“But Mama,” Poppy had said, pushed into honesty by the twist in her gut, “the countess is so much more beautiful than I. And her gown is so much more revealing.”
“You are attired perfectly for a young girl making her debut,” her mother had said, looking her over. “And if your face and figure are not the height of regularity and beauty, no one could say that I spared the least expense.” That was true. Her mother favored two ruffles where one might do, and often decided on five instead. Poppy’s skirts were festooned with strings of seed pearls, and her bodices were trimmed with ermine.
But Poppy thought (secretly) that something simple might suit her better. Her frame was so small that side panniers, a long train, and a markedly large hairstyle, no matter how fashionable, made her feel like a decorated child.
Fletch tipped a finger under her chin. “I didn’t mean to send you into a daze, Poppy. I picked up your brooch, but I’m afraid the pin is bent. I’ll have it fixed for you.”
It was foolish to worry. Fletch was here—and he was hers. She smiled at him. “Thank you.”
Fletch turned the brooch over in his hand. “What an odd cameo.”
“It’s the only cameo of a bird I’ve ever seen. The Wedgwood company made it in honor of Queen Charlotte.”
“And just how is a flying crane with a crown on its head supposed to honor the queen?”
“Foolish, isn’t it? But look here”—she pointed it out to him—“the craftsman was marvelous. You can see each feather in the wingspan.”
“But the crown makes it look as if the bird has horns,” he objected.
“I know. That’s a small problem in the execution, though I still like it.” She tucked her hand under his arm. “Shall we return? It’s quite chilly, and I wouldn’t want Mama to become concerned about me.” And then, because he still looked a little distant in a way that she didn’t like, she added: “I’ll ask Jemma exactly what ladies do and don’t when it comes to kissing, Fletch. I promise.”
A few minutes later they walked out the door of the abbey. Paris lay on either side of them, dreaming in the chilly morning air until suddenly the air came alive again with a wild ringing of bells, liquid notes falling from the tower above them, echoing off snowy brick walls and steep cathedral spires.
“It’s Christmas,” Poppy said, feeling a sudden rush of joy. “It’s my favorite day of the year. I adore Christmas.”
“I adore you,” Fletch said, stopping. “Do you see what I see, Poppy?”
“What?” she breathed, looking up at him and not wherever he was pointing.
“Mistletoe,” he said, putting his arms around her. “Mistletoe hanging in thin air.”
Poppy closed her eyes and tipped up her face. It was just the right sort of kiss: sweet, short and loving. Then they began to walk back, Poppy picking her way over cobblestones lined in a thin gleaming sheet of ice.
A young woman hurried toward them, head down, a long loaf of bread tucked under her arm. Fletch felt as if he could smell the warm, fresh bread, and then before he knew it, he was imagining the luxurious curve of her breast pressed against the warm crust. He would—
He wrenched his thoughts away. When he and Poppy were married, he would have fresh-baked bread delivered to their chambers, and he would break it apart and eat it from her body, as though she were a platter for the gods.
“You have such a curious smile on your face,” Poppy said. “What are you thinking about?”
Poppy smiled to herself, and an old Parisian who passed reflected that he, one of the world’s connoisseurs of beauty, had never seen a lady quite so exquisite. In her face and figure were years of English and French ancestry, and having been raised mostly in France, every aspect of her figure and costume was à la mode. But it was her eyes, and the way she looked only at the tall Englishman striding beside her, that made her shine with that particular joy that makes even the plainest person beautiful.
“Ah,” he sighed. “L’amour!”
Four years later
AN EXCERPT FROM THE MORNING POST, APRIL 22, 1783
The buzz of the past few days amongst the ton has been the challenge that the Earl of Gryffyn offered the Duke of Villiers. It seems that the earl has stolen away the duke’s fiancée. We cannot comment on the veracity of this report, but we would note that dueling has been strictly prohibited by our gracious sovereign…
Town house of the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont A morning party in celebration of the Earl of Gryffyn’s victory in a duel
“The Duchess of Fletcher,” the butler announced with a magnificent bellow. When he said nothing about the duke, Poppy looked behind her…but Fletch was gone. He had drifted away to some other part of Beaumont House without bothering to be announced. Or inform her of his intentions.
She could feel her smile turning rigid so she picked up her skirts and edged down the three marble steps into the ballroom. Side panniers made it difficult enough to negotiate doorways and stairs, but this morning her French maid had outdone herself. A veritable cascade of frills, curls and bows towered over Poppy’s head, the whole of it draped with strings of small pear-shaped pearls. Walking was challenging; stairs were truly dangerous.
Not that it wasn’t worth it. She was fiercely determined to achieve an elegance to match her husband’s. Fletch and his costumes were the toast of London; she would never allow it to be said that his duchess shamed him. She didn’t want anyone to be sorry for her. Ever.
Naturally Fletch hadn’t said a word about her costume in the carriage, though he must have realized that her gown was new. Perhaps he thought its embroidery (in shades of gold and pearl) was too formal for a morning occasion. Poppy took a deep breath. If she’d learned anything from her four years of marriage, it was that one cannot guess what a man is thinking.
She revised that thought. Certain male thoughts were crystal clear.
“Your Grace,” came a deep voice at her ear. “May I escort you to the other side of the ballroom, where there is less of a crush? The Duchess of Beaumont is to be found there.”
“I’d be honored,” Poppy said to her host, curtsying just deeply enough to acknowledge his rank without disbalancing her hair. The Duke of Beaumont was attired in a simple coat of dark green velvet with turned-back cuffs of sage green. Of course, men rarely dressed as formally as women. She placed her hand lightly on his arm and they strolled through the ballroom, nodding at acquaintances. “I hadn’t thought to see you this morning,” Poppy said, before she realized that was rather impolite.
The duke—a consummate politician known jointly for his disdain for infamy and his infamous duchess, Jemma—gave a rueful smile. “Undoubtedly this party will be the scandal of the week, since it is held to celebrate a duel. To be quite truthful, in the normal run of events I would likely avoid this particular gathering. But as it is my own duchess holding the party, and in my own house, more commotion would result if I did not attend.”
Poppy felt a rush of sympathy for the poor duke. He was one of the most important men in the House of Lords, a man whose conviction, eloquence and power were known all over En gland. The last thing he needed in his life was scandal. And though she dearly loved Jemma from their days together in Paris, she had to admit that gossip-mongers adored the Duchess of Beaumont for good reason; everything Jemma did seemed to cause a sensation. It must be difficult to be married to her.