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“The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” Mr. Fiddler observed. “Not a man has control of his wife anymore. I mean, if a duke doesn’t, what’s the hope for us?”

Since Mr. Pisner privately thought that he would rather drink poison than be married to Mrs. Fiddler, there wasn’t much else to be said about it, so they went back to adding up last month’s receipts.

Out in the carriage, Poppy looked disbelievingly at the thick sheaf of banknotes in her hand. “Jemma,” she said, “Fletch is going to be furious.”

“Really?” Jemma said, powdering her nose in a small glass she took from her bag. “Shall we go back tomorrow and get some more?”

Poppy thought about that.

“Why will he be furious? He doesn’t look stingy.”

“He’s not,” Poppy said.

“Likely he won’t even notice.”

Poppy doubted that. But what did she know? She was slowly coming to understand that she knew almost nothing about her husband.

“Now, let’s buy something you always wanted but didn’t buy.”

But Poppy couldn’t think of anything.

“A new gown?”

“I always bought them when I felt I had a need.”

“What we’re doing,” Jemma said, “is buying something for which you have no need. For the pure pleasure of it. Not because there’s a hole in your stockings, but because you love stockings.” Then she started laughing.

“What is it?” Poppy said, smiling along with her.

“Your expression,” Jemma said. “You look like a kitten with your first mouse.”

“Well, there is something,” Poppy said shyly.

“What?”

“Promise you won’t laugh?”

“I can’t promise that,” Jemma said. “But I promise not to hoot, will that do?”

Poppy unfolded a small advertisement cut neatly from the newspaper.

“What on earth?” Jemma said, taking the scrap of paper. It was an advertisement. “For Sale: The horn of a strange beast recovered in Sisfreyan Babylon. What?”

“Did you hear about that beast?” Poppy asked. “It was written up in the Gazette last year. They said that it had two horns above its nose and two twisting horns above each ear. The article said that it was as large as a horse and might easily have carried two men. And its fur was blue.”

Jemma had a look on her face that was something akin to that of Poppy’s mother whenever Poppy showed her interesting snippets from the papers. “Why on earth are you carrying that about in your pocket?”

“I should like to buy it,” Poppy said.

“Buy it?”

Poppy leaned forward and rapped on the roof. “Yer Grace,” came back the booming voice of the coachman.

“We’d like to go to Grudner’s Curiosity Shop.”

“What?”

“Grudner’s Curiosity Shop in Whitefriars,” she shrieked. “Now, please.”

The carriage pulled ponderously to the right. “Grudner’s Curiosity Shop?” Jemma asked.

“I’ve read his advertisements,” Poppy explained. “He’s got all kinds of wonderful things…once he had a cherry stone with one hundred heads carved on it. And an ostrich egg. Do you know what an ostrich is, Jemma?”

“Absolutely not,” Jemma said, leaning back and grinning at her.

“It’s a very large, fat bird,” Poppy said. “My father had a book of natural curiosities, and I kept it under my bed for years. All the maids knew, of course, but they never told my mother. Why are you smiling at me so?”

“Because your eyes are shining,” Jemma said. “Your eyes are shining and your cheeks are pink, and you look—interested, Poppy. Really interested.”

“Well, who wouldn’t be? Did you know that Lord Prestle has a stuffed alligator? I would love to see that!”

“A stuffed alligator? What is an alligator?”

“A monster,” Poppy said. “A veritable monster with huge huge teeth and tusks the size of a man’s leg. That’s how they described it in the Rambler’s Magazine. It roams the wilderness in America and snaps up a whole man in one mouthful.”

“Goodness sakes,” Jemma said. “You seem to be reading different articles than I do.”

“The first thing I’m going to do is buy a cabinet.”

“For a stuffed alligator?”

“I’m not interested in stuffed animals, particularly,” Poppy said. “Well, I am interested, but I think I’m more interested in curiosities. There was an advertisement a few months ago for a clear crystal pebble with water trapped inside it, for instance. I almost asked Mother if I could buy that.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“My mother doesn’t feel that curiosity is an appropriate emotion for a duchess.”

“I must be a duchess in your mother’s mold,” Jemma said comfortably. “I’ve never had the faintest curiosity unless it was about discovering a new way to solve a chess problem. But I do have a question, Poppy. Why on earth were you asking your mother for permission about how to spend Fletch’s money?”

Poppy frowned. “I’m not sure.”

“I never ask anyone’s permission for anything,” Jemma said frankly. “It is a far more entertaining way to live.”

“I see what you mean. I suppose I was just in the habit of asking Mama about things. Though I knew she would say no.”

“Then you must stop asking her questions. I loathe people who say no.”

Poppy started laughing. “Who says no to you, Jemma?”

“Not very many people, which is just as it should be. Beaumont and I have a wrangle now and then.”

“I am beginning to realize that my mother says no about a great many things.”

“Few of which are her prerogative,” Jemma said. “The more I hear about your mother, the more grateful I am for my paucity of relatives. I wouldn’t trade my mad uncle for your mad mother any day of the week!”

“Do you know, we haven’t even written each other a letter in the last month? I expect she’s furious at me.”

“She’s duchessing it in your place,” Jemma said, with a distinct edge in her voice. “She held a soirée last week, according to the gossip columns.”

“She always wanted to be a duchess,” Poppy said, feeling a stab of loyalty. “And she would have made a much better one than I.”

“Now she is one,” Jemma pointed out. “We dissolute duchesses live in Beaumont House, and all the proper ones can pay visits to your mother, and we’re all comfortable.”

Chapter 21

Still September 1

The Duke of Villiers opened the elegant piece of embossed stationery, scanned it and let it fall from his hand. He was so terribly tired that he couldn’t bring himself to care that one of his friends had sent him a long page of gossip. Apparently the Duke of Beaumont was indulging in a flirtation with Miss Charlotte Tatlock. They were seen speaking together at all events.

Elijah must be insane, to flirt with an old maid like Charlotte Tatlock, when he could be talking to Jemma. Though now he thought about it, he had the idea that Elijah had talked to Miss Tatlock through most of Jemma’s last dinner party.

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