Harry stood and waited until she came to the small table. It didn’t escape him that she tried to avoid being touched by him as he seated her. Patience, he reminded himself. “Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you.” It was clear that politeness rather than concern motivated her to ask, “And you?”
Poppy glanced at the variety of papers on the table. Picking one up, she held it so that any view of her face was obstructed as she read. Since it appeared that she was not inclined to converse, Harry occupied himself with another paper.
The silence was broken only by the rustling of flimsy news pages.
Breakfast was brought in, and two housemaids set out porcelain plates and flatware and crystal glasses.
Harry saw that Poppy had asked for crumpets, their flat, porous tops gently steaming. He began on his own breakfast of poached eggs on toast, cutting into the condensed yellow yolks and spreading the soft insides across the crisp bread.
“There’s no need for you to awaken early if you don’t wish,” he said, sprinkling a pinch of salt over his eggs. “Many ladies of London sleep until noon.”
“I like to rise when the day begins.”
“Like a good farmwife,” Harry said, casting her a brief smile.
But Poppy showed no reaction to the reminder, only applied herself to drizzling honey over the crumpets.
Harry paused with his fork held in midair, mesmerized by the sight of her slim fingers twirling the honey stick, meticulously filling each hole with thick amber liquid. Realizing that he was staring, Harry took a bite of his breakfast. Poppy replaced the honey stick in a small silver pot. Discovering a stray drop of sweetness on the tip of her thumb, she lifted it to her lips and sucked it clean.
Harry choked a little, reached for his tea, and took a swallow. The beverage scalded his tongue, causing him to flinch and curse.
Poppy gave him an odd look. “Is there anything the matter?”
Nothing. Except that watching his wife eating breakfast was the most erotic act he had ever seen. “Nothing at all,” Harry said scratchily. “Tea’s hot.”
When he dared to look at Poppy again, she was consuming a fresh strawberry, holding it by the green stem. Her lips rounded in a luscious pucker as she bit neatly into the ripe flesh of the fruit. Christ. He moved uncomfortably in his chair, while all the unsatisfied desire of the previous night reawakened with a vengeance. Poppy ate two more strawberries, nibbling slowly, while Harry tried to ignore her. Heat collected beneath his clothing, and he used a napkin to blot his forehead.
Poppy lifted a bite of honey-soaked crumpet to her mouth, and gave him a perplexed glance. “Are you feeling well?”
“It’s too warm in here,” Harry said irritably, while lurid thoughts went through his mind. Thoughts involving honey, and soft feminine skin, and moist pink—
A knock came at the door.
“Come in,” Harry said curtly, eager for any kind of distraction.
Jake Valentine entered the apartments more cautiously than usual, looking a bit surprised as he saw Poppy sitting at the breakfast table. Harry supposed the novelty of the situation would take a little getting used to on all sides.
“Good morning,” Valentine said, uncertain whether to address only Harry or include Poppy.
She solved the dilemma by giving him an artless smile. “Good morning, Mr. Valentine. I hope there are no fugitive monkeys in the hotel today?”
Valentine grinned. “Not that I’m aware of, Mrs. Rutledge. But the day’s still young.”
Harry experienced a new sensation, a poisonous resentment that crept all through his body. Was it . . . jealousy? It had to be. He tried to suppress the feeling, but it lingered in the pit of his stomach. He wanted Poppy to smile at him like that. He wanted her playfulness, her charm, her attention.
Stirring a lump of sugar into his tea, Harry said coolly, “Tell me about the staff meeting.”
“Nothing to report, really.” Valentine handed him the sheaf of paper. “The sommelier asked that you approve a list of wines. And Mrs. Pennywhistle raised the problem of cutlery and flatware disappearing from trays when guests request food in their room.”
Harry’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not an issue in the dining room?”
“No, sir. It seems that few guests are inclined to take the flatware straight from the dining room. But in the privacy of their own rooms . . . well, the other morning, an entire breakfast service went missing. As a result, Mrs. Pennywhistle proposed that we purchase a set of tinware to be used strictly for private dining.”
“My guests, using tin knives and forks?” Harry shook his head emphatically. “No, we’ll have to find some other way of discouraging petty thievery. We’re not a damned coaching inn.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say.” Valentine watched Harry leaf through the top few pages. “Mrs. Pennywhistle said that whenever Mrs. Rutledge prefers, she would be honored to escort her around the hotel offices and kitchens, and introduce her to the staff.”
“I don’t think—” Harry began.
“That would be lovely,” Poppy interrupted. “Please tell her that I will be ready after breakfast.”
“There’s no need,” Harry said. “It’s not as if you’ll have a hand in running the place.”
Poppy turned to him with a polite smile. “I would never dream of interfering. But since this is my new home, I would like to become more familiar with it.”