“We won’t have to tell the rest of the family until you’re ready,” Harry said. “But I would rather not hide our relationship when we’re in private. You’re my only family.”

Catherine reached beneath her spectacles to wipe at an escaping tear.

A feeling of compassion and tenderness came over Harry, something he had never felt for her before. Reaching out, he drew her close and kissed her forehead gently. “Let me be your big brother,” he whispered.

She watched in wonder as he went back to the house.

For a few minutes afterward Catherine sat alone on the bench, listening to the drone of a bee, the high, sweet chirps of common swifts, and the softer, more melodious twitters of skylarks. She wondered at the change that had come over Harry. She was half afraid he was playing some kind of game with her, with all of them, except . . . it had to be real. The emotion on his face, the sincerity in his eyes, all of it was undeniable. But how could someone’s character alter so greatly?

Perhaps, she mused, it wasn’t so much that Harry was being altered as he was being revealed . . . layer by layer, the defenses coming off. Perhaps Harry was becoming—or would become in time—the man he had always been meant to be. Because he had finally found someone who mattered.

Chapter Twenty-four

The mail coach had arrived at Stony Cross, and a footman was dispatched to fetch a stack of letters and parcels addressed to Ramsay House. The footman brought the deliveries to the back of the house, where Win and Poppy lounged on furniture that had been brought out to the brick-paved terrace. The largest parcel was addressed to Harry.

“More reports from Mr. Valentine?” Poppy asked, sipping sweet red wine as she curled next to Win on a chaise.

“It would appear so,” Harry said with a self-mocking grin. “It appears the hotel is managing brilliantly in my absence. Perhaps I should have taken a holiday sooner.”

Merripen went to Win and slipped his fingers beneath her chin. “How are you feeling?” he asked softly.

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She smiled up at him. “Splendid.”

He bent to kiss the top of Win’s blond head, and sat in a nearby chair. One could see that he was trying to be at ease with the idea of his wife carrying a child, but his concern for her practically radiated from every pore.

Harry took the other chair and opened his parcel. After reading the first few lines of the top page, he made a sound of discomfort and winced visibly. “Good God.”

“What is it?” Poppy asked.

“One of our regular guests—Lord Pencarrow—injured himself late last evening.”

“Oh, dear.” Poppy’s brow furrowed. “And he’s such a nice old gentleman. What happened? Did he take a fall?”

“Not exactly. He slid down the banister of the grand staircase, from the mezzanine level to the ground floor.” Harry paused uncomfortably. “He made it all the way to the end of the balustrade—where he crashed into the pineapple ornament on top of the newel post.”

“Why would a man in his eighties do such a thing?” Poppy asked in bewilderment.

Harry sent her a sardonic smile. “I imagine he was in his cups.”

Merripen was cringing. “One can only be glad his child-siring years are behind him.”

Harry paused to read a few more lines. “Apparently a doctor was summoned, and in his opinion the damage is not permanent.”

“Is there any other news?” Win asked hopefully. “Something a bit more cheerful?”

Obligingly Harry continued to read, this time out loud. “I’m sorry to report another unfortunate incident that occurred Friday evening at eleven o’clock, involving—” He broke off, his gaze skimming swiftly down the page.

Before Harry managed to school his expression into impassiveness, Poppy saw that something was very wrong. He shook his head, not quite meeting her gaze. “It’s nothing of interest.”

“May I see?” Poppy asked gently, reaching for the page.

His fingers tightened on it. “It’s not important.”

“Let me,” she insisted, tugging at the sheet of paper.

Win and Merripen were both quiet, exchanging a glance.

Settling back on the chaise, Poppy glanced over the letter. “. . . involving Mr. Michael Bayning,” she read aloud, “who appeared in the lobby without notice or warning, thoroughly inebriated and in a hostile temperament. He demanded to see you, Mr. Rutledge, and refused to accept that you were not in the hotel. To our alarm, he brandished a—” She stopped and took an extra breath, “a revolver, and made threats against you. We tried to bring him to the front office to calm him in private. A scuffle ensued, and regrettably Mr. Bayning was able to fire a shot before I was able to disarm him. Thankfully no one was injured, although there were many anxious queries from hotel patrons afterward, and the office ceiling must be repaired. Mr. Lufton took a bad fright from the incident and experienced pains in his chest, but the doctor prescribed a day of bed rest and said he should be right as rain tomorrow. As for Mr. Bayning, he was returned home safely, and I took the initiative to reassure his father that no charges would be pressed, as the viscount seemed quite concerned about the possibility of scandal . . .”

Poppy fell silent, feeling ill, shivering even though the sun was warm.

“Michael,” she whispered.

Harry glanced sharply at her.

The carefree young man she had known would never have resorted to such sordid, irresponsible melodrama. Part of her ached for him, and part of her was appalled, and part was simply furious. Coming to her home—for that was how she thought of the hotel—making a scene, and worst of all, endangering people. He might have seriously injured someone, perhaps even killed someone. Dear God, there were children in the hotel—hadn’t Michael spared a thought for their safety? And he had frightened poor Mr. Lufton into apoplexy.