The duchess seemed unmoved. “I assure you that no one in Lords will be other than amused by my centerpiece, Beaumont. My absence has had no effect on your ability to garner support, and neither will my presence.”
“Apparently your years in Paris have had no effect on your intelligence,” the duke snarled. Roberta took a tentative step backward. She wanted no part in a marital quarrel.
“Apparently your manners declined in the same period; what a pity.”
“He’s right, Jemma. You’re being naïve,” another gentleman said, tearing his eyes away from the naked centerpiece. He looked so much like the duchess that he must be her brother, Lord Gryffyn, and therefore Roberta’s cousin (once, or twice, or—if one is punctilious—twelve times removed). The eyebrows were darker, but his carelessly tied-back hair was the color of brandy. They had the same cherry mouth, though he had none of his sister’s flawless perfection. His coat was a nice steel blue, but looked as if he pulled it on without thinking, as his waistcoat was an odd orange.
“I would guess that this particular Venus will offend the female half of the ton,” Lord Gryffyn was saying.
“She is not Venus, but Neptune’s Queen,” a lady standing to the side put in. “Venus was a tired concept five years ago!” She curled her lip with such emphasis that she had to be French.
“Ah, but this isn’t Paris,” Lord Gryffyn said. “We’re of tender stock, and we like to pretend that we don’t know what various body parts look like. At this rate, Mademoiselle Caro, you will single-handedly instruct the better part of London on the composition of a beautiful pair of thighs. It’s not worth it.”
“Your own brother agrees with me,” the duke snapped. “I will not have this sort of behavior in my house.”
There was a freezing moment of silence. The cheerful smile dropped from the duchess’s eyes. “Won’t you?” she asked.
The duke had to be six feet tall, but to Roberta he looked at least seven. “I will not.” He spaced his words in an ominous fashion.
“In that case, I suppose I shall not be the one to educate the English on the delicate matter of a woman’s leg,” the duchess said. “Not when you’re there to do it for me, and in your own offices in Westminster.”
Roberta blinked, but the duchess was turning away.
“It’s damned hard to imagine Jemma as a political wife,” Lord Gryffyn remarked to Beaumont. “Do naked women grace tables in Paris? I’ve never seen one in London.” He checked himself. “Well, not in this kind of house anyway.”
He looked up and met Roberta’s eyes. She involuntarily fell back another step. How could she possibly—
“Looks like you have a visitor, Jemma,” he said.
Jemma swung around, and so did the duke. The third gentleman was still deep in conversation with Neptune’s queen and didn’t hear.
Roberta dropped a curtsy. “Good afternoon,” she said. “I’m afraid your butler was overcome by the event and retired to compose himself. I told him I would introduce myself.”
The duchess smiled at her. Roberta was suddenly aware of her large feet. She even felt as if her overstuffed, shabby bag, dropped in the foyer by a disdainful footman, was humping along behind her.
“Please forgive us for being in such disarray,” the duchess said, a wave of her hand signifying (one must assume) the naked woman and the squabble with her husband.
“Not at all,” Roberta said, stammering. “My name is Lady Roberta St. Giles.” She paused.
There wasn’t a spark of recognition on the duchess’s face, but the duke stepped forward. “I recognize the name, madam.”
Roberta breathed a sigh of relief.
“You’re collecting for the Chelsea pensioners, are you not? It was most kind of you to attend me here, but I assure you, quite unnecessary.” He came forward with determined kindness, clearly intending to sweep her out of the house. “I’m so sorry that you were present at a scene like this. It’s enough to horrify any woman of delicate sensibility.”
The duchess intervened. “If I am to be a political wife, Beaumont, I might as well begin. I gather that charity, rather than peacock feathers, should be my every thought.” She tucked Roberta’s arm under her own. “Chelsea pensioners are a most worthy charity, Lady Roberta,” she said. “I’d be honored to hear about your work. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“You don’t understand,” Roberta said, holding her ground. But when she opened her mouth, she could not bring herself to tell the truth. That everything she owned was drooping in the entryway. That she had come—unannounced and undoubtedly unwelcome—to stay. To find a husband.
Without another look at her husband or her guests, the duchess began drawing her toward the door. “Please come to my sitting room,” she said. “Beaumont, do you make my farewells.” She didn’t look at him as she said it.
The duke’s voice was icy. “And your centerpiece?”
“We shall discuss it later.”
“I see no reason to waste my time. A naked woman will never grace my dining table. That is all I have to say about it.”
“Pish on that!” the duchess cried, stopping in her tracks and dropping Roberta’s arm. “She’s a work of art.”
“She’s a disgrace,” he countered.
The duchess showed no outward signs of fear, which Roberta thought was amazing. Faced with such a large specimen of enraged manhood, she herself would have quailed.
“You’re going to lose this one,” Lord Gryffyn said cheerfully. “Believe it or not, Jemma, your husband is up to good works that shouldn’t get mucked up by your naked ladies, no matter how luscious. What do you think?” he asked Roberta. “You’re obviously a proper young lady. Would you think that a ball featuring Lady Neptune would be ill-received?”
Roberta glanced up at the centerpiece. She truly was naked: it was rather interesting how different her body was from Roberta’s. For one thing, her breasts had to be three times as large. “I believe that most people will find it unhygienic,” she said. “I gather that is your dining table? There’s a chance that people might hesitate to dine here in the future.”
Her comment was met with flat silence, and then a bellow of laughter from the duchess’s brother. “She’s got you there, Jemma.”
The duke smiled, and Roberta suddenly felt the power of his rather icy face when it melted into a smile. “I am feeling very prone to helping pensioners,” he said softly. “One good deed, etc.”
The duchess gave a wry little shrug, and then turned around and called to the Frenchwoman. “Caro, darling, she needs to be clothed. Could you fashion her something appropriate?”
“Surely you jest!” she replied, throwing her hand to her brow. “Do you conceive of the diaper?”
“As long as it covers her from collarbone to ankle,” the duke stated. The woman broke into remonstrations, waving her arms in the air.
“Now I really need a cup of tea,” the duchess muttered, taking Roberta’s elbow again. “Shall we go to my sitting room? It’s cowardly of me to leave Beaumont with my secretary, but he deserves it, don’t you think? I promise not to be petulant about Lady Neptune’s nappy.” Lord Gryffyn had turned away; the secretary’s voice was escalating into a shriek.