"I believe she was treated very wrongly by a man in her past," Poppy said sotto voce. "In fact, I've heard a rumor or two that Miss Marks became a governess because she was involved in a scandal."
Leo was interested despite himself. "What kind of scandal?"
Poppy lowered her voice to a whisper. "They say she squandered her favors."
"She doesn't look like a woman who would squander her favors," Beatrix said in a normal voice.
"Hush, Bea!" Poppy exclaimed. "I don't want Miss Marks to overhear. She might think we were gossiping about her."
"But we are gossiping about her. Besides, I don't believe she would do… you know, that… with anyone. She doesn't seem at all that sort of woman."
"I believe it," Leo had said. "Usually the ladies most inclined to squander their favors are the ones who don't have any."
"I don't understand," Bea said.
"He means unattractive ladies are more easily seduced," Poppy had said wryly, "which I don't agree with. And besides, Miss Marks isn't unattractive at all. She's only a bit… stern."
"And scrawny as a Scottish chicken," Leo had muttered.
As the carriage passed Marble Arch and proceeded to Park Lane, Miss Marks glued her gaze to the spring floral displays.
Glancing at her idly, Leo noted that she had a decent profile-a sweet little tip of a nose supporting the spectacles, a gently rounded chin. Too bad the clenched mouth and frowning forehead ruined the rest of it.
He turned his attention back to Poppy, pondering her lack of desire to stay in London. Surely any other girl her age would have been begging to finish the season and enjoy all the balls and parties.
"Tell me about this season's prospects," he said to Poppy. "Can it be that not one of them holds any interest for you?"
She shook her head. "Not one. I've met a few whom I do like, such as Lord Bromley, or-"
"Bromley?" Leo repeated, his brows lifting. "But he's twice your age. Are there any younger ones you might consider? Someone born in this century, perhaps?"
"Well, there's Mr. Radstock."
"Portly and plodding," Leo said, having met the porker on a few previous occasions. The upper circles of London were a relatively small community. "Who else?"
"There is Lord Wallscourt, very gentle and friendly, but… he's a rabbit."
"Curious and cuddly?" Beatrix asked, having a high opinion of rabbits.
Poppy smiled. "No, I meant he was rather colorless and… oh, just rabbity. Which is a fine thing in a pet, but not a husband." She made a project of neatening the bonnet ribbons tied beneath her chin. "You'll probably advise me to lower my expectations, Leo, but I've already dropped them to the extent that even a worm couldn't squeeze itself beneath my expectations. I must tell you, the London season is a grave disappointment."
"I'm sorry, Poppy," Leo said gently. "I wish I knew a fellow to recommend to you, but the only ones I know are ne'er-do-wells and drunkards. Excellent friends. But I'd rather shoot one of them than have him as a brother-in-law."
"That leads to something I've wanted to ask you."
"Oh?" He looked into her sweet, serious face, this perfectly lovely sister who aspired so desperately to have a calm and ordinary life.
"Now that I've been out in society," Poppy said, "I've heard rumors.…"
Leo's smile turned rueful as he understood what she wanted to know. "About me."
"Yes. Are you really as wicked as some people say?"
Despite the private nature of the query, Leo was aware of both Miss Marks and Beatrix turning their full attention to him.
"I'm afraid so, darling," he said, while a sordid parade of his past sins swept through his mind.
"Why?" Poppy asked with a frankness he ordinarily would have found endearing. But not with Miss Marks's sanctimonious gaze fastened on him.
"It's much easier to be wicked," he said. "Especially if one has no reason to be good."
"What about earning a place in heaven?" Catherine Marks asked. He would have thought she had a pretty voice, if it hadn't come from such an unappealing source. "Isn't that reason enough to conduct yourself with some modicum of decency?"
"That depends," he said sardonically. "What is heaven to you, Miss Marks?"
She considered the question with more care than he would have expected. "Peace. Serenity. A place where there is no sin, nor gossip, nor conflict."
"Well, Miss Marks, I'm afraid your idea of heaven is my idea of hell. Therefore my wicked ways shall happily continue." Turning back to Poppy, he spoke far more kindly. "Don't lose hope, Sis. There's someone out there, waiting for you. Someday you'll find him, and he'll be everything you were hoping for."
"Do you really think so?" Poppy asked.
"No. But I've always thought that was a nice thing to say to someone in your circumstances."
Poppy snickered and poked Leo in the side, while Miss Marks gave him a stare of pure disgust.
On their last evening in London, the family attended a private ball given at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Hunt in Mayfair. Mr. Hunt, a railway entrepreneur and part owner of a British locomotive works, was a self-made man, the son of a London butcher. He was part of a new and growing class of investors, businessmen, and managers who were unsettling the long-held traditions and authority of the peerage itself.