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“She loves you, not that you deserve it,” Gill said.

“Who cares if I deserve it? I don’t want it,” Fletch said. “Our marriage is a sham and a fraud. That being the case, I’d rather that we both understood precisely where we are, rather than my wife pretending that we’re a normal couple. That we have”—he spat it—“any sort of life in the bed.”

“Almost no one does have an intimate life with his wife,” St. Albans said, apparently recovering his tongue after the shock. “Doesn’t mean he has to shoot her down in cold blood like that.”

“She sees the world in rose and gold,” Fletch said flatly. “I believe she actually thinks we’re happy.”

“She doesn’t now,” Gill said.

Fletch hunched his shoulders. “Good.”

Chapter 7

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

There can be nothing more dangerous to moral fiber than a circle of women bent on achieving their desires, living a life of pleasure, and paying heed to no admonishments. This paper fears for the souls of every duchess in London!

Poppy never used to cry before she became a duchess.

Unfortunately, having a spouse had turned Poppy into a waterspout. She cried herself to sleep. She cried in the oddest moments, for example, in between meetings of the Charitable Society for the Reception of Repenting Prostitutes and the meetings of the board of Lady Charlotte’s Lying-InHospital. Now she ran down a long corridor of Beaumont House, wiping away the tears as they rolled off her chin.

How could he? How could he have said that, and in front of his friends? She knew they didn’t talk very much. She knew—she knew there was something terribly wrong.

But try as she might, she couldn’t make it work. She woke every morning determined to make Fletch love her again, the way he used to before they married. She never betrayed the faintest irritation at the way he stalked around the house. Never, ever, did she irritate him by pointing out that they would have no children, given that he visited her bed once a month, if that. She never commented when he grew a silly little pointed beard, though he knew well that she loved his dimple. In truth, the goatee was vastly becoming.

But it was like everything else in the past few years. Fletch had turned himself into a distinguished, incredibly beautiful stranger. He wore clothes of a kind that dazzled and frightened her. He wore that little beard. He hired a French valet and a French chef, and rattled away to both of them in the language.

While growing up, her mother had made her study pianoforte for hours a day, saying the skill was essential to marriage. But if she offered to play for Fletch after supper, he would get a look of grueling boredom on his face, cross his arms over his chest, and sit until she finished a piece. Then he would stand, bow politely enough, and say his goodnight. Without kissing her.

She slowed to a walk. When had Fletch stopped kissing her? The very thought made her hiccup with tears, but after a bit she found a handkerchief and tried to think about it. She couldn’t remember. The last kiss…she didn’t realize it was the last kiss.

The last kiss he would ever give her, perhaps!

It wasn’t until she discovered that someone was standing before her, touching her cheek and saying something that Poppy realized that she was leaning against the wall and howling. Literally howling with sobs.

“I—I—I,” she said, and peered through her swollen eyes. “Oh dear!” she wailed, collapsing into Jemma’s arms. “I’m so—so—”

Jemma gave her a kiss and said, “Hush,” and then said to someone over her shoulder, “You did precisely the right thing, Isidore.”

Then Jemma gave her another kiss, as if she were a little girl, and said, “Darling, Isidore fetched me as soon as she realized you were in distress. Now, come in here, and Isidore will come too.”

Poppy let herself be put on a sofa without saying a word and Lady Isidore Del’Fino sat opposite. Her mama had said that she should never share the particulars of her marriage, that it was disloyal. But every time that Poppy said anything about marriage to her mama, her mother would say that she had to train Fletch into a sense of his responsibilities and proper behavior.

“Does he respect you?” she would demand.

And Poppy would nod. She wasn’t absolutely sure of the truth of that, because she had seen something very close to disgust in Fletch’s eyes lately. But the alternative was so horrible that she couldn’t bear it.

“If he respects you, there is nothing to worry about,” her mother would pronounce. “Do not say a word to anyone about your disappointments in Fletcher, and he will pay you the same favor. This is the nature of marriage.”

More tears welled in Poppy’s eyes at the thought. She didn’t feel like adhering to the nature of marriage anymore. Especially when Jemma sat down next to her (at least as close as they could be, given the size of Poppy’s panniers, and said, “Now what on earth is going on, Poppy?”

“It’s Fletch,” she said, hiccupping. Her handkerchief was sodden with tears, so she accepted Jemma’s. “My marriage—I can’t say it!” She sobbed a bit more instead.

After a while Jemma said, “Marriages are like lap dogs. Everyone boasts about having a good one, but the only ones I ever see are devoted to scratching the paneling and jumping on people. Failures, in my eyes.”

Poppy hiccupped again, loudly. “I’m sorry,” she said, gasping a little. “I always—always hiccup when I’m upset and mama says it is a most disgusting habit, but I truly am not in control of it.”

“It’s not as bad as scratching the paneling with your claws,” Jemma said reassuringly. “Now what’s happening in your marriage? Or should I say, what can possibly be happening in your marriage that hasn’t already happened in mine?”

“I am sure this is just the conversation to make me very glad not to be living with a husband yet,” Isidore said, while Poppy tried to stop crying. “Has your husband taken to wearing rouge?”

“No!”

“I only asked because I’m certain that Viscount St. Albans put a little something on his cheeks, and he and Fletcher are close friends, aren’t they?”

“They doesn’t mean they share a pot of rouge,” Jemma said. She squeezed Poppy’s hand again. “You’ll feel better after you tell us, darling.”

“I think he’s”—but Poppy couldn’t say it. The enormity of her suspicion was just too cruel to contemplate. “He was abominably rude to me in front of his friends,” she said. “He said—He made it clear that our marital activites are not all that—that he desires.” Tears welled up again. “But since he never comes to my bedchamber, I don’t see what I could do about that!”

“He said that in front of his friends?” Jemma said. Her voice rose about two octaves. It made Poppy feel better just to hear it.

“Bastardo!” Isidore hissed.

“Precisely,” Jemma said. “What a bastard thing to do. What exactly did he say, Poppy?”

“Well, I walked up with—with”—Her voice faltered.

“With whom?” Jemma asked.

“Viscount St. Albans,” Poppy said reluctantly, “and Gill. And…”

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