Not her mother’s thoughts.
There was a great difference. Somehow she’d fallen into the habit of letting her mother command. It was easier to go along with her, to keep her happy. When she was unhappy…
Poppy shuddered a little. She had never liked screaming, not from the time she was a little girl. It wasn’t that her mother didn’t love her. She did. She really did. Sometimes Poppy had to remind herself of that, because being Lady Flora’s daughter sometimes felt like being something that belonged to Lady Flora. A possession.
She still remembered sitting for hours as a little girl and pretending to be a hassock. A foot stool. Because if she could just stay very small, and very quiet, her mother would forget she was there, and then she wouldn’t scream about people and places and things that had gone wrong.
The memory made Poppy feel guilty. It wasn’t as if her mother screamed at her—at least, not most of the time. It was just that gales of anger would sweep around Poppy’s head until she felt as if she were in the middle of a great thunderstorm. If Lady Flora noticed Poppy, she generally would scream. There were so many ways in which Poppy could improve.
What she felt was weary. Tired of people who disapproved, people who were impossible to please, people who made her feel inadequate. Stupid. That was the one clear thought she had in her head. She didn’t want to be screamed at by her mother. And she didn’t want to see that closed, disgusted look on Fletch’s face ever again, even if that meant she never saw him again.
A tear fell on her hand, but the truth of it was clear.
Even if she never saw him again.
Fletch finally came home around ten in the evening. She heard the bustle that always accompanied Fletch, the footman taking his hat, his manservant fussing over his coat, his hair, his…
It felt quite good to curl her lip.
He came to her chamber as soon as Quince informed him of her request, of course. Until this evening she and Fletch had always been entirely courteous to each other. He stood in the door a moment, looking like a fashion illustration from Journal de la Mode. It made her tongue-tied, especially in this last year, as he grew more like a valet’s dream, and thus she more inarticulate.
“Please come in,” she said. “We need to speak.”
“I’m sorry about this morning,” he said. He stopped in front of her, his eyes serious for once. Not scornful. “I should never have spoken that way in front of my friends.”
“I would prefer that you expressed yourself to me before others,” Poppy said. “But I noticed Gill showed no surprise, so I gather you have already discussed our marriage with him. Perhaps you should tell me everything that you’ve told Gill.”
“Gill is an old friend,” he said, his eyes going opaque at once. “Men say things to each other in the heat of the moment that they don’t mean. Gill was surprised; he gave me a proper scolding after you left.”
“Do give him my gratitude,” Poppy said, folding her hands. The conversation was veering toward hostility. She could feel herself curling into a little mouse, running away to some part of her head where she wouldn’t be shouted at. She took a deep breath and told herself to be brave.
“Please sit down, Fletch.”
“I should like to know what you think of our marriage. Not because I want to argue with you, or…”
He sat down, looking so tired that her heart wrung and she almost jumped to her feet to ring for tea and a hot bath to be drawn. But she bit her lip and forced herself to stay put.
“I think we are probably doing as well as any other duke and duchess in En gland,” he said, looking at her with a rueful twist of his lips. “Better than the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont, certainly. I’ve been acting like an ass, Poppy. I’m sorry.”
He did sound sorry, not that it mattered much. “Still,” she said, “what do you wish was different, Fletch?”
“We all fall into foolish ideas sometimes.”
“I don’t understand those ideas. I feel as if I’m always trying to be something that you want, but I don’t know what it is.”
“There’s nothing,” he said sharply. “You’re perfect as you are, Poppy. I’ve been a fool. Let’s say no more of it.”
She swallowed. “You’re not happy with our marital intimacies.”
The silence grew like stale bread, with the stink of a rotting egg. Bravery seemed a very stupid concept.
“Did you think I was not aware of your unhappiness?” Poppy asked. “From the moment we fell in love, you’ve wanted me to be different. And yet I am precisely the kind of wife that I understand. I—I don’t know how to be other than myself.”
His jaw tightened. She saw it under her lashes. “No doubt I have made untoward demands on you.”
“How would you like me to be?”
He didn’t answer. She gathered her courage and kept blundering on because it all had to be said. She couldn’t bear another conversation of this nature. “I’m really asking you, Fletch. I keep wondering how I disappoint you, and I don’t know. What am I doing wrong? I have tried to do everything you asked of me, stayed quiet when I thought you wished me to, modeled my behavior on yours.”
“You have not disappointed me.”
Her stomach was so sour that she almost felt as if she might throw up right here, sitting in her own bedchamber. She clenched her hands instead, under a fold of her gown so that he couldn’t see it. Her face was completely calm; she knew that. “What do you expect? Or perhaps I should ask, what do you wish I would do?”
“You told me once that ladies are different from washerwomen, do you remember that?”
She smiled faintly. “I’ve done so much work in hospitals in the last two years that I can tell you that women are not really very different. I don’t remember saying that. What was it in reference to?”
“You didn’t want me to kiss you other than with a closed mouth.”
Now he had that furious look again.
“But I allowed you to do so,” she said, forcing all her fear into her stomach and not letting her voice wobble. “Once we were married, I have tried very hard never to say no to you, Fletch.”
“We shouldn’t have this conversation.”
“Because you have done your best, Poppy, I know that. And my hopes were naïve.”
“But what did you expect me to do!”
His head jerked up at the sharpness in her tone.
“You always look disappointed. You demand, and demand, without saying what you want. What is it?”
“I would have wanted you to—to—”
“Well?” She hardly recognized the hardness in her own voice.
“Enjoy yourself,” he said sadly. “Enjoy yourself, enjoy me, it’s all the same.”
She bit down so hard on her lip that she could taste blood, metallic and strange. “I do enjoy myself.”
He rose at that and walked to the window. “I’ve been blaming you for something that is outside your control, and it’s grossly unfair. I’m sorry.”
She stared at his back and knew that her marriage was indeed over. She couldn’t give him what he wanted. They would never be happy together, and she would always disappoint him.