“Stay away from me!” she snapped, and tried to dart around him.
Leo blocked her easily, a muffled laugh escaping him as she tried to shove him. “Are you trying to push me out of the way? You don’t have the strength of a butterfly. Here—your headgear is askew—let me help you with it—”
“Don’t touch me!”
They struggled, one of them playful, the other frantic and flailing.
“One glance,” Leo begged, a laugh ending in a grunt as she twisted and jabbed a sharp elbow against his midriff. He snatched at the kerchief, managing to loosen it. “Please. It’s all I want from life, to see you with—” another swipe, and he snagged the edge of the cloth, “—your hair all—”
But Leo broke off as the kerchief pulled free, and the hair that spilled out was not any conceivable shade of green. It was blond . . . pale amber and champagne and honey . . . and there was so much of it, cascading in shimmering waves to the middle of her back.
Leo went still, holding her in place as his astonished gaze raked over her. They both gulped for breath, worked up and winded like racehorses. Marks couldn’t have looked more appalled if he had just stripped her naked. And the truth was, Leo couldn’t have been any more confounded—or aroused—if he were actually viewing her naked. Though he certainly would have been willing to try it.
Such a commotion had risen in him, Leo hardly knew how to react. Just hair, just locks of hair . . . but it was like setting a previously undistinguished painting in the perfect frame, revealing its beauty in full luminous detail. Catherine Marks in the sunlight was a mythical creature, a nymph, with delicate features and opalescent eyes.
The most confounding realization was that it wasn’t really hair color that had concealed all this from him . . . he had never noticed how stunning she was because she had deliberately kept him from seeing it.
“Why,” Leo asked, his voice husky, “would you conceal something so beautiful?” Staring at her, nearly devouring her, he asked more softly still, “What are you hiding from?”
Her lips trembled, and she gave a brief shake of her head, as if to answer would prove fatal to them both. And, wrenching free of him, she picked up her skirts and ran headlong to the house.
“Amelia,” Poppy said as she lay her head on her sister’s shoulder, “you’ve done me a terrible disservice, making marriage look so easy.”
Amelia laughed softly, hugging her. “Oh, dear. If I’ve given that impression, I do apologize. It’s not. Especially when both individuals are strong willed.”
“The ladies’ periodicals advise to let one’s husband have his way most of the time.”
“Oh, lies, lies. Only let your husband think he’s having his way. That’s the secret to a happy marriage.”
They both snickered, and Poppy sat up.
Having put Rye down for his morning nap, Amelia had gone with Poppy to the family parlor, where they sat together on the settee. Although Win had been invited to join them, she had tactfully declined, sensitive to the fact that Amelia had a more maternal relationship with Poppy than she did.
During the two years that Win had spent away at a health clinic in France, recovering from the damages of scarlet fever, Poppy had grown even closer to their oldest sister. When Poppy wished to divulge her most private thoughts and problems, Amelia was the one she always felt most comfortable with.
A tea tray had been brought in, and there was a plate of treacle tarts made according to their mother’s old recipe, strips of buttery shortbread topped with lemon syrup and sweet crumbs.
“You must be exhausted,” Amelia remarked, putting a gentle hand to Poppy’s cheek. “I think you need a nap more than little Rye.”
Poppy shook her head. “Later. I must try to settle some things first, because I think Harry may arrive by nightfall. Of course, he may not, but—”
“He will,” came a voice from the doorway, and Poppy looked up to behold her former companion. “Miss Marks,” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.
A brilliant smile broke out on Miss Marks’s face, and she came to Poppy swiftly, catching her in a warm embrace. Poppy could tell that she had been outside. Instead of her usual pristine soap-and-starch smell, she carried the scents of earth and flowers and summer heat. “Nothing’s the same without you here,” Miss Marks said. “It’s so much quieter.”
Drawing back, Miss Marks added hastily, “I didn’t mean to imply—”
“Yes, I know.” Still smiling, Poppy viewed her quizzically. “How pretty you look. Your hair . . .” Instead of being scraped back and tightly pinned, the thick, fine locks flowed around her back and shoulders. And the nondescript shade of brown had been lightened to brilliant pale gold. “Is that your natural color?”
A blush swept over Miss Marks’s face. “I’m going to darken it again as soon as possible.”
“Must you?” Poppy asked, perplexed. “It’s so lovely this way.”
Amelia spoke from the settee. “I wouldn’t advise applying any chemicals for a while, Catherine. Your hair may be too fragile.”
“You may be right,” Miss Marks said with a frown, self-consciously reaching up to finger the light, glinting strands.
Poppy looked askance at them both, having never heard Amelia call the companion by her first name before.
“May I sit with you both?” Miss Marks asked Poppy gently. “I want very much to hear what has transpired since the wedding. And—” There was a quick, oddly nervous pause. “I have some things to tell you, that I believe are relevant to your situation.”