Poppy’s throat went tight, anger and misery stinging like pepper. She wished she could go to Michael right then and shout at him. And she wanted to shout at Harry as well, because no one could deny that the incident was a consequence of his perfidy.
Occupied with her roiling thoughts, she wasn’t aware of how much time had passed before Harry broke the silence.
He spoke in the way she most hated: the amused, silky, callous tone of a man who didn’t give a damn about anything.
“He ought to be more clever in his murder attempt. Done properly, he could make a wealthy widow of you, and then you’d both have your happy ending.”
Harry knew instantly that he shouldn’t have said it—the comment was the kind of cold-blooded sarcasm he had always resorted to when he felt the need to defend himself. He regretted it even before he saw Merripen out of the periphery of his vision. The Rom was giving him a warning shake of his head and drawing a finger across his throat.
Poppy was red faced, her brows drawn in a scowl. “What a dreadful thing to say!”
Harry cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said brusquely. “I was joking. It was in poor—” He ducked as something came flying at him. “What the devil—”
She had thrown something at him, a cushion.
“I don’t want to be a widow, I don’t want Michael Bayning, and I don’t want you to joke about such things, you tactless clodpole!”
As all three of them stared at her openmouthed, Poppy leapt up and stalked away, her hands drawn into fists.
Bewildered by the immediate force of her fury—it was like being stung by a butterfly—Harry stared after her dumbly. After a moment, he asked the first coherent thought that came to him. “Did she just say she doesn’t want Bayning?”
“Yes,” Win said, a smile hovering on her lips. “That’s what she said. Go after her, Harry.”
Every cell in Harry’s body longed to comply. Except that he had the feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff, with one ill-chosen word likely to send him over. He gave Poppy’s sister a desperate glance. “What should I say?”
“Be honest with her about your feelings,” Win suggested.
A frown settled on Harry’s face as he considered that. “What’s my second option?”
“I’ll handle this,” Merripen told Win before she could reply. Standing, he slung a great arm across Harry’s shoulders and walked him to the side of the terrace. Poppy’s furious form could be seen in the distance. She was walking down the drive to the caretaker’s house, her skirts and shoes kicking up tiny dust storms.
Merripen spoke in a low, not unsympathetic tone, as if compelled to guide a hapless fellow male away from danger. “Take my advice, gadjo . . . never argue with a woman when she’s in this state. Tell her you were wrong and you’re sorry as hell. And promise never to do it again.”
“I’m still not exactly certain what I did,” Harry said.
“That doesn’t matter. Apologize anyway.” Merripen paused and added in whisper, “And whenever your wife is angry . . . for God’s sake, don’t try logic.”
“I heard that,” Win said from the chaise.
Harry caught up with Poppy by the time she was halfway to the caretaker’s house. She didn’t glance at him, only glared ahead with her jaw set.
“You think I drove him to it,” Harry said quietly, keeping pace with her. “You think I ruined his life as well as yours.”
That fueled Poppy’s outrage until she wasn’t certain whether she might cry or slap him. Blast him, he was going to drive her mad.
She had been in love with a prince, and she had ended up in the arms of a villain, and it would be so much easier if she could continue to view everything in those simplistic terms. Except that her prince was not nearly as perfect as he had seemed . . . and her villain was a caring, passionate man.
It was finally becoming clear to her that love wasn’t about finding someone perfect to marry. Love was about seeing through to the truth of a person, and accepting all their shades of light and dark. Love was an ability. And Harry had it in abundance, even if he wasn’t ready to come to terms with it yet.
“Don’t presume to tell me what I think,” she said. “You’re wrong on both counts. Michael is responsible for his own behavior, which in this case was—” she paused to deliver a vicious kick to a stray pebble, “—revoltingly self-indulgent. Immature. I’m sorely disappointed in him.”
“I can’t blame him,” Harry said. “I would have done far worse, were I in his position.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Poppy said acidly.
He scowled but remained silent.
Approaching another pebble, Poppy kicked it with a vicious swipe of her foot. “I hate it when you say cynical things,” she burst out. “That stupid remark about making me a wealthy widow—”
“I shouldn’t have,” Harry said quickly. “That was unfair, and wrong. I should have considered that you were distressed because you still care for him, and—”
Poppy stopped dead in her tracks, staring at him with scornful astonishment. “Oh! How a man whom everyone considers so intelligent can be such an imbecile—” Shaking her head, she continued to storm along the drive.
Bewildered, Harry followed at her heels.
“Does it not occur to you,” her words came winging over her shoulder like angry bats, “that I might not like the idea of someone making threats against your life? That I might be just the least little bit bothered by someone coming to our home waving a gun about with the intention of shooting you?”