Even though he hadn’t touched her directly, Poppy stiffened. “It’s bad luck,” she whispered through dry lips, “for you to see me before the ceremony.”
“Fortunately,” Harry said, “I’m not superstitious.”
Poppy was filled with confusion, anger, and a dull ache of horror. Staring up into Harry’s face, she saw no trace of remorse in his expression.
“In the fairy tale . . .” he had told her, “I would probably be the villain.”
It was true.
And she was about to marry him.
“I told her what you did,” Michael said to Harry. “How you made it impossible for us to marry.”
“I didn’t make it impossible,” Harry said. “I merely made it difficult.”
How young and noble and vulnerable Michael appeared, a wronged hero.
And how large and cruel and contemptuous Harry was. Poppy couldn’t believe she had ever found him charming, that she had liked him, that she had thought some form of happiness would be possible with him.
“She was yours, if you’d truly wanted her,” Harry continued, a pitiless smile touching his lips. “But I wanted her more.”
Michael launched at him with a choked cry, his fist raised.
“No,” Poppy gasped, and Leo started forward. Harry was faster, however, seizing Michael’s arm and twisting it behind his back. Expertly he shoved him up against the door.
“Stop it!” Poppy said, rushing to them, hitting Harry’s shoulder and back with her fist. “Let him go! Don’t do this!”
Harry didn’t seem to feel her blows. “Out with it, Bayning,” he said coldly. “Did you come here merely to complain, or is there some point to all this?”
“I’m taking her away from here. Away from you!”
Harry gave a chilling smile. “I’ll send you to hell first.”
“Let . . . him . . . go,” Poppy said in a voice she had never used before.
It was enough to make Harry listen. His gaze connected with hers in a flash of unholy green. Slowly he released Michael, who swung around, his chest heaving with the anguished force of his breaths.
“Come with me, Poppy,” Michael pleaded. “We’ll go to Gretna. I no longer give a damn about my father or my inheritance. I can’t let you marry this monster.”
“Because you love me?” she asked in a half whisper. “Or because you want to save me?”
Harry watched her intently, taking in every nuance of her expression. “Go with him,” he invited gently. “If that’s what you want.”
Poppy wasn’t at all deceived. Harry would go to any lengths to get what he wanted, no matter what destruction or pain he caused. He would never let her go. He was merely testing her, curious to see what choice she would make.
One thing was clear: she and Michael would never be happy together. Because Michael’s righteous fury would eventually wear off, and then all the reasons that had seemed so important before would regain their validity. He would come to regret having married her. He would lament the scandal and the disinheritance, and the lifelong disapproval of his father. And eventually Poppy would come to be the focus of his resentment.
She had to send Michael away—it was the best thing she could do for him.
As for her interests . . . all choices seemed equally bad.
“I suggest you get rid of both these idiots,” Leo told her, “and let me take you home to Hampshire.”
Poppy stared at her brother, her lips touched with a hopeless smile. “What kind of life would I have in Hampshire after this, Leo?”
His only reply was grim silence. Poppy turned her attention to Miss Marks, who looked anguished. In their shared gaze, Poppy saw that her companion understood her precarious situation more accurately than the men did. Women were judged and condemned far more harshly than men in these matters. Poppy’s elusive dream of a simple, peaceful life had already vanished. If she didn’t go through with the wedding, she would never marry, never have children, never have a place in society. The only thing left was to make the best of her situation.
She faced Michael with unyielding resolve. “You must go,” she said.
His face contorted. “Poppy, I haven’t lost you. You’re not saying—”
“Go,” she insisted. Her gaze switched to her brother. “Leo, please escort Miss Marks to her seat in the congregation. The wedding will start soon. And I need to speak to Mr. Rutledge alone.”
Michael stared at her in disbelief. “Poppy, you can’t marry him. Listen to me—”
“It’s over, Bayning,” Leo said quietly. “There’s no undoing the part you’ve played in this bloody mess. Let my sister deal with it as she chooses.”
“Christ.” Michael lurched toward the door like a drunken man.
Poppy longed to comfort him, to follow him, to reassure him of her love. Instead, she stayed in the vestry with Harry Rutledge.
After what seemed an eternity, the other three left, and Poppy and Harry faced each other.
It was clear he was indifferent to the fact that she now knew him for what he was. Harry wanted neither forgiveness nor redemption . . . he regretted nothing.
A lifetime, Poppy thought. With a man I can never trust.
To marry a villain, or never to marry at all. To be Harry Rutledge’s wife, or live as an object of disgrace, to have mothers scold their children for speaking to her as if their innocence would be contaminated by her presence. To be propositioned by men who thought she was immoral or desperate. That was her future if she didn’t become his wife.