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Almost as difficult as being married to Fletch.

She froze for a second. “Are you fatigued, Your Grace?” Beaumont asked, pausing. “Would you prefer to sit down?”

“Oh no,” she said, pushing thoughts about her marriage away. “I am so looking forward to seeing Jemma. I haven’t seen her since before I married, when we both lived in Paris. She must be happy to find that her brother won the duel.”

“Naturally we are all relieved that the occasion ended without undue bloodshed,” Beaumont said evenly, his voice showing how much he disliked the idea of celebrating his brother-in-law’s illegal foray into dueling. “And here is the duchess herself.”

He bowed, and left. Jemma looked even more elegant than she had four years ago in Paris. Though she was wearing panniers too, her skirts weren’t stiff like Poppy’s but soft and flowing. And whereas Poppy’s hair was curled into rigid little snail shells, Jemma’s hair was shaped into soft curls, so lightly powdered that its natural gold color shone through. Her beauty had deepened; the sensual air that Poppy remembered was even more pronounced.

“Jemma,” Poppy exclaimed. “How lovely you look!”

Jemma turned and gave a little shriek of welcome. “It’s Poppy!” she cried, snatching her into a hug. Then she backed up and narrowed her eyes. “What has happened to the little mademoiselle I knew so well in Paris? You are exquisite! You put us all to shame. Look at us, three duchesses, and you are the only one who looks the part.”

Poppy had already realized that she had grotesquely miscalculated the formality of the party. No wonder Fletch said nothing of her gown. Poppy smiled apologetically at the lady standing beside Jemma. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think—”

“We’ve never met,” she said, dropping a curtsy. “Jemma is engaging in hyperbole. I am no duchess. My name is Lady Isidore Del’Fino.” Lady Isidore was wearing a gorgeous costume of soft rose-colored crêpe-de-chine. If Jemma was all sleek perfection, Lady Isidore looked like a ripe cherry, seductive and delicious. Poppy’s heart sank even deeper.

“Isidore, this is the Duchess of Fletcher. Isidore is almost a duchess,” Jemma said, giving Poppy’s arm another affectionate squeeze. “She married by proxy and is just waiting for her duke to return from his travels.”

“I might add that I’ve been waiting ten years,” Isidore said, with such a funny wrinkle of her nose that Poppy started laughing. “I’m very happy to meet you, Lady Fletcher,” she continued. “I’ve heard so much about your charitable endeavors.”

“Which I shall not be joining,” Jemma said. “I ought to make that clear to you now, darling, before I disappoint you. I’m no more charitable than I was when we knew each other in Paris. In fact, probably less so.”

“How can you be less so?” Isidore demanded. “I’ve been living in Italy for the past three years, but I paid many a visit to Jemma,” she explained to Poppy. “I can’t say that I ever saw her exert herself to sew a charitable seam.”

“I have my moments,” Jemma said. And then added: “I consider charity to gentlemen my particular area of expertise.”

Her look was so mischievous that Poppy broke out laughing.

“It’s so strange to think of you married, darling,” Jemma said. “You would hardly believe it, looking at her now, Isidore, but Poppy was the sweetest little poppet you ever saw. She used to wander around the French court with her eyes as round as—as plums.”

“While everyone laughed at me,” Poppy said to Isidore, snapping open her fan. “To call me naïve would have underestimated the truth. I was in a stupor of surprise most of the time.”

“They never laughed!” Jemma cried, loyally. “They were too riveted with jealousy to laugh. You see,” she told Isidore, “Poppy appeared in Paris with her mother and within a week—nay within the hour!—she snapped up the most eligible bachelor in the city, the Duke of Fletcher.”

“I have seen him!” Isidore said, giving Poppy a smile. “In Italy we call such a man bellissimo.”

Poppy gave her a tight smile. There was a limit to how many times a woman wanted to be complimented for her husband’s beauty. It always made Poppy feel like a bracket-faced harpy who had managed a miracle.

“Poppy seduced Fletch straight from the arms of the Parisian court. I think the Duchess of Guise has not yet forgiven you. She still mutters about English fledglings.”

“Did you fall in love at first sight?” Isidore asked. “I would so like to do that, but it never seems to happen. Perhaps I could have fallen for your husband. Although,” she added, “I wouldn’t want you to think that I will look to your husband now.”

Jemma broke in. “Don’t be silly, Isidore. Poppy has Fletch at her feet. She’s not one to become nervous about your charms. You see,” she said, turning to Poppy, “Isidore’s rather awkward position—”

“In fact, legally married though I haven’t seen my husband since I was in leading strings,” Isidore interrupted.

“Means that she tends to make married ladies nervous.”

“I can’t even talk to a married man,” Isidore complained.

“You can certainly talk to mine if you wish,” Poppy offered.

“There! I told you, Isidore. The two of you should become dear friends. Fletch is hopelessly in love, and so Poppy wouldn’t blink even if you flirt with him. Isidore,” Jemma said, turning to Poppy, “does have a disconcerting habit of making gentlemen fall in love with her, though I assure you that she does no more than talk to them.”

“I promise not to flirt with your duke,” Isidore said, giving Jemma a blinding smile. “But we shall be friends. The truth is that I find the Duke of Fletcher almost troppo elegante for me. I am greatly taken by men of a rougher cast.”

“I know just what you mean,” Poppy said. “A pirate!”

“Everyone loves a pirate,” Jemma said sadly. “Sometimes it seems so cruel that I find myself married to a politician.”

“There are no pirates in English society,” Isidore observed. “Still, I would resign myself to a man without piratical attitudes if he would lavishly adore me as your husband does, Your Grace.”

“Please call me Poppy.” And, desperate to change the subject: “I’m sure that your husband will lavishly adore you.”

“If he recognizes me,” Isidore said with a little hiccup of laughter.

Chapter 2

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

We do not comment on the veracity of this report, but we cannot help but wonder whether the Duke of Beaumont will be the next to challenge Villiers, given the rumor that the duchess, recently returned from Paris, is playing an intimate game of chess with the said duke…

“What you need is a mistress. For Christ’s sake man, you’re going to wither up and blow away. You’ll be sprouting bubbies, if you don’t watch out.”

Fletch curled his lip. “I’ll tell you what. If I grow breasts I’ll let you have a look so you can finally see what a woman’s chest looks like.”

Frederick Augustus Gill, the future Earl of Glasse, responded with an amiable curse, and they went back to leaning against the wall and watching the exuberant, chaotic scene before them. The room was full of titled gentlemen, shouting about the Earl of Gryffyn’s victory in a duel with the Duke of Villiers.

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