The word hovered, wasplike, in Harry’s mind. Stinging repeatedly.
Submit to him . . . as if he were some loathsome toad, when some of the most beautiful women in London had begged for his attentions. Sensuous, accomplished women with clever mouths and hands, willing to satisfy his most exotic desires . . . in fact, he could have one of them tonight.
When his temper had eased enough that he could function normally, Harry went back into Poppy’s bedroom and informed her that it was time to go down to supper. She sent him a wary glance, seeming to want to say something, but she had the sense to keep her mouth shut.
“You’re not the husband I wanted.”
And he never would be. No amount of scheming or manipulation could change it.
But Harry would continue to play out his hand. Poppy was legally his, and God knew he had money on his side. Time would have to take care of the rest.
The formal dinner was a great success. Every time Harry glanced at the other end of the long table, he saw that Poppy was acquitting herself splendidly. She was relaxed and smiling, taking part in conversation, appearing to charm her companions. It was exactly as Harry had expected: the same qualities that were considered faults in an unmarried girl were admired in a married woman. Poppy’s acute observations and her enjoyment of lively debate made her far more interesting than a demure society miss with a modest downcast gaze.
She was breathtaking in the violet gown, her slender neck encircled with diamonds, her hair rich with dark fire. Nature had blessed her with abundant beauty. But it was her smile that made her irresistible, a smile so sweet and brilliant that it warmed him from the inside out.
Harry wished she would smile at him like that. She had, in the beginning. There had to be something that would induce her to warm to him, to like him again. Everyone had a weakness.
In the meantime, Harry stole glances of her whenever he could, his lovely and distant wife . . . and he drank in the smiles she gave to other people.
The next morning Harry awoke at his usual hour. He washed and dressed, sat at the breakfast table with a newspaper, and glanced at Poppy’s door. There was no sign of her. He assumed she would sleep late, since they had retired long after midnight.
“Don’t wake Mrs. Rutledge,” he told the maid. “She needs to rest this morning.”
Harry ate his breakfast alone, trying to focus on the newspaper, but his gaze kept dragging to Poppy’s closed door.
He had gotten used to seeing her every morning. He liked to start his day with her. But Harry was aware that he had been nothing less than boorish the previous night, giving her jewelry and demanding a demonstration of gratitude. He should have known better.
It was just that he wanted her so damned badly. And he had become accustomed to having his way, especially where women were concerned. He reflected that it probably wouldn’t hurt him to learn to consider someone else’s feelings.
Especially if that would hasten the process of getting what he wanted.
After receiving the morning managers’ reports from Jake Valentine, Harry went with him to the basement of the hotel to assess the damage from some minor flooding due to faulty drainage. “We’ll need an engineering assessment,” Harry said, “And I want an inventory of the damaged storage items.”
“Yes, sir,” Valentine replied. “Unfortunately there were some rolled-up Turkish carpets in the flooded area, but I don’t know if the staining—”
“Mr. Rutledge!” An agitated housemaid descended to the bottom of the stairs and rushed over to them. She could barely speak between labored breaths. “Mrs. Pennywhistle said . . . to come fetch you because . . . Mrs. Rutledge . . .”
Harry looked at the housemaid sharply. “What is it?”
“She’s injured, sir . . . took a fall . . .”
Alarm shot through him. “Where is she?”
“Your apartments, sir.”
“Send for a doctor,” Harry told Valentine, and he ran for the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. By the time he reached his apartments, full-scale panic roared through him. He tried to push it back enough to think clearly. There was a congregation of maids around the door, and he shouldered his way through them into the main room. “Poppy?”
Mrs. Pennywhistle’s voice echoed from the tiled bathing room. “We’re in here, Mr. Rutledge.”
Harry reached the bathing room in three strides, his stomach lurching in fear as he saw Poppy on the floor, reclining against the housekeeper’s supportive arms. Toweling had been draped over her for modesty’s sake, but her limbs were na**d and vulnerable looking in contrast to the hard gray tiling.
Harry dropped to his haunches beside her. “What happened, Poppy?”
“I’m sorry.” She looked pained and mortified and apologetic. “It was so silly. I stepped out of the bath and slipped on the tiles, and my leg went out from beneath me.”
“Thank heavens one of the maids had come to clear the breakfast dishes,” Mrs. Pennywhistle told him, “and she heard Mrs. Rutledge cry out.”
“I’m all right,” Poppy said. “I just twisted my ankle a bit.” She gave the housekeeper a gently chiding glance. “I’m perfectly capable of getting up, but Mrs. Pennywhistle won’t let me.”
“I was afraid to move her,” the housekeeper told Harry.
“You were right to keep her still,” Harry replied, examining Poppy’s leg. The ankle was discolored and already beginning to swell. Even the light brush of his fingers was enough to make her flinch and inhale quickly.