With sneak-thief adroitness, Harry extricated her from the aggregate of dancers and led her to the row of French doors opening onto the terrace. She followed blindly, hardly caring if they were seen or not.
The air outside was a brace of coolness, dry and sharp in her lungs. Poppy breathed in rapid gasps, grateful to have escaped the smothering atmosphere of the ballroom. Hot tears slid from her eyes.
“Here,” Harry said, guiding her to the far side of the balcony, which extended nearly the full width of the mansion. The lawn below was a quiet ocean. Harry brought Poppy to a shadowed corner. Reaching inside his coat pocket, he found a pressed square of fine linen and gave it to her.
Poppy blotted her eyes. “I can’t begin to tell you,” she said unsteadily, “how very sorry I am. You were so kind in asking me to dance, and now you’re k-keeping company with a w-watering pot.”
Looking amused and sympathetic, Harry leaned an elbow on the balcony railing as he faced her. His quietness relieved her. He waited patiently, as if he understood that no words could be an adequate plaster for her bruised spirit.
Poppy let out a slow breath, feeling soothed by the coolness of the night and the blessed lack of noise. “Mr. Bayning was going to offer for me,” she told Harry. She blew her nose with a childlike gust. “But he changed his mind.”
Harry studied her, his eyes catlike in the darkness. “What reason did he give?”
“His father didn’t approve of the match.”
“And that surprises you?”
“Yes,” she said defensively. “Because he made promises to me.”
“Men in Bayning’s position are rarely, if ever, allowed to marry whomever they want. There’s far more to consider than their personal preferences.”
“More important than love?” Poppy asked with bitter vehemence.
“When all is said and done, marriage is a union of two people made by the same God. Nothing more, nothing less. Does that sound naïve?”
“Yes,” he said flatly.
Poppy’s lips quirked, although she felt nothing close to actual amusement. “I’m sure I’ve read too many fairy tales. The prince is supposed to slay the dragon, defeat the villain, and marry the servant girl, and carry her off to his castle.”
“Fairy tales are best read as entertainment,” Harry said. “Not as a guide to life.” He removed his gloves methodically and tucked them into one of his coat pockets. Resting both his forearms on the railing, he sent her a sideways glance. “What does the servant girl do when the prince abandons her?”
“She goes home.” Poppy’s fingers tightened on the damp ball of the handkerchief. “I’m not suited for London and all its illusions. I want to return to Hampshire, where I can rusticate in peace.”
“For how long?”
“And marry a farmer?” he asked skeptically.
“Perhaps.” Poppy dried the residue of her tears. “I would make a wonderful farmwife. I’m good with cows. I know how to make hotchpotch. And I would appreciate the peace and quiet for my reading.”
“Hotchpotch? What is that?” Harry seemed to have undue interest in the subject, his head inclined toward hers.
“A harvest vegetable broth.”
“How did you learn to make it?”
“My mother.” Poppy lowered her voice as if imparting highly confidential information. “The secret,” she said wisely, “is a splash of ale.”
They were standing too close. Poppy knew she should move away. But his nearness felt like shelter, and his scent was fresh and beguiling. The night air raised gooseflesh on her bare arms. How large and warm he was. She wanted to match herself against him and burrow inside the haven of his coat as if she were one of Beatrix’s small pets.
“You’re not meant to be a farmwife,” Harry said.
Poppy gave him a rueful glance. “You think no farmer would have me?”
“I think,” he said slowly, “that you should marry a man who would appreciate you.”
She made a face. “Those are in short supply.”
He smiled. “You don’t need a supply. You just need one.” He grasped Poppy’s shoulder, his hand curving over the illusion-trimmed sleeve of her gown until she felt its warmth through the fragile gauze. His thumb toyed with the filmy edge of fabric, brushing her skin in a way that made her stomach tighten. “Poppy,” he said gently, “what if I asked for permission to court you?”
She went blank as astonishment swept through her.
Finally, someone had asked to court her.
And it wasn’t Michael, or any of the diffident, superior aristocrats she had met during three failed seasons. It was Harry Rutledge, an elusive and enigmatic man she had known only a matter of days.
“Why me?” was all she could manage.
“Because you’re interesting and beautiful. Because saying your name makes me smile. Most of all because this may be my only hope of ever having hotchpotch.”
“I’m sorry, but . . . no. It wouldn’t be a good idea at all.”
“I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had. Why can’t we?”
Poppy’s mind was spinning. She could hardly stammer out a reply. “I-I don’t like courtship. It’s very stressful. And disappointing.”
His thumb found the soft ridge of her collarbone and traced it slowly. “It’s arguable that you’ve ever had a real courtship. But if it pleases you, we’ll dispense with it altogether. That would save time.”