Aware of his meaning, Poppy felt a bloom of color emerge from head to toe. Harry seemed to enjoy her discomfiture, not in a mocking way, but as if he found her charming.
“Everyone in my family loves novels,” Poppy finally said, pushing the conversation back into line. “We gather in the parlor nearly every evening, and one of us reads aloud. Win is the best at it—she invents a different voice for each character.”
“I’d like to hear you read,” Harry said.
Poppy shook her head. “I’m not half as entertaining as Win. I put everyone to sleep.”
“Yes,” Harry said. “You have the voice of a scholar’s daughter.” Before she could take offense, he added, “Soothing. Never grates. Soft . . .”
He was extraordinarily tired, she realized. So much that even the effort to string words together was defeating him.
“I should go,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes.
“Finish your sandwiches first,” Poppy said authoritatively.
He picked up a sandwich obediently. While he ate, Poppy paged through the book until she found what she wanted . . . a description of walking through the countryside, under skies filled with fleecy clouds, past almond trees in blossom and white campion nestled beside quiet brooks. She read in a measured tone, occasionally stealing a glance at Harry while he polished off the entire plate of sandwiches. And then he settled deeper into the corner, more relaxed than she had ever seen him.
She read a few pages more, about walking past hedges and meadows, through a wood dressed with a counterpane of fallen leaves, while soft pale sunshine gave way to a quiet rain . . .
And when she finally reached the end of the chapter, she looked at Harry once more.
He was asleep.
His chest rose and fell in an even rhythm, his long lashes fanned against his skin. One hand was palm down against his chest, while the other lay half open at his side, the strong fingers partially curled.
“Never fails,” Poppy murmured with a private grin. Her talent at putting people to sleep was too much even for Harry’s relentless drive. Carefully she set the book aside.
This was the first time she’d ever been able to view Harry at her leisure. It was strange to see him so utterly disarmed. In sleep, the lines of his face were relaxed and almost innocent, at odds with his usual expression of command. His mouth, always so purposeful, looked as soft as velvet. He looked like a boy lost in a solitary dream. Poppy felt an urge to safeguard the sleep Harry so badly needed, to cover him with a blanket, and stroke the dark hair from his brow.
Several tranquil minutes passed, the silence disturbed only by distant sounds of activity in the hotel and from the street. This was something Poppy had not known she needed . . . time to contemplate the stranger who had taken utter possession of her life.
Trying to understand Harry Rutledge was like taking apart one of the intricate clockwork mechanisms he had constructed. One could examine every gear and ratchet wheel and lever, but that didn’t mean one would ever comprehend what made it all work.
It seemed that Harry had spent his life wrestling with the world and trying to bend it to his will. And toward that end he had made a great deal of progress. But he was clearly dissatisfied, unable to enjoy what he had achieved, which made him very different from the other men in Poppy’s life, especially Cam and Merripen.
Because of their Romany heritage, her brothers-in-law didn’t view the world as something to be conquered, but rather something to roam through freely. And then there was Leo, who preferred to view life as an objective observer instead of as an active participant.
Harry was nothing short of a brigand, scheming to conquer everyone and everything in sight. How could such a man ever be restrained? How would he ever find peace?
Poppy was so lost in the peaceful stillness of the room that she started when she heard a tap at the door. Her nerves jangled unpleasantly. She made no response, wishing the blasted noise would go away. But there it was again.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Harry awakened with an inarticulate murmur, blinking with the confusion of someone who had been too quickly roused from sleep. “Yes?” he said gruffly, struggling to sit up.
The door opened, and Jack Valentine entered. He looked apologetic as he saw Harry and Poppy together on the settee. Poppy could barely refrain from scowling, even though he was only doing his job. Valentine came to hand Harry a folded note, murmured a few cryptic words, and left the apartment.
Harry scanned the note with a bleary glance. Tucking it into his coat pocket, he smiled ruefully at Poppy. “I seem to have nodded off while you were reading.” He stared at her, his eyes warmer than she had ever seen them. “An interlude,” he murmured for no apparent reason, and a corner of his mouth hitched upward. “I’d like another one soon.”
And he left while she was still struggling to form a reply.
Only the wealthiest of London ladies possessed their own carriages and horses, as it cost a fortune to maintain such a convenience. Women without their own stables, or those who lived alone, were compelled to “job” the horses, brougham, and coachman, hiring it all from a livery service or jobmaster whenever they needed to knock about London.
Harry had insisted that Poppy must have her own carriage and pair, and had sent for a designer from a carriage works to come to the hotel. After consulting with Poppy, the carriage maker was commissioned to build a vehicle specifically to her taste. Poppy was left rather bemused by the process, and even a bit nettled because her insistence on asking the prices of materials had caused a tiff. “You’re not here to question how much any of this costs,” Harry had told her. “Your only task is to choose what you like.”