“You can’t die a dozen times.”

“You can if you’re a Buddhist,” Beatrix said helpfully.


Leo smoothed Poppy’s shining hair. “I hope Harry Rutledge is,” he said.

“Why?” Beatrix asked.

“Because there’s nothing I’d rather do than kill him repeatedly.”

Harry received Leo and Cam Rohan in his private library. Any other family in the situation would have been predictable . . . they would have demanded that he do the right thing, and terms of compensation would have been discussed, and arrangements would have been made. Because of Harry’s vast fortune, most families would have accepted the results with good grace. He wasn’t a peer, but he was a man of influence and means.

However, Harry knew better than to expect a predictable response to the situation from either Leo or Cam. They were not conventional, and they would have to be dealt with carefully. That being said, Harry wasn’t worried in the least. He had negotiated over matters of far greater consequence than a woman’s honor.

Pondering the events of the night, Harry was filled with immoral triumph. No, not triumph . . . elation. It was all turning out to be so much easier than he had expected, especially with Michael Bayning’s unanticipated appearance at the Norbury ball. The idiot had practically handed Poppy to Harry on a silver platter. And when an opportunity presented itself, Harry took it.

Besides, Harry felt he deserved Poppy. Any man who allowed scruples to get in the way of having a woman like her was a fool. He recalled the way she had looked in the ballroom, pale and fragile and distraught. When Harry had approached her, there had been no mistaking the relief in her expression. She had turned to him, she had let him take her away.

And as Harry had brought her outside to the terrace, his satisfaction had been quickly supplanted by an entirely new sensation . . . the desire to ease someone else’s pain. The fact that he had helped to bring about her heartbreak in the first place was regrettable. But the end justified the means. And once she was his, he would do more for her, take better care of her, than Michael Bayning ever could.

Now he had to deal with Poppy’s family, who were understandably outraged that he had compromised her. That didn’t worry him in the slightest. He had no doubt of his ability to persuade Poppy to marry him. And no matter how much the Hathaways objected, they would ultimately have to come to terms.

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Marrying him was the only way to redeem Poppy’s honor. Everyone knew it.

Keeping his expression neutral, Harry offered wine as Leo and Cam entered the library, but they refused.

Leo went to the fireplace mantel and leaned beside it with his arms folded across his chest. Cam went to a leather-upholstered chair and settled into it, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.

Harry wasn’t deceived by their comfortable postures. Anger, masculine discord, permeated the room. Remaining relaxed, Harry waited for one of them to speak.

“You should know, Rutledge,” Leo said in a pleasant tone, “that I had planned to kill you right away, but Rohan says we should talk for a few minutes first. Personally, I think he’s trying to delay me so he can have the pleasure of killing you himself. And even if Rohan and I don’t kill you, we probably won’t be able to stop my brother-in-law Merripen from killing you.”

Harry half sat on the edge of the heavy mahogany library table. “I suggest you wait until Poppy and I marry, so she can at least be made a respectable widow.”

“Why do you assume,” Cam asked, “that we would allow you to have Poppy?”

“If she doesn’t marry me after this, no one will receive her. For that matter, I doubt any of the rest of your family would be welcome in London parlors.”

“I don’t think we’re welcome as it is,” Cam replied, his hazel eyes narrowed.

“Rutledge,” Leo said with deceptive casualness, “before I came into the title, the Hathaways lived outside London society for so many years that we couldn’t give a monkey’s arse as to whether we’re received or not. Poppy doesn’t have to marry anyone, for any reason, other than her own desire to do so. And Poppy is of the opinion that you and she would never suit.”

“The opinions of women are frequently changed,” Harry said. “Let me talk to your sister tomorrow. I’ll convince her to make the best of the situation.”

“Before you convince her,” Cam said, “you’re going to have to convince us. Because what little I know about you makes me damned uneasy.”

Of course Cam Rohan would have some knowledge of him. Cam’s former position at the gentlemen’s gaming club would have made him privy to all kinds of private information. Harry was curious as to how much he had found out.

“Why don’t you tell me what you know,” Harry invited idly, “and I’ll confirm if it’s true.”

The amber-shaded eyes regarded him without blinking. “You’re originally from New York City, where your father was a hotelier of middling success.”

“Buffalo, actually,” Harry said.

“You didn’t get on with him. But you found mentors. You apprenticed at an engineering works, where you became known for your abilities as a mechanic and draftsman. You patented several innovations in valves and boilers. At the age of twenty, you left America and came to England for undisclosed reasons.”

Cam paused to observe the effects of his recitation.

Harry’s ease had evaporated, the muscles of his shoulders drawing upward. He forced them back down and resisted the temptation to reach up and ease a cramp of tension at the back of his neck. “Go on,” he invited softly.

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