Attraction without trust . . . not a comfortable thing to feel for one’s own husband.
Poppy had no idea how long he would continue this conjugal reprieve. She was only grateful that Harry was so consumed with his hotel. Although . . . she couldn’t help thinking that this sunrise-to-midnight agenda was not at all good for him. If someone Poppy cared for had been working so relentlessly, she would have urged him to ease his pace, to take some time to rest.
Simple compassion got the better of her one afternoon when Harry came into their apartment unexpectedly, carrying his coat in one hand. He had spent most of the day with the Chief Officer of the LFEE, the London Fire Engine Establishment. Together they had meticulously gone through the hotel to examine its safety procedures and equipment.
If, heaven forbid, a fire should ever break out at the Rutledge, the employees had been trained to help as many guests as possible leave the building expediently. Escape ladders were routinely counted and inspected, and floor plans and exit routes were examined. Firemarks had been mortared onto the outside of the building to designate it as one the LFEE had been paid to protect.
As Harry entered the apartment, Poppy saw that the day had been especially demanding. His face was etched with weariness.
He paused at the sight of Poppy curled in the corner of the settee, reading a book balanced on her drawn-up knees.
“How was the luncheon?” Harry asked.
Poppy had been invited to join a group of well-to-do young matrons, who held an annual charity bazaar. “It went nicely, thank you. They are a pleasant group. Although they do seem a bit too fond of forming committees. I’ve always thought a committee takes a month to accomplish something a single person could have done in ten minutes.”
Harry smiled. “The goal of such groups isn’t to be efficient. It’s to have something to occupy their time.”
Poppy took a closer look at him, and her eyes widened. “What happened to your clothes?”
Harry’s white linen shirt and dark blue silk waistcoat had been streaked with soot. There were more black smudges on his hands, and one on the edge of his jaw.
“I was testing one of the safety ladders.”
“You climbed down a ladder outside the building?” Poppy was amazed that he would have taken such an unnecessary risk. “Couldn’t you have asked someone else to do it? Mr. Valentine, perhaps?”
“I’m sure he would have. But I wouldn’t provide equipment for my employees without trying it myself. I still have concerns about the housemaids—their skirts would make their descent more difficult. However, I draw the line at trying that out.” He cast a rueful glance at his palms. “I have to wash and change before going back to work.”
Poppy returned her attention to her book. But she was intensely aware of the quiet sounds coming from the other room, the opening of drawers, the splash of water and soap, the thud of a discarded shoe. She thought of him being unclothed, at that very moment, and a dart of warmth went through her stomach.
Harry came back into the room, clean and impeccable as before. Except . . .
“A smudge,” Poppy said, conscious of a flutter of amusement. “You missed a spot.”
Harry glanced down over his front. “Where?”
“Your jaw. No, not that side.” She picked up a napkin and gestured for him to come to her.
Harry leaned over the back of the settee, his face descending toward hers. He held very still as she wiped the soot from his jaw. The scent of his skin drifted to her, fresh and clean, with a slight smoky tinge like cedarwood.
Wishing to prolong the moment, Poppy stared into his fathomless green eyes. They were shadowed from lack of sleep. Good heavens, did the man ever pause for even a moment?
“Why don’t you sit with me?” Poppy asked impulsively.
Harry blinked, clearly thrown off guard by the invitation. “Now?”
“I can’t. There’s too much to—”
“Have you eaten today? Aside from a few bites of breakfast?”
Harry shook his head. “I haven’t had time.”
Poppy pointed to the place on the settee beside her in wordless demand.
To her surprise, Harry actually obeyed. He came around the end of the settee and sat in the corner, staring at her. One of his dark brows arched questioningly.
Reaching for the tray beside her, Poppy lifted a plate laden with sandwiches, tarts, and biscuits. “The kitchen sent up far too much for one person. Have the rest.”
“I’m really not—”
“Here,” she insisted, pushing the plate into his hands.
Harry took a sandwich and began to consume it slowly. Taking her own teacup from the tray, Poppy poured fresh tea and added a spoonful of sugar. She gave it to Harry.
“What are you reading?” he asked, glancing at the book in her lap.
“A novel by a naturalist author. As of yet, I can’t find anything resembling a plot, but the descriptions of the countryside are quite lyrical.” She paused, watching him drain the teacup. “Do you like novels?”
He shook his head. “I usually read for information, not entertainment.”
“You disapprove of reading for pleasure?”
“No, it’s just that I don’t often manage to find the time for it.”
“Perhaps that’s why you don’t sleep well. You need an interlude between work and bedtime.”
There was a dry, perfectly timed pause before Harry asked, “What would you suggest?”