Equally unpleasant was the fact that Lady Flora always seemed to know where he had been. He went to Pitt’s quarters in the Inns of Court, and she was ready with a comment about Pitt’s Indian policy. He went for a ride with Gill, and that evening she commented that Gill was getting a bit old for his short pants.
“Gill doesn’t wear short pants!” he snapped, wondering if she’d gone mad.
She smiled. “It’s merely a gentle comment about the earl’s need to grow up,” she told him. “I hear he tries to draw portraits, like a veritable maiden. One has to wonder whether he’s even had a woman, if you will excuse the indelicacy.”
He did mind the indelicacy, though there was no way to say such a thing. He didn’t want an indelicacy from his mother-in-law. In fact, he didn’t want to see her ever, not at breakfast, nor at luncheon, nor waiting up when he returned, breathing concern. But not curiosity—never curiosity, because she always seemed to know what he was doing.
Occasionally she would inform him, in passing, where she was going or the changes she had made to this or that room.
“Did you ask Poppy?” he asked once, when she informed him that she was changing the hangings in the east parlor to a rich persimmon.
“Poppy?” she said, looking as startled as if he’d mentioned King George himself. “Poppy? Of course not.” And she walked away, looking as if the ghost of a daughter fled before her.
Fletch couldn’t help thinking it was peculiar.
It had been months since he’d even seen Poppy. Though of course he wasn’t really looking for her, because he was establishing—trying to establish—himself in the House of Lords. But he had been to every party worth noting and she was never there. Yet she was still living with Jemma. Or perhaps not. No one would tell him.
He had received a discreet note from his banker, informing him of Her Grace’s private account; of course he dispatched a large sum of money immediately. One did, when one’s wife left. That is, none of his friends’ wives had actually left, but he felt the etiquette of the situation was obvious.
The question—the real question—was what he should be doing with himself.
He knew what Poppy thought he was doing. He was supposed to be indulging himself in the company of women.
In reality, he was spending most of every day in the House of Lords. He was bent on making a name for himself, making a difference in government. Making a difference to his country.
His wife thought he was simply frolicking with courtesans. And she didn’t care.
The thought was searing.
Why should Poppy care? She never liked making love to him. And now she said she never loved him at all.
So why should that bother him?
He was due to luncheon with Fox, at Mrs. Armistead’s house. And he’d heard rumors of lovely women and intimacies…
It shouldn’t bother him.
The Duke of Villiers’s bedchamber looked like the back of a waterfall to Charlotte: all dim and silvery with just a few candles strewn about. In the middle of the room was a resplendent bed, hung with watered gray silk embroidered with bluebells.
Villiers was lying against the pillows, looking very white and stark. His cheekbones were always pronounced; May had once proclaimed him alarmingly handsome, and Charlotte had thought it a fair comment. But now his skin seemed translucent. He waved a hand in greeting, and Charlotte saw it was painfully thin, his knuckles sharp-cut. A rush of pity gripped her.
“Please do me the honor of sitting,” he said. “Thank you for paying me a call.”
The manservant rushed forward with a chair and she sat.
Villiers didn’t say another word, just looked at her. Charlotte was suddenly aware of every aspect of herself, of her windblown brown hair, her reddened cheeks, the unexciting ruffle at the bottom of her prim gown. The room smelled like peppermint and lime-water.
“What may I do for you, Your Grace?” she asked, trying to keep her voice low and calm, as befitted a deathbed.
“Nothing, I expect,” he said.
Funny: he didn’t sound as if he were dying. He sounded faintly amused and just a bit tired. Charlotte risked another look at him.
He had closed his eyes. Oddly enough, he was even more beautiful when ill. His skin was so white that his lashes looked fantastically long and dark against his cheeks. “Surely there must be something I can do, since you wrote me a letter,” she said, finally.
“Did I?” There was a faint tone of surprise in his voice that nettled her and she started to rise.
“Please forgive me. I must have received the letter in error.”
“Please,” he said. “Please stay. I’m sure I did write to you. I remember it now.”
She subsided, wondering what one said to a dying man.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Well, if you did write me, I am wondering why you told me that you missed Benjamin, and whether you meant Barnabe.”
“Barnabe?” he asked. “I don’t know a Barnabe. I meant Benjamin, the Duke of Berrow. In truth I believed I was sending a note to his widow, but somehow the letter went astray. My fever recurs in the afternoons, and my mind becomes horribly confused. There are too many B’s involved here, Barnabe, Benjamin and Berrow. Not to mention Beaumont. We met at the Duchess of Beaumont’s dinner party, did we not?”
“Yes, we did. And I would be glad to contact the duchess for you, Your Grace,” Charlotte said. “I could do it immediately. Shall I ask your man for some writing paper?”
“You’re that young woman Beaumont has set up a flirtation with,” Villiers said suddenly. “Lord Thrush wrote and said that you revised one of Beaumont’s speeches to Parliament and he thought you made it better.”
Charlotte felt a blush edging up her neck. “I didn’t revise it,” she said. “I merely gave His Grace an idea of how to structure it.”
“You needn’t do that Your Grace and His Grace business here,” Villiers said. “Surely my man told you that I’m dying?”
Charlotte’s mouth fell open.
“You look like a dying fish yourself,” he said. “I wonder that being on my deathbed hasn’t made me any more charitable. I don’t feel in the least like consigning myself to almighty powers and turning myself over to good works, you know. Not in the least. My doctors have been telling me that I’m dying for weeks now, and I haven’t heard even a single note of the heavenly choir in my ear.”
“You show a great deal of confidence in the opinion of your doctors,” Charlotte observed.
He smiled faintly. “My doctor would be much affronted if I decided to live. I have the distinct impression that he thinks one should only act under proper medical advice.”
“May I suggest that you live just to affront them?”
“An excellent suggestion. If I weren’t so tired, I would take it seriously. I’m not used to visitors, you know. You’re the first person I’ve seen in months, other than my valet.”
“Your family?” she ventured.
“I don’t have one. I expect it would be even more tiring to die while people weep around you. You, on the other hand, show a refreshing lack of sentiment.”
“I assure you that I would be tearful if I knew you a bit better,” Charlotte said, smiling. It was hard not to like the phlegmatic way he was approaching the whole subject.