“Hmmm,” Poppy said.
“I did warn you,” Jemma said cheerfully. “So, do you think that he would sell me the rest of the chess set?”
Just then Strange turned away and looked over the room. His eyes slid over Poppy and Jemma without hesitating, as if they were no more than potatoes waiting to be planted.
Poppy turned to Jemma. “No.”
“No, he wouldn’t sell them to me?”
“Not unless you are prepared to bargain intimacies.”
“Poppy, you surprise me! I thought you were such an innocent.”
“I am not blind to the fact that some men are uninterested in respectable women.”
“By all accounts he loved his wife dearly. She died after the birth of their child.”
“He had a wife?”
Jemma nodded and turned away to greet a friend, so Poppy sat there and thought about the fact that a nobleman notorious for his illicit liaisons had apparently desired his wife and loved his wife. But she was learning that this wasn’t a fruitful way to think—so she banished all thought of Fletch, at least until he bowed before her.
For a moment she just gaped up at him. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I could say the same for you,” he said. “I had no idea you were interested in scientific matters, Poppy.”
She rose, finally, and dropped a curtsy, wishing that Jemma would return, but Jemma had drifted away into a cloud of chattering noblemen. “This is my first visit,” she said. And then: “Could you leave, Fletch. Please?”
“Leave?” he said. “Why would I do that?”
“Because this is very awkward,” she hissed, sitting down.
He promptly sat down beside her.
“Jemma is sitting there.”
“Why should I leave?”
“You cannot possibly be interested in things of this nature,” Poppy said. “And I am.”
“Yes, and I would feel awkward if you were here. Please, may I ask you as a favor to leave?”
“You may ask but I’m not leaving.” He scowled at her and folded his arms. “After all, you said we were to be friends.”
Poppy felt a pulse of anxiety that he was irritated. She gave herself a mental shake and said brightly, “Then of course you’re welcome to stay. Surely your friend Gill must be here? Isn’t he coming to greet me?”
“He is not here. Why do you ask?”
“Because you never do anything without Gill?” she suggested. “Because if you’re at an intellectual pursuit, it must be an interest of Gill’s?”
“That’s quite an insult,” he said in a very even tone.
“I don’t mean it to be. Look, there’s Dr. Loudan, and since I explicitly asked him to come, I must greet him. If you’ll excuse me, Fletch.”
She was gone.
Fletch stared after her in dumbfounded surprise. When he pictured meeting Poppy, he didn’t imagine her prancing away from him. Or smiling up at a young man with a long nose and…Fletch felt his fists curl and he was on his feet before he realized it.
He walked through the crowd and eased behind Poppy where she couldn’t see him. For some reason he was quite certain that she wouldn’t welcome his presence.
“I found the notes you sent me on the sloth’s hind feet fascinating,” she was telling this Dr. Loudan. He was short. Well, perhaps he wasn’t short but he was shorter than Fletch. I could take him, Fletch thought contemptuously. Then, eyeing his shoulders, it would be a fair fight too.
But I could take him.
I will take him, said a thrumming beat in his head as he watched the scientist beam at Jemma. They appeared to be talking about sea otters. What did Poppy know of otters? Oddly, she seemed to know quite a lot, given that she was comparing the beasts to common English river otters.
Five minutes later, Poppy hadn’t looked up from Dr. Loudan’s face as he droned on and on about otters.
Fletch fell back a pace. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t even glanced at him. He sat down, folded his arms, and waited.
Sure enough, as the audience began to tumble into their places, she made her way back to him, fussing a bit about where Jemma would sit.
“Jemma,” he said, “has made a new friend in Lord Strange. Wait until Beaumont hears that!”
“Lord Strange has an astounding collection of curiosities,” Poppy told him. “I understand that he mostly collects art, but he has a number of fascinating scientific relics as well. I would give anything to see his collection.”
“I wouldn’t let you within a furlong of his estate,” Fletch hissed. “You don’t know what goes on there, Poppy.”
“I believe the word for it is orgies. I read all about them in a history of ancient Rome.”
“Surely you don’t think that I’d be tempted to join the festival?” she asked him. The edges of her lips tipped up but there was no humor there.
Fletch opened his mouth but no words came out.
“I didn’t think so,” Poppy said coolly. “That’s one thing you should be celebrating, Fletch. I’m unlikely to cuckold you, after all.” There was something so bleak in her eyes that Fletch’s heart dropped in his chest.
She turned her head away and waved at Jemma, who had seated herself on the other side of the room.
“It’s not a question of cuckoldry,” Fletch said, fumbling for words. “But Strange is a dissolute man.”
“Oh, dissolute,” Poppy said. “I used to think that any man who took a mistress was dissolute. My sort of rank naïveté exists only to be dispelled, don’t you think?”
At the front of the room, Mr. Moorehead was starting a discussion of a tribe called the Karamojong, who lived in Africa. Poppy and Fletch sat silently beside each other.
“That was appallingly boring,” Fletch said when it was over.
“I don’t agree,” Poppy said coolly. “I intend to buy his No Room in the Ark at my first opportunity.”
“It sounds like a nursery rhyme.”
“I have initiated a standing subscription for all travel and nature titles at Lackington’s. You pay for them.”
“We never discussed books like that.”
“What on earth would we have to discuss? Unless you’ve been hiding an interest in natural discoveries?”
He opened his mouth but she wasn’t done.
“I assure you that if I read an article about new designs for clocks on stockings or a revolution in satin embroidery, I will be sure to draw it to your attention.”
“You rarely remind me of your mother,” Fletch said, “but all of a sudden I see a resemblance.”
“I imagine that sort of event must be rather frequent, since you are living with her. How is everything with my dearest mama? I knew we’d get around to speaking of her. There had to be some reason you were here.”
“I didn’t come here to talk about your mother!” He almost bellowed it.
“You surprise me,” she said. But the so-called “lively debate” on the stage was quickly degenerating into a mud-slinging match between two bearded antiquarians.