He had begun to smile. “I thought talking was encouraged at such affairs.”
“Not my sort of talking.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
They both turned at the sound. The maid had arrived.
“I must go,” Poppy said uneasily. “My companion will be very distressed if she wakes to find me missing.”
The dark-haired stranger contemplated her for what seemed a very long time. “I’m not finished with you yet,” he said with stunning casualness. As if no one ever refused him anything. As if he planned to keep her with him for as long as he wished.
Poppy took a deep breath. “Nevertheless, I am leaving,” she said calmly, and went to the door.
He reached it at the same time she did, one hand flattening against the door panel.
Alarm jolted through her, and she turned to face him. A swift, frantic throbbing awakened in her throat and wrists and the backs of her knees. He was standing much too close, his long, hard body nearly touching hers. She shrank against the wall.
“Before you leave,” he said softly, “I have some advice for you. It’s not safe for a young woman to wander alone through the hotel. Don’t take such a foolish risk again.”
Poppy stiffened. “It’s a reputable hotel,” she said. “I have nothing to fear.”
“Of course you do,” he murmured. “You’re looking right at it.”
And before she could think, or move, or breathe, he bent his head and took her mouth with his.
Stunned, Poppy went motionless beneath the soft, burning kiss, so subtle in its demand that she wasn’t aware of the moment her own lips parted. His hands came to her jaw, cradling, angling her face upward.
One arm slid around her, bringing her body fully against his, and the feel of him was hard and richly stimulating. With every breath, she drew in an enticing scent, an incense of amber and musk, starched linen and male skin. She should have struggled in his arms . . . but his mouth was so tenderly persuasive, erotic, imparting messages of peril and promise. His lips slid to her throat and he hunted for her pulse, working his way downward, layering sensations like silken gauze until she shivered and arched away from him.
“No,” she said weakly.
The stranger gripped her chin carefully, forcing her to look at him. They both went still. As Poppy met his searching gaze, she saw a flash of baffled animosity, as if he had just made some unwelcome discovery.
He let go of her with great care and opened the door. “Bring it in,” he told the maid, who waited at the threshold with a large silver tea tray.
The servant obeyed quickly, too well trained to evince curiosity about Poppy’s presence in the room.
The man went to retrieve Dodger, who had fallen asleep in his chair. Returning with the drowsy ferret, he gave it to Poppy. She took Dodger with an inarticulate murmur, cradling him against her midriff. The ferret’s eyes remained closed, lids completely concealed in the black mask that crossed his face. She felt the tapping of his tiny heartbeat beneath her fingertips, the silkiness of the white undercoat beneath the overlying guard hairs.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” the maid asked.
“Yes. I want you to accompany this lady to her suite. And come back to inform me when she is safely returned.”
“Yes, Mr. Rutledge.”
Poppy felt her heart stop. She looked back at the stranger. Deviltry glittered in his green eyes. He seemed to relish her open astonishment.
Harry Rutledge . . . the mysterious and reclusive owner of the hotel. Who was nothing at all as she had imagined him to be.
Bewildered and mortified, Poppy turned from him. She crossed the threshold and heard the door close, the latch clicking smoothly shut. How wicked he was, to have amused himself at her expense! She consoled herself with the knowledge that she would never see him again.
And she went down the hallway with the housemaid . . . never suspecting that the course of her entire life had just changed.
Harry went to stare at the fire in the hearth.
“Poppy Hathaway,” he whispered as if it were a magical incantation.
He had seen her from a distance on two occasions, once when she had been entering a carriage at the front of the hotel, and once at a ball held at the Rutledge. Harry hadn’t attended the event, but he had watched for a few minutes from a vantage point at an upper floor balcony. Despite her fine-spun beauty and mahogany hair, he hadn’t spared her a second thought.
Meeting her in person, however, had been a revelation.
Harry began to lower himself into a chair and noted the shredded velvet and clumps of stuffing left by the ferret.
A reluctant smile curved his lips as he moved to take the other chair.
Poppy. How artless she had been, chatting casually about astrolabes and Franciscan monks as she had browsed among his treasures. She had thrown out words in bright clusters, as if she were scattering confetti. She had radiated a kind of cheery astuteness that should have been annoying, but instead it had given him unexpected pleasure. There was something about her, something . . . it was what the French called esprit, a liveliness of mind and spirit. And that face . . . innocent and knowing, and open.
He wanted her.
Usually Jay Harry Rutledge was given something before it ever occurred to him to want it. In his busy, well-regulated life, meals arrived before he was hungry, cravats were replaced before they had shown any signs of wear, reports were placed on his desk before he asked for them. And women were everywhere, and always available, and every last one of them told him what she assumed he wanted to hear.