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Poppy didn’t love him.

She had never loved him. Her dragonish mother had coerced her into the marriage. The emotion at their wedding had been all his, which laid painfully bare the reasons for their pitiful intimacies. She didn’t love him; of course she didn’t desire him.

The rain was suddenly hot on his face, a hot drop here, a cold drizzle there.

“But I loved her.” Fletch said it out loud, into the silence of the gray rain. “I was in love with her.” That Christmas years ago in Paris was emblazoned in his memory. “I loved her. I—I—” But he stopped before he said that he still loved her.

She didn’t want him in the most fundamental way. She told him to find a mistress.

He walked until his heart was as dreary as the sky, until some sort of truth came to him.

He must be cursed, because he still loved her. He loved his wife. Even so.

And that meant that he couldn’t survive alone for five years as Poppy suggested. He couldn’t lie awake in the middle of the night and wonder what she was doing, with whom was she dancing. Naturalists, for God’s sake. Out of all the things her mother said, that stung the most.

Poppy was infatuated with that Dr. Loudan, for example. A skinny, weedy thing with a propensity for cutting up dead rodents for examination.

He’d spent years fashioning himself into someone he wasn’t, all to catch her eye. But she wanted spectacles. He pulled off his hat, raised his head and the rain sluiced over his face, over his carefully tumbled locks, spotting his shirt, chilling his fingers.

He had to do something with his life, make himself into the kind of man whom she would admire. She would never desire him; he accepted that. The scorn he saw in her eyes as she compared him to the professor…that was a scorn he felt for himself.

Their awkward couplings would surely improve slightly with further practice, but they had little to do with the fierce desire he felt, with the way his body longed to make love to her.

Yet he wasn’t the sort of man to be unfaithful. He couldn’t take a courtesan, or even a lady, to bed. The truth was that he didn’t want a mistress. He started walking again, letting the rain beat into the back of his neck.

He could survive without Poppy in his bed.

But he couldn’t survive without her in his life. She had to come home. He would promise that he’d never visit her room until they decided to have children. And he would promise to stop sulking.

He’d spent the last few years sulking. He had to give Lady Flora credit for that observation. He’d sulked because life hadn’t turned out the way he thought it should. Enough. Enough thinking about French women, and women’s desire in general. In fact, the hell with desire.

Monks did it, didn’t they? He didn’t need sex in order to be a man. What he needed—what he needed was Poppy. Because for some strange, stupid reason, she felt like the coffee he drank in the morning.

He needed her.

He turned around and started back for the carriage. He would make himself into someone she would be proud of, someone who wasn’t interested only in the cut of his coat and the sheen of his hair.

If he admitted the truth to himself, he wanted to be one of the most important men in the House of Lords. He wanted to make a difference to the country, to be a man whose words were feared and welcomed, like his father’s had been.

Then he would dispense with Lady Flora, which would be his gift to Poppy.

And finally he would lure her back to the house, before Christmas came again.

And then somehow, someday, he would woo his wife into loving him the way she used to. The way she loved him that Christmas in Paris, when she looked at him as if he were the world to her.

When she loved him.

Chapter 32

The Rose Salon, Beaumont House December 6

“I shall not go to Oxford,” Jemma explained, “because you have a perfectly good husband who has offered to accompany you, Poppy. I don’t wish to be unkind, but I haven’t the faintest interest in three-toed rats or what ever it is you are going to see.”

“I know,” Poppy said. “I’ve been a frightful beast, taking you around to all these boring events.”

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy being with you. But the truth is that I don’t want to go all the way to Oxford. I really don’t. Mrs. Patton is taking me to the London Chess Club tomorrow and I have every intention of joining, if they’ll have me.”

“Oh, you should. Then you can shame the men by beating them.”

“You are turning into a bloodthirsty little thing.”

“I have always been a bloodthirsty little thing,” Poppy retorted. “I have a perfect model in my mother. That’s why Fletch wants to accompany me to Oxford. So he can get away from my mother.”

“Look at this,” Jemma said, holding up a piece of foolscap. “I’ve had a letter from Roberta, my sister-in-law; she says that a bear went amok on her father’s estate and ate a couple of rare ducks. I must answer this. Darling, you will be all right without me, won’t you?”

“It’s just that it’s Fletch!”

“Your husband,” Jemma prompted. “You’ve been married for years, remember?”

“It’s all different now. I don’t feel in the least comfortable with him. We may well argue. And what—what if he—”

“He won’t,” Jemma said comfortably. “And if he does, you can boot him out of the carriage. You’re a bloodthirsty woman, remember? Think of your mother.”

Poppy thought of her mother. If Fletch misbehaved in her presence, her mother would likely toss him from the carriage and send a chamber pot flying after him. “True.”

“Men are very useful on these little trips,” Jemma said, drifting out the door with a final blown kiss. “In case a wheel breaks or some such.”

Poppy marched out to Fletch’s carriage, trying hard to pretend she was her mother.

He looked up from the papers he was reading and gave her a careless smile, and it took all her strength to nip off her welcoming grin. She was not—not—going to smile at him like a lovesick puppy.

He peered at her. “Are you all right, Poppy? You look stiff as a poker.”

“I just want to say again that you needn’t accompany me, Fletch. I’m sure you have a lot to do.”

“Actually, I do.”

“Well, then, I’ll just drop you off at the house,” she said.

“With your mother? Not on your life. I brought my work with me.” He rustled his documents.

Poppy subsided onto the opposite seat and eyed Fletch. He was already deep into the sheaf of papers. It was infuriating that he was so appealing. Deliberately, she made herself think about Dr. Loudan. Loudan listened to her. He thought she was intelligent. She thought about the letter she’d written Loudan that very morning, suggesting that his claim about the so-called muskrat found in Ceylon might have been incorrect, if one took into account the study published three years ago by Dr. Farthing. The animal couldn’t be a muskrat, as Loudan maintained. Her mouth curved up.

Fletch didn’t look up, but he said, “So what are you grinning about, then?”

“Nothing.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Dr. Loudan.”

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