Cam obliged. “You put together a group of private investors and bought a row of houses with very little capital of your own. You leased the houses for a short time, razed them and bought the rest of the street, and built the hotel as it now stands. You have no family, save your father in New York, with whom you have no communication. You have a handful of loyal friends and a host of enemies, many of whom seem to like you in spite of themselves.”
Harry reflected that Cam Rohan must have had impressive connections to have unearthed such information. “There are only three people in England who know that much about me,” he muttered, wondering which one of them had talked.
“Now there are five,” Leo said. “And Rohan forgot to mention the fascinating discovery that you’ve become a favorite with the War Office after designing some modifications to the standard issue army rifle. But lest we assume that you are only allied with the British government, you also seem to have dealings with foreigners, royalty and criminals alike. It rather gives one the impression that the only side you’re ever on is your own.”
Harry smiled coolly. “I’ve never lied about myself or my past. But I keep things private whenever possible. And I owe allegiance to no one.” He went to the sideboard and poured a brandy. Holding the bowl in the palms of his hands to warm it, he glanced at both men. He’d bet his fortune that Cam knew more that he wasn’t revealing. But this discussion, brief as it was, made it clear that there would be no helpful family coercion to make Poppy an honest woman. The Hathaways didn’t give a damn about respectability, nor did they need his money, nor his influence.
Which meant that he would have to focus solely on Poppy.
“Whether you approve or not,” he told Cam and Leo, “I’m going to propose to your sister. The choice is hers. And if she accepts, no power on earth will stop me from marrying her. I understand your concerns, so let me assure you that she will want for nothing. She’ll be protected, cherished, even spoiled.”
“You have no bloody idea how to make her happy,” Cam said quietly.
“Rohan,” Harry said with a faint smile, “I excel at making people happy—or at least making them think they are.” He paused to survey their set faces. “Are you going to forbid me to speak to her?” he asked in a tone of polite interest.
“No,” Leo said. “Poppy’s not a child, nor a pet. If she wants to speak to you, she shall. But be aware that, whatever you say or do in the effort to convince her to marry you, it will be counterweighed by the opinions of her family.”
“And there’s one more thing to be aware of,” Cam said, with a wintry softness that disguised all hint of feeling. “If you succeed in marrying her, we’re not losing a sister. You’re gaining an entire family—who will protect her at any cost.”
That was almost enough to give Harry pause.
“My brother and Mr. Rohan don’t like you,” Poppy told Harry the next morning, as they walked slowly through the rose garden behind the hotel. As the news of the scandal traveled through London like wildfire, it was necessary to do something about it with all expediency. Poppy knew that as a gentleman, Harry Rutledge was bound to offer for her, to save her from social disgrace. However, she wasn’t certain if a lifetime of being married to the wrong man was any better than being a pariah. She didn’t know Harry well enough to make any judgments about his character. And her family was emphatically not in favor of him.
“My companion doesn’t like you,” she continued, “and my sister Amelia says she doesn’t know you well enough to decide, but she’s inclined not to like you.”
“What about Beatrix?” Harry asked, the sun striking glimmers in his dark hair as he looked down at her.
“She likes you. But then, she likes lizards and snakes.”
“What about you?”
“I can’t abide lizards or snakes.”
A smile touched his lips. “Let’s not fence today, Poppy. You know what I’m asking.”
She responded with an unsteady nod.
It had been a hellish night. She had talked and cried and argued with her family until the early hours of the morning, and then she’d found it nearly impossible to sleep. And then more arguing and conversation this morning, until her chest was a cauldron of roiling emotions.
Her safe, familiar world had been turned upside down, and the peace of the garden was an unspeakable relief. Strangely, it made her feel better to be in Harry Rutledge’s presence, even though he was partially responsible for the mess she was in. He was calm and self-assured, and there was something in his manner, sympathy woven with pragmatism, that soothed her.
They paused in a long arbor draped in sheets of roses. It was a tunnel of pink and white blossoms. Beatrix wandered along a nearby hedgerow. Poppy had insisted on taking her in lieu of Miss Marks or Amelia, both of whom would have made it impossible for her to have even marginal privacy with Harry.
“I like you,” Poppy admitted bashfully. “But that’s not enough to build a marriage on, is it?”
“It’s more than many people start with.” Harry studied her. “I’m sure your family has talked to you.”
“At length,” Poppy said. Her family had framed the prospect of marriage with Harry Rutledge in such dire terms that she had already decided to refuse him. She twisted her mouth in an apologetic grimace. “And after hearing what they had to say, I’m sorry to tell you that I—”