Because the last thing he wanted on earth was to cause his wife even a moment’s pain. He would die before hurting her, no matter what the consequences to himself.

Dear God, what had happened to him? He had never wanted to feel this way about anyone, never even imagined it possible.


He had to make it stop.

Sore and bewildered, Poppy lay on her side and listened to the sounds of Harry washing. It burned where he had taken her. The residue of blood was sticky between her thighs. She wanted to leave the bed and wash as well, but the thought of performing such an intimate task in front of Harry . . . no, she wasn’t ready for that yet. And she was unsure, because even in her innocence, she knew that he had not finished making love to her.

But why?

Had there been something she should have done?

Had she made some kind of mistake? Perhaps she should have been more stoic. She had tried her best, but it had hurt dreadfully, even though Harry had been gentle. Surely he knew that it was painful for a virgin the first time. Why, then, had he seemed angry with her?

Feeling inadequate and defensive, Poppy crept from the bed and found her nightgown. She put it on and hastily retreated beneath the covers as Harry came back into the room. Without a word, he picked up his discarded clothes and began to dress.

“You’re going out?” she heard herself ask.

Harry didn’t look at her. “Yes.”

“Stay with me,” she blurted out.

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Harry shook his head. “I can’t. We’ll talk later. But right now I—” He broke off as if words failed him.

Poppy curled on her side, gripping the edges of the bedclothes. Something was terribly wrong—she couldn’t fathom what it was, and she was too afraid to ask.

Pulling on his coat, Harry started for the doorway.

“Where are you going?” Poppy asked unsteadily.

He sounded distant. “I don’t know.”

“When will you—”

“I don’t know that, either.”

She waited until he had left before she let a few tears slip out, and she blotted them with the sheet. Was Harry going to another woman?

Miserably, she reflected that her sister Win’s advice about marital relations had been insufficient. There should have been a bit less about roses and moonlight and a bit more practical information.

She wanted to see her sisters, especially Amelia. She wanted her family, who would pet and praise and make much of her, and offer the reassurance she badly needed. It was more than a little disheartening to have failed at marriage after a mere three weeks.

Most of all, she needed advice about husbands.

Yes, it was time to retreat and consider what to do. She would go to Hampshire.

A hot bath soothed her smarting flesh and eased the strained muscles on the insides of her thighs. After drying and powdering herself, she dressed in a wine-colored traveling gown. She packed a few belongings in a small valise, including undergarments and stockings, a silver-backed brush, a novel, and an automaton that Harry had made—a little woodpecker on a tree trunk—which she usually kept on her dressing table. However, she left the diamond necklace that Harry had given her, setting the velvet-lined case in a drawer.

When she was ready to depart, she rang the bellpull and sent a maid to fetch Jake Valentine.

The tall, brown-eyed young man appeared in an instant, making no effort to mask his concern. His gaze skimmed quickly over her traveling clothes. “May I be of service, Mrs. Rutledge?”

“Mr. Valentine, has my husband left the hotel?”

He nodded, a frown puckering his forehead.

“Did he tell you when he would return?”

“No, ma’am.”

Poppy wondered if she could trust him. His loyalty to Harry was well-known. However, she had no choice but to ask for his help. “I must ask a favor of you, Mr. Valentine. However, I fear it may put you in a difficult position.”

His brown eyes warmed with rueful amusement. “Mrs. Rutledge, I’m nearly always in a difficult position. Please don’t hesitate to ask me for anything.”

She squared her shoulders. “I need a carriage. I’m going to visit my brother at his terrace in Mayfair.”

The smile vanished from his eyes. He glanced at the valise by her feet. “I see.”

“I am very sorry to ask you to ignore your obligations to my husband but . . . I would prefer you didn’t let him know where I’ve gone until morning. I will be perfectly safe in my brother’s company. He is going to convey me to my family in Hampshire.”

“I understand. Of course I will help you.” Valentine paused, appearing to choose his words carefully. “I hope you will be returning soon.”

“So do I.”

“Mrs. Rutledge . . .” he started, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I shouldn’t overstep my bounds. But I feel it necessary to say—” He hesitated.

“Go on,” Poppy said gently.

“I’ve worked for Mr. Rutledge for more than five years. I daresay I know him as well as anyone. He’s a complicated man . . . too smart for his own good, and he doesn’t have much in the way of scruples, and he forces everyone around him to live by his terms. But he has changed many lives for the better. Including mine. And I believe there’s good in him, if one looks deep enough.”

“I think so, too,” Poppy said. “But that’s not enough to found a marriage on.”

“You mean something to him,” Valentine insisted. “He’s formed an attachment to you, and I’ve never seen that before. Which is why I don’t think anyone in the world can manage him except for you.”

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