Harry smiled contemptuously, amused by his new brother-in-law’s effrontery. Did Leo have any idea how many ways Harry could ruin him, and how easily it could be done? “Tread carefully,” Harry said softly.
It was a sign of either naïveté or courage that Leo didn’t flinch. He actually smiled, though there was no humor in it. “There’s something you don’t seem to understand, Rutledge. You’ve managed to acquire Poppy, but you don’t have what it takes to keep her. Therefore, I won’t be far away. I’ll be there when she needs me. And if you harm her, your life won’t be worth a bloody farthing. No man is untouchable—not even you.”
After a maid had helped Poppy change from her wedding garments into a simple dressing gown, she brought a glass of iced champagne and tactfully left.
Grateful for the silence of the private apartments, Poppy sat at her dressing table and unpinned her hair slowly. Her mouth ached from smiling, and the tiny muscles of her forehead felt strained. She drank the champagne and made a project of brushing her hair in long strokes, letting it fall in mahogany waves. The boar bristles felt good against her scalp.
Harry had not yet come to the apartment. Poppy considered what she would say to him once he appeared, but nothing came to mind. With dreamlike slowness, she wandered through the rooms. Unlike the icy formality of the receiving area, the rest of the rooms had been decorated in plush fabrics and warm colors, with abundant places for sitting, reading, relaxing. Everything was immaculate, the windowpanes polished to stunning clarity, the Turkish carpeting clean swept and scented of tea leaves. There were fireplaces with marble or carved wood mantels and tiled hearths, and many lamps and sconces to keep the rooms well lit in the evening.
An extra bedroom had been added for Poppy. Harry had told her that she could have as many rooms for her own use as she wished—the apartments had been designed so that connecting spaces could be opened up with ease. The counterpane on the bed was a soft shade of robin’s egg blue, the fine linen sheets embroidered with tiny blue flowers. Pale blue satin and velvet curtains swathed the windows. It was a beautiful, feminine room, and Poppy would have taken great pleasure in it, had the circumstances been different.
She tried to decide if she was most angry with Harry, Michael, or herself. Perhaps equally with all three of them. And she was increasingly nervous, knowing it wouldn’t be long until Harry arrived. Her gaze fell to the bed. She reassured herself with the thought that Harry would not force her to submit to him. His villainy would not lend itself to crude violence.
Her stomach dropped as she heard someone entering the apartments. She took a deep breath, and another, and waited until Harry’s broad-shouldered form appeared in the doorway.
He paused, watching her, his features impassive. His cravat had been removed, the shirt opened to reveal the strong line of his throat. Poppy steeled herself not to move as Harry approached her. He reached out to touch her shining hair, letting it slide through his fingers like liquid fire. “I’ve never seen it down before,” he said. He was close enough that she could smell a hint of shaving soap, and the tang of champagne on his breath. His fingers smoothed over her cheek, detecting the trembling within her stillness.
“Afraid?” he asked softly.
Poppy forced herself to meet his gaze. “No.”
“Maybe you should be. I’m much nicer to people who are afraid of me.”
“I doubt that,” she said. “I think the opposite is true.”
A smile touched his lips.
Poppy was disoriented by the complex mixture of emotions he stirred in her, the antagonism and attraction and curiosity and resentment. Pulling away from him, she went to her dressing table and examined a small porcelain box with a gilded top.
“Why did you go through with it?” she heard him ask quietly.
“I thought it best for Michael.” She felt a twinge of satisfaction as she saw how that had annoyed him.
Harry half sat on the bed, his posture informal. His gaze didn’t stray from her. “Had there been a choice, I would have done all this the ordinary way. I would have courted you openly, won you fairly. But you’d already decided on Bayning. This was the only alternative.”
“No, it wasn’t. You could have let me be with Michael.”
“It’s doubtful he ever would have offered for you. He deceived you, and himself, by assuming he could persuade his father to accept the match. You should have seen the old man when I showed him the letter—he was mortally offended by the notion of his son taking a wife so far beneath him.”
That hurt, as perhaps Harry had intended, and Poppy stiffened.
“Then why didn’t you let it all play out? Why not wait until Michael had abandoned me, and then come forward to pick up the pieces?”
“Because there was a chance Bayning might have dared to run off with you. I couldn’t risk it. And I knew that sooner or later you’d realize that what you had with Bayning was nothing but infatuation.”
Poppy gave him a glance of purest contempt. “What do you know of love?”
“I’ve seen how people in love behave. And what I witnessed in the vestry this morning was nothing close to it. Had you truly wanted each other, no force in the world could have stopped you from walking out of that church together.”
“You wouldn’t have allowed it!” she shot back in outrage.
“True. But I would have respected the effort.”
“Neither of us gives a damn about your respect.”