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“But if you stay here, Mama—”

Her mother frowned. “I see what you mean. Where will you go? It would seem a bit odd if you returned to my house by yourself.”

Then like a miracle, Poppy’s lips opened and she said: “I’m going to stay with a dear friend.”

“Who?”

“The Duchess of Beaumont.”

“Beaumont?” Lady Flora said. “That trollop? Why on earth would you wish to stay with her?”

“I like her.”

“Could you not stay with Lady Wartley? She’s such a wonderful presence on the hospital board, and I know she has a sincere affection for you.”

“I would feel more comfortable with Jemma.”

“I should never have allowed that acquaintance,” her mother said. “It was all very well in Paris, but who would have thought such a light-skirt would find her way back to En gland?”

“She’s my friend, mother. I wish you wouldn’t be—”

“I call a spade a spade,” her mother said. “I always have. The woman’s a light-skirt, and that’s all there is to it. I pity her husband, Beaumont, that I do. On the other hand, she is a duchess. You have my permission to pay her a visit.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Mother,” Poppy said, standing up and dropping a curtsy that was just a shade disrespectful, “I have an appointment. Do request any refreshments you may desire.”

“Do you know,” her mother said thoughtfully, “this might be enjoyable? I always thought that if circumstances were different I would do well on the stage.”

Poppy almost felt a pang of sympathy for Fletch.

“I shall begin with a fit of hysteria. I have observed that men dislike hysteria above all else. That will put his house hold in a proper frame of mind.” Her mother took her face in her hands; to Poppy’s alarm her mother’s eyes were misty again. “I have been a terrible mother, to thoughtlessly leave you in this house for years,” she said.

“Really, I—”

“Hush.” Lady Flora ceremoniously kissed Poppy on the forehead. “Mother is in charge now. By the time I signal for your return, Perdita, your husband will be a new man. I promise you that. He will beg you to return home, and you can set your own terms. Just think of me”—and there was a rare gleam of humor in her eyes—“as the chamber pot that Fletcher has yet to encounter.”

Poppy got as far as the bottom of the stair and then leaned against the banister, hand on her heart. Could she really leave Fletch to what ever punishment her mother had in mind? When she thought about his behavior, flirting with Louise—yes, she could.

He deserved her mother.

One problem was that while she was certainly friends with Jemma, there were far more women she knew better, women whom she joined on committees, women with charitable ambitions. Women whose reputations were snowy white compared to Jemma’s.

All of London knew that Jemma had had affaires in those years she lived in Paris, apart from her husband. All of London was watching the chess matches Jemma was playing with her husband—and the Duke of Villiers. Jemma was a bad woman.

Which was precisely why Jemma was just the right person. She wouldn’t condemn her. Or try to talk her into returning.

And her mother would never darken the door of a strumpet like Jemma, duchess or no. If Lady Flora thought men were fools, she thought that women who voluntarily dabbled with them worse than fools. Slut, she would hiss, on hearing the least bit of gossip about a woman. She had only allowed Poppy to be friends with Jemma, all those years ago in Paris, because her disdain warred with her snobbism. After all, Jemma was a duchess.

Poppy finally let go of the banister, realizing that her hands were damp with sweat. She straightened up and asked the butler for her pelisse. Then she said, “I shall trust you, Quince, to tell the duke that I am leaving the house to him.”

The butler’s eyes bulged. “Your Grace?”

“I’ve decided to live elsewhere,” she said, buttoning her pelisse under her chin. It was quite chilly for the end of April. “I doubt he will mind much. If he has anything to say about it, I expect I’ll see him at Lady Vesey’s ball later this week.”

The butler’s mouth snapped shut and he bowed. “May I offer the house hold’s regrets, Your Grace?”

Poppy’s head was spinning with the freedom of speaking her mind. “Why should you? It will be much easier without a duchess in residence, you know. I expect that the duke will be out most of the time, just as he is now, and you won’t have much work at all.”

Quince seemed to be flummoxed, so she patted him on the arm. “If you wouldn’t mind calling the carriage for me?”

“Your Grace,” he said with a gulp, and bowed.

Poppy sat down on a chair in the antechamber and hummed a little to herself. The anteroom was large and austere and it made her very happy to think how much she disliked it. It was cold. Forbidding.

The thought wandered through her mind that Jemma might be surprised by her visit, but she dismissed it. The important thing was that she felt quite happy. Relieved, really.

Fowle, Jemma’s butler, had such a kind face that Poppy almost grew tearful when he asked if she would remove her cloak. And a few minutes later, Jemma entered the sitting room.

Poppy stood but no words came to her mouth.

Jemma paused in the doorway, the very picture of French elegance, from the tip of her curled hair to the pink silk toes of her slippers.

“What a pleasure to see you,” she said.

Poppy gulped. “I thought that I would return home to Mama. But in fact she is going to stay in my house and—and mother Fletch.”

Jemma blinked. “Did you say that Lady Flora is going to mother Fletch?”

“Yes indeed,” Poppy said, nodding.

“I can’t imagine anyone mothering Fletch, let alone your mother!”

“May I pay you a visit?” Poppy asked.

“I would love that above all things,” Jemma said, dropping a kiss on Poppy’s cheek. “It must be providence, given that my brother dragged my beloved ward off to the country and left me all alone.”

“Is it true that they will marry by special license?” Poppy asked.

Jemma sighed. The truth of it was that her ward had been caught practically in the very act of intimacy with her brother—and in an open boat!—so a hasty marriage was prudent for all concerned. “I believe that my brother is so consumed with passion for his new wife that he cannot wait,” she said.

“I’m afraid I won’t be very good company,” Poppy said, feeling tears welling up again. “I just—I don’t feel like being—”

“When I left Beaumont I cried for weeks,” Jemma said, her eyes looking a little haunted. “Weeks.”

“I could do that,” Poppy said, choking a bit. “I mean, I think I might do that.”

“Then you’re in just the right place,” Jemma said. “I shan’t bother you, but if you wish for company all you have to do is ask. Cry away!”

Poppy couldn’t help smiling, even through her tears.

Chapter 12

“The only way to abate the fever is to bleed him,” Banderspit said. “That or to cup him. He’s had this fever for over a week now.”

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