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“A son needn’t follow his father into the same party,” Beaumont pointed out.

“Ah, but the smart ones do,” Holland said, beaming at Fletch. “May I enquire whether you will take up your seat with us, Your Grace?”

“Naturally,” Fletch said. He had no real idea what either party stood for, and at the moment he didn’t give a rat’s ass. His priorities were rapidly becoming clear: he was going to rut his brains out (to use the coarse country phrase) and then he would go to Lords and start being the sort of man his father was. He could figure out the actual politics of the thing later. “If you’ll forgive me, gentlemen?” He swept a bow and wandered on.

Two rooms later, he found exactly what he was looking for.

Lady Nevill.

She was slightly older than he, with precisely the sort of French elegance that he remembered. And he’d heard about her. Her husband had been incapacitated in a carriage accident; who could deny her the pleasure of an affaire now and then? The ton’s pity was such that she was never denied an invitation to any event, although everyone knew perfectly well that she had thrown away her reputation long ago.

She was luscious, deeper-breasted than Poppy, with long er legs, and a loose-limbed air about her that suggested she would throw her legs around a man’s neck and ride him for all he was worth.

The lady was talking to Lord Kendrick, who had to be old enough to be her father. He paused to watch and instantly knew that she was aware of him. He could see it in every lineament of her body, all those invisible, sweet ways that women had of registering interest in a man. He was probably one of the most observant men in the world when it came to that sort of thing, since he kept looking for signs of desire in Poppy—and not seeing any.

It was different with Lady Nevill. She turned her head and met his eyes straight on. No subterfuge, no silliness, no flirtation.

He didn’t smile. He let his eyes smile instead.

She said something to Lord Kendrick, moved toward him. He walked a step or two, bowed before her.

“Do we know each other?” she said, laughing a little.

“I think not,” he answered.

“It is much nicer this way,” she said. “One can hardly ever endure the conversation of old friends, whereas that of new friends can be irresistible.”

Her eyes were a strange dark golden color; she was as sensuous as a purring cat in the dark. “I shall do my best to be irresistible,” he said, feeling as if he were grasping at sophisticated conversation. He and Poppy never had conversations laden with double entendres.

She tapped him on the arm with her fan. “There is nothing a woman desires more than…”

He leaned toward her. “Yes?”

“To be desired.” Her voice was husky and suggestive. Maybe Poppy truly was unusual in that respect. She didn’t want to be desired. He shook the thought off. Poppy was his wife. Lady Nevill was…

“How does the lady in question choose among all those who desire her? For their numbers must be legion.”

“Like the maddened swine in the Bible?” She unfurled her fan; her eyes laughed over the edge. They were delicately marked with a sensual line of kohl. “The lady simply looks for the least pig-like, I assure you.”

“And if they hide their curly little tails?” He laughed right back at her.

“Ladies are never interested in anything little,” she said softly. Fletch let the corner of his mouth rise in brief appreciation of her jest. She was perfect: interested in his body for the pleasure it would bring her.

“I outgrew my short pants long ago.”

“And yet you are still so young!” Her eyes raked his body from head to foot, lingering in places where Poppy never bothered to look. The Frenchwomen had exclaimed over his endowments. He wouldn’t disappoint her.

“Not so young,” he said, almost sadly.

“None of us can claim eternal youth.” He could see in her eyes just a shadow of regret that echoed his.

“Yet you look as beautiful as a girl of eighteen,” he said, taking her hand to his mouth.

“I shouldn’t want to be that,” she said. “If I were only eighteen, after all, I should be young and just married. Which is what you appear to be.”

“Married four years,” he said. “Believe me, that doesn’t come within the purview of just married.”

“We must stop telling each other truths this very moment,” she said, her eyes dancing. “There is nothing more disconcerting—or dreary—than a conversation laden with veracity.”

But Fletch was enjoying a conversation in which the truth was desire, and the words were nothing. “The most dreary conversation,” he said, “is one in which all the truths are unspoken.”

“Now I can see that you are no newlywed. A wearisome topic, marriage,” she said, tapping him again on the wrist with her fan. “Since there seems to be no one here to introduce us, sir, perhaps we should do the honors ourselves.”

Fletch was suddenly overcome by a giddy delight, by the pure pleasure of being in the company of a woman who wanted to touch him, who used her fan as an extension of her fingers. “But surely there is no need…I can guess who you are. A goddess?”

“Do not say Venus, if you please. I find that good lady remarkably tiresome, and so overused.”

“I wasn’t thinking mythologically. But if I were…”

“Helen of Troy?”

“I hope not. Poor Helen. Young Paris simply scooped her straight away from her older husband’s bed.”

“I didn’t know that her husband’s bed was involved,” she said.

“I assure you that it was. Paris arrived on the shores of—the shores of—where the devil was that, anyway?”

“Greece,” she said, giggling. Her laugh was a century away from a girl’s excited giggle; it was a sultry chuckle that heated his groin. “I am fairly sure that we are talking about Homer’s epic about the Trojan War, are we not? In which Paris left Troy and came to Greece to steal the queen.”

“He didn’t come to steal her,” Fletch objected. “He was promised her, was he not?”

“Ah, men. They always think they have been promised some woman or another.”

“Are we so demanding?”

“Without fail. In my experience, men live in a fever of expectations about promises they think they were given.”

“For example?”

“Oh, that their wives will desire them forever…that they will be desirable forever…that their breath will always be sweet.”

“But women are just the same. Oh, the promises men break without ever knowing that they made them! When all along women break their promises right and left.”

“Now you must tell me.” Her eyes were dancing in the most delicious way. “What promise did I ever break to you?”

“You haven’t broken any yet,” he said, allowing his voice to drop a register into a deeper intimacy. “But you will.”

“I will?” She raised a delicate eyebrow.

“Alas and alack,” he said, sighing. “A man says he loves a woman, and she invariably believes that he worships her. Yet we men are so awkward at kneeling. We do it without much conviction.”

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