“Has he?” Poppy astonished her with an enthusiastic embrace. “Oh, it’s too good to be true! Please say you’ll accept him.”
“I’m afraid the situation isn’t that simple,” Catherine said ruefully, drawing back. “There is much to consider, Poppy.”
Poppy’s exuberance faded quickly, an anxious pucker appearing between her brows. “You don’t love him? But in time you will, I’m sure of it. There is so much about him worth—”
“It’s not a question of love,” Catherine said with a slight grimace.
“Marriage isn’t a question of love?”
“No, it is, of course, but I meant to say that love cannot overcome certain difficulties.”
“Then you do love him?” Poppy asked hopefully.
Catherine turned deep red. “There are many qualities I esteem in Lord Ramsay.”
“And he makes you happy, you said so.”
“Well, on that one day, I’ll admit—”
“‘A moment of true joy,’ was how you put it.”
“Heavens, Poppy, I feel as if I’m being interrogated.”
Poppy grinned. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I want this match so very much. For Leo’s sake, and yours, and for the family.”
Harry’s dry voice came from behind them. “It appears we’re at cross-purposes, my love.” The women turned as he approached them. Harry regarded his wife warmly, but there was an air of preoccupation about him. “The tea and sandwiches are waiting,” he said. “And the brawl is over. Shall we go back to the apartments?”
“Who won the brawl?” Poppy asked impishly.
That earned one of Harry’s rare grins. “A conversation broke out in the middle of the fight. Which was undoubtedly a good thing, as it turned out that neither of us knows how to fight like a gentleman.”
“You fence,” Poppy pointed out. “That’s a very gentlemanly way to fight.”
“Fencing isn’t really fighting. It’s more like chess with the risk of puncture wounds.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t hurt each other,” Poppy said cheerfully, “since there’s a distinct possibility that you may soon be brothers-in-law.”
“We’re already brothers-in-law.”
“Brothers-in-law squared, then.” Poppy slipped her arm through his.
Harry glanced at Catherine as they began to walk. “You haven’t decided yet, have you? About marrying Ramsay?”
“Certainly not,” she said quietly, keeping pace with them. “My head’s in a whirl. I need time to think.”
“Harry,” Poppy said, “when you say that we’re at cross-purposes, I hope you don’t mean that you’re against the idea of Leo and Catherine marrying.”
“For the time being,” he said, seeming to choose his words carefully, “I believe caution is in order.”
“But don’t you want Catherine to become part of my family?” Poppy asked, bewildered. “She would have the protection of the Hathaways, and she would be close to your influence.”
“Yes, I would like that very much. Except that it would necessitate Cat’s marrying Ramsay, and I’m not at all convinced that would be best for her.”
“I thought you liked Leo,” Poppy protested.
“I do. If there’s a man in London with more charm or wit, I have yet to meet him.”
“Then how could you have any objections?”
“Because his past doesn’t recommend itself as that of a reliable husband. Cat has been betrayed many times in her life.” His tone was sober and grim. He looked at Catherine. “And I’m one of the people who failed you. I don’t want you to suffer that way again.”
“Harry,” Catherine said earnestly, “you’re far too severe on yourself.”
“Now isn’t the time to pour sweetener on unpleasant truths,” he returned. “If I could change the past, I would go back and do so without hesitation. But all I can do is try to make amends, and do better in the future. And I would say the same of Ramsay.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Catherine said.
“Agreed. And I’d like to believe that he’s turned over a new leaf. But it remains to be seen.”
“You’re afraid he’ll fall back into bad habits,” Catherine said.
“He wouldn’t be the first. However, Ramsay is nearing the age at which a man’s character is more or less fixed. If he continues to avoid his former libertine practices, I think he’ll make a fine husband. But until he manages to prove himself, I’m not willing to risk your future as the wife of a man who may prove incapable of keeping his vows.”
“He would keep his vows,” Poppy insisted.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he’s a Hathaway.”
Harry smiled down at her. “He is fortunate to have you defend him, sweet. And I hope you’re right.” His gaze flickered to Catherine’s troubled face. “Am I wrong in suspecting that you have the same doubts, Cat?”
“I find it difficult to trust any man,” she admitted.
The three of them were quiet as they continued along a neatly edged path.
“Catherine,” Poppy ventured, “may I ask something exceptionally personal?”
Cat sent her a mock-worried look, and smiled. “I can’t imagine anything more personal than what we’ve been discussing. Yes, of course.”