“I sent Valentine to the Fellows residence to ask them to make a special batch for you.” Harry smiled as he saw the paper twists scattered across the counterpane. “I see you’ve sampled them.”
“Have one,” Poppy said generously.
Harry shook his head. “I don’t like sweets.” But he bent down obligingly as she gestured for him to come closer. She reached out to him, her fingers catching the knot of his necktie.
Harry’s smile faded as Poppy exerted gentle tension, drawing him down. He was suspended over her, an impending weight of muscle and masculine drive. As her sugared breath blew against his lips, she sensed the deep tremor within him. And she was aware of a new equilibrium between them, a balance of will and curiosity. Harry held still, letting her do as she wished.
She tugged him closer until her mouth brushed his. The contact was brief but vital, striking a glow of heat.
Poppy released him carefully, and Harry drew back.
“You won’t kiss me for diamonds,” he said, his voice slightly raspy, “but you will for chocolates?”
As Harry turned his face away, she saw his cheek tauten with a smile. “I’ll put in a daily order, then.”
Accustomed as Harry was to arranging everyone’s schedule, he seemed to take it for granted that Poppy would allow him to do the same for her. When she told him that she preferred to make her own decisions about planning her days, Harry had countered that if she insisted on socializing with the hotel employees, he would find better uses for her time.
“I like to spend time with them,” Poppy protested. “I can’t treat everyone who lives and works here as nothing more than cogs in a machine.”
“The hotel has been run this way for years,” Harry said. “It’s not going to change. As I’ve told you before, you’ll create a management problem. From now on, no more visiting the kitchens. No more chats with the master gardener while he prunes the roses. No cups of tea with the housekeeper.”
Poppy frowned. “Does it ever occur to you that your employees are people with thoughts and feelings? Have you thought to ask Mrs. Pennywhistle if her hand injury has healed?”
Harry frowned. “Hand injury?”
“Yes, she accidentally closed her fingers in the door. And when was the last time Mr. Valentine went on holiday?”
Harry’s expression went blank.
“Three years,” Poppy said. “Even the housemaids go on holiday to see their families, or go to the country. But Mr. Valentine is so devoted to his job that he forgoes all his personal time. And you’ve probably never offered a word of praise or thanks for it.”
“I pay him a salary,” Harry said indignantly. “Why the devil are you so interested in the personal lives of the hotel staff?”
“Because I can’t live with people and see them day to day and not care about them.”
“Then you can bloody well start with me!”
“You want me to care about you?” Her incredulous tone seemed to exasperate him.
“I want you to behave like a wife.”
“Then stop trying to control me as you do everyone else. You’ve allowed me no choice in anything—not even the choice of whether or not to marry you in the first place!”
“And there’s the heart of the matter,” Harry said. “You’ll never stop trying to punish me for taking you away from Michael Bayning. Has it occurred to you that it wasn’t nearly as great a loss to him as it was to you?”
Poppy’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“He’s found consolation from any number of women since the wedding. He’s fast becoming known as the biggest whoremonger in town.”
“I don’t believe you,” Poppy said, turning ashen. It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t conceive of Michael—her Michael—behaving in such a way.
“It’s all over London,” Harry said ruthlessly. “He drinks, gambles, and squanders money. And the devil knows how many bawdy-house diseases he’s caught by now. It might console you that the viscount is probably regretting his decision to forbid the match between you and his son. At this rate, Bayning won’t live long enough to inherit the title.”
“Ask your brother. You should thank me. Because as much as you despise me, I’m a better bargain than Michael Bayning.”
“I should thank you?” Poppy asked thickly. “After what you’ve done to Michael?” A dazed smile crossed her lips, and she shook her head. She put her hands to her temples, as if to stave off an encroaching headache. “I need to see him. I must speak to him—” She broke off as he seized her arms in a harsh grip that was just short of painful.
“Try,” Harry said softly, “and you’ll both regret it.”
Shoving his hands away, Poppy stared at his hard features and thought, this is the man I’m married to.
Unable to endure one more minute of proximity to his wife, Harry left for the fencing club. He was going find someone, anyone, who wanted to practice, and he was going to fight until his muscles were sore and his frustration was spent. He was sick with need, half mad with it. But he didn’t want Poppy to accept him out of duty. He wanted her willing. He wanted her warm and welcoming, the way she would have been with Michael Bayning. Harry would be damned if he’d take anything less.