Harry moved to block her way. “Good morning, miss. I’m afraid you can’t go over there. Nor would you want to.”
She stopped immediately, staring at him with eyes the same rich blue as her sister’s. Catherine Marks regarded him with flinty composure, while Poppy took an extra breath, her cheeks infused with color.
“You don’t know my sister, sir,” Poppy said. “If there is a wild creature in the vicinity, she most definitely wants to see it.”
“What makes you think there’s a wild creature in my hotel?” Harry asked, as if the idea were inconceivable.
The macaque chose that moment to utter an enthusiastic screech.
Holding his gaze, Poppy grinned. Despite his annoyance at the situation and his lack of control over it, Harry couldn’t help smiling back. She was even more exquisite than he had remembered, her eyes a dark, lucid blue. There were many beautiful women in London, but not one of them possessed her combination of intelligence and subtly off-kilter charm. He wanted to sweep her away somewhere, that very minute, and have her all to himself.
Schooling his expression, Harry recalled that although they had met the previous day, they weren’t supposed to know each other. He bowed with impeccable politeness. “Harry Rutledge, at your service.”
“I’m Beatrix Hathaway,” the younger girl said, “and this is my sister Poppy and my companion Miss Marks. There’s a monkey in the food lift, isn’t there?” She seemed remarkably prosaic, as if discovering exotic animals in one’s residence occurred all the time.
“You’ll never catch him that way,” Beatrix interrupted.
Harry, who was never interrupted by anyone, found himself biting back another smile. “I assure you, we have the situation well in hand, Miss—”
“You need help,” Beatrix told him. “I’ll return directly. Don’t do anything to upset the monkey. And don’t try to poke him out with that sword—you may accidentally pierce him.” With no further ado, she dashed back in the direction she had come from.
“It wouldn’t be accidental,” Harry muttered.
Miss Marks looked from Harry to her retreating charge, her mouth falling open. “Beatrix, do not run through the hotel like that. Stop at once!”
“I think she has a plan,” Poppy remarked. “You’d better go after her, Miss Marks.”
The companion threw her a beseeching glance. “Come with me.”
But Poppy didn’t move, only said innocently, “I’ll wait here, Miss Marks.”
“But it’s not proper—” The companion looked from Beatrix’s fast-disappearing form to Poppy’s unmoving one. Deciding in a flash that Beatrix posed the greater problem, she turned with an unladylike curse and ran after her charge.
Harry found himself left with Poppy, who, like her sister, seemed remarkably unperturbed by the macaque’s antics. They faced each other, he with his foil, she with her parasol.
Poppy’s gaze traveled over his fencing whites, and rather than staying demurely silent or displaying the appropriate nervousness of a young lady with no companion to protect her . . . she launched into conversation. “My father called fencing ‘physical chess,’ ” she said. “He very much admired the sport.”
“I’m still a novice,” Harry said.
“According to my father, the trick of it is to hold the foil as if it were a bird in your hand—close enough to prevent its escape, but not tight enough to crush it.”
“He gave you lessons?”
“Oh, yes, my father encouraged all his daughters to try it. He said he knew of no other sport that would fall so directly in a woman’s line.”
“Of course. Women are agile and fast.”
Poppy smiled ruefully. “Not enough to elude you, it seems.”
The single comment managed, with wry humor, to gently mock herself and him.
Somehow they were standing closer together, although Harry wasn’t certain who had stepped toward whom. A delicious scent clung to her, sweet skin and perfume and soap. Remembering how soft her mouth had been, he wanted to kiss her so badly that it was all he could do not to reach for her. He was stunned to realize that he was a bit breathless.
“Sir!” Valentine’s voice recalled him from his thoughts. “The macaque is climbing up the rope.”
“It has nowhere to go,” Harry said curtly. “Try moving the lift upward and trapping it against the ceiling.”
“You will injure the macaque!” the Nagarajan exclaimed.
“I can only hope so,” Harry said, aggravated by the distraction. He didn’t want to be bothered with the logistics of capturing an unruly macaque. He wanted to be alone with Poppy Hathaway.
William Cullip arrived, carrying the Dreyse with extreme care. “Mr. Valentine, here it is!”
“Thank you.” Harry began to reach for it, but at that second Poppy reared back in a startle reflex, her shoulders colliding with his chest. Harry caught her by the arms and felt the thrills of panic running through her. Carefully, he turned her to face him. Her face was bleached, her gaze not quite focused. “What is it?” he asked softly, holding her against him. “The shotgun? You’re afraid of guns?”
She nodded, struggling to catch her breath.
Harry was shocked by the force of his own reaction to her, the tidal wave of protectiveness. She was trembling and winded, one hand pressing on the center of his chest. “It’s all right,” he murmured. He couldn’t recall the last time anyone had sought comfort from him. Perhaps no one ever had. He wanted to draw her fully against him and soothe her. It seemed he had always wanted this, waited for it, without even knowing.