“You don’t understand,” Poppy said hoarsely. “I can’t do pleasantries right now. I can’t face him. Please, Miss Marks—”
“I’ll send him away,” her companion said softly, squaring her narrow shoulders. “Don’t worry. Collect yourself, dear.” She moved in front of Poppy, blocking Michael’s view, and went forward to speak to him.
“Thank you,” Poppy whispered, even though Miss Marks couldn’t hear. Horrified to feel the sting of desperate tears, she concentrated blindly on a section of floor in front of her. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t—
“Miss Hathaway.” Lady Norbury’s jovial voice intruded on her frantic thoughts. “This gentleman has requested an introduction, you fortunate girl! It is my honor and delight to present Mr. Harry Rutledge, the hotelier.”
A pair of highly polished black shoes came into her vision. Poppy glanced miserably up into his vivid green eyes.
Harry bowed, holding her gaze. “Miss Hathaway, how do you—”
“I’d love to waltz,” Poppy said, practically leaping from her chair and seizing his arm. Her throat was so tight, she could hardly speak. “Let’s go now.”
Lady Norbury gave a disconcerted laugh. “What charming enthusiasm.”
Poppy gripped Harry’s arm as if it were a lifeline. His gaze dropped to the clench of her fingers on the fine black wool of his sleeve. He covered her fingers with the reassuring pressure of his free hand, his thumb smoothing over the edge of her wrist. And even through two layers of white gloves, she felt the comfort in his touch.
At that moment Miss Marks returned, having just dispatched Michael Bayning. Her brows lowered in a scowl as she looked up at Harry. “No,” she said shortly.
“No?” His lips twitched with amusement. “I haven’t asked for anything yet.”
Miss Marks gave him a cold stare. “Obviously you wish to dance with Miss Hathaway.”
“You have objections?” he asked innocently.
“Several,” Miss Marks said, her manner so curt that both Lady Norbury and Poppy looked askance.
“Miss Marks,” Lady Norbury said, “I can vouch for this gentleman’s character with all assurance.”
The companion pressed her lips into a hyphen. She surveyed Poppy’s glittering eyes and flushed face, seeming to understand how close she was to losing her composure. “When the dance is finished,” she told Poppy grimly, “you will take his left arm, insist that he conduct you directly back to me, here, and then he will take his leave. Understood?”
“Yes,” Poppy whispered, glancing over Harry’s broad shoulder.
Michael was staring at her from across the room, his face ashen.
The situation was hideous. Poppy wanted to run from the ballroom. Instead, she would have to dance.
Harry led Poppy toward the crowd of waltzing couples and settled his gloved hand at her waist. She reached for him, one palm light and trembling at his shoulder, her other hand gripped securely in his. In one astute glance, Harry took in the entire scene: Poppy’s unshed tears, Michael Bayning’s set face, and the slew of curious gazes encompassing them.
“How can I help?” he asked gently.
“Take me away,” she said. “As far as possible from here. Timbuktu.”
Harry looked sympathetic and amused. “I don’t think they’re letting in Europeans these days.” He drew Poppy into the current of dancers, swift counterclockwise turns in a clockwise pattern, and the only way to keep from stumbling was to follow him without hesitation.
Poppy was profoundly grateful to have something to focus on besides Michael. As she might have expected, Harry Rutledge was an excellent dancer. Poppy relaxed into his smooth, strong lead. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re probably wondering why I—”
“No, I don’t wonder. It was written on your face, and Bayning’s, for everyone to see. You’re not very good at subterfuge, are you?”
“I’ve never needed to be.” To Poppy’s horror, her throat clenched and her eyes stung. She was about to burst into tears in front of everyone. As she tried to take a steadying breath, the corset squeezed her lungs, and she felt dizzy. “Mr. Rutledge,” she wheezed, “Could you take me out to the terrace for some air?”
“Certainly.” His voice was reassuringly calm. “One more circuit around the room, and we’ll slip out.”
In other circumstances, Poppy might have taken pleasure in the sureness of his lead, the music that gilded the air. She stared fixedly at the dark face of her unlikely rescuer. He was dazzling in the elegant clothes, his heavy dark hair brushed back in disciplined layers. But his eyes were underpinned by the ever-present hint of shadows. Windows to a restless soul. He didn’t sleep enough, she thought, and wondered if anyone ever dared mention it to him.
Even through the haze of numb desolation, it occurred to Poppy that by asking her to dance, Harry Rutledge had singled her out in what could have been construed by many as a declaration of interest.
But that couldn’t be true.
“Why?” she asked faintly, without thinking.
“Why did you ask me to dance?”
Harry hesitated as if torn between the necessity of tact and the inclination toward honesty. He settled on the latter. “Because I wanted to hold you.”
Thrown into confusion, Poppy focused on the simple knot of his white cravat. At another time, in another situation, she would have been extraordinarily flattered. At the moment, however, she was too absorbed in her despair over Michael.