And she had stared up at him in wonder. “Could it be possible?” she whispered.
“That I love you?” Michael had whispered back, a wry smile touching his lips. “Poppy Hathaway, it is impossible not to love you.”
She had taken an unsteady breath, her entire being filled with joy. “Miss Marks never told me what a lady is supposed to do in this situation.”
Michael had grinned and leaned a bit closer, as if imparting a highly confidential secret. “You’re supposed to give me discreet encouragement.”
“I love you, too.”
“That’s not discreet.” His brown eyes sparkled. “But it’s very nice to hear.”
The courtship had been beyond circumspect. Michael’s father, Viscount Andover, was protective of his son. A good man, Michael had said, but stern. And Michael had asked for sufficient time to approach the viscount and convince him of the rightness of the match. Poppy was entirely willing to give Michael however much time he needed.
The rest of the Hathaways, however, were not quite as amenable. To them, Poppy was a treasure, and she deserved to be courted openly and with pride.
“Shall I go and discuss the situation with Andover?” Cam Rohan had suggested as the family relaxed in the parlor of their hotel suite after supper. He lounged on the settee next to Amelia, who was holding their six-month-old baby. When the baby grew up, his gadjo name—gadjo being the word that Gypsies used for outsiders—would be Ronan Cole, but among the family he was called by his Romany name, Rye.
Poppy and Miss Marks occupied the other settee, while Beatrix lounged on the floor by the hearth, playing idly with a pet hedgehog named Medusa. Dodger sulked nearby in his basket, having learned through hard experience that it was unwise to tangle with Medusa and her quills.
Frowning contemplatively, Poppy looked up from her needlework. “I don’t think that would help,” she told her brother-in-law regretfully. “I know how persuasive you are . . . but Michael is very firm on how to handle his father.”
Cam appeared to be thinking the matter over. With his black hair worn a trifle too long, his gleaming dark-honey complexion, and a diamond stud sparkling at one ear, Rohan looked far more like a pagan prince than a businessman who had garnered a fortune in manufacturing investments. Ever since he had married Amelia, Rohan had been the de facto head of the Hathaway family. No man alive would have been able to manage the unruly lot as adeptly as he did. His tribe, he called them.
“Little sister,” he said to Poppy, sounding relaxed even though his gaze was intent, “as the Rom say, ‘the tree without sunlight will bear no fruit.’ I see no reason why Bayning should not ask for permission to court you, and then go about it openly in the usual way of the gadjos.”
“Cam,” Poppy said carefully, “I know the Rom has a more . . . well, straightforward . . . approach to courtship—”
At that, Amelia smothered a laugh. Cam pointedly ignored her. Miss Marks looked perplexed, clearly having no idea that the Romany tradition of courtship often involved stealing a woman right out of her bed.
“But you know as well as any of us,” Poppy continued, “that it is a far more delicate process for the British peerage.”
“Actually,” Amelia said dryly, “from what I’ve seen, the British peerage negotiates marriages with all the romantic sensibilities of a bank transaction.”
Poppy scowled at her older sister. “Amelia, whose side are you on?”
“For me, there is no side but yours.” Amelia’s blue eyes were filled with concern. “And that is why I don’t care for this kind of covert courtship . . . arriving separately at events, never coming to take you and Miss Marks on a carriage drive . . . it bears the odor of shame. Embarrassment. As if you were some guilty secret.”
“Are you saying you doubt Mr. Bayning’s intentions?”
“Not at all. But I don’t like his methods.”
Poppy sighed shortly. “I am an unconventional choice for a peer’s son. And therefore Mr. Bayning must proceed with caution.”
“You’re the most conventional person in the entire family,” Amelia protested.
Poppy gave her a dark glance. “Being the most conventional Hathaway is hardly something to boast about.”
Looking annoyed, Amelia glanced at her companion. “Miss Marks, my sister seems to believe that her family is so outlandish, so completely out of the ordinary, that Mr. Bayning must go through these exertions—sneaking about and so forth—instead of going to the viscount in an upstanding manner and saying ‘Father, I intend to marry Poppy Hathaway and I would like your blessing.’ Can you tell me why there is a need for such excessive caution on Mr. Bayning’s part?”
For once, Miss Marks seemed at a loss for words.
“Don’t put her on the spot,” Poppy said. “Here are the facts, Amelia: You and Win are married to Gypsies, Leo is a notorious rake, Beatrix has more pets than the Royal Zoological Society, and I am socially awkward and can’t carry on a proper conversation to save my life. Is it so difficult to understand why Mr. Bayning has to break the news to his father gently?”
Amelia looked as though she wanted to argue, but instead she muttered, “Proper conversations are very dull, in my opinion.”
“Mine, too,” Poppy said glumly. “That’s the problem.”
Beatrix looked up from the hedgehog, who had curled up in a ball in her hands. “Does Mr. Bayning make interesting conversation?”