Poppy grinned. “I call it—I call it—”
“Let’s just call it rebellion,” Jemma said dryly. “Would it be fair to say, Poppy, that in the process of leaving your husband, you have also left your mother?”
“That’s just how I see it,” Poppy said, leaning back and opening the sack containing her cherry stone. “Tomorrow I intend to visit France & Banting. By all accounts they make delightful curiosity cabinets.”
“There are cabinets built for cherry pits?” Jemma asked incredulously.
“Haven’t you ever seen a curiosity cabinet? The King of Sweden’s was displayed at the LeverianMuseum last year, and I told my mother I was visiting the poor but I went to the museum instead.”
“Quite a mutiny,” Jemma said dryly. “I trust she didn’t discover your perfidy?”
“Thankfully no. And you may be as sharp as you please, Jemma, but I assure you that it is hard to withstand my mother’s will.”
“I can only imagine,” Jemma said. “Luckily, she’s never shown me the faintest interest.”
“That,” Poppy said candidly, “is one of the reasons why I am so grateful that you took me in. My mother’s concern for her reputation is such that she cannot visit me, no matter how she may wish to do so.”
“I knew that my reputation would come in handy for something. You should hear Beaumont complain about how that same reputation is ruining his chances for this and that in Parliament. I shall have to inform him that it is actually of ser vice in keeping away mothers and other marauding armies.”
“I think I shall request a cabinet of oak and ebony. I love the combination of black and brown woods.”
“Hmmm,” Jemma said. She had taken out her Queen and was examining her again. In truth, she was a delicious chess piece. Her gown frothed in the back like the curve of an ocean wave crashing on the shore.
“Mr. Grudner said that your piece came from Lord Strange, didn’t he? His is one of the curiosity collections that I would love to see.”
“It’s such a shame about Strange,” Jemma said. “Even I couldn’t visit Fonthill, his estate, of course. Why, why do you suppose that he broke up the set and sold the Queen? It’s such a cruel thing to do.”
“Why couldn’t you visit Fonthill? I mean to.”
“His reputation is ten times blacker than mine. The man has scandalized people who think of me as angelic.”
Poppy leaned back. “I mean to see his collection. And I want to go to the AshmoleonMuseum as well. And to the Royal Society. Mother never allowed me to go to their meetings, even though they regularly allow ladies to attend.”
Jemma blinked at her. Poppy’s face was as charming as ever, but Jemma suddenly realized that there was nothing soft about Poppy’s jaw, and that her smile was as determined as it was sweet.
“Miss Tatlock is the secretary of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Royal Society,” she offered.
“You mean that young woman who flirts with your husband?”
“I think of her as Miss Fetlock,” Jemma said. “It is an affectionate name, you understand.”
Poppy smiled at her. “I wish I could think up a mean name for Louise, but I’m too fond of her.”
“There we differ. I have no liking whatsoever for Miss Fetlock, though I am the first to admit that my dislike is extremely unfair. As far as I know, she adores Beaumont from afar and he certainly would never risk his precious reputation to do more than converse with the poor woman.”
“Then we must direct her attentions in some other direction,” Poppy said firmly. “As it happens, I know a delightful young scientist, Dr. Loudan.”
“She couldn’t marry just any young man from Oxford, no matter how intelligent he was,” Jemma said. “She’s caught in the bounds of propriety, you know. One of those.Poor but a peer.”
“He’s the Honorable George Loudan,” Poppy said. “And he stands to be Viscount Howitt someday.”
Jemma raised an eyebrow. “What a splendid idea, Poppy!”
“I shall go to the next Royal Society meeting. At least, the next one to which they invite women. And I’ll introduce the two of them.”
“How on earth did you meet this scientist, Poppy?”
To Jemma’s amusement, Poppy got a little pink.
“I wrote him a letter,” Poppy confessed. “You see, he wrote a treatise on the three-toed sloth in Transactions of the Royal Society, and while I felt he made some astute comments, he overlooked an important point that Dr. Hembleton made in a previous article, having to do with their back claws.”
“You wrote him a letter? About a three-toed sloth?” What ever Jemma was expecting, it wasn’t missives to do with sloths.
“Illicit correspondence with a gorgeous young man.” Jemma leaned back, grinning. “You did say that he was gorgeous, didn’t you, Poppy?”
Poppy looked even more flustered. “Well, of course, I wasn’t thinking of his person when I wrote him a letter—”
“Of course you weren’t,” Jemma said, chortling. “Not a thought. Never.Of course not. Did he write back?”
“It isn’t like that,” she protested.
“He wrote back, did he? Probably thought you were brilliant, didn’t he? And—just how many letters have ensued, Miss Holier-than-Thou Duchess?”
Poppy looked a little faint. “Do you really think—see it—do you think that he—”
“Who knows how he thinks? Men are a mystery to me. I love the idea that you’re engaged in conversation, albeit epistolary, with one of the world’s great scientists!”
“I hardly think he’s one of the world’s great scientists,” Poppy said. “He may be an expert on the three-toed sloth, but he makes frequent errors in his assessments of research. I suspect him of sloppy note-keeping.”
And then, when Jemma kept giggling, she said: “Truly, this is not an illicit flirtation.”
“No? I suppose you showed all your letters to Fletch?”
“He wouldn’t be interested. Fletch doesn’t care about sloths.”
“I suppose if the sloths were wearing little ermine-lined cloaks, it might be different,” Jemma said mischievously.
“You shouldn’t—” Poppy said, and then started laughing. “Fletch is rather ridiculous, isn’t he?”
“Delicious,” Jemma said. “But ridiculous.”
“He never used to be like that,” Poppy said a little sadly. “In the last year, he just became more and more polished.”
“No wonder you turned to the purveyor of two-toed sloths. I would have done the same. Well, if I had the faintest inclination to discuss such a topic.”
“Three-toed, not two-toed. You would be interested,” Poppy said. “Really, you would! Dr. Loudan can be quite fascinating.”
“I suppose he thinks you’re fascinating as well?” Jemma asked mischievously.
“No,” Poppy said.
“You see, I have the sort of brain that simply can’t forget a tiny detail I read somewhere. I’m just like that.”