“It’s not a home,” Harry said.
Their gazes met.
“Of course it is,” Poppy said. “People live here. Don’t you consider it your home?”
Jake Valentine shifted his weight uncomfortably. “If you’ll give me my morning list, Mr. Rutledge . . .”
Harry barely heard him. He continued to stare at his wife, wondering why the question seemed important to her. He tried to explain his reasoning. “The mere fact of people living here doesn’t make it a home.”
“You have no feelings of domestic affection for this place?” Poppy asked.
“Well,” Valentine said awkwardly, “I’ll go now.”
Neither of them took notice of his hasty departure.
“It’s a place I happen to own,” Harry said. “I value it for practical reasons. But I attach no sentiment to it.”
Her blue eyes searched his, curious and perceptive, oddly compassionate. No one had ever looked at him that way before. It made his nerves prickle defensively. “You’ve spent all your life in hotels, haven’t you?” she murmured. “Never a house with a yard and a tree.”
Harry was unable to fathom why any of that should signify. He brushed away the subject and tried to reassert his control. “Let me be clear, Poppy . . . this is a business. And my employees are not to be treated as relations, or even as friends, or you’ll create a management problem. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said, still staring at him. “I’m beginning to.”
This time it was Harry’s turn to lift the newspaper, avoiding her gaze. Uneasiness stirred within him. He did not want any form of understanding from her. He merely wanted to enjoy her, browse over her as he did his room of treasures. Poppy would have to comply with the limits he set. And in return he would be a lenient husband—as long as she understood that he would always have the upper hand.
“Everyone—” Mrs. Pennywhistle, the head housekeeper said emphatically, “From myself down to the laundry maids, is so very delighted that Mr. Rutledge has finally found a bride. And on behalf of the entire staff, we hope you will feel welcome here. You have three hundred people available to serve your every need.”
Poppy was touched by the woman’s obvious sincerity. The housekeeper was a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a ruddy complexion and an air of barely suppressed liveliness.
“I promise you,” Poppy said with a smile, “I won’t require the assistance of three hundred people. Although I will need your help in finding a lady’s maid. I’ve never needed one before, but now without my sisters and my companion . . .”
“Certainly. We have a few girls among the staff who could be easily trained for such a purpose. You may interview them, and if none seems suitable, we will advertise.”
“I expect that from time to time you may wish to view the housekeeping accounts and ledgers, and the supply lists and inventory. I am at your disposal, of course.”
“You are very kind,” Poppy said. “I’m glad of the chance to meet some of the hotel staff. And to see some of the places I was never able to visit as a guest. The kitchens, especially.”
“Our chef, Monsieur Broussard, will be in raptures to show you his kitchen and boast of his achievements.” She paused and added sotto voce, “Fortunately for us, his vanity is matched by his talent.”
They began to descend the grand staircase. “How long have you been employed here, Mrs. Pennywhistle?” Poppy asked.
“Well nigh ten years . . . since the beginning.” The housekeeper smiled at a distant memory. “Mr. Rutledge was so very young, lanky as a beanpole, with a sharp American accent and a habit of talking so fast, one could scarcely follow him. I worked in my father’s tea shop in the Strand—I managed it for him—and Mr. Rutledge was a frequent customer. One day he came in and offered me the position I currently hold, although the hotel was still only a row of private houses. Nothing compared to what it is now. Of course I said yes.”
“Why ‘of course’? Didn’t your father want you to stay at his shop?”
“Yes, but he had my sisters to help him. And there was something about Mr. Rutledge that I’ve never seen in any man before or since . . . an extraordinary force of character. He is very persuasive.”
“I’ve noticed,” Poppy said dryly.
“People want to follow him, or to be part of whatever it is he’s involved in. It’s why he was able to accomplish all this—” Mrs. Pennywhistle gestured at their surroundings, “—at such an early age.”
It occurred to Poppy that she could learn much about her husband from those who worked for him. She hoped at least a few of them would be as willing to talk as Mrs. Pennywhistle. “Is he a demanding master?”
The housekeeper chuckled. “Oh, yes. But fair, and always reasonable.”
They went to the front office, where two men, one elderly, one in his middle years, were conferring over an enormous ledger, which lay open across an oak desk. “Gentlemen,” the housekeeper said, “I am touring Mrs. Rutledge around the hotel. Mrs. Rutledge, may I present Mr. Myles, our general manager, and Mr. Lufton, the concierge.”
They bowed respectfully, regarding Poppy as if she were a visiting monarch. The younger of the two, Mr. Myles, beamed and blushed until the top of his balding head was pink. “Mrs. Rutledge, it is a very great honor indeed! May we offer our sincere congratulations on your marriage—”