She turned toward her lip color, and dropped her hand. She didn’t love Fletch. She had never loved Fletch. Why should she make herself beautiful for him?
She walked down the stairs and found she was actually smiling. How long had it been since she genuinely smiled in Fletch’s presence? Probably over a year. She had spent all that time wound tight as a top, trying desperately to figure out how to please him, how to make him love her.
Walking into the drawing room was a bit difficult because—though it was unimportant, she quickly reminded herself—Fletch was so beautiful. His hair was like ebony, with a sheen like midnight. His nose was straight and his eyes slanted under his eyebrows, making him look just faintly exotic. If he wasn’t so infernally beautiful, he wouldn’t be so demanding.
“Poppy!” he said, turning around with a frown. That made it easier. He was always frowning at her, and she was sick of it.
She smiled at him, a different smile than the one she normally gave him. It wasn’t a cringing puppy smile, begging for love. “Yes, Fletch?”
“I need you to come home now.”
“I won’t be coming home,” she said, seating herself. “I’m staying with Jemma for the foreseeable future. She won’t retire to the country until December because of Beaumont’s involvement in the House of Lords; I shall stay with her.”
“Couldn’t we just skip all the fuss, please, Poppy? Surely we’ve known each other long enough so that you could simply forgive me and come home.”
“I do forgive you.”
“Oh good,” he said, looking as if he’d never had a doubt of it.
“Although you were abysmally rude to me in public.”
“I did apologize. I will never do such a thing again.”
“And you were flirting with one of my friends.”
“I hadn’t the faintest idea—” he said, and stopped.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, tapping her finger on the chair, “that one is a bit more difficult to explain away, isn’t it? It is true that Louise is one of my friends. A dear friend, unfortunately for you. But of course there are many women in London with whom I am positively unacquainted.”
“Yes,” he said, looking uneasy for the first time.
“So I think we can both agree that you should simply look farther afield,” she said gently.
His mouth actually fell open a bit, which was very pleasant to observe.
“We should make some plans,” Poppy said. “Obviously, we shall have to co-habit again at some point in the future…shall we say five years or so? When you feel that the question of an heir becomes pressing, I assure you that I will be compliant. I had felt that I wanted a child early in our marriage, but now I realize that it would be far, far wiser to wait. I have things to do.”
“You do?” He sounded stunned.
“Yes. You and I have separated in an amicable way, and so we can plan everything without acrimony. I would suggest five years and then we shall have to live in the same house hold again.”
“We could plan for more than five years, but we run the risk of childlessness. After all, we have been married four years with no issue.”
He just stared at her.
“We can discuss these arrangements later,” she said with another encouraging smile. “Fletch, was there something you wished to say at this point?”
Though she was being tremendously cheerful, the hot little coal of rage was still under her breastbone. She paused, but he seemed to have been struck dumb.
“Jemma assures me that she would love me to retire with them to the country for the Christmas season. She will be bringing a large party with her. After that, I thought I might return to France for a few years, but I’m not certain of my plans yet. I hope to travel widely.” The little coal of rage prompted her to say, very sweetly, “But never fear, Fletch, I will be certain to give you my direction. I know it would be most incommodious if you had no idea where your wife was. No one wants to have to track his wife like a grouse in hunting season.”
He finally opened his mouth. “I didn’t mean the comment in this light.”
“I will tell you where I am going, and you won’t have to worry about me. Oh! I forgot. You never do worry, do you?”
His brows knit. “You sound most unlike yourself, Poppy. I am truly sorry that I have made you angry.”
He looked so perplexed that she actually laughed, a genuine little laugh. “I’m angry, Fletch, but I’m as angry at myself as you. I should never have married you.”
“I think I married you because my mother told me to do so.”
“You—you married me because you were in love with me!”
She smiled again because it felt good to tell him the truth. “No, I wasn’t, Fletch. My mother told me from the moment I was seven years old that I was to marry a duke. You were the first English duke who arrived in Paris, and so I married you. Yes, I thought myself in love with you, but now I’ve discovered that I made a mistake. Which is”—she pointed out—“a very good thing, as you clearly made the same discovery some time ago.”
He opened his mouth.
“Didn’t you?” she prompted. “Because it seems to me that you not only realized you were not in love but you decided to seek companionship elsewhere.”
The silence grew between them until she couldn’t stand it. For all she wasn’t in love with him, it was terribly humiliating to have one’s husband be so uncaring. “I really don’t see any point in our discussion continuing.”
“We haven’t discussed anything yet!” Fletch protested.
“There’s not much to discuss.”
“You need to come home now,” he said, exhibiting the kind of stubbornness that characterized little boys in the orphanage.
“I’m not coming home.”
“Why?” For a moment, the world froze on its spiral. Because, despite herself, despite her talk and her bravery and her lack of love, there was a little part of her heart—
“Your mother,” he said.
“My mother.” The aching part of her heart closed its doors. For a second she thought she might cry and then she grabbed control. “What about my mother?”
“You knew quite well that your mother has moved into our house,” he said, glaring. “It’s been two months, and she shows no sign of leaving.”
Poppy was very pleased to discover that Fletch’s glare didn’t bother her in the least. “I’m certain that you can handle her.”
Fletch’s eyes narrowed. “What are you up to, Poppy? Where is all this wild talk coming from? Did the Duchess of Beaumont put you up to this?”
“I haven’t spoken to Jemma about my plans,” Poppy said truthfully. “Beyond asking her if I could stay with her through Christmas. And I certainly haven’t told her the conclusions I’ve drawn about our marriage. Naturally, she knows what you think of our marriage. Most of London has heard it by now.”
“You sound spiteful,” Fletch said.
“Oh dear,” Poppy said. “I’m sure I didn’t mean to. I’ve spent so much time trying to charm you that I suppose it was bound to wear thin.”