“I don’t want to dispense with it,” Poppy said, increasingly flustered. She trembled as she felt his fingertips glide along the side of her neck. “What I mean is . . . Mr. Rutledge, I’ve just been through a very difficult experience. This is too soon.”

“You were courted by a boy, who had to do as he was told.” His hot breath feathered against her lips as he whispered, “You should try it with a man, who needs no one’s permission.”

A man. Well, he certainly was that.

“I don’t have the luxury of waiting,” Harry continued. “Not when you’re so hell-bent on going back to Hampshire. You’re the reason I’m here tonight, Poppy. Believe me, I wouldn’t have come otherwise.”

“You don’t like balls?”

“I do. But the ones I attend are given by a far different crowd.”

Poppy couldn’t imagine what crowd he was referring to, or what kind of people he usually associated with. Harry Rutledge was too much of a mystery. Too experienced, too overwhelming in every way. He could never offer the quiet, ordinary, sane life she longed for.

“Mr. Rutledge, please don’t take this as an affront, but you don’t have the qualities I seek in a husband.”

“How do you know? I have some excellent qualities you haven’t even seen yet.”

Poppy gave a shaky laugh. “I think you could talk a fish out of its skin,” she told him. “But still, I don’t—” She stopped with a gasp as he ducked his head and stole an off-center kiss from her lips, as if her laughter were something he could taste. She felt the imprint of his mouth even after he drew back, her excited nerves reluctant to release the sensation.

“Spend an afternoon with me,” he urged. “Tomorrow.”

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“No, Mr. Rutledge. I’m—”

“Harry.”

“Harry, I can’t—”

“An hour?” he whispered. He bent to her again, and she turned her face away in confusion. He sought her neck instead, his lips brushing the vulnerable flesh with half-open kisses.

No one had ever done such a thing, even Michael. Who would have thought it would feel so delicious? Dazed, Poppy let her head fall back, her body accepting the steady support of his arms. He searched her throat with devastating care, touching his tongue to her pulse. His hand cradled her nape, the pad of his thumb tracing the satiny edge of her hairline. As her balance faltered, she reached around his neck.

He was so gentle, teasing color to the surface of her skin, chasing little shivers with his mouth. Blindly she followed, wanting the taste of him. As she angled her face toward his, her lips grazed the close-shaven surface of his jaw. His breath caught. “You should never cry over a man,” he said against her cheek. His voice was soft, dark, like smoked honey. “No one is worth your tears.” Before she could answer, he caught her mouth in a full, open kiss.

Poppy went weak, melting against him as he kissed her slowly. The tip of his tongue entered, played gently, and the feel of it was so strange and intimate and tantalizing that a wild tremor ran through her. His mouth lifted at once.

“I’m sorry. Did I frighten you?”

Poppy couldn’t seem to think of an answer. It wasn’t that he had frightened her, more that he had given her a glimpse of a vast erotic territory she had never encountered before. Even in her inexperience, she comprehended that this man had the power to turn her inside out with pleasure. And that was not something she had ever considered or bargained for.

She tried to swallow the heartbeat that had ascended in her throat. Her lips felt stung and swollen. Her body throbbed in unfamiliar places.

Harry framed her face in his hands, his thumbs stroking her crimson cheeks. “The waltz is over by now. Your companion is going to turn on me like a rat terrier for bringing you back late.”

“She’s very protective,” Poppy managed to say.

“She should be.” Harry lowered his hands, setting her free.

Poppy stumbled, her knees astonishingly weak. Harry grabbed her in a swift reflex, pulling her back against him. “Easy.” She heard him laugh softly. “My fault. I shouldn’t have kissed you like that.”

“You’re right,” she said, her sense of humor tentatively reasserting itself. “I should give you a set-down . . . slap you or something . . . what is the usual response from ladies you’ve taken liberties with?”

“They encourage me to do it again?” Harry suggested in such a helpful manner that Poppy couldn’t help smiling.

“No,” she said. “I’m not going to encourage you.”

They faced each other in darkness relieved only by the slivers of light shed by upper-floor windows. How capricious life was, Poppy thought. She should have been dancing with Michael tonight. But now she was Michael’s castoff, and she was standing outside the ballroom, in the shadows with a stranger.

Interesting, that she could be so in love with one man and yet find another so compelling. But Harry Rutledge was one of the most fascinating people she had ever met, with so many layers of charm and drive and ruthlessness that she couldn’t fathom what kind of man he really was. She wondered what he was like in his private moments.

She was almost sorry she would never find out.

“Give me a penance,” Harry urged. “I’ll do whatever you ask.”

As their gazes caught and held in the shadows, Poppy realized that he actually meant it. “How large a penance?” she asked.