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Chapter 3

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

The Duchess of Beaumont, recently returned from Paris, is playing an intimate game of chess with Villiers…and reportedly with her husband as well. There has been some suggestion that these games are played in the bedchamber—even in the bed itself! This paper is moved to query the effect on the country’s moral fiber of the host of female libertines recently returned from Paris…

“What’s the matter with my party?” the Duchess of Beaumont demanded. “There are no naked singers, and I promise you I’m not planning to strip off my own clothing. Though if it wasn’t such a cold morning I might consider it, just to vex Beaumont, since he has condescended to attend with all his parliamentary types.”

“Well,” her brother Damon said wryly, “let’s just say that it’s the first party I’ve ever attended in celebration of an illegal duel. I suspect there are those who might—just might—think it in rather poor taste.”

If there was one thing Jemma was absolutely certain of, it was that she never displayed poor taste. Outrageous taste, yes. Occasionally vulgar taste, because there is nothing more delicious than an occasional dollop of vulgarity. But poor taste? Never!

“You are mistaken,” she stated. “The people who decry this festivity will be only those whom I did not invite.”

“Invite?” Damon said. “How could you invite anyone? I thought these people just followed us home from the duel.”

“Quick,” Jemma said, taking her brother’s arm. “Let’s move toward the other side of the room. Lady Chaussinand-Nogaret is approaching, and I can’t bear the way she always chastises me for dressing in an overly Frenchified manner.”

“She looks French to me,” Damon said, with a characteristically ignorant view of clothing. Lady Chaussinand-Nogaret was wearing a dress of French violet, but it was trimmed with puckerings of blue satin that no Frenchwoman would tolerate, let alone paired with a hat ornamented with marabou plumes.

Jemma steered him to the right. “Of course these people didn’t follow us home from the duel,” she said. “I invited them all. I had my secretary up half the night writing out cards, and they were delivered an hour before your duel began.”

“And what did those cards say?” Damon said, starting to laugh. Mr. Cachemire paused before him and congratulated him on an excellent bout.

“Did you note his wig?” Jemma said, after Mr. Cachemire drifted on, trailing perfume and hair powder behind him.

“Two pounds of false hair at the least,” Damon said. “But really: what on earth did your invitation cards say?”

“They invited everyone to a festivity in honor of your success,” Jemma replied, tapping him with her fan. “You see how much sisterly devotion I show you. I anticipated your win before you reached the field.”

“There’s your husband,” Damon said. “I must remember to thank him for attending the party. Though perhaps I should apologize for issuing the challenge at all. I know how fiercely Beaumont feels about illegalities.”

Jemma spied her husband in a huddle of men, and then noticed Miss Charlotte Tatlock in the midst, her thin hands flying in the air as she said something. She must have made a salient observation, because even Lord Manning was nodding with approval. Tatlock or Fetlock, Jemma thought to herself. The woman looks like a horse. I don’t care how intelligent she is.

Deciding there was nothing more pretentious than a woman who claimed to love politics—or politicians—she moved in the opposite direction, dragging Damon with her.

“What are you scowling at?” he enquired.

“My husband’s propensities.”

Damon groaned. “There’s nothing worse than the inner details of a marriage; please don’t tell me.”

“Only matched by brothers who engage in scandalous duels,” she added. “Villiers is going to be all right, isn’t he?”

“Of course he is,” Damon said. “I was very careful; the blade went just where I planned and didn’t touch the bone. The truth is that your party will likely cause more scandal than the duel itself. Poor Beaumont.”

All morning the ducal butler, Fowle, had been opening the grand salon doors and droning out names of various peers. But at this name Jemma’s and Damon’s heads both swung around.

Fowle spoke rather louder than he needed to, and as the ballroom had gone suddenly silent, his voice boomed over the heads of the assembled.

“His Grace, the Duke of Villiers.”

Chapter 4

THE MORNING POST (CONTINUED)

The host of female libertines recently returning to London is not limited to the Duchess of Beaumont, though perhaps she carries with her the most notorious reputation…reportedly, the duchess’s friends of the same rank are as untamed and unprincipled as she. In short, duchesses of a desperate disposition…wild to a fault and liable to obey no man’s word.

Fletch knew exactly the type of woman he wanted to find. Someone who would be interested in pleasure, but not love, someone who would come with no emotional ties.Someone who would actually touch him.

The thought steeled his determination. Damn it, he’d spent enough nights lying in an empty bed, pleasuring himself by thinking—like a paltry, fourteen-year-old—about his wife’s delectable little body. He had to get over that. He had to leave that behind.

What he needed was a bout of enthusiastic sex with someone. Anyone who desired him. He met Lord Randulf ’s eyes and changed that sentence. Any woman who desired him. His crafted eroticism, he had quickly discovered, pleased indiscriminately.

He saw the Duke of Beaumont in a cluster of politicians to the side, doubtless poring over tedious matters of state, as that type were always wont to do. Fletch had yet to take up his seat in the House of Lords. He was too busy riding off his sexual frustration.

And mooning over Poppy, he said to himself with a sickening jolt of self-hatred. Beaumont looked up and welcomed him with a smile. “Do you know Lord Holland?”

“I was a great supporter of your father’s on the debating floor,” Holland said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Your dear wife and mine, Your Grace, serve on the Board of Directors of Queen Charlotte’s Lying-InHospital.”

“Really,” Fletch murmured. “My wife is remarkably devoted to her causes.”

“So’s my wife,” Holland said with a twinkle. “Keeps ’em busy, what? Wish we could say the same about Beaumont’s duchess here, but she dances to her own piper!”

Beaumont’s face instantly became frigid. “Her Grace’s charitable activities may not be well known, but they are no less bountiful. Not long ago I found my wife closeted with a young woman collecting for Chelsea pensioners, for example.”

“I meant to imply nothing less,” Holland said.

But it was obvious in his tone that he felt the Duchess of Beaumont was a liability. That was one good thing about Poppy, Fletch thought. She would never cuckold him.

Holland turned to Fletch. “Though I hate to say it in front of Beaumont here, since he’s of the de vil’s party, we’d like to see you take your father’s place in the House of Lords. He was a fine debater, never missed a point.”

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