Harry was aware that it was high time to marry. At least, most of his acquaintances assured him that it was high time, although he suspected it was because they had all put that particular noose around their own necks and wanted him to do the same. He had considered it without enthusiasm. But Poppy Hathaway was too compelling to resist.
Reaching into his left coat sleeve, Harry tugged out Poppy’s letter. It was addressed to her from the Honourable Michael Bayning. He considered what he knew of the young man. Bayning had attended Winchester, where his studious nature had acquitted him well. Unlike other young men at university, Bayning had never gotten into debt, and there had been no scandals. More than a few women were attracted by his good looks and even more by the title and fortune he would inherit someday.
Frowning, Harry began to read.
As I reflected on our last conversation, I kissed the place on my wrist where your tears fell. How can you not believe that I weep the same tears every day and night that we’re apart? You have made it impossible for me to think of anyone or anything but you. I am mad with ardor for you, don’t doubt it in the least.
If you will be patient only a bit longer, I will soon find the opportunity to approach my father. Once he understands how utterly and completely I adore you, I know he will give his approval to our union. We have a close bond, Father and I, and he has indicated that he wishes to see me as happy in my marriage as he was with my mother, God rest her soul. How she would have enjoyed you, Poppy . . . your sensible, happy nature, your love of family and home. If only she were here to help persuade my father that there could be no better wife for me than you.
Wait for me, Poppy, as I am waiting for you.
I am, as always, forever under your spell,
A quiet, scoffing breath escaped him. Harry stared into the hearth, his face still, his mind busy with schemes. A log broke, part of it falling from the grate with a plush pop, sending out fresh heat and white sparks. Bayning wanted Poppy to wait? Unfathomable, when every cell in Harry’s body was charged with impatient desire.
Closing the note with the care of a man handling valuable currency, Harry slipped it into his coat pocket.
Once Poppy was safely inside the family suite, she settled Dodger into his favorite sleeping place, a basket that her sister Beatrix had lined with soft cloth. The ferret remained asleep, as limp as a rag.
Standing, Poppy leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. A sigh slid upward from her lungs.
Why had he done it?
More importantly, why had she allowed it?
It was not the way a man should have kissed an innocent girl. Poppy was mortified that she had landed herself in such a position, and even more that she had behaved in a way she would have judged harshly in someone else. She felt very certain of her feelings for Michael.
Why, then, had she responded to Harry Rutledge in such a way?
Poppy wished she could ask someone, but her instincts warned that it was a matter best forgotten.
Clearing the worried grimace from her face, Poppy tapped at her companion’s door. “Miss Marks?”
“I’m awake,” came a wan voice.
Poppy entered the small bedroom and found Miss Marks in her nightgown, standing at the washstand.
Miss Marks looked dreadful, her complexion ashen, her quiet blue eyes shadowed the color of bruises. Her light brown hair, usually braided and pinned in a scrupulous knot, was loose and tangled. After tilting a paper of medicinal powder to the back of her tongue, she took an unsteady gulp of water.
“Oh, dear,” Poppy said softly. “What can I do?”
Miss Marks shook her head and then winced. “Nothing, Poppy. Thank you, you’re very kind to ask.”
“More nightmares?” Poppy watched in concern as she went to a dresser and rummaged for stockings and garters and undergarments.
“Yes. I shouldn’t have slept so late. Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I only wish your dreams were more pleasant.”
“They are, most of the time.” Miss Marks smiled faintly. “My best dreams are of being back at Ramsay House, with the elders in bloom and the nuthatches nesting in the hedgerow. Everything peaceful and safe. How I miss it all.”
Poppy missed Ramsay House, too. London, with all its sophisticated delights and entertainments, could not hold a candle to Hampshire. And she was eager to see her older sister Win, whose husband Merripen was managing the Ramsay estate. “The season’s almost over,” Poppy said. “We’ll be back there soon.”
“If I live that long,” Miss Marks muttered.
Poppy smiled sympathetically. “Why don’t you return to bed? I’ll fetch a cool cloth for your head.”
“No, I can’t give in to it. I’m going to dress and have a cup of strong tea.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” Poppy commented wryly.
Miss Marks had been steeped in the classic British temperament, possessing a deep suspicion of all things sentimental or carnal. She was a young woman, barely older than Poppy, with a preternatural composure that would have allowed her to face any disaster, whether divine or man-made, without blinking an eye. The only time Poppy had ever seen her ruffled was when she was in the company of Leo, the Hathaways’ brother, whose sarcastic wit seemed to annoy Miss Marks beyond endurance.
Two years earlier, Miss Marks had been hired as a governess, not to supplement the girls’ academic learning, but to teach them the infinite variety of rules for young ladies who wished to navigate the hazards of upper society. Now her position was that of paid companion and chaperone.