Read This Duchess of Mine Online

Authors: Eloisa James

This Duchess of Mine

Eloisa James
This Duchess of Mine

This book is dedicated to Kim Castillo,
my wonderful assistant.
Not only does she keep my complicated life on track,
but her creative input is essential to my work.
In point of fact, she gave
This Duchess of Mine
its title.
Thanks, sweetie!

Contents

Chapter One

No one dressed to please a husband. At least, not…

Chapter Two

The Duke of Beaumont had been trying to extricate himself…

Chapter Three

Jemma looked flushed, happy and excited. More happy than Elijah…

Chapter Four

Jemma found it hard to formulate sentences, though luckily her…

Chapter Five

Jemma rose the next morning with the emptiness that follows…

Chapter Six

On the way back from the marquise's house, Jemma remembered…

Chapter Seven

By evening, Elijah had not yet returned to the house.

Chapter Eight

Jemma had barely arrived downstairs the next morning before her…

Chapter Nine

The Duke of Villiers, known to himself as Leopold and…

Chapter Ten

The Marquise de Perthuis was feeling miserably uncertain. “This costume…

Chapter Eleven

Dancing in Vauxhall, at this hour of the night, did…

Chapter Twelve

“We're going to Cow Cross,” Elijah announced the next morning.

Chapter Thirteen

Parsloe's, on St. James's Street, was a rather nondescript establishment…

Chapter Fourteen

“I haven't been here since Villiers was on the point…

Chapter Fifteen

Elijah turned over from a confused dream in which Jemma…

Chapter Sixteen

“Where are we going?” Elijah asked, handing his wife into…

Chapter Seventeen

“Lady Banistre holds a charity ball this evening,” Jemma said,…

Chapter Eighteen

Jemma was curious about one thing in particular: what would…

Chapter Nineteen

“You're not blindfolded!” she gasped.

Chapter Twenty

Villiers looked with some distaste at the page delivered from…

Chapter Twenty-One

Elijah woke with the distinct sensation that something was wrong.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Elijah was rather surprised to wake up, but not surprised…

Chapter Twenty-Three

Elijah had banished Fowle and the footmen, and there were…

Chapter Twenty-Four

The next morning, Jemma retired to the morning parlor and…

Chapter Twenty-Five

Jemma kept Elijah in bed most of the next day.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Fowle entered the study and bowed before Jemma. “The Duke…

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Grindel's in Wapping does not appear to be known to…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Dr. William Withering had a terrible cough. Elijah and Jemma…

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Jemma moved through the next hours as if she were…

Chapter Thirty

Villiers couldn't sleep. He kept thinking about that boy up…

Chapter Thirty-One

All of London was talking about the Duchess of Beaumont's…

Epilogue

There were times when the Duchess of Beaumont felt quite…

Beaumont House
London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont
March 26, 1784

N
o one dressed to please a husband. At least, not in the Duchess of Beaumont's circle of acquaintances. One dressed—to be frank—to dazzle and amaze one's female friends. Or, if one were so inclined, to invite a seduction…to engage in an
affaire
.

Husbands were just there, like coal in Newcastle and pigs in the sty.

Which made it all the harder for Jemma, the duchess in question, to decide what to wear to seduce her spouse. After all, Elijah had been her husband for years. True, they had lived apart for some time, but now they'd agreed, in an alarmingly businesslike fashion, that after he returned from a fortnight spent at the Prime Minister's house, they would…

Would what?

Have a baby. Produce an heir, or at least go through the motions that would produce one in nine months.

Go to bed together.

They had come to that decision a year ago. When she had first returned from Paris, she was too angry to contemplate marital intimacies, but then somehow the fury drained away. Still, they kept to separate bedchambers. The humiliating truth was that Elijah didn't seem terribly interested.

First he said he wouldn't bed her until she finished her chess match with the Duke of Villiers, since everyone believed that the match was naught more than a cover for an
affaire
. Then, when she threw in the chess match, giving the win to Villiers, Elijah announced that he was going into the country with Pitt's wing of the government.

She couldn't imagine another man claiming that he was too busy to bed her. Too busy to seduce the Duchess of Beaumont?

Unlikely.

Jemma didn't think she was being overly vain, just realistic. It had been her experience that men were driven by lust above duty. And she had been assured by male attention from age sixteen that she was precisely what a lustful man would like to find in his bed.

She had blue eyes, hair of a deep golden color, a very elegant nose (she particularly liked her nose), and crimson lips. True, the crimson color resulted from lavish applications of lip rouge, but if one were lucky enough not to have a thin hard mouth, one might as well draw attention to it.

And at twenty-eight, she still had the allure of youth,
together with a sheen of sophistication and wit that no sixteen-year-old could command.

She even had all her teeth, to lower the subject to the level of cattle.

The problem, it seemed to her, was that to Elijah she was a
wife
, not a woman.

There was nothing sensual about the word
wife
. Jemma gave a little shudder. Wives nagged and complained. Wives wore little caps on their fading hair and suffered from broadening hips due to child-bearing.

It was mortifying to be a wife. Even worse, a wife whose husband was reluctant to take her to bed.

It was definitely a new, and rather disconcerting, sensation, to feel that she was more interested in bedding a man than the reverse. She was used to men trying to seduce
her
. During the years she lived at Versailles, gentlemen considered her ripe for the plucking, given that her husband lived in England. They swiveled before her to display a powerful thigh, flaunt an embroidered coat or an enameled snuff box. They dropped roses, plums, and poems at her doorstep.

She smiled, enticed, laughed, dismissed. She dressed to amuse herself, and to dazzle the court. She dressed for power and admiration. She certainly didn't dress to enchant men: she took that for granted.

But the whole process of making her
toilette
felt different tonight.

She wanted all the passion and energy her husband devoted to the House of Lords, to the fate of England. She wanted him to look at her with the same hunger that he showed for a new bill in Parliament. She wanted Elijah at her feet.

She wanted what she probably couldn't have. No wife had that.

Brigitte, her
femme de chambre
, popped into the room with a fistful of visiting cards. “All your beaux are below requesting to assist you in your
toilette
,” she said. “Lord Corbin, of course, and Viscount St. Albans. Delacroix and Lord Piddleton.”

Jemma wrinkled her nose. “I don't believe I shall admit anyone this evening.”

“You shall dress
alone
, Your Grace?” The look on Brigitte's face was almost comical.

“I am never alone,” Jemma pointed out. “I have your assistance as well as that of Mariette and Lucinda. A woman with three maids, each with such decided opinions, can hardly bemoan her lack of guidance!”

Brigitte's eyes narrowed, just for a second. “Indeed, Your Grace. Perhaps you plan a special
toilette
for the fête this evening. Shall I inform the gentlemen that you decline their counsel?”

But Jemma had already changed her mind, based on that little flash in Brigitte's eyes. Brigitte knew that the duke would be going directly to the king's fête. Servants talked…servants knew.

Jemma suspected that the house knew of her embarrassing, humiliating infatuation with her husband. In the last month or so she had taken to sitting in the library with a chessboard before her, waiting for Elijah to return from the House of Lords. She had started reading all the papers, with particular attention to accounts of the Duke of Beaumont's speeches. She was…

She was a dunce. She should behave as if there was nothing untoward about the evening. Her husband had been in the country for two weeks; that meant nothing to her. A fashionable wife would never even note the absence or presence of something as insignificant as a
husband
.

“It's just that I have a headache,” she said, with precisely the right note of lament. “And Corbin and Delacroix can be so trivial. If only Villiers were here.”

Suspicion vanished from her maid's eyes. “He would soothe your head, Your Grace. And he”—Brigitte dimpled—“is
far
from trivial.”

Despite herself, Jemma smiled. “But Villiers would never lower himself to join a woman at her dressing. For one thing, I suspect that it takes him longer to dress than it takes me. I suppose I must needs admit Corbin, at least. How do I appear?”

Jemma was wearing a honey-pale corset, adorned with daring bows of sheer black ribbon. Brigitte darted about, pulling a lock of hair over her shoulder so it emphasized her white skin, dusting a touch of powder onto her nose.

Her hair, of course, was already built into a formidable pile of curls, though it awaited ornamentation and powder. One of her three French maids, Mariette, was a genius in that area and had spent two hours earlier that afternoon constructing a style fit for a royal occasion.

Jemma looked at herself again in the glass over her dressing table. To her mind, nothing suited her quite as much as dishabille, to be with her face painted, but her hair unpowdered, her legs showing through the frail lawn of her chemise. If only Elijah visited her at this time in the afternoon…but he never did.

Only strangers—or at best, acquaintances—thronged below in the drawing room, begging for permission to help her place a patch, or choose a gown.

Presumably husbands were uninterested in seeing their wives dress; their secrets were all known and the thrill of the unfamiliar was lost. Though considering
that she and Elijah hadn't seen each other under intimate circumstances for nine years, one might imagine he felt a tinge of curiosity. The last time they had slept together she had been a gauche and, comparatively speaking, flat-chested twenty-year-old.

“If Villiers were below, would you admit him?” Brigitte asked, artfully spilling a box of ribbons onto the dressing table as if she were setting the stage for a play. She snatched up Jemma's silver-backed mirror and laid it carefully across the glowing strands of color.

“Villiers is dangerous,” Jemma stated. Villiers was everything Corbin and Delacroix were not. He was a chess master, for one thing. His mind was as nimble as hers, and his machinations were not trivial, and—

And he wanted her.

Villiers's desire wasn't like the light emotions of the men waiting below. His desire was like a dark undertow, pulling at her along with the force of his charm, the wicked beauty of his smile, his French mother's delicious eyes…

Brigitte sighed, and the sigh said it all. “Of course, he's a Frenchman, and that changes everything.”

“Only on his mother's side.”

“Assez! Assez! C'est assez.

Brigitte was right. The French blood Villiers inherited from his mother was definitely
enough
…put together with an English manliness and strength. He was truly dangerous to a woman's peace of mind, not to mention her reputation.

“Only Corbin?” Brigitte asked, picking up the cards tendered by those waiting below.

Generally, a lady allowed two, three, even four gentlemen into the dressing room to help her choose patches and lace. To invite only Corbin would invite
a scandal, but who could really believe that she was instigating an
affaire
with Corbin? He was Jemma's favorite partner for the minuet, her comfortable companion of an evening. A brilliant dancer, an exquisite dresser, a notable wit. And she had a shrewd feeling that he had as little interest in her as she had in him.

What if Elijah didn't bother to come tonight, for all they had agreed to meet this evening? What if affairs of state kept him from affairs of the heart?

Surely not.

Besides, one never had an affair of the heart with one's wife.

“Just Lord Corbin,” she said decisively.

Brigitte nipped out of the room, down to dismiss the crowd and admit Corbin and no other, and set alive a small blaze of gossip about Jemma's preferential treatment.

A moment later Corbin paused in the door just long enough to allow Jemma to assess his costume, and to allow him to appreciate Brigitte's careful stage setting. The frank appreciation in his eyes was very soothing to Jemma's fraught feelings.

“I should like a glass of Champagne,” she told Brigitte. “Lord Corbin, does that please you?”

“Absolutely,” Corbin drawled. He was the son of a country lord, who likely was affronted, if not terrified, by his eldest son. Corbin's wig was a snowy perfection; his heels were higher than Jemma's and graced with large, floppy flowers; he was just saved from effeminacy by the breadth of his shoulders and by a rugged turn to his chin. He was dressed in a coat of antique rose, sewn with narrow cuffs of persimmon. His breeches were the same persimmon, and his stockings—

“Those stockings!” she cried. “Exquisite!” They were pale cream, with rose-colored clocks rising up the sides.

Corbin swept into a graceful bow. “I first saw a pair on Lord Stittle, if you can countenance it.”

He sat in a chair at her side, the better to help her pick the perfect accoutrements for her hair.

“I would prefer not to imagine such a thing,” Jemma said.

“I know, I know. I told him his thighs were too large. Or was it his feet? At any rate, it was only after sustained insults that I managed to wring the name of his hosier from him. William Low on Bond Street, if you can believe it. I thought Low carried only worsted stockings for country squires.”

His eyes laughed, and Jemma felt fifty times better. “I must look my absolute
best
tonight,” she said, hearing too late the fervency in her voice.

“Darling, you always look your best,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “But always! Would I be your closest companion were you not the most exquisite duchess in London?”

“The reverse is true as well,” Jemma remarked.

“Naturally,” he said, grinning. “Speaking of which, do you care for this small accent on my chin? I spent the entire week in the country growing it, and by Thursday I was despairing of achieving an appropriate appearance in time for the king's fête.”

Jemma looked at him carefully. Dazzled by his stockings, she hadn't noticed that he now sported the smallest goatee she'd ever seen, just an arrow of silky dark hair below his lower lip, fashioned into a wicked little V. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I do like it, Corbin. You'll start a fashion. It makes you look older, and a bit dangerous.”

“Ruinous in a woman, charming in a man,” he said happily. “At least at my tender age. Dare I ask what makes this evening so fraught with anxiety? I do trust your plans have nothing to do with Delacroix. I had to elbow him out of the way to make my way up the stairs, and I don't like even to stand next to him; I'm afraid all that artlessness will rub off on me.”

Jemma laughed. “Don't be cruel, darling. Delacroix considers himself to be the epitome of sophistication.”

“One could call it adolescent greenness but for his advanced age. He tries so hard that I feel exhausted at the very sight of him. Such sincerity should be outlawed.”

“You
are
cruel.” Jemma picked up three or four ribbons and held them to the light, put them down again. Ribbons were too girlish for what she had in mind.

“Do you plan
la grande toilette
?” Corbin asked, catching the connotations of her gesture instantly.

“Therein lies my problem,” Jemma said, waving a hand at her bed. “I cannot decide.”

Naturally, Corbin rose to inspect the two choices Brigitte had laid out.

On one side was a lovely gown of a blue-green watered silk. It was embroidered with green roses, small ones, and the piquancy of the improbable flower made the whole costume all the more delicious. The skirts pulled back to reveal a gossamer underskirt in a lighter shade.

“In your hair?” Corbin asked.

“Roses to match.” She tossed one to him.

“Exquisite,” he said, inspecting it. “I gather the centers are made of emeralds and not green glass, Duchess?”

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