“He was talking to a woman?” Isidore guessed. “He didn’t say this in front of a woman!”
“No, she left.” But Poppy stopped.
“I see,” Jemma said, giving Poppy’s hand another squeeze. “I would guess that Fletch has a mistress.”
At the word, tears started backing up in Poppy’s throat again. “We were in love,” she whispered. “He was in love with me just a few years ago. And then it all went wrong!”
“At least he had the decency to wait a year,” Jemma said. “I was only married a few weeks when I walked into Beaumont’s chambers in Westminster to find him tupping his mistress on the desk.”
Poppy’s gasp was matched by Isidore’s.
“No!” Poppy cried.
“You never told me that,” Isidore said, at the same moment.
Jemma smiled a bit tightly. “It’s not the sort of information one offers to one’s friends.”
“Who was she?” Poppy asked.
“Her name was Sarah Cobbett,” Jemma said. “Which is really irrelevant, because I gather he’s pensioned her off, or what ever it is they do with women when they’re done with them.”
“At least you didn’t know her,” Poppy said.
“I suppose the good thing is that they can’t pension us off,” Isidore said thoughtfully.
“Yes, they’re stuck with us for life,” Poppy said. “Though Fletch would love to pension me off. He looks at me in such a way.” Her voice trembled and she steadied it. “I just wish I knew what I did wrong! Something I said? Or did? Now he loathes me. He truly does.”
“Beaumont was a bastardo as well,” Isidore said.
“The problem is that I still love him,” Poppy said. “I can’t help it. Ever since I realized how much he dislikes me, I’ve tried and tried to just cast him out of my heart.”
“Goodness,” Jemma said. “Cast him out of your heart? You’re a poet.”
Poppy hiccupped loudly.
“Are you sure you can’t do it?” Jemma continued. “I had a foolish fondness for Beaumont in the early weeks of our marriage, but after I found him with his mistress—and, I must admit, after he told me that he loved the woman—I did not find it overly difficult to excise him from my heart. At the moment, he appears to be flirting madly with Miss Charlotte Tatlock, and I find it merely irritating.”
“Really?” Poppy asked damply. “I’ve tried and tried this year, but I can’t help it. I still love him. If he’s in the room, I’m happier. And if I don’t know where he is”—her eyes filled with tears again—“I suppose he’s been off consorting with other women. I didn’t even think of that!”
“Who was the woman he was speaking to?” Isidore asked.
“Lady Nevill,” Poppy said. “Lu—” The name was broken by a particularly loud hiccup. “Louise! But—but I can’t believe that Louise…and yet they were smiling in such a way.”
“Not Louise,” Jemma said firmly. “I’m not saying that Louise respects her marriage vows, though with her poor husband incapacitated as he is, no one makes much of a fuss about it. But Louise has her own code of honor and she would never sleep with your husband.” She reached out and pulled the bell cord.
A footman opened the door directly. “May I help you, Your Grace?” he said, staring at the far wall. “Fowle asked me to stand outside and ensure that you were not interrupted.”
“Could you please ask Lady Nevill to join us, if she’s still in the house?” Jemma asked. “We would like a tray with all sorts of comforting things on it like gingerbread and hot chocolate.”
The moment the door closed again Poppy said urgently: “You cannot tell Louise of my suspicions, Jemma! She’ll be mortified that I thought so poorly of her.”
“No, she won’t,” Jemma said.
“I don’t believe she will either,” Isidore put in. “I don’t know her as well as you do, since I cannot abide all those charitable organizations that you both toil in. But I’ve had several very interesting conversations with her. I like her.”
Since Isidore was as opinionated and prickly as her Italian ancestry implied, this was high praise.
“It’s just so mortifying,” Poppy said in a low voice.
But Louise walked in that very moment, took one look at Poppy and, presumably, Poppy’s swollen red eyes, and came straight to her side. She went down on her knees and took both of her hands. “It was merely a flirtation, darling. Nothing more. I had no idea that he was your husband.”
Poppy smiled at her, trying to make the corners of her mouth turn up more joyfully. “I knew that, Louise. I—I’m afraid that—that Fletch was a bit abrupt with me after you left and so I indulged in a great weeping fit.”
Louise rocked back and looked at Jemma. Jemma’s eyebrow went up ruefully; Poppy caught it out of the corner of her eye.
“Please sit,” Poppy said, sniffing.
Louise stood up and said to Jemma and Isidore, “Darlings, I would drop you a curtsy, but I’m used to Poppy telling me what to do in committee meetings.” She sat.
Poppy folded her hands. “Louise, my husband was flirting with you.”
“I would love to say no,” Louise said, biting her lip. “Does it sound better if I say that I was flirting with him? But only because I had no idea who he was. He’s terribly handsome. You’re a fortunate woman!” She finished with such a celebratory smile that Poppy half expected her to cheer.
“Isidore,” Poppy said, “has Fletch ever flirted with you?”
Isidore looked surprised. “No. But then I have hardly met him. Perhaps next time.”
“You are terrifying,” Louise told her.
“Jemma, has Fletch ever flirted with you?” And Poppy held her breath, because she knew how much Fletch admired Jemma.
“Never,” Jemma said promptly. “He’s perfectly friendly but not at all desirous.”
“He was”—Poppy swallowed—“desirous of further acquaintance with you, wouldn’t you say, Louise?”
Louise turned a little pink. “Only because I didn’t know who he was,” she said.
“He planned to be unfaithful with you,” Poppy said flatly. “My marriage is over.”
“You’d be surprised how much it takes to kill a marriage,” Jemma put in. “Mine was over, in that sense, years ago. And yet here I am, returned to London and planning to create an heir.”
Isidore raised an eyebrow. “An heir?”
“Would that be before or after you finish the chess matches with the Duke of Villiers and your own husband?” Louise asked.
“After,” Jemma said. “My point was that your marriage is not over, Poppy. It’s merely entered another phase.” She sighed.
“Are you still making an heir if Villiers wins the chess match?” Isidore asked, looking even more curious.
“Of course I am!” Jemma said. “Not that Villiers will win. I’m just warming myself to the task of beating him resoundingly. But Beaumont and I haven’t seen each other under intimate circumstances for eight years. It’s not something I am looking forward to.”