Beaumont was playing the majestic duke with particular fervor this evening; Damon couldn’t blame him after the scene this afternoon.
“I shall, of course, make every effort to domesticate myself now that you have returned from Paris,” the duke said. His teeth closed around a bite of partridge with an audible snap.
Damon hadn’t spent much time around feuding marital couples, but he judged the best thing to do was change the subject. Jemma beat him to it.
“I suggest we exert ourselves to make a plan for Roberta’s marriage,” she said, throwing her new ward a smile.
Damon didn’t see much need for a plan. Lady Roberta was wearing one of the most unattractive gowns Damon had ever seen, but she herself was utterly delicious. Beautiful, even given that gown. What made her devastating, though, was not her looks, but the mixture of naïveté and wit in her eyes.
“After all,” Jemma said, warming up to her subject. “She has thrown me a challenge. Beaumont—”
But her voice cut off and Damon saw that Beaumont had put down his fork and had picked up a sheaf of paper handed to him by a footman.
“My deepest apologies,” he said. “I must answer this dispatch immediately. If you will forgive me, Your Grace, I will read it now, since this is such an informal family meal.” There was only the slightest chill of irony in his tone.
“A challenge doesn’t quite cover it,” Damon said, throwing himself into the silence that billowed down the table from Jemma’s seat.
“Am I such an antidote?” Roberta asked.
“You’ll do,” he said, grinning at her. “The problem is Villiers.”
“Surely the Duke of Villiers hasn’t married since January?”
“Oh no,” Jemma said, dropping her wifely glare, presumably because her husband wasn’t paying the slightest attention. “Villiers is not married.”
“Then?” Roberta asked.
“Unmarriageable,” Damon said. She was a lovely little scrap, for all she’d fallen in love with the wrong man. “He’s a devil with women: beds them, leaves them.”
“The problem is not that he’s strewn a few children around the place,” Jemma said. “Which he has. It’s that he got at least one of those children on a gentlewoman and still didn’t marry her. Do you see what I mean?”
“Not likely to be attracted to a young miss, either,” Damon put in. Though he had to admit that Roberta appeared to be a long way from the milk-and-water misses he associated with the label.
“I’m not a mere miss!” Roberta said, clearly revolted.
“I think we are all happily coming to that realization,” Jemma said.
“Reeves breed true,” Damon said. “Here, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you go to an inn and wait until a different fellow comes along to fall in love with? I could drive up with my matched grays. Any number of people have fallen in love with them.”
But she shook her head. “I will never love anyone but the Duke of Villiers.”
Roberta was obviously head over heels; there was a thrill in her voice at the mention of Villiers. Damon took a bite of his partridge. Of course he wasn’t offended that she rejected his offer to replace Villiers out of hand. Not that he even got to make the offer.
“The only thing I can think of is the old-fashioned ploy of putting Villiers in your way as much as possible, starting with the ball,” Jemma said. Her eyes were thoughtful. “In a way, this is the ultimate challenge: to marry off Villiers.”
“The manly code of loyalty probably means I should warn him,” Damon said. “His days of peace are numbered.”
“Villiers is everything I could wish for in a husband.” Roberta’s hands were clasped in her lap and she had a revolting look of adoration on her face.
“You didn’t set yourself an easy task, did you?” Damon said, wanting to needle her. “Not only is he filthy rich, titled and one of the top chess players in England, if not the world—”
“The only thing worse would be if you had fallen in love with Damon,” Jemma said, interrupting. “I can hardly believe it myself, but my brother is one of the most sought-after bachelors in London.”
Damon didn’t care for his sister’s incredulous look. It was even more annoying to see an echo of it in Roberta’s eyes. “I was invited to the Cholmondelay ball, and had I attended, I would have fought off my admirers to dazzle you,” he told her.
“Vanity is one of the seven deadly sins,” Roberta said, raising an eyebrow.
“Lust is another,” he replied. “If I have one, I might as well have the other.”
“From that point of view, one might think you indulge in gluttony as well.” She cast a nasty calculating eye at his waist, and his sister followed suit.
“I don’t have to worry about that yet,” he told her. “Not like Villiers, who has to be on the far side of thirty. Likely getting a bit soft around the waist…just look at his hair.”
“The sin of jealousy!” Jemma cried, clapping her hands.
“I pick and choose my sins like my lovers,” Damon retorted. “Sloth yes, gluttony no. The more important point is that you,” he told Roberta, “are joining a pack of young women similarly lusting after Villiers, and will have to knock them out of your way somehow.”
“Stop being pessimistic,” Jemma said. “I can’t imagine he is so sought-after. I haven’t seen Villiers for years, but there’s something almost feminine about him, isn’t there?”
“No, there you’re wrong,” Damon said, at the same time that Roberta protested, “Not at all!”
“You’re used to obvious types,” Damon said. He cast a look at Beaumont, but the duke was deaf to the world, absorbed in his dispatch. “The kind who wears black, boxes for sport, knows his way around a stableyard and has broken a horse or two—or at least fibs about it.”
“While I may not always defend my husband,” Jemma said, “if Beaumont ever said that he broke a horse, it would be the truth.”
“I appreciate that,” Beaumont said suddenly. The gravity of his voice broke into their conversation like a bang of a judge’s gavel. He turned the page without looking up. “Please disregard my presence. I merely caught those critical words: my husband.”
Jemma’s smile hardened. She turned to Roberta. “There was a very awkward moment early in our marriage when I asked my husband if he loved his mistress and he told me the truth.”
Damon opened his mouth but Roberta rushed to the rescue. “I have spent much of my life listening to my father’s protestations of love,” she said. “I am extremely tired of men in love. It turns them to fools.”
“If I ever told you that I was in love with my mistress,” Beaumont said, still not raising his eyes from the sheaf of papers before him, “I must have been mistaken.”
Jemma ignored him. “I see just what you mean, Roberta. There is something unseemly about a man in love.”
“Your father is a poet,” Damon said, “and if you’ll forgive me, Villiers is an altogether more complex creature. He’s intrigued by clothing, and likes to wear rose colors because they look splendid with his hair, which is going white. You did notice that, didn’t you?”