Fletch rose and bowed. “If you’ll forgive me, Lady Flora, I find that—”
She was looking at him with amusement. “You’ll have to beg her.”
“Beg her to come back. Tell her you finally found yourself a courtesan and you won’t use her like a common washer-woman any more.”
“I shall certainly speak to my wife,” Fletch said, resisting the impulse to commit homicide. Though who he wanted to kill—his mother-in-law or his wife—he didn’t know.
“When Perdita agrees to return to your house, I shall naturally return to my own,” she said sweetly. “That should provide you with some impetus, should it not? I expect you wonder why I am so active in Perdita’s behalf?”
“In fact,” he ground out, “given your self-proclaimed selfishness—”
She didn’t let him finish, of course. “I don’t believe Perdita should reside much longer with the Duchess of Beaumont. You do remember how my poor daughter fancied herself in love with you, don’t you?”
He didn’t move a muscle.
“Don’t you?” she said impatiently. “It wasn’t that long ago. At any rate, she’s a trifle weak in the head, my daughter, though it pains me to say it. If I leave her with that light-heeled duchess in Beaumont House, she’ll fall in love again—and it won’t be with you, Duke. Do you understand me?”
“She’s a romantic. Forever thinking that men are more interesting than they could possibly be. You know that strange hankering she has to attend meetings at the Royal Society?”
Lady Flora smirked at him. “I gather you aren’t spending much time talking to Perdita? You didn’t know of her utter fascination with naturalists? Why do I even ask?”
Fletch shook his head. He felt cold from head to foot. “Are you implying—”
“Not yet. But there’s no saying now that she’s moved out of your house into Beaumont House where God knows adultery is merely a fashionable vice, and one much indulged in.”
“I shall speak to Poppy.”
“As soon as she moves back into this house, I shall return to my establishment,” Lady Flora said brightly. “Although I might point out that the dearth of children produced by you in the past four years implies that the offspring of a young scientist might be just the thing to revitalize the family tree!”
Fletch had never hated anyone so much in his entire life. The feeling went through his head like a wildfire. His fingers shook slightly with the wish to—to—
She rose and walked rather quickly to the door. “I wish you good night, Your Grace,” she said. And paused, turning her head in such a way that one of her ostrich plumes bent against the doorframe. “I trust that you will not inform Perdita of our conversation. She, poor angel, hopes to drift through life without talking about unpleasantries. But relations between men and women are always unpleasant, don’t you think? I find that candor is a healthy way to cope.”
She walked through the door, finally, and from where he stood Fletch could see two feathers proudly rearing to the ceiling and one hanging drunkenly over one ear. Which served her right.
Back at the Duke of Villiers’s town house
“You ought to be sorry,” Charlotte said, hiccupping. “You are unkind, and the fact that you’re dying is no excuse. I don’t believe that you are, anyway. Dying people think of their immortal souls and speak kindly.”
“I told you,” he said, “my brain has turned to rubbish. Likely my soul has given up, knowing that I’ll be shoveling coal down in Beelzebub’s furnaces.”
She sniffed and wiped her nose with her handkerchief. “Well, I must be leaving,” she said. “This has been utterly charming, and I’m so grateful that I was able to succor you in your last hours.”
“Here,” he said, “you can’t go yet.” He actually started to struggle up in bed.
“Stop that,” she snapped. “You’re too weak to sit up. I certainly shall leave. I don’t know you very well. I am sorry you’re dying, but you obviously don’t want me to read you Bible verses—”
“You haven’t offered,” he put in.
“Well, that is the comfort generally offered to patients in your condition.” She stood up. “I wish you the very best, Your Grace.”
“No, you must stop.”
“I made a huge mistake coming here, and you never wanted to see me anyway. Then I made a greater fool of myself and I think that I really have had enough humiliation for the day. Goodbye.”
Charlotte got herself out the door and down the stairs before he could say another word. “A hackney,” she told one of the four footmen in the hallway.
She occupied herself until the footman returned by staring at the marble statues strewn around the entryway.
Villiers was strangely appealing. Perhaps all dying people were. But appealing or not, he had no call to make her feel so wretched.
Though he said nothing that wasn’t the truth.
She almost turned to go back and tell him so when the front door opened and she left. It was better anyway.
The Royal Society met at Somerset House. Jemma and Poppy arrived before its welter of brick archways and white marble walls, Jemma still protesting.
“You’re going to find it fascinating,” Poppy told her. “I’ve read about Mr. Moorehead for years. He’s travelled to the very edges of the world.”
Jemma groaned. She groaned even louder when the first person they saw was Miss Tatlock, who was greeting people at the entrance to the society’s chambers. Miss Tatlock smiled at them quite as if she wasn’t notoriously in love with Jemma’s husband.
“This is such a pleasure, Your Graces,” she said. “I am certain that you will find Mr. Belsize’s talk incantatory.”
“Incantatory?” Jemma whispered as they made their way into a large room, already crowded with people. “What a jackass she is.”
“Jemma!” Poppy exclaimed.
“Honestly, Poppy, didn’t you think that she’s revolting?”
“No,” Poppy said. “She looks like a most intelligent young woman to me.”
“Revolting,” Jemma said with a shudder. She sat down and unfolded the paper Miss Tatlock had handed them. “The evening opens with a discussion of male tamarin monkeys. Excellent. I’ve always been fascinated by short, hairy males.”
“Hush,” Poppy said, elbowing her.
“And then a lively debate between Mr. Brownrigg and Mr. Pringle regarding the question of whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons. Poppy!”
“Well, it’s an interesting question,” Poppy said. “But look, after that Mr. Moorehead will talk about his recent travels in Africa. That will be fascinating.”
“Humph,” Jemma said. “Goodness, there are a lot of people here. There’s Lord Strange. Do you think I ought to ask him to sell me the rest of the chess set?”
“By the window.Talking to that exquisite young woman.”
Sure enough, leaning against a beautifully arched stone window was a hawk-faced man, lean and excitable looking. He was talking to a young woman whose hair was more gold than Poppy’s and whose lips were definitely redder.