“You are unaccountably strange,” May said. She’d said it many times before, so the sentence flowed with practiced ease. “All I can say is, thank goodness it isn’t the Duke of Beaumont thinking of you with his last breath. You’d never live that one down!”
“How many times must I tell you,” Charlotte said between clenched teeth.
“I know,” May said, “but you must admit that it’s all rather strange. Here you are, practically a spinster, Charlotte, if you don’t mind my saying so. Neither of us ever had a shard of interest from, well, the nobility. And suddenly you’re being chased around by dukes. It’s—it’s odd.”
Charlotte folded up the letter. “I’ll drop my card at Villiers’s house on my way to buy some physic for the downstairs maid. Her face is swollen again, and Cook wants mustard to make up a poultice.”
“You could send Roberts,” May observed. “It isn’t ladylike for you to traipse off to the market for herbs.”
“I’m an old maid, remember,” Charlotte said, with an edge. “And I need some fresh air. It’s quite odd to receive a letter from someone who just died.”
“I can’t imagine what everyone will think of it! I just hope they don’t think that you were as close to Villiers as you supposedly are to Beaumont!” She laughed shrilly at the very idea and trotted off.
Charlotte didn’t bother to change her dress. She was neatly attired in a simple blue sacque gown. It was neither particularly flattering nor particularly fashionable, but it served. She stared down at it for a moment, remembering how resplendent the Duke of Villiers always appeared, clothed in fantastically embroidered costumes. When he appeared at the party following that fatal duel, he looked white, but gorgeous.
It was so sad. And now she thought of it, sad for the Earl of Gryffyn as well. One had to suppose that he would have to flee the country now that his opponent had died.
Stupid men and their stupid duels. The butler was nowhere to be seen, so she had Roberts hail her a hackney. She wasn’t in a mood to wait for their ancient black carriage to be brought around from the mews so she could shamble down the street, all their genteel poverty revealed in every rusty spot on that carriage.
“Fifteen, Picadilly,” she told the driver. When they pulled up in front of Villiers’s town house she realized for the first time the problem with a hackney. There wasn’t a footman to deliver her card. “Here, driver!” she called. “Will you be so good as to deliver my card?”
He tugged his cap and took the card obediently enough. She watched through the window as he trundled up to the door, his driver’s cape blowing in a stiff wind. It wasn’t proper; one’s card should be delivered by a footman, but she couldn’t get over the fact that Villiers was dead. Dead men presumably didn’t care for niceties.
A butler answered the door and took the card, but when Charlotte expected the driver to trundle directly back to the carriage, he didn’t do so. Instead a footman slipped past the butler and came down the path. He opened the door of the carriage.
“If you please,” he said, bowing.
“I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood,” Charlotte said, feeling horribly embarrassed. Who knows what that foolish driver had told them? “I didn’t come to pay a call; I would never do that at this moment of turmoil. I didn’t mean to disturb the house hold, so we’ll be on our way.”
The footman bowed again. “Your presence is requested, madam.”
Charlotte pursed her lips. But who could see anything untoward in visiting the house of a dead unmarried man, after all? A man who wasn’t breathing could hardly be viewed as likely to steal one’s virtue.
So she climbed out of the carriage and marched up to the house. The wind was unseasonably nipping and cold, and she arrived feeling as if her cheeks were red and her clothes all in a twist.
“We are very grateful for your call,” a butler said, bowing.
“I’m not visiting—” she began, but before she quite knew what was happening, her pelisse was gone and she was being bundled up the stairs. “I don’t wish to view the body!” she said. And then, thinking the butler hadn’t heard her, she stopped on the stair and said, “I am not here for a viewing, if you please.”
The butler turned at the head of the stairs and peered down at her. “You wish a viewing? A viewing of what?”
“I don’t wish for a viewing,” Charlotte said loudly.
Charlotte sighed and climbed the rest of the stairs. The butler was obviously deaf, and likely under a great deal of pressure. She noticed, for example, that he hadn’t managed to swath the house in black, which surely needed to be done as soon as possible. “I’m not interested in viewing the dead body,” she said as loudly as she could, once she reached the top. “The duke’s body. I’m not here to view it.”
The butler’s mouth fell open, and through an open door at the right, she heard a low laugh. “I haven’t been put up for viewing yet, have I?” It was unmistakably the Duke of Villiers’s voice.
Charlotte clapped a hand to her mouth.
“If you please, Miss Tatlock,” the butler said, seemingly unperturbed. “His Grace is receiving visitors.”
She backed up a step. “No,” she whispered in a horrified voice.
A man with an anxious rabbity face popped out of the bedchamber and grabbed her by the elbow as she was about to retreat down the stairs. “Miss Tatlock, I really must insist. His Grace has been so very ill, you see, and he expressed a wish to see you.”
“I don’t know him!” she said, in a low voice, keeping an eye on the door. “I thought he was dead!”
“I’m not,” the duke said from inside. “So you might as well come in, whoever you are. I’m having a sane moment, thank God.”
“No!” Charlotte said.
But the rabbity man leaned close and said, “Please, Miss Tatlock, as an act of charity. He hasn’t requested a visitor in over a fortnight.”
And then Charlotte realized that of course the poor duke must be just on the verge of expiring. She had never been one for succoring the sick and dying. But obviously one could not refuse the opportunity when offered.
“I’ll send your carriage around the park,” the valet said, at least acknowledging the social rules that Charlotte was about to break by entering the duke’s bedchamber.
“It’s a hackney,” she said. “Just send it away, if you please.”
And she walked past him.
Fletch couldn’t go home. In fact, he could never go home. Lady Flora was there; she was always there. His drawing room was filled with scented ladies and their delicate laughter. If he ventured home for dinner, the meal would be fraught with unfamiliar foods and servants he’d never seen before. He had the impression that most of his house hold had left. The house smelled different: scented.
“Candles,” Quince told him when he asked. “Lady Flora feels that every room should have its own ambiance.”
One had to suppose that was what made thresholds so unpleasant; one exited one ambiance only to be greeted by something quite different and yet equally sweet.