Harry pulled her close with a comforting murmur, tucking her body into his, clasping her head against his shoulder.
In tacit agreement, the other men drew away to allow them a moment of privacy.
There was much to be said between them—too much—so Harry simply held her against him. There would be time later to disclose what was in their hearts.
A lifetime, if he had his way.
Harry lowered his mouth to Poppy’s flushed ear. “The princess rescues the villain,” he whispered. “It’s a nice variation on the story.”
After what seemed an interminable time at Bow Street, Harry was finally allowed to return to the Rutledge. As he and Poppy left the police office, they were told that Edward Kinloch and two of his servants were already being held in the strong room, with Runners in pursuit of another, yet unnamed suspect. And every last one of the charlatans trying to claim Harry’s identity had been banished from the building.
“If there’s one thing that today has made clear,” Special Constable Hembrey quipped, “it’s that the world needs only one Harry Rutledge.”
The hotel employees were overjoyed at Harry’s return, crowding around him before he could go upstairs to his apartments. They displayed a level of affectionate familiarity that they once wouldn’t have dared, shaking Harry’s hand, patting his back and shoulders, exclaiming their relief over his safe return.
Harry seemed a bit bemused by the demonstrations, but he tolerated it all quite willingly. It was Poppy who finally put a stop to the happy uproar, saying firmly, “Mr. Rutledge needs food and rest.”
“I’ll have a tray sent up at once,” Mrs. Pennywhistle declared, dispersing the employees efficiently.
The Rutledges went to their private apartments, where Harry took a shower bath, shaved, and donned a dressing robe. He wolfed down a meal without even seeming to taste it, drained a glass of wine, and sat back in his chair looking exhausted but content.
“Bloody hell,” he said, “I love being home.”
Poppy went to sit on his lap, curling her arms around his neck. “Is that how you think of the hotel now?”
“Not the hotel. Just wherever you are.” He kissed her, his lips gentle at first, but heat rose swiftly between them. He became more demanding, almost savaging her mouth, and she responded with an ardent sweetness that set fire to his blood. His head lifted, his breathing uncontrolled, and his arms cradled her tightly against him. Beneath her hips, she felt the insistent pressure of his arousal.
“Harry,” she said breathlessly, “you need sleep far more than this.”
“I never need sleep more than this.” He kissed her head, nuzzling into the glowing locks of her hair. His voice softened, deepened. “I thought I’d go mad if I had to spend another minute in that blasted room. I was worried about you. I sat there thinking that all I want in life is to spend as much time with you as possible. And then it occurred to me that you had visited this hotel for three seasons in a row—three—and I’d never met you. All that time I wasted, when we could have been together.”
“But Harry . . . even if we had met and married three years ago, you’d still say it wasn’t enough time.”
“You’re right. I can’t think of a single day of my life that wouldn’t have been improved with you in it.”
“Darling,” she whispered, her fingertips coming up to stroke his jaw, “that’s lovely. Even more romantic than comparing me to watch parts.”
Harry nipped at her finger. “Are you mocking me?”
“Not at all,” Poppy said, smiling. “I know how you feel about gears and mechanisms.”
Lifting her easily, Harry brought her into the bedroom. “And you know what I like to do with them,” he said softly. “Take them apart . . . and put them back together again. Shall I show you, love?”
“Yes . . . yes . . .”
And they put off sleep just a little longer.
Because people in love know that time should never be wasted.
THREE DAYS LATER
“I’m late,” Poppy said thoughtfully, tying the sash of her white dressing gown as she approached the breakfast table.
Harry stood and held a chair for her, stealing a kiss when she was seated. “I wasn’t aware you had an appointment this morning. There’s nothing on the schedule.”
“No, not that kind of late. The other kind of late.” Seeing his incomprehension, Poppy smiled. “I’m referring to a certain monthly occurrence . . .”
“Oh.” Harry stared at her fixedly, his expression unfathomable.
Poppy poured her tea and dropped a lump of sugar in it. “It’s only two or three days past the usual time,” she said, her voice deliberately casual, “but I’ve never been late before.” She lightened her tea with milk and sipped it cautiously. Glancing at her husband over the rim of the china cup, she tried to gauge his reaction to the information.
Harry swallowed and blinked, and stared at her. His color had heightened, making his eyes look unusually green. “Poppy . . .” He was forced to stop by the necessity of taking an extra breath. “Do you think you could be expecting?”
She smiled, her excitement tempered with a flutter of nervousness. “Yes, I think it’s possible. We won’t know for certain until a bit more time has passed.” Her smile turned uncertain as Harry remained silent. Perhaps it was too soon . . . perhaps he wasn’t entirely receptive to the idea. “Of course,” she said, trying to sound prosaic, “it may take some time for you to become accustomed to the idea, and that’s only natural—”