There was no sound in the room except for Amelia’s swiftly indrawn breath.
Pain unfolded in Poppy’s chest, crowding the breath from her lungs. “What reason did he give?” she managed to ask.
“Only that you do not fit the mold of a Bayning bride.”
“If you allow time for his temper to cool . . . try to change his mind . . . I can wait, Michael. I’ll wait forever.”
Michael shook his head. “I cannot encourage you to wait. My father’s refusal was absolute. It could take years to change his mind, if ever. And in the meantime, you deserve the chance to find happiness.”
Poppy stared at him steadily. “I could only be happy with you.”
Michael raised his head, his eyes dark and glittering. “I’m sorry, Poppy. Sorry for giving you any reason to hope, when it was never possible. My only excuse is that I thought I knew my father, when apparently I don’t. I always believed I could convince him to accept the woman I loved, that my judgment would be enough. And I—” His voice cracked. He swallowed audibly. “I do love you. I . . . hell and damnation, I’ll never forgive him for this.” Releasing her hands, he reached into his coat pocket and extracted a packet of letters tied with cord. All the letters she had written to him. “I’m honor bound to return these.”
“I won’t give yours back,” Poppy said, taking the letters in a shaking hand. “I want to keep them.”
“That is your right, of course.”
“Michael,” Poppy said brokenly, “I love you.”
“I . . . I can’t give you any reason to hope.”
They were both quiet and trembling, staring at each other in despair.
Amelia’s voice pierced through the suffocating silence. She sounded blessedly rational. “The viscount’s objections needn’t stop you, Mr. Bayning. He can’t prevent you from inheriting the title and entailed properties, can he?”
“Take my sister to Gretna Green. We’ll provide the carriage. My sister’s dowry is large enough to secure a handsome annuity for you both. If you need more, my husband will increase it.” Amelia leveled a steady, challenging gaze at him. “If you want my sister, Mr. Bayning, marry her. The Hathaways will help you weather what storms may come.”
Poppy had never loved her sister more than she did at that moment. She stared at Amelia with a wobbly smile, her eyes brimming.
Her smile vanished, however, as Michael answered dully. “The title and real estate are entailed, but until my father dies, I would be abandoned to my own resources, which are nonexistent. And I can’t live off the charity of my wife’s family.”
“It’s not charity when it’s family,” Amelia countered.
“You don’t understand how things are with the Baynings,” Michael said. “This is a matter of honor. I’m the only son. I’ve been raised for one thing since I was born—to assume the responsibilities of my rank and title. It’s all I’ve ever known. I can’t live as an outcast, outside my father’s sphere. I can’t live with scandal and ostracism.” He hung his head. “Sweet God, I’m weary of arguing. My brain’s gone in circles all night.”
Poppy saw the impatience on her sister’s face, and she knew that Amelia was prepared to fight him on every point, for her sake. But she held Amelia’s gaze and shook her head, sending the silent message, It’s no use. Michael had already decided on his course. He would never defy his father. Arguing would only make him more miserable than he already was.
Amelia closed her mouth and turned to stare out the window again.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said after a long silence, still gripping Poppy’s hands. “I never meant to deceive you. Everything I told you about my feelings—every word was true. My only regret is that I wasted your time. Valuable time for a girl in your position.”
Although he hadn’t meant that as a slight, Poppy winced.
A girl in her position.
Twenty-three. Unmarried. On the shelf after her third season.
Carefully she drew her hands from Michael’s. “Not a moment was wasted,” she managed to say. “I am the better for having known you, Mr. Bayning. Please don’t have any regrets. I don’t.”
“Poppy,” he said in an aching voice that nearly undid her.
She was terrified that she might burst into tears. “Please go.”
“If I could make you understand—”
“I understand. I do. And I will be perfectly—” She broke off and swallowed hard. “Please go. Please.”
She was aware of Amelia coming forward, murmuring something to Michael, efficiently shepherding him out of the suite before Poppy lost her composure. Dear Amelia, who did not hesitate to take charge of a man much larger than herself.
A hen chasing a cow, Poppy thought, and she let out a watery giggle even as hot tears began to slide from her eyes.
After closing the door firmly, Amelia sat beside Poppy and reached out to grasp her shoulders. She stared into Poppy’s blurred eyes. “You are,” she said, her voice ragged with emotion, “such a lady, Poppy. And much kinder than he deserved. I am so proud of you. I wonder if he understands how much he has lost.”
“The situation wasn’t his fault.”
Amelia tugged a handkerchief from her sleeve and gave it to her. “Debatable. But I won’t criticize him, since it won’t help matters. However, I must say . . . the phrase ‘I can’t’ comes rather too easily to his lips.”