Marks was similarly still, locked with him in a moment of peculiar intimacy.
She snatched the spectacles from him and replaced them firmly on her nose. “This is a mistake,” she said. “You shouldn’t have let it happen.”
Struggling through layers of bemusement and stimulation, Leo gathered that she was referring to his sister’s wedding. He sent her an irritable glance. “What do you suggest I do, Marks? Send Poppy to a nunnery? She has the right to marry whomever she pleases.”
“Even if it ends in disaster?”
“It won’t end in disaster, it will end in estrangement. And I’ve told Poppy as much. But she’s bound and determined to marry him. I always thought Poppy was too sensible to make this kind of mistake.”
“She is sensible,” Marks said. “But she’s also lonely. And Rutledge took advantage of that.”
“How could she be lonely? She’s constantly surrounded by people.”
“That can be the worst loneliness of all.”
There was a disturbing note in her voice, a fragile sadness. Leo wanted to touch her . . . gather her close . . . pull her face into his neck . . . and that caused a twinge of something like panic. He had to do something, anything, to change the mood between them.
“Cheer up, Marks,” he said briskly. “I’m sure that someday you, too, will find that one special person you can torment for the rest of your life.”
He was relieved to see her familiar scowl reassert itself.
“I’ve yet to meet a man who could compete with a good strong cup of tea.”
Leo was about to reply when he heard a noise from inside the vestry where Poppy was waiting.
A man’s voice, taut with urgency.
Leo and Marks looked at each other.
“Isn’t she supposed to be alone?” Leo asked.
The companion nodded uncertainly.
“Is it Rutledge?” Leo wondered aloud.
Marks shook her head. “I just saw him outside the church.”
Without another word, Leo grasped the door handle and opened the portal, and Marks followed him inside the vestry.
Leo stopped so abruptly that the companion bumped into him from behind. His sister, clad in a high-necked white lace gown, was silhouetted against a row of black and purple robes. Poppy looked angelic, bathed in light from a narrow rectangular window, a veil cascading down her back from a neat coronet of white rosebuds.
And she was confronting Michael Bayning—who looked like a madman, his eyes wild, his clothes disheveled.
“Bayning,” Leo said, closing the door with an efficient swipe of his foot. “I wasn’t aware you’d been invited. The guests are being seated in the pews. I suggest you join them.” He paused, his voice iced with quiet warning. “Or better yet, leave altogether.”
Bayning shook his head, desperate fury gleaming in his eyes. “I can’t. I must talk with Poppy before it’s too late.”
“It’s already too late,” Poppy said, her complexion nearly as white as her dress. “Everything’s decided, Michael.”
“You must know what I’ve found out.” Michael threw a pleading glance at Leo. “Let me have just a moment alone with her.”
Leo shook his head. He was not without sympathy for Bayning, but he couldn’t see that any good would come of this. “Sorry, old fellow, but someone has to think of appearances. This has the earmarks of a last tryst before the wedding. And while that would be scandalous enough between the bride and groom, it’s even more objectionable between the bride and someone else.” He was aware of Marks coming to stand beside him.
“Let him speak,” the companion said.
Leo threw her an exasperated glance. “Blast it, Marks, do you ever tire of telling me what to do?”
“When you stop needing my advice,” she said, “I’ll stop giving it.”
Poppy hadn’t taken her gaze off Michael. It was like something from a dream, a nightmare, having him come to her when she was dressed in her wedding gown, minutes away from marrying another man. Dread filled her. She didn’t want to hear what Michael had to say, but neither could she turn him away.
“Why are you here?” she managed to ask.
Michael looked anguished and imploring. He held out something . . . a letter. “Do you recognize this?”
Taking the letter in lace-gloved fingers, Poppy stared at it closely. “The love letter,” she said, bewildered. “I lost it. Where . . . where did you find it?”
“My father. Harry Rutledge gave it to him.” Michael raked a hand through his hair with distracted roughness. “That bastard went to my father and exposed our relationship. He put the worst possible light on it. Rutledge turned my father against us before I ever had a chance to explain our side of it.”
Poppy turned even colder, and her mouth went dry, and her heart labored with slow, painful thumps. At the same time, her brain was working too fast, racing through a chain of conclusions, each more unpleasant than the last.
The door opened, and all of them turned to watch as someone else entered the vestry.
“Of course,” Poppy heard Leo say dourly. “The drama only needed you to be complete.”
Harry came into the small, overcrowded room, looking suave and astonishingly calm. He approached Poppy, his green eyes cool. He wore his self-control like impenetrable armor. “Hello, darling.” He reached out to run a hand lightly over the transparent lace of her veil.