“She looks like a woman who’s never been properly loved,” Villiers said. “You wouldn’t know this, but she’s actually married to a fellow I used to know.”
Elijah cast him a quick look, but Villiers was frowning at the board.
“We’re no longer friends,” he said, making his move and taking an unprompted drink of water.
“Perhaps the fellow loves her,” Elijah said.
“Oh no,” Villiers said. “She told me that he loves his mistress, which is a bloody strange thing under the circumstances, but apparently he told her so himself.”
Elijah ground his teeth. Of course, he had said such a bloody foolish thing but it was years ago. Could it be that Jemma remembered? One had to suppose…
“I should like to be married to her myself,” Villiers said, sounding quite chatty now that his voice wasn’t so hoarse. He had almost finished the second glass of water, so Elijah poured more into his glass.
“Would you?” His own voice sounded like two pieces of iron rubbing together.
“She knows her way around a bed,” Villiers said. “Did you really move your rook to King’s Seven? That was remarkably foolish.” He promptly took the piece. “She knows her way around a bed, and yet she’s remarkably intelligent. I would bed her, but I’m afraid I would lose her. Stupid, isn’t it?”
“No, why?” Elijah managed. His queen was in danger; he saw his queen was in danger and he could do nothing. Even in a fit of fever and madness, when Villiers couldn’t seem to recognize who he was, he had spun a web of black pawns around him and now a black rook was looming.
“I want her, but I want her friendship more,” Villiers said. “I’m afraid you’ve lost this game. What did you say your name was? The doctor, aren’t you? I do feel better.” He picked up Elijah’s queen and lay back against his pillows. His eyes drooped closed but he said something.
“What is it?” Elijah said, bending over.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be,” Villiers said.
Could he be quoting from Shakespeare in the midst of a fever? Elijah ventured to put the back of his hand against his forehead and he seemed cool enough. It was Elijah who felt as if he had a fever. A fever of rage.
Villiers opened his eyes again. “Just be sure to take Betsy out before you leave, would you?” he said.
“My dog,” Villiers said. “She’ll need to go out. She’s been keeping me company.”
“She’s not your dog,” Elijah managed. “She was my dog, though she died many years ago!”
For a moment Villiers’s eyes opened all the way and he looked at him. “Why, so she did,” he said, sounding surprised. “Is that Beaumont? Did you keep the dog and the woman as well? Are you married to the barmaid now? Lucky sod.”
“No, I’m not,” Elijah said. “Drink some more water.” There was something in his voice that seemed to snap into Villiers’s consciousness because he frowned. But he drank the entire glass Elijah handed him.
Elijah took the glass back, then picked up his greatcoat.
“If you have Betsy,” came the voice from behind him, “and you have Jemma too, then…then you have everything, don’t you?”
It was not the first time in Elijah’s life that he realized how unimportant “everything” can feel.
Finchley was outside the door. “He drank five glasses of water,” Elijah said. “I expect he needs to piss. I’m not prepared to hand him a chamber pot; I’ll leave that up to you.”
“Your Grace,” Finchley said, and there were tears in his eyes. “Will you come again?”
Elijah tightened his lips. “If you need me, I’ll come,” he said. “Send me word in my chambers. You say he doesn’t have the fever in the mornings?”
“Make him drink five to six glasses of water. Not just sips. He has to drink enough for the whole day.”
Finchley clasped his hands. “I will, Your Grace. I will. And you’ll—”
“If you need me, I’ll come.”
Poppy wasn’t used to being angry. Now she had a little coal of rage under her breastbone. She’d been nurturing it ever since Fletch sent a note indicating that he intended to pay her a call.
A call! It had been over two months and her husband had decided to pay her a call.
What had she done to Fletch that he should be so rude to her? Loved him, that was all. Loved him even when he grew that little beard, and became so bewilderingly elegant, and stopped breakfasting with her.
There were limits to any woman’s patience. Although patience didn’t seem to be the word for the twist of poker-hot anger she felt on remembering how Fletch smiled at Louise. He smiled at Louise the way he used to smile at her. And then it all dropped away when he saw her, and there was nothing but scorn and dislike in his eyes.
“He used to love me,” she told her reflection in the glass. It looked back at her, precisely the same face that Fletch first fell in love with. She wore the same clothes—or near enough as made no matter. She maintained appropriate standards when they were married. She tinted her lips before coming to breakfast, and was never seen in dishabille.
But the weight of Fletch’s silent demands was always with her. More French, she thought. He wanted her to be French, even though she wasn’t French.
Her marriage had turned out to be just like her relationship with her mother. Her mother’s demands were different. Be beautiful. Be powerful. Be obedient. But the important ones were the ones Poppy could never achieve: you’ll never be as beautiful as I am, her mother had remarked many a time. You’ll never charm men the way I do. I would have married a duke…
An awful thought struck Poppy: what if she had never been in love with Fletch? What if she had simply obeyed her mother’s command to marry a duke…and he was an available duke? Now she thought of it, Fletch was the only unmarried duke she met in Paris after her debut.
She didn’t understand Fletch. She didn’t even feel as if she knew who Fletch was—so how could she be in love with him? The awful pressure in her chest eased a little. She had only thought she loved him.
She had no choice but to love her mother, no matter how badly she disappointed her. But she could choose not to love Fletch, and she could choose to make his disappointment irrelevant to her.
I need to make my own choices, Poppy thought. Decide for myself. What do I want to do with my days? Never go back to that house, said her heart. Stop trying to please my husband. Stop trying to love him.
What she really wanted was time to be Poppy, rather than the Duchess of Fletcher. With a sudden rush, ideas crowded into her head: things she wanted to do, books she wanted to read, places she wanted to see. She almost felt giddy with the joy of it. She didn’t need to be a duchess. She could be just herself. Poppy.
She could live alone. Look at Jemma. Jemma had left her husband and set up her own house. She could do that as well. And she could travel! Giddy images of Paris, the Nile, the wild Americas, came to mind.
There was a little tap at the door, and her maid said, “His Grace requests your presence.”