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Page 38


“I—I’m married,” he said.

“You’re a fool.”

“That too.”

“And I suppose this is the first time that you’ve considered being unfaithful.” Cressida was pinning up her hair now, sounding more resigned than angry.

“Practically.”

“Amazing. Most of the gentlemen I’ve met are unfaithful before the ink’s dry on their marriage lines. What’s gone wrong, then?”

“Wrong?”

“You must have been in love,” she said, looking at him with a strange combination of pity and sharpness in her eyes.

“She doesn’t like bedding me.” It actually felt good to say it out loud. “She doesn’t say no, but she only suffers it.”

“Some women are like that. Mind you, every woman feels like that sometimes. Touch me and I’ll scream.”

“She never says that.”

Cressida took the pins out of her mouth and said, “Some women never like the act. We had one girl here like that. She just couldn’t tolerate it after a while and then one day she ran away.”

“But this isn’t a brothel,” Fletch said. “Why did she have to run away?”

She didn’t answer that. “If you change your mind and decide that you would like a woman in your bed who can really pleasure you, you know how to find me. And I’m a bargain compared to some of those trollops out there.”

“But you said—”

She turned around and laughed at him. “You believed me?”

He saw her with different eyes.

“Duke,” she said to him, “how would a woman like me support myself in my old age? Do you think I can just traipse back to my husband any day of the week and he’ll take me in? Oh, I go there for Christmas because he has to let me in as it would disappoint the boys too much.”

“Boy—”

“Two of them.Smart little poppets.” Her smile faded. “They’re starting to ask questions, though. I need to find a protector, one like Fox. One who will support me and buy me a house. Then maybe the boys could come to me, or I could visit them in a carriage. My husband would respect that.”

Fletch thought it was unlikely that her husband would ever let his sons visit their fallen mother.

Perhaps she read it in his eyes; she turned away and poked the last pins in her hair. “You’re not the one, I can see that.” She was gone before he could craft an offer. Did one give guineas? Or send jewelry later, by messenger?

He sat in the bedchamber and thought about jewelry. One sent jewelry, and had it arrive the next day, he decided. Even, or perhaps especially, when intimacies were disrupted.

He went home before he remembered that Lady Flora would be waiting. She rustled forward to greet him. “Your Grace,” she said, holding out her hand. He bent to kiss it.

“Hmmm,” she said. “You smell like roses, a woman’s scent.”

He straightened hastily. But she was smiling at him as if he’d achieved something. Fletch cautiously moved backward.

“I hope I do not insult by my candor,” she told him, her blue eyes glinting in the candlelight. “It is my opinion that every young gentleman should find a female libertine who will entertain him. Some gentlemen seem to take longer to come to this realization than others.”

Fletch gulped. Could she possibly be saying what she appeared to be saying? She was wearing a grotesquely high headdress, with ostrich feathers stretching feet above her head and brushing the candlelabra hanging from the ceiling. Alas, the candles were only lighted for formal occasions because otherwise she might have caught on fire.

An unkind thought, he told himself, and bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile.

“I am glad to see some evidence that you’re not one of our”—she tittered—“less than virile men. Every gentleman should have an Amazon of his own.”

He clenched his jaw.

“You do understand me, don’t you, Your Grace?” she smiled at him and Fletch thought he’d never seen a woman who more resembled a wolf. “My daughter should not have to bear the burden of your dissolute desires. Perhaps the lady who scented her person and thus yours can become a regular habit for you. That might be enough to persuade my daughter to return to your side.”

Fletch swallowed his rage and bowed again. “I had no idea that my wife was quite so anxious for me to find female company.”

“Ah, but men are so selfish, are they not?”

She paused, which seemed to imply he was supposed to answer. “Not to my knowledge.”

“No?” She raised a delicately arched eyebrow. “Of course, those who are most selfish generally do not see themselves as such, do they?”

“I couldn’t say, madam. Would you consider yourself to be selfish, for example?”

She smiled at him. “In every sense of the word. To be selfish is to be self-interested. There is only one area in which I would not consider it a weakness and a distraction to think of another above myself: and that is where my daughter is concerned. For her sake, and only for her sake, do I put myself to such discomfort as to reside with you.” She paused, and added, “Your Grace.”

She hates me, Fletch thought. Well, the feeling is mutual. “I presume that your Herculean sacrifice is not intended to last forever?”

“For my daughter, I put my own comforts to the side.” She dropped into a chair, giving an excellent imitation of a lady overcome by cruel exigencies that had her living in a ducal mansion with some fifty-four servants at her beck and call.

“Then do allow me to know how I could persuade you to return you to your former comforts,” he said.

“Why, is it not obvious?” she said, smiling at him as genially as if they were at a tea party. “Your marital intimacies are distasteful to my daughter. You appear to be incapable of producing an heir, but I strongly suggest that you leave that little problem to the side for a year or so. Poor Perdita has done such an excellent job of servicing your disordered desires. It’s too much to ask her to pick out a suitable gentleman to play your part in the marital saddle at this point. Goodness,” she said, looking rather pleased with herself, “that was harsh, wasn’t it? I find that I am divided between the strongest pity for poor Perdita and the naturally homicidal feelings that any mother must feel in this situation.”

“Homicidal?” Fletch said, sitting down and crossing his legs. “Dear me, I see that the situation is rather more urgent than I thought. I gather that my embracing of a courtesan would be a positive interest to my wife. I wonder that she didn’t tell me this herself.”

“Perdita?” Lady Flora said, raising an eyebrow. “You think that dearest Perdita could bring herself to tell you? I call a spade a spade, Your Grace. My daughter is a weak-kneed fool, with a soft heart. She could not bear to tell you how disgusting you are to her. I consider it my prerogative as her mother to tell you of her feelings. I told her that you simply didn’t realize the truth.”

Fletch couldn’t bring himself to reply. All those nights…he knew Poppy wasn’t enjoying herself, but he never thought she was discussing things with her mother. The very idea made his skin crawl.

Lady Flora was not one to allow silence to grow. “Men rarely understand these things,” she said. “Of course your bodies disgust those of the delicate sex. Our sensibilities are sweetly tuned; our bodies beautifully curved, as all the poets celebrate. How could you think that a lady would honestly desire intimacy with a hairy…Well. I leave Poppy’s feelings to your imagination.”

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