“Well, this one is stuck.” He thought of asking her to bend over a chair so he could reach the knot better and bit his own tongue. He’d likely run stark raving mad if she did that, and lunge at her. Instead he threw her skirts over his left arm and started wrenching the string apart.
“That’s a disgusting little idea you had about my chamber pot,” he said, trying not to look at the curve of her bottom, perfectly visible through her sheer chemise.
“My mother—” she said and suddenly stopped.
“I find it hard to imagine your mother attacking a chamber pot.”
“She might surprise you.”
The second bustle fell to the floor in a jostling of wires. He kicked it out of the way to Poppy’s little shriek. “Be careful with that! It’s delicate.”
“I like your own hips better,” he said, going back to the bed and lying down quickly so that she didn’t see the front of his breeches.
“I’m surprised to hear that from you of all people. After all, panniers are in fashion and surely that is of foremost concern for the Duke of Fletcher.”
“I’ve gone a bit far in that direction,” he said, propping himself up against the wall. “I was trying to get you to notice me, you know.”
She turned away from the window, her mouth open. “What?”
“I wanted you to notice me. But now I’ve accepted that you’ll never desire me, so I don’t have to try so hard.”
Instead of looking gratified, she suddenly looked as if she were going to cry. “That’s so sad, Fletch.”
“I’ve gone past that,” he said. “It’s not a problem.”
She turned back to the mirror and started fussing with her hair again, but what ever she was doing just made it worse.
“You know, is there any chance that black stuff is tar?” he said, after a while. “Because it’s spread over quite a bit of your hair in back now.”
“Tar? What’s tar?”
“Black, sticky stuff that doesn’t come off,” he said, getting out of bed again.
She had started out the day with a delightful hair arrangement involving one long feather, three shorter feathers, and a bunch of ribbons in the back. Plus a huge amount of curled, looped hair, naturally, a frizzed part on the top, and what must have been a full box of hair powder.
Now the feathers were bent and her hair…He put a finger to the black stuff. “Definitely tar,” he said.
“Can you brush it off?” Poppy asked. She tried to look over her shoulder at the glass again. “I can see there’s something black there, but—”
“First we have to get all these feathers and bows out of your hair.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Do you think Luce will be found soon?”
“Surely you know how to take down your own hair.”
“It’s different for men than women, you know!” She turned around and snapped at him, hands on her hips, and she looked so adorable he almost lost his head and kissed her. “All a man has to do is swat on a bit of powder—”
“And tie your hair back. I could do that.”
“Why don’t you, sometimes?”
She started laughing. “Go outside with my hair tied back like a five-year-old girl?”
“Surely you could do it in the house?”
“It’s not done.”
“I would do it, if I were you. This looks heavy and it smells awful.”
“My hair doesn’t smell!”
“I didn’t mean it smelled dirty. It’s just that there’s so much lavender powder in here that I can’t smell you at all.”
“I don’t have a smell,” she said, setting that little jaw of hers and glaring at him.
“I do.” He sniffed his own armpit. “I wonder when that bath is coming.”
“You are disgusting!”
“I am not,” he protested. “I rather like the smell of my sweat. I’d like yours, too.”
A knock on the door signaled the entry of the innkeeper carrying a tin bathtub, followed by three men carrying buckets of hot water. He plunked it down by the window and turned to face them. “We’ve located your servants, Your Graces.”
“Oh, lovely!” Poppy said. “Is my maid on the way?”
“Unfortunately, their carriage turned over in a ditch. As I understand it, the men outside jumped clear. But Your Graces’ manservant and maid were inside the coach. Your valet was knocked clean out and only came to himself an hour or so ago. And your maid has broken her arm.”
“Oh no!Poor Luce!” Poppy cried. “I must go to her!”
“She’s right and tight back at the Fox and Hummingbird, Your Grace. My man said that she had a posset to take off the pain, and she was sleeping as sweetly as a babe.”
“Is my valet there as well?” Fletch put in.
“They’re both safe as bugs in a bed,” the innkeeper said. “Now I’ve thought about the duchess’s situation, and I thought that Elsie here, from the kitchen, would be able to help you with your women’s things.” He moved to the side, and a great, strapping lass with hairier arms than Fletch entered. She grinned, showing that she had only three teeth to her name.
Fletch cast a look at Poppy and said, “My wife and I will quite relish the rustic pleasures of being without personal help for the night. Don’t think about it twice; I wouldn’t want to take Elsie away from her work in the kitchen.”
Poppy opened her mouth, but Fletch had the innkeeper and his men out of that room before she could do more than splutter at him.
Charlotte pulled out her Bible and sat down, trying to conceal the fact that she was rather anxiously trying to figure out whether Villiers looked closer to death than he had when she last saw him. The very thought made her heart knock against her chest, which was stupid because she hardly knew the man. She had only paid him a matter of four visits.
“I’m unchanged,” he said, guessing her thoughts. “Just as pestilent, as resistant to Christian advice, and generally ill-tempered.”
“I brought my Bible again,” she said primly. “I’m sure it will be a great consolation to you.”
“Will you read me the bits about David watching Bathsheba? That was always my favorite when I was a boy.”
“Absolutely not. I’m going to read you from Luke.” And she began to read the lovely old story of Christ’s birth. He surprised her and didn’t complain as she began, “There was in the days of Herod, King of Judea…”
At some point his man brought in a glass of water and Villiers sipped at it. “The Christmas story,” he said, his voice as wry as ever. “Do you think I need to hear of miracles?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you. Christmas is coming.”
“I used to love the holiday,” he said, handing the glass back to his man, who refilled it and quietly left the room. “Wishes, you know. Wishes.”
“What did you wish for?”
“To fly. I always wanted to fly. But I would have accepted the gift of speaking with animals. What about you?”
“We were never encouraged to wish, at least not in connection with Christmas. But I have very fond memories of the holiday.”