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“Would it bother you if we don’t have children?”

“Not particularly. One of my brothers will do the deed. So: I’ve thought it out, Poppy, and the only thing we can do is just pretend that all this bedding business doesn’t exist. We haven’t made love for months now and I’ve been doing just fine.”

Poppy didn’t really think he was fine. There was a tightness about him, the sense of a taut wire singing in the wind…but she didn’t want to think about that. What she wanted more than anything was to believe him.

“Unless, of course, you just don’t like having me around,” he said, rather awkwardly, as the silence grew.

She let it grow some more. She didn’t want him to think that she was going to be his willing little acolyte, slavishly grateful for his every glance. He was staring at the floor, looking rather miserable. Good.

“I wouldn’t want you to do this just because of my mother’s presence in your house,” she said. “Though I know well that my mother has a great deal to do with your plea for my return.”

“Your mother has no part in my request.”

She didn’t believe that for a moment, but she let it go. There was something more important that had to be said.

“You’d have to understand that I don’t feel the same way as you do. I’m not in love, though I am very fond of you, Fletch.”

He nodded. A lock of hair fell over his eyes and he looked so delicious that she almost jumped up to put her arms around him and make him foolish promises. Maybe she could try harder…

No.

She had felt free in the last months, living at Jemma’s, not worrying about her dress, and how she looked, and whether her husband would think she was stupid for buying curiosities, or whether he was coming to her bedchamber that night.

“I’m not moving back home,” she added. “Not yet.”

He looked stunned. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“Is this because of that Loudan fellow?” When Fletch frowned he looked thrillingly pirate-like, Poppy thought.

“In a way it is. I always thought it would be improper of me to go to the meetings of the Royal Society. I hid my books. I tried so hard to be a proper duchess and make you happy. I’ve acquired a cabinet for my curiosities. I might as well warn you, Fletch, that it was quite expensive, as it’s modeled on the cabinet owned by the King of Sweden. The other day I bought an ancient Greek coin for it. And I saw an advertisement for a string of Virginia wampum.”

“But I never said you couldn’t buy anything! You can have all the wampum you want, what ever that is.”

“I don’t feel like being a duchess at the moment.”

“You are a duchess,” he said stubbornly. “I’m your duke and you should be at home with me.”

“This is about my mother, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s about you. And me. I don’t like finding you’re not there for breakfast. And I don’t like going to parties without you. I miss talking to you.”

“I can’t imagine why. We haven’t talked about anything particularly interesting in years.”

“I thought it was interesting. Perhaps I like talking about boring things with you.”

“I don’t want to go back to your house.”

“It’s your mother’s house,” he said gloomily. “Wait until you see how she’s changed the drapery.”

“Very formal?”

“I feel as if I’m living in Versailles.”

“How could I take the pleasure away from her?” Poppy said, grinning. “She always wanted to be a duchess.”

He groaned. “Then can I live with you and Jemma?”

“You’re not invited.”

“Even for Christmas? What about Jemma’s house party? Half of London is discussing it. You wouldn’t leave me with your mother for the holiday, would you?”

“I’ll see how I feel,” Poppy said loftily. “It’s to be a very intimate party. Surely you’d be happier retiring to the country with Pitt, or some friend from the government?”

“No,” he said. “I’d be happier with you. Christmas always reminds me of being on the tower of Saint Germain des Près with you, Poppy. Do you remember that?”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course I do.” Her heart was beating very quickly.

“Now I think about it, I should have known from that absurd pin you were wearing that I’d find myself talking to you about river otters. I was so fevered with love that I couldn’t think straight.”

“We were dazed by the season,” she said firmly. “Christmas can be like that.”

He met her eyes. “The season had nothing to do with it, Poppy. Not for me.”

She couldn’t think what to say, and somehow the moment was lost. So she pretended he had said nothing. He looked at her, eyes serious, brow furrowed.

She didn’t want him to be alone on Christmas.

“I’ll ask Jemma,” she said.

“What?”

“I’ll ask Jemma to send you an invitation.”

His smile made her feel very peculiar, so she retired to her bedchamber.

Chapter 33

The next day December 7

The AshmoleanMuseum was a bloody boring place full of stuffed mice. Poppy got excited over a poor flying squirrel, but Fletch thought it looked pitiful, pinned to a wall with its tiny claws extended.

“Look at that,” he pointed out, “it’s pleading for its life. Begging. Set me free!”

Poppy didn’t pay any attention. “Look at its fifth claw,” she said. “It’s bent backward, almost as if it had a thumb. Isn’t that interesting?”

Fletch thought the little squirrel was going to haunt him in his dreams. “It’s supposed to be flying through the trees, though I don’t believe it really can fly without wings,” he said disgustedly. “Not pinned to a board. It smells in here.”

“Taxidermy is not a perfect science,” Poppy said. But she obviously didn’t give a damn about the odor.

Naturally the curator of the Ashmoleon was so overwhelmed by her blue eyes that he started opening all sorts of cabinets marked “Not for Display.” And then he started rootling around in the basement and coming up with dusty boxes full of extremely unsavory things.

“A shrunken head?”

“There’s no need to screech,” Poppy said, leaning over the disgusting little object as if it were made of gold.

The curator gave Fletch a scornful look, so he retreated to the entryway where the odor was less offensive and took out that blasted report of Linchberry’s. It was bad. Twisted, even, in the way it thought only about French products and not English farmers.

He read it again and then got a bottle of ink and a quill off the curator; the man barely registered his request, he was so enthralled by Poppy. Fletch rolled up his cuffs and started writing. The trick was to keep it simple, the way Poppy suggested.

He’d noticed during the last months of haunting the House of Lords, listening to every speech, that not a single man talked about himself. Everything they said was couched in so much fancy language that the forest couldn’t be seen for the trees. Hell, that’s what he had done himself when he decided to make a speech of his own—which likely explained why no one had the faintest idea what he said.

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