Catherine strove to keep her voice even. “I will not discuss the Hathaways with you. And I warn you to stay away from them.”
“You warn me?” Harry repeated softly, his eyes bright with mocking amusement.
“I won’t let you hurt anyone in my family.”
“Your family?” One of his dark brows lifted. “You have no family.”
“I meant the family I work for,” Catherine said with icy dignity. “I meant my charges. Especially Poppy. I saw the way you looked at her this morning. If you try to harm her in any way—”
“I have no intention of harming anyone.”
“Regardless of your intentions, it happens, doesn’t it?” Catherine felt a stab of satisfaction as she saw his eyes narrow. “Poppy is far too good for you,” she continued, “and she is out of your reach.”
“Hardly anything is out of my reach, Cat.” He said it without arrogance. It happened to be the truth. Which made Catherine all the more fearful.
“Poppy is practically betrothed,” she replied sharply. “She is in love with someone.”
Her heart began to hammer with alarm. “How do you know that?”
Harry ignored the question. “Do you really think that Viscount Andover, a man of notoriously exacting standards, would allow his son to marry a Hathaway?”
“I do. He loves his son, and therefore he will choose to overlook the fact that Poppy comes from an unconventional family. He could ask for no better mother for his future heirs.”
“He’s a peer. Bloodlines are everything to him. And while Poppy’s bloodlines have led to an obviously charming result, they’re far from pure.”
“Her brother is a peer,” Catherine snapped.
“Only by accident. The Hathaways are a twig on the farthest limb of the family tree. Ramsay may have inherited a title, but in terms of nobility, he’s no more a peer than you or I. And Andover knows it.”
“What a snob you are,” Catherine observed in as calm a tone as she could manage.
“Not at all. I don’t mind the Hathaways’ common blood one bit. In fact, I like them all the better for it. All those anemic daughters of the peerage—none of them could hold a candle to the two girls I saw this morning.” His smile became genuine for one dazzling moment. “What a pair. Catching a wild monkey with a comfit jar and string.”
“Leave them alone,” Catherine said. “You play with people as a cat does with mice. Entertain yourself with someone else, Harry. God knows you have no shortage of women who would do anything to please you.”
“That’s what makes them boring,” he said gravely. “No, don’t leave yet—there’s something I want to ask. Has Poppy said anything to you about me?”
Mystified, Catherine shook her head. “Only that it was interesting to finally be able to put a face to the mysterious hotelier.” She stared at him intently. “What else should she have told me?”
Harry adopted an innocent expression. “Nothing. I merely wondered if I had made an impression.”
“I’m sure Poppy overlooked you entirely. Her affections are with Mr. Bayning, who, unlike you, is a good, honorable man.”
“You wound me. Fortunately in matters of love, most women can be persuaded to choose a bad man over a good one.”
“If you understood anything about love,” Catherine said acidly, “you would know that Poppy would never choose anyone over the man she has already given her heart to.”
“He can have her heart,” came Harry’s casual reply. “As long as I have the rest of her.”
As Catherine spluttered in offended fury, Harry stood and went to the door. “Let me show you out. No doubt you’ll want to go back and sound the alarms. For all the good it will do.”
It had been a long time since Catherine had known such fathomless anxiety. Harry . . . Poppy . . . could he really have designs on her, or had he simply decided to torture Catherine with a cruel jest?
No, he had not been playacting. Of course Harry wanted Poppy, whose warmth and spontaneity and kindness was completely alien in his sophisticated world. He wanted a respite from his own inexhaustible needs, and once he was done with Poppy, he would have drained her of all the happiness and innocent charm that had attracted him in the first place.
Catherine didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t expose her own connection to Harry Rutledge, and he knew it.
The answer was to make certain that Poppy was betrothed to Michael Bayning, publicly betrothed, as soon as possible. Tomorrow Bayning would meet with the family and accompany them to the flower show. Afterward Catherine would find a way to hasten the courtship process. She would tell Cam and Amelia that they must press for the matter to be quickly resolved.
And if for some reason there was no betrothal—perish the thought—Catherine would suggest that she accompany Poppy on a trip abroad. Perhaps France or Italy. She would even tolerate the company of the galling Lord Ramsay, if he chose to go with them. Anything to keep Poppy safe from Harry Rutledge.
“Wake up, slugabed.” Amelia strode into the bedroom wearing a dressing gown trimmed with cascades of soft lace, her dark hair gathered in a thick, neat braid over one shoulder. She had just come from feeding the baby. Having left him in the nurse-maid’s care, she was now set on the course of waking her husband.
Cam’s natural preference was to stay up all hours of the night and rise late in the day. This habit was directly opposed to Amelia’s early to bed, early to rise philosophy.