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Finchley looked down at the duke. He seemed peaceful, but even as he watched, Villiers opened his eyes and began to struggle up again. Finchley jumped forward and held him down.

“I must play!” the duke bellowed.

“Even then, his mind may be permanently disordered,” Banderspit said, his mouth curving downwards in a disapproving sniff. “A man with his moral tendencies is obviously already on the very edge of derangement. A wound of this sort is enough to put his mind into a permanent state of restlessness.”

“No!” Finchley cried, relaxing his grip on Villiers’s arm, since the duke had relapsed again into a semi-dreaming state. “The duke is perfectly sane in mind and body. He simply has a fever.”

“The piece! I must make my move!” Villiers whispered. His voice was a little hoarse, so Finchley put a glass of water to his mouth. Some of it spilled down his throat. He’d never seen his master so vulnerable, not even once.

“We should get a priest to him,” Banderspit said briskly. “As I said, a man of such moral turpitude will likely die of it. He has no reason to live other than degenerate desires, and that’s no inspiration.”

“That is not the case!” Finchley cried.

“Has he family?”

“No.”

“Obviously he’s not married,” Banderspit said with a sniff. “Though it appears that he’s working to ruin other people’s marriages.”

Villiers was tossing again. He opened his eyes and fixed them on Finchley’s face. “Finchley?”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Finchley said, bending over.

“I have to play the piece, Finchley. You know that. She’ll have to come here to me because I shan’t rise today. Send her a message.” His hand loosened and his head dropped back to the pillow.

“Raving,” Banderspit said. “I doubt that bleeding him will do any good. You’ve waited too long.”

Finchley had his doubts about bleeding. Hadn’t the surgeon bled the second footman, and the man languished in the attics for a month before he died? Finchley always thought that he would have gotten better on his own, if they hadn’t taken blood from him.

“I agree with you,” he said to Banderspit. “Bleeding is unlikely to help.”

Banderspit cast him a suspicious glance. “I am His Grace’s chosen surgeon,” he said. “You’ve no right to call anyone else.”

“I won’t,” Finchley said, automatically pressing down on the duke as he tried again to rise and go play his chess piece.

“I shall return this afternoon,” Banderspit announced. “If His Grace is no better, and I have no expectation that he will be, I will bleed him no matter what you say. Though his morals are not to my liking, I have taken my oath under God to do all I can for sinners as well as the blessed.”

Right, Finchley thought. Especially when the sinners of this world pay you so well. He got Banderspit out of the room and then turned around. Villiers was tossing from side to side.

There was no help for it. The duchess had to play her piece.

He went to the door and called for the butler.

Chapter 13

Fletch emerged from his carriage after spending a tedious afternoon with Gill feeling rather thoughtful. He had all the slightly resentful shame of a schoolboy who’d broken a window. Of course he would make it all better with Poppy. It had been a week and surely she had calmed down by now. He had a diamond necklace snug in his pocket. Maybe he’d just leave it in her bedchamber and let that be his apology.

But no: thinking of the shock in her eyes, he knew that he had to do the thing properly. The thought made him recoil. There was nothing fun about Poppy anymore. The only fun was in flirtation.

He handed his cloak to Quince.

“If you please, Your Grace,” the butler said with an unusual tone to his voice.

Fletch paused.

“If I might speak to you in private.”

Fletch ground his teeth. He wanted to get it over with Poppy and then have a strong drink. “Can’t it wait, Quince? I have something to say to the duchess and then—”

A voice interrupted him from the top of the stairs. “Your Grace!”

He looked up and felt a perfectly horrible day grow more awful. He bowed smartly. “I shall greet you in a moment, Lady Flora. Quince has something urgent to tell me.” And without waiting for an answer he walked into the west drawing room.

“We probably have five minutes before she hounds me here,” he told the butler. “Did the chef dismiss all the kitchen staff again?” He answered himself. “If he had, you’d be telling the duchess. So what can I do for you, Quince?”

“This concerns the duchess,” Quince said.

Fletch raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“She asked me to give you a message.”

“She did?”

Quince didn’t hand him a slip of foolscap. “I believe her to have indicated, Your Grace, that she will be residing elsewhere.”

“Residing—what the de vil are you talking about? Isn’t she upstairs with that harridan of a mother of hers?”

“No,” Quince said. “Lady Flora is here quite alone, and has been engaged in hysterics for the past hour or so. Perhaps longer. It seems longer,” he added with feeling.

Fletch felt an icy calm. Poppy was clearly kicking up her heels. But how could she storm out of the house and leave her mother behind?

“Your Grace?” Quince bleated.

“Yes,” Fletch said, heading toward the door.

Quince spoke in a low voice. “Lady Flora instructed her maid to go to Selby House and return with her clothing.”

Fletch stopped, his hand falling from the door. “Quince,” he said. “Tell me you are joking and I’ll double your wages.”

“Your Grace,” Quince said, “Should this event come to pass, I envision doubling most of the staff ’s wages in order to keep them.”

Fletch reached the hallway just as Poppy’s mother descended the last step. He saw her with the clear eyes of shock. Poppy had run off and it was going to cause him serious annoyance to bring her back. And whose fault was it? Poppy’s mother. And whose fault was it that his bride loathed the bedchamber? Her mother. And whose fault was it that Poppy spent most of her time in hospitals and charities? Her mother.

There wasn’t much about Lady Flora that revealed her true nature. She dressed with all the formality of a queen and generally commanded that sort of attention. In truth, she was beautiful. Her figure was alluring, which was unusual in a woman in her forties. But it was her face that made her truly dangerous. Fletch admitted, from the depths of his rage, that it was a bewitching face, more so even than her daughter’s. It was the face of a woman who was accustomed to doing exactly as she liked, when she liked and how she liked. It was the face of a woman who rarely encountered opposition to her commands: in short, she had come to regard herself as something akin to the Queen of En gland. Or perhaps, given that Lady Flora scorned those who spent their lives in one small island, the female equivalent of the Tsar of Russia.

Fletch bowed so abruptly that his chin might have cut the air if such a thing were possible. “Lady Flora. I regret to say that you seem to have caught us at an unfortunate moment.”

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