“Good day,” he heard himself say, his voice husky but polite. And he forced himself to walk away.
“Now I understand what you meant earlier,” Beatrix said to Poppy, when Miss Marks had gone on some undisclosed errand. Poppy had settled in her bed, while Beatrix had washed Dodger and was now drying him with a towel before the hearth. “What you were trying to say about Mr. Rutledge,” she continued. “No wonder you found him unsettling.” She paused to grin at the happy ferret, who was wriggling on a warm towel. “Dodger, you do like to be clean, don’t you? You smell so lovely after a good washing.”
“You always say that, and he always smells the same.” Poppy raised herself on an elbow and watched them, her hair spilling around her shoulders. She felt too restless to nap. “Then you found Mr. Rutledge unsettling, too?”
“No, but I understand why you do. He watches you like one of those ambushing sort of predators. The kind that lie in wait before they spring.”
“How dramatic,” Poppy said with a dismissive laugh. “He’s not a predator, Bea. He’s only a man.”
Beatrix made no reply, only made a project of smoothing Dodger’s fur. As she leaned over him, he strained upward and kissed her nose affectionately. “Poppy,” she murmured, “no matter how Miss Marks tries to civilize me—and I do try to listen to her—I still have my own way of looking at the world. To me, people are scarcely different from animals. We’re all God’s creatures, aren’t we? When I meet someone, I know immediately what animal they would be. When we first met Cam, for example, I knew he was a fox.”
“I suppose Cam is somewhat fox-like,” Poppy said, amused. “What is Merripen? A bear?”
“No, unquestionably a horse. And Amelia is a hen.”
“I would say an owl.”
“Yes, but don’t you remember when one of our hens in Hampshire chased after a cow that had strayed too close to the nest? That’s Amelia.”
Poppy grinned. “You’re right.”
“And Win is a swan.”
“Am I also a bird? A lark? A robin?”
“No, you’re a rabbit.”
“A rabbit?” Poppy made a face. “I don’t like that. Why am I a rabbit?”
“Oh, rabbits are beautiful soft animals who love to be cuddled. They’re very sociable, but they’re happiest in pairs.”
“But they’re timid,” Poppy protested.
“Not always. They’re brave enough to be companions to many other creatures. Even cats and dogs.”
“Well,” Poppy said in resignation, “it’s better than being a hedgehog, I suppose.”
“Miss Marks is a hedgehog,” Beatrix said in a matter-of-fact tone that made Poppy grin.
“And you’re a ferret, aren’t you, Bea?”
“Yes. But I was leading to a point.”
“Sorry, go on.”
“I was going to say that Mr. Rutledge is a cat. A solitary hunter. With an apparent taste for rabbit.”
Poppy blinked in bewilderment. “You think he is interested in . . . Oh, but Bea, I’m not at all . . . and I don’t think I’ll ever see him again . . .”
“I hope you’re right.”
Settling on her side, Poppy watched her sister in the flickering glow of the hearth, while a chill of uneasiness penetrated the very marrow of her bones.
Not because she feared Harry Rutledge.
Because she liked him.
Catherine Marks knew that Harry was up to something. He was always up to something. He certainly had no intention of inquiring after her welfare—he didn’t give a damn about her. He considered most people, including Catherine, a waste of his time.
Whatever mysterious mechanism sent Harry Rutledge’s blood pumping through his veins, it wasn’t a heart.
In the years of their acquaintance, Catherine had never asked anything of him. Once Harry did someone a favor, it went into the invisible ledger he carried around in that infernally clever brain, and it was only a matter of time until he demanded repayment with interest. People feared him for good reason. Harry had powerful friends and powerful enemies, and it was doubtful that even they knew what category they fell in.
The valet, or assistant, whatever he was, showed her into Harry’s palatial apartment. Catherine thanked him with a frosty murmur. She sat in a receiving room with her hands resting in her lap. The receiving room had been designed to intimidate visitors, all of it done in slick, pale fabrics and cold marble and priceless Renaissance art.
Harry entered the room, large and breathtakingly self-assured. As always, he was elegantly dressed and meticulously groomed.
Stopping before her, he surveyed her with insolent green eyes. “Cat. You look well.”
“Go to the devil,” she said quietly.
His gaze dropped to the white plait of her fingers, and a lazy smile crossed his face. “I suppose to you, I am the devil.” He nodded toward the other side of the settee she occupied. “May I?”
Catherine gave a short nod and waited until he had seated himself. “Why did you send for me?” Her voice was brittle.
“It was an amusing scene this morning, wasn’t it? Your Hathaways were a delight. They’re certainly not your run-of-the-mill society misses.”
Slowly Catherine raised her gaze to his, trying not to flinch as she stared into the vivid depths of green. Harry excelled at hiding his thoughts . . . but this morning he had stared at Poppy with a hunger that he was usually too well disciplined to reveal. And Poppy had no idea of how to defend herself against a man like Harry.