“It’s more than ungentlemanly, darling. It’s a crime.” Leo’s face softened as he approached her. Taking her hand, he lifted it to kiss the backs of her fingers one by one. His eyes glinted with rueful amusement. “This is certainly not what I had planned for this evening. My apologies. Let’s try again someday. Because, Meredith . . . I’m actually not terrible in bed.” He kissed her lightly, and smiled with such skillfully manufactured warmth that she almost believed it was real.
Poppy waited in the small front parlor of the terrace. At the sight of her brother’s tall form entering the room, she stood and flew to him. “Leo!”
He gathered her close. After a brief, hard hug, he held her at arms’ length. His gaze swept over her. “You’ve left Rutledge?”
“You lasted a week longer than I expected,” he said, not unkindly. “What’s happened?”
“Well, to start with—” Poppy tried to sound pragmatic even though her eyes watered. “I’m not a virgin anymore.”
Leo gave her a mock-shamed glance. “Neither am I,” he confessed.
A reluctant giggle escaped her.
Leo rummaged in his coat for a handkerchief, without success. “Don’t cry, darling. I have no handkerchief, and in any case, virginity is nearly impossible to find once you’ve lost it.”
“That’s not why I’m weepy,” she said, blotting her wet cheek on his shoulder. “Leo . . . I’m in a muddle. I need to think about some things. Will you take me to Hampshire?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to depart immediately. Because if we wait too long, Harry may prevent us from going at all.”
“Sweetheart, the devil himself couldn’t stop me from taking you home. That being said . . . yes, we’ll go right away. I prefer to avoid confrontation whenever possible. And I doubt Rutledge will take it well when he discovers you’ve left him.”
“No,” she said emphatically. “He’ll take it quite badly. But I’m not leaving him because I want to end my marriage. I’m leaving him because I want to save it.”
Leo shook his head, smiling. “There’s Hathaway logic for you. What worries me is that I almost understand.”
“No, you can explain once we’re on our way. For the moment, wait here. I’ll send for the driver and tell the servants to ready the carriage.”
“I’m sorry to cause trouble—”
“Oh, they’re used to it. I’m the master of hasty departures.”
There must have been some truth to Leo’s claim, because a trunk was packed and the carriage was readied with astonishing speed. Poppy waited by the parlor fire until Leo came to the doorway. “We’ll be off now,” he said. “Come.”
He took her to his carriage, a comfortable and well-sprung vehicle with deep-upholstered seats. After arranging some cushions in the corner, Poppy settled back in preparation for a long journey. It would take the full night to reach Hampshire, and although the macadamized roadways were in decent repair, there were many rough stretches.
“I’m sorry to have come to you at such a late hour,” she told her brother. “No doubt you would be sleeping soundly right now had I not arrived.”
That produced a swift grin. “I’m not sure about that,” Leo said. “But no matter—it’s time to go to Hampshire. I want to see Win and that merciless brute she married, and I need to check on the estate and tenants.”
Poppy smiled slightly, knowing how fond Leo was of the so-called “merciless brute.” Merripen had earned Leo’s everlasting gratitude for rebuilding and managing the estate. They communicated frequently by letter, maintained two or three running arguments at any given time, and thoroughly enjoyed baiting each other.
Reaching to the dark brown shade that covered the window nearest her, Poppy lifted it to glance at the broken buildings, brick facings plastered with bills, and battered shop fronts, all of them bathed in the twilight gloom of street lamps. London at night was unsavory, unsafe, uncontrolled. Harry was out there somewhere. She had no doubt he could take care of himself, but the thought of what he might be doing—or whom he might be doing it with—filled her with melancholy. She sighed heavily.
“I loathe London in the summer,” Leo said. “The Thames is working up to an unholy stench this year.” He paused, his gaze resting on her. “I suppose that look on your face isn’t caused by worry over public sanitation. Tell me what you’re thinking, sis.”
“Harry left the hotel tonight after—” Poppy broke off, unable to find a word to describe just what it was they had done. “I don’t know how long he’ll stay out, but at best, we’re only about ten or twelve hours ahead of him. Of course, he may decide not to follow me, which would be rather anticlimactic but also a relief. Still—”
“He’ll follow,” Leo said flatly. “But you won’t have to see him if you don’t wish it.”
Poppy shook her head morosely. “I’ve never had such mixed-up feelings about anyone. I don’t understand him. Tonight in bed, he—”
“Wait,” Leo said. “Some things are better discussed between sisters. I’m sure this is one of them. We’ll reach Ramsay House by morning, and you can ask Amelia anything you like.”