“Five minutes!” Fletch heard one red-faced man shout to another. “That’s the way to do it!”
Gill shuddered and took a deep swallow of brandy. “Did you see the moment when Villiers brought out that pass in tierce? I thought Gryffyn was a croaker for sure.”
“Gryffyn had Villiers from the beginning,” Fletch stated. “It was all a matter of his deciding the moment to take the duke out.”
“They’re saying Villiers lost a lot of blood before the surgeon got himself together.”
“He should be all right. It was a clean blow through the shoulder.”
“Gryffyn is a lucky man,” Gill said with a little sigh. “You should see the way his fiancée looks at him.”
“What a romantic,” Fletch sneered.
“You didn’t used to be so hard-edged,” his friend said, startled into a rebuttal. “You act as if you’ve got a stick up your ass. For God’s sake, get yourself a mistress! So your wife’s not interested in your bed. Practically every man in this room has experienced that. You could give the average English gentlewoman fifteen quinces, and they wouldn’t strike up a flush.”
“Back to the mistress you think I should take,” Fletch said, with deadly boredom in his voice. “I had no idea you were so interested in my bedroom activities.”
Gill’s face flushed; he said something unrepeatable. And left.
Fletch sighed and drank from his glass again. He was a fool. It had been years. He needed a mistress. He needed to admit to himself that his marriage was a failure. He needed to…
Poppy floated by on the far side of the room. Her breasts swelled from the stiff little bodice of her gown. He hardened instantly. It was like the tortures of Tantalus to desire someone who never desired him. To be married to someone like that was like being tied to a well and never allowed to drink.
Yet the very idea of going to her chamber door made him wilt instantly. She would let him in, of course. Oh, her mother had tutored her in that. She would chatter and smile, but he was no fool. He could read the wary resignation in her eyes. Not to mention the way she would slip off her nightgown, lie down on the bed (his only triumph: she no longer insisted on being inside the covers) and suffer his attentions.
He drank again.
Suffer was the right word.
No matter what he did, she just lay there. In the beginning he had lavished time on her breasts, hoping that she would suddenly start panting and writhing beneath him, the way Élise had when he barely touched her. Élise had directed him about her body as if he were learning a new sport. “There,” she said softly, and then, “harder,” and then, “oui!!”
For God’s sake, he was sick of thinking about Élise.
Poppy, on the other hand, sometimes stroked his head. She would kiss him, even allow him to put his tongue in her mouth occasionally, but she never responded to anything. In the beginning, he thought she was inexperienced.
Then a year passed, and another year, and she never grew any more interested, never raised a finger, never turned pink—let alone calling out “Yes, yes!” His thinking had changed.
Now he was pretty certain that it simply would never work with Poppy. He stopped going to her chamber a few months ago. She said nothing; he said nothing. She was secretly relieved. She was probably celebrating it with all her friends.
And yet he still loved her.
Which was hell. She floated by again, laughing. Everyone loved Poppy. What was not to love, with the sweetness of her eyes, and the kind way she listened to every foolish complaint anyone told her? She never told her dragon of a mother to take herself to the devil, even when the woman ran Poppy from pillar to post, so pleased to have a duchess for a daughter that she showed her off like a trained monkey.
Poppy never rebuked her, never said a word.
In short, she was an angel.
Bloody hell, angels were boring to take to bed.
Still, his innards revolted at the idea of paying a woman to bed him. Take a mistress, take a mistress—that was Gill’s advice. He’d be paying a woman to fake interest then. Paying her to pant and moan.
Yet there were other English gentlewomen…women who were interested in bedding and even, perhaps, in him. The Duchess of Beaumont had just returned from Paris, and the whole world knew that Jemma and Beaumont never slept together and hadn’t in years. What’s more, she had been playing a scandalous game of chess with the Duke of Villiers—and everyone knew that if Villiers won two out of three…the duchess herself was the prize.
Well, now Villiers was incapacitated. Lost a lot of blood, they said. Probably be in bed for weeks, if not a month.
Fletch pushed himself away from the wall and twitched up the high collar of his coat. The duchess had an eye for male finery; Villiers was the best-dressed man in London. But Fletch had brought over his own French tailleur; he thought he had a bit of an edge.
He stood up, and put down his empty glass. Walked forward. Very few would have recognized the fresh-faced young Englishman who walked the Pont Neuf only four years ago. Back then he had been sweet-faced, as Poppy had told him, with a dimple in the middle of his chin.
His hair was pulled back in a sleek tie that emphasized his cheekbones. In a fit of anger at Poppy he had grown a little, close-trimmed beard, covering the dimple she loved. And he walked with the controlled, hungry prowl of a man who hasn’t had decent sex in years and is thinking of doing something about it.
He couldn’t help but acknowledge how ridiculous it all was. As his marital life had dwindled to a visit a month and even less, he had fashioned himself ruthlessly into the kind of man who drew all women’s eyes.
Except his wife’s, of course.
He wore one color only—not for him the bright extravagances of the Duke of Villiers. For Fletch, clothing was not about making a statement about one’s aggression, but about making clear his erotic appeal. His breeches were almost sewn on. They slipped, smooth as silk—and they often were silk—over thighs bulging with muscle from his daily pounding rides. His coats were designed to display his shoulders, to flaunt his chest, cut away from his flat stomach.
The only thing left from the unassuming duke who first arrived in Paris and fell in love with an English girl was his habit of wearing his hair unpowdered. He still did, but less from a dislike of the powder itself than from the realization that when he pulled his hair from its ribbon, unruly locks tumbling to his shoulders gave the impression that he just rose from a bed in which he had been well pleasured.
In short, Fletch knew perfectly well what an elaborate façade he had created. Only Gill knew he was a fraud. Only his old friend Gill knew how shocked the women who followed him with hot eyes, dreaming of his acrobatic stunts in the bedchamber, would be if they knew he was practically…practically a virgin, it felt sometimes.
Poppy played her part; he had to give her that. She even blushed in his presence sometimes. He had no idea how she held up the charade, and could only think that duplicity came naturally to her.
He could see her in the corner of his eye—to his disgust, he always seemed to know where his wife was—but he didn’t walk in her direction. Instead, he started to move deliberately in the other direction.
In that moment, he gave up.
He needed a lover.