It was unfair that the people who longed for love the most, searched the hardest for it, found it so elusive. And there seemed no good reason why Poppy, the prettiest girl in London, shouldn’t have been married by now. But Leo had gone through lists of acquaintances in his mind, pondering whether any of them would do for his sister, and none of them was remotely suitable. If one had the right temperament, he was an idiot or in his dotage. And then there were the lechers, the spendthrifts, and the reprobates. God help him, the peerage was a deplorable collection of male specimens. And he included himself in that estimation.
“Hello, sis,” Leo said gently, approaching her. “Where are the others?”
Poppy managed a wan smile. “Cam is out on business matters, and Amelia and Beatrix are at the park, pushing Rye in the perambulator.” She moved her feet to make room for him on the settee. “How are you, Leo?”
“Never mind that. What about you?”
“Never better,” she said bravely.
“Yes, I can see that.” Leo sat and reached for Poppy, gathering her close. He held her, patting her back, until he heard her sniffle. “That bastard,” he said quietly. “Shall I kill him for you?”
“No,” she said in a congested voice, “it wasn’t his fault. He sincerely wanted to marry me. His intentions were good.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Don’t ever trust men with good intentions. They’ll always disappoint you.”
Refusing to smile at his quip, Poppy drew back to look at him. “I want to go home, Leo,” she said plaintively.
“Of course you do, darling. But you can’t yet.”
She blinked. “Why not?”
“Yes, why not?” Catherine Marks asked tartly, sitting in a nearby chair.
Leo paused to send a brief scowl in the companion’s direction before returning his attention to Poppy. “Rumors are flying,” he said bluntly. “Last night I went to a drum, given by the wife of the Spanish ambassador—one of those things you go to only to be able to say you went—and I couldn’t count the number of times I was asked about you and Bayning. Everyone seems to think that you were in love with Bayning, and that he rejected you because his father thinks you’re not good enough.”
“That’s the truth.”
“Poppy, this is London society, where the truth can get you into trouble. If you tell one truth, you’ll have to tell another truth, and another, to keep covering up.”
That elicited a genuine smile from her. “Are you trying to give me advice, Leo?”
“Yes, and although I always tell you to ignore my advice, this time you’d better take it. The last significant event of the season is a ball held by Lord and Lady Norbury next week—”
“We have just written our regrets,” Catherine informed him. “Poppy does not wish to attend.”
Leo glanced at her sharply. “Have the regrets been sent?”
“Tear them up, then. That’s an order.” Leo saw her narrow frame stiffen, and he got a perverse pleasure from the sight.
“But, Leo,” Poppy protested, “I don’t want to go to a ball. People might be watching to see if I—”
“They will certainly be watching,” Leo said. “Like a flock of vultures. Which is why you have to attend. Because if you don’t, you’ll be shredded by the gossips, and mocked without mercy when next season begins.”
“I don’t care,” Poppy said. “I’ll never go through another season again.”
“You may change your mind. And I want you to have the choice. Which is why you’re going to the ball, Poppy. You’ll wear your prettiest dress, and blue ribbons in your hair, and show them all that you don’t give a damn about Michael Bayning. You’re going to dance and laugh, and hold your head high.”
“Leo,” Poppy groaned. “I don’t know if I can.”
“Of course you can. Your pride demands it.”
“I don’t have any reason to be proud.”
“I don’t either,” Leo said. “But that doesn’t stop me, does it?” He glanced from Poppy’s reluctant expression to Catherine’s unreadable one. “Tell her I’m right, damn it,” he told her. “She has to go, doesn’t she?”
Catherine hesitated uncomfortably. Much as it galled her to admit it, Leo was indeed right. A confident, smiling appearance by Poppy at the ball would do much to still the wagging tongues of London parlors. But her instincts urged that Poppy should be taken to the safety of Hampshire as soon as possible. As long as she remained in town, she was in Harry Rutledge’s reach.
On the other hand . . . Harry never attended such events, where desperate matchmaking mothers with unclaimed daughters scrabbled to snare every last available bachelor. Harry would never lower himself to go to the Norbury ball, especially since his appearance there would turn it into a veritable circus.
“Please control your language,” Catherine said. “Yes, you are right. However, it will be difficult for Poppy. And if she loses her composure at the ball—if she gives way to tears—it will give the gossips even more ammunition.”
“I won’t lose my composure,” Poppy said, sounding drained. “I feel as if I’ve cried enough for a lifetime.”
“Good girl,” Leo said softly. He glanced at Catherine’s troubled expression and smiled. “It appears we’ve finally agreed on something, Marks. But don’t worry—I’m sure it won’t happen again.”