“Benjamin?” she asked.
“Indeed. And”—he raised his eyes again, and the shock of it went to the bottom of her spine—“and Elijah. Your husband.”
“You and Beaumont were childhood friends,” she said. “But?”
“He was golden, you know, even then.”
“He was full of plans, to change the world, to change the village. He talked of them constantly.”
“He’s still full of plans,” Jemma said feelingly. “I do believe he thinks the House of Lords wouldn’t function without him.”
“He was always so,” Villiers said. “To be fair, I believe he may be right. He is not only intelligent, but incorruptible, which is a rare value in a politician.”
“What happened to your friendship?”
There was a queer lopsided smile on his lips. “What ever happens to men?”
“Her name was Bess. I wish I could speak rhapsodically about her, but the truth is that I hardly remember her face. Though I loved her dearly—or thought I did.”
“And Beaumont did as well?” Jemma laughed a bit. “I can just imagine the two of you, sparring over Bess’s attentions. From her name, I gather that she was not a marriageable young lady?”
“I have a cousin named Bess,” Villiers said, standing and offering her his arm. “But of course you are right. Bess had an altogether worthy position drawing beer in the village.”
“Where the two of you sat night after night, mooning over her blue eyes?”
“No, I sat alone. You have to understand that this nose of mine was even bigger in my youth.”
“But you won Bess anyway,” Jemma said, feeling quite sure she knew precisely how attractive a young Villiers would have been. She herself wouldn’t have lasted a moment against those eyes with less cynicism, more eagerness, his bottom lip, his hair…
“I did. Until Beaumont decided that he wanted her instead.”
“That sounds unfair—and quite unlike him.”
“Ah, there were wheels within wheels, as there so often are,” Villiers said, sighing as he opened the library door. “But all I meant to say, Jemma”—and his voice lingered on her name, turned it into a caress—“is that I was mistaken to refuse your generosity.”
Jemma wasn’t sure how to reply.
He turned to her and made, suddenly, a deep bow. “With fair warning, Your Grace. I shall do my very best to entice you.” And then he turned with a swish of his magnificent rose cloak, and walked away.
Jemma stood like a clod in the corridor and watched him leave.
THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)
And should the circle of Amazons open its arms to our young, unmarried sprites, the chaste and virtuous children of our best nobility, one hates to think of the effect. Young ladies are vulnerable, yes, vulnerable—to the lure of sin, the sweet lure of sin!
All laughter disappeared, replaced by civil smiles and deep bows.
“Your Grace,” said St. Albans, a sharp-tongued fellow with a lamentable fascination with gossip. Who happened to have Fletch’s wife on his arm.
“Lady Nevill, your servant,” said Gill.
Fletch contented himself with bowing. He should introduce Poppy to Lady Nevill. Poppy was as beribboned and decorated as a box of French sweets, her hair carefully arranged into a towering stack of bows and curls.
The worst possible thing happened, then.
“Why Your Darling Grace,” Lady Nevill said. “How are you this morning?”
Poppy dimpled at her. “Lovely, thank you, Louise. I thought I’d be exhausted after all that sewing we did yesterday, but I’m fine.”
“Sewing?” Fletch said hollowly.
“That’s where I was yesterday morning,” Poppy said to him. “The sewing circle for Queen Charlotte’s hospital. Louise and I kept sewing and sewing, and drinking cups of tea, for hours.”
“You should keep better track of your wife, Fletch,” St. Albans said, obviously trying to turn the whole awkward mess into a light joke.
“I never know where she is,” Fletch said. “It would be most tedious to track one’s wife like a grouse in hunting season. I find it easier to proceed on the grounds of total ignorance of her whereabouts.”
“I always tell you of my plans,” Poppy said stiffly.
“You must all think I am very slow,” Lady Nevill said, looking to Fletch. “I gather this gentleman is your charming husband, Poppy, about whom you’ve told me so much?”
“Oh, yes it is,” Poppy said. “I’m so sorry; I thought you knew each other. May I present my husband, the Duke of Fletcher? Fletch, this is a very good friend of mine, Lady Nevill.”
He made a leg. Lady Nevill dropped a deep curtsy. Her eyes were completely different now. She was friends with Poppy, damn it.
“Your Grace, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “And now you young children must forgive me. I see a dear friend on the other side of the room whom I must greet. Au revoir!”
Fletch bowed again. It was as if they had never flirted. As if he were no more than any other man. And he could tell from the delicious way she said au revoir that she even spoke French.
There was a moment of silence after she left.
“You were both laughing so hard,” Poppy said. “Could you share the joke?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said. Anger was starting to burn in the back of his throat. Rage at her, rage at life…
She dimpled. “I take it you were telling each other naughty jokes? I’m certain that I could understand anything Louise enjoyed.”
“I doubt it,” Fletch said. The other men were absolutely silent. He knew his voice was laden with scorn and near disgust. He couldn’t help it.
She blinked and then her sprightly smile popped out again. “Then I shall give you all the pleasure of explaining it to me!”
“You must be joking,” he said. “There are some things that ladies of your type never understand.”
She pulled herself taller. “Ladies of my type?”
“You know the type, St. Albans,” he said. But St. Albans wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Good to the bone. Practically achieving sainthood right here in London.”
“Fletch,” Poppy said. “Do not speak to me like this, I beg you.”
“Why not?” For the first time he looked at her directly in the face. “We never say anything significant to each other any longer. In fact, I don’t believe we’ve exchanged an interesting word in a year.”
She was rather white. “That is not true.”
“Name one interesting sentence,” he said, jeering at her.
She raised her chin. “I told you last week that I loved you. Under the circumstances, that was remarkably interesting.” She spun on her heel and left.
“Dammit,” Gill said. He forgot he was wearing a wig and tried to run a hand through his hair. His wig fell off and plopped on the floor. It looked like a dead hare, lying on the carpet.
Fletch’s jaw tightened. “I’m sick of her childish views. I can’t stand any more of her cheerful little comments about every damn thing. If I dropped dead in the street, she’d probably kneel down next to me and coo some platitude about how much I will enjoy heaven.”