Before she could reply, the elderly concierge sidled up to them and asked in a discreet tone, “Mrs. Pennywhistle, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation . . . am I to understand that Mr. Rutledge is taking a holiday?”
“No, Mr. Lufton,” she said with an irrepressible grin. “He’s taking a honeymoon.”
In the following days, Harry learned a great deal about his wife and her family. The Hathaways were an extraordinary group of individuals, lively and quick-witted, with an instant collective willingness to try any ideas that came to them. They teased and laughed and squabbled and debated, but there was an innate kindness in the way they treated each other.
There was something almost magical about Ramsay House. It was a comfortable, well-run home, filled with sturdy furniture and thick carpets, and piles of books everywhere . . . but that didn’t account for the extra something. One felt it immediately after crossing the front threshold, something as intangible but life-giving as sunlight. A something that had always escaped Harry.
Gradually he came to realize that it was love.
The second day after Harry’s arrival in Hampshire, Leo toured him around the estate. They rode to visit some of the tenant farms, and Leo stopped to talk to various tenants and laborers. He exchanged informed comments with them about the weather, the soil, and the harvest, displaying a depth of knowledge that Harry would not have expected.
In London, Leo played the part of disaffected rake to perfection. In the country, however, the mask of indifference dropped. It was clear that he cared about the families who lived and worked on the Ramsay estate, and he intended to make a success of it. He had designed a clever system of irrigation that brought water along stone channels they had dug from the nearby river, relieving many of the tenants of the chore of hauling water. And he was doing his utmost to bring modern methods to local farming, including convincing his tenants to plant a new variety of hybrid wheat developed in Brighton that produced higher yields and stronger straw.
“They’re slow to accept change in these parts,” Leo told Harry ruefully. “Many of them still insist on using the sickle and scythe instead of the threshing machine.” He grinned. “I’ve told them the nineteenth century is going to be over before they ever decide to take part in it.”
It occurred to Harry that the Hathaways were making a solid success of the estate not in spite of their lack of aristocratic heritage, but because of it. No traditions or habits had been passed on to them. There had been no one to protest “but this is how we’ve always done it.” As a result, they approached estate management as both a business and a scientific undertaking, because they knew no other way to proceed.
Leo showed Harry the estate timber yard, where the backbreaking work of cutting, hauling, and ad-sizing logs was all done by hand. Massive logs were carried on shoulders or with lug hooks, creating countless opportunities for injury.
After supper that evening, Harry sketched some plans for moving timber with a system of rollers, run planks, and dollies. The system could be constructed at a relatively low expense, and it would allow for faster production and greater safety for the estate laborers. Merripen and Leo were both immediately receptive to the idea.
“It was very kind of you to draw up those schemes,” Poppy told Harry later, when they had gone to the caretaker’s house for the night. “Merripen was very appreciative.”
Harry shrugged casually, unfastening the back of her gown and helping to draw her arms from the sleeves. “I merely pointed out a few obvious improvements they could make.”
“Things that are obvious to you,” she said, “aren’t necessarily obvious to the rest of us. It was very clever of you, Harry.” Stepping out of the gown, Poppy turned to face him with a satisfied smile. “I’m very glad my family is getting the chance to know you. They’re beginning to like you. You’re being very charming, and not at all condescending, and you don’t make a fuss about things like finding a hedgehog in your chair.”
“I’m not fool enough to compete with Medusa for chair space,” he said, and she laughed. “I like your family,” he said, unhooking the front of her corset, gradually freeing her from the web of cloth and stays. “Seeing you with them helps me to understand you better.”
The corset made a soft thwack as he tossed it to the floor. Poppy stood before him in her chemise and drawers, flushing as he studied her intently.
An uncertain smile crossed her face. “What do you understand about me?”
Harry hooked a gentle finger beneath the strap of her chemise, easing it downward. “That it’s your nature to form close attachments to the people around you.” He moved his palm over the curve of her bared shoulder in a circling caress. “That you are sensitive, and devoted to those you love, and most of all . . . that you need to feel safe.” He eased the other strap of her chemise down, and felt the shivers that chased through her body. He drew her against him, his arms closing around her, and she molded to him with a sigh.
After a while, he murmured softly into the pale, fragrant curve of her neck. “I’m going to make love to you all night, Poppy. And the first time, you’re going to feel very safe. But the second time, I’m going to be a little bit wicked . . . and you’ll like that even more. And the third time—” he paused with a smile as he heard her breath catch. “The third time, I’m going to do things that will mortify you when you remember them tomorrow.” He kissed her gently. “And you’ll love that most of all.”