Jemma didn’t answer immediately, so she demanded: “Louise wasn’t thinking of love, was she?”
“Absolutely not!” Jemma replied.
“And if you—if you play this third game in bed with the Duke of Villiers, not to mention your husband—you wouldn’t be entirely dismayed to find yourself there, would you?” Poppy demanded.
“I suppose not.”
“He will sweep the board to the side and—and then you will enjoy it, won’t you?”
“Which man are we talking about?” Jemma asked cautiously.
“Either of them,” Poppy said, catching a sob.
“I think I shall be able to beat my husband,” Jemma said, thinking about it. “And Villiers—” But then she broke off, realizing that the point was not whether she could win the games, but what would happen if she didn’t. “Bed with my husband will happen sometime, of course, because I returned from Paris just so that we could make an heir. One must go to bed in order to create children. Poppy, did you know that?”
“Of course I did!” Poppy wailed. Her little face was all blotched with tears now, and she looked red and angry and grieved all at the same time. “I went so far as to tell Fletch that! How can we have children if he never visits my bed? He should make it his duty! My mother said that father visited her punctiliously until that event occurred, but Fletch—Fletch is only interested in—well…” What ever she said disappeared into a mumble of sobs.
“I expect that Fletch is interested in pleasure,” Jemma said.
“If that’s what you call it!”
“What would you call it?”
“I don’t know.” Poppy’s tear-streaked face contorted. “I just don’t know. I tried…I did everything he wanted. I let him do anything he wanted, kiss me all over even though it was—was wrong.”
Jemma was beginning to wonder whether Poppy’s marital problems might be more than she could reasonably hope to help her with. “Why wrong?” she asked cautiously.
“My mother…” but what ever it was Poppy meant to say, she was sobbing too hard.
“We need a cup of tea,” Jemma said. “Then I will tell you exactly what I have ever done—or allowed a man to do—in bed. So prepare to be shocked.”
It took two cups of tea, but finally Jemma and Poppy were seated on the little sofa before the window and Poppy was looking at Jemma expectantly.
“It’s not a matter of what one allows a man to do to one,” Jemma said. “Take an apple puff, Poppy; they’re delicious. It’s a matter of what one requires a man to do.”
“To darken the room,” Poppy said nodding. “I told Fletch that.”
“Nothing to do with lights. The crucial thing to remember is that men find it very easy to please themselves and women don’t. Therefore, your pleasure should be foremost.”
“Oh.” Poppy’s face drooped. “Believe me, Fletch knows that. He’s asked me so many times whether I like this or that, that I felt as if I could scream if he asked another question. No answer satisfies him. I can say no, and he doesn’t stop. If I say yes, he doesn’t stop either. Or if he does, he’s angry at me.”
“It’s nice that Fletch shows interest in your pleasure.”
“Too much,” Poppy said with feeling.
To Jemma’s mind, they had reached the heart of it. “Are you saying that nothing Fletch does feels good?”
Poppy bit her lip. “There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there? One night Fletch told me that I should be instructing him in what to do. I should tell him exactly what I wanted.”
“That’s easier than relying on a man,” Jemma said encouragingly.
“I just—I just want to do it right,” Poppy said despairingly. “Ever since the first night after we married, I’ve never been right. He wanted me to do this, or do that, and I didn’t even know what he was talking about. And then everything he did was so embarrassing. I don’t think he has any idea what well-bred women are supposed to be like!”
“Undoubtedly true. I have to say, Poppy, that Fletch sounds much more interesting than most English men.”
“Oh, he’s interesting,” Poppy said morosely. “He’s so beautiful now. I—I keep looking at him, and I can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to be married to him. And then he looks at me with such scorn and I remember how much of a failure I am, and I just wish he were married to someone else. That way I could love him from afar—and I would. I can’t imagine loving anyone but Fletch. If we weren’t married, he wouldn’t hate me so.”
“It seems to me that Fletch’s standards are entirely too high,” Jemma said. “Beaumont and I never showed any sort of ability in bed together, but that certainly wasn’t a source of concern to him.” She stopped short, remembering that their marriage had fallen apart when she discovered her husband making vigorous love to his mistress in his chambers at Westminster. “Or perhaps I just didn’t see it that way. After all, Beaumont had his mistress, though I didn’t realize it.”
“Before I married, Mama told me that Fletch would have a mistress,” Popppy said. Her voice wavered a little but she raised her chin. “I didn’t think he would because—because he loved me so much. But I expect I can get accustomed to the situation. I can become accustomed to anything. I have, after all, lived with my mother for years.”
“Listening to you, I could almost be grateful for my mother’s early demise,” Jemma said. “I never really knew her.”
“My mother loves me. She really does. And she sees in me all the possibilities that she lost when she was forced to marry my father. She says he was never clever, and of course, he wasn’t titled.”
“A distasteful comment to make about one’s husband,” Jemma said bluntly.
“She told me once that the cleverest thing my father ever did was die young.”
“Substitute cruel for distasteful.”
“But when she took over the estates, she made them quite enormously profitable.”
“How did she do that?”
“She enclosed all the land and put sheep in the fields where the tenants used to farm.”
The fate of the tenants hung in the air between Jemma and Poppy.
“I am not very good at rebelling,” Poppy said with a helpless little shrug. “I am not a strong sort of person.”
“You might surprise yourself,” Jemma said. “You are certainly surprising me. And I have no doubt but that your mama is surprised as well.”
Poppy smiled for the first time. “Horrified.”
“Good,” Jemma said. “Good.”
It was the beginning of June; the Duke of Villiers had been ill over a month. Yet still he tossed on the pillow, his cheeks stained cherry red, words tumbling from his lips like leaves from a tree in autumn. Finchley found himself terrified. He scared off Banderspit, who still wanted to bleed him. He shouted at Mrs. Ferrers when she wanted to give the duke sips of fresh cock’s blood.
“If he doesn’t come out of this by morning,” the doctor said as he departed, “he won’t come out of it at all. Mark my words. A patient can’t survive with that fever if he doesn’t drink.”