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“I can see that,” Banderspit said, snapping his mouth shut. “It is not for me to comment on the morality or immortality of your games, Your Grace. Though I cannot but comment that the Duke of Beaumont is a highly respected man in the Parliament, and one working night and day to bring about a change in government—to give En gland a government that will be respected and free of corruption!”

Villiers blinked at him. “I like those red feathers you have coming from the back of your wig,” he said. “I’ve seen women doing that sort of thing with their wigs, but never a man.”

Banderspit’s hand touched his wig briefly, and then he straightened up. “Fetch me my assistant,” he snapped at Finchley. “We must proceed at once.”

Chapter 11

The Duke of Fletcher’s town house April 30

“I have listened to you for years, Mama,” Poppy said calmly. “Luce, please be careful with my enameled brushes. I’m very fond of them.”

“You stop packing those things this minute,” Lady Flora snarled at Poppy’s maid. Luce froze. When Lady Flora commanded, people around her tended to stop short, as if a celestial command had been visited on them. “We do not trot away from a husband, in some sort of ignominious retreat! I did not raise you for this!”

“I know that, Mama,” Poppy said. “You raised me to be a duchess.”

“A duchess is the wife to a duke,” Lady Flora said with clipped logic.

“So I understand.”

“I trust that is not an insolent tone I hear.”

Poppy looked at her. From years of practice, she knew that her expression would appear open and inquiring, the epitome of innocence. “Of course not, Mama.”

“A wife never leaves her husband. Not even if he’s as much of a dunce as your own father. I never left him.”

Poppy nodded obediently. From what she understood, her mother had discovered that marriage did not agree with her approximately one hour after the ceremony, and she had always freely imparted her wisdom in that arena to her only daughter. “There’s no use marrying unless it’s to a duke,” she had repeatedly told Poppy when her daughter was just a mop-headed babe toddling through the nursery. “A duke, Poppy.”

As was often the case for Lady Flora, events had aligned themselves precisely as she wished.

“I always wanted you to marry a duke,” she said now. “And for once you did as I requested.”

“Mother, I always do as you request,” Poppy said, handing the prayerbook from her bedside to Luce.

“Not at the moment. Have you given any thought to this decision to leave your husband?”

“I have thought of nothing else for a week.”

“You’ve always been a foolish little thing,” her mother said dispassionately. “I thought you were a fool when you were burbling of love for Fletcher, but I shall think you worse than a fool if you leave him. Your role in life is to be a duchess. I did not raise you to be a disgrace.”

That was true, Poppy thought. In fact, her role as a duchess was to be precisely what it was when she was a mere daughter: to support, compliment, adorn and otherwise support one Lady Flora, the mother of a duchess.

“I told you to stop packing,” Lady Flora snapped at Luce. “Are you as deaf as you are ugly, girl?”

Poppy drew herself to her full height, which was a little higher than her mother. “Luce will continue packing, Mama, because she is my servant and I have instructed her to do so.” She looked steadily into her mother’s steely blue eyes. “And Luce is not ugly.”

“How dare you contradict me!” Lady Flora’s eyes had been compared to a soft summer sky and a delicate pansy; if her wooers could see how those eyes bulged they might have rethought their sonnets.

Poppy almost quailed, so she turned away to gather up her journal to give to Luce instead. Then she took a deep breath.

“Face me when I’m speaking to you,” her mother shrilled. “For God’s sakes,” she turned on Luce. “Will you leave the room rather than lurking here like an untrained dog?”

Poor Luce turned a stricken face to Poppy, who nodded. The maid fled, closing the door behind her with a clap that made Poppy jump.

“Untrained,” Lady Flora remarked. “I would have terminated her employment long ago, for all she’s got a good hand with hair. She has an insolent look and she is ugly with that potato nose. I don’t believe in lying to the lower classes. It isn’t good for them. It would be better for her to understand her place in life.”

“I’m leaving this house,” Poppy stated. “I am leaving my husband. You can either accept that, or not accept that, Mama.”

“I do not accept it, and I shall never accept it. You are a duchess.”

“I’m still going to be a duchess. I’m just not going to be a duchess going through the sham of a marriage.”

“A duchess belongs in her husband’s town house. Do you think I ever contemplated leaving your father’s house? Why should I? Because he was an idiot? Men are idiots; he was hardly alone in his shame. Because we disliked each other? A woman who doesn’t grow to dislike her husband is a simpleton. How long do you think I liked your father?”

Poppy shook her head, wishing again that she remembered her father. Wishing that he had stayed alive long enough to know whether he liked his daughter: that would have meant one of her parents did.

“I thought he was a fool before I married him,” her mother said. “I grew to dislike him after our first night together. I’ve told you about that, haven’t I?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“The man was a disgusting reprobate,” Lady Flora said. “Disgusting. He smelled like a stoat and he acted like a bull. But I didn’t let you go into that night unprepared, the way I had to, did I?”

The lurid shudder that accompanied her words had the same effect on Poppy as it had ever since her mother began talking of marital intimacies. She felt sick. “No, Mama,” she said.

“I’ve always told you the worst, prepared you. I told you men were tedious, if useful. I prepared you for their revolting habits in bed. I would consider myself to have failed as a mother—yes, failed—if I had allowed you to marry anyone below a duke, or if I had sent you into marriage without knowing what lay ahead of you.”

As Poppy watched, her mother caught sight of herself in the mirror and turned to the side for a better view. Because she couldn’t see her entire hair style, she bent her knees; even then she couldn’t see the whole of it, as it had three distinct stories, the first ornamented with blue bows, the second with loops of pearl and the third with a blue satin ribbon. She looked ready to be presented at court, and never mind the fact that it was a mere morning visit to her daughter.

Poppy sat down, even though it was a disgrace to do so in the presence of her mother. But then, she thought wearily, duchesses can sit before mere ladies.

As if her mother heard her thoughts, she erupted into a tide of anger against her parents for handing her to Mr. Selby when she could have commanded the highest in the land, if only they’d had faith in her. “Look at me!” she demanded. “Just look at me!”

Poppy looked.

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