Poppy brought herself to look at the stranger again. He was dressed in beautiful dark clothes, tailored with sophisticated looseness. Fine garments, but he wore a simple black cravat with no pins, and there were no gold buttons on his shirt, or any other ornamentation that would proclaim him as a gentleman of means. Only a plain watch chain at the front of his gray waistcoat.
“You sound like an American,” she said.
“Buffalo, New York,” he replied. “But I’ve lived here for a while.”
“Are you employed by Mr. Rutledge?” she asked cautiously.
A single nod was her answer.
“You are one of his managers, I suppose?”
His face was inscrutable. “Something like that.”
She began to inch toward the door. “Then I will leave you to your labors, Mister . . .”
“You’ll need a proper companion to walk back with you.”
Poppy considered that. Should she ask him to send for her companion? No . . . Miss Marks was probably still sleeping. It had been a difficult night for her. Miss Marks was sometimes prone to nightmares that left her shaky and exhausted the next day. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, Poppy and Beatrix tried to let her rest as much as possible afterward.
The stranger contemplated her for a moment. “Shall I send for a housemaid to accompany you?”
Poppy’s first inclination was to agree. But she didn’t want to wait here with him, even for a few minutes. She didn’t trust him in the least.
As he saw her indecision, his mouth twisted sardonically. “If I were going to molest you,” he pointed out, “I would have done so by now.”
Her flush deepened at his bluntness. “So you say. But for all I know, you could be a very slow molester.”
He looked away for a moment, and when he glanced back at her, his eyes were bright with amusement. “You’re safe, Miss Hathaway.” His voice was rich with unspent laughter. “Really. Let me send for a maid.”
The glow of humor changed his face, imparting such warmth and charm that Poppy was almost startled. She felt her heart begin to pump some new and agreeable feeling through her body.
As she watched him go to the bellpull, Poppy recalled the problem of the missing letter. “Sir, while we wait, would you be so kind as to look for the letter that was lost in the passageway? I must have it back.”
“Why?” he asked, returning to her.
“Personal reasons,” Poppy said shortly.
“Is it from a man?”
She did her best to deliver the kind of withering glance she had seen Miss Marks give to importunate gentlemen. “That is none of your concern.”
“Everything that occurs in this hotel is my concern.” He paused, studying her. “It is from a man, or you would have said otherwise.”
Frowning, Poppy turned her back to him. She went to look more closely at one of the many shelves lined with peculiar objects.
She discovered a gilded, enameled samovar, a large knife in a beaded sheath, collections of primitive stone carvings and pottery vessels, an Egyptian headrest, exotic coins, boxes made of every conceivable material, what looked like an iron sword with a rusted blade, and a Venetian glass reading stone.
“What room is this?” Poppy couldn’t help asking.
“Mr. Rutledge’s curiosities room. He collected many of the objects, others are gifts from foreign visitors. Have a look if you like.”
Poppy was intrigued, reflecting on the large contingent of foreigners among the hotel guests, including European royalty, nobility, and members of the corps diplomatique. No doubt some unusual gifts had been presented to Mr. Rutledge.
Browsing among the shelves, Poppy paused to examine a jeweled silver figurine of a horse, its hooves extended in mid-gallop. “How lovely.”
“A gift from the Crown Prince Yizhu of China,” the man behind her said. “A Celestial horse.”
Fascinated, Poppy ran a fingertip along the figure’s back. “Now the prince has been crowned as the Emperor Xianfeng,” she said. “A rather ironic ruling name, isn’t it?”
Coming to stand beside her, the stranger glanced at her alertly. “Why do you say that?”
“Because it means ‘universal prosperity.’ And that is certainly not the case, considering the internal rebellions he is facing.”
“I’d say the challenges from Europe are an even greater danger to him, at present.”
“Yes,” Poppy said ruefully, nudging the figurine back into place. “One wonders how long Chinese sovereignty can last against such an onslaught.”
Her companion was standing close enough that she could detect the scents of pressed linen and shaving soap. He stared at her intently. “I know very few women who are able to discuss Far East politics.”
She felt color rise in her cheeks. “My family has rather unusual conversations around the supper table. At least, they’re unusual in that my sisters and I always take part. My companion says it’s perfectly all right to do that at home, but she has advised me not to appear too learned when I’m out in society. It tends to drive away suitors.”
“You’ll have to be careful, then,” he said softly, smiling. “It would be a shame for some intelligent comment to slip out at the wrong moment.”
Poppy was relieved when she heard a discreet tap at the door. The maid had come sooner than she had expected. The stranger went to answer. Opening the door a crack, he murmured something to the maid, who bobbed a curtsey and disappeared.