Just before she could grasp the letter, Dodger had slithered beneath the desk with it.
Red with fury, Poppy glanced around the room in search of something, anything, she could use to poke Dodger from his hiding place. Spying a candlestick in a silver holder on the mantel, she tried to pull it down. But the candle wouldn’t budge. The silver holder had been affixed to the mantel.
Before Poppy’s astonished eyes, the entire back of the fireplace rotated noiselessly. She gasped at the mechanical wizardry of the door as it revolved with a smooth automated motion. What had appeared to be solid brick was nothing but a textured façade.
Gleefully, Dodger darted from the desk and went through the opening.
“Bother,” Poppy said breathlessly. “Dodger, don’t you dare!”
But the ferret paid no heed. And to make matters worse, she could hear the rumble of Mr. Brimbley’s voice as he returned to the room. “. . . of course Mr. Rutledge must be informed. Put it in the report. And by all means don’t forget—”
With no time to consider her options or the consequences, Poppy dashed through the fireplace, and the door closed behind her.
She was engulfed in near darkness as she waited, straining to hear what was happening inside the office. Apparently she had not been detected. Mr. Brimbley continued his conversation, something about reports and housekeeping concerns.
It occurred to Poppy that she might have to wait for a long time before the steward left the office again. Or she would have to find another way out. Of course, she could simply go back through the fireplace and announce her presence to Mr. Brimbley. However, she couldn’t begin to imagine how much explaining she would have to do, and how embarrassing it would be.
Turning, Poppy discerned that she was in a long passageway, with a source of diffused light coming from somewhere overhead. She looked upward. The passage was illuminated by a daylight shaft, similar to the ones that ancient Egyptians had used to determine the positioning of stars and planets.
She could hear the ferret creeping somewhere nearby. “Well, Dodger,” she muttered, “you got us into this. Why don’t you help me find a door?”
Obligingly Dodger advanced along the passageway and disappeared into the shadows. Poppy heaved a sigh and followed. She refused to panic, having learned during the Hathaways’ many brushes with calamity that losing one’s head never helped a situation.
As Poppy made her way through the darkness, she kept her fingertips against the wall to maintain her bearings. She had gone only a few yards when she heard a scraping noise. Freezing in place, Poppy waited and listened intently.
All was quiet.
But her nerves prickled with awareness and her heart began to drum as she saw the glow of yellow lamplight ahead. And then it was extinguished.
She was not alone in the passageway.
The footsteps came closer, closer, with the swift purpose of a predator. Someone was heading right for her.
Now, Poppy decided, was the appropriate time to panic. Whirling around in full-scale alarm, she dashed back the way she had come. Being chased by unknown people in dark corridors was a novel experience even for a Hathaway. She cursed her heavy skirts, grabbing them up in frantic handfuls as she tried to run. But the person who chased her was much too fast to be eluded.
A cry escaped her as she was caught up in a brutal, expert grip. It was a man—a large one—and he seized her in a way that arched her back against his chest. One of his hands pressed her head sharply to the side.
“You should know,” came a low, chilling voice close to her ear, “that with just a bit more pressure than this, I could snap your neck. Tell me your name, and what you’re doing in here.”
Poppy could scarcely think above the blood rushing in her ears and the pain of his tight grasp. The stranger’s chest was very hard behind her. “This is a mistake,” she managed to say. “Please—”
He forced her head farther to the side until she felt a cruel pinch of the nerves in the joint between her neck and shoulder. “Your name,” he insisted gently.
“Poppy Hathaway,” she gasped. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Poppy?” His hold loosened.
“Yes.” Why had he said her name as if he knew her? “Are you . . . you must be one of the hotel staff?”
He ignored the question. One of his hands coasted lightly over her arms and her front as if he were searching for something. Her heart threshed like the wing beats of a small bird.
“Don’t,” she gasped between fragmented breaths, arching away from his touch.
“Why are you in here?” He turned her to face him. No one of Poppy’s acquaintance had ever handled her so familiarly. They were close enough to the overhead lightwell that Poppy could see the outline of hard, lean features and the glitter of deep-set eyes.
Fighting to catch her breath, Poppy winced at the sharp ache in her neck. She reached for it and tried to soothe the pain as she spoke. “I was . . . I was chasing a ferret, and the fireplace in Mr. Brimbley’s office opened, and we went through it and then I tried to find another way out.”
Nonsensical as the explanation was, the stranger sorted through it efficiently. “A ferret? One of your sister’s pets?”
“Yes,” she said, bewildered. She rubbed her neck and winced. “But how did you know . . . have we met before? No, please don’t touch me, I . . . ouch!”
He had turned her around and had put his hand on the side of her neck. “Be still.” His touch was deft and sure as he massaged the tender nerve. “If you try to run from me, I’ll only catch you again.”