“We must remain strangers then. Tell me something interesting, please.”
“As a stranger?”
“Yes. The best strangers are the ones who tell you intimate truths about themselves and then are never met again.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met that sort of stranger,” Charlotte said.
“That’s because you’re a woman and so they never let you alone. I spent a number of years on the continent. It’s amazing what strangers will tell you if you’re trapped together in a sandstorm, for example.”
“You’ve been in a sandstorm?”
“No, but if I were I would babble all my most intimate secrets, I assure you.”
“I don’t have any intimate secrets,” Charlotte said, a little sadly. “I wish I had, if only to enliven the conversation.”
“Well, you’re flirting with Beaumont, for one. Are you in love with him?”
Charlotte didn’t think his eyes were condemning, just tired and curious. “A bit,” she said. “But really only because there’s no one else to be in love with. He listens to me.”
“He’s a politician. If he’s listening to you, it’s because you’re useful to him.”
“I know that. But I’d rather be useful to him than useful to no one.”
“Whereas I quite like being useful to no one. Of course, that does lead to disconcertingly empty bedchambers. I suppose if I’d made myself useful to a woman I’d have a flock of children in here now.”
Charlotte glanced around. The room was exquisitely elegant and thoroughly male. The only accoutrement was a hairbrush, its handle covered in the same color as the walls.
“I agree with your tactful silence,” his deep voice said from the bed. He had his eyes closed again. “It’s hard to imagine children with me or me with children. What about you? Did you want children?”
“I’m not dead yet!” she exclaimed.
“Well, in terms of the ton I expect you practically are,” Villiers said. “You’re all of, what, twenty-six?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Twenty-six and you’re engaged in a very public flirtation with a very married man…unless you’d like to have an illegitimate son to a duke…”
“I don’t suppose you’re offering,” she snapped. She was stinging all over from his matter-of-fact assessment.
“Alas, my candle is quite limp. Even your manifest charms couldn’t light it at this moment.”
“There’s no need to be rude. Just because you’re dying doesn’t mean that you must indulge yourself at my expense.”
He opened his eyes very wide. “In truth, I didn’t mean to do so.”
“Yes, you did. I know perfectly well that my nose is too long, and my face undistinguished. And my clothing is all very well, but hardly of the latest mode. I look like what I am: an old maid with a paltry dowry who will never have children.” And with that she burst into tears.
“Oh, bloody hell,” came from the bed.
She was a lovely woman. She was plumply curvy, with a dimple in the middle of her right cheek that drew a man’s eyes like a magnet. Her figure bounced in the right places.
And she didn’t have blond hair. Fletch couldn’t have an affaire with a woman with Poppy’s hair color. It wouldn’t be right. This woman was a brown-haired cousin of Elizabeth Armistead, who was Fox’s consort.
Consort: it was a kinder word than prostitute. Mrs. Armistead was beautiful, but more stately than her cousin.
Fox was across the room, discussing strategy. Fletch hardly knew any of the men in the room, which made it easier. The wine was deep and rich and burned its way to his stomach. It was dark and intense, like Cressida’s eyes.
“I’m married, you know,” she said, after they’d been talking for a while.
“As am I,” he said.
“I know that,” she laughed. “Everyone knows the marital circumstances of dukes. I know all about you. And your duchess.”
“What about her?” he asked, suddenly protective.
“She’s a most estimable lady,” Cressida said. “Actually my husband isn’t bad either. He’s a tailor. He lives in Suffolk and pretends that he doesn’t know what I’m up to. And I always go home for Christmas, and sometimes in the summer, if I can bear to do it.”
“How long have you been away?”
“We’ve been married for nine years,” she said, finishing her drink. “I was married out of the cradle, of course. But since the moment when I decided that I couldn’t abide another conversation about satin or thread, I came to live here at St. Anne’s Hill. A lady-in-waiting, I suppose you could call me.”
“It’s a beautiful place to live,” Fletch said, glancing at the damasked walls.
“Fox treats her very well,” Cressida said. “But in case you’re wondering, I’m not available for this sort of arrangement. I’m a lady-in-waiting, and not in waiting for a protector, not matter how noble.”
Fletch laughed. He couldn’t help liking her, with her odd flaring black brows. She wasn’t entirely beautiful, but she was frank and very funny.
“Would you like a tour of the house?” she asked.
For a moment it felt as if the world held its breath. And then Fletch’s mouth opened, and he heard himself say, “Yes, of course. Of all things,” and then she took his hand, and she was smiling at him and they left the room.
It was that easy.
And it was easy enough to find themselves in a bedchamber too, a beautiful one all hung with rose and pale green. Cressida kept laughing, and saying sarcastic funny little things, and somehow Fletch found he was kissing her.
It was all different from kissing Poppy. Of course. Her mouth was—well, bigger and wet and—
Fletch knew it wasn’t going right. But of course, she didn’t know that. And somehow it grew imperative to him that she not guess. So every time she reached out toward his breeches, he pulled back. He kept kissing her, though, and caressing her.
Somehow she had only her chemise on a short time later, and he was still kissing her, and caressing her.
He was miserable.
Sick feeling, really. Poppy had left him months ago.
By all rights, he should have been congratulating himself. All those nights when he’d worried that he’d never be able to satisfy a woman again were proven wrong. But finally Cressida reached out and he didn’t roll to the side fast enough and her body stilled because she knew exactly what she was feeling. Or wasn’t feeling, as the case may be.
“Odds bucket,” she said, pulling her hands back. “What are you doing, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t play your games with me,” she said, staring up at the ceiling. “I was having fun with you, and now you’ve made me feel shabby. What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s nothing to do with you.”
“I suppose you’re one of those that prefer men,” she said gloomily, sitting up and pulling her stays toward her.
The twist in her mouth showed that denial was a common event.