He grunted but didn’t say anything to that. Still, it gave Poppy a little jolt of satisfaction. His Grace Beautiful Fletcher had to understand that there were men in the world who cared more about muskrats than they did about gorgeous clothing.
“What are you reading?” she asked. “I can’t read in the carriage as I grow quite nauseated.”
“An excruciatingly foolish treatise on the trade bill with France. The off-repeated point of twelve pages is that French brandy costs too much.”
“What does the author intend to do about that?”
“Whine and complain,” Fletch said. “It’s a shock to see how much paper is wasted by fellows in Lords, nattering on and on about inconsequentials. Now if I was going to argue this bill, I’d focus on the situation of English farmers. I have to give extra payments every year to the men working around my estate; it’s impossible to survive with the price of wheat being what it is. This trade bill should ignore the brandy and bar French wheat from our shores.”
“Why don’t you do so?” Poppy said.
He didn’t answer, just flipped to the next page.
“Well?” Poppy asked. “Didn’t you hear me?” It felt good to ask a belligerent question. It was so un-Poppy-like.
“I made a fool of myself in the House in case you don’t remember.” He didn’t look at her.
Poppy laughed. She couldn’t help it. He looked so adorably disgruntled. “But you turned the speech around, didn’t you?”
“No one understood my speech. My party, that is, Fox’s party, thinks I did a fine job. They seemed to have no idea that I changed my mind halfway through.”
“My language was a bit convoluted. Only Beaumont seems to have grasped it.”
“Jemma’s husband? Yes, he’s very smart, isn’t he?”
“He thanked me for striking a blow for his side,” Fletch said morosely. “What’s the point if people don’t listen?”
“It’s hard to follow long speeches. I find that they’re much more intelligible if someone makes a fairly simple point and repeats it at least twice, like the author of your paper on brandy. I don’t suppose your speech was simple, Fletch?”
“How could it be simple? It’s a complicated topic. This idiot”—he shook the papers in his lap—“boiled the trade bill down to one idea.”
“Yes, but you understood it immediately, didn’t you?”
“I rest my case,” Poppy said.
He eyed her. “You know, you never used to disagree with me.”
“We were married then.”
“We are still married!”
There was a flash of real anger in his eyes that she enjoyed. But she shrugged. “It’s different now.”
He waited until they were at supper at the Fox and Hummingbird, and Poppy had stated her intention to retire to her chamber.
Then he just blurted it out, with no preparation. “The truth of it is that whether your mother arranged our marriage, or whether it was all an illusion, I must be horribly obtuse, because I can’t talk myself out of being in love with you.”
Poppy had risen; she plumped back into her seat knowing that the look of surprise on her face must be almost comic.
“I know this sounds stupid, given the way you feel.” He looked grumpy, the way men do when they’re talking about emotions. “But I can’t have you thinking that I don’t love you. Because I do.”
“Ump,” she said.
He raised his hand. “I need to finish. I love you and so I want you to know that I understand. I don’t think you’re ever going to like physical intimacy, at least not with me, Poppy. I can accept that.”
“Oh,” she whispered. Her heart felt as if it had fallen into a black well. Her whole life she’d tried not to disappoint people. And now she’d disappointed Fletch. It made her want to fling herself from the window.
He reached out and pried her fingers apart. “It’s not your fault. And it’s not my fault. It’s just the hand of cards we were dealt. Don’t you see, Poppy?”
“I see that I should—I should have tried harder,” she said in a little wooden voice that disguised how much she wanted to cry.
“You did try, didn’t you?” His eyes were so kind that she felt tears swell up in hers.
He shrugged. “So we give that up.”
“You can’t give it up!”
“Men just can’t.”
“You think that men can’t give it up, but women can?” He was smiling at her a little now, tugging at her hand to make her smile at him.
“It’s so kind of you to say so, Fletch. But I think we would really do better if you just went off by yourself for a while. Then when we decide to have an heir we’ll come back together and do that.”
He sighed. “You didn’t hear me.”
“Yes, I did.”
“I’m in love with you, Poppy.”
“I don’t want to go off with some light-heeled woman who would pretend to like me and pretend to desire me. And I don’t want to have an affaire with a woman like your friend Louise either.”
“Yes you do.”
“I did think of it. But if I imagine myself in bed with her—or any other woman—it doesn’t work for me. Damn it, Poppy, don’t you think it would be easier for me if it did work? I could skip out to Fonthill for the Christmas season and frolic with half the trollops in the kingdom.”
“Yes, it would be easier for you,” she said baldly. “And easier for me as well. Why don’t you?”
His eyes darkened and for a moment she thought she’d hurt him, but then he just turned her hand over and said, “We’re both spoiled goods. Because unfortunately when I asked you to marry me, it seems to have been a long-term proposition.”
Poppy’s mind reeled. Part of her was screaming silently with the joy of it, dancing a hornpipe at the back of her brain. But part of her was terrified. Now they were back where they were before, back in the bed where she would just disappoint him again because she couldn’t be—
He looked at her eyes and he must have seen exactly what she was thinking, because he shook his head. “I’m not asking for that, Poppy. We’ll do it exactly as you wish. No bed. None of that. I don’t need it and you don’t want it.”
“You don’t need it?” This went against everything her mother had ever told her.
“I’m discovering that bedroom activity isn’t terribly important to me. You’ve been gone for months and I haven’t broken my wedding vows.”
His eyes looked as if he were serious. Could it be? She herself was fine without marital intimacies. Why shouldn’t Fletch be the same?
“We’ll just skip that aspect until we decide that we want children,” he added.
“I’m not sure we can have children, Fletch. We tried for four years.”
He shrugged. “My father and mother were married for ten years before they had me. And then it was another eight before my brother happened along, and then finally the twins followed. So in the end they had four.”