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Page 17

“I’ve never lied to you, daughter, and I won’t lie now. You married a duke but I’m more beautiful than you ever were, even at this grotesquely advanced age of mine. If there was an appropriate duke, I could marry him now. If I wished, of course.” She straightened up and patted one last blue ribbon in place.

“My point,” she said, “is that you’re a fool to even think of leaving your husband. What will you gain? You won’t be free until he dies, and he doesn’t show any sign of that.”

Poppy thought it was most unbecoming of her mother to sound so disappointed at the prospect of Fletch’s good health. But then her own father had given up and died fairly shortly after marriage, and her mother likely thought that was the natural way of things. “I don’t want Fletch to die,” she pointed out.

“Then why leave him? Explain that, Perdita. I see absolutely no reason for the two of you to part. You should simply allow him to go his way, and you go yours…” She paused, with a frown. “Is it a matter of the bed?”

Poppy had the oddest sensation that her mother had been struck by a moment of sympathy.

Sure enough, her mother made a grimace that might have been compassion on any other woman’s face, and sat on the edge of the bed. “I know it’s disgusting. I remember, Perdita. I do remember. A woman can never forget the pain and indignity of it.”

“It wasn’t—”

But her mother was properly in stride now. “His engorged instrument, so purple and revolting in every way…it made me vomit, you know. I vomited, right there in the room. That didn’t even stop him. It didn’t. No, he—he laughed and proceeded. It’s hard to believe now, but it took me at least three months before I gathered enough strength to bar your father from my bedchamber.”

Poppy had never heard that before. “You barred him? I thought you said Father visited you once a week.”

“Oh, he did, after I readmitted him. In the beginning, though—he didn’t take me seriously, can you imagine?”

Poppy shook her head. It was hard to imagine anyone not taking her mother seriously.

“I crowned him with a full chamber pot,” her mother said.

“Ug!”

“And I had had my monthly,” her mother said with satisfaction. “I planned it so.”

Poppy felt as if she, too, were going to throw up.

“The point is that once I readmitted him to my presence, he was chastened and understood precisely what his role was in the bedroom,” her mother said. “I allowed him to visit me once a week until you were conceived. Then since his land wasn’t entailed, and you could inherit it all, I told him that I never wanted his disgusting male organ to touch my skin again.”

Poppy organized her features into something like a smile.

“I can see that your husband would likely be not as easy to tame as mine,” her mother said thoughtfully.

“I—”

“I have not been thinking enough of you, child.”

Poppy just stopped her mouth from falling open. Her mother patted her on the shoulder. “How often does he visit his mistress?”

Poppy shook her head. “I don’t believe Fletch has a mistress.”

“No mistress,” her mother gasped. “Surely you don’t mean that you’ve been forced to ser vice him all these—how many years is it?—by yourself?”

“We’ve been married four years. But it’s not—”

“Revolting!” her mother spat. “A sordid way for a duke to behave. One has to suppose that he’s trying for an heir. Yet if he’s been trying this long with no fruit, the man is almost certainly incapable.” She patted her shoulder again.

“Perhaps I am,” Poppy said wretchedly.

“Never,” her mother said. “You’re good strong stock, and you have my blood in you. Your father and I got the task done in a reasonable period of time. No, if need be, you’ll just have to pick out someone else and provide the heir. It’s a woman’s job, unpleasant though it may be. When the time comes, I’ll choose an appropriate consort for you, just as I did your husband.”

“You didn’t pick out Fletch, Mama,” Poppy said. “We chose each other.”

“Nonsense,” her mother said briskly. “I selected him the moment he appeared in Paris. It was charming that the two of you played at love so prettily, though I dare say it did make it harder for you when the sordid truth finally dawned.”

Poppy swallowed. “What is the sordid truth, Mama?”

“Marriage is a convenience,” her mother said bluntly. “Women would never indulge men in their filthy habits otherwise; but by marriage, a man buys a woman and she agrees to bear him children. That’s what your jointure paid for: you received one-third of the duchy on signing your marriage lines, after all. And that’s why it makes it difficult that you want to leave him.” She patted Poppy again. “Don’t worry. I’m thinking about it. I would never want you to think that you couldn’t tell your mother when you are at the end of your rope.”

“It’s not exactly—” But she didn’t get to finish the sentence, of course. Sometimes Poppy thought she went for a week without finishing a sentence in her mother’s company.

“I hadn’t realized that you had endured four years of—of that,” her mother said, staring into the distance. “I know you were prepared for the act; I made sure of that. But still, a mother’s soul recoils at the idea of her daughter undergoing what you must have endured. I think you’re right. You should leave.”

“I should?”

“Leave. It will force Fletcher to find a mistress; men are at the mercy of their lusts, you know. They can’t control their vices. It’s unusual for a man to maintain interest in one woman over five years, so I’m sure he merely needs some encouragement. You mustn’t hate him too much. At least he bathes.”

“Yes,” Poppy murmured.

“I’ll move into this house,” her mother said. “I’ll soon bring him to a sense of the error of his ways. You’re too young and too malleable, Poppy. You don’t have the backbone I had when I crowned your father with that chamber pot. For goodness sake, you’ve suffered four years! I feel like a terrible mother for not guessing your pain.”

To her astonishment, Poppy saw that her mother’s blue eyes were actually a bit misty. “It’s all right, Mama,” she said. “It hasn’t been so—”

“I care for you,” her mother said. “I know that you probably find me overwhelming occasionally; we have different personalities, and I’m not good at concealing the truth when I see it. But I do care for you, Perdita, and I always have.”

“I know that, Mama,” Poppy said. “I’ve always known that.”

Her mother’s jaw set. “I’ll show that husband of yours the proper way to act toward his duchess.”

“Oh—”

“Don’t worry.” Her mother raised a hand; just so a general might stop an entire army in its tracks. “I shall not be as blunt as is my natural wont. I shall use cunning. I shall be subtle. I will let the poor young fool draw his own conclusions. Then, when I judge that he has a better understanding of his rights and responsibilities, you shall return and the two of you can live in harmony.”

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