“Absolutely. He’s all of what—how old is he?”
“Not so very old,” Jemma said. “He and Beaumont were boyhood friends, as I understand.”
“And now they don’t speak?”
“Rarely. They did exchange a few words tonight. I suspect they have little in common by now.”
“Well, how old is your husband?”
Jemma looked blank. “Thirty-three,” she finally decided. “It must be in our marriage lines, I suppose. We were engaged when I was the tender age of two, and I think he was seven.”
“So Villiers is likely thirty-three as well.” A very nicely preserved thirty-three, Roberta thought to herself. She felt a pulse of longing. “I’ll have to attend any ball where he might be.”
“We can always bribe one of his footmen, you know.”
“A pleasant thought, but I might end up with a child and no marriage,” she said dubiously.
“Did you think I was suggesting we bribe the footman to give you entry to his chamber?”
And at Roberta’s nod, “You’re more likely to corrupt me,” Jemma said, laughing. “You aren’t much of an innocent, are you?”
“Not particularly,” Roberta said, with a helpless shrug.
“We’ll bribe a footman to let us know which invitations he accepts,” Jemma explained. “The more important question is how to trick him. You can’t simply—”
“I know,” Roberta interrupted. “He spurned a lady carrying his child so that would be ineffective.”
“Though Damon would likely challenge him for you,” Jemma said. “I probably do not need to mention this to you, Roberta, but you have noticed how my brother is looking at you, haven’t you?”
“He has been all that’s kind.”
“I’m sure,” his sister said. “But…” Her voice trailed off.
“In fact, we had a discussion about Villiers,” Roberta said. “He fully shares my opinion that Villiers must be tricked. And it was he who warned me about Villiers’s refusal to marry the lady carrying his baby.”
“Oh, in that case…I must be mistaken,” Jemma said.
“I don’t know Damon as well as I used to. He visited me often in Paris, far more than my husband, but still, one’s siblings grow up and change, don’t you think?”
Having never had a sibling, Roberta didn’t venture to comment.
“As I said, the important question is how to trick Villiers in such a way that he cannot back out. He cares nothing for scandal. In truth, I think the only way for him to marry would be if you simply married him, if that makes sense.”
“How so?” Roberta asked.
“Well, we know he’s not going to marry under his own aegis. And yet he’s famous for breaking every sort of law of decency and morality in order to get his own way with a woman. Did Damon tell you what Lady Caroline said after it all came out about the child?”
Roberta shook her head.
“She maintained that Villiers had married her in secret, a sort of Fleet Street marriage. But it seems that the marriage certificate was false, because her father would have forced him to acknowledge the marriage if it were all true.”
It was rather depressing to think of her future husband’s unethical behavior. “If the wedding certificate were false, wouldn’t her father have done something about that?”
“What could he do, other than challenge Villiers to a duel?”
“He could have done that! My father would have—” The mind boggled thinking what Roberta’s father would have done. It would have been violent and noisy.
“Women are invariably more decisive than are men,” Jemma said, yawning. “I think we should sleep on the possibilities.”
“I don’t understand how he got away with it,” Roberta said.
“He doesn’t give a damn.”
“I expect he got away with it because he really doesn’t give a damn what society thinks. The only thing he cares about is chess, and Roberta, you really ought to think about that. I’m not as obsessed as Villiers, and yet when we first married Beaumont loathed the fact that I thought about chess far more than I thought about him. Or listened to him. Villiers will be just the same.”
“If I were Lady Caroline’s father…”
“What could he do? Villiers is an excellent swordsman. Almost all chess players are. If there’s one thing a chess player can do, it’s master a game of strategy.”
“Then you are my secret weapon,” Roberta said.
“I suspect that you are a better chess player than Villiers.”
“Haven’t you heard that women can’t play chess?” Jemma opened her eyes very wide.
“Your brother told me you are a master. With a strategist pitted against him, Villiers cannot win.”
Jemma looked marginally more awake. “There’s a play we call the poisoned pawn. We could allow Villiers to lure you into a false wedding, during which you would produce a real certificate, and then he’d be caught.”
“But how could we ensure that he would offer to marry me with a false certificate?”
“Of course we can’t…but men are invariably repetitive. If he offers a secret marriage, we’ll know what he’s planning. It worked with one young lady, so why not with another? I don’t mean to be pessimistic, Roberta, but are you sure you wish to marry such a man? I find my husband tedious, but not dishonorable.”
Roberta nodded. “It’s my heart’s desire.”
“In that case, let’s plan on a wedding certificate exchange. We’ll have to wait for his move. In a game of strategy, it’s best to allow the early game to develop on its own rather than taking an opening gambit.”
F inally the ball had dwindled to the point at which Jemma decided that they could go to bed and leave the few remaining revelers to greet the dawn alone.
Roberta started off for her chambers dreaming of being a duchess. Villiers’s duchess. His behavior didn’t bother her much. How could it, since she’d grown up in a household dominated by her father, whose madness, as she knew well, was not exaggerated by report? Chicanery of Villiers’s type seemed positively wholesome by contrast.
It took a while to get ready for bed, as her maid didn’t immediately understand that she couldn’t go to sleep with powder in her hair. Perhaps she should just wear a wig the way Damon did.
So it wasn’t until she’d had a bath, said goodnight to her maid and drew back the heavy rose curtains around her bed that she had a shock.
She wasn’t alone.
There was a male body in her bed.
He was very small and sweaty. He was curled like a little wood-louse, the kind you find when you turn over earth in the springtime. His hair was the exact color of his father’s, a kind of brandy-brown, but all in ringlets. And he was snoring.
Roberta sat on the edge of the bed and stared at Teddy for a moment. She didn’t have much of a propensity for children; indeed, she had several times thought that her instinct toward maternal love seemed strangely muted. She never felt like doing more than coo over the estate children when they were presented for kisses.