The fact that she was speaking for Michael as well as herself . . . “us” . . . caused Harry’s face to harden. “Whatever your feelings for Bayning are, you’re my wife now. And he’ll go on to marry some blue-blooded heiress as he should have done in the first place. Now all that’s left to decide is how you and I will go on.”

“I would prefer a marriage in name only.”

“I don’t blame you,” Harry said calmly. “However, the marriage isn’t legal until I bed you. And, unfortunately, I never leave loopholes.”

He was going to insist on his rights, then. Nothing would dissuade him from getting what he wanted. Poppy’s eyes and nose stung. But she would have rather died than cry in front of him. She shot him a look of revulsion, while her heart pounded until she felt its reverberations in her temples and wrists and ankles.

“I’m overwhelmed by such a poetic declaration. By all means, let’s complete the contract.” She began on the gilded buttons at the front of her dressing gown, her fingers stiff and shaking. Her breath trembled in her throat. “All I ask is that you make it quick.”

Harry pushed away from the bed with graceful ease and came to her. One of his warm hands covered both of hers, and her fingers stilled. “Poppy.” He waited until she could bring herself to look up at him. Amusement glinted in his eyes. “You make me feel like a vile ravisher,” he said. “It’s only fair to tell you that I’ve never forced myself on a woman. A simple refusal would probably be enough to deter me.”

He was lying, her instincts told her. But . . . perhaps he wasn’t. Damn him for toying with her like a cat with a mouse.

“Is that true?” she asked with offended dignity.

Harry gave her a guileless glance. “Refuse me, and we’ll find out.”

The fact that such a despicable human being could be so handsome was proof that the universe was vastly unfair, or at least very badly organized. “I’m not going to refuse you,” she said, pushing his hand away. “I’m not going to entertain you with virginal theatrics.” She continued to unfasten the buttons of her dressing gown. “And I’d like to have done with this so I won’t have anything to dread.”

Obligingly Harry removed his coat and went to drape it over a chair. Poppy dropped her dressing robe to the floor and kicked off her slippers. The cool air wafted beneath the hem of her thin cambric nightgown and lingered in icy curls around her ankles. She could scarcely think, her head filled with fears and worries. The future she had once hoped for was gone, and another was being created, one with infinite complications. Harry would know her in a way no one else ever had, or ever would. But it wouldn’t be anything like her sisters’ marriages . . . it would be a relationship built on something far different from love and trust.

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Her sister Win’s information on marital intimacy had been garnished with flowers and moonbeams, with the barest description of the physical act. Win’s advice had been to trust one’s husband, and to relax, and to understand that sexual closeness was a wonderful part of love. None of that had any relevance to the situation Poppy now found herself in.

The room was utterly silent. This means nothing to me, she thought, trying to make herself believe it. She felt as if she were in a stranger’s body as she undid her nightgown and pulled it over her head and let it fall to the carpeting in a limp heap. Gooseflesh rose everywhere, the tips of her br**sts contracting in the chill.

She went to the bed and turned back the covers and slipped in. Drawing the bed linens up to her br**sts, she settled back against the pillows. Only then did she glance at Harry.

Her husband had paused in the act of unfastening a shoe, his foot propped on a chair. He had already removed his shirt and waistcoat, and the muscles of his long back were bunched and tense. He stared at her over his shoulder, his thick lashes half lowered. His color was high, as if sun flushed, and his lips were parted as if he’d forgotten something he’d been about to say. Letting out a breath that wasn’t entirely steady, he turned back to his shoe.

His body was beautifully made, but Poppy took no pleasure in it. In fact, she resented it. She would have preferred a few signs of vulnerability, a touch of softness around the middle, a set of narrow shoulders, anything that would put him at a disadvantage. But he was lean and strong and powerfully proportioned. Still clad in his trousers, Harry came to stand beside the bed. Despite her efforts to appear indifferent, Poppy couldn’t stop her fingers from curling into the embroidered sheets.

His hand went to her bare shoulder, his fingertips drifting to her throat and back again. He paused as he found a tiny, nearly invisible scar on her shoulder—the place a stray shotgun pellet had once lodged. “From the accident?” he asked huskily.

Poppy nodded, unable to speak. She realized he would become familiar with every small and unique detail of her body . . . she had given him that right. He found three more scars on her arm, stroking each one as if he could soothe those long-ago injuries. Slowly his hand went to a lock of hair that lay in a fine mahogany river over her chest, following it beneath the sheets and blankets.

She gasped as she felt his thumb brush over the bud of her nipple, circling, sending runners of heat to the pit of her stomach. His hand left her for a moment, and when he reached for her breast again, his thumb was damp from his own mouth. Another teasing, acute circle, moisture enhancing the caress. Her knees drew up slightly, her h*ps tilting as if her entire body had become a vessel to contain sensation. His other hand slid softly beneath her chin, tilting her face up to his.