She glided up to him and put a hand on his arm. “You poor dear,” she said.
Fletch blinked. To this point, his mother-in-law had always treated him with the same regard with which she regarded every gentleman: as if he were a slightly more gilded version of a manservant.
“I feel responsible,” she cooed. Yes! It was a coo. Fletch ground his back teeth and didn’t shift backwards, as was his instinct. “I obviously failed in raising my daughter, and through that, I failed you. I have been in the greatest agony of mind for an hour; you must understand, the agony of a mother’s heart is like no other.”
Fletch opened his mouth but her lovely lips just kept moving.
“Then I realized that there is only one person in the world who can solve this dilemma, who can make up for the extraordinary behavior of my daughter”—and for a moment Fletch saw her blue eyes harden into something like glass—“and assuage my own overwhelming sense of guilt. I shall stand by your side, Your Grace, I shall not desert you, even though my daughter has done so. I—”
Fletch cleared his throat. “Lady Flora, I have every confidence that my wife will return to the house by nightfall; there is no need to put yourself into such anxiety.”
“I only wish that were the case,” she cried, her voice rising a little. “Yet I must admit that I know Perdita better than you do. She is nothing if not amenable—until she—”
Fletch caught the flash of Lady Flora’s white teeth. “She had it from my late husband, may God rest his soul,” Lady Flora said. “I very much doubt that Poppy will return to your house, Your Grace.”
“Of course she will!” Fletch growled, moving backwards so that her hand fell from his sleeve. “Now if you will allow me, madam, I will ask Quince to accompany you to your house himself, since you are distressed.”
She smiled at him as if she hadn’t heard him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll speak to the house keeper and get everything under control immediately. I won’t have you discomforted in the slightest by this absurd flight on the part of my daughter!”
There wasn’t even a twitch in her eye to admit that there was something incongruous about a mother offering to replace a daughter. The only thing Fletch could imagine was that Lady Flora, like her daughter, was the sort of person who never thought of bedroom matters.
Fletch’s only thought was of flight. “I do apologize, Lady Flora. I am due at an urgent appointment.”
She smiled at him with all the warmth of a ravening tiger. “Do make yourself comfortable wherever you wish to go. Everything will be in order for you in this house.”
Sure enough, she turned away and began barking at Quince about house keeping and menus and her maid and sheets. It was amazing how quickly her smooth tone peeled away when she addressed a servant.
“Oh, Your Grace!” she carrolled, as a footman was opening the door.
He turned back to her once more.
“Do give my best to my daughter, should you happen to speak to her.”
Fletch bowed. The funny thing was that Lady Flora’s hair was a still vibrant golden color; it didn’t look as if it were made of snakes. But surely…
His butler bowed by the door, holding out the coat he had just taken off. “Quince,” he said, pausing, “who was that goddess whose hair was made of snakes?”
“Medusa, Your Grace,” Quince said. “One glimpse at her hair and a man was struck to stone.”
“Just so,” Fletch said thoughtfully, heading toward his carriage. Poppy would understand that she had to come home.
The wig was damnably heavy, but no itchier than the one he wore every day. The hooped petticoat was more of a problem. “How do you sit down in this?” he asked Mrs. Ferrers, the house keeper.
“You’ve nothing but small side panniers,” she observed. “Now those of twenty years ago were something terrible, they were. This will do little more than give you a woman’s shape.”
Finchley glanced down at the bodice of his sky-blue gown and snorted. “My hips aren’t the only part in need of padding, Mrs. Ferrers.”
“It would be much easier if you’d allow one of the house maids to do it for you,” she said. “Betty, now. She has a properly dramatic way with her.”
He shook his head. “The duke would never forgive me for allowing a woman to see him in his current state. Never.”
Mrs. Ferrers pursed her lips. “Betty can’t afford to lose her place. She’s got those three sisters of hers.”
“There you are, then.”
“Your arms look terribly hairy, Mr. Finchley, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Perhaps a shawl? I tried to get into that red gown with the long sleeves, but it didn’t fit.”
“Well, you look as best a man can look in a woman’s costume. I’ll give you a shawl, and we’ll tuck a lace fichu into the bodice; you’ve a bit of hair showing there as well.”
“I suppose I could shave it off,” Finchley said doubtfully.
Mrs. Ferrers backed up and eyed him.
“His Grace is dreadfully feverish. He hardly opens his eyes.”
“All he’d have to do was squint to see those arms of yours, and he’ll think he’s having a nightmare.”
With a groan, Finchley went off to do the necessary.
“I’m ready,” he said grimly, some time later. Mrs. Ferrers wrapped a length of cloth around him. “There’s not a shawl large enough, Mr. Finchley; this is the Easter cloth from the small dining room, and I think it looks quite pretty.”
Finchley didn’t look in the glass, just turned to go.
“Walk lightly now,” Mrs. Ferrers reminded him. “You don’t want to stamp in there and have His Grace open his eyes from surprise. You’ll need to talk soft and high.”
Finchley paused in the doorway of the bedchamber and said in his normal voice, “Your Grace, may I present the Duchess of Beaumont, who has come to play a chess move in her game with you?”
“Good!” the duke said, sitting up and tumbling off his nightcap. “Dammit, it’s as dark as a wolf ’s mouth in here. How are we to play in the dark, Finchley? Bring us a lamp.”
Finchley tucked himself down by the bed and cooed in a high voice, “But Your Grace, I can see perfectly well. Surely we can simply continue?”
Villiers blinked at Finchley, who pulled back nervously. But Villiers was apparently fooled, because he said: “You look like a white ghost, Jemma. All wrapped in white like that. It’s not a look that will set London on fire, in my opinion.”
Finchley took the chess board handed to him by the footman. “Now I shall move my pawn so, Your Grace,” he chirped. “Do you make your move, and I’ll leave you to take a good night’s rest.”
The duke seemed to be having trouble staying awake so Finchley nudged the chessboard a little closer to him. Villiers opened his eyes and stared at the pieces. “Jemma,” he said finally, “does the rook ever stand up on his hind legs and buck when you look at him?”
“Never,” Finchley squeaked. He exchanged looks with the footman.
Villiers reached out a hand and then paused. His hand froze in the air above the pieces.