“I forget everything,” Jemma observed.
“But you remember every chess game you ever played. My brain works that way when it comes to articles about sloths and French marmoses. It’s terribly inconvenient,” she said feelingly.
“Unladylike,” Poppy said, wrinkling her nose. “I can’t help it, though. I see a new book or an article on a subject that interests me and I become simply feverish to read it. My mother loathes that propensity.”
“How strange,” Jemma said. “I don’t mean you, but the very idea of feeling feverish about a sloth, three-toed or not, is peculiar. You must know that.”
“I never tell anyone. And you must promise to do the same.”
“Why doesn’t this Oxford fellow simply embrace you and your detailed brain, then?”
“I find that scientists are not always excited to be reminded about details,” Poppy said, looking rather surprised. “Surely accuracy is of the utmost importance when it comes to natural study, but you would be surprised, Jemma, at how inexact some people can be. Dr. Loudan is occasionally quite reluctant to drop an idea, even when the evidence is against him.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a naturalist. There are very few of them wandering around Paris. So do you really think we could interest the inexact but Honorable George Loudan in Miss Fetlock?”
“The curious thing to me, Jemma, is why you are so interested in removing Miss Tatlock from your husband’s company. You acknowledge that he would never endanger his reputation. And she is a gently bred young lady. Your marriage is in no danger.”
“I already saw my husband in love with another woman,” Jemma said. “I left for Paris because I couldn’t bear to be around him in that circumstance. That’s one thing that Beaumont has never understood: marriage and reputation are not the most important things.”
“It’s a common problem,” Poppy said thoughtfully. “My mother would agree with Beaumont.”
Charlotte didn’t know what to make of the letter when it arrived. She saw the ducal seal and snatched it from the house maid as if it might burn her fingers. And then she ran upstairs where May couldn’t see it.
Only to find to her disappointment that the seal was that of the Villiers family, and not that of the Beaumonts.Of course not. The Duke of Beaumont wouldn’t write to her. He would never do that. He was solid, respectable, honorable…
She came back to herself with a start and stared down at the note. It was obviously written by a servant, and it stated that the Duke of Villiers would like her to pay a call. The Duke of Villiers?An unmarried man? How on earth could she do that? Why would he even expect that she would consider it?
And why would he want her to visit? He barely exchanged two words with her at the dinner party given by the Duchess of Beaumont, which was the only time they’d met. And finally, who was Benjamin, the name mentioned in the letter?
The problem, Charlotte thought, was that her life was boring. She’d been on the shelf more years than she cared to count. Her mother had always said that she had an intelligent countenance, and she knew that she was honest, fairly virtuous and chaste. Not that she’d ever had a chance to be less than chaste, but a virtue is still a virtue, even if untested. But none of those qualities made life interesting.
May entered the room. “Is that a letter from Beaumont?” her sister demanded.
“How did you know that I received a letter?”
“The maid told me, of course,” May said impatiently. “I see that Mr. Muddle shall indeed have to have a word with His Grace. He is toying with your reputation in a most unkind fashion, sending you private letters.”
“Mr. Muddle will have nothing to do with the Duke of Beaumont!” Charlotte cried, horrified at the thought of her sister’s fiancé muddling his way through a conversation with the duke. “You couldn’t possibly ask it of him, May!”
“I most certainly could,” May said, drawing herself up. “Mother would not have permitted the visit. And no one could have your welfare more at heart than my future husband, Mr. Muddle!”
Charlotte hated the way that May’s voice dropped when she said the word husband. And it wasn’t just jealousy either. It wasn’t.
“It’s not a letter from Beaumont,” she said flatly.
“Oh.” May sat down. “Well.”
“Beaumont has never written me and he won’t. You just don’t understand, May. He’s not interested in flirting with me.”
“But you are interested in flirting with him,” May said, with a sister’s shrewish perception. “And sometimes that’s even more dangerous to a woman’s reputation, Charlotte.”
Charlotte was too depressed to answer, so they just sat for a moment until May said, “Who’s the letter from, then?”
“It’s from the Duke of Villiers.”
“Oh!” May said. “Is it a deathbed confession?”
“Confession?Confession to what?”
“I don’t know!” May cried, clasping her hands together. “I believe he is already dead. Maybe it’s”—her voice lowered to a curdled whisper—“a letter from a dead man!”
“Villiers is dead?”
“So I heard this morning,” May said. “Dead. The coal man had it on the best authority from the fishmonger in Gatrell Street.”
“That’s awful,” Charlotte said, letting the letter fall from her fingers.
“But what did he want from you? I didn’t think you even knew him.” She reached for the foolscap.
“He attended the dinner party given by the Duchess of Beaumont that I was at last spring, but we hardly spoke. I think a mistake was made in the address.”
“No,” May said, with her usual brand of tiresome logic. “It’s plainly addressed to you, both on the overleaf and the letter itself.” She read the note. “How peculiar. Of course, I know what he’s talking about. And so do you, Charlotte. So do you.”
“Of course you do! It’s that mad Reeve whom you danced with all those years ago. The one you thought would offer you marriage and instead he hived off to the country, mad as a march hare.”
“You needn’t make me sound like such a fool!” Charlotte snapped.
“Be that as it may,” her sister said, “obviously His Grace is referring to Reeve. They must have been friends, and he wanted you to know that on his deathbed.”
“Except,” Charlotte said, “that Reeve’s given name is Barnabe, not Benjamin.”
“Close enough,” May said. “It’s obvious.”
“Well, it hardly matters if the duke is dead,” Charlotte said.
“You should drop off your card,” May said. “The duke was thinking of you—of you, Charlotte—practically on his deathbed. It’s the least you can do.”
“I’ve never understood that custom,” Charlotte said. “What ser vice does it do the dead person when I drop my card at his house? What good is that, pray? Suddenly all the carriages line up outside a house and small bits of paper fly back and forth, but does the dead person sit up in his coffin and count his visitors? No, he does not!”