“I shall endeavor to frighten you with my brilliance,” Villiers said, “blunting your intelligence so that you throw in the game.”
“I tremble at the thought. But I agree with my husband that you must be in need of rest. If you would accompany me to the library, perhaps we might begin that game?”
“I would be honored,” Villiers said. He made a leg to Beaumont, and Jemma noticed with a little pinch of anxiety that he seemed a bit unsteady. Villiers was never unsteady, for all he affected high red heels.
She took his arm. “The library?” he said to her, sotto voce, as they walked through the crowds. The chattering peers fell back on either side as if they were royalty progressing to the throne. “I so enjoyed the more intimate setting of our first game.”
Jemma threw him a reproving glance. “If you insist on beginning play during a party, you must accept a public setting. I shall certainly not invite you to my bedchamber in the midst of one of my own events.”
Villiers nodded to Lord Sosney and turned back to her. “I realized something during that match with your brother.”
“You plan to take lessons in swordfighting?” she asked with feigned innocence, smiling at Lady Rapsfellow, whose eyes were nearly bulging from her head with curiosity. “Yes, your ladyship, we go to play the first move in our second game. Would you like to join us?”
Lady Rapsfellow gibbered with enthusiasm and fell in behind them.
Villiers bent his head toward her ear and said, “Have you heard of that old legend about the Pied Piper who pipes the rats away from town?”
“It’s all a plot to throw your concentration off,” she said, laughing up at him. “But do tell me, what did you realize during the duel?”
“Since I am not stupid, I quickly understood that I was at your brother’s mercy,” Villiers said. “That gave my mind a peculiar clarity. I believe the experience is common to men tumbling down waterfalls and the like.”
“Damon would never have killed you,” Jemma said, nodding to two ladies whose names she really didn’t know.
“I assumed that the good name of his fiancée was worth less to him than the life of an errant duke, but one never knows,” Villiers responded. “At any rate, I wish that I could say that I had a change of heart that will send me to a monastery or some other place of good works, but alas, no.”
“I can understand that,” Jemma said. “I fell under a carriage in Paris once, and regrettably my first thoughts on waking up had to do with the condition of my pelisse rather than the state of my soul.”
A footman stood at attention, holding open the library doors. They swept through, followed by some forty or so guests. Villiers seated himself opposite Jemma at the chess table with a magnificent sweep of his cloak.
Lord Randulf minced up behind Villiers. “I believe you began your most recent game at Parsloe’s with a pawn to Queen’s Bishop Four,” he said to Villiers. “Will you strike out in a new direction?”
“No,” Villiers said, moving a pawn to just that place.
“Novelty is always risky,” Jemma said, throwing Randulf a smile as she made her own move.
“Is that it?” Lady Rapsfellow said in a shrill undertone. “It’s over?”
Lord Randulf took her arm. “When a game is played at one move a day, it’s a tedious slow business, my lady.”
“But don’t they have to think about it more?” Lady Rapsfellow persisted as Randulf steered her toward the door.
Jemma met Villiers’s eyes. There was a little smile there. “I do mean to think more,” he told her. “Don’t count yourself the winner yet.”
“I never underestimate my opponents,” Jemma replied.
Those who watched were flooding back out of the library as quickly as they arrived. “What did you realize during your duel with my brother, Your Grace?”
He slanted a look around the empty library and then leaned against his seat, heavy-lidded eyes watching her. “That I had made a mistake.”
Jemma was conscious of a feeling of disappointment. “Only one? I’ve made so many.”
“You have the advantage of me, then. I make few.”
“One might add, in your own estimation,” Jemma put in.
“Precisely. But when I make mistakes, I do it in a grand fashion,” Villiers said. “I made a mistake with Benjamin…the Duke of Berrow.” Jemma raised her eyes but he forestalled her. “I know that you know of Benjamin’s suicide, and of my role in his death. You and I agreed to be friends; it may be that my friendship is a tainted thing.”
“I would not agree. It is true that Benjamin chose to kill himself—”
“After losing a game of chess to me.”
“That is no reflection on your friendship. Benjamin always rushed into actions that he later regretted.”
He was looking down at his hands, his eyes shadowed by long eyelashes. Suddenly he looked up and she felt herself growing a bit pink at something in his eyes. “I have decided to make no more mistakes with friends,” he said, his voice rough.
“If you win a game from me, you may feel free to point out my errors,” she said. “I am so hideously competitive that I will certainly kill you rather than myself.”
“Bitch,” he said unemotionally.
She laughed. “But you see what good friends we can be? My passion for chess is equal to Benjamin’s, but when I lose a match the only thing I want is to play again.”
“And is chess your only passion?”
She sat for a moment, before deciding to answer truthfully. “I suppose it is. I hold my friends and husband in great esteem; I adore my brother. But my heart is in chess. I have observed that those who are masters at the game rarely find deep passion elsewhere.”
“I would appear to confirm your theory, since I have no family to adore and thus my interests have lingered on the opposite sex in a fleeting way.”
“As have mine,” she acknowledged. “’Tis a grave fault that has resulted in a great deal of scandal.”
“Yet I am not so dismissive of the possibility of love as you are. You made me an offer of companionship a few weeks ago,” Villiers said. “I told you then that I would not cuckold my old friend Beaumont.”
Jemma froze. She had offered an affaire, in a fit of rage at her husband, and Villiers had refused.
“I have changed my mind,” he said. “In the five minutes I was at the mercy of your brother’s sword, I remembered that I have never loved a woman. And that it is one of the experiences that I dearly wished to have many years ago. I cannot explain how it has so unaccountably passed me by.”
Jemma’s lips felt stiff. “Surely you are not saying that you love me.”
“No,” he said consideringly, “but I could do so. I believe, in fact, that you are the only woman I have met whom I could love. Love is always a decision, you know. Though I love chess, I find the wish in me to love something else as well. Perhaps you and I, Jemma, could find love together.”
“Unless we are incapable of true love.”
“Do you believe that of yourself? I have loved, though not in a sexual way.”