“Well?” Harry asked quietly. “Will you go through with it or not?”
Poppy felt foolish standing there in her bridal finery, bedecked in flowers and a veil, all of it symbolizing hope and innocence when there was none left. She longed to tear off her betrothal ring and throw it at him. She wanted to crumple to the floor like a hat someone had stepped on. A brief thought came to her, that she wanted to send for Amelia, who would take charge of the situation and manage everything.
Except that Poppy was no longer a child whose life could be managed.
She stared into Harry’s implacable face and hard eyes. He looked mocking, supremely confident that he’d won. No doubt he assumed he’d be able to run circles around her for the rest of their lives.
To be sure, she had underestimated him.
But he had underestimated her, too.
All of Poppy’s sorrow and misery and helpless anger swirled together into some new bitter amalgam. She was surprised by the calmness of her own voice as she spoke to him. “I will never forget that you took away the man I loved and put yourself in his place. I’m not certain I can ever forgive you for that. The only thing I am absolutely certain of is that I will never love you. Do you still want to marry me?”
“Yes,” Harry said without hesitation. “I’ve never wanted to be loved. And God knows no one’s done it yet.”
Poppy had forbidden Leo to tell the rest of the family about what had happened with Michael Bayning before the wedding. “You may tell them anything you wish after the breakfast,” she had said. “But for my sake, please keep quiet until then. I won’t be able to endure all those rituals—the breakfast, the wedding cake, the toasts—if I have to look into their eyes and know that they know.”
Leo had looked angry. “You expect me to take you to the front of this church and give you to Rutledge for reasons I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to understand. Just help me through this.”
“I don’t want to help if it results in you becoming Mrs. Harry Rutledge.”
But because she had asked it of him, Leo had played his part in the elaborate ceremony with grim-faced dignity. With a shake of his head, he had offered his arm, and they had followed Beatrix to the front of the church where Harry Rutledge was waiting.
The service was mercifully short and unemotional. There was only one moment when Poppy felt a sharp pang of unease, as the minister said, “. . . if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak; or else hereafter forever hold his peace.” It seemed the whole world stilled for the two or three seconds that followed his pronouncement. Poppy’s pulse quickened. She realized she expected, hoped, to hear Michael’s vehement protest ring out through the church.
But there was only silence. Michael had gone.
The ceremony went on.
Harry’s hand was warm as it closed around her cold one. They repeated their vows, and the minister gave the ring to Harry, who slid it firmly onto Poppy’s finger.
Harry’s voice was quiet and steady. “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”
Poppy didn’t meet his gaze, but instead stared at the gleaming circlet on her finger. To her relief, there was no kiss to follow. The custom of kissing the bride was in bad taste, a plebeian practice that was never done at St. George’s.
Finally bringing herself to look up at Harry, Poppy flinched at the satisfaction in his eyes. She took his arm, and they walked back down the aisle together, toward the future and a fate that seemed anything but benevolent.
Harry knew that Poppy thought of him as a monster. He acknowledged that his methods had been unfair, selfish, but there had been no other way to have Poppy as his wife. And he couldn’t work up even a second’s worth of regret for having taken her away from Bayning. Perhaps he was amoral, but it was the only way he knew to make his way in the world.
Poppy was his now, and he would make certain that she would not be sorry for marrying him. He would be as kind as she would allow. And in his experience, women would forgive anything if one offered the right incentives.
Harry was relaxed and in good spirits the rest of the day. A procession of “glass coaches,” elaborate carriages with gold empire decorations and abundant windows, conveyed the wedding party to the Rutledge Hotel, where a huge formal breakfast was held in the hotel banquet room. The windows were crowded with onlookers, eager to catch a glimpse of the glittering scene. Greek pillars and arches had been placed all around the room, swathed in tulle and masses of flowers.
A regiment of servants brought out silver platters and trays of champagne, and the guests settled in their chairs to enjoy the repast. They were given individual servings of goose dressed with cream and herbs and covered with a steaming golden crust . . . bowls of melons and grapes, boiled quail eggs scattered lavishly on crisp green salad, baskets of hot muffins, toast and scones, flitches of fried smoked bacon . . . plates of thinly sliced beefsteak, the pink strips littered with fragrant shavings of truffle. Three wedding cakes were brought out, thickly iced and stuffed with fruit.
As was the custom, Poppy was served first, and Harry could only guess at the effort it took for her to eat and smile. If anyone noticed that the bride was subdued, it was assumed that the event was overwhelming for her, or perhaps that, like all brides, she was nervously anticipating the wedding night.
Poppy’s family regarded her with protective concern, especially Amelia, who seemed to sense that something was wrong. Harry was fascinated by the Hathaways, the mysterious connections between them, as if they shared some collective secret. One could almost see the wordless understanding that passed between them.