In the same quiet tone Harry murmured, “Cullip, the shotgun won’t be needed. Take it back to the cabinet.”
“Yes, Mr. Rutledge.”
Poppy stayed in the shelter of his arms, her head downbent. Her exposed ear looked so tender. The fragrance of her perfume teased him. He wanted to explore every part of her, hold her until she relaxed against him. “It’s all right,” he murmured again, stroking a circle on her back with his palm. “It’s gone. I’m sorry you were frightened.”
“No, I’m sorry, I . . .” Poppy drew back, her white face now infused with color. “I’m not usually skittish, it was only the surprise. A long time ago—” She stopped herself and fidgeted, and muttered, “I’m not going to babble.”
Harry didn’t want her to stop. He found everything about her endlessly interesting, although he couldn’t explain why. She simply was.
“Tell me,” he said in a low voice.
Poppy made a helpless gesture and gave him a wry glance as if to convey that she had warned him. “When I was a child, one of my favorite people in the world was my Uncle Howard, my father’s brother. He had no wife or children of his own, so he lavished all his attention on us.”
A reminiscent smile touched her lips. “Uncle Howard was very patient with me. My chattering drove everyone else to distraction, but he always listened as if he had all the time in the world. One morning he came to visit us while Father went shooting with some of the village men. When they returned with a brace of birds, Uncle Howard and I went to the end of the lane to meet them. But someone’s rifle discharged accidentally . . . I’m not certain if it was dropped, or if the man was carrying it incorrectly . . . I remember the sound if it, a boom like thunder, and there were a few hard pinches on my arm, and another on my shoulder. I turned to tell Uncle Howard, but he was crumpling very slowly to the ground. He’d been fatally wounded, and I had been hit by a few stray pellets.”
Poppy hesitated, her eyes glittering. “There was blood all over him. I went to him and put my arms beneath his head, and asked him what I should do. And he whispered that I must always be a good girl, so that we could meet again in heaven someday.” She cleared her throat and sighed shortly. “Forgive me. I talk excessively. I shouldn’t—”
“No,” Harry said, overwhelmed by a baffling and unfamiliar emotion, white-knuckled with it. “I could listen to you all day.”
She blinked in surprise, jostled out of her melancholy. A shy grin rose to her lips. “Aside from my Uncle Howard, you’re the first man ever to say that to me.”
They were interrupted by exclamations from the men gathered around the rope lift, as the macaque climbed higher.
“Bloody hell,” Harry muttered.
“Please wait just a moment more,” Poppy said to him earnestly. “My sister is very good with animals. She’ll have him out with no injury.”
“She has experience with primates?” Harry asked sardonically.
Poppy considered that. “We’ve just been through the London season. Does that count?”
Harry chuckled, with a genuine amusement that didn’t often occur, and both Valentine and Brimbley glanced at him with astonishment.
Beatrix hurried back to them, clutching something in her arms. She paid no attention to Miss Marks, who was following and scolding. “Here we are,” Beatrix said cheerfully.
“Our comfit jar?” Poppy asked.
“We’ve already offered him food, miss,” Valentine said. “He won’t take it.”
“He’ll take these.” Beatrix strode confidently to the opening of the food lift. “Let’s send the jar up to him.”
“Have you adulterated the sweets?” Valentine asked hopefully.
All three of the Nagarajan envoys exclaimed anxiously to the effect that they did not want the macaque to be drugged or poisoned.
“No, no, no,” Beatrix said, “He might fall down the shaft if I did that, and this precious animal must not be harmed.”
The foreigners subsided at her reassurance.
“How may I help, Bea?” Poppy asked, approaching her.
Her younger sister handed her a length of heavy silk cord. “Tie this ’round the neck of the jar, please. Your knots are always much better than mine.”
“A clove hitch?” Poppy suggested, taking the twine.
Jake Valentine regarded the two intent young women dubiously, and looked at Harry. “Mr. Rutledge—”
Harry gestured for him to be silent and allow the Hathaway sisters to proceed. Whether or not their attempt actually worked, he was enjoying this too much to stop them.
“Could you make some kind of loop for a handle at the other end?” Beatrix asked.
Poppy frowned. “An overhand knot, perhaps? I’m not sure I remember how.”
“Allow me,” Harry volunteered, stepping forward.
Poppy surrendered the end of the cord to him, her eyes twinkling.
Harry tied the end of the cord into an elaborate rope ball, first wrapping it several times around his fingers, then passing the free end back and forth. Not above a bit of showmanship, he tightened the whole thing with a deft flourish.
“Nicely done,” Poppy said. “What knot is that?”
“Ironically,” Harry replied, “it is known as the ‘Monkey’s Fist.’ ”
Poppy smiled. “Is it really? No, you’re teasing.”