“I don’t think she would know anything about this.”
“Why not? She’s a married woman.”
“Yes, but it’s . . . well . . . a masculine problem.”
Leo blanched. “I wouldn’t know anything about that, either. I don’t have masculine problems. In fact, I don’t even like saying the phrase ‘masculine problems.’ ”
“Oh.” Crestfallen, Poppy pulled a lap blanket over herself.
“Damn it. What exactly are we calling a ‘masculine problem’? Did he have trouble running the flag up? Or did it fall to half-staff?”
“Do we have to speak about this metaphorically, or—”
“Yes,” Leo said firmly.
“All right. He . . .” Poppy frowned in concentration as she searched for the right words, “. . . left me while the flag was still flying.”
“Was he drunk?”
“Did you do or say something to make him leave?”
“Just the opposite. I asked him to stay, and he wouldn’t.”
Shaking his head, Leo rummaged in a side compartment beside his seat and swore. “Where the blazes is my liquor? I told the servants to stock the carriage with drink for the journey. I’m going to fire the bloody lot of them.”
“There’s water, isn’t there?”
“Water is for washing, not drinking.” He muttered something about an evil conspiracy to keep him sober, and sighed. “One can only guess as to Rutledge’s motivations. It’s not easy for a man to stop in the middle of lovemaking. It puts us in a devil of a temper.” Folding his arms across his chest, he watched her speculatively. “I propose the radical notion of actually asking Rutledge why he left you tonight, and discussing it like two rational beings. But before your husband reaches Hampshire, you’d better decide on something, and that’s whether you’re going to forgive him for what he did to you and Bayning.”
She blinked in surprise. “Do you think I should?”
“The devil knows I wouldn’t want to, were I in your place.” He paused. “On the other hand, I’ve been forgiven for many things I should never have been forgiven for. The point is, if you can’t forgive him, there’s no use in trying to talk about anything else.”
“I don’t think Harry cares about being forgiven,” Poppy said glumly.
“Of course he does. Men love to be forgiven. It makes us feel better about our inability to learn from our mistakes.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Poppy protested. “Why must I do it so soon? There’s no time limit for forgiveness, is there?”
“Sometimes there is.”
“Oh, Leo . . .” She felt crushed under a weight of uncertainty and hurt and yearning.
“Try to sleep,” her brother murmured. “We’ll have two hours, more or less, before it’s time to change horses.”
“I can’t sleep for worrying,” Poppy said, although a yawn had already overtaken her.
“There’s no point in worrying. You already know what you want to do—you just aren’t ready to admit it yet.”
Poppy settled deeper into the corner, closing her eyes. “You know a lot about women, don’t you, Leo?”
There was a smile in his voice. “I should hope so, with four sisters.” And he watched over her while she slept.
After returning to the hotel drunk as a boiled owl, Harry staggered to his apartments. He had gone to a tavern, flamboyantly decorated with mirrors, tiled walls, and expensive prostitutes. It had taken approximately three hours to drink himself into a suitable state of numbness that he could go back home. Despite the artful advances of more than a few lightskirts, Harry took no notice of any of them.
He wanted his wife.
And he knew that Poppy would never soften toward him unless he began with a sincere apology for taking her away from Michael Bayning. The problem was, he couldn’t. Because he wasn’t at all sorry about what he’d done, he was only sorry that she was unhappy about it. He would never regret having done what was necessary to marry her, because she was what he had wanted most in his life.
Poppy was every fine, good, unselfish impulse that he would never have. She was every caring thought, loving gesture, happy moment, that he would never know. She was every minute of peaceful sleep that would forever elude him. According to the law of universal balance, Poppy had been put into the world to compensate for Harry and his wickedness. Which was probably why, as the opposite of two magnetic forces, Harry was so damnably drawn to her.
Therefore, the apology was not going to be sincere. But it would be made. And then he would ask to begin again with her.
Lowering himself to the narrow settee, which he loathed with a passion, Harry fell into a drunken stupor that almost passed for sleep.
The morning light, weak though it was, entered his brain like a stiletto. Groaning, Harry cracked his eyes open and took inventory of his abused body. He was dry mouthed, exhausted, and aching, and if there had ever been a time in his life he had needed a shower bath more, he couldn’t remember it. He slitted a glance at the closed door of his bedroom, where Poppy still slept.
Remembering her gasp of pain the previous night, when he had thrust into her, Harry felt a cold, sick heaviness in the pit of his stomach. She would be sore this morning. She might need something.
She probably hated him.
Swamped with dread, Harry lurched upward from the settee and went to the bedroom. He opened the door and let his eyes adjust to the semidarkness.