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Page 48


She pursed her lips but he turned away. “Her Grace has kindly agreed to these uncomfortable arrangements,” he said to the innkeeper, who bowed so low that his nose surely touched his knees.

“I’ll prepare a private parlor,” the man said, leading the way to the stairs, “and the very best meal that you’ve ever had in Oxford, that I can promise you. Just give me an hour to prepare the parlor, Your Graces, and you’ll be completely comfortable, I assure you.”

“You can sleep in the parlor,” Poppy murmured to him, on the way up on the dark little stairs.

“I certainly will not,” Fletch said. “I’m covered with dust and you are covered with worse. We are both going to have baths, supper, and then go to sleep. Remember, Poppy, I’ve put bedtime activities out of my mind. And I’m a man of my word.”

She nodded. And if she believed that, Fletch had a whole army of flying squirrels that he could sell her. For some reason, his desire was utterly in flames again. It was as bad as when they first met.

He took his wife’s arm and the only thing he wanted to do was spin her against the wall and kiss her so hard that her knees would buckle. It had to be because she looked disheveled. He never managed to get her in disarray; even when she was naked she always looked as if she were wearing an invisible corset.

The bedchamber was large with a sloping roof that slanted down over the bed. “It’s cosy,” the innkeeper said nervously. “Our best room, Your Graces.”

The sheets were snowy white and the room looked clean. That and a drink were all Fletch really cared about. “We shall require hot baths, both of us,” he said, “and meanwhile bring me a brandy, if you would. And a glass of wine for Her Grace.”

“Wine?” Poppy said, looking up from the notes she had taken in the museum.

“Wine,” he said firmly. “And a bath.”

The innkeeper left and Poppy focused on him. “Hadn’t you better leave? That is, if you’ll allow me to have the first bath.”

Fletch had just managed to wrench off his boots and in reply he walked over to the bed and fell onto it like timber crashing in the forest. “You’re joking,” he said from among the mounds of featherbed that popped around his face. “I’m exhausted, Poppy. We’ve been in the carriage for two days, and then spent seven hours in a bloody museum. I’m trying to get the sour taste of dust out of my mouth.”

Poppy wandered over to the glass. When she saw herself she gave a little scream and started poking ineffectually at her hair.

“It’s a mess,” Fletch said, having managed to beat back the pillows and sit up. “You look awful.”

“You never said such a thing before,” she said, scowling at him. She’d managed to make things worse; there was a bit of that black furry stuff on her hair now.

“Ah, but we were properly married then. Now it’s all different. It’s as if we’ve been married for forty years. No interest in each other in bed. We can tell each other the truth and not worry about hurt feelings.”

She turned back to the mirror and started poking around again.

“You’re getting black all over your hair,” he said a while later.

She shrieked again.

“Couldn’t you brush it out?”

“Of course not. I’m sure you haven’t arranged your own hair.”

“I certainly have. I don’t like men touching my body,” he said. “I’ve always dressed myself, perhaps just a little help with my boots.”

“Well, women can’t do that,” she said flatly. “I can’t even tie my own side bustles.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your maid is not here. Can you get your own clothing off?” he said, thanking God that the quilt was concealing the rise in his breeches.

“Of course,” she said firmly.

“Well, then, why don’t you?” Fletch was starting to enjoy himself. “Because,” he added in his most reasonable voice, “this room really isn’t large enough for those baskets you’re wearing on your hips. And frankly, I don’t think the innkeeper is going to be happy with the way you’re spreading that furry stuff on everything you touch.”

“Furry stuff?” She twisted around to look over her shoulder and started screaming again. In truth, it was rather disgusting. Lord knows where those smudges came from, probably down in the basement.

“If you take off the bustles, you’ll deflate,” he said, grinning. He sat up just long enough to strip off his coat and waistcoat, and pull open his cuffs.

She eyed him and then said, “Don’t watch.”

He leaned back and closed his eyes. “I put all that behind me, remember? Besides, I have never had fantasies about women covered with dirt.”

Then he watched her from under his lashes because frankly, he was having his first fantasy about a woman covered with dirt. Poppy’s skirts were huge; she kept pulling them up and losing track of her underskirts. Finally she managed to get all the material bunched up in her fists.

Fletch had to take a deep breath when she pulled up her skirts. She had the sweetest turn of ankle he’d ever seen. He couldn’t see much higher than the back of her knee because she was wearing so much wire bracketry around her body. She was feeling around like a blind possum in the night, to use one of her own nature metaphors. She was never going to get that thing untied.

“Do you need some help?” he asked finally.

She whipped her head around and he grinned at her.

“You had your eyes open!” she accused.

He swung his legs out of bed and she let her skirts fall again. “You’re never going to get all that clothing undone, Poppy. I’ve seen you naked, remember? What’s the difference?”

She muttered something about privacy.

“You’ve taken off your clothes and laid down entirely naked on the bed in front of me,” he said, pulling up her skirts. “What are you afraid of? We’re an old married couple, remember? I’ll probably start breaking wind in front of you after every meal.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Yes, and if we’re at a formal supper, I’ll blame you,” Fletch said, struggling with the tapes holding up her side bustle. “I’ll jog you on the elbow and say very loudly, Don’tworry, darling, I’ll say it was I.”

“I’ll kill you,” Poppy said with certain resolution in her voice.

“Just how would you do that?” He turned her to the other side so he could untie the other string. He had to keep her talking because otherwise she might notice how his fingers were trembling. It was utterly ludicrous that he was so wild with lust now, when she was clothed, when he could have had her anytime in the year before she moved out, and had declined to do so.

“I’ll give you a purge.”

She was grinning at him with a wicked twinkle in her eye. Instead of untying, he managed to yank the knot tight.

“I’ll give you a purge,” she continued gleefully, “and then I’ll drill a hole in your chamber pot.”

“Loathsome wrench. How the hell does your maid usually get this off you?”

She craned a glance over her shoulder. “They untie, obviously. You got the other one off easily enough.”

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