“Has my brother told you that he loves you?”
Catherine hesitated for a long moment. “No,” she said, her gaze fixed on the path before them. “In fact, I recently overheard him telling Win that he would only marry a woman if he were certain not to love her.” She darted a glance at Harry, who thankfully forbore comment.
Poppy frowned. “He may not have meant it. Leo often jokes about things and says the opposite of how he really feels. One never knows with him.”
“Precisely my point,” Harry said in a neutral tone. “One never knows with Ramsay.”
After Catherine had eaten a plate of sandwiches with an impetus born of a renewed appetite, she went to a private suite that Harry had obtained for her.
“Later, after you’ve rested,” Poppy told her, “I’ll send a housemaid down with some of my clothes. They’ll be a bit loose for you, but they can be altered easily.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” Catherine protested. “I’ll send for the things I left in Hampshire.”
“You’ll need something to wear in the meantime. And I have scores of gowns that have never been worn. Harry is ridiculously excessive when it comes to buying things for me. Besides, there’s no need for all your stodgy spinster dresses now. I’ve always longed to see you in beautiful colors … pink, or jade green…” She smiled at Catherine’s expression. “You’ll be like the proverbial butterfly emerging from the cocoon.”
Catherine tried to respond with humor, although her nerves were strung tight with anxiety. “I was really quite comfortable as a caterpillar.”
Poppy went to find Harry in his curiosities room, where he often went to mull over a problem or work on something in a place where he was certain not to be interrupted. Only Poppy was allowed to come and go as she pleased.
The room was lined with shelves of exotic and interesting objects, gifts from foreign visitors, clocks and figurines and odd things he had collected in his travels.
Harry sat at his desk in his shirtsleeves, fiddling with gears and springs and bits of wire, as he did whenever he was deep in thought. Poppy approached him, feeling a little pang of pleasure as she watched the movements of those hands, thinking of how they played on her body.
Harry looked up as she closed the door, his gaze attentive and thoughtful. He discarded the handful of metallic objects. Turning in his chair, he took her by the waist and pulled her between his spread thighs.
Poppy let her hands slide into his shiny dark hair, brown-black silk that curled slightly over her fingers. “Am I distracting you?” she asked as she leaned down to kiss him.
“Yes,” he said against her mouth. “Don’t stop.”
Her chuckle dissolved between their lips, like sugar melting in hot tea. Lifting her head, Poppy tried to remember what she had come there for. “Mmmn, don’t,” she said as his mouth went to her throat. “I can’t think when you do that. I was going to ask you something…”
“The answer is yes.”
Drawing back, she grinned and looked down at him, her arms still linked around his neck. “What do you really think about this situation with Catherine and Leo?”
“I’m not sure.” He toyed with the front of her bodice, running his fingers along the row of decorative buttons.
“Harry, do not pull at those,” she warned, “they’re decorative.”
“What good are buttons that don’t do anything?” he asked, looking puzzled.
“It’s the fashion.”
“How am I to get this dress off you?” Intrigued, Harry began to search for hidden fastenings.
Poppy touched her nose to his. “It’s a mystery,” she whispered. “I’ll let you find out after you tell me what you intend to do about Catherine.”
“Scandal burns itself out far sooner when ignored. Any attempt to smother it only fans the flames. I’m going to introduce Cat as my sister, explain that she went to school at Blue Maid’s, and subsequently took a position with the Hathaways as a kindness to you and your sister.”
“And what about all the uncomfortable questions?” Poppy asked. “How shall we answer?”
“In the manner of politicians. Willfully misinterpret and evade.”
She considered that with thoughtfully pursed lips. “I suppose that’s the only choice,” she said. “But what of Leo’s proposal?”
“You think she should accept him?”
Poppy nodded decisively. “I don’t see what is to be gained by waiting. One never knows what kind of husband a man will be until one marries him. And then it’s too late.”
“Poor little wife,” Harry murmured, patting her rump over the gathered folds of her skirts. “It’s far too late for you, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, I’ve resigned myself to a lifetime of having to endure your passionate lovemaking and witty conversation.” She heaved a sigh. “It’s better than being a spinster, I tell myself.”
Harry stood and pulled her up against him, kissing her until she was dizzy and pink-cheeked.
“Harry,” she persisted, as he nuzzled beneath her ear, “when will you give your blessing to the match between Catherine and my brother?”
“When she tells me that it doesn’t matter what I say, she’s going to marry him come hell or high water.” Lifting his head, he stared deeply into her eyes. “Let’s go to the apartment and take a nap.”