.”
“There is no one like him,” Jemma said, finding herself smiling like an idiot. Villiers walked a dangerous boundary, between masculinity and its opposite and yet—as always—his flamboyant clothes managed to make him look more male. Of course, his features weren’t in the least feminine: not that large nose and rough-hewn chin.Especially combined with his customary laconic, bored expression.
There wasn’t another man in En gland who could have worn the cloak. Correction: there wasn’t another man in England who would have dared to wear the cloak. But Villiers looked like a prince—the kind of prince who has a harem of dancing women, what’s more.
Jemma turned sideways to slip her hoops between two gawking ladies and swept into a deep curtsy before Villiers. “Your Grace,” she said, “you do us too much honor.”
Villiers made her as deep a leg. “The day I miss one of the Duchess of Beaumont’s entertainments will be the day you mea sure me for a coffin. And”—he turned to Damon—“though your brother has done his best to fit me for that uncomfortable bed, I find that I survive to fight another day.”
Damon’s bow would have honored an emperor. “But never with me again, Your Grace.”
“I trust not indeed,” Villiers said, walking forward and giving his surprisingly sweet, if rare, smile. “I find losing uncomfortable and should not wish to repeat the occasion, Gryffyn. You do realize that I lost to both brother and sister in only two days?”
Jemma smiled. “If you refer to the chess match between us, Your Grace, you have lost but the first game of our match.”
Villiers glanced around at the hushed guests, who instantly turned away, ineffectually pretending that they weren’t hanging on every word of their conversation. The smile playing around his mouth was devilish. “I thought perhaps we could begin that second game today, Your Grace. After all, as I understand it”—and he glanced about again—“some foolish men have bet over two thousand pounds on the outcome. It would be an unkindness to delay their curiosity as to the final winner.”
There was a little murmur in the room, as if a sudden sweep of wind had blown over a field of wheat. In the last weeks, betting on the match between the Duchess of Beaumont and the Duke of Villiers had reached a frenzied pitch. Villiers was widely proclaimed to be the best chess player in En gland, and the fact that Jemma had beaten him in their first game would likely drive the betting to new heights. Not to mention the fact that—
The Duke of Beaumont appeared at Jemma’s shoulder and swept a deep, diplomat’s bow. “I am enchanted to see you,” he said to Villiers, not even a shadow in his tone indicating that he was both estranged from Villiers and engaged in a parallel match of chess with his wife. Not to mention the fact that most of London believed that Jemma herself was the prize, to be given to the winner, whether it be her own husband or Villiers.
Naturally, Jemma fully intended to win both matches herself.
“I was sorry to hear that you suffered injury this morning,” Beaumont said, acting as if his brother-in-law had nothing to do with that wound. “Should you be resting, Your Grace?”
“Ah, rest,” Villiers said idly. “So often overrated, particularly when there is a chance that one might play a decent game of chess. Indeed, Beaumont, I had hoped that your duchess would open a new stage in our match. You see,” he added, “I dearly hate to lose.”
“We’re only playing one move a day,” Jemma said to him with mock severity. “You cannot hope to know whether you will win or lose based on today’s move, Your Grace.”