“He’s a bit late,” Poppy said tensely. “It’s not like him. I hope he hasn’t met with some difficulty.”
“He will arrive soon, I’m sure.”
Cam and Amelia entered the room, the latter looking radiant in pink, her small waist cinched with a bronze leather belt that matched her walking boots.
“What a lovely day for an outing,” Amelia said, her blue eyes twinkling. “Though I doubt you’ll even notice the flowers, Poppy.”
Putting a hand to her midriff, Poppy let out an unsteady sigh. “This is all so nerve-wracking.”
“I know, dear.” Amelia went to embrace her. “This makes me indescribably grateful that I never had to go through the London season. I would never have had your patience. Really, they should levy a tax on London bachelors until they marry. That would hasten the entire courtship process.”
“I don’t see why people have to marry at all,” Beatrix said. “There was no one to marry Adam and Eve, was there? They lived together naturally. Why should any of us bother with a wedding if they didn’t?”
Poppy gave a nervous laugh. “When Mr. Bayning is here,” she said, “let’s not bring up any outlandish debate topics, Bea. I’m afraid he’s not used to our way of . . . well, our . . .”
“Colorful discussions,” Miss Marks suggested.
Amelia grinned. “Don’t worry, Poppy. We’ll be so staid and proper, we’ll be absolute bores.”
“Thank you,” Poppy said fervently.
“Do I have to be boring, too?” Beatrix asked Miss Marks, who nodded emphatically.
With a sigh, Beatrix went to a table in the corner and began to empty her pockets.
Poppy’s stomach flipped as she heard a knock at the door. “He’s here,” she said breathlessly.
“I will answer,” Miss Marks said. She gave Poppy a quick smile. “Breathe, dear.”
Poppy nodded and tried to calm herself. She saw Amelia and Cam exchange a glance she could not interpret. The understanding between the pair was so absolute, it seemed they could read each other’s thoughts.
She was tempted to smile as she remembered Beatrix’s comment that rabbits were happiest in pairs. Beatrix had been right. Poppy wanted very much to be loved, to be part of a pair. And she had waited for so long, and she was still unwed when friends her age had already married and had two or three children. It seemed a common fate for Hathaways to find love later rather than sooner.
Poppy’s thoughts were interrupted as Michael entered the room and bowed. A surge of gladness was tempered by the sight of his expression, more grim than she had ever imagined possible. His complexion was pale, his eyes reddened as if he’d had no sleep. He looked ill, as a matter of fact.
“Mr. Bayning,” she said softly, her heart beating like a small animal fighting to free itself from a net. “Are you well? What is the matter?”
Michael’s brown eyes, usually so warm, were bleak as he glanced at her family. “Forgive me,” he said hoarsely. “I hardly know what to say.” His breath seemed to shiver in his throat. “I am in some . . . some difficulty . . . it’s impossible.” His gaze settled on Poppy. “Miss Hathaway, I must speak with you. I don’t know if it would be possible to have a moment alone . . .”
A difficult silence followed the request. Cam stared at the young man with an unfathomable expression, while Amelia gave a slight shake of her head as if to deny what was coming.
“I’m afraid that would not be proper, Mr. Bayning,” Miss Marks murmured. “We have Miss Hathaway’s reputation to consider.”
“Of course.” He passed a hand over his forehead, and Poppy realized that his fingers were trembling.
Something was very wrong indeed.
An icy calm settled over her. She spoke in a dazed voice that didn’t sound quite like her own. “Amelia, perhaps you might stay in the room with us?”
“Yes, of course.”
The rest of the family, including Miss Marks, left the room.
Poppy felt cold runnels of perspiration beneath her chemise, damp patches blossoming at the pits of her arms. She took a place on the settee and watched Michael with dilated eyes. “You may have a seat,” she told him.
He hesitated and glanced at Amelia, who had gone to stand beside the window.
“Please do have a seat, Mr. Bayning,” Amelia said, staring at the street outside. “I’m trying to pretend I’m not here. I’m so sorry you can’t have more privacy than this, but I’m afraid Miss Marks is right. Poppy’s reputation must be protected.”
Although there was no trace of rebuke in her tone, Michael flinched visibly. Occupying the space next to Poppy, he took her hands and bent his head over them. His fingers were even colder than hers. “I had an unholy row with my father last night,” he said, his voice muffled. “It seems one of the rumors reached him about my interest in you. About my intentions. He was . . . outraged.”
“That must have been dreadful,” Poppy said, knowing that Michael rarely, if ever, quarreled with his father. He held the viscount in awe, striving always to please him.
“Worse than dreadful.” Michael took an unsteady breath. “I’ll spare you the particulars. The result of a long, very ugly argument is that the viscount gave me an ultimatum. If I marry you, I will be cut off. He will no longer recognize me as his son, and I will be disinherited.”