“Where is she going?” Poppy asked, nonplussed. “She was supposed to escort me to my suite.”
“I sent her to fetch a tea tray.”
Poppy was momentarily speechless. “Sir, I can’t have tea with you.”
“It won’t take long. They’ll send it up on one of the food lifts.”
“That doesn’t matter. Because even if I did have the time, I can’t! I’m sure you are well aware of how improper it would be.”
“Nearly as improper as sneaking through the hotel unescorted,” he agreed smoothly, and she scowled.
“I was not sneaking, I was chasing a ferret.” Hearing herself make such a ridiculous statement, she felt her color rise. She attempted a dignified tone. “The situation was not at all of my making. And I will be in very . . . serious . . . trouble . . . if I am not returned to my room soon. If we wait much longer, you may find yourself involved in a scandal, which I am certain Mr. Rutledge would not approve of.”
“Then please call the maid back.”
“Too late. We’ll have to wait until she comes with the tea.”
Poppy heaved a sigh. “This has been a most difficult morning.” Glancing at the ferret, she saw bits of fluff and clumps of horsehair being tossed in the air, and she blanched. “No, Dodger!”
“What is it?” the man asked, following as Poppy raced toward the busy ferret.
“He’s eating your chair,” she said miserably, scooping up the ferret. “Or rather, Mr. Rutledge’s chair. He’s trying to make a nest for himself. I’m so sorry.” She stared at the gaping hole in the thick, luxurious velvet upholstery. “I promise you, my family will pay for the damage.”
“It’s all right,” the man said. “There’s a monthly allotment in the hotel budget for repairs.”
Lowering to her haunches—not an easy feat when one was wearing stay laces and stiffened petticoats—Poppy grabbed bits of fluff and tried to stuff them back into the hole. “If necessary, I will provide a written statement to explain how this happened.”
“What about your reputation?” the stranger asked gently, reaching down to pull her to a standing position.
“My reputation is nothing compared to a man’s livelihood. You might be sacked for this. You undoubtedly have a family to support—a wife and children—and whereas I could survive the disgrace, you might not be able to secure a new position.”
“That is very kind of you,” he said, taking the ferret from Poppy’s grasp and depositing him back on the chair. “But I have no family. And I can’t be sacked.”
“Dodger,” Poppy said anxiously, as bits of fluff went flying again. Clearly the ferret was having a grand time.
“The chair is already ruined. Let him have at it.”
Poppy was bemused by the stranger’s easy consignment of an expensive piece of hotel furniture to a ferret’s mischief. “You,” she said distinctly, “are not like the other managers here.”
“You’re not like other young women.”
That elicited a wry smile from her. “So I’ve been told.”
The sky had turned the color of pewter. A heavy drizzle fell to the gravel-covered paving blocks of the street, tamping down the pungent dust that had been stirred by passing vehicles.
Taking care not to be seen from the street, Poppy went to the side of one window and watched pedestrians scatter. Some methodically unfolded umbrellas and continued walking.
Costermongers crowded the thoroughfare, hawking their wares with impatient cries. They sold everything imaginable: ropes of onions and braces of dead game, teapots, flowers, matches, and caged larks and nightingales. This last presented frequent problems to the Hathaways, as Beatrix was determined to rescue every living creature she saw. Many a bird had been reluctantly purchased by their brother-in-law, Mr. Rohan, and set free at their country estate. Rohan swore that by now he had purchased half the avian population in Hampshire.
Turning from the window, Poppy saw that the stranger had settled his shoulder against one of the bookshelves and folded his arms across his chest. He was watching her as if puzzling what to make of her. Despite his relaxed posture, Poppy had the unnerving sense that if she tried to bolt, he would catch her in an instant.
“Why aren’t you betrothed to anyone?” he asked with startling directness. “You’ve been out in society for two, three years?”
“Three,” Poppy said, feeling more than a little defensive.
“Your family is one of means—one would assume you have a generous dowry on the table. Your brother is a viscount—another advantage. Why haven’t you married?”
“Do you always ask such personal questions of people you’ve just met?” Poppy asked in amazement.
“Not always. But I find you . . . interesting.”
She considered the question he had put to her, and shrugged. “I wouldn’t want any of the gentlemen I’ve met during the past three years. None of them are remotely appealing.”
“What kind of man appeals to you?”
“Someone with whom I could share a quiet, ordinary life.”
“Most young women dream of excitement and romance.”
She smiled wryly. “I suppose I have a great appreciation for the mundane.”
“Has it occurred to you that London is the wrong place to seek a quiet, ordinary life?”