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“My marriage as I thought of it is over,” Poppy said, interrupting.

They were all silent, so she took that as agreement. “My husband is no longer in love with me. He plans to seduce another woman, and although Louise will not be the one, he is likely out there right now, finding a substitute.”

“Much though I hate to malign my own reputation,” Louise said, frowning a bit, “I don’t think he’ll have much luck. Unless he looks to Lady Rutledge, of course.”

Poppy shuddered slightly. “Louise!” Jemma scolded. “You and I are much more battle-scarred than dear Poppy. We must protect her sensibilities.”

“My husband just told anyone who cared to listen that our marriage was a sham,” Poppy said. “I think my sensibilities had better adjust to the truth of it.”

They all looked up with a certain amount of relief as Fowle entered carrying a tray. “Gingerbread, Your Grace,” he said ponderously. “Hot tea, of course, and hot chocolate. Lemon squares, as Cook feels they are very comforting.”

“This is lovely,” Jemma said.

Poppy took a deep breath and accepted a muffin dripping with butter. “I shall have to make adjustments, that’s all. Do you know , it’s better to know the truth? I’ve felt terrible for the past year, trying and trying to make things better.”

“It’s not your fault, darling, when men stray,” Jemma said.

“No, it’s the fault of women like Louise!” Isidore said, giggling madly.

Louise raised an eyebrow and said, “Quiet, youngster, or I’ll swat you with a lemon square.”

“Who’s calling whom a youngster?” Isidore asked indignantly. “I’m twenty-two years old, Louise Nevill, and you can’t be more than three years over that.”

“Five,” Louise said, adding, “but I am extremely well-preserved.”

Poppy finished her muffin, and let the conversation of her friends wash over her. It had seemed so stark and death-dealing to think that Fletch didn’t love her anymore. As if she had nowhere to turn, and no one to love her. But now—

“I love you all,” she said, sniffing a little.

“Are you going to cry again?” Isidore asked. “Because I love you too, at least as much as I know of you, but not if it’s going to make you cry.”

“We love you too, darling,” Jemma said.

“Perhaps I should leave,” Louise said, putting down her napkin. “I would truly not wish to intrude, and you have my every assurance, Poppy, that your husband will remain terra incognita as far as I’m concerned.”

“Please stay,” Poppy said. “After all, now that I’m leaving Fletch, I need to know what to do next.”

She truly enjoyed the shocked silence that followed her statement.

Chapter 8

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

If the soul of every duchess in London is at risk…let us not neglect the souls of their august partners, the dukes. While the gossip columns rage with stories of drunkenness and infidelity, there are those rare few, like the Duke of Beaumont, who seem to grace their high rank. Yet we have been credibly informed that even this most revered of politicians has shown untoward interest in a young lady, Miss T—. We protect her name in the hope that these reports are mere folly.

He interrupted her. “You used to call me Elijah in private. The party is over; you needn’t address me as Beaumont.”

Jemma almost pitied her husband, although the emotion was inconceivable. Yet he looked so confused—and stupid, in a manly sort of way. “I came back to London for you, Elijah.” She hesitated. How to say the unspeakable?

“Because my heart may be giving out,” he said, a line appearing between his brows.

“I’m also getting old,” she said, trying to make him smile, God knows why. “I’d better have that child now or I’ll find myself incapable.”

“Hardly.” His smile was no more than a twist of his lips.

“There’s no real evidence that your heart is giving out, is there?” she asked.

“The doctors see none, but I have the feeling they have no idea what a failing heart would look like.” He did smile at her now, a ruefulness in his eyes.

“They don’t know,” she said firmly. “You could have passed out that day in Lords because you drank too much at luncheon.”

She saw the truth in his eyes.

“All right, you never drink to excess. Lord almighty, Elijah, is there anything you do wrong?”

A queer little silence greeted her.

“Besides marrying me, of course.” She said it with dignity.

“That wasn’t what I was thinking.”

“Well,” Jemma said, feeling a curious wish to make the bleak look in his eyes go away, “you’ll be very happy to hear that my brother is taking his disreputable fiancée to the country. Your reputation is saved,” she said, leaning forward and tapping his finger. His fingers looked strong and durable. Surely his heart was the same.

He shrugged. “My reputation appears to be intact; I just received a missive from Pitt asking me to address the House of Lords and prepare them for his enclosure tax. The more pressing question seems to me to be when we begin our next chess game. Tomorrow, perhaps?”

“It’s very kind of you not to dwell on the fact that you just won the first one,” she said.

“I see no reason to dwell on it,” he said, smiling at her. “I fully intend to win this game as well.”

“That would mean no third game,” she said.

“True, and won’t that make the ton irritable. They are so looking forward to hearing of our third game. Blindfolded and in bed, wasn’t it?”

He was watching her closely, so she raised her eyes and met his. “Indeed, those were the terms of the match.”

“You appear to have beaten Villiers in the first game,” he said. He sounded casual, but she knew him better.

“We began our second this morning.”

“A subject that fascinates everyone from the younger chambermaid to the highest duke in the land,” Beaumont said.

There was a moment and Jemma realized what he had said. “You, my lord, are the highest duke in the land.”

He rose and looked down at her. He had taken off his wig at some point. His hair was cut so short that it left his face unguarded, his beautiful cheekbones, tired eyes. “I would not wish you to think that I don’t find the outcome fascinating,” he said. And then swept her a bow.

Chapter 9

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

We will close our report with an admonishment to these Desperate Duchesses…pleasure yourselves as you will, but remember that your dukes will do the same. And when a duke strays, he may well stray permanently and to the detriment of your welfare!

Nine in the evening The same day

Fletch didn’t come home for hours. Supper passed, but Poppy didn’t allow herself to be dressed for the night. Instead she sat, bolt upright as her mother had always taught her, and stared at the wall. The only—only—good thing about the day was that her mother refused to go anywhere near the Duchess of Beaumont, so she had not been at the party. While she would undoubtedly hear of Fletch’s insult by the next morning, that gave Poppy a very small window in which to think her own thoughts.

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