“Mr. Bayning is not a frog,” Poppy protested.
“You’re right,” Beatrix said. “That was very unfair to frogs, who are lovely creatures.”
As Poppy parted her lips to object, she heard Miss Marks snicker. And she began to laugh as well, until they attracted curious glances from the queue at the buffet.
After Beatrix had finished eating, they wandered to the ballroom. Music fluttered downward in continuous drifts from the orchestra playing in the upper gallery. The massive room glittered in the light of eight chandeliers, while the sweetness of abundant roses and greenery thickened the air.
Locked in the unforgiving bondage of her corset, Poppy filled her lungs with strained breaths. “It’s too warm in here,” she said.
Miss Marks glanced at her perspiring face, quickly produced a handkerchief, and guided her into one of the many cane openwork chairs at the side of the room. “It is quite warm,” she said. “In a moment, I will locate your brother or Mr. Rohan to escort you outside for some air. But first let me see to Beatrix.”
“Yes, of course,” Poppy managed, seeing that two men had already approached Beatrix in hopes of entering their names on her dance card. Her younger sister was at ease with men in a way that Poppy could never manage. They seemed to adore Beatrix because she treated them as she did her wild creatures, gently humoring, showing patient interest.
While Miss Marks supervised Beatrix’s dance card, Poppy settled back in her chair and concentrated on breathing around the iron prison of her corset. It was unfortunate that in this particular chair, she was able to hear a conversation from the other side of a garlanded column.
A trio of young women spoke in low tones that oozed with smug satisfaction.
“Of course Bayning wouldn’t have her,” one of them said. “She’s pretty, I’ll allow, but so mal-adroit, in the social sense. A gentleman I know said that he tried to talk to her at the private art viewing at the Royal Academy, and she was prattling about some ridiculous topic . . . something about a long-ago French balloon experiment when they sent a sheep up into the air in front of King Louis something-or-other . . . can you imagine?”
“Louis the sixteenth,” Poppy whispered.
“But what would you expect?” came another voice. “Such an odd family. The only one good enough for society is Lord Ramsay, and he is quite wicked.”
“A scapegrace,” the other one agreed.
Poppy went from being overheated to chilled. She closed her eyes sickly, wishing she could disappear. It had been a mistake to come to the ball. She was trying to prove something to everyone . . . that she didn’t care about Michael Bayning, when she did. That her heart wasn’t broken, when it was. Everything in London was about appearances, pretenses . . . was it so unforgivable to be honest about one’s feelings?
She sat quietly, knitting her gloved fingers together until her thoughts were diverted by a stir near the main entrance of the ballroom. It seemed that some important person had arrived, perhaps royalty, or a military celebrity, or an influential politician.
“Who is he?” one of the young women asked.
“Someone new,” the other said.
“Divine,” her companion agreed. “He must be a man of consequence—otherwise there wouldn’t be such a to-do.”
A light laugh. “And Lady Norbury wouldn’t be fluttering so. See how she blushes!”
Curious despite herself, Poppy leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the newcomer. All she could make out was a dark head, taller than the others around him. He walked further into the ballroom, talking easily with his companions while the stout, bejeweled, and beaming Lady Norbury clung to his arm.
Recognizing him, Poppy sat back in her chair.
She couldn’t fathom why he would be here, or why that made her smile.
Probably because she couldn’t help recalling the last time she had seen him, dressed in fencing whites, trying to skewer a misbehaving monkey. Tonight Harry was forbiddingly handsome in full evening attire and a crisp white cravat. And he moved and conversed with the same charismatic ease that he appeared to do everything.
Miss Marks returned to Poppy, while Beatrix and a fair-haired man disappeared into the whirl of waltzing couples. “How do you—” she began, but stopped with a sharply indrawn breath. “Damn and blast,” she whispered. “He’s here.”
It was the first time Poppy had ever heard her companion curse. Surprised by Miss Marks’s reaction to Harry Rutledge’s presence at the ball, Poppy frowned. “I noticed. But why do you—”
She broke off as she followed the direction of her companion’s gaze.
Miss Marks wasn’t looking at Harry Rutledge.
She was looking at Michael Bayning.
An explosion of pain filled Poppy’s chest as she saw her former suitor across the room, slim and handsome, his gaze fixed on her. He had rejected her, exposed her to public mockery, and then he had come to a ball? Was he searching for a new girl to court now? Perhaps he had assumed that while he danced with eager young women in Belgravia, Poppy would be hiding in her hotel suite, weeping into her pillow.
Which was precisely what she wanted to be doing.
“Oh, God,” Poppy whispered, staring into Miss Marks’s concerned face. “Don’t let him talk to me.”
“He won’t make a scene,” her companion said softly. “Quite the opposite—a pleasantry or two will smooth the situation over for both of you.”