“She has a husband,” Jake protested.
The housekeeper’s eyes narrowed. “Have you noticed nothing odd about their relationship, Valentine?”
“No, and it’s not appropriate for us to discuss it.”
Monsieur Broussard regarded Mrs. Pennywhistle with keen interest. “I’m French,” he said. “I have no problem discussing it.”
Mrs. Pennywhistle lowered her voice, mindful of the scullery maids who were washing pots in the adjoining room. “There is some doubt as to whether they’ve had conjugal relations yet.”
“Now see here—” Jake began, outraged at this violation of his employer’s privacy.
“Have some of this, mon ami,” Broussard said, shoving a pastry plate at him. As Jake sat and picked up a spoon, the chef gave Mrs. Pennywhistle an encouraging glance. “What gives you the impression that he has not yet, er . . . sampled the watercress?”
“Watercress?” Jake repeated incredulously.
“Cresson.” Broussard gave him a superior look. “A metaphor. And much nicer than the metaphors you English use for the same thing.”
“I never use metaphors,” Jake muttered.
“Bien sur, you have no imagination.” The chef turned back to the housekeeper. “Why is there doubt about the relations between Monsieur and Madame Rutledge?”
“The sheets,” she said succinctly.
Jake nearly choked on his pastry. “You have the housemaids spying on them?” he asked around a mouthful of custard and cream.
“Not at all,” the housekeeper said defensively. “It’s only that we have vigilant maids who tell me everything. And even if they didn’t, one hardly needs great powers of observation to see that they do not behave like a married couple.”
The chef looked deeply concerned. “You think there’s a problem with his carrot?”
“Watercress, carrot—is everything food to you?” Jake demanded.
The chef shrugged. “Oui.”
“Well,” Jake said testily, “there is a string of Rutledge’s past mistresses who would undoubtedly testify there is nothing wrong with his carrot.”
“Alors, he is a virile man . . . she is a beautiful woman . . . why are they not making salad together?”
Jake paused with the spoon raised halfway to his lips as he recalled the business with the letter from Bayning and the secret meeting between Harry Rutledge and Viscount Andover. “I think,” he said uncomfortably, “that to win her hand in marriage, Mr. Rutledge may have . . . well, manipulated events to make things turn out the way he wanted. Without taking her feelings into consideration.”
The other three looked at him blankly.
Chef Rupert was the first to speak. “But he does that to everyone.”
“Apparently Mrs. Rutledge doesn’t like it,” Jake muttered.
Mrs. Pennywhistle leaned her chin on her hand and tapped her jaw thoughtfully. “I believe she would be a good influence on him, were she ever inclined to try.”
“Nothing,” Jake said decisively, “will ever change Harry Rutledge.”
“Still,” the housekeeper mused, “I think the two of them may need a bit of help.”
“From whom?” Chef Rupert asked.
“From all of us,” the housekeeper replied. “It’s all to our benefit if the master is happy, isn’t it?”
“No,” Jake said firmly. “I’ve never known anyone more ill equipped for happiness. He wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“All the more reason he should try it,” Mrs. Pennywhistle declared.
Jake gave her a warning glance. “We are not going to meddle in Mr. Rutledge’s personal life. I forbid it.”
Sitting at her dressing table, Poppy brushed powder on her nose and applied rose-petal salve to her lips. That night she and Harry were to attend a supper given in one of the private dining rooms, a highly formal affair attended by foreign diplomats and government officials to honor the visiting monarch of Prussia, King Frederick William IV. Mrs. Pennywhistle had shown Poppy the menu, and Poppy had remarked wryly that with ten courses, she expected the supper would last half the night.
Poppy was dressed in her best gown, a violet silk that shimmered with tones of blue and pink as the light moved over it. The unique color had been achieved with a new synthetic dye, and it was so striking that little ornamentation was needed. The bodice was intricately wrapped, leaving the tops of her shoulders bare, and the full, layered skirts rustled softly as she moved.
Just as she set down the powder brush, Harry came to the doorway and surveyed her leisurely. “No woman will compare to you tonight,” he murmured.
Poppy smiled and murmured her thanks. “You look very fine,” she said, although “fine” seemed an entirely inadequate word to describe her husband.
Harry was severely handsome in the formal scheme of black and white, his cravat crisp and snowy, his shoes highly polished. He wore the elegant clothes with unselfconscious ease, so debonair and beguiling that it was easy to forget how calculating he was.
“Is it time to go downstairs yet?” Poppy asked.
Pulling a watch from his pocket, Harry consulted it. “Fourteen . . . no, thirteen minutes.”
Her brows lifted as she saw how battered and scratched the watch was. “My goodness. You must have carried that for a long time.”
He hesitated before showing it to her. Poppy took the object carefully. The watch was small but heavy in her palm, the gold casing warm from his body. Flipping it open, she saw that the scarred and scratched metal had not been inscribed or adorned in any way.