“I’m surprised,” he admitted. “I would have thought she’d prefer death over telling anyone.”
“She impressed upon us the need for secrecy, but she wouldn’t explain why.”
“And you want me to?”
“I was hoping you might,” she said. “You know I would never say or do anything to harm her.”
Harry was quiet, turning over thoughts in his mind, reluctant to refuse Poppy anything. And yet he had made a promise to Catherine. “They’re not my secrets to reveal, love. May I talk to Cat first, and tell her what I’d like to explain to you?”
Her hand tightened on his. “Yes, of course.” A quizzical smile curved her lips. “Cat? That’s what you call her?”
“Do you . . . is there fondness between you?”
The hesitant question provoked a laugh as dry as the rustle of corn husks. “I don’t know, actually. Neither of us is exactly comfortable with affection.”
“She’s a bit more comfortable with it than you, I think.”
Glancing at her warily, Harry saw that there was no censure on her face. “I’m trying to improve,” he said. “It’s one of the things Cam and I discussed last evening—he said it’s characteristic of Hathaway women, this need for demonstrations of affection.”
Amused and fascinated, Poppy made a face. “What else did he say?”
Harry’s mood altered with quicksilver speed. He threw her a dazzling grin. “He compared it to working with Arabian horses . . . they’re responsive, quick, but they need their freedom. You never master an Arabian . . . you become its companion.” He paused. “At least, I think that’s what he said. I was half dead from exhaustion, and we were drinking brandy.”
“That sounds like Cam.” Poppy raised her gaze heavenward. “And after dispensing this advice, he sent you to me, the horse.”
Harry stopped and pulled her against him, nudging her braid aside to kiss her neck. “Yes,” he whispered. “And what a nice ride it was.”
She flushed and squirmed with a protesting laugh, but he persisted in kissing her, working his way up to her mouth. His lips were warm, beguiling, determined. But as soon as he gained access to her mouth, he gentled, his mouth soft against hers. He liked to tease, to seduce. Warmth swept through her, arousal flowing through her veins, prickling sweetly in hidden places.
“I love kissing you,” he murmured. “It was the worst punishment you could have devised, not letting me do this.”
“It wasn’t a punishment,” Poppy protested. “It’s just that a kiss means something special to me. And after what you’d done, I was afraid to be close to you.”
All hint of amusement left Harry’s expression. He smoothed her hair and drew the backs of his fingers softly along the side of her face. “I won’t betray you again. I know you have no reason to trust me, but in time I hope—”
“I do trust you,” she said earnestly. “I’m not afraid now.”
Harry was baffled by her words, and even more by the intensity of his response to them. An unfamiliar feeling welled up in him, a deep, overwhelming ardor. His voice sounded a bit strange to his own ears as he asked, “How can you trust me when you have no way of knowing if I’m worthy of it?”
The corners of her lips tilted upward. “That’s what trust is, isn’t it?”
Harry couldn’t help kissing her again, adoration and arousal pumping through him. He could barely feel the shape of her body through her skirts, and his hands shook with the urge to pull up the bunches of fabric, remove every obstruction between them. A quick glance along both directions of the path revealed that they were alone and unobserved. It would be so easy to lay her into the soft carpet of leaves and moss, push up her dress, and take her right there in the forest. He pulled her to the side of the path, his fingers clenching in a swath of her skirts.
But he forced himself to stop, breathing hard with the effort to check his desire. He had to be careful with Poppy, considerate of her. She deserved better than to have her husband throwing himself on her in the woods.
“Harry?” she murmured in confusion as he turned her to face away from him.
He held her from behind, his arms crossed around her front. “Say something to distract me,” he said, only half joking. He took a deep breath. “I’m a hairsbreadth away from ravishing you right here.”
Poppy was silent for a moment. Either she was struck mute with horror, or she was considering the possibility. Evidently it was the latter, because she asked, “It can be done outside?”
Despite his fierce arousal, Harry couldn’t help smiling against her neck. “Love, there’s hardly any place it can’t be done. Against trees or walls, in chairs or bathtubs, on staircases or tables . . . balconies, carriages—” He let out a quiet groan. “Damn it, I’ve got to stop this, or I won’t be able to walk back.”
“None of those ways sound very comfortable,” Poppy said.
“You’d like chairs. Chairs I can vouch for.”
A chuckle rippled through her, causing her back to press against his chest.
They both waited until Harry had calmed himself sufficiently to let go of her. “Well,” he said, “this has been a delightful walk. Why don’t we go back, and—”
“But we’re not even halfway done yet,” she protested.