She wouldn’t be able to marry for love, but she could at least marry for hope.
“Bea,” she murmured, “might you allow us a few moments alone?”
“Certainly. Medusa would love to grub about in the next row.”
“Thank you, dear.” Poppy turned back to Harry, who was dusting his hands. “May I ask one more question?”
He looked at her alertly and spread his hands as if to show he had nothing to hide.
“Would you say that you’re a good man, Harry?”
He had to think about that. “No,” he finally said. “In the fairy tale you mentioned last night, I would probably be the villain. But it’s possible the villain would treat you far better than the prince would have.”
Poppy wondered what was wrong with her, that she should be amused rather than frightened by his confession. “Harry. You’re not supposed to court a girl by telling her you’re the villain.”
He gave her an innocent glance that didn’t deceive her in the least. “I’m trying to be honest.”
“Perhaps. But you’re also making certain that whatever anyone says about you, you’ve already admitted it. Now you’ve made all criticism of you ineffectual.”
Harry blinked as if she’d surprised him. “You think I’m that manipulative?”
Harry seemed stunned that she could see through him so easily. Instead of being annoyed, however, he stared at her with stark longing. “Poppy, I have to have you.”
Reaching her in two steps, he took her into his arms. Her heart thumped with sudden force, and she let her head fall back naturally as she waited for the warm pressure of his mouth. When nothing happened, however, she opened her eyes and glanced at him quizzically.
“Aren’t you going to kiss me?”
“No. I don’t want your judgment clouded.” But he brushed his lips against her forehead before he continued. “Here are your choices, as I see them. First, you could go to Hampshire in a cloud of social scorn, and content yourself with the knowledge that at least you didn’t get trapped into a loveless marriage. Or you could marry a man who wants you beyond anything, and live like a queen.” He paused. “And don’t forget the country house and carriage.”
Poppy could not contain a smile. “Bribery again.”
“I’ll throw in the castle and tiara,” Harry said ruthlessly. “Gowns, furs, a yacht—”
“Hush,” Poppy whispered, and touched his lips gently with her fingers, not knowing how else to make him stop. She took a deep breath, hardly able to believe what she was about to say. “I’ll settle for a betrothal ring. A small, simple one.”
Harry stared at her as if he were afraid to trust his own ears. “Will you?”
“Yes,” Poppy said, her voice a bit suffocated. “Yes, I will marry you.”
This was the phrase of Poppy’s wedding day: “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
She had heard it from every member of her family, or some variation thereof, since the early hours of the morning. That was, she’d heard it from everyone except Beatrix, who thankfully didn’t share the Hathaways’ general animosity toward Harry.
In fact, Poppy had asked Beatrix why she hadn’t objected to the betrothal.
“I think it might turn out to be a good pairing,” Beatrix said.
“You do? Why?”
“A rabbit and a cat can live together peaceably. But first the rabbit has to assert itself—charge the cat a time or two—and then they become friends.”
“Thank you,” Poppy said dryly. “I’ll have to remember that. Although I daresay Harry will be surprised when I knock him over like a ninepin.”
The wedding and the reception afterward would be as large and heavily attended as humanly possible, as if Harry intended for half of London to witness the ceremony. As a result, Poppy would spend most of her wedding day amidst a sea of strangers.
She had hoped that she and Harry might become better acquainted in the three weeks of their betrothal, but she had scarcely seen him except for the two occasions when he had come to take her on a drive. And Miss Marks, who had accompanied them, had glowered so fiercely that it had embarrassed and infuriated Poppy.
The day before the wedding, her sister Win and brother-in-law Merripen had arrived. To Poppy’s relief, Win had elected to remain neutral on the controversy of the marriage. She and Poppy sat together in a richly appointed hotel suite, talking over the matter at length. And just as in the days of their childhood, Win assumed the role of peacemaker.
The light from a fringed lamp slid over Win’s blond hair in a brilliant varnish. “If you like him, Poppy,” she said gently, “if you’ve found things to esteem in him, then I’m sure I will, too.”
“I wish Amelia felt that way. And Miss Marks, too, for that matter. They’re both so . . . well, opinionated . . . that I can hardly discuss anything with either of them.”
Win smiled. “Remember, Amelia has taken care of all of us for a very long time. And it’s not easy for her to relinquish her role as our protector. But she will. Remember when Leo and I left for France, how difficult it was for her to see us off? How afraid she was for us?”
“I think she was more afraid for France.”
“Well, France survived the Hathaways,” Win said, smiling. “And you will survive becoming Harry Rutledge’s wife on the morrow. Only . . . if I may say my piece . . . ?”