Put the duchess’s hair together with a lush figure and the unmistakable intelligence in her face—“She is,” Charlotte reminded her sister, “the best chess player in all France, or that’s what they say”—and her argument was finished.
The husband of such a paragon…and Miss Charlotte Tatlock?Never.
Poppy didn’t really expect Fletch to visit again, and he didn’t.
She cried herself to sleep every night for another few weeks, dressing in the morning to look her very best, in case Fletch paid her a call. After all, her mother was still living with him. How could he survive?
Clearly, he survived. One morning Poppy dismissed her maid before her hair was curled and powdered, put on a dressing gown, curled up next to the window and watched the birds in Jemma’s garden. Starlings hopped from branch to branch, took sudden flight and spilled up into the sky like gravy thrown into the air, settled back down on the branches to chat. She stayed there all day, wondering about starlings’ nests and their conversations.
It was the kind of question her mother loathed. “Why waste your time?” she would demand whenever Poppy ventured such a question. “Why waste my time?” she would continue, leaving the room.
Jemma seemed to find it perfectly sensible that Poppy had stopped dressing formally. “I often don’t dress myself until the late afternoon,” she said. Not that she knew anything about starlings.
“I only know about chess,” she confessed. They both watched for a time. “They seem to be chattering to each other, don’t they?” Jemma asked, rather startled. “I expect they’re friends.”
“I’ve never had a real friend before you,” Poppy said.
“A pretty compliment but untrue! There’s a salver stuffed with cards downstairs to attest that you have many friends, and not all of them are merely curious about your current situation. The ladies from your sewing circle for the penitent poor, for instance—”
“The sewing circle is for indigent mothers,” Poppy said. “The reception of penitent poor meets at Lady Cleland’s house, and we don’t sew. In truth,” she added gloomily, “we just talk about the immorality of prostitutes.”
“The seamstresses and gossipers have all paid you calls, though most of them have now retreated to the country,” Jemma said. “Every charitable lady in the city has summoned up her courage and crossed my threshold. No! That’s not quite true.”
“Could one picture Lady Langhorne faltering?”
“No,” Jemma said, picturing that stout and invincible woman.
“She sent her card from the carriage, because presumably she could not bring herself to enter such a den of iniquity as Beaumont House when the duchess is in residence,” Jemma said. “So tell me no more fibs about your lack of friends.”
“It’s not that,” Poppy said, feeling weary. “They are friends of a kind. They wouldn’t approve of my lying about in my nightgown all day long.”
“That’s due to their virtue,” Jemma said. “Having been born with a complete lack of virtue myself, I never worry about the harsh standards the rest of you put to yourselves.”
“Born with a complete lack of virtue?” Poppy said, laughing a little.
“The curse of the Reeves,” Jemma said. “That’s my maiden name, you know. We’re a scurrilous lot. I have an uncle who is stark raving mad. And my brother is hardly a model of sober behavior. The duel with Villiers was his fourth, you know. Is there anything I can get you, Poppy?”
“Books,” Poppy said. “I stupidly forgot my books at home and I have now read every volume on nature in your library.”
“Nature? You mean about trees and such? I’m surprised there are any.”
“I prefer to read about animal life,” Poppy said, “though I was in the middle of a very interesting treatise on the nature of air as contained in water, which I left at home.”
“We definitely don’t have anything like that. How peculiar and interesting of you, Poppy. Why on earth haven’t you sent a footman for your books?”
“I shall send a list to Lackington’s Bookshop.” Then she added, rather slowly, “I’ve decided to read all the books I never had time to tackle. And I mean to take notes on them, Jemma, though there’s no point to that, as my mother would say. I shall do so for the pleasure of it.”
“You’ll be buried in three volume sets,” Jemma said, hopping out of her chair. “Do you know, I’ve discovered that women can join the London Chess Club because they forgot to preclude the possibility in their rules? I’m thinking of becoming a member just because everyone thinks that only men can be chess masters.”
“You must,” Poppy said. “Only men are supposed to become naturalists.”
“Then you must become a naturalist,” Jemma said. “You must.”
A month later September 1
“Do you know what your husband is doing?” Jemma asked, looking up from the breakfast table.
“What?” Poppy asked warily. Given that Fletch wasn’t wasting his time visiting his estranged wife, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know his other activities.
“It says here that he made a lively speech in the House of Lords that was well received by both sides. How odd. Generally one side at least pretends to detest the speech. What do you think of going to Lady Wigstead’s party this evening?”
“Perhaps,” Poppy said.
Jemma narrowed her eyes. “I know just what you’re thinking, Poppy, and it won’t do. I’ve given you a decent mourning period, because it’s called for when a marriage expires. It’s September. That’s five months, long enough to recover. I took about that long, and I fancied myself in love with my husband. Though it was no love match, the way you had.”
“I thought I had,” Poppy corrected her.
“But there’s something bewitching about waking up next to a man.”
“You slept together all night?” Poppy asked, startled.
“We did. Frankly, what we did in that bed was never very interesting, in retrospect. But I used to like waking up when the morning light was just a faint yellow and asking him about what lay ahead of him. I was such an innocent that it’s hard to imagine.”
“How so?” Poppy asked.
“I thought that he enjoyed our conversations, that I might make a difference to his day in the House. That he listened to me.”
“Of course he did. But he had no real interest in my advice; he listened courteously because courtesy is in his bones and his breeding. Beaumont is one of the most well-bred persons I’ve ever met. The only time I saw him be truly rude was when I discovered him with his mistress.”
“Dreadful,” Poppy said, shuddering. “Of course Fletch has a mistress by now. But every time I think about it, I feel sick.”
“I was sick. I was sick in the carriage on the way home. Even now if I think about the way her hair fell over the edge of the desk, I feel a twinge of nausea.”
“Did you leave for Paris immediately?”