“Tea?” she heard Amelia ask.
Poppy responded with a distracted nod.
After the tea was poured, they both reached for tarts, using their fingers to cradle the heavy strips of pastry, biting carefully. Tart lemon, sugar syrup, the pie crust velvety and crumbly. It was one of the tastes of their childhood. Poppy washed it down with a sip of hot milky tea.
“Things that remind me of our parents,” Poppy said absently, “and that lovely cottage in Primrose Place . . . they always make me feel better. Like eating these tarts. And flower-print curtains. And reading Aesop’s fables.”
“The smell of Apothecary’s Roses,” Amelia reminisced. “Watching the rain fall from the thatched eaves. And remember when Leo caught fireflies in jars, and we tried to use them as candlelight for supper?”
Poppy smiled. “I remember never being able to find the cake pan, because Beatrix was forever making it into a bed for her pets.”
Amelia gave an unladylike snort of laughter. “What about the time one of the chickens was so frightened by the neighbor’s dog, it lost all its feathers? And Bea got Mother to knit a little sweater for it.”
Poppy spluttered in her tea. “I was mortified. Everyone in the village came to see our bald chicken strutting around in a sweater.”
“As far as I know,” Amelia said with a grin, “Leo’s never eaten poultry since. He says he can’t have something for dinner if there’s a chance it once wore clothes.”
Poppy sighed. “I never realized how wonderful our childhood was. I wanted us to be ordinary, so people wouldn’t refer to us as ‘those peculiar Hathaways.” She licked a tacky spot of syrup from a fingertip, and glanced ruefully at Amelia. “We’re never going to be ordinary, are we?”
“No, dear. Although, I must confess, I’ve never fully understood your desire for an ordinary life. To me, the word implies dullness.”
“To me, it means safety. Knowing what to expect. There have been so many terrible surprises for us, Amelia . . . Mother and Father dying, and the scarlet fever, and the house burning . . .”
“And you believe you would have been safe with Mr. Bayning?” Amelia asked gently.
“I thought so.” Poppy shook her head in bemusement. “I was so certain that I would be content with him. But in retrospect, I can’t help thinking . . . Michael didn’t fight for me, did he? Harry said something to him on the morning of our wedding, right in front of me . . . ‘She was yours, if you’d wanted her, but I wanted her more.’ And even though I hated what Harry had done . . . part of me liked it that Harry didn’t think of me as being beneath him.”
Drawing her feet up onto the settee, Amelia regarded her with fond concern. “I suppose you know already that the family can’t let you go back with Harry until we’re satisfied that he will be kind to you.”
“But he has been,” Poppy said. And she told Amelia about the day when she had sprained her ankle, and Harry had taken care of her. “He was thoughtful and gentle and . . . well, loving. And if that was a glimpse of who Harry really is, I . . .” She stopped and traced the edge of her teacup, staring intently into the empty bowl of it. “Leo said something to me on the way here, that I had to decide whether or not to forgive Harry for the way our marriage started. I think I must, Amelia. For my own sake as well as Harry’s.”
“To err is human,” Amelia said, “to forgive, absolutely galling. But yes, I think it’s a good idea.”
“The problem is, that Harry—the one who took care of me that day—doesn’t surface nearly often enough. He keeps himself ridiculously busy, and he meddles with everyone and everything in that blasted hotel to avoid having to think about anything personal. If I could get him away from the Rutledge, to some quiet, peaceful place, and just . . .”
“Keep him in bed for a week?” Amelia suggested, her eyes twinkling.
Glancing at her sister in surprise, Poppy flushed and tried to stifle a laugh.
“It might do wonders for your marriage,” Amelia continued. “It’s lovely to talk to your husband after you’ve been to bed together. They just lie there feeling grateful and say yes to everything.”
“I wonder if I could convince Harry to stay here with me for a few days,” Poppy mused. “Is the gamekeeper’s cottage in the woods still empty?”
“Yes, but the caretaker’s house is much nicer, and at a more convenient distance from the house.”
“I wish . . .” Poppy hesitated. “But it would be impossible. Harry would never agree to stay away from the hotel so long.”
“Make it a condition of your returning to London with him,” Amelia suggested. “Seduce him. For heaven’s sake, Poppy, it’s not that difficult.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Poppy protested.
“Yes, you do. Seduction is merely encouraging a man to do something he already wants to do.”
Poppy gave her a bemused glance. “I don’t understand why you’re giving me this advice now, when you were so against the marriage in the first place.”
“Well, now that you’re married, there’s not much anyone can do except try to make the best of it.” A thoughtful pause. “Sometimes when you’re making the best of a situation, it turns out far better than you could have hoped for.”
“Only you,” Poppy said, “could make seducing a man sound like the most pragmatic option.”