Poppy concentrated on the satiny pink rose, running her fingers along the top edges of the petals.
“My full name is Jay Harry Rutledge,” she heard him say. “My mother is the only one who ever called me Jay, which is why I don’t like it. She left my father and me when I was very young. I never saw her again.”
Poppy looked at him with wide eyes, understanding that this was a sensitive subject he rarely, if ever, discussed. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, although she kept her tone carefully devoid of pity.
He shrugged as if it was of no importance. “It was a long time ago. I barely remember her.”
“Why did you come to England?”
Another pause. “I wanted to have a go at the hotel business. And whether I was a success or failure, I wanted to be far away from my father.”
Poppy could only guess at the wealth of information buried beneath the spare words. “That’s not the entire story,” she said rather than asked.
The ghost of a smile touched his lips. “No.”
She looked down at the rose again, feeling her cheeks color. “Do you . . . would you . . . want children?”
“Yes. Hopefully more than one. I didn’t like being an only child.”
“Would you want to raise them at the hotel?”
“Do you think it a suitable environment?”
“They would have the best of everything. Education. Travel. Lessons in anything that interested them.”
Poppy tried to imagine bringing up children in a hotel. Could such a place ever feel like home? Cam had once told her that the Rom believed the entire world was their home. As long as you were with your family, you were home. She looked at Harry, wondering what it would be like to live intimately with him. He seemed so self-contained and invulnerable. It was hard to think of him doing ordinary things such as shaving, or having his hair trimmed, or staying in bed with a head cold.
“Would you keep your wedding vows?” she asked.
Harry held her gaze. “I wouldn’t make them otherwise.”
Poppy decided that her family’s worries about letting her talk to Harry had been entirely justified. Because he was so persuasive, and appealing, that she was beginning to consider the idea of marrying him, and seriously weigh the decision.
Fairy-tale dreams had to be set aside if she was to embark on marriage with a man she didn’t love and hardly knew. But adults had to take responsibility for their actions. And then it occurred to Poppy that she was not the only one taking a risk. There was no guarantee for Harry that he would end up with the kind of wife he needed.
“It’s not fair for me to ask all the questions,” she told him. “You must have some as well.”
“No, I’ve already decided that I want you.”
Poppy couldn’t prevent a bemused laugh. “Do you make all your decisions so impulsively?”
“Not usually. But I know when to trust my instincts.”
It seemed Harry was about to add something else when he saw a movement on the ground from the periphery of his vision. Following his gaze, Poppy saw Medusa pushing her way through the rose arbor, waddling innocently across the path. The little brown and white hedgehog looked like a walking scrub brush. To Poppy’s surprise, Harry lowered to his haunches to retrieve the creature.
“Don’t touch her,” Poppy warned. “She’ll roll into a ball and sink her quills into you.”
But Harry settled his hands on the ground, palms up, on either side of the inquisitive hedgehog. “Hello, Medusa.” Gently he worked his hands beneath her. “Sorry to interrupt your exercise. But believe me, you don’t want to run into any of my gardeners.”
Poppy watched incredulously as Medusa relaxed and settled willingly into the warm masculine hands. Her spines flattened, and she let him lift and turn her so she was tummy upward. Harry stroked the soft white fur of her underbelly while Medusa’s delicate snout lifted and she regarded him with her perpetual smile.
“I’ve never seen anyone except Beatrix handle her like that,” Poppy said, standing beside him. “You have experience with hedgehogs?”
“No.” He slanted a smile at her. “But I have some experience with prickly females.”
“Excuse me,” Beatrix’s voice interrupted them, and she came into the tunnel of roses. She was disheveled, bits of leaves clinging to her dress, her hair straggling over her face. “I seem to have lost track of . . . oh, there you are, Medusa!” She broke into a grin as she saw Harry cradling the hedgehog in his hands. “Always trust a man who can handle a hedgehog, that’s what I always say.”
“Do you?” Poppy asked dryly. “I’ve never heard you say that.”
“I only say it to Medusa.”
Harry carefully transferred the pet to Beatrix’s hands. “ ‘The fox has many tricks,’ ” he quoted, “ ‘the hedgehog only one.’ ” He smiled at Beatrix as he added, “But it’s a good one.”
“Archilochus,” Beatrix said promptly. “You read Greek poetry, Mr. Rutledge?”
“Not usually. But I make an exception for Archilochus. He knew how to make a point.”
“Father used to call him a ‘raging iambic,’ ” Poppy said, and Harry laughed.
And in that moment, Poppy made her decision.
Because even though Harry Rutledge had his flaws, he admitted them freely. And a man who could charm a hedgehog and understand jokes about ancient Greek poets was a man worth taking a risk on.